The Fractures of Motherhood: Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House

Reviewed By

Imagine: a week after giving birth, you find a little blue door above your apartment and behind it, the ghost of a dead children’s author. Such is the bizarre postpartum life of Megan Weiler, the exhausted new-mom protagonist of Julia Fine’s second book, The Upstairs House.

But if you’re a mom, you’ll know this story isn’t all that bizarre. While I did not find a little door to the dead one week postpartum, I was invaded by thoughts of my newborn being crushed between the wall and the bed, the pervasive idea that I was suddenly invisible, and the sudden inability to read. Once, I was so tired at Target I had to ask someone to read me a very simple sale sign out loud.

Before falling into the depths of The Upstairs House, which is a smashing success that should be read by every new parent and actually, by everyone, here is a bit of modern context to postpartum depression that will help elevate the book’s urgency.

When I was pregnant, I registered on the What to Expect When You’re Expecting website. After joining, I became obsessed with their online discussion forums. For the birth of my son, I joined the “October 2017 Babies” group and started to share life with these other stranger moms who went through the same stuff as me, at the same time. During pregnancy, we expressed our doubts and vulnerabilities. We ranted about and loved on our partners. We dissected birth plans, shared stupid memes, and complained about our in-laws. The thread was magical.

But a few weeks after all our babies were born, the topics took a dark turn. Suddenly, nearly everyone in the group expressed feelings of confusion and inadequacy. Some shared exhausted hallucinations. Others confessed difficulty connecting with their newborns. And in almost every thread, there was the dreaded question, “Is this postpartum depression?”

It’s a term society has deemed ugly and severe. Even the CDC calls postpartum depression “baby blues” on their website and states that “‘Baby blues’ symptoms typically resolve on their own within a few days.”

Resolve on their own is a buzzphrase here. It makes me sad—all these lonely women, including me, who felt like they had to handle this on their own or else. Or else what? They can be ostracized, under watch, and in worst-case scenarios, their children can be taken away. A common story amongst new moms is that no one wants to admit they have postpartum depression, even though it’s estimated that one in five women have it.

Generally speaking, when we think of postpartum depression, we think of the worst possible degree of it. But there are some modern representations of its levels, including Rivka Galchen’s great book Little Labors and the excellent episode “Me, Too” on the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking.

A welcome addition to this low-key but really high-key PPD canon is Fine’s fabulous The Upstairs House. In the book, English PhD candidate Megan Weiler has a hard time connecting with her newborn Clara. From the start, bonding experiences with Clara are tarnished with visions of hungry insects. Her lovingly belabored dissertation starts to lose its appeal. And her nice-guy partner Ben is affectionate but woefully out of touch with the severity of her state.

“I was worried,” Ben tells Megan, “you might have postpartum depression.” The comment comes after a nice night when Megan is feeling okay. They are in a rare moment of peace, lying in bed together. He goes on sleepily, “Baby blues… extremely common.” The dissonance is jarring. Reading it, we are well aware of the pits of Megan’s depression. Although she did have a good night, we can’t help but cringe at Ben’s conclusion: “Thank God I was wrong.”

At times, the book displays even smaller horrors, the mortifyingly specific mishaps of new parenthood. Much of Fine’s language in this regard is nerve-prickling. For instance, “The diaper bag was filled with pockets—for bottles and wet wipes and pacifiers, for cell phones and snack cups and extra pairs of socks, for credit cards and ChapSticks and rash creams—but even with a place for everything, I couldn’t find my key ring.” Details like this help readers recall the heart stopping mundanity of new parenthood but also open the conversation up to greater horrors.

In this way, Megan’s exhaustion and sadness reveal varying levels of depression, from brief invasive thoughts to full-on postpartum psychosis. As an analytical academic, Megan tries desperately to make reason of what’s happening and, in the process, opens herself up to more destruction and despair. Once she learns her ghosts are the Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown and Brown’s real-life lover, the writer and actor Michael Strange, Megan finds herself caught in a feuding paranormal love triangle. In her postpartum fugue state, she grows convinced that some of her bodily aches and pains—as well as chaos and messes around the house—are Michael’s doing. As a whole, The Upstairs House is an examination of a mother becoming undone while simultaneously trying to put the pieces of herself back together.

Beyond the juicy plot, Fine’s new book is also an unusual structural accomplishment. The book takes on the form of a dissertation that ricochets between Megan’s story, her academic interests, her postpartum psychosis, and the perceived conjuring of Brown. In the introduction to Megan’s dissertation, Fine writes:

In 1934 the children’s author Margaret Wise Brown wrote a letter to her mentor about Gertrude Stein’s metafiction novel, The Making of Americans. ‘In this book I am giving new solutions,’ said Brown, ‘brand new ideas… There is a rhythm of American day to day existence and relationship that is as certain as the rhthm [sic] of the ocean and as binding as the relationship of the ocean to the little waves that crash on our shore.’

Megan goes on to describe how this new ocean-like rhythm of American existence also signified a shift in children’s literature from the Romantic period to the modern period—a shift which influenced Brown’s own thinking and writing. But before we read much more of Megan’s thesis introduction, we are abruptly transported back to the here and now: the pandemonium of a parent in distress. Through this fragmented dissertation, complete with chapters and footnotes, we glean information about Brown and Strange’s historical context while keeping sight of Megan’s present story and her condition.

While this may sound like a lot, Fine’s story is actually a stupefying page-turner. Mothers especially will read it and find their own experiences reflected. The way the book is written is a lot like motherhood itself—fractured, disturbing, funny, and loving. And while the book has many moving pieces—literary fiction, historical fiction, academic dissertation, and ghost story—a key theme stood out to me: the disheartening contrast between baby-book motherhood and real-life motherhood.

Much of how Megan perceives her daughter, Clara, is an informed projection. “At six weeks old, Clara was turning into more and more of an actual person,” she says. “When she opened her eyes, it truly felt like she was seeing things, processing and heading toward an understanding.” But while Megan is cognizant of this progress, she is also doubtful that it’s a good thing. “This should have been excellent, as it implied we were, to a certain extent, separating,” she says. “We could now go, with any luck, up to six hours at night without nursing. During the day she could be by herself on her mat and not need me for upwards of ten minutes at a time.” Thoughts like this illustrate two of motherhood’s worst horrors: the reality that we can’t control our kids, and worse, that we can’t make them feel better all the time.

Beyond the ins-and-outs of new parenting and postpartum depression, Fine’s book raises larger questions about what it means to mother, and most importantly, what it means to mother a daughter. At the birth hospital, when Clara is only a few hours old, Megan notices her reaching out the window toward the shadow of a balloon. “I’m sure that Clara noticed the balloon,” Fine writes, “though it was dark and all the books claimed that at three hours old she couldn’t see more than three feet in front of her.” As the scene goes on, the balloon continues to beat on the window, which stresses Megan out. When she finally complains about it out loud, both her mother and her husband say they haven’t seen any balloon. It’s like it doesn’t exist.

The scene with the balloon, whether or not it is Megan’s projection, reflects the life experiences of many women and moms. Women are often not believed when they say normal, factual things. The balloon is just one small example. Postpartum depression is a bigger example. If women are gaslit into thinking their PPD is a cute little bout of the blues that will disappear on its own a few days, then who’s to say more of their claims aren’t dismissed as well?

During my pregnancy, I was uncharacteristically anxious and depressed. I got pregnant less than a year after finishing my undergraduate degree. My twenty-something friends were everywhere in the world but with me, it seemed, spending nights partying up and down Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square (coincidentally, the location of The Upstairs House).

Frantically, I reached out to a woman named Gina, who was around my age and had tutored me when I was a freshman. She was in a similar situation—she lived with roommates and walked at graduation with a nine-month baby bump. I messaged her on Facebook and she, also craving parent friends, invited me to her place that weekend.

Gina made me lunch and we talked and talked, but one moment struck me in particular. While she was simultaneously cooking and trying to entertain her two-year-old, she recited the entirety of Goodnight Moon from memory. “In the great, green room…” she began, and finished it all. I was amazed. That’s never going to be me, I thought.

Fast-forward to now. My son is almost four and Gina’s daughter is almost six. When my mind is wandering—driving, showering, walking—Goodnight Moon plays like a tape in my head. So do other books and nursery rhymes. I’ve memorized them against my will. At some point, these words of Margaret Wise Brown and other authors infused themselves into my being.

Like Fine’s uniquely constructed book, being a mom is to be permanently fractured. There are parts of me that respond to client emails and contribute to discourse and drink wine, and other parts of me that cycle through “a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush.”

Moving forward, I’ll be reciting pieces of The Upstairs House, too. The body horror of breastfeeding. The you-won’t-get-it-until-you’re-there torture of missing sleep. The despair in giving up on a project because you’re suddenly apathetic about it.

Margaret Wise Brown never had children. Known as “the laureate of the nursery,” it’s compelling that she had such a deep well of understanding children. It is almost non-human. As if she were a ghost who can tap into what’s meaningful to me, and so many of us that have given birth. Reading The Upstairs House, it’s both mesmerizing and unsurprising that this author would be the figure behind the blue door. She knows everything.

Caroline Macon Fleischer is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and theatremaker. Follow her whereabouts on Twitter at @caromacon. More from this author →