How Motherhood Helped Me Reject the ‘Father Tongue’ of Academia

Kate Zambreno's books pursue a more personal, less patriarchal form of criticism

Photo by Ronni Kurtz on Unsplash

On March 30, 2012, as I was nearing the end of my second year of a PhD program in English literature, my friend Annelise sent me the Jane Tompkins essay “Me and My Shadow.” I know that she sent it that day because I still have the email that contains only a pdf of the essay, no text in the body. It was my first semester teaching composition to college students and I had no idea what I was doing. Annelise, having taught before and being a generally brilliant person, was my lifeline. The conversation that precipitated the email probably had something to do with the challenge of teaching academic writing at the undergraduate level, the requirement to educate young people in a genre that most of them would use for four years and then never again, perpetuating a form that sometimes felt useless to all but a select few. I can’t say for sure but this seems plausible.

Either way, the essay burrowed into my brain, answering a question I hadn’t yet thought to ask after four semesters of learning to write seminar papers and studiously adopting the parlance and cadences of academic writing. The first word in Tompkins’ essay, “I,” announces its project. “The criticism I would like to write,” she divulges, “would always take off from personal experience. Would always be in some way a chronicle of my hours and days. Would speak in a voice which can talk about everything.” This voice, Tompkins tells us, is the same as the one Ursula LeGuin referred to as the “mother tongue,” language that establishes connection rather than distance. It is language as relationship, writing as a conversation. “I think readers want to know about each other,” Tompkins writes. But there is a catch. In an interview years later, Tompkins shared that she only started writing more creatively once she became a full professor and didn’t have to worry about what the older faculty would say. It’s only when you become successful, she noted, that you can start breaking the rules. In other words, the father tongue must precede the mother tongue. You have to be a dad before they let you be a mom.

Now, nearly a decade after I first read Tompkins’ essay, when we are all much more open about the decimation of the academic job market and the system of precarity that has taken its place, the questions are clear. What of those who can’t, or choose not to, become successful in the way that Tompkins means? What about contingent faculty, or scholars who leave academia rather than submit to the low pay and indignities of contingency?  What happens when you haven’t attained the traditional markers of success that might allow you to write in the kind of hybrid form Tompkins celebrates, to set free the reclusive tools of criticism and teach them to frolic in the overgrown fields of personal experience?

The father tongue must precede the mother tongue. You have to be a dad before they let you be a mom.

Because I have Annelise’s email, I know that I received that pdf nine days before I would give birth to my first child. Five months after that, Kate Zambreno would publish Heroines. That book is often referred to as a “manifesto” because of its unapologetically angry meditation on the “mad wives of Modernism,” the women marginalized and kept from fulfilling their own creative potential due to their proximity to male genius. It would be another couple of years before I would discover the book. Even that was a bit too early; I still had a dissertation to complete, and dissertations are traditionally written in what LeGuin would consider to be the “father tongue.” I suspected that there wasn’t a place for me in academia, especially given the fact that, by the time I devoured Heroines on a research trip to London, I had become pregnant three times and birthed two children. And so I was a perfect mark for the book’s implicit argument that memoir could enrich criticism, and vice versa, and that a person could write about books outside of academe in a way that would still make a difference for the people who read them. But even as the mother tongue grew more necessary in my life, it also felt increasingly out of reach. As I neared graduation, pregnant yet again, the question became not just how I could begin to write about literature without the certifying apparatus of the university, but how I would write at all.

At the end of Drifts, the novel Zambreno published two months into a national lockdown last year, the narrator has a baby but has not yet written the novel promised to her publisher. The final pages see her returning, after much time has passed, to writing, her notebook balanced on her sleeping baby’s head; her office has become a nursery. And yet, this narrator is calm, even though she seems no closer to achieving her writing goals. Finishing the book late at night after a day of eleven-parts childcare to one-part writing time, I wondered whether it was intentional, that replacing of the book with the baby. I felt a mix of pity for and deep identification with the narrator. For a long time I have worried that for each baby, I am losing a potential book, that because I have chosen to become a mother so many times, I have exhausted whatever creative potential I might have once possessed. Other times I become more concerned that I am, ultimately, okay with not having the books because I have the babies, that the babies might be enough. Was this how Zambreno herself felt?

But of course the narrator of that book is not Zambreno, because there I was holding the hardcover edition of Drifts in my own two hands. Unlike the character trying to write, the author of Drifts had managed to produce both the book and the baby. She was, in the parlance of our time, having it all.

Or at least that’s what it looked like on the surface. So much of Zambreno’s work is about her desire to write criticism and participate in literary culture despite her status as an outsider, professionally, geographically, and even temperamentally. In Drifts, and again in her new novel, To Write as if Already Dead, Zambreno is an outsider not just because of her academic and bodily precarity but because of her status, incipient in the first book and intensifying in the second, as a mother. Like Drifts, To Write as if Already Dead is a book about trying to write a book, a narrative of non-writing—false starts and challenges of structure and form—that somehow results in a bound volume. But if writing was a challenge before, this latest book takes it up several notches. “Everyone tells me to go to Italy to write this book,” Zambreno writes early on, before the pandemic hits the United States, thinking through how she might be able to make the trip. Ultimately, she concludes, it would be impossible: “Why is everyone telling a mother of a toddler to go to Rome? I haven’t gone to a movie by myself in years. And what would I do in Rome? I’d go to Rome with a partner and a toddler…I wouldn’t be able to read or write in Rome…I can go to Rome but I cannot go to Rome alone, I cannot go to Rome for this book.”

For a long time I have worried that for each baby, I am losing a potential book.

If Heroines was a masterclass in how to write the kind of personal criticism envisioned by Tompkins, To Write as if Already Dead is what it looks like when you try to do it while parenting a small child, a very literal instantiation of writing in the mother tongue. And while Drifts ends with the implication that Zambreno’s narrator is embracing motherhood and all that means for her writing, To Write as if Already Dead shows conclusively that Zambreno herself has not. Instead, she applies her signature blend of the critical and confessional to the problem of art-making as a parent. Just like the narrator of Drifts, Zambreno has agreed to write a specific book, in this case a study of the French writer Herve Guibert, who fictionalized his friend Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS and his own struggle with the virus in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. This time the barriers to writing include the time and energy required to parent her toddler, the other work she must take on in order to pay the bills, a second pregnancy, and, in the second half of the book, a global pandemic. The resulting narrative comes closest of anything I’ve read to representing what trying to write while parenting small children actually feels like, particularly after a year like 2020. Despairing over a publishing setback and the difficulty of making a living as a writer, Zambreno writes:

Did I allow myself to be pushed into this, since I have had a child?… All that week in full crisis mode with John over our future. His desire to go back to a full-time library job in order for us to have regular benefits, which for me would mean mommy jail again, when I was so miserable that first year. It’s not like I wouldn’t have to teach then, I just wouldn’t be able to do the deep thinking required to do my work, even once Leo went to preschool. Making lunch in the morning, the drop-offs, the pick-ups.

This acknowledgment of the tedium of day-to-day childcare and its impact on the deep thinking necessary for artistic expression is surely recognizable to a certain kind of writer-parent, usually mothers, whose seeming flexibility means that their work is the first thing to go with even the slightest fluctuation in the familial routine.

In an interview given after Drifts was published, Zambreno spoke about her own mixed feelings about writing and pregnancy: “When I found out I was pregnant, which was a big surprise for me, I really was upset, I really thought it was going to spoil the book I was working on. I was really furious…I just thought to myself, can someone be a pregnant Sebald? Is this narrator of consciousness and literature, is she allowed to be pregnant?”

Can we take seriously literary criticism that is delivered alongside the messy business of creating and caring for children?

It is somewhat astonishing that Zambreno, who has again and again put her own body in conversation with the literature she writes about, was unsure if this process by which all bodies are made had a place in her writing. By the time she wrote To Write as if Already Dead, it seems, she had made up her mind that it did, or at least she had no choice but to try. Written in part while she was pregnant for the second time, the book challenges us to take seriously literary criticism delivered alongside the mundane particulars of caring for a child.

This is, perhaps, the truest test of the mother tongue. Zambreno’s question of whether her narrator is allowed to be pregnant is another way of asking: do we allow criticism and motherhood to coexist? This is not the same as asking whether criticism be done by someone who is also a mother, which is obviously the case. Many of the literary critics I most look forward to reading these days are also parents to young children. What Zambreno was really asking was: can we take seriously literary criticism that is delivered alongside the messy business of creating and caring for children? More than that, can we allow the personal to not just be allowed to share space with the critical but also to inform it? To influence how we understand literature? In other words, can we allow the personal to seep into the critical without worrying that it is “unserious”?

It is easy to say that, yes, of course we can allow these two modes to coexist, but the reality is more complicated. There is always institutional, patriarchal reluctance. Zambreno has said that almost no reviews of Drifts touched on the pregnancy plot line, and that one male editor passed on the book because, he said, he couldn’t deal with the pregnancy, that it was “too awful.” But there is also the more insidious resistance borne of a certain kind of education. I am ashamed to admit that sometimes I worry that my training has ruined me, that all of those voices insisting that the personal and the critical belong in two different kinds of journals have had the last word. While reading To Write as if Already Dead, I kept having to ignore the voice that wondered whether Zambreno was making Guibert’s work, his illness and his death, all about her. I needed to resist the voice that wanted to chide her for equating a devastating virus with something as ordinary, as commonplace and banal, as motherhood. Why does this voice still exist in my head when I know perfectly well that the so-called banality of motherhood has such far-reaching implications for the kinds of people who populate the world?

Why do I still believe, deep down, that serious work is supposed to be done in spite of one’s children, not necessarily inspired by them and certainly not involving them.

Also: why do I still give myself grief for my own desire to write in the mother tongue? Why do I still believe, deep down, that serious work is supposed to be done in spite of one’s children, not necessarily inspired by them and certainly not involving them. I am not supposed to mention, for example, that I am writing these sentences while two of my children—one sick and one six weeks old—sleep two feet away from me. I am not supposed to include the fact that I am typing furiously, trying to arrive at some sort of argument (what, after all, is my point here?) before the clock runs out. Lately when the baby wakes up and my frenetic note-taking, thinking, writing is done, I change her and put her in the stroller for a walk, which can also be a form of writing. I can listen to music and think through various projects I’m working on. Sometimes I get weird looks from neighbors watering their plants or walking their dogs as I speak ideas out loud into my Notes app. But this, too, is often interrupted when the baby, bothered by something I’ll never know, cries the rest of the way home. Today, with three out of four kids at home and no childcare, I don’t even get the walk. So many ideas in my head and so few on paper. I haven’t published an essay in eight months and the word count log for my novel-in-progress is frozen in time, the last entry is from the day before the baby was born.

There have recently been quite a few books that fictionalize the struggle to create art while parenting small children, some of which gesture toward the incompatibility of those two modes of creation.I’m thinking of novels like Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation, which features a would-be “art monster” unable to write a second book after having a baby. There is also Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House, about a PhD student with a stalled dissertation on Margaret Wise Brown and who suffers from postpartum psychosis, and Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, whose protagonist, frustrated that she has had to put her art career on hold to stay home with her baby, may or may not be turning into a dog. And, of course, there is Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, in which the narrator wrestles with the either/or of motherhood and art.

All of those books diagnose a problem: the tedium of being the primary parent, the way in which it is often mothers who bear that burden, especially those with “flexible” writing schedules. Each in their own way, they illustrate the way in which motherhood can easily become the enemy of art-making, which requires time and the ability to think for long periods without anyone asking for cucumbers sliced and sprinkled with just the right amount of salt. They are a primal scream in the face of societal expectations and inequities, and those that are more private, deep in our own families and psyches.

If you think about it, it’s a bit of a flex to publish a book as a parent of young children that takes as its central concern the difficulty of writing a book while parenting young children, but Zambreno’s approach is not just a flex, it’s a quiet revolution. By approaching the experience of motherhood with the same seriousness and rigor applied to Guibert and his narrative of friendship and ego and human suffering, To Write as if Already Dead becomes proof that sometimes the only solution to that problem turned over and over in so many motherhood/art books is to collapse the boundaries between what we think of as “work” and what we consider to be “life.” In this way To Write as if Already Dead is one answer to the question that has unfolded in my mind since I read Tompkins’ essay—whether we might write about books inthe mother tongue without first paying obeisance to the father; and whether we can do it in a way that integrates that very first connection, motherhood itself. It is a model we desperately need. Zambreno has been writing in the mother tongue for longer than she has been a mother, and by using her powers to describe, and thereby elevate, early motherhood, she produces a new kind of criticism that integrates the creation of life with the creation of art.

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