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Deep into researching a novel about sleep, dreaming, and consciousness, I found out that I was pregnant.
I had always wanted to do these two things: to write books and to have children. But now that it was happening — my body busy building a child while my mind was busy constructing my second book — I was not at all sure how the combination would go, or what one pursuit might cost the other.
There’s a familiar idea in our culture that working too much is bad for a woman’s children, but there’s a newer idea, too: that having children might be bad for one’s work. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood
captures this bleak anxiety here: “It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their ’30s — when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience — from doing anything useful with them at all.”
Even before having a child, I might have resisted the implication that raising children, which is to say raising human beings
is not “useful at all.” But built into this narrator’s worry is a dichotomy that I did accept: that the life of the mind is necessarily at odds with the life of a mother.
I remember hearing a public radio discussion about the question of whether or not to have children in which one man’s explanation for his decision to remain “child-free” went something like this: Of all the pleasures of having children, no one ever mentions intellectual stimulation as one of them. Still child-free myself, I remember scoffing at the idea, thinking, Well, of course not.
I’d have to satisfy my intellect in other ways.
My goal, I decided in those early weeks of pregnancy, would be to find ways to fit my intellectual life around my life as a mother. I envisioned two separate lives squeezed into one.
At the time, I had written 50 pages of my second novel, The Dreamers
, which is the story of a mysterious contagious disease, a sleeping sickness, that spreads through a small college town and triggers strange, life-altering dreams in the minds of the sleepers.
My bedside table towered with books about the history and science of contagious diseases (The Ghost Map
, The Hot Zone
) and Oliver Sacks’s books about strange phenomena in neuroscience (Awakenings
, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
My plan was to get through as many of these books as I could before the baby came. I began to see those months as the last ones in which I would be able to work unimpeded, as if pregnancy were a countdown to the time when I would inevitably divide into two opposing parts: the intellectual side of myself and the mother.
At first, it seemed that this divide might take place even sooner than I expected.
Why this cultural blindness to the notion that mothering makes use of the brain?
I was living in Iowa City then, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where my husband was doing his MFA. One of the perks of being peripherally connected to the workshop was the occasional opportunity to hear the brilliant novelist Marilynne Robinson
(an Iowa faculty member) discuss various works of literature. But now that I was pregnant, I was sometimes too tired to concentrate on her brainy and luminous afternoon lectures on Moby Dick
. In a moment too obviously symbolic to include in any piece of fiction, the snaps of my winter coat literally burst open one night as a friend and I walked home from one of Robinson’s readings, immediately turning our conversation away from writing and toward talk of the baby. I could no longer stay up late drinking with the workshop writers. As the weeks passed, I began to feel less like a writer among writers and more like the pregnant wife who skipped the after parties to go to bed early.
I spent more and more time reading about pregnancy and childbirth and less and less time on novel research.
At 20 weeks, we found out from an ultrasound technician that our baby was a girl.
It was around this time that I learned that the ovaries of a female fetus already contain all the eggs she will ever have in her life. What a wondrously strange idea, I thought, that I was carrying not only my daughter but the seeds of her future children, too, and that a wisp of my daughter had been traveling with me ever since I was a baby in my own mother’s womb. I felt a flash of not just love, but fascination. There it was in the dimly lit ultrasound room: my brain, working through an “intellectual stimulation.”
I soon became obsessed with the weird science of fetal development: the slow unfurling of organs and limbs, the arrival of eyelids and lips and fingernails, and how, after a certain number of weeks, the eyes begin to see and the ears begin to hear. I loved the idea that, long before birth, a fetus begins to sleep and wake in cycles, her circadian rhythm already in tune in certain ways with the earth’s 24-hour day. I was astounded to learn that in the last month of pregnancy, the baby’s brain becomes capable of dreaming. But what could she possibly dream of? Darkness? Muffled voices? The sensation of floating? I could no longer say whether I was asking these questions because I was a mother who was about to meet her mysterious baby or because I was a writer who was writing a book that was, in part, about the enigmas of sleep and dreaming.
When I was 38 weeks pregnant, my daughter’s heartbeat began behaving strangely during a routine doctor’s appointment.
Although my doctor seemed calm as she instructed me to change positions again and again and adjusted the heart monitor, she would later confess that she was about 30 seconds away from calling an ambulance to rush me to the hospital for an emergency C-section. And so, I met it
before I met my daughter: the particular terror of loving a child.
Finally, inexplicably, her heartbeat returned to normal, but my doctor recommended a C-section anyway, and so, a few hours later, my daughter was born, her slow heartbeat forever unexplained.
When my daughter was 11 days old, to my great surprise, I had a new idea about my book. It came with a kind of clarity that I had not felt about my work in months: I needed to add a newborn baby to my novel.
I wrote the first few sentences about that fictional baby while my actual baby slept on my lap. In The Dreamers
, a new father struggles to care for his newborn on his own in a town ravaged by contagion and quarantine.
The way my daughter’s lips moved in her sleep, the way she didn’t gain any weight at first, how a nurse once called her “a skinny little thing” and how I immediately burst into tears, how alone we sometimes felt in those weeks, how there was no time for anything but her, the horror at the thought of ever losing her — all of it eventually went into the book. In this way, paying attention to my newborn became, by happy accident, a way of paying attention to my work.
Eventually, I also added a pregnancy to The Dreamers
, filling those passages with all the fascinating facts I’d learned about fetal development. (In the book, a college student catches the sickness before she knows she’s pregnant. While she lays locked in sleep, her baby gradually grows inside her body, the endless weeks of sleep marked by the weekly developments of her child in utero.)
After my daughter was born, I spent almost four more years working on The Dreamers
, a period that also included a second pregnancy and the birth of my second daughter.
It’s hardly revelatory to say that motherhood involves plenty of frustration and tedium. It is not all inspiration and joy, and having children has put a tremendous strain on my writing time.
But what I had viewed as a necessary interruption of my work has turned out to be an extraordinary source of material for that work, a previously unknown territory, much more important to The Dreamers
than my stack of research books was.
It’s a simple idea, I guess, that these two parts of myself, the intellect and the mother, would turn out to be so intertwined, and yet, I am ashamed to say that it came to me as a surprise. There is plenty of cultural space devoted to the cult of motherhood as a kind of endless act of self-sacrifice and devotion. But that man on the radio was right, in part: no one does say that the work of motherhood is intellectually engaging. And why is that? Why this cultural blindness to the notion that mothering makes use of the brain?
For me, the most unexpected part of motherhood is how intellectually enriching it is. There is no way around this fact: it is a fascinating thing to watch a human come into being.
is not really about motherhood or babies or parenting, not exclusively anyway. It’s populated by a wide range of characters, only some of whom are parents; but when it came time to decide whom to dedicate this book to, there were only two possibilities: my daughters.
÷ ÷ ÷
Karen Thompson Walker
is the bestselling author of two novels, The Dreamers
and The Age of Miracles
, which was a Powell’s Indiespensable pick and named one of the best books of the year by People, O: The Oprah Magazine
, and the Financial Times
, among others. Her work has been translated into 27 languages. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA Program. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, the novelist Casey Walker, and their two daughters. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon.