By Szilvia Molnar
Pantheon, 208 pages, $26
A grisly, extreme new novel on motherhood, The Nursery by Szilvia Molnar, tells the story of a woman, her husband, and their baby in the mangle of days just after birth. To properly appreciate its accomplishment, we must peel back the familiar connotations of the words nursery, postpartum, lactation, and even motherhood, and acknowledge that such days are some of the most distinctive and harrowing of human life, and they come for the majority of us.
Molnar’s wellspring is universal; her features are particularly of our moment; and her flourishes of darkness let in the sublime, with the strains of an accordion and the clunk of an oxygen tank. (The baby—Molnar calls her Button—is quiet, buttoned on, eating.) This book contains some of the most precise and coolly graphic descriptions of becoming a mother, physically and mentally, that I have come across. Though the book avoids the culture wars, the protagonist’s experience suggests difficult truths about what this profoundly physical and female-bodied experience can be like for women with today’s expectations, and for their male partners dragged along in the wake. No one likes to talk about these things, but we ought to. The Nursery deserves to be widely read.
The book begins with the moment that felt like a new beginning for me, too: the day the door closes behind a husband on his way back to work a few days after a baby’s birth. Molnar’s unnamed protagonist finds herself “alone and cocooned” in an urban apartment, nursing her baby, in sunlight, stillness, silence. The author is Hungarian and grew up in Sweden; her protagonist is a translator of Swedish literature, living in an unidentified American city, who sometimes calls herself by the derogatory nickname Miffo (roughly, freak or weirdo). She describes her baby as “a leech,” and herself as having been brought to “discomfort and cringe at my current state.” The day, she says, “has been long and lonely.” She recalls her own work as if from a different lifetime, but thinks, “I am here with Button, and this is all I am. This is the doing, me being here.” This is a deep truth about mothering, and a radical conceptual break from a person’s previous existence; rarely has it been stated so well.
The protagonist’s attitude as it develops might be labeled postpartum depression. She feels alienated from her body, referring to it occasionally as “the body.” She describes the birthing process as having been rendered “like what you see scattered along a highway, an item once of value. I was a can of soda, a sock, a half-smoked cigarette, a piece of gum, a headless toy, a pair of used underwear.” She resents the infant and has persistent thoughts of doing her harm. But I was moved by how universal the experience was beneath this layer of specificity. A very many of us who are used to being in control of our lives and our bodies find pregnancy and childbirth difficult or diminishing of our agency. I encountered Molnar’s descriptions of struggling to stand and walk to the hospital bathroom, or of navigating the blood-filled pads and gauze underwear, of the ridiculous leaking on her shirts with a profound sense of recognition. (Even better: Try navigating the blood-filled pads and the gauze underwear while you are holding the baby. You just want to cry; she nails this moment too.)
The protagonist—a citizen of the republic of letters, recall—wonders several times in various ways whether these experiences have ever been described in literature, and whether they are worthy topics of it. To answer those questions: No, not really. And yes, they should be. One of the most difficult parts for many women is how alone you are in your struggle with your body and your new situation. Many feel distress and shame, as Molnar’s protagonist does.
For me, this was the time when feminism came to seem embarrassingly inadequate—and founded on a lie. The educated woman, the working woman, the successful young woman—the woman like me, for whom being a woman has been mostly irrelevant, realistically speaking, in today’s Western world—discovers post-childbirth that it isn’t irrelevant at all, and that her new work as a mother is in fundamental conflict with the work that came before. It’s forbidden to say this because of the have-it-all chimera, but there is a simple calculus: Mother-work is actual work—mostly boring and terrible work; degrading work to people with certain kinds of ambition—and someone is doing it 24 hours a day. It can’t be done while doing something else. Either you are sitting there doing it—in the early days with your tits out—or you are somehow evading it.
Nature sets this work fully on women’s shoulders. It can be redistributed some, and more so as children age, but every woman and every couple will have to decide how much of it they plan to collectively do, how much they might hire out or shift elsewhere, and who is doing what. The feminist ideology that says you can work and mother without any trade-offs or anything being lost is incorrect. It has obscured and denied the experience in a way that makes honest discussion impossible. This does a disservice to all parents, including to stressed-out working mothers. Thus, successive generations of women find ourselves alone with a baby and a nursing pillow, having a cataclysmic experience for which there has been no warning, making allocations for which there is no map.
There are, of course, mommy bloggers and the communities of women-in-the-thick-of-it who admittedly discuss little else, and whose talents are often minimized by the cordon sanitaire isolating parenting-talk from the rest of the culture. In all likelihood, The Nursery, with its pink cover emblazoned with a giant breast, will be relegated to this world, despite that it has the depth and illuminating qualities of serious literature. (Molnar on this phenomenon: “The fundamentals lie in motherhood, that is why it is vilified.”) It seems appropriate, then, to list just a few of this book’s literary accomplishments. It is beautifully written, line-by-line. Its non-chronological structure is deceptively sophisticated, and mimics the sleep-deprived time-fog of the early days. Its metaphors are unexpected and fruitful. The protagonist’s profession as a translator at first represents the identity she has lost, but eventually comes to assume more than before. She is translating from one self to another, and will emerge written in a different language. The permanence of it astounds you. In a similar vein, a strange relationship the protagonist has with a ghostly couple who live upstairs is a rich source of metaphor for her life transition. The man in this couple is tethered to an oxygen tank, just like the protagonist is tethered to Button. The comparison captures the baby’s dual roles: She is awkward and unwanted, a ball and chain—yet she is also essential, both existentially and chemically, a feeling many new mothers will recognize.
One of the neighbors dies, then the other does; the old man’s music floods the protagonist’s apartment, and then his grief does. These slightly supernatural elements perform a similar role to the protagonist’s postpartum fantasies of harming the baby. When the cracks in the ceiling play music, or the mother presses against her bonds and imagines dropping the baby out the window, an aura of mystery arises, and something new enters. It is frightening and unknown, but makes a tentative gesture towards the sublime. By the end, the reader senses that if there is to be any salvation from the wreckage of Button’s parents’ former lives, it will come through these openings. What begins as a hallucination may turn into motherlove. We are allowed to hope. Or perhaps it’s the opposite. The new mother gets up and puts on her shoes, the new father packs the baby into a sling, and off they go. Time passes, the fissures close, and daily life begins again.
To make any general statements about mothering is to encounter pushback. For many women, the transition is easy and joyful, or so I’m told. Many feel no conflict between what they were before and what they have become, or at least that’s what it looks like on Instagram. The protagonist of The Nursery appears to have a condition—postpartum depression—that makes her struggle abnormal or an illness, instead of something fundamental that we all ought to be talking about. But the author knows differently. “Has there ever been a description of a mother holding her child for hours?,” she asks.
Who around you thinks it’s important to know how difficult it is to nurse? Or how often you are covered—down to your elbows—in feces when changing diapers? What difference does it make if anyone knows the quantity of laundry that is created between these four walls? … Who wants to recognize the repetition? Who cares what domesticity is made of?
I became a mother 15 years ago, and I’m still outraged that I, like Molnar’s protagonist, had to discover it all by myself, and that most things I have come to believe about its value are unspeakable. Women aren’t what they were before, but we are still mothers. (Any playing around with the gender terminology is meaningless in this regard, for one unspeakable thing.) A feminism that truly served us would be not obscuring this, but taking it on. If mother-work feels shameful, isolating, and like failure for a particular and common type of woman—can we change that? Can culture, art, and intelligence—all qualities lavishly found in The Nursery, and in all nurseries manned by educated women—come to the rescue in some way? Might we throw a little money at it? A Universal Basic Mother Wage comes to mind. More questions: If the man’s experience is profoundly physically, chemically, and emotionally different, is the new expectation that he be a kind of beta-mom the right one? It doesn’t seem to be making people very happy in the households around me. (Molnar’s writing on the protagonist’s husband, John, is some of the best in the book, starting with his making Button a jazz playlist as his contribution to her homecoming. I laughed out loud.) Molnar doesn’t have the answers to these questions, and nor do I, but I know there is no hope of finding them while we are all being dishonest about the problem. The Nursery, then, is a very good place to start.