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Steve Almond interviews his mom about her new book The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood. (That’s right, Steve’s mom wrote a book about a mother’s fear of having a terrible child.)
Some years ago, I was sitting in my panic room, thumbing through one of my bad review files and trying to decide what sort of enema would be most pleasurably administered to Jonathon Yardley. I’d narrowed it down to two possibilities – jalapeño or lye – when the phone rang. It was Mother.
“Stush,” she said. “I’m going to write a book.”
“You’ve already written a book,” I pointed out.
This was true. A decade ago, she and Father published an annoyingly incisive treatise called The Therapeutic Narrative about the ways in which certain fictional relationships – such as the one between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy – mirror the therapeutic process. I had presented a number of their most cogent ideas to my students over the years, without necessarily citing a source.
“What’s this one going to be about?” I asked.
“Women’s fears of giving birth to monsters,” Mother said.
“Perfect,” I said. “More good press.”
I quickly forgot about this conversation and turned my attention to updating my List of Literary Enemies.
As sometimes happens when you are as understandably self-absorbed as I am, several years went by. I married and had a child, more or less in that order, and then another and before I knew it Mother was on the phone again, telling me that The New Yorker had given her book a rave review.
“Hold the line,” I said and smashed my head against the wall three times.
That night at dinner, I mentioned Mother’s call to my wife. “She said something about having written another book.”
My wife began speaking in a very animated fashion about the book itself – The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood – which apparently had arrived in the mail while I was upstairs Googling myself.
“It’s so good,” my wife opined. “Totally addictive.”
“What’s the big deal?” I said. “It’s just a book. I’ve written loads of them.”
“You should read it,” my wife said. “Your mom gets all the crazy emotions swirling around motherhood. She’s talking about the stuff that nobody else wants to talk about.”
“Such as me?”
“Such as the fact that women have really complicated feelings about child bearing and child raising and that there’s no space in the culture to talk about those feelings. All my friends are totally in love with her.”
“Pass the croutons,” I said.
“I knew your mom was a psychoanalyst,” my wife droned on, “but I had no idea she was such a good writer. Did you know she was one of six women in her graduating class at Yale Medical School? How badass is that?”
There was silence and chewing.
“Look, does she mention me or not?” I said.
My wife sighed. Then she went and got the book and set it on the table in front of me.
It was never my intention to read the entire book, but as my wife suggested, it is rather a quick journey and the sort, I eventually conceded, about which Rumpus readers might want additional enlightenment…
The Rumpus: How and why did you start working on The Monster Within?
Mother: I had a patient who was afraid to have a baby. That was what got me started. I used her case for my graduation paper from the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, but then went on to think about other monstrous representations of babies. I had enjoyed writing The Therapeutic Narrative with Dad, and I gradually decided to turn monstrous babies into a book. But it soon became very clear that I was more worried about monstrous mothers than their babies, that I had lots of guilt and anxiety about my own mothering, and that I wasn’t alone. So the book turned in that direction.
Rumpus: One of the points you make in the book is that maternal ambivalence – the simple admission that woman often have conflicted feelings toward their children – has become a kind of modern taboo, a crime that “dare not speak its name.” Did you yourself struggle in writing about it?
Mother: I certainly did. I knew it was an important subject and a very, very taboo subject, even though ambivalence is a mixture of feelings, not hatred alone, but the more I got into it, the more it seemed to me there was something to be gotten into.
Rumpus: There’s such a remarkable range of cultural touchstones in the book, everything from literary novels (Beloved, The Tin Drum, The Fifth Child) to blockbuster movies (Aliens, Rosemary’s Baby) to pop culture figures (Brooke Shields, the Octomom). How did you balance all these elements?
Mother: I didn’t try to balance all the elements. I actually wanted to use more literary material than I did, and it took me a while to be willing to write about patients (albeit in a disguised form) and even longer than that to write about myself. I designed a trajectory for the book – from good to not so good to very bad (in terms of maternal ambivalence) and fit in the examples as they seemed relevant.
Rumpus: You raised us back in the sixties and seventies. But you’ve also been a careful observer of how mothering has evolved. What are the big differences you see in cultural attitudes toward mothering, between back then and now?
Mother: First of all, when you and your brothers were born, feminism was hot stuff. Going to work was considered admirable, and staying home with children was somewhat devalued, unless you didn’t do it full-time. There has been a big change in that balance in the past 40 years. Motherhood has become somewhat overvalued. Not that it isn’t crucial to the survival of humanity, but the rules, pressures, convictions are often draconian and, I think, very hard on mothers. And not so easy on children, either.
Rumpus: As a rule, do you think moms have become overly invested in “mothering”? I ask because (from inside that bubble), it often feels like our generation of parents worries too much. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself.
Mother: Your generation does worry too much. It isn’t just you, although you are a remarkably accomplished worrier! And, yes, in many ways I do think mothers have become overly invested in mothering. They have also become very competitive in their mothering, very judgmental, and underneath that, very exhausted.
Rumpus: Can you talk about what you hope readers will take away from the book?
Mother: I hope it will lead to more tolerance of human imperfection, less self-punishment on the part of mothers, more understanding of the complexities of love and hate, of their inter-twinings, of their normality.
Rumpus: During high school, we read the obscure Faulkner novel The Reivers together. In retrospect, wasn’t that sort of kinky of us?
Mother: I don’t know that it was kinky. It was a weird novel, but it was assigned and you needed the help. I’m not sure I was that much help – Faulkner baffles me – but kinky? It was certainly no more kinky than the tango we used to do in the kitchen.
Rumpus: Are you prepared to “throw down” if Stephen Colbert invites you on his show?
Mother: Who is Stephen Colbert?
Rumpus: You always told people I was a cute baby. Is your publication of a widely hailed book about woman’s fears of giving birth to monsters your veiled way of suggesting I really wasn’t that cute as a baby?
Mother: It most certainly is not. You were an adorable baby and just let anyone try to tell me otherwise. It’s like questioning whether or not Judah is a cute baby!!!
Dr. Barbara Almond is a psychoanalyst and author of two books, The Therapeutic Narrative (written with Dr. Richard “Father” Almond) and the just released The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood which you should buy if you are a mother, a potential mother, or a person who has a mother.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.