‘The Awakening’ Made Me Realize That Motherhood Would Drown Me

Kate Chopin’s classic early feminist novel felt uncomfortably like my future

It was my second semester of my sophomore year of college when I first encountered Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. After weeks of bumbling through my Southern Lit class, chafing against Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (would it have killed the man to use some punctuation?), opening the ear-marked pages of my used copy of The Awakening felt like a homecoming of sorts.

The book, its cover an anemic green, was fraying at the corners. A stoplight yellow “USED” sticker covered a third of its spine. It had cost me less than ten dollars at the student bookstore, but when I folded back the cover, the mustiness of its well-worn pages enveloped me and I held them up to my nose, inhaling the slightly sweet, dank aroma. The smell of books had comforted me since childhood; I felt a visceral pull toward this one.

I was attending college in my home state of Connecticut. I had chosen it for its renowned special education program and affordability, but after my freshman year, I knew I wanted to change my major. Now, I found myself an English major at a school I didn’t love, part of a student body to whom I felt no particular allegiance. My boyfriend of two years was attending a private university half an hour away and had taken so well to its culture that his friends half-jokingly called him “the mayor.” Chris and I had “survived” our freshman year — as some magazine articles I had read called it — with our relationship intact, though I wasn’t completely sure what harrowing experiences we could have encountered that would constitute a “survival.” Increasingly, I wasn’t completely sure the relationship we shared was much of a relationship. Time together lately meant time with his roommates and other friends, which meant drinking. Though Chris and I had been friends for years before we started dating, we now found ourselves swept up in the excesses of college life: freedom, time, partying. Or at least, he was swept up, and I was treading water behind him. I couldn’t untether myself from the anchor I had deemed him to be, unmoored as I was in my own college experience. When we weren’t discussing where to meet up or how our mutual friends were faring, our conversations often slid into silence. Time spent alone together was rare. In stolen quiet moments, I would ask him why he loved me, my throat tightening around the question, loathing myself for the unadorned need that it implied. He would look at me, dimples indenting his cheeks, and say, “Because you’re beautiful.”

His answer, always the same, landed like a closed fist to my sternum.

Reading The Awakening was a salve; the slow pace of Grande Isle and its summer inhabitants served as an escape from my gangrenous relationship, deadlines, and homework assignments. At first introduction, Edna Pontellier lives an idyllic existence: married to wealthy businessman, Léonce, and the mother of two sons — whom she loves but has little interest in mothering — Edna summers on Grand Isle with a group of friends while her husband commutes from New Orleans on the weekends.

It’s not until Edna begins spending time with young Robert Lebrun, whose mother owns a hotel on the island, that the fissures in her happiness begin to surface.

Her transformation — slow as a summer in the deep south commands — is one I recognized, and latched on; I had found my new anchor.

Edna’s restlessness is a bedsheet to be kicked off in the middle of an oppressive August night. She cannot bear the confines of her life an instant longer for fear of suffocation. Outbursts become her mode of communicating; she stops caring that her husband finds her petulant. She wants more of her own life: time spent away from her family, who leave her depleted, and more time with Robert, with friends, with art — the things that restore her, with people who make her feel truly seen. In the end, Edna cannot bear the burden of being someone she is not; she sheds her clothes and, in the middle of the night, walks into the ocean and drowns.

In the end, Edna cannot bear the burden of being someone she is not; she sheds her clothes and, in the middle of the night, walks into the ocean and drowns.

How can I explain my connection to this character? I was not suicidal. Besides, drowning was a fear of mine, the remnants of myriad small childhood traumas collected at swim lessons and neighborhood pools. Yet, I knew her. I was certain Edna, too, had swallowed against that recurring hot lump of rage and sadness, her throat tender from the effort. I imagined her carrying around the same dull ache that thrummed in her solar plexus, pulsing with the want of something unnamed. I also wanted something I could not name.

I devoured The Awakening that spring, and returned to it that summer after I ended my relationship with Chris. For years after I finished college, I re-read my same copy, losing myself all over again in the mustiness of the velvety pages, the lyrical language and brilliant depiction of the female psyche.

Later, as my marriage began to show its own stress fractures, the green cover once more made its way to my nightstand, where I again sought out Edna to moor me. When my mother-in-law handed me a jacket from my husband Pete’s childhood soccer tournament, the yellow and green nylon pristine despite its age, I smiled and thanked her. As we drove home, I told Pete I would never be like her: the mother who gave up her weekends to cheer at soccer games; the mother who had unwittingly assigned her self-worth to a decades-old sport jacket. Pete reached for my hand and squeezed it gently. “You say that now,” he said, smiling at me before turning his green eyes back to the road ahead, “but you’ll feel differently when it’s our own kid.”

Frequently, I’d awaken in the middle of the night, Pete’s sleeping body warming the length of me. I’d reach for the worn book, its pages supple fabric under my fingertips. Here, I’d think, underlining passages where Léonce admonishes Edna for her “inattention” to their children. Here is the kind of mother I’d be. I didn’t yet have the words — nor the courage — to admit to my husband that I didn’t want to be a mother at all, but I knew if I became one I would end up like Edna: kicking against the bed sheet for fear of suffocation, eventually giving myself over to that life, but drowning from the weight of it.

I knew if I became a mother I would end up like Edna: eventually giving myself over to that life, but drowning from the weight of it.

After my marriage ended, I moved to New York, where I became a mentor to Katherine, a sixteen-year-old girl who also loved to read and write. During our first fifteen minutes together, we fell into an easy rapport, gushing about our mutual love of used books and the thrill we both experienced from cracking their spines just enough to inhale the heady combination of musty paper and glue.

Two years into our mentoring relationship, over a Christmas dinner of burgers and french fries, Katherine reached into her fraying backpack and pulled out a gift. I ran my finger down the seam of Scotch tape, pulling back the red paper to reveal its contents.

“It’s new, so it doesn’t have that smell yet,” she said, pushing her wire-rimmed glasses up her cheekbone. “But I thought it was time for you to have a fresh copy.”

In this corner diner on the Upper East Side where we would meet weekly to write and talk, I had my own awakening. As I looked across the table at Katherine through my tears and she smiled back, I knew I had acquired that nameless thing for which Edna and I had ached: I had been seen.

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