Mothers as Makers of Death


Arts & Culture

Stages in pregnancy as illustrated in the nineteenth-century medical text Nouvelles démonstrations d’accouchemens.


I wrote the first draft of my novel Heartbreaker in a ten-day mania in August 2015 with a fist-size bandage over my left ear; beneath it, a track of dark-blue stitches. The smallest bone in the human body, my stapes bone, which is charged with conducting sound in the middle ear, had stopped working. I now had a thin hook of titanium fluttering in my head, and in the on-switch manner of miracles, my hearing returned.

My husband had taken our two young sons on a road trip to a small cabin on the east coast of Canada. I could not lift anything heavy. I had to keep my heart rate low. I could not wash my hair and wore it in a knot shined with grease on top of my head. I turned off my cell phone, unplugged our landline, and disconnected from the Internet. This was my plan: to be unreachable. Didn’t Jonathan Franzen pour cement into his USB port and work in some kind of carpeted hell-mouth of a rental office to finish—which one was it now? Ah yes, Freedom?

My husband could see I had a novel inside me, and it was a commotion, and the only way to settle it was to write it, and the only way to write it was to be alone. I had not been alone in a decade. I had not been alone because I am a mother, and a mother is never alone. When she is washing, sleeping, raging, she is not alone. For a mother, this is the state of things. Children hang from your clothing. They pummel you with questions. Like a gunfight, like the most consuming love, like an apocalypse: they take up all of the available space.

I finally had my hearing checked when, pregnant with my second child, I could no longer hear my first son’s dear earliest words. (I would soon learn that my disease, the same one that befell Beethoven and Howard Hughes, was exacerbated by pregnancy.) I entered the testing booth, a grim room of knobs and wires, closed the heavy door behind me, sat down, and put on the too-tight headset. My audience of one, the audiologist, looked at me through the thick glass, her face evangelist heavy with makeup. As I had been instructed, I pressed the button on the remote whenever I heard a tone or a word. I could tell there were serious gaps between my pressings; a vast amount of life occurred outside of my experience of it. The clock on the wall counted down. I pictured the execution chambers of inmates. For many years of my life, it had been as if sound lived on the other side of a fast-moving river. In my exchanges with others, I got very good at signaling, Oh, I know exactly what you mean. This seemed to be signal enough. 

At home, my deafness presented as concentration, a supernatural ability to be absorbed. It was my deepest privacy. But once I became a mother, it was unmotherly. Now, with this lithe, mysterious boy in my charge, my deafness was dangerous. “Oncoming cars,” the audiologist said, nodding toward my son, his legs dangling off a chair in the opposite corner of her office—and me, not even alone to be haunted by her words.

When I emerged from the testing booth, the audiologist looked at me with something close to love and said, “I don’t know how you have managed for so long. You must be exhausted. All that lip reading.”

I left that low white suburban building with a trial set of hearing aids. When I closed my car door, I startled myself with the sound. I twisted the keys in the ignition, and the radio blasted on. I lunged for the volume knob. Sound was an assault: the drone of the air vents, the fridge, the power lines, the traffic. I was constantly spinning around, braced for an intruder. The intruder was sound itself. Four months later, I would rip the hearing aids from my ears and give birth to my second son in under three hours. I needed to be on the other side of that fast-moving river. “It’s a boy, by the way,” the midwife said to me, when I had crossed back into the room, into the world, the baby’s body hot on my chest. I hadn’t thought to ask. I wanted him, only him.

Five years later and I live in a hearing body, no longer dependent on those small machines that I hid beneath the thick tent of my hair. I am writing—writing with the speed of an animal being chased by a larger animal. The larger animal is time. Here is the artist-mother’s bar graph: line one—the multiplying size and need of her expression—held up against line two—the rapid dissolution of time. To write is to be in conversation with yourself, to preserve a state of being so you can conclude a sequence of thinking and feeling. The enemy to this process is intrusion. Children, in all of their beauty and wildness and strange genius, are, in the way of a meteorite, an intrusion.

When a woman becomes a mother, a set of changes is set off within her; the most altering is that she, as if under a spell, loses her autonomy of mind. In A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk posits that the mother is divided the moment she watches another human being exit her body. This is the instant the mother is no longer alone and can no longer achieve aloneness within. Cusk writes: “Birth is not merely that which divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself.”

The private actions of the mother’s mind—her scholarship, perversions, miscellany, narcissism—are swamped by the bureaucracy of parenting. A ticker tape hurtles across the mother’s brain listing all of the things she must remember: spoon, bathing suit, milk, booster shot, sign-up, pickup, 3:15. These lists are a form of paying attention, which is a form of love. Love, a wise woman once told me, is how you make the other person feel. Love is how you make your child feel. You accomplish the list. And then the list, indomitable, grows anew.

In her recent and essential novel Motherhood, Sheila Heti debates whether she should become a mother. She hurls nearly every possible question at the question. In the last third of the book, she asks: “Could I ever hope to be a good enough writer—to capture on the page what being human felt like—if I had not experienced motherhood? If I had no experience of what I increasingly took to be the central experience of life?” For me, the answer is bent to the shape of my life, and so the answer is no. Children bring with them dark gifts, new information. With my sons came all of my most settled and unsettled feelings. I gave birth naturally because I wanted to know what birth was—so that I could write about it having survived it. Like Heti but from the opposite shore, I, too, was operating within the service of my profession.

To write a novel is to unravel a debate or a distress within—to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way. I wrote Heartbreaker because a decade ago, when I became pregnant for the first time, death entered the pregnancy. This was a shock, a sick shock, and it lodged itself hard and cold inside me. I had to turn it over and over in my hands. I had to stare into it and see what it gleaned. The shock was novel size.

No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child—this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.

I knew I was pregnant when I could smell the glue binding the slats of wood together in the bedroom of our apartment. When I mentioned this detail to a friend some time later, he looked at my round stomach and said to it: “That must be a predator-prey thing. Like your body has to be alert to new dangers or something.”

I wrote my novel in whatever empty room I could find that had a door behind me I could lock. This was the only way I could silence the list and remain in conversation with myself. Friends turned over their apartments and cabins. I left my home and worked elsewhere for six days, eight days, whatever time I could rob from my life, and then returned to taller sons and bedrooms that looked ransacked. I wrote in sprints. Not quite John Prine entering a Nashville hotel room with ten boxes of lyrics, three guitars, and one ukulele and leaving a week later with The Tree of Forgiveness—but one must try to dream rock-star dreams. And yet despite my immersion, some mortal tendon bound me to home. I would call every night, listening to my sons’ happy, distracted voices, confirming their existence—and therefore my own.

In The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani takes this fear of death to its end. The novel begins with this nightmare sentence: “The baby is dead.” The mother’s fear is rightly placed—her children are, as we learn in those brutal first four words, stalked by threats when she is away from them. As a point of inspiration, Slimani cited the case of Louise Woodward, the nineteen-year-old British nanny accused of killing the baby in her care. Throughout her trial, the public’s hatred was not directed at Woodward, the murderer, but at the child’s working mother, whose absence was perceived as the real murder weapon. Slimani quoted Woodward’s lawyer: “If you didn’t want something to happen to your kids, you should have taken care of them yourself.” To this accusation, Slimani responded: “I find that terribly cruel. I think that to put the idea in people’s heads that to entrust your children to someone other than yourself is something bad—it’s a tool to alienate women, because it always ends with ‘O.K., then, it’s the woman who stays at home.’ ”

The writer Samantha Hunt turns this sinister pairing of death and motherhood into a kind of feminist currency. If we could perceive death as a part of pregnancy and child-rearing, we might just take women more seriously. Interviewed by The New Yorker about her short story “A Love Story,” Hunt says: “The part of sexism that bores and angers me most is the culling, the simplification of women into Hallmark cards of femininity. When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’ Meanwhile, I could think of little else. It’s scary to think of mothers as makers of death, but it sure gives them more power and complexity than one usually finds.”

“Mothers as makers of death.” The culture so forcefully sells the opposite story. Pregnancy is bathed in sunlight, moonlight, God light. What could be more beautiful than the pregnant woman, deliverer of pure promise? Her mind is bright and clean while the innocent babe goes about the bizarre science of forming his toenails inside her. The most popular books about pregnancy have pastel covers, as if to emphasize the mother’s pastel thoughts—women, lightly drawn in Madonna-like repose, on rocking chairs inside a force field of washed pinks, yellows, and blues. The mother’s body, after birth, is to be returned as quickly as possible to its former contours. This is true for her mind as well. No mention of the sudden, crushing morbidity filling the new mother’s soul. No mention of the novel she is dying to write. No mention of death.


Claudia Dey is the author of the forthcoming novel Heartbreaker.