I was 44 when I got pregnant with my first child. What took me so long, you may be wondering. I could show you the journal I kept during those years of fence-sitting — a yellow, college-ruled notebook given to me by my therapist at the time. A safe space, he said, to work out my ugliest, most shameful thoughts about motherhood — the endless diaper changes, a perpetual state of jet-lag, what a third party would do to my second marriage. It could also catalogue the brighter side of things — the astonishing first meet-and-greet, the funny little whorl of Gerber Baby hair, the transformative hours spent watching a bundle, your bundle, at rest.
I’d return to the journal and list out the pros and cons, two columns that never reconciled or led to a decision. It was a lonely and isolating time, and my husband didn’t want to push me one way or the other. “It’s up to you,” he often said. “Our lives will be just as wonderful with our without a kid.”
It’s a limbo explored in Polly Rosenwaike’s “Look How Happy I’m Making You,” a debut collection of stories that should be required reading for all women of childbearing years (and for all mothers, whether potential, new or, like me, seven years in). It’s a book I wish I had during my journal days, one that offers an honest, funny, and devastating look at the complexities of becoming — or not becoming — a mother.
Rosenwaike’s 12 stories run the psychological gamut of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. They grapple with the challenges and heartache of infertility, miscarriage, post-partum depression, as well as the stress and tension of couples struggling to settle in to their roles as parents. All dozen stories are told by women, in varying permutations of the above.
In one story, a 35-year-old woman is determined to start a family with her younger, less committed boyfriend. When the relationship is undone with a white lie, she faces the prospect of raising the baby on her own. She wonders: “I thought that I could handle being a single parent, but what had I done to prepare for such a formidable status?”
In another, a freelance book editor suffers a miscarriage and contemplates the imperfect pursuit of perfection. “As if you could set out to do something and get it right the first time, as if the whole of life wasn’t about trying it again,” she thinks.
Another newly expectant mother finds her happiness nearly extinguished by grief when her beloved aunt and role model is diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. I was reminded of my own emotional yin and yang when my pregnancy coincided with my beautiful mother’s swift decline into dementia.
The centerpiece, if there even is one in this strong collection, is a story called “White Carnations.” Here, a group of childless, motherless women seek refuge on Mother’s Day in a bar, where, in their grief and humor and criticism and support, they take on the role of mothers and daughters to each other. “But I imagined,” says the narrator, “that our numbers were secretly legion, that in windowless joints throughout the city, huddled groups of women gathered, not a mother among them.” It’s a universal truth that jumps off the page and hits those childless by choice or by circumstance — something affirming and heartbreaking all at once.
Along with Rosenwaike’s ability to expose truths like this, it’s her writing, precise, quirky and magical, that really matters. A pregnant woman’s body has been “colonized,” a newborn’s fingernails are like tiny opals, and one woman, when describing her advanced maternal age, says, “fertility-wise, I was like an aging ballplayer: how many years could I have left?” My pregnant 44-year-old self couldn’t have said it better.
In fact, Rosenwaike could have easily crafted a character just like me, the overwhelmed mother-to-be experiencing the first of many meltdowns at Babies R Us, wryly examining the clueless parents weighing the merits of Ikea’s Sundvik crib versus the Gulliver crib, or tenderly memorializing the woman I once was, a journal spread open on her lap, adding the “pro” that finally tipped the scale..@