Mothering Our Children and Ourselves: Molly Caro May’s Body Full of Stars

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If you’re not a mother and not planning to become one, you may think Molly Caro May’s memoir, Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood, has nothing to do with you. If you have a mother, though, or a friend or a wife or a coworker or anyone in your life who is or may one day be a mother, then I would argue that it absolutely does.

While May’s subject matter is universal in scope and applicable to a vast audience, I would not know how very common May’s story was if I hadn’t experienced something eerily similar myself. Body Full of Stars, as its subtitle announces, is the story of one woman’s “passage into motherhood,” and the “rage” that sometimes accompanies that transition. Oh, you thought motherhood was all sweetness and light? Then this book is here, finally, to set you straight.

May’s story begins with a birth. As she prepares to labor and deliver her baby, May feels strong and peaceful, connected to her breath, her baby, her mother, her mother’s mother, and all the women throughout history who have labored and delivered before her. This sense of connection does not surprise her; in fact, it is part of why she wanted to go on this adventure in the first place—to join the common thread of humanity, and of femininity specifically. Despite complications with the birth—“the laboring woman,” as May refers to herself at that time, is rushed to a hospital and delivers there with a vacuum, not in her own home without intervention, as she had hoped—May delivers a healthy baby girl, and, at first, all seems right with the world.

Not long after May and her husband, Chris, get their baby home, however, things start to change in ways neither of them could have anticipated (because these are not the kinds of stories we usually tell each other about having babies). Whether due to the difficult delivery or pregnancy more generally, May experiences an initial incontinence that she assumes will pass, but doesn’t. So, in addition to the difficulties faced by many new mothers—sleep deprivation, nursing, emotional malleability—May finds she can also no longer hold her urine. She’s open and graphic about the effect of this physical disorder on her life, and it’s heartbreaking to read that a woman who loves hiking, who dreamed of carrying her baby on long walks through nature, now must accept that she will either have to walk in urine-soaked pants or not walk at all. As if this weren’t enough, May’s vaginal tone is severely decreased, and she suffers a prolapse. These physical wounds force May to confront her own history with “woundology,” as she calls it, an attachment to suffering that may have been holding her back for years.

Binge eating, weight fluctuation, and dissatisfaction with her body have been aspects of May’s identity since she was much younger, but it is only in light of her new injuries, ones she has little control over, that she recognizes how much she once craved those self-imposed problems with her body. Indeed, she has spent her life cultivating such concerns, attaching herself to them, and making them a part of her identity. Faced with the necessity of healing herself, May realizes just how closely she has come to identify with the idea of woundedness, both as an individual person and as a woman. Her friend and doctor tells her, “You’re holding on to a vast collective suffering and it isn’t serving you.” But how can she revise her identity when she is so very tired? And how could she have known that such an act would be required of her when she became a mother? As May points out:

Because we are a culture focused on the singular act of birthing, no one tells you what comes before or after birth. Not really. How can they? It’s different for every woman. There may not be one narrative. However, there is one truth. Before and after are not times where all you do is glow. These are passages full of rocks and caverns and shards of light. Maybe we protect the uninitiated women (and men). Maybe we hope they won’t lose themselves like we did. Maybe time passes and we forget what we wanted to tell them in the first place. Maybe we are scared to put the words baby and hardship in the same sentence.

Within a few months of her daughter’s life, though, May is not afraid to put these words together, or to write a story that combines the intense love she feels for her daughter with the physical and mental hardship she undergoes while adjusting to her child’s existence.

For May and her husband (as, I would guess is also true for most male/female partners) part of the trouble stems from a rapid shift in the dynamics of their relationship. Because Chris is busy building their house from the ground up, he, May, and baby Eula live in May’s parents’ guesthouse for part of that first year, and May ends up spending a great deal of time with her mother. The two have always been close, but May is surprised at how much she desires her mother’s company as she becomes a mother herself. “I had no idea that I had no idea about my mother,” she writes. “I had no idea how hungry I would become to align with her and away from men.” For May, the change in her relationship with her husband is sudden and stunning. “Though we’ve never operated with prescribed gender roles,” May writes, “we are now—woman cares for babe, man builds shelter.” For a couple that has always taken pride in their modern, equal partnership, this change, combined with lack of sleep and no permanent home to call their own, provokes arguments, misunderstanding, and drama.

By now you might be thinking—does this woman have postpartum depression, or what? Couldn’t she just take a pill and be done with it? Well, yes. But no. The label “postpartum depression,” in both May’s and my own experience, can be misleading. What May is feeling isn’t really depression per se. Instead, as the subtitle of the book makes clear, what May feels is not sadness, but anger. She is irritable from lack of sleep, enraged that her baby cries and she can’t make it stop, furious that her partner does not seem to feel the same desperation she does to make the baby happy. “He has never been so inadequate to me as he is these days,” she writes. A pill might soften these emotions, but it cannot change the facts. It cannot make two people understand each other on its strength alone.

It’s not until their friends come to visit, and May hears Chris telling them the story of Eula’s birth, that she starts to understand that her husband is moving through his own passage into fatherhood. Because of the pain of labor, May’s eyes were closed during most of their daughter’s birth, and so she did not watch the machines monitoring her own and her baby’s life as her husband did. She did not see the indication of her baby’s faltering heartbeat, or the looks of anxiety on the doctors’ faces. But Chris did. “Maybe it’s more of a heartbreak to watch someone deteriorate than be the one who deteriorates,” May realizes. “Maybe it’s worse to witness an unraveling than to unravel.” This recognition fosters a new empathy for her husband, and, soon, for herself as well.

As May moves through what she now calls her “postpartum challenge,” she does not return to her old self, but instead becomes someone new, a more grateful, more joyful woman. Instead of clinging to a now-outdated idea of self, May allows herself to grow alongside her child. “You’ve been waiting for a reason to take care of your body your entire life,” her husband points out. “You’ve wanted to heal and heal deeply.” In order to do this, May must slow down. She must find space in which to stop, look around, and take stock of everything she thought she was and believed up until now. “I’m still trying to release my fear of domesticity, of being a woman at home who cooks,” she writes, even as she takes pleasure in shopping for healthful food, planning meals, and preparing them for herself and her family. This process teaches May that “mother can be a verb. It’s orchestrated that our children teach us how to mother ourselves.”

While the necessity of caring for oneself is certainly a profound and important truth, it is possible that some readers will find aphorisms like these somewhat frothy. There were moments when May was a little bit too hippy dippy for me, where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes, such as when she tells us that “Someone told me metal near my body was bad, so I cut one underwire out of my bra, forgot about the other, and walked around with uneven breasts for months without realizing it.” Or her admission that when she lived in the city she used to “pour my menstrual blood into the soil of our eighteen apartment plants.” Her obsession with her cycles and with blood in general, and the way she tries to drive home a point by breaking text into single lines didn’t always hit home with me. But none of these qualms matter much compared to the bravery and compassion May doles out in this book. I have never read anything so honest about the transition into motherhood before, and after crossing that threshold so recently myself, I am immensely grateful to May for putting it down on paper for all the world to see. The way we tell our stories matters, and May points out that who we tell them to often dictates the how.

How would I retell our story for Eula? Your mama’s fire grew so hot, it shone on all parts of the cave, parts they’d never seen before. All at once, she and your papa could see all the clutter and dust in their home. They cleaned it up. It was hard work, many days and many nights, and their muscles grew tired and sometimes they gave up. But they did it. From time to time, the dust blew in again. They learned that dust always blows in. But now they each had a strong fire, and they swept as they went and all was as it was.

No doubt May and her family have benefited greatly from the deep internal work it took to live and then write this book. Such work is individual, and up to each of us to do on our own, but everyone who reads this book will also benefit from a generous, accurate, and hopeful story that ends not with a happily ever after but with honesty, dignity, and strength in the face of life’s ongoing challenges, whether we are mothering our children, or just ourselves.

Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Denver, CO. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, The Montreal Review, and, among other publications. More from this author →