Ways to Look

Ways to Look

Our pregnant friends came over for dinner a couple of weeks ago. They’re three weeks from their due date, but we hadn’t had them over since before they got pregnant. I had this thrill, all of a sudden, as soon as I saw them, that we had so much to talk about. When we had our kids, I was younger and didn’t have a lot of mom friends. I had friends who were not moms who came over and hung out with me, who brought us food and took me for long walks with the baby strapped to my chest. I mostly knew enough when they came over, not to talk too much about the baby. Even the best of friends could only listen so much about breastfeeding, about sleep strategies and poop counts and the weird way you are embarrassingly obsessed with your strange blob. I still have this well though, of baby knowledge and experience. I googled everything all those months I wasn’t sleeping; I was obsessed.

Our kids are almost five and six now, and our friends have started, finally, to get pregnant. I have felt this thrill, each time it happens, of finally getting to talk about the mess of it.

Polly Rosenwaike’s Look How Happy I’m Making You feels like those conversations, tight and intimate, sad and funny, alive with some of the ways being a mother can go right, some of the ways it can sadden and destroy. It’s a collection of twelve stories that deal with pre and post and accidental and on purpose pregnancies and parenthood. It’s filled with dying Aunts and meddling mothers, altered friendships, partners who often fail to understand.

There was a deluge of “mother” books last year. As if all of a sudden all books weren’t in some way about mothers or their lack, the damage that they’ve caused us, as if so many of us don’t write at least in part because we feel we weren’t loved enough by whoever was supposed to love us when we were small. In writing fiction we’re all trying to make things new in some way. We’re all trying to give specific fresh-feeling perspectives to the oldest feelings in the world.

Enter Polly Rosenwaike, enter every single story here, which proves over and over that this space’s store of human thought and feeling, desperation, complexity, is (perhaps endlessly) profoundly rich. Consider how small the world is that she explores and still how much it holds. Nearly all of her characters have a kind of privilege: in their (mostly) whiteness, in their educations, in their seeming material stability. This is not a criticism. People in these stories grapple with religion and identity; a Jewish mother is appalled by her daughter's family Christmas tree, her husband's mother is shocked there's no angel on top. Two girls, both Jewish, who meet at summer camp, make concentration camp jokes, "just between the two of us." Though these characters' worlds are relatively similar, they grapple with all their vastnesses. This is, I think, further to the point of all the ways this book reminds us of all the stories still not told inside this space. That there are endless “mother” books still to be written and be read.

In this collection, Rosenwaike shows us how the short story specifically is such a fruitful form for portraying the time that exists around early parenthood, in which everything feels both all encompassing and transitory, in which you feel both just like everybody else and wholly unmoored and alone. You are obsessed with getting pregnant, but then you’re pregnant. You think your child will never sleep, but then they do. You hate nursing and then you love it and then your child is refusing your breast and asking for more food. Rosenwaike uses this to her advantage throughout this collection. She highlights the fact that these stretches of time feel so complete when you’re inside them, so all consuming, but then they end. She reminds us that the closer up we get to each of these instances, the sharper they feel, the more intense and overwhelming, but also, we move on.

In the first story, “Grow Your Eyelashes,” a couple wants a baby but doesn’t have one. They’re trying, which as Rosenwaike writes, “when you are a childless couple in your mid-thirties with two full time jobs and a three bedroom house, everyone knows what trying means.” The story depicts the specific ache of this type of wanting and not getting. It portrays, the shock, when someone close to you accidentally gets what you’re desperate for but cannot have.

The story is tightly contained, made up of daydreams, phone calls, bus rides; hardly anything happens in the present action. And yet it holds within it the wanting that, for some, will dissipate and turn to getting; for others it will harden and re-form over years. The story lets that moment linger though, lets us inhabit it completely, see the complexity within it. At the end, there is still no baby, there might not ever be, but the want the woman feels has shifted. A want she thought was sure is now less sure. We see how precarious certainty can be in the face of wanting and not getting. We see how, even within this small stretch of time, without any concrete change, the shape and texture of one’s want can shift and change.  

The third story, “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” is a miscarriage story. In it, the experience both belongs wholly to the woman, because so much of pregnancy is it’s isolation, your power as a procreator is so public and yet the specific way in which this power acts upon you is maddeningly, shockingly internal and private. The main character doesn’t tell her partner for the first few days she thinks she might be losing the baby. She starts spotting and then starts to google. He holds it against her later. He feels hurt, he says, “that you didn’t tell me right away.” He is perhaps right to be upset. And yet, the narrator’s not telling makes sense also. Rosenwaike implicates us in the main character’s mendacity. We feel her husband’s slights and misunderstandings, his separateness in all the time she could tell him but does not. We know why he’s hurt, because he is made out, basically, to be trying to be a solid, present partner, but also, we understand the lie.

This is another impressive strength of this collection, nearly everyone inside of it is well-intentioned, and yet their violences are no less real or felt even as they’re often accidents. So much of pregnancy feels secret and elusive. So much of being partnered during pregnancy is coming up against all the ways the experience is both shared and not. The mother in “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression” has flashes, fantasies of injuring her baby. She lies in bed with a man much younger than her--not her husband, who is grown up and responsible, whose shirts are always pressed--with the baby in between them and they mostly don’t talk and it feels both like this is more intimate than cheating might be, but also like she’s just doing everything she can to stay alive and functional to keep the baby alive and functional as well.

Not every woman in this book is pregnant or a mother. Not every woman wants to be. What connects them all is the fact of that ability, in all those years when one’s body is capable of making babies, in all those years that those around you are making them: the weight this places on us, the way it shifts the way we see the world, our partners, and our friends. In “A Lady Who Takes Jokes,” Caitlyn only vaguely thinks of motherhood for herself. Her partner has a daughter, who is eight and whom she likes. She asks him questions sometimes about his interest in having more children, but she also suggests that their relationship will be ending soon. What shifts for her, in this story, is her oldest friend’s new status as a mother, the specific tragedy she experiences in the face of parenting, and how it alters what this fundamental relationship is and will become for both of them.

The last story, “Parental Fade”, is about sleep training, which in less deft hands would be too obvious, but Rosenwaike understands the way that the cliches are cliches but also true but also all these other roiling rickety thoughts and feelings underneath. We all hit nearly the same beats in early parenthood: feeding, sleeping, shitting; that’s part of the beauty and the strangeness of it. When we’re in it, each these beats feels specific to our babies and our lives. They feel no less overwhelming because they’re vaguely familiar, no less a shock when we’re inside them because they’ve been experienced before.

The POV is a “we” in this last story, collective first. When so much of the book inhabits the separation between partners in the months preceding and after the birth or conception of a baby, this shift, within the whole, at the end, also suggests that the book has taken us somewhere farther than its parts could have on their own.

These parents, in “Parental Fade,” are in their forties, equally shocked and comforted by the lateness of their parenting, pleasingly unbeholden to internet judgments of their choices, self aware enough (“we’re softies, weaklings, cowards. It’s easier for us to do things the hard way”) to see the their decision-making for what it is. The pediatrician smiles aggressively at them and lays out their options. The parents choose, as is their way, the harder choice and get to work. The baby is ten months old at the time of the sleep training, the baby has grown two teeth, started eating, is pulling herself up to stand. She’s accomplished all of this but not sleeping, which is a fact that’s so much more shocking when you’re ten months in. Rosenwaike reminds us of each of these developments, situates us within the vastness of sleep’s absence, then we sit with these characters as the baby cries. The main action of the story happens over this single night of listening to the baby crying. It’s another one of those truisms: the days are long, the years are short. In the painstaking minutes of sitting in a room and hoping that the baby will stop crying, the “we” of the story imagines the future, imagines the past. The story understands these minutes hold all this time inside them, how years from now they’ll be repackaged and delivered to the baby as a grown-up, how months from now they’ll be offered to newly pregnant friends.

Shifts in these stories are small and subtle, and so is the amount of time that passes.

Most of the time, as a parent, one of the few things you can depend upon is time passing. Days feel largely the same. But then, and this is also a cliche but also true, you look up and they’re not babies anymore. When our friends were over our six year old came out of her room even though we’d put her to bed hours ago. She was trying to do this origami project she’d been working on for weeks and claimed to want help with. I can’t get this fold right, she said, staring at us, looking sheepishly at our friends. I took her back to her room to get her to sleep and tried to fold her paper for her. Did you really need this folded, I said to her. Half, she said. Half I wanted you to help me, half, I just wanted to look at the pregnant lady one more time.

Lynn Steger Strong's second novel, WANT, will be published by Henry Holt in 2020. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Guernica, Catapult, Literary Hub, Elle, and elsewhere. She is also the author of the novel HOLD STILL and teaches writing.

Lynn Steger Strong's second novel, WANT, will be published by Henry Holt in 2020. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Guernica, Catapult, Literary Hub, Elle, and elsewhere. She is also the author of the novel HOLD STILL and teaches writing.

Four Poems

Four Poems