On female ambition and what gets thrown out.
Around halfway through writing my novel, I read a book that nearly derailed me. As any writer knows, reading while writing is always a risky pursuit. Cadences are easily stolen; we find ourselves singing a lullaby we don’t remember being sung to us. But there’s something worse than a book that turns us into magpies and mimics: one that squelches our very desire to write.
The book that had this censoring effect on me was called, both innocuously and officially, The Baby Book. It was the first book I read after giving birth for the first time, as sleep-deprived and receptive as any cult joiner.
I had not read about baby care during my first pregnancy, which ended after eleven weeks, or during the second. Due to an autoimmune illness that could compromise my ability to carry a baby to term, as well as my family’s Judeo-magical thinking that links stillbirths to positive thoughts, I refused to imagine anything beyond the birth. But once my own child emerged, gorgeous and awake, a heart beating beneath her thin skin, I was at a loss. I turned to the book all my friends recommended.
Two inches thick, with four naked babies of varying skin tones on the cover, along with the brag MORE THAN 1,000,000 COPIES SOLD, The Baby Book, written by Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha, a nurse, claims to be “the baby bible of the post–Dr. Spock Generation.” And indeed, it offers indispensable advice about every aspect of baby care. Yet I quickly came to fear this book. Although it was pretty much the only book I read at the time, I felt anxious whenever I read it. Even now, ten years later, I still hate being in the same room as this book.
It’s not simply a baby manual. Alongside their medical advice, and with the same tone of clinical proficiency and authority, the Searses promote a parenting philosophy they learned from Jean Liedloff. Liedloff was a Cornell dropout who, in the mid-twentieth century, took a diamond-mining trip to Venezuela. She noticed a calm happiness to the offspring of the Yecuana tribe, whom she called, with romantic condescension, “Stone Age Indians.” She lived with the tribe for two years and wrote a book describing the way their babies were integrated into daily life. After reading her book, William and Martha Sears welded some potentially practical tools for baby care—babywearing, bed sharing, breastfeeding—into a larger theory of an infant’s need for constant maternal attention as a corrective to disconnected modernity.
The best way to describe this theory, which they named Attachment Parenting, is as a fable or horror story. There are only two characters in this story—the mother, whom we’ll call Mama, and Baby. The plot is this: Mama gives birth to Baby, and she must not put her down. She must not leave her. She must be with her at all times, if possible, awake or asleep. She cannot do sedentary work or even read for pleasure because Baby prefers movement—although Mama can, while Baby is strapped to her, perform housework. Only in situations of dire financial need and with great trepidation may she pass off Baby to a caregiver. She must not nourish Baby with a bottle, which, like cribs, strollers, and jobs, will interrupt her bond with Baby and thus diminish Baby’s prospects for any happiness.
I know several women who easily ignored the grim warnings, who used The Baby Book purely as medical reference. Not me. In those dark winter weeks after giving birth, I became increasingly gripped by the story’s central conflict: Mama’s desires are dangerous; Baby is vulnerable. Dr. Sears believes that the selfishness of the mother—her wish for a defined, separate self—is a symptom of poor attachment, insufficient bonding. Give yourself over to his methods, he insists, and “you feel right when you are with your baby, not right when apart.” Martha, whose role in the book is to back up his theory with her praxis, adds, “I miss my baby if she’s been asleep too long in some place other than the sling.”
One of the slipperiest moves the Searses make is to demand you eschew parenting experts and trust your instincts and then, often in the next paragraph, to offer expert proof—of the “studies say” variety—that their method works. Who performed these studies? How large was their sample? Where were they reviewed? Dr. Sears doesn’t say. But he does tell us that these studies suggest that the attachment-parented child is more trusting, competent, sensitive, and empathic; she’s better organized, smarter, healthier, easier to discipline, and more bonded to people than to things; she grows better, feels right, acts right, learns language more easily, establishes healthy independence, and learns to give and receive love. Can you read this list without wishing these attributes for your own children?
The inverse is never mentioned, but I could see it hovering over the page. If x equals y, then not x equals not y. If you put your child on the floor to play or in a crib to sleep or in a stroller to walk or with a caregiver, she will forever feel wrong, act wrong. She will tantrum, lie, rob; become dumb, sick, selfish, insensitive; bond to things (drugs? phones?) instead of people; suffer anhedonia or anomie or a horrifying loneliness. Against this bleak eventuality, how could Mama’s time matter? Her sleep? Her sanity?
I was vaguely aware of the lack of scientific rigor, but the book’s power over me was its fictiveness, precisely how well it relied upon imagination and narrative conflict. My baby, whom I barely knew, became Baby, at risk for disconnection and lifelong depression. And only one person could save her. And I screamed about Sears’s “misogynistic, classist fantasy of a mother” to my husband, who agreed—but ultimately, I became Mama.
Freud, speaking to me across time through the medium of myriad therapists, made it very clear that parents fuck up their kids. In my family, as in many Jewish families, each generation has passed on to the next tsuris or worry or what Freud taught us to call neurotic anxiety and depression. Long before I read The Baby Book, I had the idealistic hope, which I see now was a narcissistic delusion, that I might be a different sort of mother. When my baby was born, I found our closeness so unexpected, remarkable, and delightful that I didn’t trust it could last. And into this haze boomed the authoritative voice of Dr. Sears: Attachment parenting is the only way.
There is a larger cultural zeitgeist—or call it hubris—that insists that modern parents, by nurturing in a way that is “pure” and “wholesome” and “natural,” can inoculate our children, not against measles but against the coming apocalyptic horrors of late capitalism at the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s a fantasy that roots best in the fertile soil of financial privilege. I live in a small, liberal New England town to which people, mostly white people, move in order to live more cheaply and work less. When my babies were born, I knew of few families with two parents who worked full-time. The town had attachment-parenting meetups, more home-birth midwives than strollers, and a “baby-wearing expert” who kept office hours at the natural toy shop. The Baby Book was the primary reference in every house I visited.
I’d planned to return to full-time teaching and writing after a few months with my baby, although with the cost of childcare, my minimal earning power, and my husband’s income, I had no financial incentive to do so. The chapter about working in The Baby Book begins with the usual caveat: if you must, you must. Then come the warnings. The Searses add, without subtlety, that “there has been a flurry of research validating, almost down to the cellular level, the importance of mother’s presence.” They firmly suggest that you find a way to attend to each child full-time “for at least two or three years.” How? Well, they suggest you borrow income, start a home business in mail-order distributing, curtail your spending habits, telecommute, or bring your baby to work in a sling.
Entirely absent from this book or any auxiliary book or the blogs of attachment-parenting acolytes, all of which I read obsessively, is any mention of ambition—and by ambition I mean a particular form of desire that exists outside of sexual or maternal desire.
Dr. Sears promises that attachment parenting is self-reinforcing, a virtuous cycle. Devote ourselves to his methods and we’ll become so sated and calm that we’ll gladly adjust our lives until “work, travel, recreation, and social life all revolve around and include baby.” I was willing to do nearly everything Dr. Sears asked of me. I visited the baby-wearing consultant. I wore my children even when they were toddlers, thereby inflaming the ligaments between my ribs. I nursed or soothed them at one and then at three and then at five in the morning. But while I loved much of our time together, the promised calm and satiety never arrived. There was still something else I longed for. And it didn’t revolve around them.
My particular ambition—to create art and to have these creations seen or read or listened to—had turned me on, as desire does, ever since I was four years old, playing a game I called Little House in my closet alone. My mother called me to dinner. It was a meal that seemed unnecessary to me, since I’d been eating imaginary rabbit stew. That was when I understood, for the first time, that I kept secret worlds inside and someday, I would show everyone.
But even then, as a little girl, I understood that the impulse to show everyone was shameful. Where did I get this from? In Daybook, her remarkable journal about motherhood and art, the artist Anne Truitt separates creative desire into its two parts: aspiration and ambition. “It is ambition, the desire to experience for themselves the worldly results of their own achieved aspirations, that women have culturally been called down for.” Shame reaches girls and women through the ether; it’s sewn into the threads of our society and its deification of mothers. When I started writing my novel, I didn’t have kids. Still, shame made me ambivalent. Shouldn’t I devote that time to political work, service work? After I read The Baby Book, my desire felt downright dirty. An hour given to writing was an hour stolen from my child’s future happiness. To even desire such an hour signified my detachment from her. According to Dr. Sears, the thought is the crime. He describes women who left promising careers for full-time mothering and found that “the concept of leaving baby at one place and working in another became foreign to them—as if having to leave parts of themselves in two places.”
Everywhere I went, I heard echoes of Dr. Sears. I left my baby in the car with my husband and walked alone into the hospital for my twelve-week postnatal checkup where my midwife scolded me. She never could have entrusted her small infant to anyone else, she said. “She was part of my skin.” If it was shameful to want to leave my baby with my husband, how about wanting to leave her to write a novel about imaginary people?
I kept on my bureau, along with onesies and washcloths and a thermometer and baby Tylenol, a photo of the sculptor Ruth Asawa taken by Imogen Cunningham. Asawa and two children are spooling wire on the floor. A third child examines pictures or a puzzle while a naked, squatting baby holds a bottle, all of them beneath two of the mother’s undulating wire structures. This photo served as a challenge: if I really cared about my kids, I’d create art only while watching them.
But a writer leaves her babies in order to work. I searched for accounts by female writers (Didion, Sontag, Morrison) of their successful child rearing, and what I found instead, in the way that the Internet always gives you what you’re really looking for, were laments by the grown children of writers. They complained about how cold and absent their mothers had been.
And yet, I couldn’t stop wanting to write. After keeping each baby home with me for a little more than a year, I put her in part-time childcare, signed up to teach a few classes, and joined a shared writers’ office. And then terribly, I found myself unable to return to my novel. Writing depends on authority, the belief that what we say matters. But I’d weigh every paragraph of that necessarily crappy early draft against my children’s needs, and the paragraphs mattered little. Fear made me doubt the desire I’d relied upon.
I couldn’t write as Mama. And so I did what women do when our desires are muted by shame: I borrowed from male desire. Just as I’d been trained to do through advertising and porn and movies, I substituted male bodies, with their ubiquitous and confident gaze, for my own. Write like a man, I told myself every time I sat down to work, although those weren’t the words I used. I actually said, Write like you have a dick. I needed the source of desire. I didn’t consciously anticipate that this faux phallus, or mental dildo, would change my novel, but in retrospect, it’s obvious to me that it did.
My novel is, in part, a coming-of-age story about a girl, Rebecca, who feels both awed and diminished by her father, publisher of a radical newspaper, as well as by her cousin, the charismatic founder of the utopian summer camp where she works. Through the course of the novel, she comes to realize she doesn’t need these men.
The book is Rebecca’s story, but not only. When I returned to writing after becoming a mother, I found myself adding narrators until my book was told by seven characters. Rebecca is female. A second narrator is both genderless and inanimate—a barn. The other five are men.
For much of the book, these men talk to each other in the high desert of Colorado. They’re very deliberately performing masculinity, putting on the costume of the cowboy.
And so I put on the costume as well.
I escaped my female body, my body sick with a chronic autoimmune disease, my body wrung out from gestating and nursing babies, my body apparently needed by those babies at every moment. It’s not that I had some sort of analgesic out-of-body experience, but I felt male. I moved and swayed as I wrote. I spread my legs wide under my desk and tensed my muscles. See, for the moments when I wrote about men, I didn’t leak or expand or shrink or cramp or bleed or clot or hurt—because they didn’t. And I didn’t feel shame for wanting too much—because they didn’t.
Years later, after I finished my book, Claire Vaye Watkins published an essay in which she admits that her book Battleborn, a brilliant collection of stories also about men in the rural West, was an act of pandering. “I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.” She goes on to say, “Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati.”
I didn’t write to please men. I wrote to become them. “Madame Bovary c’est moi,” Flaubert said, although, tellingly, until I looked it up just now, I remembered the quote differently, as “Je suis Madame Bovary.” The men I wrote about are not me so much as I was them. What a relief it was to be Ira, Caleb, Don, Donnie, and David, not to mention the hard, impenetrable surface of a barn.
In my book, these white men struggle with the ways in which they lack power—perhaps this is like most straight white men, the effects of which we’re beginning to see in this Trumpian era. And yet, as I wrote about them, from inside of them, I was aware of all the power they did have just by living in their male bodies. I, too, wanted to walk fearlessly at night. I wanted to silence a crowd just by standing up. I wanted to leave a mess, expecting a woman to clean it. I wanted to command a room, run a meeting, boss a young girl around. I wanted to scare somebody simply by the fact of my body alone. I wanted to push my crying baby into the hands of my girlfriend and sleep undisturbed on the couch.
And I did. I did all of these things in the hours I wrote. It was a joyous act of drag. I understand that this is drag only in its safest guise, performed alone. After writing, I’d walk from my office to my car, morphed into Mama again. I couldn’t believe I’d left my babies, and I dreaded returning, prepared for retribution for my crime.
Finishing this essay, I feel defensive. I haven’t yet explained that I coveted the hours with them too. But you know that. Or you don’t. For once, though, it’s not the point. The point is other desire matters.
It was only much later that I realized Imogen Cunningham had posed her photo. That tableau must have lasted only as long as the flick of a camera lens, and then the baby was wet and crying, and the older children jabbed each other with wire. For Asawa to create her gorgeous sculptures, she, too, needed to escape and return, disconnect and connect—as mothers have done, as babies have survived. My photograph was as much a myth as The Baby Book, with its patriarchal fantasy of a Mama who will stop desiring if she just becomes good enough.
When I see The Baby Book at bookstores, I want to snatch the copies off the shelves and dump them in the baby’s bathwater. One million copies sold! I want to find the pregnant writer just now buying it. I want to hold my novel beneath her nose. Smell it, I would say. See my name on the spine. It’s okay to want your name here. You can want this too.
But I do have gratitude to the Searses. Thanks to them, my novel took on a confidence it hadn’t had. At first, it was a pose, but toward the final drafts, the voice was all mine. It was voice of a woman in defiance. It was the voice of a woman claiming her ambition.
Heather Abel is a writer living in Massachusetts. Her debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, will be published by Algonquin this May.