When I first saw Molly Caro May’s book on the Instagram account of Counterpoint Press, I knew I had to read it. The title, Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage Into Motherhood, spoke to me like no book had in a while. Very rarely do you hear the combination of “rage” and “motherhood,” but I suspect the two go together more often than is talked about. May’s memoir shows that the work of bringing life into the world doesn’t end when the baby is born. She examines the physical, hormonal, emotional, and relationship effects of pregnancy and birth from a body-based, (w)holistic viewpoint that manages to be personal and universal at the same time.
What was the impetus to write this book? Was there a single moment that inspired you?
Not a single moment. Right after Eula’s birth, I started to document. It is how I have processed my surroundings and life since childhood. When my incontinence became real, everything (my feelings, moments, scenes) that followed during those first two years ended up in a sixty-page Word Doc. It was full of incomplete sentences and had no order other than chronological. I knew I would make some sort of art out of it. I didn’t know whether that would be a poem, book, painting, or dance. I also had a hunch I wasn’t alone—there were other mothers and fathers out there having a parallel experience and I wanted to connect with them, to hold hands with them, to heal with them.
I really needed this book, and wished it had been around when I had my son.
Thanks so much for your kind words. I needed this book too when Eula was born, so I had to write it.
There’s that quote by Toni Morrison, about how if there’s a book you need to read that hasn’t been written, you need to write it. Did you go into this book with that mindset?
Yes. I was aware of my own process and an audience. My purpose statement, a.k.a. prayer, for the book was: May this book release me from tired narratives and heal those who read it. I also intended for it to start a wider, productive conversation. Many writers say not to write with an audience in mind, but that was impossible for this book. I could hear the audience—loud and clear, women from everywhere. In the cultural messages about postpartum experience, I saw most of the talk focus around “baby blues” and sadness; yet friends of mine often resonated with me when I shared about my frustration and anger. I wasn’t the only one. Where was that book? Where was someone talking beyond the everyday inconveniences and ups and downs of parenthood? Of course, mad covers up sad, but the conversation about mad seemed nonexistent. Where was the book about the shadow side of all of it, about the “angry female?” Keep in mind, so much of my story is joyful. There was a lot of joy. Joy and darkness co-exist in all of us. That’s another thing new mothers aren’t ever told. If I had been able to read a memoir like this one, it would have helped me place my own experience and also would have given me something physical to share with friends and family who were having trouble understanding, but trying to support me.
What have you done to maintain a space for yourself and your work within motherhood?
The eternal question! With a boring answer: I have to make a concrete and reliable plan. In the beginning, it was chaos trying to sort out childcare. I was always negotiating for work time with my mother and husband (we are both self-employed). We eventually established a rhythm where they each watched Eula one day. I then had two full days per week to teach, meet clients and write. I wanted to spend those other days with her. Did it make work life harder? Yes, 100% yes. This is still my schedule. I often work and teach at night, as well, to make up what I don’t have during the day. It’s a choice based on needs, finances, and desire.
To write the first draft of my book, I went on a 12-day artist’s residency in southern Montana. Driving away from my 2 ½ year old daughter almost destroyed me. But I wrote like a mother: 5,000 words a day, no stopping, and I came home with a full draft. Children make us super efficient with time segments. I knew I would never have a full day to sit at my computer and dabble. Back home, that pressure forced/allowed me to finish the book in six months, by writing an hour here, an hour there.
All to say, my work has had space. The most difficult part for me is self-care. I hit a sweet spot in between my pregnancies—hiking, pelvic floor exercises, and adventures with friends. Right now, our second daughter is 11 months and we are coming up for short shallow breaths of air. Personal time is almost non-existent, except on the nights I don’t work. My husband and I have this constant conversation of how to make this chaos sing. His idea is that it is just going to be chaos until it’s not (which is true, it does change once the kids are 3 years old or so); I’m always trying to fix it by re-making schedules and tacking them on the fridge. Recently, we learned by watching another couple, and have started to trade time on the weekends. I spend the morning alone at the hot springs; he spends the afternoon alone on a ski.
I also believe in seasons. That calms me down. “Writing” is like a lover. Sometimes we are intimate and all over each other; other times we aren’t speaking; other times we are doing daily life, breakfast, lunch and dinner. After two memoirs, I have almost no words left about my life. I sit down to write with my students and nothing comes out of my pen. This doesn’t worry me. It feels physical and right. I know another book idea will surface—and it probably won’t be memoir. I do operate with a real trust that timing is everything and I’m not in full control. Parenthood (and my menstrual cycle, for that matter) has taught me to work in the ebb and flow.
How has motherhood affected your writing?
I’m less precious when generating material. I have become VERY comfortable with the messy middle of writing. Motherhood is a mess. Right now I am writing these words on a kitchen counter covered in dishes and an open box of crackers and flax milk with a mountain of laundry on the couch behind me while my mother watches my little one up the road. The pre-mother me would have needed a tidier space to “get into it.” Not anymore. This change has been a true gift… even if it was by necessity.
My heart is also more open; I can feel into other people’s stories with more depth. And here’s the gold. Before kids, writing often could shift from delight to the drudgery of trying to get words on a page and failing and fearing and trying again. Now, after kids, writing is always a great escape.
How does being a writer affect your experience of motherhood?
As a writer, I’m a natural-born observer and meaning-maker. I am a mental catalogue of everything my children do and say. I want to be able to mirror them back to themselves when they are adults and ask, “What did I love/hate/fear/try/play as a child?” My parents have other strengths and didn’t witness me in the way I long for. Of course, being a witness will be the thing I give my kids and they will surely need or prefer something else I’m not as skilled at… but so it always goes. My greatest pleasure is telling my daughters stories from my childhood, or about their ancestors. It’s a powerful thing to say, “Here are all the ways the women in our family have used their voices.” I also tell them often that the men in their family are deeply kind, which is true, on both sides. I want my daughters to know the colorful fabric they come from, so they can choose what to take and what to leave as they form their own identities.
The meaning-making has a flip side, though.
My husband often reminds me, “It just is. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It will pass,” when I go into hyper-notice mode and start weaving a story about why one of our children is acting this or that way. We are lucky to balance each other so well.
I’m also hyper attuned to language. This makes me very aware of how I/we speak to our daughters, for better or worse.
At one point in the book, you write, “What is motherhood even?” Which is an interesting question—it feels like the minute you think you have it together, or even remotely figured out, it changes on you. So what is it? How would you describe it?
Motherhood is obviously growing our children up with love. But it’s also this one simple phrase: confronting and making friends with your naked shadow self. Children come in practically programmed to grow their parents up in whatever way those parents need. I have done many challenging things in my life but NOTHING compares to being a mom. Sure, the daily scramble is an adjustment, but I’m talking about the existential explosions that happen often. This summer we took a family camping trip through a migratory bird refuge. As we drove in the sunshine, past a herd of antelope, I squeezed between the car seats to nurse the baby and my four-year-old said, “I don’t like that you have a big butt. I wish your butt was more like Rae’s [our neighbor.]” My first response was silence and then curiosity. The rumble of our van on the dirt road got louder. We had never spoken like this in our family. The only comments we made to her about her own body were in the spirit of: “Isn’t it fun to move that way?” Not once had I said anything negative about my body in front of her. She doesn’t watch screens or shows. I had done everything in my power to prevent her associating a body as good or bad. How could this be? Next came my gut response. Tears. Staring out the window. And my inner dialogue went like this: “I never want to be your friend again, Eula.” My pre-school age daughter had taken me out at the knees.
In discussing later with my husband, we came to a sort of conclusion. We live in a mountain town full of tiny, fit people so my size 12 seems gigantic compared to other women we know. Maybe it’s not about good or bad but about belonging. She wants me to look like the other mothers. Or maybe it’s something else.
Either way, this is a mild example of how our children spot our insecurities, our unfulfilled parts, and then they push on them. I think every parent would agree with that. It’s actually a stunning model: children as wisest teachers.
Something that’s mentioned multiple times in your book is this idea of a tribe—you ask “Where is the tribe?” Later one, you reference a “village,” and further on, you talk about how in other cultures, the culture by design or default is a postpartum support group—and yet we don’t really have that in our culture as a whole. How do you think the creative community can support women, and mothers, especially?
First, we must reframe how we talk about mothers who are artists. We all live under a cultural narrative that, once you become a mother, your work goes to hell; you don’t have time, brainpower, or relevancy anymore. That narrative is as damaging as the lack of structural support. I once overlapped with a well-known writer at a Book Festival. She was someone whose writing I had admired for years. We had mutual friends and I asked if she would meet with me for an hour to discuss life as an author as my first book was about to publish. She agreed to meet. I was overjoyed. At the coffeehouse, I mentioned my 12-weeks old pregnancy casually because I was being weird and eating cereal from my purse in an attempt to ward off morning sickness. She did a double take and proceeded to tell me how I was never going to be able to be a successful writer and a mother. She, this woman who was not a mother herself, went on and on about it. It was a dressing-down. That’s all she talked about. I watched her lose interest in me, my book, all of it—immediately. On the way home, I called my high-school English teacher (at the time, she was the only artist-mother I knew) and she told me: “Nah, that woman was all wrong. Being a mother makes you see things you could never see before. It heightens your ability to tap into the human condition. It’s the best thing for an artist to become a parent.” This helped, but it still took me three weeks to recover. I was sour about it. Had I made the largest mistake of my life, getting pregnant at the same time I sold my book? I tried to rationalize why she would have been so severe, especially with a young writer and someone she didn’t know. Why couldn’t she just have let me play out my fate without making a comment about it? She later emailed me to apologize, sort of, so we both knew a transgression had been made. If the creative community and the men and women who’ve gone before us can support the reality of mother/artist, then more women will believe it’s possible and then that work will make its way into the world to touch others. We need examples of women doing it. We need it front and center, and that is happening more and more. We also need to make sure that mothers don’t feel that they must now make art only about mothering. No, no, no. If they want to, sure, but a woman gets to choose her scope and her material.
Second, more family residencies! Often residencies are one-month minimum, but a parent probably won’t leave a teeny-tiny for that long. Santa Fe Art Institute offers a shorter residency where the kids come and go to camp during the day while the parent works on her/his project. Brilliant. Sustainable Arts Foundation has a long list of these types of residencies. We need more of them.
I completely agree. As a single mother with a toddler, I often find myself wistfully looking at residencies or workshops that simply don’t make space for parents. It’s funny, because I had reservations about this interview series—because we don’t ever focus on fatherhood and writing, or balancing fatherhood and career. As much as I’d like to pretend we’ve made huge inroads, motherhood and career still remains something unique, it seems.
I think also, with the family residencies—where are the dads speaking up about this? Can you imagine if all writers with kids started to demand accessibility? Do you think we’re at a point where this is possible?
My goodness. Such great questions. We don’t focus on fatherhood and career because it plain isn’t the same as motherhood and career. It just isn’t. The world hasn’t changed that much yet. When my firstborn was little, I remember commiserating with a dear friend about how our husbands were modern men contributing in huge ways but it was never going to be the 50/50 we had envisioned and the sooner we let go of that idea, the better. That’s hard to let go of. But if both parents work equal amounts and watch the kids equal amounts, the mother often still (I say often, because it isn’t an always) does the lion’s share of the parenting and housework. This can also be in small ways that occupy headspace: the mother making all the doctor appointments or asking the toddler to please eat her peas while the father is silent and is never the one who says it. There are studies that prove this. If men were to say, “Hey world, women artists really get the raw end of the deal here. Let’s change this,” the world might listen. This hardship for women is as much men’s responsibility as it is ours. I love the phrase Silence is violence. We see it on social media these days especially. It’s true across all sectors and groups. If we are silent, we are complicit. Though I can’t speak for men, here’s my hunch. They have long thought that it’s enough to be a man who doesn’t rape or molest women, and maybe one who also wins extra points by not talking over women. Just be a decent human and that’s enough. However, there’s a new call to action now. It’s imperative that men start to vocally support women. Out loud. Imagine if a male writer of note said, “I won’t accept this residency unless you have something in place for artists who are mothers and need childcare.” Imagine. Everything would shift rapidly. This goes for all of us. It’s imperative that, as a white cis-woman, I speak out in support of and make space for people of color and LGBT folks. Out loud. We are living in a volatile and exciting time. Silence no longer works. I think the possibility for shift is ripe. It’s happening and will continue to happen. I do trust us. I trust the bigger consciousness to move us where we need to go.
For example, I was at a child’s birthday party and in conversation with my friend Frank and an older man who was new to me. This man told me that he was interested in “the little thing I had going” which was the successful writers’ collective I had co-founded in our town. Frank stopped him in his tracks and said with a clear, direct tone: “It’s not a little thing. It’s actually a huge thing. What Molly is doing is a big deal. You can’t call it a little thing.” Here was a man-friend, a peer of mine standing up to an older man and rewriting the script. As it happened, I had two thoughts: This is amazing and This should be a common response by men supporting women.
Oh, how amazing that would be, and hopefully that starts to happen soon.
How has motherhood affected your tastes as a reader? What books inspire you, and what are you reading right now?
More than ever, I’m drawn to the intelligence of the body. The mind/intellect will forever be a huge part my wiring. I’m a thinker and a wonderer. But the primal self has my attention these days. For example, talk therapy has guided me over the years, but I’m tired of talking. I crave somatic therapy and naming what is literally happening in the body during an emotional state, i.e. my throat is clamped by a vice or my belly is all cinched up like an accordion. It feels like the great, untapped power. Most of us modern folks, especially in the Western world, are so disconnected from the body. I want to go back there and then forward to all the possibility held within this vessel of ours. I’m reading Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (late to this party) The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land Between by Hisham Matar, and Krista Tippets’ Becoming Wise (which is feeding my intellect).
What advice would you give to a writer trying to juggle parenthood and writing?
Baby steps. It’s the only way. You put one foot in front of the other. If you can write 100 words a day, celebrate that. If you binge write at night or on a weekend morning, celebrate that. Celebrate whatever gets done. On a practical level, it helps me to make a map. I want to accomplish x by this date, so therefore I have to write a certain number of words per week and I can do that on Tuesday morning and Thursday night. I become mathematical, create blocks of time (even if they are small), and then trust in the law of baby steps. In motherhood, everything seems like it can wait until later. My deepest truth is that if it matters to you, you will do it eventually. That can sound harsh. It’s true, though. If we have the insatiable desire, all the forces within us will conspire to make it possible.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.
Author photo by Christopher Katz.