‘The Need’ Terrified Me as a Mother But Comforted Me After El Paso

The novel reminded me that maternal love is always twinned with loss

Woman and child on a dock by a lake
Photo by Micah Hallahan on Unsplash

We pass the house on our way to the park. It is two-story, brick, with concrete steps leading to the front door and a crepe myrtle extending vibrant armfuls of pink. The biggest difference from our house, just down the street, is that this one no longer has a roof. The jagged top of the façade is blackened, like burned paper. Through bare windows, you can see the house’s innards, the raw wood and tangled wires and tufts of insulation. There is a Dumpster out front, cordoned off. From one corner peeks the floral arm of a couch.

I am glad, every time we pass, that my daughter is too young to register the strangeness of this house, lightning-struck. Without a roof it looks fake, like a stage set. Four collapsible walls that might be folded up and carried off in the night. When she points her delicate finger, it’s at the crepe myrtle.

“Yes, baby,” I say. “Aren’t the flowers beautiful?” When what I’m thinking, every time, is: It could have been us.

The Need by Helen Phillips

It could have been us is the unspoken refrain trembling beneath every scene in The Need, the brilliant, unsettling new novel by Helen Phillips. The speculative thriller opens with Molly clinging to her two young children, Vivian and Ben, after hearing an intruder in their living room. Or rather, she thinks she heard an intruder. Lately, Molly’s been mishearing things: “A passing ambulance mistaken for Ben’s nighttime wail. The moaning hinges of the bathroom cabinet mistaken for Viv’s impatient pre-tantrum sigh.” Her husband is out of town for work. Her phone is in another room. It is just Molly and her children and the footsteps she may or may not be hearing.

Molly’s self-doubt thrusts us into a fever dream where things might not be as solid, as definite, as they seem. The book’s short, agonizingly propulsive chapters initially alternate between Molly’s hyper-vigilance and a description of her earlier workday. Molly is a paleobotanist who has recently found several strange items at the fossil quarry she and her coworkers call the Pit. The artifacts are recognizable but “slightly and yet fundamentally off.” Most notably: there is a Bible in which every pronoun describing God is not He, but She. In the wake of these inexplicable discoveries, the Pit has become a tourist destination—and the target of hate mail from religious extremists who want to see the Bible destroyed.

This is the eerie world of The Need: recognizable and yet fundamentally off. The familiar is laser-focused on motherhood; the grinding, exhausting daily routine of caring for small children. These scenes are exacted with perfect verisimilitude: the incessant wiping of dirty bottoms, the rocking, the singing, the cajoling, the feeding. There is standing in the living room after the kids are asleep, desolate at the chaotic aftermath of their play. There is the letdown of milk in moments of high emotion, the inconvenient public dampening of the bra. There is work, where concentration and fascination sometimes make it possible to forget motherhood, to cease to exist at all, “except as a pair of eyes and hands.”

These scenes of “hypnotic monotony” shouldn’t read like a thriller, but they do, in part because of the seamless, yet almost fragmentary way that they capture the moment-to-moment giving of motherhood—and in part because underlying them all is a sickening foreboding. With toddler Viv on the toilet, demanding Molly read to her, and infant Ben in her arms, his sharp baby nails at her neck:

“She wondered if other mothers experienced it, this permanent state of mild panic, and worried that perhaps they didn’t, that perhaps there was something wrong with her. What a phenomenon it was to be with her children, to spend every moment so acutely aware of the abyss, the potential injury flickering within each second.”

It might seem incongruous, even absurd, that Molly could feel the shadow of the abyss in such an innocuous moment, but I recognized it immediately: the ultimate contradiction of motherhood. Bringing a child to life means the constant risk of their death. Every moment of love is superimposed with the unbearable possibility of loss.

Bringing a child to life means the constant risk of their death.

It’s this possibility that the intruder in Molly’s living room represents. The what-if, the nightmare, the seam ripping through The Need’s recognizable world—proof that the abyss is only ever a small series of coincidences, accidents, and missteps away.

When I was a child, I sometimes used to worry about the people I loved dying. One by one I lost them beneath the covers at night, my mind a carousel of loss: my parents, my brother, my sister, my Ñaña, who was somewhere between a mother and a grandmother to us all. Later, once I was an adult and the list of the lost had grown, along with my understanding of danger, I imagined losing my husband. I imagined my own death.

It sounds morbid and overly anxious, though before becoming a mother, I never considered myself an anxious person. I’ve simply always felt, when I tune in, a thrumming awareness of how temporary life is, how tenuously we hover on the precipice. Never, though, did this awareness haunt me as constantly and intrusively as when I became a mother.

In the early months, my daughter breastfed every other hour around the clock. I did not produce enough—nor was there time to pump enough—to store more than one extra bottle of milk per day. A milk protein and soy allergy made formula a near-impossibility. Her life depended entirely on me, on my body, on my will.

Until the allergy was under control, she was colicky. Her yowl catapulted me from bed, always, it seemed, the instant I fell asleep. It would take time for my heart to decelerate, for us to settle into a rhythm together in the chair, drowsy and peaceful, moments Phillips renders beautifully: “There is no safety like this safety. The oxytocin charging through them. If the world must end, let it end now, when we are here, like this.” Then a diaper change. Legs cycled to work out the gas. Back in the crib for her. Back in bed for me, an eye on the clock.

We usher our children into a world of unimaginable violence.

Eventually, I couldn’t sleep in those alternating hours. I felt sick with adrenaline and exhaustion, the wave and the rock, crashing. Instead, my mind reverted to old midnight habits, fantasies of loss fueled by my baby’s devastating vulnerability. My love for her was cataclysmic, an eruption, and it unearthed an obsessive fear of losing her. I cried beside my husband—and sometimes beside my daughter, when she still slept in the bassinet—mourning her even as her grunts and kicks made it impossible not to know she was alive.

Like Molly, I wondered if this was normal, the fact that “any serene image bore within itself the opposite of serenity, the possibility of the shattering of the surface.” If I was holding my daughter, I imagined dropping her. If she was sleeping peacefully in her car seat, I imagined forgetting her in the car. If she was cooing in the bath, I imagined her face submerged. I read essays by parents who had lost children: a three-month-old on the first day of daycare; a two-year-old sitting outside with her grandmother when, eight stories up, a loose brick dislodged. Once, I logged in to my April 2018 Babies message board to see a mother wishing us well; she’d no longer be on the board because her infant had simply not woken up one morning.

The Need made me shiver with recognition. In Molly, I saw myself, and in the intruder, who knows and covets Molly’s life so intimately, I saw the version of me who might exist should the worst come to pass. The Need felt like one of my terrifying midnight ruminations, only extended, exaggerated—the potential for catastrophic loss the very heartbeat of this book.

Vivir con miedo es vivir a medias,” Molly’s boss, Roz, tells her in response to Molly wanting to hide the Bible for fear of religious extremists. Molly’s coworker, Corey, asks Roz what that means. “‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,’ Molly translated. ‘But I have kids.’” The implication is that, as parents, it’s impossible not to fear. For every ordinary moment of exhaustion, depletion, and cynicism, there is a counter-moment of love so extreme it can only be terrifying. After all, we usher our children into a world of not just accidents and illnesses but also unimaginable violence. If we are tempted to think we can keep them safe, we must remember that lightning can strike us at home, setting the roof on fire while we sleep.

On Saturday, August 3rd, a mother and father dropped their five-year-old daughter off at cheer practice before going to shop for her school supplies. They took their two-month-old son with them.

A couple was buying their nine-year-old granddaughter a present.

A young girl and her father and grandfather were standing in the south Texas heat, raising money for her soccer team.

A grandmother on the phone in the checkout line.

A boy, 15, perhaps looking for a new soccer ball.

A tableau of ordinariness—hands reaching for spiral notebooks and glittered binders, pulling credit cards from wallets, cradling the soft boneless weight of a baby. Voices calling out, Excuse me, would you be interested in—Which toy do you want?—I’ll talk to you soon, mijo. The kind of moments that feel safe, a bridge you take for granted will hold.

It didn’t.

I was in my hometown of Laredo, Texas, during the massacre in El Paso. Laredo, a border town, whose population is almost 96% Latino.

We had recently gone to Target, my sister and her three-year-old daughter, my 16-month-old and me. We were shopping for a baby shower gift. We pushed the girls in red carts, debated the merits of different baby soaps, picked a diaper bag with plenty of pockets.

In a slightly different reality, the man chooses Laredo instead. He enters the cheerful brightness of Target. We don’t know what we’re hearing at first. We talk ourselves out of it. Then there is no choice but to acknowledge the panic searing in our chests, to grab our daughters, to tell them everything is going to be okay, to shield their flesh with our flesh.

It could have been us. It could still be us. In this country, it could always be us. How do we live with this, as parents? How do we move through a world where the familiar can turn surreal at any moment?

It could have been us. In this country, it could always be us.

In the wake of El Paso, I find The Need oddly comforting. Yes, the book says. It is profoundly terrifying to be a mother, and it always will be. You will feel the twin velocities of love and loss swirling within you, and they will knock you breathless. You will sometimes be “paralyzed by the what-ifs, the swiftness with which anything can change, the ever-present split second that is the difference between blood spilling or not, the difference between one future and another.” But you will have children who need you to pretend this isn’t so.

And while there may be no overcoming maternal (or parental) anxiety, we should also be wary of what it might become. As Molly crouches with Viv and Ben in the opening chapter, “her desperation for her children’s silence manifested as a suffocating force, the desire for a pillow, a pair of thick socks, anything she could shove into them to perfect their muteness and save their lives.” Our anxiety, the novel warns, can swell into something grotesque, as capable of destruction as the thing it fears.

So, while I try to galvanize my fear into something like action, I will continue to grocery shop. I will let dread “cast the light of the sacred on the mundane.”

I will walk my daughter to the park, and when she points to the crepe myrtle, I will say, “Aren’t the flowers beautiful?” And I will lift her to touch the blazing petals.

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