Why New Fiction Is Making Mothers into Monsters
Novels and short stories are leveraging horror elements to express how dehumanizing motherhood can be
In a column for The Cut titled “How Am I?” Amil Niazi paints a grim picture of pandemic working motherhood. In the middle of her realistic itinerary piece about care of two young children while balancing deadlines, she writes that a gaping hole opens up in her kitchen floor which is a portal to hell. “Exactly,” one commenter succinctly replies. Motherhood is monstrous this year—an impossible debit when emotions and workloads are already maxed out. The only word that comes to mind is horrific, and the literature that helps me come to grips with this time period weaves in elements of horror.
Motherhood has always suggested emotional disruption in books. The first time I read The Yellow Wallpaper in college, I thought, “impossible.” The fact that I would become dissociated from my body and reality because of the birth of a child felt sexist and ridiculous. Modern feminism wouldn’t allow women to become victims of PPD and despair. The second time I read it, after the birth of my first child, I thought, “too possible.”
One night, when my son was about two months old, I remember waking up once after hearing him crying on the nightstand by the bed. I groped desperately on the table, my brain wheeling with terror. Had I put my infant son to sleep on top of my books, in a nest of used Kleenex, next to my dusty lamp? My hand grasped the baby monitor, of course, which synced with the one in his room. I remember how my hands shook as I walked to feed him, my hands looking strange even to myself in the shadowed hallway. He was fine—just hungry. I, however, didn’t know how to reconcile the stream of unending terrible thoughts that circled in my brain, not just that night, but every night and almost every day.
One familiar trope in literature is the “enfant terrible,” seen in The Bad Seed by William March, and more recently in Ashley Audrain’s The Push and Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage. These novels reveal a tension between nature and nurture. Horror like this examines the unknown, terrible potential of children. Horror can also be heightened by seeing peril through the lens of a mother trying to act as a protector (think Bird Box). But the newest and, in my opinion, most interesting trend makes the mothers themselves the locus of horror. Books like these introduce elements of the monstrous or ghastly to question who—or what—mothers become in the act of mothering. Several recent and forthcoming books push against the seams of society to reveal the unreasonable expectations of modern motherhood, especially bonded with female ambition. In this time and place, these questions and the novels that pose them feel even more prescient during the time of their publication than when they were written. Like the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, mothers are trapped within their walls, with little opportunity to escape.
The title story in Karen Russell’s Orange World speaks to this moment of incomprehension—of what you become during night feedings and what you’re supposed to do to be a good mother. In this story, Rae, a new mother, seeks support from a group of local moms to help deal with night feedings, because when she goes to feed her child during the night, she must appease a demon as well. This is not a “bad seed” story—the child is not the demon. The demon doesn’t even interact with the child. Rather, this mother—and, it turns out, all the mothers in her circle—have become hellish wet-nurses. The story shook me deeply, because I recognized the mental knots, the bargains we make as parents to wish our children safe.
Notability, though, this short story doesn’t allow for the full examination of the woman as mother—she is in many ways sexless and primarily a caretaker. Like “Orange World,” The Upstairs House by Julia Fine introduces us to a new mother; unlike Russell’s short story, The Upstairs House includes a sex scene with a ghost. Fine’s heroine Megan Weiler struggles to balance new parenthood, the desire to finish her dissertation, and the ghosts who inhabit the roof apartment above hers—the ghosts of Margaret Wise Brown and Brown’s lover, Michael Strange. Megan, like many new parents, wrestles with the new identity she has as a mother. When she meets Brown’s ghost behind a mysterious door on the roof of her building, one of her initial thoughts is, “Can this ghost babysit for me?”
Like only truly good fiction can, Fine weaves the hilarity and horror, and in a truly original story she explores the ways that we lose ourselves in parenthood, academia, and unhealthy romantic relationships. Fine braids texts throughout this work—snippets of the dissertation, scenes between Wise Brown and Strange as they begin their love affair. Society ostracized Wise Brown and Strange in different ways for this lesbian relationship. In Fine’s novel, Strange’s ghost haunts Weiler’s apartment, demands recognition denied to her in life while in some ways threatening, and in other ways, seducing Weiler. Weiler recognizes, but doesn’t recognize, the life she lives. Is she truly being haunted or is it a heightened PPD? Fine doesn’t provide easy answers. Weiler is allowed to be a woman—a woman wanting. Wanting what? Sleep, sex (perhaps), but most assuredly to understand her reality.
Horror interlaced with the already-fantastic can teach us clear lessons about how little women are allowed to want in motherhood. Fairy tales often take darker turns, twisting away from reality to help the reader better understand their world. Two 2020 short story collections twist these stories to reveal new truths about modern womanhood. Amber Sparks’s And I Do Not Forgive You features ghosts and mothers who worship saints, cults and forgotten wives of famous figures. Mothers lose their anonymity in Sparks’s work, often to reveal dark secrets that they aren’t ashamed of. With arguably the best cover of 2020, Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich weaves a rich variety of stories with one central beating heart: womanhood, in sickness and in health, in youth through old age, but mostly in fear and in fierceness. The title story, and its corresponding “Animal Wife Revisited” bookend the collection and mark the clearest and starkest views of motherhood and wifehood and its horrible transformations, with callbacks to Leda and Zeus. The aforementioned “animal wife,” it is suggested, had been a swan, then captured and forced into domesticity. Ehrlich allows the reader to see the perspective of the daughter from this arrangement, as well as the wife herself, and as she explores in her ongoing series Writer Mother Monster, she questions which is the more unnatural transition: animal or mother?
The forthcoming Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder answers this question. The nameless “every-mother” narrator is a former artist/gallery employee-turned-stay-at-home-mom after the birth of her child. Her dizzying first 30 pages so aptly describe the conundrums that come from early parenthood, especially in terms of breastfeeding, that my chest ached. When our every-mother turns into a dog while her husband is away on business, readers must choose to buy into Yoder’s vision of a strange half-truth. The nameless every-mother engages with the local Mommies group at the library. Just as the nameless narrator is rudderless without art, multilevel marketing schemes become a substitution for these women’s previous ambitions. Through Yoder’s prose, the reader comes to understand the strange hungers that our every-mother feels for raw meat as keenly as the MLM lifestyle. Nightbitch is a satirical swipe at the failed “have it all” lifestyle that so many Gen X and millennial mothers assumed was possible. By its conclusion, readers have to wonder: what is the “all” that we were promised to have, and who is the “we” that gets a chance to obtain it?
Notably, these modern works are by white women, typically the first to reap the benefits from feminist movements toward equality in pay and better childcare support systems. It is easier to mourn the lack of opportunities outside of the house, especially those which feed your personal ambition, when society supported that ambition tacitly to begin with. Though all written before COVID hit, these stories feel even more prescient with the rapid expulsion of women from the workforce and the unequal balance of duties at home during the pandemic. Though not trapped at home with ghosts, women are haunted by the gap year (and counting) that many were forced into.
Ancient texts are full of demons blamed for the events that happened in a family’s life: madness, marital strife, and the strife of young parenthood. An external force is always easier to blame for the problems at home. What I appreciate about these literary works is that there is no enfant terrible, no possessed child. It is not the child’s fault that society has gutted or failed to implement systems to help caretakers. It is not the child’s fault that the default caretaker in a heterosexual relationship is presumed to be the mother. In these stories, the children are just children. The mothers are eely, and their characters reveal the holes that mothers are allowed to fall through: holes in mental health care and child care and sexual satisfaction. The system is untenable, and mothers cannot continue to live this way.
In a Twitter thread talking about motherhood during the pandemic, Amber Sparks wrote, “Honestly the more I talk about it the more I feel I lose personhood and become just ‘a mother’ but if I don’t talk about it I feel like I’ll never have any personhood again.” Though none of these books speaks directly to religion, there is something holy about the shared experience of terror of the unknown in new parenthood. We are the monsters, and we are not happy.