When I was pregnant with my first child, I rode my bicycle well into my third trimester, grateful for the weightless ease of wheels on pavement, the breeze on my face and neck. One evening a physician colleague saw me climbing onto my bike after work and admonished me, “You’ve got to give it up!”
When I told my husband about her comment, he delicately suggested that maybe it was time to stop biking: “What if you lose your balance? You might fall and land on your belly.”
“Why would I lose my balance?” I shot back.
“Fine,” he replied, “but you could get hit by a car.”
“That could happen when I’m driving,” I said, “or walking across the street. Maybe I should stop driving—and walking, too. Maybe I should just lie on the couch until my due date, when they can cut the baby out of me.”
He dropped the subject. Soon after that, when I was about thirty-two weeks pregnant, my knees started to bump into my belly. Biking became, though not quite impossible, increasingly inefficient and uncomfortable. I gave it up.
To be a woman is to not belong entirely to one’s self. This is true well before and regardless of whether a woman ever becomes pregnant—an adolescent girl may become the object of the male gaze, with its sexualized scrutiny and possessive power, before she realizes anyone is watching—but it becomes more intensely true when another heart beats inside of her. From the moment she is aware of it, and whether she likes it or not, that other life, that second heartbeat, seems to lay claim to her consciousness, her choices, and her identity.
What may at first feel to her like a claim made by the fetus slowly transforms into something else: a claim made upon her by people who may not know or care about her or her baby, but who have an interest in keeping her under external control. Texas’s SB 8, which went into effect last September and bans abortion after sonographic detection of fetal cardiac activity (at around six weeks’ gestation), is by no means the first bill of its kind. But the subsequent flurry of even more restrictive bans in other states, culminating last month in the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, felt like a sort of domino effect: freedoms rapidly toppled to create a flattened landscape, one ideally suited for surveillance.
Even a willingly pregnant woman in this country is constantly aware of doctors and strangers monitoring her behavior. There’s her use of drugs and alcohol, what she eats or doesn’t eat, her weight gain: not too much…but not too little! When I was a medical student rotating on the OB-GYN service, I often heard pregnant women, especially those who were nauseated and losing weight in the first trimester, ask their doctors how they could be sure the baby was “getting enough” to grow and thrive. “Don’t worry,” the doctor would invariably answer. “Even when you’re losing weight, the baby keeps growing. The baby takes what it needs.”
This response was framed as reassurance, but to me it felt chilling. It suggests that a mother should be willing to make almost any sacrifice for her baby’s health and well-being, even allowing the baby to siphon off nutrients as she, the mother, wastes away. After childbirth, the feeling that the baby has usurped some previously sovereign territory can become more acute. In an essay about her (unplanned, unwanted) first pregnancy, the writer Merritt Tierce observed that, right after giving birth, “before I passed out, I noticed that the cloud of my consciousness had pulled apart, had become two clouds, and that one had drifted over to float above my son, permanently.”1
As the child begins to grow, so too grows the elusive, often contradictory ideal of the self-sacrificing “good mother.” This ideal can include the “attached mother,” who is always by her child’s side, as well as the “working mother,” who may (a) continue to pursue paid employment in order to contribute to the family income, thereby directly benefiting her child, or (b) act as a you-really-can-have-it-all role model. (Being more than “just a mom” makes her, ironically, an even better mom!) To create one’s own version of the good (or good enough) mother, one who doesn’t quite conform to the prescribed ideals, is to wade into murky and often shameful territory.
In my case, presumably because of the social and remunerative value of my profession, everyone seemed to assume that I would return to it shortly after each of my two children were born. And I did—but not primarily to be a breadwinner or a role model. The truth is that I enjoyed my time at home with each of my babies, but after a few months I was eager to begin seeing patients again. This is work I have been thoroughly trained for, with clear guidelines and measurable outcomes. It is work for which people thank me, often profusely. For these reasons, doctoring can feel more immediately rewarding than mothering.
I also had a separate reason, almost a secret one. As soon as both my children were in full-time day care, I gradually cut back my hours until I was spending only two or three days a week in the clinic, and the remaining days writing. Writing pays far less but fulfills me in a way that nothing else does—not even doctoring, not even mothering.
In other words, I prefer to spend weekdays caring for patients or writing instead of staying home with my young children. But that isn’t something I say in polite conversation. It’s not something I’ve ever really said out loud to anyone.
Early in Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes, the newly pregnant Barrera and her husband—both writers—are rearranging their Mexico City apartment. They have just converted their spare room into an office. Now that office will be the nursery. They’ll have to remove the desk to make room for a crib. Where will Barrera write?
The baby takes what it needs. As Barrera suffers through a nauseated first trimester, unable to tolerate the smell even of bread, she leans into the implications of this truth. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir: the fetus is “a parasite exploiting [the mother].” Also Natalia Ginzburg: the relationship between the mother and the fetus “is truly the most closed, the most binding, the darkest relationship in the world; it is the least free of all relationships.” And, upon attending a birthing class: “Rachel Cusk says that these courses are like taking classes in dying.”
But she wants to believe in the enchanted, blissful parts of pregnancy and motherhood, the parts everyone told her to expect. A friend assures her that the magic is “sprinkled over the discomfort, the pain, and the sense of strangeness,” like fairy dust. Throughout Linea Nigra, even in her lowest moments, Barrera insists on a certain lightness, a wonder at the miraculous, transforming joy of it all.
Linea Nigra is a strange, slim, hybrid book—part pregnancy diary, part art history, part literary criticism, part memoir. It unfolds in sections varying in length from several pages to a single sentence, a form that captures the pulsing, interrupted reality of life with an infant. Presumably for this reason, the form is a familiar, even ubiquitous one in the emerging maternity canon.
Barrera cites extensively from this canon, and her observations and opinions frequently overlap with those of writers who have come before her. She seems hyperaware of this fact, desperate to find some room for originality.2 Some of the thoughts and images in Linea Nigra are disarmingly fresh and provocative. At a seven-week ultrasound, having just learned that her embryo is roughly the size of a blueberry, she sees that embryo, and the flickering heartbeat at its center, for the first time: “It’s hard not to feel affection for a creature the size of a blueberry with a heart, a creature that is almost nothing except a strongly beating heart.” (Although written several years before Texas’s passage of SB 8, this reads to me as an oblique criticism of the distorted emotional logic of so-called heartbeat bans, by which any “creature” that evokes our affection deserves the same rights as a birthed human being.)
Other ideas are less imaginative, even hackneyed: “I’m never going to be alone again. Not really alone. That thought was terrifying and joyful.” But originality, we soon learn (or maybe Barrera is the one learning it), isn’t the point. Referring to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which Shelley wrote while pregnant with a daughter who died as a newborn, Barrera says:
It’s not unreasonable to suppose that pregnancy was for her, at least in part, a horror story. I think of the passage from Frankenstein where the monster comes to life and tries to kill its creator, that terrifying fragment, that postpartum nightmare.
She later sees that this idea appears almost identically in Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (2016). At another point, reflecting on how pregnancy has reinforced her belief in legal abortion—“Absolutely no woman who doesn’t want to go through all this should be obliged to”—she almost immediately encounters “the very same thought” in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015): “Never in my life have I felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant.”
Even before Barrera mentions Galchen’s book by name, a reader already familiar with it might begin to feel uncomfortable at the degree of overlap between the two books. Then, about a hundred pages in, Barrera mentions almost off-handedly that she and her husband are translating Little Labors into Spanish: “The book echoes our own experiences so closely that it seems more like Rivka is translating us, Alejandro says.”
Indeed. Although Little Labors came first, the two books are so deeply in communication with each other as to seem at times almost indistinguishable—not unlike what Barrera calls the “dual body” of the pregnant woman: “As together as it’s possible to be: one in the center of the other.” The more Barrera reads, the more she sees overlapping influences and coincidences. “It’s impossible to be original when you write about being a mother,” she concludes, almost defensively. “There are so many of us and our experiences have so much in common; despite any differences, we have so very much in common.”
What, or who, belongs to whom? Is the pregnant woman “a container holding an independent being,” or is the baby like an organ, merely a part of the pregnant woman’s body? “I think both theories are correct,” Barrera writes.
The baby is both things at once, and is constantly changing. In the beginning it’s a cell of your own body. You are you: what happens at the very early stages of pregnancy happens to you. Gradually that part of you becomes a different person and you increasingly become a receptacle.
Another fraught question is whether or not a mother of young children can or should create art. Barrera’s mother, a professional painter and by far the book’s most powerful character, offers her daughter rather incomplete, frustrating advice, and claims, Barrera writes, that she stopped painting “from my birth to my second birthday”:
“I didn’t even pick up a pencil,” she told me. Now she says that she was perhaps exaggerating, but I believe that, deep down, she expects me to do just that.
Regardless, it’s clear that her mother spent much of Barrera’s childhood painting. And while she worked, her daughter watched. Barrera describes several of her mother’s paintings in great detail and recalls impromptu art history lessons during visits to museums—including one about the color black as it appeared in works by Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, as well as in her mother’s own canvases. “When I think about what the world is like from the perspective of the uterus,” she writes, “I remember those paintings and the lessons she gave me on seeing in the dark.”
In one scene a very pregnant Barrera looks in the mirror and remarks on her navel, disappearing as it stretches over the growing dome of her abdomen: “The only visible sign that I once lived inside my mother, that I fed from her and was part of her,” and it’s vanishing. She finds one of her most captivating metaphors here, casting the belly button as citation. An “asterisk,” she calls it—an acknowledgment of source material.
A less successful metaphor is the 2017 Puebla earthquake, which occurred during the early months of Barrera’s pregnancy and killed more than two hundred people in Mexico City alone. With their physical destruction and upheaval, earthquakes make an intuitive allegory for pregnancy and childbirth, but this earthquake seems to have been minimally disruptive in Barrera’s daily life. The hospital where she will eventually give birth suffers some superficial damage. In her birthing class, women cry and wring their hands: “People ask me if the baby is all right. Of course he’s all right, maybe just a little shaken.” (It’s impossible to tell if she’s being intentionally wry here, or if a nuance has been lost in the translation from the original Spanish.) Something feels forced or incomplete; she did live through the earthquake, but perhaps she wants it to mean more than it does, or more than she conveys.
More tangible disruptions follow. With the birth of her son, her body becomes a “disaster area: tears, stitches, seeping blood. It’s as if I’d exploded.” Sleep is fragmented; days and nights blur together. Her nipples ache from constant nursing. Her writing suffers, or so it seems to her: “I spend the day mentally repeating the idea of writing about interruptions so that I don’t forget it before I find a moment to write.” She tries to gather her thoughts in the shower, the place where she used to do her best thinking, but she’s distracted by verses of a lullaby echoing in her head, then by the sound of her son’s cries. The baby takes what it needs.
A few months after the birth, Barrera’s mother is diagnosed with ovarian cancer—the closest thing to a turning point in the book in that it forces Barrera to rethink her own questions about originality and belonging: What, again, belongs to whom? Which bodies and lives are capable of being separated, and what does their separation or inseparability mean about their claims upon one another?
“The earthquake and my ailing mother,” Barrera writes. “The instability of what seemed most solid.” Growing increasingly interested in cycles of organic matter—humans, plants, animals—she recounts a Mexican myth, at once macabre and comforting, in which babies who die “go to the house of Tonacatecuhtli; they live beside the tree of our flesh,” suckling from the tree’s flowers, from which milk flows.
Then she comes across the idea of microchimerism, the bidirectional exchange of fetal and maternal cells in the womb:
After a pregnancy, even one that doesn’t reach full term, the fetal cells go on floating in the mother’s uterus. They continue to be part of her body for up to forty years. I read this just a few days before my mother’s womb is removed.
Indeed, researchers have found that long after the end of a pregnancy (including one that ends in a miscarriage or abortion), fetal cells can be detected throughout a woman’s body—in her brain, blood, bones, liver. They are pluripotent, i.e., they can grow new, differentiated cells, and they are hypothesized to be catalysts for wound healing, autoimmune disease, and cancer. “We are made of others,” Barrera marvels. “This is a microchimeric book.” Hers is a vision of art as feminine, never truly original or new, but a cycle: art as birth and death; bodies decomposing in the dirt, the roots; “the tree of our flesh.”
In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Angela Garbes picks up where Barrera leaves off—and roughly where she herself left off in her 2018 book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Childbirth. Garbes has had two C-sections, two miscarriages, and one abortion, and is unapologetic when it comes to rights for any woman. “I say the word as much as possible,” she said on a recent podcast episode: “Abortion, abortion, abortion!”
Garbes is interested in many of the same questions as Barrera, although her no-nonsense, let’s-get-real voice gives her writing a punchier flavor. In Like a Mother, when her due date passes without so much as a contraction, Garbes says, “I found myself wondering if my body would throw me under the bus for the sake of my baby. Would it have to choose, and, if so, could I trick it to side with me?” She also writes at length on microchimerism, but with a more political take:
The idea of being constituted by others goes against the myth of America’s rugged individualism…. We are made up of others, we are changed by others, and we need others. The obliteration of your old self can be disorienting and disheartening, but it can also be a source of great power and transformation.
You can see the direction of Garbes’s thinking, a movement toward mutual aid. In Essential Labor, she describes the emotional and physical drain that is mothering—the exhaustion, the claustrophobia, the despair—without sounding self-pitying. Instead she argues that mothers and caregivers in the US live in a dysfunctional system, in which the work of mothering is deliberately undervalued and shunted to the margins.
Garbes calls this system by various names: colonialism, capitalism, white America, “neoliberal family life” (here she quotes the sociologist Kathryn Jezer-Morton). The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grounds us first in her own family’s history, then expands her view to include the broader legacy of American slavery, colonialism, and caregiving: “a wealthy country with an invaluable force of women, most of them brown and Black, performing our most important work for free or at poverty wages.” She draws on the work of Silvia Federici and the Wages for Housework Campaign, begun in the 1970s, which argued that capitalism deliberately restricts women’s bodily freedoms as a means of controlling the production of labor. She also cites the work of Angela Davis and others who have argued that unpaid reproductive labor constitutes a form of “domestic slavery.”
Garbes rejects the notion that the current crisis of American motherhood, much discussed in the popular media, is merely a result of the Covid-19 pandemic—even as she writes from within it, with her four- and seven-year-old daughters at home. A full-time writer, Garbes struggles to complete her book in the face of her kids’ constant requirements and interruptions. She begins to question the value of “deep, creative work”: “If I didn’t show up to my desk to write, no one would know.” Meanwhile, her husband’s job provides a regular paycheck and family health insurance.
“Plenty of white and privileged women are now discovering that all women are characterized by a condition of servitude,” she writes. It shouldn’t have taken a global health crisis—in which women with means could no longer outsource their child care and housework—to call this to widespread attention. Lockdowns and school closures may have brought things to a breaking point for middle-class white women, but for many Black, brown, and working-class women, the system has been at a breaking point—or just plain broken—all along.
While Garbes’s criticisms are specific, personal, and political, her solutions can seem vague and at times inadequate. In retaliation against a capitalist system that creates a false sense of scarcity, she urges us to “incorporate principles of abundance into our lives,” for example by dropping off food for friends or “trading some light finish carpentry for an hour of massage.” She wants us to “double down on the radical power of mothering,” to “create opportunities for solidarity among caregivers, mothers, and all workers”—but she doesn’t say exactly how we should do this.
She is clear, however, in her message to white, privileged women, whom she refuses to let off the hook with good intentions: “True solidarity,” she writes, “requires giving up some comfort, material resources, and power—and sharing it with others.” Here again, she fails (or refuses) to suggest concrete actions, perhaps intentionally placing the onus on the reader. Her broad directive is nevertheless plain, and it is where her project begins to break through as activism: by expressing simultaneous exasperation with and also empathy for white women like me, she makes me feel at once exposed, accountable, and understood.
When Garbes writes about the “maintenance” work of motherhood, I recognize myself in her pages: “Wiping butts, cleaning food off the floor, reading books over and over, keeping track of clothes that are on the verge of being outgrown.” These are variations on the same cyclic tasks that constitute Barrera’s sleepless nights and her interrupted days of breast milk and soiled diapers, but Garbes whisks them out from under the gauzy, oxytocin-soaked bliss of new motherhood and places them in a feminist frame: in a capitalist society, where (male) production is equated with value and progress, the “unskilled” (female) labor of care and maintenance becomes the invisible scaffolding that supports such progress. The myth of mothering as unskilled labor further perpetuates race and class divisions that designate “some people as less worthy than others.”
Nothing about mothering is unskilled, Garbes insists. In a passage so tender it reads almost like a lullaby, she recalls the childhood routine of her mother cleaning the wax out of her ear canals:
My mother sits in a green vinyl chair next to a blue-and-white faux marble counter scattered with jewelry and glass bottles…. The air is steamy and sweet, thick with the scent of Jean Naté After Bath Splash, drugstore lotions and powders. I sit on a little stool at her feet, my head sideways in her lap. With careful, callused fingers she takes the silver pantutule and swirls it around the outer edges of my ear, then works her way in deep, scooping out my soft, crumbly white earwax…. When she is done with my left ear, I turn and face her stomach. I close my eyes and feel this soft part of her body rise and fall and brush against my face with each breath as she cleans my right ear. There’s no distance between us; I inhale her scent, am one with her heat. Even today, I can return to this feeling in an instant.
Perhaps nothing epitomizes the Sisyphean quality of maintenance work so much as the relentless excavation and reaccumulation of ear wax. Garbes reminds us that this sensuous, unglamorous work is skilled labor: a cultivation of bodily knowledge, the ability to make another person feel held, safe, and loved with one’s very self, one’s touch, a deftness that is both instinctive and learned by daily, relentless practice. The work, like a biochemical reaction, one form of energy transforming into another, becomes something else—a feeling:
I can touch this feeling, given to me by my own mother, every time my girls put their heads in my lap and I turn my headlamp on…. No bit of them is too much, too smelly or gross—I made every inch of them and I will love and tend to all of them.
After nearly three straight years of gestating and birthing and breastfeeding and pumping and waking up at all hours of the night to keep two babies alive, I am now sunk deep in the toddler phase—which often feels like an endurance test of tantrums and interruptions and sometimes sinister assaults on my psyche. (“Well, Mama, when you go to work then I feel sad! And I’m going to feel sad always, until I die!”) This is the murky, shameful territory of the mother who doesn’t conform to the ideal: the mother who tires of playing with her kids after a few hours; who craves solitary time to pursue her own ambitions; who worries, as Garbes does, that “it may take me a lifetime to undo the false notion that my work is somehow less valuable” than her husband’s.
When I feel the most disconnected from myself, it is tempting to view my children as the culprits—tiny thieves who abuse and usurp my body and my time, my very self. In my darkest moments, I blame them. But Angela Garbes graciously reminds me of what I know deep down and so easily forget: there are much larger forces at work that make this hard—and I am among the luckiest. The best-kept secret of my own difficulty as a mother is that it isn’t really my children who have siphoned off that tiny, permanent cloud of my consciousness, insisting that a part of me exist, forever, outside of myself. It isn’t them; it is my love for them. That’s the cloud: the love. I wouldn’t take it back.
Merritt Tierce, “The Abortion I Didn’t Have,” The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 2021. ↩
In an earlier book of essays, On Lighthouses (Two Lines, 2020), Barrera betrays this same self-consciousness. Like an academic, she seems almost obsessed with citing every other work ever written on her subject. ↩