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Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor who recently published her first book of essays, Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression. She lives in Canberra, Australia.

Meaghan O’Connell is a Portland, Ore.-based writer. She recently published her first memoir, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready.

They held their discussion, over e-mail, in late April and early May.

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Jessica Friedmann:

Meaghan, both of our books deal with motherhood. The suggested topic for this chat is, "What is a mother?" What is a mother?

Meaghan O’Connell:

My son is almost 4 now, and yours must be 5 or so. It's funny to think of us, fairly new to the role, expounding on whatever a mother is. And yet, the time I wrote about in my book, and what you cover in yours, feels like a different sort of motherhood altogether. New motherhood. The transition. Becoming a mother. The trick is that while books such as ours cover the early parts, the early parts are so unlike the rest. Which is a fact I find incredibly reassuring (I am pregnant again).

I think before I became a mother, the word had what was almost a negative connotation. "Mom," "mommy," etc., all made me cringe. I remember I felt like a person, like myself, but a person who had been through or was in the middle of this very specific experience that was overwhelmingly alienating despite being so ordinary.

Now, it feels the opposite, and more about my relationship with my son, and beyond that, my relationship with other women who are mothers.

Your book has On Postpartum Depression as a subtitle, but it was about almost everything else. It was an organizing principle. The book, like motherhood, seems as though it started from a very lonely experience but became something so expansive and connective.

Friedmann:

There's a beautiful word, matrescence, which I encountered only after writing my book: It describes that intense, overwhelming psychic development phase of new motherhood. Essentially, "becoming." So many of us go into it thinking we will fundamentally remain ourselves, but there are such wrenching psychic shifts … I think it's those shifts that you and I are most interested in.

It's funny you mention an organizing principle, because that is really how I understand motherhood. Firstly, it's a principle through which everything is refracted; but moreover, it's a political category. And although it's rooted to biology and sex, it's not confined to them; I have a real issue with "mother" being always understood to mean "woman," when so many of my trans or genderqueer friends experience motherhood as well.

So many people I know have been radicalized by motherhood. We've been children of the nineties, come of age in the past decade and felt ourselves pretty close to equal, only to have the façade of equality crumble into nothing when a child enters the home. I'm in Facebook groups where women are, for the first time, seeking out feminist resources hungrily; we swap books in the mail; I definitely began writing, in part, in response to a sense of need, as, I imagine, did you.

O’Connell:

Yes! Did you feel radicalized by motherhood? I think I had similar ideas before all of this, but without the conviction of experience. Or without the same urgency. So many things felt like bodily revelations – that there was no way my partner and I could be "equal" when I was breastfeeding, for instance. It felt so stark, as a fact – an inconvenient truth.

Friedmann:

In hindsight, I think I must have felt quite smarmily that I was already adequately radical: "Oh yes, I'm aware of all the pitfalls, so there's no way I'll let myself be trapped by them." Whereas, as you say, as soon as that biological imperative enters the equation, there is nothing you can do about it. There is no division of labour that will ever feel fair, at least if you are co-parenting with a man. One thing I really appreciated about your book was how little you attempted to hide your bitterness towards both the role that men get to play within heterosexual parenthood, and toward your partner for enjoying that role.

O’Connell:

I'm laughing. I do wear my bitterness on my sleeve. But yes! I thought I would have coped better being a father, or a non-biological parent. The ability for it to feel as though you were stepping toward something, showing up for it, versus that initial feeling that it was always coming at you (or growing in you, tearing through you, latching onto you, etc). And the hormones! All the things I didn't do so well with. You must have thought about that, too?

Friedmann:

I did, and I didn't. I'd experienced long periods of severe depression in my teens and early 20s, so I was prepared for that, but I wasn't prepared for how tedious the minutiae of having a young infant was. I was prepared to feel tired, but still cerebral, you know, able to read a novel or talk about politics or paintings or a movie that I'd seen. I didn't anticipate that fierce resentment toward the baby for diverting the entirety of my intellectual capacity into things such as doing laundry, breastfeeding, shopping for nappies. Even when I had been depressed in the past, I still had a sense of personhood. And then the baby came and chewed it up and spat it out.

O’Connell:

I do wonder how much my resistance to becoming the thing I feared – a mother! – made the transition even harder. What if I had just given in, let go of my white-knuckle grip on those other identities (writer, feminist, reader, partner, friend) and submitted to my circumstances? That intense, early time would have soon been over, and then I would have returned to myself. But it was so hard to trust or believe those things could come back. I was afraid if I let them slip away, they'd be gone forever.

Friedmann:

There's a line in one of my favourite books, of a young novice entering a monastery; "If anyone had told me I would give up my will to another, I should have said I should rather have been shot." You choose it, or it chooses you, and yet… It's not the same thing, but that submission, that complete surrender, I found really terrifying. I looked around and felt as though I saw so many mothers who had capitulated, so willingly, and were glowing with this light of utmost contentment, and I wanted it so badly. And because I didn't have it – or even a neutral experience, because I was so critically, severely ill – I spent every day of those first sluggish years kicking myself for making such a bad decision. It was nobody's fault but my own.

I'll tell you something humiliating. A few years after I had O, the Melbourne Writers Festival put out a "30 Under 30" programme. And so many of my friends were on it that I just sat on the kitchen floor and bawled. I had O at 25, and most people I knew at that age were working at arts organizations or doing PhDs or travelling. The idea of babies was for later, and because I didn't fit that pattern, I felt invisibilized. As in, there were no writing retreats with child care on site, events were always held in cool little bars with no pram access, that sort of thing; but also because I was still there, I was still under 30, and I hadn't made anything, I hadn't done anything, I had nothing to show for myself ... except a baby. And I didn't know if I had pulled the pin on ever being able to work again.

O’Connell:

Yes, there is such the pervasive feeling that you have to achieve everything career-wise before the baby comes, as if your life ends after that.

Friedmann:

And even though you know that life is long, and that in five years, you might be e-mailing another writer-mother and chatting about your work, and finding such a sense of instant camaraderie, those first few years do give you tunnel vision. It really can feel as though they are a permanent closure, of possibility or of imagination. Can I ask you a question about something you touch on late in your book?

O’Connell:

Of course!

Friedmann:

My writing is very explicitly about motherhood through the lens of postpartum depression [PPD]. In your book, you seem to be writing about the vicissitudes of "normal" mothering, but then, very late in the day, you wonder to a friend whether you're in fact suffering from PPD. And the language of the book, seen in that light, still holds true; what you're describing can be felt across at least two levels. Was that deliberate? Or do you think it points to a paucity in language, which we are both trying to rectify?

O’Connell:

You mean, what is a normal experience and what is PPD, or what is depression and what is more ... depressing circumstances? I still really don't know, I wish there was a way to be objectively sure. I just know I felt miserable, and like not-myself, but then does that invalidate my experience? I was interested in whether that would undermine everything I said before, or just raise more of a question. Hopefully the latter?

Friedmann:

I think it does the latter! What I was getting at is that when a mother says, "I'm so bloody tired," she could mean that she's been up a few times in the night, or that she's so bone-weary she's near suicidal. The language, even when we're being frank, often feels so fraught with the multiplicity of meanings that are possible, both across "normal" and – what? awful? – postpartum experiences.

O’Connell:

Yes! I am nodding vigorously. I kept coming up against this frustration with subjective experience. For instance, trying to explain that I was in untenable pain in labour, whether it was supposed to be "normal" or not. I could barely walk but thought I was "normal" tired when my thyroid stopped working after I had the baby. The assumption that there will be so much suffering, that this is expected (though hardly imagined in its particulars) and abided, winningly, because it's part of the gig ... !

Friedmann:

I think of what our foremothers fought for, and in part it was for motherhood to be respected as a labour condition. Wages for housework! But somewhere along the way we got diverted into believing that not only was childbearing not work, but that we should feel made luminous or empowered by it. Which is nonsense, a lot of the time! And it leaves a lot of women vulnerable, especially those who are already vulnerable, for reasons of race or class or gender or disability. Maternal mental illness is so prevalent, and yet it's almost completely culturally ignored, in order to preserve the idea that motherhood is its own reward.

O’Connell:

I am so glad to have made it to the other side of that mental trap. On good days, I feel like myself, but more so. A mother. But I do wonder if it had to be so hard. And my own personal clarity aside, on a structural level ...

Friedmann:

There's still a lot of work to be done. Maybe that's what a mother can be, in her purest and most potent form: a flea-bite on the arse-cheek of patriarchy.

O’Connell:

Amen!

For further discussion: More from Globe Opinion

Illustrations by Lauren Tamaki

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How does one overcome grief? Julia Samuel and Cathy Rentzenbrink

What is forgiveness? Carys Cragg and Ramin Jahanbegloo

Is conversation a lost art? Sakyong Mipham and N.J. Enfield

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