And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

and-now-we-have-everythingI don’t even know where to start with this book. I loved it so much. I couldn’t put it down. Now that I’ve finished it and returned it to the library, I find myself thinking about it constantly. I was blown away by O’Connell’s raw honesty, beautiful prose, and cultural insight. But what surprised me was how deeply I related to it, even though I am not a mother, and, at the time of this writing, do not have plans to become one. I found myself nodding and holding my breath as I was reading it, and in the days since, I’ve been walking around holding all its beauty and anger and vulnerability close to my chest. It’s a book I felt in my gut. It’s a book that feels important to me as a woman, one that made me feel seen, even though I have not experienced most of what O’Connell writes about. I want to thrust at everyone I know, and tell them: This. This. This.

In this memoir, Meaghan O’Connell goes to all those messy, complicated, contradictory places that a lot of people simply refuse to go to when writing about motherhood. She writes about how badly she wanted a baby, and how terrified she was when she got pregnant, agonizing over whether she was ready. She writes with beautiful, beautiful frankness about how horrible and painful and scary and exhausting and awful it was to give birth. She writes about suffering from post-partum depression without realizing it, about how hard it was for her to breastfeed, about all the horrible, exhausting parts of being a new parent, about loosing her sex drive and about being unable to communicate with her partner. This is a memoir about how hard and lonely it is to do this huge, complicated thing: parent.

She also writes about how much she loves her son, but it was all the bad stuff that made this book so revelatory. Being responsible for a whole tiny human is a massive undertaking. It’s hard; she hates it; she’s exhausted. But none of that has anything to do with how much she loves her child. She wrestles with her own preconceived ideas about pregnancy, birth and motherhood, and shares her experiences with raw honesty, dark humor and breathtaking intimacy. The whole book is an exploration of this notion of perfect motherhood and the ways it hurts and fails women. Why do we expect mothers to be perfect, to be glowing and happy all the time? Why do we expect women to drop everything to become mothers? And why do we assume that women who aren’t perfect and don’t drop everything don’t love their children?

“What if having a hard time adjusting to motherhood wasn’t some moral failure or a failure of the imagination?” she asks. “What if we thought of the whole endeavor like we do work? Like how a career starts out with a lot of dues-paying, a lot of indignity, a lot of feeling unappreciated and complaining to your friends but then incrementally gets easier or more fulfilling. You get better at it. It becomes part of you. And you start to think, Well, what else would I do all day?

Of course, it’s not the same at all. But you can understand why someone wouldn’t want to have a job. And you can understand why someone would.”

And:

“What if, instead of worrying about scaring pregnant women, people told them the truth? What if pregnant women were treated like thinking adults? What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?”

Throughout the book, O’Connell struggles with the fear of failure–failure to have the perfect birth, to parent her son the right way, to love breastfeeding, to savor her child’s first months the way she thinks she should. It’s heart-wrenching and infuriating to read.

O’Connell doesn’t go into a lot of feminist analysis, but it’s all right there in the text. Her  experiences speak for themselves, and illustrate all the ways in which society’s expectations around motherhood are sexist and patriarchal. Men are not expected to perform in this way. Fatherhood is not culturally all-consuming in the way that motherhood is. Men who are fathers are not expected to be fathers above and beyond everything else that they are.

This is what resonated most deeply with me: her exploration of motherhood as a loss of self. As she struggles to adjust to parenthood, she sometimes wants her own time back. She wants to be an adult in the world. She wants to be herself, but with a baby:

“Who wanted to be a mother, anyway? Mom called to mind a relationship with someone, not an individual. A mom was your servant. A mom picked up the wrong thing at the supermarket. A mom needed to stop and get stamps on the way home from soccer practice and you hated her for it…Moms clustered on benches in the playground pulling snacks out of their bags. They took up the whole sidewalk with their goddamn strollers. Moms nagged. Moms were stressed out. I knew it was all internalized misogyny and bad public policy but I still couldn’t really get around it. There was no mother I wanted to be. I wanted to be myself, but better.”

What I found so compelling and so refreshing was the fact that she was able to name this fear, this anger, this desire to not have motherhood entirely consume her. O’Connell embraces motherhood in her own way, but she also calls out the craziness. She challenges the idea that motherhood is always good. She challenges the idea that in order to be a good mother, a woman needs to shed every other part of their identity. She fights back against the notion that being a mother is everything. Here’s how hard this was for me, she says. Here’s what I hated about it. Here’s how it’s changed me. Here’s how it’s become a part of me. Here’s how tired I am. Here’s how much I love my son.

This is a book about motherhood and all the impossible expectations that women who become mothers are expected to live up to. But it’s also a book about being a woman in the world, whether you’re a mother or not, and all the ways in which society both undervalues women and holds us up to higher moral standards. Women are infantilized, or we’re goddesses. We’re perfect, or we’re wrong. All of it is painful and damaging–for mothers, for children, and everyone.

 

And Now We Have Everything is a beautiful book about the messy reality of becoming a family. It’s about how sometimes becoming a family is a lot harder than it looks, and takes longer than you think, and doesn’t happen the moment you meet your kid. It’s about the myriad ways to embody motherhood–to live inside that imperfect and ever-changing identity. It’s a book about motherhood, but it doesn’t end there.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a mom, but I know that this is the book I’m going to give to all the parents-to-be in my life. I know that, as someone who’s always struggled with societal norms and expectations, this book made me feel seen in some truly remarkable ways.

 

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