(January 28, 2021) Rachel Zucker is the author of 10 books, including, most recently, SoundMachine. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell Colony and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Zucker is an adjunct professor at New York University and at the Antioch Low Residency MFA program. Founder and host of the podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People), Zucker is working on an immersive audio project (also called SoundMachine) and a book of lectures called The Poetics of Wrongness. She’s the mother of 3 boys ages 21, 20 and 13, and she describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “attachment, attachment, attachment.”
FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES
Rachel Zucker’s website
Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People, Rachel’s podcast
Sustainable Arts Foundation
Podcast: Appearances with Sharon Mashihi
Kaitlin Prest‘s podcasts The Shadows and The Heart
Makenna Goodman, The Shame
Darcey Steinke, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement
In motherhood, Tillie Olsen famously said, “You’re so terribly interruptible.”
The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Katie Peterson (Check out the Writer Mother Monster conversation with Katie here!)
I’m trying to figure out how to date as a 49-year-old woman, during a pandemic, when I take COVID really seriously. I am basically Rip Van Winkle— like I woke up 25 years later, and I don’t know what Tinder is. How do female humans do this?
“I’ve been trying to do a better job of telling my kids how much I love to work and not feel horribly guilty about it.”
It’s so hard to have solidarity amongst women, amongst mothers. Motherhood is so intense at almost every stage. It’s hard to be interested in menopause when you’re obsessed, understandably, with sleep training. It’s hard to think about having sex after a hysterectomy in your late-40s after a divorce when your nipples hurt from breastfeeding. I’m desperate for wisdom, experience, advice from mothers who are half a generation older than I am, but it’s hard to have that conversation when we’re at such different stages.
Part of why I wanted to be a mother was that I wanted to do it differently than my mother had done it. One of the central damaging things was my mother was a writer and an artist, and I thought she chose her work over me. She was ambitious and did the best she could, but it wasn’t really good enough—and then she got divorced and ruined my life. I have a very different understanding of that now.
I’ve never been able to do what my mother did, which was to say, “I’m working now. Go away,” or to just go away herself. I have struggled with that so pointlessly.
It was one thing to teach, it was one thing to make money, it was one thing to fulfill a family obligation to go to a best friend’s wedding or something, but to go away to write was something that I couldn’t imagine.
You have to commit to many residencies for four weeks, so it’s really prohibitive to almost every mother that I know. I don’t think people think very hard about how exclusionary it is. Those residencies were basically created for men with tenure-track jobs who were on an academic calendar.
The McDowell Fellowship was a profound experience. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t have to make dinner every night, that somebody fed me. That was very emotional, actually, to be cared for in that way. I’d never had that experience—not from my mother, not from my father, certainly not from my husband.
I was less hirable than some other people for junior faculty positions, because by the time I was full on the job market, I had six books, I’d won awards, I was too old. Nobody knew what to do with me.
I’ve been trying to do a better job of telling my kids how much I love to work and not feel horribly guilty about it. That’s also a weird thing that I used to do when they were little, sort of act like it was not what I wanted.
With this whole helicopter mom thing, now we’re screwed because we’re too attentive. It’s never ending with the fault and the shame and the guilt. Kids also need limitations, and they need to be safe, and the world is so “horribly dangerous,” but if we keep them too safe, then they’re not going to be resilient. I mean, it’s impossible.
Prose, poetry, memoir, short story, creative nonfiction, essay, lyric essay, audio transcription–there was no one of those that was adequate to describing the experiences that I was trying to describe, which are primarily stories of motherhood. How do you record, or describe and communicate experiences that are internal or external, in the body, in the subconscious, the way you have the running tape in your mind all the time? The novel wasn’t really invented for that material.
What kind of narrative structure or lyric structure can contain or embody what it means to be interruptible but also have a relationship with the reader in which you don’t seem psychotic?
People are so fucked up in their ideas about “you have to sleep with your child, you can’t sleep with your child, it’s incest, they’re never going to individuated.” And it’s like, everybody’s just trying to get some sleep and not feel abandoned.
“The problem is that the pandemic, so far, has made every vulnerable group more vulnerable, and the few people who were basically immune to everything that could possibly go wrong in a person’s life have made billions of dollars.”
I hope we can come out of the pandemic with real personal and, more importantly, institutional change. There are things that we should never go back to. There’s no reason for in-person parent-teacher conferences. Just be done with that. A lot of things are opening up in ways that, hopefully, will give people more accessibility, opportunity, and potential for an equal playing field. The problem is that the pandemic, so far, has made every vulnerable group more vulnerable, and the few people who were basically immune to everything that could possibly go wrong in a person’s life have made billions of dollars. And it’s really hard to protest right now safely, so that constellation of things is very concerning to me. How do we continue to dismantle capitalism, for example, and racism and white supremacy and things that exclude women and exclude mothers? Well, I think that a major societal disruption, which is what’s happened, is one of the things that we needed to make this happen. But how do we not slide back is really the question. It’s not primarily the job of mothers and parents with young children; it is primarily the job of people like me. I don’t know yet how to participate in that fight, to not slide back, to move forward. But it really has to be the work of women who don’t have young children at home, who are not struggling just make enough money or keep their jobs, so I don’t know yet how to do that work most successfully and powerfully. But I think this is a call to women my age and older, particularly white women or women with privilege and power of any kind. Now is the moment. Do not let us go back to the worst part of what was before.