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Review: Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything is an honest look at ambition and motherhood

Meaghan O'Connell.

  • Title: And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready
  • Author: Meaghan O’Connell
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Co.
  • Pages: 240

Ask a new parent what life after kids is like, and the response is usually some riff on “Everything changes! I can’t explain it.” I don’t have kids and I love being prepared, so this answer is wholly unsatisfying, even if it is true. What exactly changes? And how? And when? And why?

Meaghan O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready is a poignant and hilarious attempt to answer some of these questions. The book is an account of O’Connell’s accidental pregnancy at 29 and first year of parenthood, as she and her husband tackle the task of raising a tiny human. While recounting stories of prenatal yoga, resenting her partner for being the “better” parent and a side-splitting (and horrifying) birth story, O’Connell shines an unglamorous spotlight on the realities of being an ambitious, young woman trying to be a good mom without becoming a stranger to herself.

Throughout the book, O’Connell grapples with the dichotomy of drive and desire when it comes to making choices about work and family. “When you are a woman with ambitions that run as deep as her feelings, you are supposed to trust the ambitions, not the feelings,” she writes early in the book. When she decides to have a baby, it’s a clear choice that goes against all of her career-forward instincts. O’Connell’s story may not look quite the same as the power-suited career moms of the 1980s, but the stresses of new parenthood, patriarchy and climbing the ladder are still ingrained in our culture. O’Connell’s chapter “Slacker Parent” illustrates the double standard of parenthood perfectly; her partner “got to demolish low expectations of fatherhood,” she says, as friends compliment his “engagement” with their child. By contrast, O’Connell writes, she as the mother is the “default” parent and fears “being eaten alive by motherhood.”

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O’Connell writes in both present and past tense, bringing the reader along as she deals with mundane baby-care tasks while constantly thinking that she should be working on something else. She wades through life amid the pressure she feels to be a perfect parent, while also trying not to let parenthood change her work or her goals – an impossible situation. When O’Connell and her husband move from New York to Portland, Ore., she meets a new friend who also has a baby. “I feel myself getting manic with the thrill of being finally understood,” she writes of their first visit. “The ability to be casually despondent, to complain to someone in shorthand and not feel like you have to insert caveats about how much you love your baby.” And Now We Have Everything is also an invitation to feel those feelings without judgment or punishment. I felt like I was sitting with O’Connell in a coffee shop during her first hour alone without the baby, trying to work while wracked with guilt and fury at the unfairness of having to rush home in case the baby cried (which he obviously did). I imagined I was walking alongside her when she fell in the street with the baby strapped to her front, overcome with fear but also the space to laugh a little in hindsight at the absurdity of it all.

O’Connell’s straightforward admissions made me anxious at times, but I was also incredibly grateful to her for putting them on paper. My own fears about being the best version of myself, kids or not, were alleviated through reading about another person’s struggles with the same issues – and with the guts to admit how inadequate and alone she felt. Her direct, punchy writing style, published in New York magazine, Longreads and The Billfold (where she has edited some of my work), translates well to a book-length format, where she has room to explore all avenues of a thought or an anecdote before concluding with a startling clarity. “There is no mother I want to be,” she writes. “I want to be myself, but better.”

In And Now We Have Everything, O’Connell is trying to find out who she will become after everything has changed. It’s a question specific to her life, but in asking it, she challenges readers to do the same, no matter their circumstances. Her book is a welcome approach to both confessional writing and writing about motherhood, both of which are often denigrated in mainstream literary scenes. Women are doubted at every stage of their lives, so often forced into a protective silence that holds them hostage. O’Connell’s book is a loud rejection of all that; she names the messy feelings that so often shame us into hiding and in doing so, gives herself, and anyone who can relate, a bit of room to breathe.

Manisha Claire is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Hazlitt and The Atlantic.

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