This week, I found myself – somewhat inadvertently – reading short stories about motherhood. I committed the literary sin of judging a story by its title and/or accompanying picture, rather than its blurb, and had no idea what each story was about before reading them. How I managed to read the same story told several different ways, I’m not quite sure. Not only do they share the theme of motherhood, they all seem to deal with fear and discontent, although in very different ways. Here are three I read this week that I liked. No spoilers!
Click the titles to open the story in a new page.
“A baby was supposed to fill all the gaps in their lives, plug all the holes through which sadness might seep in.”
This short story is short, beautifully written and quite shocking. It deals with the uncomfortable topic of mental illness and the expectations placed on new mothers that once their baby arrives, their lives will become some sort of promenade through paradise, complete with rainbows and unicorns. New mothers (or any mothers, quite frankly) may be sleep-deprived but they are seldom allowed to feel resentful that their lives have been overtaken. They can feel disappointed that they can’t spend their time as they once might have, but they are not allowed to feel long-term regret at having a child in the first place. Motherhood can be a series of disappointments, but women are not really encouraged to say that out loud. There is this sort of bizarre and silent martyrdom women are expected to perform, where the more you give up of your body and life, the more you are praised as a “good mother”. Before this devolves into a polemic against society’s pressure on women and mothers, let me tell you about Chika Uniqwe’s tale.
In the days and weeks after giving birth, the protagonist in Unigwe’s story, Chimelumma, is finding that motherhood is not what she had expected. It may be postpartum depression or may just be that her ideas about what motherhood are were based on hopeful fantasy rather than gritty reality – possibly both. Either way, the writer takes us into the difficult and uncomfortable private thoughts of a woman who is not feeling as happy and brimming with love as she had anticipated she would. She has no desire to hold her baby, and her body seems to have betrayed her initial yearning for a child by failing to produce enough milk to breastfeed. Feeling like a failure, Chimelumma becomes angry and resentful, and the story comes to a shocking and terrible end.
Unigwe’s story is beautifully written, and well worth a read.
Rating: 5/5 – Excellent and highly recommended.
Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian author, and currently living in the United States. She is active on Twitter.
“The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.”
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story is incredibly strange. I struggled to get into it at first, but the more I read, the more I liked it. My first thought when I finished it was “This is a horror version of Lionel Shriver’s book, We Need to Talk About Kevin“. I’m not quite sure how I came to that conclusion, since the two stories are nothing alike. Perhaps it because in Arimah’s tale, the descriptions of the baby begin to become increasingly ominous as the story progresses, and you begin to wonder if the child is evil or whether it is the mother’s perception that is twisted, much like Shriver’s book. Arimah’s story was published shortly before Halloween, which I think accounts for why it was chosen by the New Yorker.
Arimah’s has created a mystical world, where women become mothers by creating their babies by hand, woven with cloth, yarn, hair and other materials. The babies are given life when their grandmother performs a blessing. Interestingly, despite this method of procreation where women create babies when they want to and not when they are in a relationship (in fact, men don’t seem to exist in this world), there is still a lot of pressure to be a mother. Women are still expected to have – and want to have – children, and they are praised when they create a beautiful and carefully made baby with the finest materials.
The protagonist, Ogechi, seems to have had numerous false attempts at creating her child, and makes another one from discarded hair collected from the salon she works in. Her mother had destroyed her earlier attempts, criticising them for being too fragile, but agrees to bless Ogechi’s hair baby. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, Ogechi has created a baby out of hair from many different people, which is forbidden, as it could be infused with the identities of all the people those hairs once belonged to.
And… I’m going to leave the rest for you to find out on your own. You may need to read it a few times.
Rating: 4/5 – Very good and recommended.
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a Nigerian author. Here is an interview she gave about this story.
The Offer by Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter
“When the test read positive, I collapsed to the floor in a crying, huddled, blob, as if all of the bones in my body had turned to liquid. I lay there on the cold tile in the bathroom of my apartment, having an anxiety attack—shaking, not able to catch my breath.“
Ok, I cheated with this one. I suspect it may be nonfiction – it is never really spelled out whether this is fact or fiction, although the protagonist’s name is Cait and it is told in the first-person. Nonetheless, I’m including it here as I read the story several times assuming it was fiction, and our reading experience is as much shaped by what we bring to it as it is by the words and intentions of the author. Also, “Nonfiction Fridays” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter’s story is a non-linear account of events and feelings related to family, motherhood and sibling relationships. It is also about jealousy and fear, and a desire to be one’s own person. Martinez-McWhorter relates experiences from a life (let’s say her life) in which she has confronted unwanted and/or unexpected pregnancies (hers and others). This is juxtaposed with her experience of motherhood – motherhood as something you do, not something you are. As a child, she cared for her younger brother in the ways that many parents do, feeding and protecting him. She does this even while feeling anger and jealousy that her mother’s love and attention has been taken from her to give to her brother.
When her brother’s fiancé unexpectedly falls pregnant, Martinez-McWhorter offers to pay for an abortion. Maybe she does it because of her own pregnancy scare, or maybe because she is afraid that her mother will lavish love and attention on her grandchildren, thereby dividing her affection even further.
At the centre of this story are questions about the relationship between a mother and daughter. Is a mother’s love finite? How does a mother-daughter relationship shape your own desires to be a mother? In what ways can a close relationship with your mother push you forward in your life and at the same time, hold you in place? The author’s difficulty in clearly defining and categorising her own feelings and responses makes for compelling reading.
Rating: 4/5 – Very good and recommended.
Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter is a writer from the US.