The feeling is nearly evangelical, this desire we mothers of self-sufficient children have to press certain books into the hands of nascent mothers. We're compelled to introduce first-timers to the cherished guides who helped us, who can express what we found inexpressible. When my usually stern colleague saw my gift of Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions at our co-worker’s baby shower, she seemed to melt, singing out, "Oh, I love that book!" It was a moment of connection and mutual gratitude for a writer who had lit the way through the dark chaos and self-doubt of challenging early motherhood for us both.
Meaghan O'Connell's debut memoir of a challenging transition to motherhood, And Now We Have Everything, cannot help being compared to Lamott's classic. O'Connell's account of her transformation into a first-time mother and, consequently, a better feminist is an honest and intimate addition to the new mother literary genre, written with endearing intimacy, big laughs, and tremendous heart. She dares to ask, "What if, instead of worrying about scaring pregnant women, people told them the truth? What if pregnant women were treated like thinking adults? What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?" Women who balked at the unpredicted challenges of mothering will cheer.
The author is a frequent contributor to New York Magazine's stylish women's site The Cut and a recent transplant from NYC to finger-on-the-pulse Portland, Oregon. In And Now We Have Everything, O'Connell's irreverence pops the lofty bubble of preconceptions about how a loving mother is supposed to feel or act. Yes, she admits, in stand-up worthy one-liners, pregnancy allows a woman to transcend cultural conceptions of body image ("Fuck you, patriarchy!") and childbirth is worse than anyone admits ("a belt made of barbed wire"). Breastfeeding hurts like a bitch, infants are both adorable and boring in equal measure ("I want to take back all my wild urges to be elsewhere"), and leaving the baby for work is the sweetest relief. O'Connell doesn’t hide her thirst for approval either, a relatable quality she tempers with humor and frankness. For her son, she wants "a name that was traditional, simple, strong, but that all of society had somehow forgotten; a name that we alone had unearthed. I wanted other new parents to kick themselves, wishing they’d thought of it first."
The book opens with O'Connell, who, at twenty-nine, is struggling with modern womanhood and her own desires as she faces an unplanned pregnancy. She is an "ambitious young woman too smart for her own good," one who embraces the cut-throat, competitive, professional world of New York, yet questions why women of childbearing age are "supposed to trust the ambitions, not the feelings," why she is expected to "ascend, ascend, ascend." She embraces the choices and freedom that feminism has won for her, yet struggles to own fully her desire for motherhood: "I wanted to be swayed. I didn't want to have to argue on behalf of my desire." O'Connell's fresh and fearless voice captures the experience of urgent, self-absorbed youth in all its inchoate emotion: "My first real boyfriend. I was madly in love with him, full of disbelief at how easy and obvious and scary it all felt. I didn’t know what to do other than pace around my tiny apartment—the first and last apartment that I lived in alone—feeling like I was going to burst with...feeling."
And Now We Have Everything is both a joy with howl-out-loud moments of tawdry confession and an unflinching exploration of serious questions of identity. "I thought the hell would be logistical, not emotional" she confesses. "I feared being eaten alive by motherhood, being completely subsumed." O'Connell dreads losing what she searches for, but fails to see a complex inner life in the online blogging culture of happy mothers. Yet, surrendering to the inevitable is irresistible: "There was a growing ferocity inside of me….Part of me loved this feeling of being steamrolled by life, of being totally fucked." We trace this growth of a young feminist—starting a family gives her the strength to come into her own—to demand her own needs be met, to stand up for what she wants, to create both a family and a career. Deciding to keep her unplanned pregnancy becomes a feminist act, one that counters a modern woman's self-denial and self-subjugation.
I came away from O'Connell's birth story with deep gratitude—here she gives a clear-eyed analysis of the most difficult of experiences: the rush of conflicting and violent emotions under extreme physical duress, the pressure for major life-dependent decisions being made on the fly, the added complication of well-meaning but bumbling family. O'Connell describes how her expectations about her son's birth, like those of many women, are brought into the world by the midwife and author Ina May Gaskin, founder of The Farm, an education and birthing center in rural Tennessee, and author of Spiritual Midwifery, a guide to home birth just about as lyrical and bucolic as its title sounds. I also ate up this tome when I was pregnant, longing for the images of a peaceful, drug-free birth. The hippie birth fantasy is a tempting one for women—we want to picture ourselves laboring silently on a misty morning, strong, serene, unplugged, pushing our babies out onto the quilt we fashioned ourselves. But, when do the complications of reality ever meet the purity of our fantasies? Sometimes, despite our admiration for their example, we follow a different path than those of our beloved guides.
By the later chapters of the book, O'Connell has adjusted to life with her young son. She has said out loud to him "Mama's here" for the first time, "feeling it, too, as if (her) vulnerability were what called the name, the role, into being," she has learned "when parents talked about 'checking on' their children, they meant checking to make sure they weren't dead….Love for their children...was love, but keener, with sharper edges, softer undersides." We're moved by her growth and acceptance. In a terribly affecting passage, O'Connell makes peace with her Spiritual Midwifery preconceptions and desires.
O'Connell's subtitle for her book is "On Motherhood Before I Was Ready" and one may quibble over how unready her maturity, relative wealth, stable relationships with partner and family, and privilege make her. After all, what first mother is fully prepared and ready for the experience? All parenthood is a leap of faith and a plunge into the unknown. What makes O'Connell's account so needed is her capturing the acute experiences of new motherhood that seem indescribable when a woman is caught up in them: the chaos of birth decisions under extreme duress, the fear of losing one's inner life, the bittersweet pang of realizing your priorities are no longer the same as your dear friends, the unending cycle of increasing love upon love as your child grows. We'll be giving the gift of O'Connell's advice to other women for years to come.