Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Jacey Rogel’s essay, Let Grace Lead, and Shonac Young’s essay, The Good-enough Mother. We asked, “Has a particular literary work become a source of enlightenment or inspiration for reframing your view of motherhood? How has it influenced you in adjusting the way you envision going forward in your role as a parent?” Below is Victoria Clayton’s response.
Only A Surreal Book Can Do Justice to Motherhood
I’d like to claim that I learned what I needed to know about being a parent from the hundreds of authors—breastfeeding pros, sleep specialists, childhood mental health researchers—who I interviewed during my years of writing a parenting column. I’d love to lie and say that the women novelists and essayists who I truly adore made the biggest impression on my outlook as a mother. But they didn’t. Instead, as a new mom, grace led me to Steve Erickson’s surreal novel, Our Ecstatic Days, a meditation on a mother, her son, and loss, complemented by an alternative narrative that weaves like an umbilical cord through the center of each page. The first chapter of Erickson’s novel is set in 2004, though it jumps around in time and space. This particular setting, just a few months after my own son was born, seemed significant.
The book drops us into The Age of Chaos, a time in which Los Angeles has become a river. Single mother Kristen and her little boy, Kirk (short for Kierkegaard, notably) float about in a gondola. One night, Kristin and Kirk venture to the middle of the lake and Kristin vanishes into the water. When she returns to the boat, she’s horrified to find her son gone, only his toy remaining.
Kristin contends that she leaves her son in order to plumb the lake and counter the dangers that threaten him. She asserts that her love for Kirk is “the ritual no mother can win.” Still hearing his heartbeat as she submerges, Kristin loses him but finds herself. She descends to the bottom of the lake via a “birth canal” which passes into an alternate body of water. Kristin emerges from the lake as a different self, only after having lost “bits of everyone I’ve ever been.” After a series of surreal and layered plot twists that are beyond the scope of a simple synopsis, Kirk eventually reappears.
People told me that “everything changes when you have a child,” but I could never nail anyone down on the specifics. What exactly did they mean? What particular things change? All explanations seemed too facile or fake. Only through Kristin—and Erickson’s brilliant use of what has been called “transcendental feminism”—did I finally sense an articulation of the bizarre thing that I was experiencing. As a mother, for the first time ever, I had to lose my former self. At the same time, I now had something real to lose, something more than myself. I sensed in every parent’s beating heart my same barely concealed terror at loss. It made me understand my hysteria: why I had to have the very best car seat, or nearly went sideways when consenting to have my son’s tonsils removed. It made me understand other parents’ obsession with costly private schools and the hours some spent sorting and organizing LEGO bricks according to color and size. Many parents resort to buying and organizing and controlling instead of allowing themselves to feel the sheer terror of the Age of Chaos that is motherhood. I write. I organize words on a page, and that gives me some reprieve from the worst of the anxiety. But it’s always there, lurking. Just to know that someone else realized what motherhood can do to you made me feel less alone and more willing to embrace this new me with compassion.
I’ve heard fans of Our Ecstatic Days say it’s a book to absorb rather than understand. Now that my two sons are 17 and 10, I realize that the same can be said about motherhood. Nobody can understand, or completely make sense of parenting, particularly in a pandemic. These days, I’m supposed to be writing, teaching via Zoom as an adjunct professor, supervising one son who is remote learning and full-on homeschooling another. I hear my teen—who’s wearing pajama pants at noon and hasn’t showered in at least a couple of days—shouting from his bedroom “Why did you do that!?” He’s playing League of Legends with online friends instead of preparing for his Japanese class. I hear my younger son cackling from the room next door, blaring an illicit YouTube video. I’m busy trying to finish an assignment while checking Twitter for election results. “Quiet down!” I shout. “You’re driving me out of my mind!” I say, knowing full well that the original (dare I say the more sane?) me has been gone for a long time. If you’re a mother, especially now, you can’t not be a little gone. And then I remind myself: absorb it. Our age of chaos might not be as surreal as Erickson’s book, but it sure is strange.
Victoria Clayton is a wife, mom, writer and adjunct professor in Southern California. She was a parenting columnist for MSNBC/NBC.com and coauthored the book Fearless Pregnancy with a doctor and a midwife in 2004. Her work has appeared in Barrelhouse, The Midwest Review, The Los Angeles Times magazine, The Atlantic and many other publications. Connect with her on Twitter @vicclay.