My childhood memories of Du Bose Heyward's The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes had more to do with its illustration of a huge hall filled with mounds of dazzling, multi-colored Easter eggs than with any sort of feminist message. When my two children were very young, we received a copy from my neighbor, a woman who was herself an admirable, human version of Heyward's ambitious career bunny. My neighbor had three children and tenure. Her high-school-aged sons, glowing with health, came and went with purpose, clean clothes, and neighborly nods. My neighbor had raised these friendly, responsible young men. She'd also written a book that, I'd heard, was not only successful academically but was also sold in museum gift shops. Across the street, I was struggling to finish the last two chapters of my dissertation before my final semester of funding ran out. To my bleary, toddler-worn eyes, my neighbor looked just about as dazzling as those mounds of Easter eggs.
As I read The Country Bunny to my own children, the book's feminist message was as obvious as if it had been written in my own era, rather than in 1939. Even the book's origin story is a feminist one, suggesting a family committed to empowering girls with stories: Heyward, better known as the author of the novel Porgy (the inspiration for Gershwin's famous Porgy and Bess), reportedly based the Country Bunny’s story on one his mother invented, which he subsequently told to his own daughter, Jenifer.
Commentary on the book is mostly appreciative; from children's lit blogs to The New Yorker, readers laud its remarkably forward-thinking feminist message. A review by Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post in 2015 sees the book as reassuring balm for all the "guilty, co-dependent, martyring working moms" out there; "read this book," Dvorak urges, "and know our struggle is not unique, or even new." She's right, of course—our struggle is not new, though this book's depiction of it is uniquely sensitive to its contortions. Maybe that's why when I read this book to my children for the first time, I didn't feel relieved, as Dvorak recalls feeling, and I certainly didn't feel empowered or inspired. I felt despair. I felt full of a hopeless, dull rage, and I cried. I had an unfinished dissertation, a year of failed job searches behind me, and two adorable, needy children. I cried because I was frustrated and incredulous: Heyward's story ends happily, with no one sacrificing anything and everyone getting everything they want—an ending that seemed barely imaginable for my own story.
I love reading The Country Bunny to my kids: Cottontail's dogged pursuit of her dream, her motherly kindness and care, and her industrious, capable little bunnies are all worthy of admiration. When Cottontail hears there's an opening for an Easter bunny (there is not, our narrator tells us, just one Easter bunny, as is commonly thought, but five, who work until they grow too old, and are then replaced by younger rabbits), she gathers up her children and rushes off to the palace of the "old, wise, and kind Grandfather Bunny," the leader of all Easter bunnies and her prospective boss. Cottontail stands before him, with her brood of 21 children neatly lined up next to her, at the interview for the job she's wanted since she was a child. And far from being a burden to her at the crucial moment, her children help her prove that she's the best fit for the job. Necessary requirements for the position include swiftness, kindness, and wisdom. Cottontail proves her speed by chasing after her bunnies and rounding them up in record time, and her children prove her kindness and wisdom for her, through their good behavior. Yes, yes, the Grandfather Bunny acknowledges, but who, he asks (illegally, by today's standards), will take care of your house, and your children, while you're working? Cottontail bows modestly, and asserts that her children "will take better care of the house than I." She proceeds to summarize the system of divided domestic labor that she has instituted at her home. Children are paired off, with each pair responsible for a specific household chore: making beds, weeding the garden, mending clothes, sweeping the floor—there are even pairs of entertainers to sing and dance, and artists to paint pictures, to beautify the home and inspire its workers. Cottontail has trained her children thoroughly enough to make herself unnecessary—like every good manager and every good mother should. And her training is successful: when she returns home in the early hours of Easter morning, weary from her first night’s work, she finds her house in immaculate order, her children sleeping peacefully.
The conditions that make Cottontail's first day on the job possible read as pure fantasy in the facile ways they solve the problems of a young mother trying to balance career and family. Cottontail's mothering work has transformed her into the ideal candidate for her dream job, not the kind of mush-brained, overtired, and unconfident person that I felt I'd become after a few years of nearly full-time mothering. I couldn't imagine how she could have preserved her ambition so successfully, how she could have kept it safe and thriving beneath the many layers of effort and care that she was surely spreading out, daily, over her children.
But The Country Bunny isn't facile, and it's not a completely idealized vision of what it's like to enjoy pursuits beyond the health and happiness of one's children. Cottontail may be able to go out to work, confident in the knowledge that her children are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, but without the intervention of the benevolent and magical Grandfather Bunny at a critical moment, Cottontail's first day on the job would have been a spectacular failure. As she attempts to deliver a special Easter egg to a sick little boy living in a cabin atop a mountain, Cottontail takes a severe tumble and sprains her ankle. The Grandfather Bunny has given her this job because she has "such a loving heart for children," and she fails—even at this task specially earmarked for a mother. She sits at the bottom of the mountain as the sun begins to rise, feeling defeated, until the Grandfather Bunny appears, bearing the titular little gold shoes, which, it turns out, grant their wearer the ability to fly. After putting on the shoes, Cottontail's pain vanishes, and she reaches the top of the towering mountain in only two huge hops. Cottontail succeeds, but only with the help of a patriarchal savior, to whom she now belongs, the Grandfather Bunny tells us, as she dons the golden shoes and becomes his "very own gold shoe Easter Bunny."
We're relieved, of course, that Cottontail is going to make it, and we're glad that the angelic, sick little boy will get his Easter egg. But Cottontail pays for our relief with her autonomy. In the Grandfather Bunny's final scene, he looms above the fallen Cottontail, telling us (kindly, gently) that it always comes down to a man in the end. You might be swift, you might be kind, and you might have successfully imparted to your children the kind of work ethic and domestic skill set necessary to run a luxury resort, but you still might fall—and then you'd have no choice but to wait, huddled up in a furry little heap of failure, for a man to come along and pick you up.
Worse yet, your failure might feel like a portentous omen about the impossibility of being who you thought you wanted to be. Cottontail falls doing a task that seems to be a perfect amalgamation of the work she does at home and the work she's always longed to do outside the home: she's caring for a child, but in this climactic moment, she does so in her professional capacity as an Easter Bunny. And though her failure is a literal fall, it's also a figurative one—a fall from grace, or from the heights of ambition. After she has her 21 babies, the "Jacks with long legs" urge her to be content with what she has, to take care of her babies and "leave Easter eggs to great big men bunnies like us." Cottontail's fall is the price she pays for refusing to do exactly that, and she can never forget the cost: the powerful bunny feet that took her so far are now to be successful only as the gilded property of her boss.
We love each other and we love our children, but we own each other's time. One of us is always wearing the golden shoes, it seems, reminding their wearer that they can only ever fly so far.
Cottontail does have a husband, but he is unillustrated and unnamed, and mentioned only once— immediately before we learn that "one day, much to [Cottontail's] surprise, there were 21 babies to take care of." This husband is completely absent from the rest of the story; my own husband has been a far more pivotal character in mine. And though being married to him feels nothing like being property, there is a sliver of something familiar in the Grandfather Bunny's rescuing Cottontail as she struggles to do her job. I struggled to do mine after my children were born, and I relied on my husband in all kinds of ways as I hopped, clumsy and exhausted, up the mountain of my dissertation. And though it's true that he relied on me to provide so much of the intimate care our children needed when they were babies, I relied on him for nearly everything else.
I relied on the money he made—we all did—while I brought home a graduate student's stipend that barely covered childcare. I relied on him to take care of our children while I finished my dissertation, on weekend afternoons when all my six-month-old daughter wanted was me and no one wanted to take a nap. I relied on him to listen to my tortured attempts at explaining my writing struggles du jour, and to encourage me to keep on struggling. I relied on him to pick up our kids from day care or school when they got sick, because the adjunct position I got after finishing my degree didn't offer sick or personal days. And I rely on him still, even though I feel more secure and competent at my teaching job than I did while writing my dissertation, and our children are spending more time in school than they ever have before. Now, I rely on him when I want to have dinner with a friend, or go to the lectures or events at my university that make my work feel like a pleasure rather than a duty. I rely on him for all those reprieves from the intensive care of parenting that are nice rather than necessary. These unnecessary perks we dole out to each other are the most needling reminder of just how interdependent we are as parents. We love each other and we love our children, but we own each other's time. One of us is always wearing the golden shoes, it seems, reminding their wearer that they can only ever fly so far.
Over the course of the past eight years, neither one of us has ever flown extensively, but even our briefest flights are enabled by a baroque orchestration of divided domestic labor that reflects Cottontail's minute organization of household tasks. Cooking, shopping, cleaning, dropping off and picking up from school, bathing and bedtime routines, playdates, work time, sleeping in and going out—everything is portioned out equally, alternating between parents, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, and carefully recorded on our shared online calendar. When Cottontail institutes her own system of household labor, she announces it to her children by telling them, "Now we are going to have some fun." Our system makes the work and play we all need possible, and I'm proud of my husband and me for designing a machine that hums so well, but I can't quite bring myself to call it fun. Our time is divided and bundled up into parcels, and all these little parcels of time belong not to us, but to the communal family pantry.
Such radical apportionment of my time was unimaginable to me before having children. Yet time was the least of it, really. The divisions and separations that truly hurt were the physical ones my children and I suffered alone, when I took up my work again in earnest after each of them was born. I felt like a divided self, and I saw that self in The Country Bunny, though not in the figure of Cottontail herself. The divisions and doubts I felt press gently against the text's patient, silent figures, insisting, however quietly, that some complications can't be organized or scheduled away. Cottontail may have engineered the perfect system of labor at home, but she has 21 children, not 20 or 22, which means that one child is left out of her system of pairs. Her littlest boy, whom Cottontail deems "the most polite of all my children," has no partner, and no job, until his mother makes him "the keeper of [her] chair," the child who "seat[s] her politely at table." And though his job is clearly special, it's also one that will cease to exist when Cottontail goes to work, leaving this politest of children idle and alone, with no mother to take care of at the table, and no mother to take care of him. He is the stubborn remainder of the otherwise neat solution to the problem of a working mother, the sign of what can't be reconciled to a mother's ambition. This "most polite" little boy remains, and not only in the space of Cottontail's home. He is reimagined in the text as another quiet, polite little boy—the sick child who "has never once complained" about his lingering illness, the little boy who earnestly hopes (but hardly believes) that the Easter bunny will somehow manage to deliver to his mountaintop home.
I've long since finished my dissertation, but the uncomplaining patience of Heyward's left-out little boys is still with me. I burst into tears as I left my daughter at her first day of daycare, but when I left her older brother for the first time two years earlier, I struggled silently to retain my composure. I was certain that my tears would be a terrible omen, predicting nothing but suffering on this day and all the others like it. Sometimes both children cried and screamed when I left them at day care, and though these little explosions of anguish were piercingly loud, they said nothing about the enduring, everyday losses that seeped into the regularity of our lives. All those moments when I didn't cry, and neither did my son; when his implacable face turned away from mine and toward the toy he'd been so engrossed in the day before; when I strained to read the expression in his huge brown eyes from behind his classroom's one-way mirror, wondering about the nature and persistence of these little losses that I was imposing on him—these pangs were the every day. Cottontail never saw the little spats or teary moments that must have punctuated the hours of carefully organized labor that occupied her children, only the sparkling glasses and lovely pictures hanging on the walls when she got home. When I picked up my son in the afternoon, I only saw his fresh clothes and the riotous artwork that he'd made while messing up the clothes I'd dressed him in that morning. As each mealtime passed with no mother to seat at table, Cottontail's polite little son might have gotten bored, felt useless, or wondered about his mother—but we never hear his sighs or complaints. Heyward's narrator insists that the sick little boy "never complained," but surely, he must have. And surely, the love I saw for my son in the eyes of the women who cared for him every day must have been fed, at least a little, by the tears he was crying for me.
When Cottontail delivers the sick little boy's egg, we do not get to see him open his eyes and realize that, against all odds, the Easter bunny has made it up the mountain. We don't get to see the proof shining in his little boy face that it has all been worth it: Cottontail's separation from her children; her painstaking efforts to organize their labor and their efforts to accommodate her ambition; the binding ties of the little gold shoes, and most of all, the loss of each other that this mother and her children endured while they were apart. And when Cottontail returns home at the very end of the book to deliver her own family's Easter basket, we don't see her children wake up; we don't see whether they run to her for hugs and kisses, or hang back, suddenly shy—resentful, maybe, or just uncertain. We don't see how long Cottontail waits to wake her children up. Does she rouse them with a shout, and scoop all 21 up into her furry embrace, or does she linger in the silence of her immaculate home, enjoying the peace and order that she and her family have engineered, savoring the weariness she feels from doing the work she's always longed to do?
My son is now eight, and he gives me little cause to wonder what he's thinking: he's usually describing it to me in articulate detail. His face is rarely implacable, and his huge brown eyes glow with fervor for Minecraft, or origami, or tornadoes; they don't smolder with angst at the pain he feels when he's away from me. I'd like to say that the work I was doing when my children were babies has grown to be as thrillingly articulate as my son, but it hasn't. My work was silent and polite, too, when my children were very small. It waited through the many moments when I was too distracted, sad, or tired to summon the words I needed to write, leaving it as bereft as Heyward's sick little boy, stranded inside my head just like he was, at the top of his inaccessible mountain home. Eventually, I finished my dissertation, then published an article—and that was it. I could devise no system, no schedule, no time slot capacious enough to write the way I'd learned to write in graduate school. That sort of work and I were less flexible than Cottontail's children: we were a mismatched pair, unable to tidy up texts with insightful close readings or mend old interpretations with new historical research in the hours we thought would be enough. Work and people are messy and complicated; neither can always fit into the colorful blocks we give them on our calendars, or be effectively managed by the person designated to do so on any given week. We all sacrifice sometimes.
I'm not writing literary criticism right now. I'm writing this essay in the space between the end of dinnertime and the beginning of bedtime routine, surrounded by my children's books, their stuffed animals, and blank copies of my grading rubrics. I can hear the water running in the bath, and my daughter screeching and giggling at the silly cackling of the washcloth puppet on my husband's hand. I write every day, with an urgency that has nothing to do with finishing a dissertation or publishing articles or tenure. I write to keep house in my brain, to arrange my mental space into the kind of delightful home that Cottontail finds her children have kept so tidily for her while she's away, with their sweeping and mending and singing and painting. I still sometimes feel like that homespace in my brain is too often empty; that I have to rush away from it more often than I'm allowed to linger. But some day not too far from now, my children will be hopping away to pursue their own ambitions, leaving me with—I can only imagine—space and time to stay as long as I like.