A Tale of Maternal Ambivalence

A new novel, The Nursery, explores the mix of unexpected emotions—including rage, regret, and loneliness—that new motherhood can bring on.

Baby in a crib with a mother's shadow over it
Illustration by Daniel Zender / The Atlantic. Source: Getty

Motherhood has always been a subject ripe for mythmaking, whether vilification or idealization. Although fictional accounts, from antiquity until today, have offered us terrible, even treacherous mothers, including Euripides’s Medea and Livia Soprano, depictions of unrealistically all-good mothers, such as Marmee from Little Women, are more common and provide a sense of comfort. Maternal characters on the dark end of the spectrum provoke our unease because their monstrous behavior so clearly threatens society’s standards for mothers. They show that mother love isn’t inevitable, and that veering off from the expected response to a cuddly new infant isn’t inconceivable.

If motherhood brings with it the burden of our projected hopes, new mothers are especially hemmed in by wishful imagery, presumed to be ecstatically bonding with their just-emerged infants as they suckle at milk-filled breasts, everything smelling sweetly of baby powder. The phenomenon of postpartum depression, for instance, a condition that affects 10 to 15 percent of women, has been given short shrift in literature and other genres when not ignored entirely. This is true as well when it comes to the evocation of maternal ambivalence, the less-than-wholehearted response to the birth of a child, which is mostly viewed as a momentary glitch in the smooth transition from pregnancy to childbirth to motherhood instead of being seen as a sign of internal conflict.

Now along comes Szilvia Molnar’s The Nursery to bring us down from the clouds into the muck and mire of postpartum reality. The novel’s nameless narrator, a married book translator, finds herself overwhelmed by feelings of rage, regret, and loneliness after bringing her newborn—referred to, as if to keep her as neutral and objectlike as possible, as Button—home from the hospital. In the immediate aftermath of delivering Button, “a dissipating high” tricks the narrator into thinking that “giving birth made me feel invincible,” but almost at once she feels discarded, reduced to being “an item once of value”—a feeling that is only strengthened once she is alone with her infant daughter in her small two-bedroom apartment. “The night that she came out, I kept thinking that I wanted her to stay in,” she explains. “I wasn’t ready to mourn the life I was leaving behind.”

By Szilvia Molnar

Mourning the loss of one’s former life to the implacable demands of motherhood has become fairly commonplace. But for Molnar, this anxiety rapidly expresses itself as the mother’s reaction to the infant herself, her feelings reaching another register entirely. The narrator’s responses to her daughter’s insatiable needs are extreme, flecked with murderous intent, but they remain fantasies or hallucinations—or so the reader hopes. (If postpartum depression has gotten little notice in the culture, there is a tabloid fascination with those very few mothers, such as Andrea Yates or, more recently, Lindsay Clancy, who appear to have experienced a form of psychotic postpartum depression, eventually killing their children.) One of the things Molnar seems to be suggesting is that the line between a wish and acting on a wish is not as inviolable as we like to think, especially when it comes to new mothers, floating between disparate emotions, pressured by the assumptions of others and confronting their own mixed reactions to having created new life.

The narrator spends the first week of motherhood half-consumed and half-appalled by the unignorable, “steadily oblivious” presence of Button, “a passive, pink, little old creature.” When she’s not vigilantly observing her—“Her repetitive movements remind me of breaststrokes under water”—she is tirelessly taking care of her, all the while dreaming of a time before the baby’s arrival on the scene: “The bassinet next to me is empty, which allows my mind to entertain the thought that Button is forever gone and I can go back to my desk like before.” Her formerly full world has come down to a confined space in which she is always fatigued and hungry, forever undoing her bra so that Button can latch on to her nipples—“It’s time to open the milk bar”—or changing the baby’s diapers or hooking herself up to a breast pump, or, again, replacing the bloodied sanitary pad between her legs where she has been painfully stitched up after delivery.

Having to deal with her own body leads the narrator into an orgy of self-loathing, in which she stares at her “bloated and neglected” postpartum belly with disgust: “I poke and push the excess flesh around. My fingers sink deep, disappearing in funny bulges of stretched skin.” At other times her loathing is beamed at the infant herself, much to her shame: “I think about how when we clean Button in the evenings, her naked body (barely a she) resembles store-bought poultry in my hands. So easy to slice, but I shouldn’t welcome the thought. Such vile imagination must be pushed out from my consciousness.” Meanwhile, her intrusive fantasies of killing Button—“I mean, sometimes I picture myself crushing her with my foot”—so that she can return to her work and take walks around the unnamed city she lives in lead her to Google How common is wanting to kill your baby? and wonder if she is losing her mind.

The shifts in the narrator’s state of mind are adroitly handled, suggesting the fluid tangle of the real and the imaginary that she is experiencing. Many of her thoughts are deeply disturbing, leaving the reader unclear as to how seriously we are to take them—or, alternately, how seriously the narrator herself takes them. That she is nostalgic for the freedom of her pre-Button life is understandable, but is she nostalgic enough to try to actually restore that life? These are questions that the novel raises without necessarily providing conclusive answers; instead Molnar succeeds in giving complexity to feelings that are often written off didactically as “good” or “bad,” offering us a way of inhabiting the narrator’s tenuous consciousness without the immediate need to pass into the certitude of judgment.

Through brief, vivid flashbacks we learn of the narrator’s life before she became a mother: her memories of the mother she lost at a young age, of biting off the purple nail polish she wore to school, of sleeping on a beach in Croatia, boyfriends, the delight she took in searching for just the right word when she was translating, dinners with other couples, and the passionate sex she and her husband once enjoyed. The narrator’s daily existence is now largely unpeopled except for some friends, who dutifully visit and assure her that that they “will want to participate in the child’s life”; her husband, John; and an elderly, recently widowed upstairs neighbor, Peter, whose visits, together with his oxygen tank, she quickly begins to depend on. She seems to feel most comfortable with this mournful man, listening to his stories about his late wife and not having to cover up her strange and confusing thoughts or apologize for her bedraggled, half-undressed state. “Do you think there is something wrong with me?” she asks him over a cup of tea in the kitchen. “No more than any other person,” he replies in his laconic way.

John, meanwhile, seems well meaning—at one point, the narrator conflates him with their couch as “the sweet and boring epicenter of our home”—but somehow negligible: “I can’t stand that everything John says is a quote,” the narrator thinks after he tries to reassure her that her body will bounce back, “a handful of scripted words that are easy to say for the sake of saying something.” Despite John’s best efforts—cooking dinner, crooning at Button when he gives her a bath, taking her to the pediatrician for her first checkup while his wife catches up on her sleep—the reader is given the sense that he only vaguely comprehends his wife’s ricocheting feelings, in response to which he keeps suggesting that she venture outside their apartment instead of holing up with Button, tracking her every whimper. She, however, allows that “it was a puzzle to me why he loved me,” and states that the birth of the baby signaled John’s “death”; his sexual overtures leave her cold. All the same, it is through John’s thick-headed persistence and encouragement that the narrator finally leaves their building, Button strapped onto her father’s chest. Outside on the street is the promise of life waiting to be picked up again: “The golden hour reflects off our skin and I am reminded: it is my favorite time of the day.”

The Nursery is a powerful brew of a novel, emitting unpleasant sights, smells, and emotions that are rarely captured in print; it is frequently disquieting in its brutal, insistent candor. “Has there ever been a description in literature of what it entails to change an infant’s diaper?” the narrator asks. Like all books that contain unpretty truths, it is definitely not for the squeamish or for those who insist on always looking at the bright side of things. Although it cuts back and forth, sometimes a bit confusingly, between the narrator’s life pre-pregnancy, the days she spends in the hospital after delivering the baby, and the harrowing aftermath, the cumulative effect gives the novel a largeness of scope that it otherwise might not have had and saves it from potential claustrophobia. The prose occasionally falters, and a phrase will sound as if it were a mistranslation (the writer was born in Budapest and raised in Sweden, though she is writing here in English), but it is in the main charged with an immediacy and directness that pull the reader in.

Molnar has written a daring and much-needed novel that has some of the hothouse, unflinching quality of Sylvia Plath’s late poetry. It highlights the fact that, much as we would like to believe otherwise, the maternal instinct is not hardwired, and the unpredictability of the first encounters between mothers and newborns, despite all we are told they should be, bears further study rather than reductive and patronizing theories that don’t always correlate with reality. Consider The Nursery, then, as an alternative script to the one offered in such chestnuts as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, if only to give a fuller and more nuanced picture of the experience of new motherhood, which doesn’t always live up to the insistently rosy portrait we have of it.

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