In Conversation: Maggie Nelson with Eliza Rotterman

by Eliza Rotterman


As a labor doula, I have had the privilege to accompany women through labor and into those first few weeks after. A natural outcome of this is exposure to the language of the delivery room, and though terms like “effacement” and “complete” and “failure to progress” are admittedly flawed, I’ve returned to them recently with a new perspective. How curiously appropriate they are for the psychic landscape ahead. Effacement, for example, occurs when one object obscures the sight of another and describes the transformation of the cervix from thick and tight to thin and jelly-soft. Measured by percent, the pink ring of tissue nearly disappears though it can still be discerned by the nurse’s hand. It is not uncommon to hear a nurse say, “she’s 70% effaced,” meaning only 30% of you is visible. At 100% effaced, you’ve disappeared. Next, a woman is “complete” when she is fully dilated and effaced; complete when she is at her most extreme moment of doubling. And here we find the mystical crux of new motherhood, a completeness predicated on divisibility. 

I went to hear Maggie Nelson read last summer and was intrigued when she read from a work in-progress that explores, among many things, her experience as a mother. Nelson is most recently the author of four books of nonfiction Bluets (Wave Books, 2009); Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007); The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007); and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W. W. Norton, 2011). She is also the author of several books of poetry, including Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull Press, 2005), Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2005), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001). In the email correspondence that follows, Nelson and I talk about the relationships between writing, birth and motherhood. 

E. ROTTERMAN: Has motherhood inspired a change in which theorists and/or theories about identity appeal to you, and if so, what about motherhood inspired that change?

M. NELSON: The book I’m writing now focuses on Donald Winnicott and Eve Sedgwick, among many others (Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze, Annie Sprinkle, CA Conrad, James Schuyler, A. L. Steiner, Sara Ahmed, and so on). Also, while it may be literally true that “becoming a mother” is tied to having a baby, I actually don’t think of it that way, so in some sense there hasn’t been a super profound shift or reorientation. I’ve been a stepmom for some time now, which is also mothering, in its own deep and complicated way; I also think one can mother or parent without having “children of one’s own,” be it by teaching, fostering, even just being a mother to one’s own mind. I’ve always been interested in impulses and behaviors and orientations more than in identities; having a baby hasn’t changed that.

E. ROTTERMAN: Can you say more about the distinction between impulses, behaviors and orientations and identities? It seems like identities might be composed of impulses, behaviors and orientations (among others).

M. NELSON: Identities might be composed of those things, but too often identity marks their congealment. I’m more interested in flow, in impulses or orientations or behaviors that can cross identity boundaries, that don’t necessarily line up with each other. Which isn’t to say identities don’t have strategic personal or political value. But I try to keep my eye on freedom.

At the risk of generalizing, I would say that one of the great things about queer parenting is that it disallows this easy but brutal cult of the mother, either via doubling the mother, having a two-dad situation, or having genderqueer parents who disrupt the whole mother/father binary. Queer parenting offers ways to imagine ordinary devotion as unbound to particular bodies or identities. This is really important, especially as the homophobes out there continue to use queer families and the disruptions to status quo narratives and identities they offer as whipping posts in their arguments against the repeal of DOMA and so on.

I might also add that the disruption of such roles need not take attention away from the pivotal role that a gestating or nursing mother has to play; instead it could make space for us to look at such activities with fresh eyes.

E. ROTTERMAN: Annie Sprinkle and C.A. Conrad focus on the pleasures of having a body, secretions included, rather than the trials of controlling the body. Pregnancy, birth and the post-partum period can radically transform us in that they offer events in which to become animal. From the unseen doubling of blood to the fanning labia during birth to the weeks of lochia-seep, changes and amazements pour through and over the body. How has the experience of pregnancy, birth and mothering deepened your interest in artists who explore the fleshy bright side of the body, its impulses, embarrassments and triumphs?

M. NELSON: I have always been interested in such. Giving birth is indeed a limit experience, and a singular one I’m thrilled to have experienced, but it did not change what were already lifelong interests of mine in the “fleshy bright side of the body,” to use your lovely phrase. I think my longstanding interest in such is actually what led me, in part, to want to experience a pregnancy and a birth, rather than the other way around.

E. ROTTERMAN: Is language capable of holding such a profound physical experience?

M. NELSON: I tried to write down what I could remember soon after giving birth so I wouldn’t forget the details, and while I only wrote about 3 double spaced pages, I think I got the gist of it down. (I shared it with my doula, and she asked if I might be willing to publish it in a doula-context, but I selfishly said no, because I am using it myself in my present book!) It was actually a lot to manage, three pages within the first week of having a newborn baby, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try. I don’t think language is capable of holding the experience, not at all. So I’ve found that I have to use the story do something else, to evoke something different than the pain and amazement of the experience itself, which is—perhaps like all peak physical experiences, especially ones involving great pain—essentially about the body and its silences.

E. ROTTERMAN: Transformation could be said to be an intrinsic trait of pain. Simone Weil said that when we feel pain, it is the knowledge of our work moving into us. How did the work and pain of labor instruct you? And can you tell me anything else about what you think your birth story may evoke beyond the experience of birth itself?

M. NELSON: I’ve been writing about this lately, so I won’t say too much here, as it’s all in my book to come—but I will say that giving birth let me know in the realest way I’ve yet known that I am going to die. That the body is going to do what it’s going to do; in the end, we are but its passengers.

E. ROTTERMAN: One of the most amazing moments in birth is crowning and the emergence of the head. Can you recall what that experience was like for you? And what about the moment immediately after birth? What do you remember about the release, the startling instant of absence? (Absence is not quite the right word…I’d like a word that describes the transitional state of presence to absence…when the understanding that the mind and the body share—a mapping of sorts—is redrafted and in that redrafting a silence opens and remains open for us to revisit, for it fascinates and instructs.) Perhaps this is similar to the body’s silences you mention above?

M. NELSON: Yes, you’re right, it’s not an absence. But it sure is a relief! I had a very uncomfortable final few weeks—before I was pregnant, I was a little over 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 lbs, and by the time I was due, I was up to about 160 lbs—little did I know I was carrying a gigantic baby, though I had my suspicions! I had been so miserable for so many days and nights, so when he came out I just felt amazing, incredible, right as rain, totally relieved.

E. ROTTERMAN: Donald Winnicott writes about holding and handling the child to gently cultivate a sense of an autonomous body, almost like a series of births-after-birth. These births, these moments of holding and letting go, or “loosening,” are also about imperfection. Is the perfect mother the one who never lets go? Who never lets her child realize the boundaries of her own skin? Is boundary, in this context, imbued with imperfection, albeit an instructive one? And, if the skin of language is a metaphor that speaks to you, how have the boundaries, the body of language, shifted meaning in motherhood?

M. NELSON: That’s all very nicely put, the births-after-birth, the loosening. You know I’ve never been very interested in the whole perfect/imperfect mother thing, which is likely why the subject of maternal guilt isn’t too compelling to me (at the moment, anyway). I think that I’m holding the baby alright so far, or so I hope. Certainly I’m having a great time, and he seems pretty cheery. I tend to think the fantasy of the all-protective mother does damage to everyone involved—the mother, the baby and the world that reviles the mother whenever she reveals herself to be finite. So I feel my goal is to protect my baby as best as I can while also knowing that to give birth is to invite another being into a world of suffering and, at some point, his or her death. It’s ridiculously painful—scandalous, really—but I want to be a steady hand, and not hysterical at my inability to keep the noble truths at bay.

I fear being a disappointment here, but I don’t think my relationship to language has changed very much. I guess language doesn’t seem the be-all-and-end-all, compared to the pleasures of being with the baby—that famous shifting of priorities. But that doesn’t mean I don’t write, or that I won’t spend the rest of my life writing. And just because language can’t hold an experience doesn’t mean you turn your back on what language can do. Language rarely does what you want it to do, but it does other things, some of which are under your control, some of which are not. I remember last year at my school’s graduation, a lot of students expressed frustration with one of the speakers—I can’t remember who, I want to say it was Annette Benning—when she said that whatever she’d done in the world with her art, she remained most proud of raising her children. But despite its cliché, it didn’t really bother me at all. Putting human relation before the value of art has always seemed sane and right to me, and it seemed that way to me well before becoming a mother. But really refusing to make a false choice out of those two entities—human relation or art—seems to me the way to go, the third path.

E. ROTTERMAN: Earlier in the interview you made a distinction between the behavior of ‘mothering’ in different aspects of our lives, and assuming complete responsibility for the health and happiness of a child. I’m drawn to your affirmation that the behavior of mothering was already within you. Can you say more about the mothering impulse we carry?   And what about the public tendency to “revile the finite mother”? What’s that about?

M. NELSON: I like Winnicott’s term “ordinary devotion” more than I like “mothering” per se. It’s likely self-protective, but I don’t like to think too much about my capacity to mother or not mother. Too anxiety producing. I like to presume I’m doing and will do just fine. I like ordinary devotion as a concept, because it implies that you’ll do the work of caretaking without a huge fuss, because it needs to get done, and you’re the one to do it. The example Winnicott uses is that of lighting candles at an altar each week, if that’s your job. It’s likely no accident that he uses an example of something both humdrum and holy.

E. ROTTERMAN: Despite some effort to address the struggle of working mothers—flex-time, lactation rooms, working from the home and even bringing your newborn to work (I had a colleague in grad school who had no choice but to bring her babe to class and breast feed while teaching!)— motherhood can still stymie professional achievement. However, you suggest, and rightly I think, with the phrase “a mother to one’s own mind,” that a symbiotic relationship can develop to another level. Perhaps the writer, or more specifically, the impulse to write, enhances the behavior of mothering, and the impulse to mother enhances the behavior of writing?  

M. NELSON: Besides the simple fact that I cannot hold my baby or adequately take care of him while writing (Bernadette Mayer chipped away even at this boundary), I see no impediment to writing vis-à-vis being a mother at all. But that’s talking on a spiritual/intellectual level; on the level of material support for caretaking of small children, there are obviously enormous impediments. Free, quality preschool, for one, should be available to everyone; it’s unbelievable—criminal, really—that it’s not. I am so extremely privileged, and the fact that I have to hustle beyond my full-time job to find ways to pay for my baby’s care to keep my household afloat really tells you something about how incredibly difficult, if not impossible, it is for so many, many others. BUT to go back to the other level, I think caretaking and ordinary devotion are one flow, no matter what the object of attention. One devotes oneself to one’s words and sentences; one devotes oneself to caring for another. The attention, opening, patience, witness and occasional sternness of caretaking & writing feel to me very related.

E. ROTTERMAN: Can you write a little about the pleasures of mothering?

M. NELSON: Beyond the typical frustrations with sleeplessness and tendonitis in my wrists and constant cleaning and so on, I have to say there hasn’t been a moment with my baby that hasn’t been suffused with the deepest of pleasures. I love my little guy very much and have enjoyed everything about him. It’s been an additional pleasure to try to get that enjoyment into writing, which is part of my next book’s charge. I’m aware of the fact that it might come off as self-satisfied or annoying, but that doesn’t really concern me. Since I’ve never really written about happiness before, I’m just pleased to be engaged in a new challenge.

Eliza Rotterman’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Colorado Review, Fourteen Hills, Bateau, Interim and Poetry International. Her reviews can be found in Zoland Poetry. Recently she was awarded the Kay Evans fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Portland, OR.