Meaghan O’Connell wrote her memoir, And Now We Have Everything, out April 10, for you. She wrote it for anyone who might have a baby someday, or anyone who knows someone who might have a baby one day, or anyone who once had a baby themselves. She wrote it for her 29-year-old past self, who didn’t have a frank, funny, honest account of what pregnancy did to the body, and what expectations of motherhood did to the mind. O’Connell had to undergo the process alone — at least we have her as a guide.
Three months after her son was born, O’Connell wrote “A Birth Story,” an almost shockingly detailed account of the birth process — complete with a gory description of an epidural — that takes almost an hour to read, and was published on Longreads in 2014. After the essay was published, O’Connell began to write more; to reflect on parenting even before she was firmly comfortable with her new identity as a mother. "This was my way of making sense of everything," O’Connell told Refinery29.
What came out of those sessions was a wise, essential memoir about pregnancy and motherhood – but also about dealing with life when it veers off the expected tracks. We spoke to O'Connell about postpartum depression, baby names, and why it seems honest accounts like hers are all too scarce, even in 2018.
When I was reading this book, I kept thinking: How could I not have known any of this before? Does it ever strike you as a conspiracy, almost, that these experiences and facts of what happens during motherhood are kept so hush hush?
"I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy, but it definitely feels that way. Women don’t want to be the person to say, 'It was really bad for me.' But I couldn’t deny it. Once I was in it, it felt like the biggest mindfuck. There was no pretending that everything was beautiful. It feels vulnerable to say, 'I didn’t handle this well.' You don’t want to be the person who couldn’t cope. But I’ve made peace with that by now. Then, you’re worried people won’t understand. You don’t want your friends who don’t have kids yet to think you’re an idiot for doing it, either. There’s a defensiveness. You’re trying to defend your life because you feel so unsupported, anyway, in this mom-cave."
You have to defend your individual experience against the myth of motherhood, and how it’s all supposed to be.
"Right. But that’s what I try to do with my writing. Trust that if something is feeling hard for me, then it’s not just me. I’m sure a lot of people cope better with sleep deprivation, childbirth, and breastfeeding — I’m sure there are also women that haven’t. It feels hard to talk about, on top of living through it. But, to me, there’s nothing better than sitting with another woman and saying, 'Wasn’t that horrible?' and connecting on that level."
The book begins with a scene of you talking to your friends about a possible pregnancy. It sets the tone for the rest of the book — I almost felt like I was your friend while reading it. Were you writing for a certain audience in mind?
"That chapter with my friends when I want to tell them what happened [after the birth], but I haven’t figured out how to tell them yet — that was the impulse behind writing the book. I don’t want there to be a chasm between us and say, 'Oh, they won’t understand.' I hated that when people said that to me — 'Oh, you can’t understand a mother’s love for a child until you have a baby.' Well, let’s just try. Giving up on connecting with them about this huge part of my life that I felt changed by kind of felt like giving up on our friendship. Early on, when I first started writing the book, I hadn’t fully transitioned into the identity of mother yet. I definitely felt like I was trying to tell myself — or my past self, or my friends who hadn’t done it — and trying to bridge that gap.
"So much was this onslaught, the day in, day out of taking care of the baby. Trying to tread water. I knew I felt bad, but it was hard to get to the bottom of it. In a lot of the book, too, I felt like I was trying to explain to Dustin, my husband. Why am I crying all the time? Being in it every day made it hard to communicate. This was my way of making sense of everything."
It feels vulnerable to say, 'I didn’t handle this well.' You don’t want to be the person who couldn’t cope. But I’ve made peace with that by now.
You brought up Dustin, who is such an important presence in the book. In many ways, he’s unencumbered by the burdens that you have as a woman, that you inherited because you’re supposed to act like a "mom." Did having a baby make you more aware of gender roles?
"Yes. We still are intent on sharing the load, and aware of emotional labor. But, when the baby came, we couldn’t split breastfeeding, we couldn’t split the physical trauma of childbirth. That’s all on me. He didn’t have postpartum depression.
"In a way, he was compensating for it by doing everything he could around the house, and keeping us afloat while I flailed. It made me jealous or competitive with him in the moment, because I was in a bad place. It’s a luxury that he could do that. Now that I’m out of it, I can think of how hard that was for him. To feel a little helpless and, on the outside, trying to be relevant."
As an aside, did you ever see that video of men undergoing labor pain?
"Yes, I remember watching it while I was pregnant, and making Dustin watch it. I want that so much with everything. Subjectivity drives me crazy. That’s why I write. I wish everybody could feel my labor for 30 seconds, so you know what I’m talking about. It’s so frustrating that pain is subjective."
Whenever I speak to women who have given birth, they’ll describe it in a few sentences — but you give us an hour of how bad it really was. Every person I know has been born from this. With that in mind, who do you hope ends up reading your book? Just women, or men, too?
"When I was writing it, I imagined writing it for women who hadn’t done it yet. I was so frustrated when I was pregnant, because I was like, 'What’s it going to be like?' That’s all I wanted to know. How am I going to feel? Of course, it’s hard to know how your individual person will react. The deeper I got into the book, the more I was grappling with my relationship with Dustin, and trying to communicate to him in ways I couldn’t in the moment. It’s a book for women, but I have heard from a few men that men should read this, too. We were all born. We all know women and have mothers."
Earlier, you said you just wanted to know what pregnancy and motherhood were like, but didn’t feel like you had a resource. Why do you think there’s a lack of frank discussion around this universal experience?
"I feel like it’s changing. Well, I never know if I’m just exposed to this stuff more now, or I seek it out. It’s out there more and more. But, compared to how common the experience is — when you consider how many people go through this, and don’t talk about it. Imagine if we had no books about, say, work. Or, if we had five really good books about work, instead of it being threaded into everything."
I’ve heard from women who have given birth that, eventually, they forget about it. And that’s why they can have another baby. But, you’re doing press for this book, and it’s like you’re reliving all of these early experiences in your mind. What’s that like?
"Especially when I’m pregnant! It’s intense. I’ve had to go back to my therapist. I feel like I’m a good friend to talk to if you have a new baby, because I have to remember it. I spent two years writing about it and editing it and being in that headspace. Once you're out of that newborn phase and not pumping anymore, and your baby's sleeping through the night, it’s a completely different experience. Then you romanticize the early days. You forget because it’s such a weird alternate universe.
"I don't want to say it scares me, but I’m going through it with open eyes. I sat down with my therapist and she wrote down: 'Tell your doctors and nurses that you had trauma with your last birth. Protect your sleep. Take SSRIs if you have depression again.' I feel so much better having a realistic approach to it. I’m working with myself to feel more prepared in a real way, instead of an aspirational way. Part of what was so hard the first time was not knowing what you were getting into, which makes it easier to idealize. But, now I’m like, okay. If I go a couple of nights without sleeping, that’s bad for me. I don’t want to go into the dark place again. And if I do, I hope I can remember it’s temporary. I feel a lot better. It’s more exciting, because I know what a baby is, and know that they’re not babies forever. When they’re people, I really like them."
You have your younger self to be in conversation with, to help guide you through this process again.
"Yeah. I can’t be in denial. I know this material now."
Well, it’s not like you were in denial before. You just didn’t know. How could you have known?
"I know. It feels like I was delusional. But I have compassion for myself."
Right. And something you talk about in the book is how you were getting information from every side about what you have to do — you have to breastfeed, you have to have a natural birth. You were trying to do the right thing.
"Exactly. That’s the difference now. I still am trying to do the right thing, but I know what the right thing is for me and my family now, instead of the best thing I could find in a book. I'm already a mother. I know what I need. I know what matters to me. I have my own values now. Before, I don’t know if it was because I was younger or just hadn’t done it, I was so worried about being a 'bad' mom and doing this at all. I had imposter syndrome. I was like, I have to do everything the hardest way possible, because that’s the best. Not having that mindset is like night and day. It’s so good."
I still am trying to do the right thing, but I know what the right thing is for me and my family now, instead of the best thing I could find in a book.
In this book, you struggle to adopt the identity of "mother." Since then, you’ve become someone who writes about motherhood in a column and a book. You've become a voice for mothers. How do you feel about your role as someone who regularly speaks about the experience?
"I haven’t really thought about it until now. When I started writing about this, I never thought motherhood would be my beat. I imagined it would be so separate. I would be a mom at home, and go out and write and be in public as a normal person who didn’t talk about her baby too much, because that would be annoying. But it was honestly great because I always wanted to be a writer and write a book one day, but I never knew what I wanted to write about. I never had that urgency that I felt after I had the baby.
"I had those self-doubt moments. Am I going to be pigeonholed? Is this what I'm going to write about forever? But I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was getting paid to write about something I really wanted to write about, and I felt like I had something to say, maybe for the first time in my life. I tried not to second guess it. It’s been really rewarding. I’m working on a novel that is nothing about this — more early 20s stuff. But I’m having a baby again so I’m back in it, just as thought I was emerging from a cocoon."
What did you choose to leave the baby unnamed in the book?
"Mostly for my son’s privacy. Before we had the baby, we were like, 'Okay: What are the rules?' That was before I knew I was going to write about it. We tried to keep photos of him and his name private. Our Instagrams are locked down. I worry about it less now. It did get tricky in writing the book. One of my copy editors asked if we could give him a nickname, because it was awkward to keep saying the baby. It was a weird challenge. But this book is not about him. Life is about him, but [in the book] he’s sort of an avatar for this change. It’s about my experience. I don't want to say that he was a prop, but in the book that’s how it functions. A catalyst, not a character. Plus he’s a baby. He didn’t talk. Babies are kind of cute lumps at first."
You and Dustin were the people, and the baby was... a baby.
"He didn’t feel like a person to me. Maybe with the second baby he feels more like a person now, because I know that he will be one day."