It’s Just Reality: Talking with Meaghan O’Connell


Four years ago, Meaghan O’Connell had a baby. A few months later, she wrote the nearly 15,000-word story of that birth, sent in installments to friends—and eventually strangers—who subscribed to her Tinyletter. I didn’t know O’Connell, but we had friends in common on Twitter, and I remember something like a buzz of whispers sweeping through my feed, the circles of online friends that overlapped with hers, before I could track down the link to subscribe. I read the four installments in a rush, in one go.

Two epidurals in, O’Connell writes:

I wanted the C-section so badly. I wanted it like you want a glass of water at a stranger’s house, but you still feel like you should demur. I wanted it the way I wanted someone to stick a finger in my butt during sex, but would never ask for. I was thinking like a woman. I was in the most essentially oppressed, essentially female situation I’ve ever been in and I was mentally oppressing myself on top of it.

The birth story was later published by Longreads.  I couldn’t look away. I cried. I considered maybe never having children. I loved it.

Four years later, that birth story is the centerpiece of O’Connell’s book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, which covers her pregnancy—a surprise, soon fervently clung to—and harrowing first year-and-change of motherhood. Not harrowing for any crisis or emergency, beyond the crisis and emergency of new motherhood, which, in O’Connell’s telling, are less a flash point and more a steady beating. And yet the book heals the fears that I built out of the birth story—this isn’t a cautionary tale but a true story, full of pain and hard work and self-reflection and love.

I talked to O’Connell about perfectionism in motherhood and writing, the fear of death, and what it feels like to be pregnant again as this book is coming out.


The Rumpus: Have you been doing a lot of interviews already for the book?

Meaghan O’Connell: I did one for a parenting site that I know is very pro–attachment parenting. I think I said some things their audience might not love. I was like, Well, I’m not deft enough at being interviewed to step around this without saying my spiel.

Rumpus: I assume your spiel is not pro–attachment parenting.

O’Connell: Before I got pregnant and when I was pregnant, I really wanted to do all those things because in the absence of knowing what it would be like, and what I would be like as a mother, I was just like, I want to do the very best thing, and attachment parenting, or doing all the things that are labor-intensive—co-sleeping and breastfeeding all the time—well, that takes the most work. So that must be the best. Like if I sacrifice as much as I can and try to do the best thing for the baby at all times, then maybe that means I’ll be doing it right. I was really concerned with doing the right thing, and I didn’t really take into account how it would feel for me. That reckoning is obviously an ongoing thing, but [the question now] is just, what can I handle? What makes the family happy, versus what does the kid want at all times. I’m not against attachment parenting, it’s just that my personality has to be accounted for, and my sanity.

Rumpus: It sounds like you were going into it for overachiever, perfectionist reasons. Which, as a fellow sufferer, I know is almost never a beneficial reason to do something.

O’Connell: I went into it with the same framework that I’d go into anything with—just read a bunch of books and try to be the best, and anxiously focus on that. I didn’t know what I wanted because I’d never done this before. And it was so overwhelming. I was young enough where I didn’t know myself well enough to not have it be this aspirational thing. I imagined that I would have the baby and become this selfless person, and that I would be as happy as all the women whose blogs I read.

I’m pregnant again and about to have a baby, and the approach is so different. I was worrying about giving birth again and worrying about postpartum, and it’s like, Okay, here are the limitations of my personality or of my self, and here’s what’s going to come up and here’s what I’m worried about, instead of, These are my goals for the baby. Like, I know I have a tendency towards anxiety and depression, so what can I do to make sure that somebody is checking in on me. Or how can we make sure that we get sleep—feed the baby in shifts, and if I need to supplement with formula, I need to clarify to myself now that it’s fine. It’s working with yourself instead of trying to become someone else. It’s very liberating. And I’m excited now, while I was more anxious the first time.

It’s like how we think about writing or work. You can set these lofty goals, like I’m going to wake up first thing in the morning, I’m going to write a thousand words then I’m going to go to yoga and I’m going to make a green smoothie or whatever. Or it can be about knowing your own habits and tendencies: Well, if I go for a walk first, maybe that’s better, cause I’ll avoid staring at the Internet. You’re just taking into account what kind of person you are, your habits and how you can work around them, and you’ll get work done.

Rumpus: It sounds like you had to work through your perfectionism with writing the same way as with being a mother.

O’Connell: It’s amazing that I wrote a book, and it’s amazing that I raised a child. I don’t care anymore if it’s the best thing. I know how hard it was to do both of those things. When you’re writing a book, you’re so afraid of failure. Any imperfection is terrifying. And then the book isn’t the perfect thing that you imagined in your head ahead of time, and there’s a reckoning with that—it’s humiliating, in a way. But I’m just a normal person, and if I have to finish this book, it’s not going to be what I dreamed. You have to accept that, and it’s great to get over that fear. I think it was similar with having a baby. If I’m not perfectly happy all the time, then it’s just reality. And I have to face the fact that I’m a person who is imperfect. And then that opens doors to all the other anxieties, like well if I’m not perfect then what kind of monster am I?

Rumpus: Like those are the only options—either I’m perfect or a monster. It reminds me of the idea of the “good enough mother,” which I really like because it’s like, you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be good enough that your kid doesn’t die.

O’Connell: And that alone is kind of a huge ask.

Rumpus: Yeah, it’s not the lazy way out. And in writing—have you read Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book? One of the most resonant parts for me was a chapter about just being good enough. Like, at some point you have accept that your writing doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough for you to be done with it.

O’Connell: I read that book as I was doing the last revision on my book, and it was extremely soothing to me. You have this sense that if you just keep working on it and keep working on it, then you won’t be vulnerable any more. Like if it’s good enough or if it’s perfect, then I’m perfect and then I don’t have to be a person that could be hurt or die.

Rumpus: And if you’re a perfect mother your child will never feel pain or suffer—

O’Connell: Or die. But they will! It’s already a foregone conclusion, but you spend all this time frantically trying to distract yourself from that. Being so aware of that isn’t something I recommend, but it did make me not care about a lot of other things. Like, I don’t care if I feed my kid from a pouch or whatever. I know what I’m really worried about is him dying. That’s the underlying anxiety of all these debates over stupid shit like that.

Rumpus: You went through your first pregnancy very anxious and concerned with being perfect, but now you’ve gotten to this point where you see things very differently. Was writing about it part of what got you to this new way of looking that things?

O’Connell: I think I would’ve gotten there just through living and talking to other moms, but writing the book, I located a lot of the anxiety, or the gap between expectations and reality. You’re not supposed to say that writing is catharsis or is therapeutic, but it was for me. I started with the birth story—I went through this thing and I couldn’t explain it. All I could think whenever anybody asked me about it was “BAD;” it was too much to even process. I wanted to tell my friends about it but I didn’t know where to start and how to talk about it. So writing it out is how I explained it to myself. The whole book came from there.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the Tinyletter origin of the book. You’d been through a pretty traumatic birth experience, and you wanted to process it for yourself and communicate that experience to your friends, so writing about it became the way to do both of those things. How did that end up as a Tinyletter?

O’Connell: [My friends and I] would joke on Twitter about birth stories, and if a mommy blogger had a baby and hadn’t blogged her birth story, you’d be like, Where is it? Your baby’s a month old! Give us the goods! Sort of semi-ironically obsessed.

Rumpus: You and your friends didn’t have kids—where did that obsession with mommy blogs come from?

O’Connell: I think partly it was a fascination with women whose lives were so completely different from our own. While we were trying to figure out what we wanted from our lives, and trying to reinvent the wheel in a way, they had committed to something. Their lives may have seemed small, but they had a focus and a clarity that was appealing. They made it seem so straightforward. Have babies, have an aesthetically pleasing home and wardrobe, take photos of all of it and share your optimistic musings on all of it. I think it felt sort of forbidden. This whole universe that didn’t apply to us. But it was fun as a thought exercise, to sit there reading these elaborate posts about cloth diapering, imagining that of course you’d do it, too, someday.

And of course the birth stories were always the highlight. You can be a terrible writer with no self-awareness and write a birth story I would love to read, because I think they are inherently gripping. The plot is built in—there’s a set cast of characters (though if things go as planned, a new one in the end), a clear conflict (how to get the baby out), high stakes (life itself!). Everyone leaves changed.

So when I had a baby some of my friends were like, Okay, come on. Write us your birth story. I thought, Oh shit, okay. I didn’t know if I was going to email it to a few friends or what, but writing it was like stealing time away. The baby was three months old and we didn’t have any daycare yet, so I would go to a coffee shop and try to get a little bit of work done and then spend an hour working on this thing, and it was the best writing experience of my life. I was so, I don’t know, exultant working on this. It became this huge document and I knew it was good. It was like real writing to me. But I didn’t know what to do with it, because it was so fresh and personal and vulnerable. I didn’t really want to put it on the Internet where people could comment on it. I had no idea what the reaction would be, or who would publish a birth story. It was a different time on the Internet. I was like, Do I want to get paid for this? Is that weird? Did I want to work with an editor on it? Not really. I couldn’t imagine who I would trust, or what kind of headline or artwork they would give it. People were starting to do Tinyletters, so I figured, okay, I’ll put it in there. Something about the Tinyletter—you would only read it if you asked for it. And then putting it out into the world was this incredible experience that—I don’t know how to talk about in a non-corny way.

Rumpus: Talk about it in a corny way.

O’Connell: Just to have someone, even a stranger, say, This is crazy, it’s like, Thank god I’m not crazy in thinking that this was like hell. People read it that I wouldn’t have thought would care about childbirth. And I just felt so seen. The experience of the actual birth was so much about feeling alone and feeling like I couldn’t communicate how much pain I was in or how horrible I felt. And so to be able to do it through writing was honestly a fantasy. It was a healing thing. Which, again, is not what you’re supposed to say writing is for, but it was cool.

Rumpus: How did you realize that you had a whole book in you about this?

O’Connell: It wasn’t until I wrote the birth story. I was bursting with things to say, and I didn’t have enough time to be writing. For the first time in my life I wanted to write all the time, instead of avoiding it and procrastinating. Before I had the baby I thought I wouldn’t write about this. I thought, This is going to be my separate life, and I’m going to be an “intellectual” and keep this domestic crap at home. But then I couldn’t second-guess, because this was the sort of feeling I’d been wanting to have with writing forever, the feeling of having something to say and wanting to say it and not questioning myself and enjoying writing it.

Rumpus: The idea that writing about pregnancy and motherhood isn’t intellectual is obviously a misogynist stereotype that we’ve internalized—how do you feel about that distinction, or those labels?

O’Connell: When I started writing about it, I had so little time and so much I wanted to say, so I just tried not to second-guess myself and worry: Is this cool? What will people think? Will I be pigeonholed? Instead I wanted to challenge myself to write about this in a way that’s appealing to people that aren’t parents yet. At the time, it was my impression that writing about this stuff was in its own world, siloed on parenting websites. At the same time, The Argonauts came out in 2015, a year after I had my kid. On Immunity was coming out around that time, and Dept. of Speculation—I was pregnant when that book came out. I remember my friend saying, “Don’t read this.” So of course I read it. And so I was slowly finding all these books. I remember, for Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill did an interview and said, “This book by Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, is like a secret handshake among new mothers.” Everyone’s insisting that this is a magical time and they’ve never been happier, but then there’s the bad moms off to the side trading this book. I wanted the existential dark stuff, which was the opposite of what I’d been consuming beforehand.

Sometimes I worry that people will see my book as trying to titillate or scare people, thinking that moms love to talk about their bad birth stories to look impressive. But the way I approached this book was, if I could truly get to the bottom of all this or say things that I was afraid to think, if I could just excavate all that, it’s never going to be as bad as I was afraid it’s going to be. Maybe there’s something soothing about that: This is just as bad as it was. People can be coy about [parenting] like, It’s hell! Ha ha ha! Something about that is more sinister than saying, “Let me tell you how afraid I was of my baby dying.” At least it’s just true.

Rumpus: Being pregnant now, what’s it like talking about and revisiting all this material while you’re sort of living the book’s epilogue?

O’Connell: It’s pretty intense. I went back to my therapist because I need to have some sort of mental health situation set up, because I don’t want to go through that again. I hadn’t seen her in a year or two. So she said, “Remind me again what your birth was like.”

Rumpus: Oh god.

O’Connell: I was like, Fuck. I started telling her the story and she’s asking really useful, probing therapy questions to clarify things, and within a minute I’m sobbing. This is still very real and very present in my brain. And it’s not necessarily something that will be resolved. But it’s worth it. Once my kid was one, and then two and three—he’s almost four now—every year I like parenting so much more. Worst-case scenario, I have another year of hell ahead of me. That’s not how I approached it the first time. Every day I was miserable with a baby, asking “What have I done to my life? I ruined my life, this is my life from now on—for the next twenty years.” But having a newborn is nothing like having a four-year-old. Thank god. Now I’m excited because I can conceptualize, like, this is a person. And we’re going to meet him and he’ll be this tiny baby and we’re going to be exhausted, and I might be hormonally miserable or just totally out of it. But I’m hoping that I’ll be able to have that perspective that it’s just a temporary misery. Now, we sit around the kitchen table and he asks me who made the solar system. And that’s amazing.


Author photograph © Kelly Searle.

Jaime Green is a freelance writer and editor. More from this author →