One chilly March morning last year, I was hooked up to my wheezing breast pump at 3 a.m., struggling to produce enough milk for my baby and awash in the certainty that I was failing motherhood’s first big trial. I sighed, and cast about for something that would keep me awake.
My body practically gelatinous from exhaustion, I reached over, picked up an advance copy of “Happy and You Know It,” and began to read. The new novel by Laura Hankin, which came out this week, follows a kids’ playgroup musician and the cluster of Manhattan moms who absorb her into their startling dramas. I devoured it in a matter of days.
To some degree, it made me feel seen, but more importantly, it made me feel transported, lifted from my murky sea of postpartum hormones and traumatic memories of a complicated birth.
As thankful as I was to have a healthy baby, I also struggled mightily with new motherhood. Of course, as I would learn again and again, parenthood is full of paradoxical feelings like these. Gratitude, fear, exhilaration, frustration — all the things, all the time.
In those first few months postpartum, though, I encountered more challenge than reward — especially with breast-feeding. I was never able to produce enough milk to fully nourish my daughter, but I fought desperately to make it work. The “breast is best” messaging is wickedly strong, and I feared that although my baby barely knew me from a nail in the wall, she was already disappointed in my inability to give her “the best.”
The superb title of “Happy and You Know It,” extracted from the classic kids’ tune but stripped of any choice (in the original, you only clap if you’re happy), evokes modern motherhood itself, with the pressure to perform maternal satisfaction while ignoring the many struggles that come with parenthood.
At the heart of the novel is Claire, a 20-something singer-guitarist in New York City who is not a mother, but is surrounded by them. She quits her band — right before they are catapulted to stardom with a song she helped write — and becomes a playgroup musician for a circle of wealthy Manhattan moms and their babies to make ends meet.
Before long, Claire is welcomed into the group as more than just the children’s entertainer. She becomes confidante and kid sister to these women who appear to have it all: handsome husbands, healthy babies, eye-popping wealth. One of them has even amassed hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, given her talent for staging just-so images of high-end domesticity and affable mothering — with dashes of #wellness and #selfcare.
As the story unfolds, complete with streaks of danger and mystery, we learn that these moms’ lives are deeply imperfect, and the reality of motherhood is not found in swanky apartments and expensive strollers, but in the moments of humility — and humanity — shared by all parents, everywhere.
Recently, I spoke with Hankin about “Happy and You Know It.” I marveled at the fact that she’s not a mother herself, as the interior lives of the moms in her book seem drawn with such precision. She was, however, a version of Claire at one point. In her 20s, Hankin was a children’s entertainer in New York City, playing music for kids’ playgroups and birthday parties. And she grew curious about the moms who hired her.
“I spent a lot of time when I was a musician going around to playgroups looking at the moms and wondering what was going on in their lives,” Hankin told me by phone. She wanted to know:
To craft the inner and outer worlds of the wealthy new mom characters, Hankin mined the Internet’s abundance of mom content. She explored blogs and picture-perfect Instagram feeds, looking for clues. “I spent a lot of time scrolling through their feeds, being like, ‘Where’s the real s---? It’s all so perfect and beautiful, how do they have time to make it look like that?’”
Craving more depth, she started interviewing real-life women about their experiences with new motherhood — the best and worst things, the surprises. Of course, she heard tales of dualism, of affection and ache so closely intertwined they become the same thing. In summing up the tumultuous first months of motherhood for one of the playgroup moms in “Happy and You Know It,” Hankin writes: “She was never alone. She was so lonely.” (Now, more than a year into motherhood, I have come to feel the fullness of this sentiment.)
While the mom characters are sensitive portrayals of women Hankin met, Claire’s interior world is captured with crystalline honesty based on the writer’s lived experience. When Hankin, now 31, began writing the book in her mid-20s, she felt like life was taking off without her. “I had a lot of very successful friends who seemed to hit the milestones at all the right times with the job and getting the good promotion,” she said, “and then around age 27, a huge wave of engagements.”
In another season, Claire would have earned all of my compassion. I’ve been her — a creative 20-something struggling to carve out a life in New York City, watching as the random winds of fame and fortune lifted certain friends into the air and carried them away to untouchable stardom, while the rest of us unlucky pigeons tottered around on the sidewalk.
At one point in the novel, just before she leaves her band, Vagabond, Claire spends a weekend in a small town and ends up in a bar, listening to a band of middle-aged local musicians. “She wanted to do something astonishing with her life,” Hankin writes. “The potential to be astonishing with Vagabond hovered, just out of reach. But she could blink and end up a regular here. Around her, people laughed and smiled, but it was like she’d gotten a particular form of X-ray vision she couldn’t turn off, and now all she saw was an undercurrent of regret beneath it all.”
Like Claire, I had once feared squandering all my potential and winding up painfully ordinary, secretly burdened by dark regrets for the rest of time. (The panicky belief that our 20s is the one and only time we can achieve something great is acutely relatable.) But life moves fast, and suddenly, I was a mother in my late 30s. I had been granted a new identity that meant I could relate to a whole other swath of characters: moms. I had become One of Them.
When writing her novel, Hankin tried to imagine her future self. “One of the things I thought about a lot was my own hope to be a mother someday, and how that would change me as a person,” she said. “And then the parts of me that would remain the same as well.”
Once again, the duality of motherhood emerges: We are the lost younger versions of ourselves, and we are also full-grown adults who might find themselves savoring a quiet nighttime reading session while the great, big world slumbers outside and a tiny, magnificent human slumbers in the next room.