This Week of Short Fiction
New motherhood: it’s common but totally strange, completely natural yet weirdly alien, a beautiful miracle and absolutely disgusting. It can also have some strong effects on a woman’s perception of self and identity, as Helen Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) explores brilliantly in her story “The Doppelgängers,” chosen by Lauren Groff at Recommended Reading this week.
Beyond the obvious identity change motherhood brings (i.e. now you’re a mother), it also carries with it a thousand small tortures that could break lesser humans (*ahem* men), a beautiful bond that can totally eclipse all other relationships (not necessarily in a good way), and entrée into an unknown secret world of nipple balms and diaper design flaws that can give one the impression of stepping into a darker, more twisted Narnia. In “Doppelgängers,” Phillips slides us through the wardrobe into this world and renders it in all its wonder and peril, with a necessary sense of humor:
While Sam was at work, Mimosa ran her fingers from the top of The Queen’s head all the way down her spine, again and again, an addiction. It was too much, this beauty, this responsibility. The Queen burped. The Queen stared wide-eyed at the corner of the room as though watching a ghost emerge from the wall. The Queen farted.
Mimosa (named after her mother’s favorite drink) is the brand-new mother of a baby girl who she and her husband nicknamed “The Queen” because she “always looked profound when she pooped.” But this marital camaraderie, this blissful joking, is quickly subsumed by the everyday onslaught of keeping a newborn alive. We’ve all heard stories about the midnight (and two a.m. and four a.m.) feedings, but Phillips describes this and other aspects of motherhood with an unsanitized rawness that reveals them anew:
In the middle of the middle of the night, The Queen was screaming for milk, and Mimosa’s breasts were dripping, but the screaming interfered with the latch. The Queen was sticky with milk. Mimosa was sticky with milk. Mimosa wrestled The Queen’s confused, damp body closer to her nipple. Milk plastered them together at their stomachs.
While the rapturous love Mimosa has for The Queen remains true, we can sense her drifting further and further from her husband, the outside world, even herself. Even her body is something she doesn’t recognize anymore. It exists only to make milk. She exists only to care for her baby. Her husband is someone who lives with them who she must tolerate but who has no real skill with The Queen. He always sleeps through the crying. She sometimes placidly hates him for his uselessness and ability to sleep, “as though she had married a Frisbee or a spoon rather than a man.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the depiction of other moms. Throughout the story, Mimosa is haunted by the other new moms she notices around town. They’re suddenly everywhere. They wear the same sandals as Mimosa, the same sundress, the same tired expression. And although they’re exactly like Mimosa, or maybe because of it, they repulse her:
It was eerie, more than eerie, it was nauseating, to see them standing at the gas station, their hair wilting in the heat just like hers, their bodies at the same stage of post-birth flab.
But when Mimosa hesitantly joins a mommy group upon the invitation of one of these “doppelgängers,” she finds she loves these other moms. They sit around with their babies in cafés and parks, and breastfeed, and swap stories about the frustrations of wet wipe containers and how many times they (the moms, not the babies) all cry per day. Being with these other women makes Mimosa feel normal again, even a little bit beautiful, and at the very least, understood.
They were lounging on blankets in the park, the doppelgängers and their babies; . . . they were laughing, their minds were loose and hazy, their babies had awoken them at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and what could be more hilarious than that? Now the babies were crying, now pooping, now wanting milk, milk, milk, and out came the luminous breasts, and who wouldn’t want to place lips on breasts so full, and the mothers grinned at each other like a bunch of teenagers on the same high, and the heat wave painted an extra shimmer over it all, and the grapes were radiant in the grass and The Queen smiled her wide milky smile and motherhood (the doppelgängers agreed) was underrated, everything so dazzling, Mimosa had diamonds for eyes.
But even as the mommy group saves Mimosa in a way, it’s also dangerous, carrying the seductive thrall of belonging while pulling her further away from her husband and anything non-mommy. “The Doppelgängers” is a story dense with contradictions. It shows the hard, dirty work of motherhood and celebrates it at the same time. It revels in the intensity of the love between mother and child while it also unapologetically pulls back the curtain on its drawbacks, showing how women can be consumed by motherhood to their detriment. It’s a brilliant, blistering story, delivering a complex and textured perspective on motherhood, and in a culture where speaking anything slightly negative about motherhood is still mostly taboo, it’s a necessary one.