Sheba Karim


(November 4, 2021) Sheba Karim is the author of the YA novels The Marvelous Mirza GirlsSkunk GirlThat Thing We Call a Heart, which made several Best Book lists including Bank Street and Kirkus, and Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, which was named a NPR Best Book of the Year. Her fiction and essays have been featured in 580 Split, Asia Literary Review, Femina, India Today, Literary Hub, Off Assignment, Shenandoah, South Asian Review, The Rumpus, Time Out Delhi and in several anthologies in the United States and India. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University.

Kristie Robin Johnson

Kristie Robin Johnson is an educator, essayist, and poet from Augusta, GA. She is the current Chair of the Department of Humanities at Georgia Military College’s Augusta campus where she is an Assistant Professor of English. A graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Georgia College and State University, Kristie’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received other awards and recognition including the 2020 Porter Fleming Prize for Nonfiction and the 2021 Page Prize for Nonfiction. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her first book, High Cotton, was released in 2020 by Raised Voice Press and has been recognized as the finalist in the memoir category for 2021 Georgia Author of the Year. Kristie LIVES IN AUGUSTA GEORGIA AND has two sons, ages 14 and 21, and she describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as “inspiring, exhausting, LOVE.”

Ramona Ausubel


(October 8) Ramona Ausubel is the author of two novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Awayland, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a Finalist for the California Book Award, Colorado Book Award and long-listed for the Story Prize. She is also the author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, No One is Here Except All of Us and A Guide to Being Born. She is the recipient of the PEN/USA Fiction Award, the Cabell First Novelist Award and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Tin House, One Story, Ploughshares and many other journals and she teaches in the MFA programs at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Colorado State University. Ramona lives in Colorado where she has two children, ages 7 and 10, and describes writer-motherhood in three words as “effort plus magic.”

Tara Laskowski


(September 30) Tara Laskowski’s debut suspense novel One Night Gone won the Agatha Award, Macavity Award, and the Anthony Award. She also wrote two short story collections, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. She has won the Agatha Award and Thriller Award for her short fiction and was the longtime editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly. A graduate of Susquehanna University and George Mason University, Tara grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Virginia.

Diksha Basu


Diksha Basu is an actor and the author of the novels Destination Wedding and The Windfall, which is under adaptation for a television series by Shonali Bose. ELLE magazine said The Windfall broke stereotypes of exoticism surrounding India while The Wire called it a “shrewd and unstintingly funny story about the neuroses of New Delhi’s 1%.” Originally from New Delhi, India, Diksha holds a BA in Economics from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and divides her time between New York City and Mumbai.

Margaret Adams Transcript


July 22, 2021

Lara Ehrlich

Hi everybody, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest today is Margaret Adams. Before I introduce Margaret, thank you all for tuning in, and please chat with us during the interview. We’ll weave your comments into our conversation. If you enjoy the episode, please also consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon to help keep the podcast going. You can look up details on writermothermon-ster.com. Now, I’m excited to introduce Margaret. Margaret Adams writes short fiction, creative nonfiction, and essays. She’s a fiction editor for JMWW, and she was a Best American Essays 2019 Notable, the winner of the Blue Mesa Review 2018 Nonfiction Contest, and the winner of the Pacifica Literary Review 2017 Fiction Contest. She has also been published in a number of places that you can check out on the website. Originally from Maine, Margaret currently lives in the Navajo Nation where she works as a family nurse practitioner. She has one child who is 11 months old, born during the pandemic. She describes writer motherhood in three words as “still very new.” Pease join me in welcoming Margaret.

Margaret Adams

Hi, thank you for having me on the podcast.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you so much for joining me. Tell me first about those three words, “still very new.” I mean, it’s kind of obvious. You had your little one during the pandemic.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, I was thinking about it, and I don’t feel like I have the authority to speak on this as much as I would like to. I also don’t know what it is like for me yet, because it’s been such a weird year. I have a feeling that I’m going to keep saying that. Like, “Oh, he’s only 8. I’m sure I’ll be figuring this out.” Like, “Oh, golly, he’s only 15. I’m sure I’ll be figuring this out.” It still feels new, and I have a feeling that it’s not going to go away.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, it’s funny how I hear that from so many other women on the show. You guys who are listening know that. People like you said with 15-year-olds, 25-year-olds, they’re still learning how to be a mother, so I think your experience is just as valid as anyone else’s. Tell me what it was like to be pregnant and to have a child and then to have a newborn during the pandemic?

Margaret Adams

I live and work at a hospital. In 2018, I moved from Seattle, where I had been working as a primary care provider part-time and writing part-time, to the Arizona/New Mexico border, to a hospital in the middle of the Navajo Nation, which is where I live right now. I live in hospital housing, as a nonnative person. I live in housing that’s for hospital employees, because they can’t live anywhere else on the reservation, so it was a really unique place to be when the pandemic started. There’s this hospital compound with the emergency room and the clinics, and the clinics shut down by the end of March. We had checkpoints set up and temperature checks, and the Navajo Nation went on lockdown. I know the pandemic has been a very different experience for many people, region to region, and the the nation that I’m in has took it very seriously with good reason, because it was a particularly hard-hit area. There were curfews, you couldn’t drive after 5 p.m. and before 8 a.m. or on the weekends, and I have to drive, like, seven miles to get my mail. When I first moved here, I was like, “I am a cyclist!” Because I had been living in the city and bike-commuting for a decade. I was like, “I’m keeping my identity as a cyclist,” and I tried to bike to the post office and totally wiped out on cattle guards. And it just was like, “Okay, no, I’m living rurally again.” When you have a curfew system like that, it was very isolating. It was an interesting time to be pregnant. I’d never been pregnant before, and I’d never lived through a pandemic before either. There was a lot of weird overlap. I really can’t pull those two experiences apart. Like today I was anxious and lonely and ate weird things that were at the back of my pantry. It’s like, pregnancy or pandemic? That could go either way.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. I wasn’t pregnant during the pandemic, and that is exactly what I did, too. Something that I know you wanted to talk about, which kind of fits in here, is the anxiety of having kids, the anxiety that if we were to become mothers that we would then no longer be writers. Tell me a little bit about the pressure not to have kids, if we’re going to be a serious writer.

Margaret Adams

I remember when you first started tweeting about wanting to do this interview series. I got out my pen and paper, because I had been keeping a list. I think you had mentioned that you’d had a list like this, too, of women writers you knew who were also mothers. I found the more outwardly serious about writing I became, the more I started encountering an overly implicit pressure not to have kids if you’re going to be serious about it. I think with writing—and maybe other arts are like this, maybe other jobs are like this, other pursuits are like this—there’s this kind of feeling that if you’re going to do it, you need to sacrifice everything on the altar of that. I have always felt a little bit like something of an outsider, because I don’t work in publishing, I don’t have an MFA, and I don’t work in academia. I already have that feeling that maybe I was spread a little too thin in some ways. I think that having a job where I can work part-time that supports my writing, I feel like I’m kind of constantly under writing my own residency in that way. That’s how that math works for me. But that was a math that I had to come to with a decent amount of self-doubt and decision-making and talking to a lot of people on deciding, yes, I’ve started on this path in this way, and I’m okay with sticking with it. I had cut down to part-time work in medicine, and that was a really good balance for me. Then I was at this crossroads, thinking of throwing in being a mother. I really leaned on that list, like, okay, well, look at these people; they’re making it work—because so many more people in my life were saying, “Oh, well, obviously, if you’re going to be serious about being a writer, you’re not also going to have kids.” I was at a writing residency, and I’d been kind of feeling it out for a year and a half and talking about it, too, and I was like, “Yeah, baby, I’m gonna have a kid. I might do that soon.” And one of the residency directors was like, “Well, I thought you were serious about this.” And I was like, that’s it. I’m going out and getting pregnant. Like right now, as my giant act of rebellion, which is so funny to see the framing on that, because I feel like outside of the writing community, most women I know talk about the opposite thing, where they have pressure to have kids, and having a kid could be, for them, an unexamined or more conventional choice. For me, it was my rebellion. I don’t know how rebellious it really was or wasn’t.

Lara Ehrlich

All of that resonates with me, obviously, and I remember you shared your list with me, and some of those women on the list have since been on the show or are going to be on the show. Having those examples was really vital to me. Yes, you can do it. You can be a serious writer and a good mother and layer in a challenging day job as well. You and I share the fact that I don’t have an MFA or a job in publishing or in academia either. And you’re right, now that you mentioned that. I had the same feeling of already being an outsider, not having those things that are signposts of being serious in the industry. If you don’t have that, and then you also have a child, it’s like the last straw of being a serious writer. Have you found since that you’ve been able to continue writing?

Margaret Adams

A funny thing happened. When I first started telling other writers that I was expecting a child, and I was mostly sharing that with other writers who had children, I got a lot of advice to not even try to do that much in the first year. They were like, just let yourself off the hook now and and don’t do it. You talked to plenty of people who were like, okay, I’m expecting a child, so I’m going to write that thing in the next few months, and I was trying not to do that. It may have been a role in this, but once I found out I was pregnant, I finally completed a first draft of a novel, my first full draft of any novel, and this was something I had been trying to do for a few years. It felt like deciding to have a baby and committing to that was the facial tattoo of life decisions. After that, all of these things that I had been wary of committing to, like plot choices, were just, like, nothing. Like, I can just churn plot out, because who cares? That was such a lower pressure thing. So, I got a lot done during my pregnancy, and then I was still working on that project and continued to get a decent amount done in the first six, seven months of being a mother. Part of that was I had a really long maternity leave, which was really helpful. I’m starting to slow down a little, and I can’t tell if it’s going back to work or that natural pause in projects that happens where you get stuck for a bit. I’m still trying to feel out where I need to go with it now.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, that’s exciting. Well, Congratulations on finishing the draft. That is huge.

Margaret Adams

It’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t say that you have to write a novel and throw it out to write another one. So, I’m like, listen, worst case scenario, if I throw this out, at least I will have done that.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. Well, you also had someone tell you you shouldn’t have kids, so maybe people are wrong with these all-encompassing pieces of advice. Just out of curiosity, and I have thoughts about which one it was, was the person who said that to you at a residency a man or a woman instructor?

Margaret Adams

It was a woman.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s what I would have said.

Margaret Adams

I think women are more familiar with the pressures and expectations. I’m just going to generalize a lot here about gender and parenthood, and there are exceptions to all of this, but I think there’s more pressure put on women in their role as mothers than there is pressure for men, at least as far as what society throws at you. Three years before I was ready to become a mother, I was like, I could totally become a dad right now. I am ready for that. I can handle that. It took a little bit longer for me to feel like I was ready to be a mother, because there’s so much expectation attached to that. I’ve actually found it really useful to spend time with writer dads, because maybe less is expected of them. They also have less internalized bullshit going on, like unnecessary expectations. Many of them seem so much more able to be like, “And today, I made time for my writing, and I am still a good parent,” and not have a complex over that. Sometimes that’s fun energy to be around and attempt to appropriate for my own.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. As a listener and participant on the podcast, almost every woman here has talked about shame and guilt and the shame of closing the door and leaving your child on the other side. Again, not to generalize, but the fact that now almost 30, 35 women have said the same thing, there’s something there. This angst, that is possibly unique to writer mother monsters, so tell me a little bit more about that.

Margaret Adams

I listen to a lot of podcasts that are interviews with writers—part of the whole DIY MFA effort that I’ve been trying to do for a decade now—and initially, I listened to almost exclusively women, because women’s lives were more interesting to me, I’m sure in a very self-absorbed way, but whatever. At one point, I listened to an interview with a male writer for the first time in, like, three years, and it was because it was somebody’s spouse I was interested in, and the questions that the interviewer asked them were so different. It was really startling to me. There was no “what did your family think of that?” and “how do you balance your creative life with your family?” Those are questions that get asked a lot of women writers and they’re questions that a lot of us want the answers to. I’m here for that question, but those questions don’t get asked of male writers in the same way. I know that’s the whole reason why you have this space, to talk about this sort of thing, but sometimes it’s been fun for me to tab over and listen to those interviews and try to appropriate a little and see how that feels, to be a little more unapologetic and not have to be asked to account for leading a creative life and also having family and balancing that

Lara Ehrlich 

How does it feel?

Margaret Adams

It’s kind of fun, sometimes. It’s like a costume sometimes, like I’m pretending this isn’t a thing. This feels very similar to a phenomenon that I started in Seattle. I started lying sometimes when I had to. When I wanted to go take writing time, I would tell my housemates that I was picking up an extra shift at the urgent care. It didn’t make a difference to them. It was one of those things like explaining to a non-writer why on a Friday night, you’re going to go to the public library to work on a book that they’re not going to see in the next two weeks. Non-writers find that very confusing. At some point, someone in my life was like, “Wow, this seems like a lot of work for a hobby.” And I was like, “Oh, God, don’t even start on that road with me.” There’s a lot that I could say about that, too. I wish that I had the full gumption and confidence to just say, “I am going writing and taking this time.” But I have a limited store of energy, and at a certain point, I just embraced “I picked up an extra shift,” in a way that people understand and then thinking, I wish that I had the competence and energy to not say that right now. But it sure does work. It’s one less thing to have to think about.

Lara Ehrlich

And it is work, right? I mean, it is work. It’s not the urgent care, but it is an extra shift, essentially, so that is maybe not quite a lie. Sort of a tangent from motherhood, tell me a little bit more about being a writer and a health practitioner and what that looks like, because I think that’s such a unique combination. As you mentioned, so many people who are serious writers are also in academia or publishing. Tell me about this dual career that you have.

Margaret Adams

I started writing in my early 20s. I started writing sooner than that, but I knew I wanted to take it seriously then. I got a BA, straight out of high school, and after I did that, I did a series of seasonal jobs for a while. For my first job out of college, I went to Antarctica, and I worked at South Pole Station as a heavy equipment operator and general assistant in a mechanic’s shop. That was really fun, and I was able to do a lot of writing around that. It fed a need that I had to be doing something that was very concrete and immediate and tactile. I did that for a few years. I was realizing that I wanted to write more, but I also needed something to anchor me. I went to nursing school because I was interested in nursing, but honestly, just as much because I was interested in having a job that I could do that would be concrete and pragmatic and could be turned towards social justice purposes and would pay me enough that I could do it part-time so I could write. Then, the longer I have stuck with that—I went from RN to nurse practitioner—it’s been very helpful for me, constitutionally. I’m actually not as much of an introvert as I think many writers are. I like getting out of the house and talking to a lot of people. I’m very prone to getting very into my head, like way too into my head, so working in healthcare means that it’s not just navel gazing. I have to literally look at other people’s belly buttons multiple times a day when I go into work. It helps me get into a different space, and it keeps me balanced.

Lara Ehrlich

That was amazing. Just the belly button trajectory there. I was stunned by that. It’s interesting to hear that the writing came first and the medical career was in support of the writing. I feel like often, at least those I’ve heard who are writers and in medicine, it’s sort of the opposite, that people have a medical career, and then they were like, “Oh, now I have something to write about. Now I want to write.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, I hear that a lot, too. And I will run into other medical writer people, and I do this weird dance where I’m always like, “Oh, no, no, I’m a writer medical person, not a medical writer person.” I appreciate you articulating it the way you did, because I had not been able to articulate that as well in the moment, when I’m trying to do this weird distinction—because there is a sub-genre of people who write about medicine, and it’s a place that can be pretty fraught. I think Kendra was talking about, on one of your recent interviews, having worked teaching in prisons, and not wanting to write about that and was talking about the witness hood writing. I find a lot of medical writing can be witnessed, heard writing. And that makes sense, because so much of medicine involves a lot of secondary trauma and a lot of these vicarious experiences that people can write about. I find that to be something that I frequently want to do and don’t want to do, and it’s compelling and fraught. I have two ways where I can swing this for myself, as much as for anyone else. One is I made this really pragmatic decision on how I was going to support myself as a writer, and the other one is that I didn’t have the courage or the confidence to just be like, “I want to be a writer, so I’m going to do writing full-time. I’m very happy that I picked the way that I have, but I also have moments, like, Ooo, an MFA, that looks like so much fun.

Lara Ehrlich

I hear you on that. Let’s talk about writing full-time, because it’s such a dream, right? I think every writer starts writing, and you have that book or the project and you’re like, okay, now I’m going to write full-time. And then the more you learn about the industry, the more you’re like, okay, that’s sort of a pipe dream for most people. We do need a secondary job, whether it’s teaching or whatever else. I think it’s pragmatic but also very smart to think so early on, “I want to be a writer; how can I support that?” Because it will probably take a while to be able to write full-time.

Margaret Adams

Yeah. It’s hard to figure out what works for you, too. I think different things work at different times. I’ve told myself a lot of stories about how I’m best able to write. I lived in cities for 10, 15 years—I lived in Baltimore and Seattle and Madrid—and I would write almost exclusively at coffee shops or libraries. Then I moved out to the Navajo Reservation in 2018, and I don’t have coffee shops or libraries that are very accessible. I can drive 45 minutes to New Mexico, and there’s a coffee shop there that I can go to, but that’s a tough sell for a writing session, when you’re looking at how much time you have locked in. After that, it’s a three-hour drive for a bookstore. So, I was learning how to write from home. And now, I am a morning person, and I’ve always told myself I can only really write in the mornings, and—surprise!—I created another little morning person. And my little morning person is always up by 5. I talked to other writer moms who were like, “Yeah, I just get up before them.” I can’t get up at 3. That’s not a thing I can do. So, I’m trying to learn how to write in the evenings. Before I got pregnant, I went and did two residences back-to-back, and I was able to write full-time for eight weeks, and it did not work for me. And I wrote full-time for a year in my early 20s, too, and I thought, that didn’t work for me then, but I’ll try it again. In my mid-30s, it also didn’t work. I can’t say it totally didn’t work, because I did get stuff done, but I was miserable. Like, really miserable. I think if I had some writing days and some non-writing days, that would be a good balance for me, but full-time writing, that’s a struggle.

Lara Ehrlich

Is it sort of what you were saying before about being somebody who needs to be out among people?

Margaret Adams

Yeah, I get too in my head. I mean, I haven’t done an experiment where I see how far I go and see if I can eventually get out of my head. I don’t know if I want to know what that looks like.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me more about the logistics of writing, because, again, what you’re saying here resonates with me. I used to get up early before work, right before I had a child, and I’d write in coffee shops. I had a routine, like, this is when I write. And then of course, when you have a child, my daughter was up during my writing time, and then once she actually started sleeping during that time, she became an evening child. And then I was like, okay, so now my evening routine doesn’t work anymore. It’s kind of that shifting and the need to become a flexible writer. I never would have thought that for myself, early on, when I was so regimented, because you hear that philosophy to write at the same time every day and write for two hours or whatever. Tell me a little bit more about the kind of writer you’ve become since you’ve become a mother.

Margaret Adams

I have access to really wonderful, affordable childcare, so I’ve been giving myself these three-hour blocks a couple times a week to write, and there’s a lot of pressure on those blocks, and I haven’t yet figured out how how to use them as well as I would like to. Talking to a lot of other people who don’t have a ton of time to write, they do a lot of thinking and preparation for it, and then they sit down and get done what they need to get done. It’s still a work in progress for me. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m also trying to take a lot of notes, when I don’t have time to sit down and do anything else, and that is really helpful. That’s something I did a lot when I first started working as a nurse practitioner. I worked full-time as a nurse practitioner for two years, which I think was important then, to kind of gain clinical experience and get good at that job. But it was a very hectic time for me as a writer, and I took a lot of notes. Now, early in parenthood, I have no routine. I also work in an emergency department, so I don’t have weekdays or weekends. I never know what day of the week it is. My husband is also working in an emergency department, so he also has a weird schedule. We work evenings, mornings, nights—there’s no real routine. In some ways, having a baby has been almost grounding, which is kind of hilarious, right? You’re like, “Oh, yeah, the baby is the only one with a schedule in the house that’s regular. That’s not great.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s interesting to hear. I’ve sort of found the opposite, actually, like I used to have a schedule, and yes, having child is grounding, but also, weekends don’t really exist anymore. When you have a child, even if you have a weekend, it’s caretaking. It’s not restful. You don’t really have vacations anymore. That’s interesting that having a baby grounded you and your husband.

Margaret Adams

I mean, it’s been chaos, I will say that. It’s just chaos, when one person in the house is supposed to be sleeping at certain times. That does not mean that my child is sleeping at those times. But there’s at least the aspiration there.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s all we can do is have aspirations. We have a question from Anna, and this is a good time to bring this up. She’s interested in the intersection of writing and medicine. Does one impact the other more?

Margaret Adams

It’s a good question. I was a writer before I was in medicine, and so I definitely feel more strongly in that role—not as competent in that role; I feel like being a writer is pretty amorphous. Everyone’s like, “Once I get one piece published, I’ll feel like a real writer,” “Once I get a book published, I’ll feel like a real writer,” and, “Once I get that review, I’ll feel like a real writer.” This many years, and I don’t feel like a real writer, because the bar is always moving. I do feel like a real nurse practitioner. But I feel more grounded in being a writer. Being a writer working in medicine, it’s a lot of making narratives and talking to people about their narratives. I think it’s a little helpful. It certainly makes it extremely enjoyable, and enjoying it is definitely helpful. It’s impossible not to get material from medicine for the writing. For a long time, I really resisted being a medical writer, because that is a sub-genre. But I can’t not write about it, because there’s so much there, and it is very interesting to me. I pull a lot from this and put it into my writing, content wise, and I’m not talking about specific patient stories, but it’s such a weird place of human interaction, where you’re strangers, but it’s also very intimate. And it’s very high stakes. That lends itself to material for writing very easily and very quickly. I find it to be a really productive intersection for both. I don’t know if being a writer makes me better at medicine, but it makes me enjoy it a lot more.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, I can understand that. How has motherhood changed your writing? Has it changed the content or the form of your writing?

Margaret Adams

I don’t know yet. And that’s a question I’ve been asking myself. I did notice that when I decided I wanted to become a mother, suddenly I got a lot nicer to my mother characters. A lot nicer to them. But that was before I even was a mother. That was in that pregnancy period, when I noticed that change. And I became much more confident about making choices. And a lot of times, it’s short stories and short form, not wanting to take the risk of moving forward with something like a novel, thinking, if I do this, and I get this far on this project, and it doesn’t work out, how’s that going to feel? And then after I decided to make a human, this feels like way less pressure, so that got a lot easier. Those are all changes that happened before I even met my kid, though. I’m hoping to have a clear answer for that in another year. I don’t know if I will or not.

Lara Ehrlich

Go back to the conversation at the beginning, where you always feel like a new parent, no matter how old your kid is. I’m still waiting to find out how motherhood is impacting my writing. Maybe 20 years from now, we can look back and find out. I love what you’re saying about the stakes of writing, of making decisions in writing, feeling less fraught, having made that big decision of having a child. That really resonates with me. I will share that I angsted over the decision to have a child or not for all the reasons that we’ve been talking about. Tell me about your decision process, if you’re comfortable doing that. You hinted at why you finally decided yes.

Margaret Adams

It wasn’t just because of that one personal [experience]. It had been brewing for a little while. I had started talking to non-writers about the pressure that I was perceiving not to have children from within the writing world. Again, I don’t know how much of this is perceived or not. I have some doubts on that, because it was something I was nervous about, and I tend to take, like many of us do, the thing that I am nervous about and project on other people. If I have this dream of pursuing writing in a certain way to a certain point, and I’m nervous that becoming a parent will be a problem for that, and then I talk to other writers about that and say I’m nervous about it, it’s natural that they’ll be like, “Yeah, maybe that’s something to think about.” I can take that and interpret it as they told me it was a bad idea, and actually it was just me wondering out loud if it was a bad idea. So: huge grain of salt with all of that. But I was talking to non-writers about it, and they were like, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” It was really interesting to see that perspective. I think we’re socially at a point where it’s much more acceptable to choose not to have kids, but there’s still plenty of people who choose not to have kids who get a lot of shade for it from people in their lives. I just had a really hard time pulling apart what I really wanted and what various social pressures were coming at me. It’s tough to figure that one out sometimes. I knew that I was getting pressures and different directions, and I knew that that was going to affect me, and I was trying to make decisions and figure out what I wanted, knowing that that was also there—and knowing that I was, you know, I’m somebody who feels those things and internalizes it. So, trying to figure out what I really wanted was hard. I had this really kind of dumb moment. It’s almost an embarrassing story, because my life was in no way in danger, but I was running during what turned into a big thunderstorm, and there was a lot of lightning near me, and I perceived that my life was in danger at that moment, even though, retrospectively, it totally wasn’t. I had one of those really melodramatic moments where I was like, “Oh, no. But I haven’t written a book or had a baby yet.” And I was like, well, that’s clarifying. Those seem to be two things that you would really like to do, so you may as well try to do both of them.

Lara Ehrlich

You know, take the flash of clarity where you find it, right? Were you always trying to figure out what you wanted from the time you were young? Or did you want one thing when you were growing up and then you sort of switched gears and wanted something else? What did young Meg want?

Margaret Adams

I think I assumed that I was going to have kids, but I didn’t think about it that hard. Then I started making less conventional choices, and once I made one less conventional choice that went into another one, and my whole community changed. By my mid-20s, most of my world was comprised of seasonal workers, who definitely were not assuming that they were going to have kids. It was less that I had a conscious thought process with it and more that it stopped being an assumption. Then I went from that circle to medicine, where there was an acceptance no matter what I was going to do there. And then the writing world, which we’ve talked about.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s interesting, the shifts in communities and how that impacts what you perceive you want for yourself, or what you should wish for yourself, or what you can’t hope for.

Margaret Adams

In my early 30s, I had started thinking about it more. I said to a friend, like, “Oh, maybe I’ll have a kid,” without missing a beat. This particular friend was like, “Don’t kowtow to social pressures.” And I was like, “Yep, that’s my current community.”  I had a lot of support for not having kids as much as pressure in any direction. There’s something to be said for having tons of choices in life. There’s a lot of privilege that comes out of that whole decision.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about living in the Navajo Nation and what it’s like to mother and to write there, especially in an isolated community that you’re, in some ways, an outsider in.

Margaret Adams

It’s another country, and I have a very particular place in it. It’s a little bit like being an expat, in some ways. One thing is, I always want to write about it, and I do not want to write about it, because I feel like writing about living on the Navajo reservation as a nonnative is like writing about the country that you study abroad in. I don’t really have any authority to talk about it. That one’s tricky for me. For me, it’s a little isolated. I live very far from my family. My family is in the Northeast, in Maine, and for many other people who live here, this is the exact opposite of that, and they’re surrounded by their family. It’s a much more concentrated version of what I already experienced with medicine, where I feel inspired to write about things that I observe or learn about, from seeing other people’s lives, but it’s also not my life to write about, so I have to constantly figure out where I fit into that and what I do feel comfortable doing with art.

Lara Ehrlich

I want to dig into that a little bit more because although I don’t have that same situation or frame of reference, I wonder sometimes about being a white, privileged, essentially middle-class woman, and whether my stories have a place.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, I mean, white women are what? Like 70 percent of publishing or something like that. Like, my voice is out there. Not necessarily me personally, but yes, me. It’s definitely something to think about. This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s also something I’ve thought about with wanting to write about the experience of being a mother. It is this crazy experience, and I want to write about it, and everything I want to write about is just so cliche. I don’t know if this has happened for you. I was 35 when I got pregnant, and I had been taking care of pregnant people, I had taken care of new moms, and I wanted to get out a megaphone and be like, “No, they really kick you! It’s wild!” Like, I had nothing new to say. But everything that wasn’t new that I wanted to say felt huge to me. It’s been a project of mine—which has so far been wholly unsuccessful—in my note taking of the last 11 months, to try to get down these details and articulate what has been so world-shattering about this experience, because it’s really shattering. And all of the words are words that I have heard before, that did not strike me as world-shattering before I experienced them. What a fun project for a writer, right? Even if I never crack that one. At a certain point, writing about parenthood is going to be writing about my childhood, and that’s definitely not going to be my story. That’s their story. Right now, it feels like my story, and so there’s that confusion over whose story it is. I see that confusion in wanting to write about medicine, I see that confusion when I wanted to write about living on the Navajo Nation for three years. And then it gets as personal as how much do I write about my kid? And my answer is to write about all of these things but, you know, in my journal.

Lara Ehrlich

Exactly. But it’s such a catch 22, isn’t it? I feel like in literature, motherhood is disparaged. Women writing about motherhood or womanhood is not serious literature. And yet, at the same time, it’s like, what could be more dramatic or serious than those things? But then how do you write it in a way that’s not cliche, even though there isn’t actually a place for it in the literary canon? It’s such a laden thing to write about motherhood from a white, privileged perspective, which is such a valid perspective, but it’s like, so why add my voice? It’s very fraught.

Margaret Adams

It’s like the one thing that’s been done. You’re like, no one’s done this, except for people just like you. Have you ever seen the movie “Fargo”?

Lara Ehrlich

No, I’ve seen the show, but not the movie.

Margaret Adams

I think it’s “Fargo.” It features a chief of police, I think, who’s super pregnant the entire movie, and it is not about her being pregnant at all. She just happens to be pregnant, and there’s no weird running gags about her forgetting things or throwing up. It was kind of groundbreaking, in a way—a movie that featured a pregnant woman that wasn’t about pregnancy. I don’t really know how much of that we’ve seen since then. If people have other great examples, email them to me, because I’m super curious. I’ve been thinking that it would be really fun to write a novel that did that for the postpartum period, and started taking notes where the book has nothing to do with postpartum—totally separate plot points, but the heroine is just walking around in a nice diaper for the first week.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that. You have to write that. How can you do it in a new way that feels revelatory and groundbreaking? I love that.

Margaret Adams

I think the problem might be in the question of how it is that something that feels so big is also kind of so cliche. And I think when you make it the full topic, when motherhood is the focus, it’s hard to find something that feels like it gets at it, so I’m trying to come at it indirectly.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell it slant, right? Yeah, I love that.

Margaret Adams

Yeah. Do you have some favorite books that are concerned with motherhood that you think do it well?

Lara Ehrlich

Oh, my gosh. See, now you put me on the spot, where it’s like, I’m thinking of every woman who’s been on the show. But I’ll give an example somebody who’s not on the show, whose name I can never pronounce. Elena Ferrante wrote this book [“Days of Abandonment”] about a woman who is a mother, and she has two kids, and she’s going through some kind of crisis where she can’t get out of her apartment with them. Things keep happening that prevent her from leaving the apartment. Like, she’ll be walking towards the door and notice that there are dishes in the sink that she has to do. And so she’ll do the dishes, and then a glass will break in the sink, and she’ll cut herself and she needs a band aid, and on the way to get the band aid, something else happens. And the dog gets poisoned somehow, and then her son is throwing up, and then the door won’t open. It’s unclear as to whether there’s a problem with the doorknob or she’s forgotten how to open the door. And it’s not about motherhood. She’s a mother, but she’s not a new mother. It’s just the sense that I think all who are listening can relate to, where you just can’t reach the thing you need to do because there are all these other things in the way, and sometimes it feels like you’re trapped within this never-ending cycle of trying to keep your life together.

Margaret Adams

Have you read Lydia Kiesling’s book [“The Golden State”]? That’s a road trip novel with a small child.

Lara Ehrlich

No, tell me more about that one.

Margaret Adams

It is an experience. It doesn’t have a lot of breaks in each page, which just feels so perfect. Every chapter is a single day, so you start a chapter like a day, and then you just go through it, and then at the end, you’re like, “Ahhh, God.” Like, that’s such the experience of a day, right? From first waking up to that time, once it happens.

Lara Ehrlich

And then there’s that “you can finally sit down for 10 minutes.”

Margaret Adams

Yeah. I think she did a really good job at writing that. I read it before I decided to have a kid, and I still decided to have a kid. It does a good job at capturing both the exhaustion of that and also the joy.

Lara Ehrlich

Yes. I think you you hit the nail on the head with it’s less telling the story of motherhood and more settling you in a very disquieting way into the experience of motherhood, where motherhood isn’t the story, but you feel what it feels like to be in this car with a child for a road trip or in this apartment where you can’t get things done you need to get done.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, I’m seeing people do that with form in a way that I really appreciate.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, tell me more about that.

Margaret Adams

Just what I was saying with the line breaks in the chapters, the structure of that. That’s interesting, too, because when I have talked to women about how their writing has been changed by parenthood, one of the things that several people have said is they started writing in fragments and stitching fragments together, because that was what they were able to do. On the production end of things and the writing of things, this is the opposite. It is not a fragment. It is a long experience of a chapter, and yet, as a reader, it replicates the experience of being a parent for a day so well. I don’t know how she managed that. That worked really well.

Lara Ehrlich

I think form is something I’ve heard a lot of women say on the show, too, is the thing that has changed the most—and exactly what you’re saying, with fragmentation. It’s like the way we think has changed. Yeah, you can’t really follow through with a full thought when you have a child, or a conversation.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, or at least not one that is your own. You certainly have full, long-sentence days, but they are so consumed with another person.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, that’ll be interesting, as you said, to look back later, when we can see how motherhood impacted form or content. It’s interesting to hear, and it’s not universal, but that motherhood seems to impact form, possibly more than content.

Margaret Adams

Yeah, which is interesting. I’m definitely leaning more towards fragments out of necessity. I started looking back at this notebook I’ve been keeping and doing observations throughout the first 11 months now of my son’s life, and I found an entry from Sept. 1, where I was just beating myself up for not working more on my novel. And he was eight days old. I read that and just threw it. Like, I really thought that that was a reasonable thing for me to be putting down on paper at that moment. “Oh, my God, I haven’t worked on my novel for a week.” I was like, no.

Lara Ehrlich

It’s crazy. When I went to the hospital, you know, you pack your bag and everything. I had the Pushcart Anthology to go to the hospital and give birth.

Margaret Adams

That’s funny. That is really funny.

Lara Ehrlich

Why do we do this? Like, oh, yes, I’ll have time to sit here and read the best literature from the last year. No. If anything, I should have read a magazine, and I did not even have the brain space to read a magazine, much less the Pushcart.

Margaret Adams

I had my son at the hospital right here where I work, so I didn’t really have to go that far. I went 200 yards. And because it was during the pandemic, I am fixated on something to worry about because there’s so many things that I was worrying about. One of the things about working in medicine is you have a lot of the worst-case scenarios very vividly in your head because you’ve seen them, but of course you have, because you see the outliers. I was obsessed with the fear that my partner would have an asymptomatic positive COVID test and wouldn’t be allowed to be with me during labor. Labor is such an out-of-time-and-space experience that I was very glad that he was able to be there for him, but honestly, I was on a different plane. It’s funny because women who had had children were like, “Honey, it’s not gonna matter that much.” Like, it matters, but how much is it gonna matter? And they’re right.

Lara Ehrlich

Yes. Not, of course, to disparage the partners, but it’s very in your own body.

Margaret Adams

I mean, like any other human, you’re very focused on your own experience at that time. For good reason.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, pushing out another human being out of you.

Margaret Adams

Thank God you had your Pushcart.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah! It sat next to me in my bag for however many days. But why do we have the expectations? Why did I expect myself to read great literature while giving birth? And why did you, eight days after having a child, expect yourself to work on a novel? Where does this come from?

Margaret Adams

I was really thinking I was being very reasonable when I wrote that down, which also makes me wonder what other unreasonable things I’m expecting of myself right now.

Lara Ehrlich

Well, you’re in the thick of it now, too. I mean, you’re 11 months in, and that’s, like, all the big milestones. And then, you know, he changes.

Margaret Adams

Thank you very much for talking to me.

Lara Ehrlich

Oh, my gosh, thank you for coming on and for sharing all of your thoughts and your experiences as a new mother and as a nurse practitioner during a really incredible year. And thank you, also, for all of your work over the last year keeping people safe.

Margaret Adams

Thank you for having this podcast. I really appreciate it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick


Kelly Sue DeConnick is best known for surprise hits like Carol Danvers’ rebranding as Captain Marvel and the Eisner-nominated mythological western, PRETTY DEADLY; the latter was co-created with artist Emma Ríos. The sci-fi kidney-punch called BITCH PLANET, co-created with Valentine De Landro, launched to rave reviews in December 2014 and has since been nominated for an Eisner. She currently writes AQUAMAN for DC as well as develops television for Legendary TV with her husband and partner, Matt Fraction, as Milkfed Criminal Masterminds.

Leslie Lehr


Author of seven books, Leslie Lehr explores the duality of today’s women to navigate a new path between sexy and sacred. Salma Hayek is developing Leslie’s critically acclaimed new memoir, A Boob’s Life, into a comedy series for HBO Max. Leslie’s personal essays have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love column (narrated by Katie Couric on NPR) and others, she wrote the original screenplays for the indie romantic thriller, Heartless, and the comedy-drama, Club Divorce, and has worked in film production. A breast cancer survivor, she is “Chemo Chick” on Sickofpink.com. Leslie is the Novel Consultant for Truby Writers Studio and taught for ten years in the Writer’s Program at UCLA.

Rachel Yoder Transcript


July 29, 2021

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest today is Rachel Yoder. Before I introduce Rachel, thank you all for tuning in, and please chat with us during the interview. Your comments will appear in our studio, and we’ll weave them into our discussion. If you enjoy the episode, please also consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon to help keep the podcast going. Now, I’m excited to introduce Rachel. Rachel Yoder is the author of Nightbitch, her debut novel, set for release on July 20, which has also been optioned for film with Amy Adams set to star. She is a graduate of the Iowa nonfiction writing program and also holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. She is a founding editor of  draft: the journal of process. Rachel grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Ohio. She now lives in Iowa City with her husband and 7-year-old son. She describes writer motherhood in three words as “never enough time.” Now, please join me in welcoming Rachel.

Rachel Yoder

Hi, Lara.

Lara Ehrlich

Hi, Rachel, and congratulations on the soon-to-be released novel. Look at this. It’s gorgeous. And it’s a wonderful book.

Rachel Yoder

Thank you. And it just so happens, the image is pulled from a vintage meat ad, which has astonishing, extraordinary messaging about meat about how meat is so good for you.

Lara Ehrlich

Very appropriate for the book, right?

Rachel Yoder

Yeah, right.

Lara Ehrlich

We’re going to get into that pretty deeply in a few minutes. But first, let’s talk about the three words that you chose to describe writer motherhood. “Never enough time,” I think resonates with most of the people listening. Why those words?

Rachel Yoder

Yeah, I mean, I tried to come up with something a little bit more positive, but motherhood and being an artist has been about the negotiation of time. What time can I take? What time do I need to give? I find my life being scheduled into smaller and smaller bits. That’s the central tension for me, especially with a partner who does, as the partner in the book, work out of town every week. It’s this constant “When are you leaving?” “When are you coming?” “When can I leave?” “When can I come?” Never enough time, as compared to my two MFAs, during which, I spent all my time, all of my single time, in my creative space. It was a big changer from that sort of lifestyle.

Lara Ehrlich

Oh, I’m sure, yeah. Your son is 7 now, so I’m sure that negotiation with time has changed and morphed throughout the years.

Rachel Yoder

It has, and you know what’s really funny? I just realized this. My son is very creative in a very different way than I am. He is a builder and loves to build Legos and Minecraft, and my main negotiation with him now is about time. How much screen time can you have? How much listening to podcast time can you have? That tension has now transferred over to his grade of life. Maybe I need to think about that a little bit more. I sent him to half-day nature camp, and this morning, he’s like, “I don’t want to go to camp. I don’t have enough time. I want more time for my projects and my creative space.” And I was like, interesting. I’ve heard that before. Maybe it’s tension that we now share, oddly enough?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. I wonder if there’s ever enough time for creative people.

Rachel Yoder

Yeah, that’s a great question. Is there ever enough time. It feels like that’s probably a central tension for many creative people.

Lara Ehrlich

You feel like you had enough time during your MFA programs, even though it was a very different type of place in space?

Rachel Yoder

I did. It felt really wide open, especially during my first MFA, when I was really uncomfortable with teaching. Teaching took up a lot of time. I actually gave up my teachership in my second year, because I didn’t go to get my MFA to spend all my time teaching or worrying about teaching. I think there was a really big commitment on the part of the program to give students a lot of time, and the teaching loads weren’t that heavy, especially when I came to Iowa. I was very lucky, grateful for a fellowship that I got. That was really my condition for myself. I’m getting a second MFA, which is sort of a ridiculous, embarrassing thing to do, but I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m only going if I get a fellowship, so all my time can be spent on writing.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me about the two MFAs, and I don’t think it’s ridiculous and embarrassing, considering one of them is from Iowa, which is, of course, incredible. But tell me about the first one, about nonfiction and where you started and why you started there, and then about the movement to fiction at Iowa.

Rachel Yoder

It’s actually flipped. The fiction was first, and it was at Arizona, and then I moved into nonfiction at Iowa. I was 25 when I got my MFA, which felt really young. I hadn’t studied creative writing as an undergrad. It all felt very new to me. I wasn’t familiar with the literary community. When I went into that program at all, everyone else felt a lot smarter than me. They had gotten their undergrad degrees in creative writing and kind of knew how to talk like writers. And I was like, who are you people. That just felt like I was getting my feet wet. I didn’t quite know where I was or what I was doing. It was only after those two years that I realized, oh, okay, this is what I just did, and this is the literary world. I didn’t know about literary journals, really, before I went there. I had published a Modern Love essay when I was at University of Arizona, and that was my first dabble into nonfiction. I took a few nonfiction classes when I was there, too. And all of my fiction was very autobiographical. It was very autofiction. I was really interested in what is nonfiction all about? Should I be an essay writer? Should I be writing a memoir? I seem too young to be writing a memoir, but all of my stories are drawn from my life. I’m really glad I wound up at Iowa, because the focus is so much on the essay and what an essay is. I feel like my literary repertoire was really expanded at Iowa, looking at a lot of experimental forums, talking about all the different ways in which you can think about narrative, thinking about the narrative of an idea—which was something really new to me and that really sparked my imagination. I think in Nightbitch, I really brought all of that to bear. Before I went to Iowa, before I got a nonfiction degree, I was really scared of exposition or any sort of telling stories. My stories were very mannered, very stylized, very “only showing,” sort of mysterious, like, what is going on. But when I sat down to write Nightbitch, I knew that there was going to be a lot of just ranting, for lack of a better word, and I was a lot more comfortable with that, because I knew that there were a lot of ideas that were also going to be part of the story, and I felt more comfortable using that mode, as well as all the tools and tricks I knew from writing short stories.

Lara Ehrlich

Talk us through Nightbitch a little bit, for anyone who doesn’t know what it’s about. Give us the elevator pitch.

Rachel Yoder

Nightbitch is about an ambitious artist turned reluctant, stay-at-home mom who becomes convinced she’s turning into a dog. It’s looking at issues of rage and power and ambition and motherhood, and it’s really challenging a lot of messages that we’ve been given about what motherhood is and what it should be and what womanhood is, through this story of … a mom-dog? A were-mom? Or is she? Which is also in question in the book.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, all of those themes resonated with me so much and I’m sure will with readers, as well. It’s an amazing book and premise and ranting. I think you’re right. It has a negative connotation to rant. But in the best possible way, I see what you mean in this book, and the rage really comes through. Talk to me about rage.

Rachel Yoder

Yeah, I was really angry in early motherhood, and I never was given any tools for dealing with anger. It felt really uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to express it. I felt guilty for being angry. I come from a Mennonite background, and anger is right next to violence. Mennonites are pacifists, so my instinct is to never express anger and to just deal with it on the inside. But that wasn’t working. For me in early motherhood, it was, like, rage. Rage can really destroy you, if you let it. The book was me trying to negotiate that rage and figure out how to deal with it. I think that’s, again, probably something a lot of women struggle with, how to be angry. You don’t want to be the angry woman. People just stop listening to you, which has been my experience. When you get angry, you lose all your credibility. In this book, I wanted her to be so angry that you couldn’t look away. Like, you had to listen. And to show that she was being completely logical and completely credible, despite her anger. That felt really important for me.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, completely credible and logical in the most illogical of premises, kind of.

Rachel Yoder

Yeah.

Lara Ehrlich

Which is an amazing balance to strike.

Rachel Yoder

I also feel like there’s something that felt very logical, even about the absurd premise, to me. I didn’t interrogate it too much. I just ran with it, no pun intended. There was something that felt deeply right about her turning into an animal, so that became something very interesting to explore. It was kind of like, what is this all about? Let’s see how it plays out over the course of this book.

Lara Ehrlich

I totally I understand that. And I love that. It’s interesting. A draft of a book that I just finished, I started writing with the word “rage” in mind, and it was an emotion that I wanted to tap into, and then the story was kind of secondary. It was like the rage was driving the characters and the plot, and it sounds like you’re saying something similar here. Did the rage come first and then the story was crafted around the rage, or how did that come to be?

Rachel Yoder

Oh, yeah, the rage came first. You have to remember, I was writing this deep during the Trump presidency. I started it soon after he was elected, and that the helplessness and rage I felt on election night, sitting there after it was called, and being like, “I have known this man. I have met this man so many times, and I have felt small and foolish in his presence.” And that was the night it really began. It kind of cracked everything open for me, because it seemed like something must be done in the face of what had just happened. But I think, too, having my son and then deciding to quit working and stay home with him was a big transition out of my girlhood into my womanhood, and a very rocky one at that. It was me having to learn how to own my rage, own my power, own my womanhood, and I didn’t know how to do that. Yeah, the rage came first, and the book was, in very many ways, like a catharsis. I had to figure out how to work through it, and the rage was very inarticulate for a long time.

Lara Ehrlich

Wow, there’s so many directions I want to take, but what made you angry? Obviously, the election, which, I am right there with you. My daughter was not even 1, I think. I’m hearing this result that would shape her childhood for at least four years of her life, which is devastating. That is a very tangible rage. What else made you angry in early motherhood?

Rachel Yoder

Well, I was never the kind of girl who fantasized about getting married or becoming a mom. My fantasy was about moving to New York City, working in a high rise, wearing high-heeled shoes, ordering takeout. From a very early age, I wanted to have a big, juicy, great life, and I really saw that centering on my career. My vision for what my motherhood would look like with my husband was that we would both work in town, we’d have both come home at 5 o’clock, it would be a very equal undertaking, I would be able to be fulfilled in my career, I would be able to keep all these parts of me that were really important, I’d be able to write here and there. And just because of the specific logistics of our lives, that is not at all what wound up happening. I also should add that after my son was born, I lost my desire to work. While I did still want to, it became a lot easier to see how stepping out would happen. I was so deeply in love with my baby the first year. The oxytocin was doing its magic. I was high all the time on my baby, my baby hormones. Actually, for the first nine or 10 months of his life, I did work. He was at daycare for 40 hours a week, and I was in agony. I was like, is this what modern motherhood is? You see your baby from 5 to 8 or whenever he falls asleep? Or maybe he has been awake at daycare all day, and as soon as you get him, he falls asleep, and you never see him awake. That felt like a tragedy to me. Like, I don’t want this to be my motherhood. So, then, okay, I’ll quit my job. Well, we won’t have any money. We’ll make do with one career. And that’s what happened. I find myself at home with him, and it’s great for a while. It’s all I want. I want to go to the park with my baby. I want to hold him every time he falls asleep. I want to nurse him to sleep. It was great, and I was so grateful that I could do that. But after a time, by the time he got to be 2 or 3, I sort of came to, from this view this baby view, and was like, what have I done? I’m 38, I have stepped out of the workforce, I have not written for two years, my husband is never here, I don’t have any friends, and I have a toddler. Suddenly, it felt like the trap that I had been working my whole life to avoid. Marriage always felt like a trap to me, motherhood felt like a trap, and I was like, how did I get here? Despite my two MFAs, despite my this, that, and the other thing and all this ambition I had, how am I still here? Despite my great partner, despite this great community I live in. That’s when the ball really started rolling, because I just started thinking, like, of course, this is how it’s all set up. I think that’s where the rants began. I knew that if this had happened to me, then certainly it happened to so many other women. How do we escape that story? How do we write another story? It seems almost impossible. That’s where the rage came from. And the rage also came out of desperation and isolation, too—this huge feeling of being so alone. Like, who can I turn to? We didn’t have family in town, all my grad school friends had moved away. I was like, where’s my pack? Where’s my community? How do you find a community nowadays, if you’re not part of a church or some other established thing? These all felt like really insurmountable questions to me, and I couldn’t figure them out.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. Did writing the book help?

Rachel Yoder

Yeah, it did on many levels, because I went back to writing. If I could do one thing differently, even though I didn’t want to write, and I thought I didn’t have anything to write in the first two years that my son was alive, I would have made myself write. I find time to write every day—not, like, while he napped, but being like, no, I need to pay someone for two hours a day to come. I think that would have been incredibly helpful for me to move through it, but I didn’t know that. The book was me writing the story I needed to read. It was putting these characters that were very similar to me and my husband and my son in a very similar situation—except I didn’t think I was turning into a dog, so throwing that into the mix. How can we use these characters, or embodiments of ideas, and move them through time and space to some sort of resolution? The structure of story is what I turned to, to find some resolution. It’s such a good engine. That’s what I’ve done for it for the last 20 years. The reason I started writing was because I was in deep crisis. I had left my family, I’d left my Mennonite community, I’d had a huge, cataclysmic break in my life. I was just this girl alone in Arizona without her pack. That was when I first started writing, because writing has this promise of resolution if do it enough, and resolution not in the sense that you’ve figured something but that you’ve moved through something. You’ve moved to a different place. And that is very much what I wanted me to do. When I started writing this, I was in a place of rage. I was in a place where I thought I was helpless and powerless. I knew I needed to move somewhere different. How do I do that? Through the use of story.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s go back for a second, if I can remember my thought because I was so enthralled by what you were saying. Your point that had you known, you would have hired someone to come and give you those two hours a day or whatever it would be. For anyone listening, who hasn’t thought to do that, why is that an important thing to do?

Rachel Yoder

I was actually talking to my best friend about this last night, and she told me this anecdote, which I thought was so great. She was a long-distance runner before she had her three kids. Before she had her baby, she was wise enough, she turned her husband and said, “I am never going to stop running. I want you to know that.” And she said that because she knew it was the part of her that made her her. It’s what made her feel alive. It’s what fulfilled her in a very deep, soulful way. As soon as her son was born a few weeks after, she gave the baby to her husband and said, “I’m going for a run now”—probably not fully wanting to go for a run, but she went for a run. On the run, he called her and said, “The baby’s crying.” She’s like, “Welcome to fatherhood. I’m going to finish my run.” Like, figure it out, you know? That blew my mind. Like, yes, of course, it’s not only that you’re doing something for yourself that’s not just superficial self-care but something that is important to who you are, but you’re also setting up a dynamic with your partner about how this is going to go. You are setting up a way in which your core self should be treated. You’re saying, I’m going to cherish my core self, I’m going to cherish the part of me that makes me me, and it’s really important for me not to lose that. It’s like a ritual that you’re setting up and a way of relating with that core self. That is really important. I think, again, even if I had hired someone, with money we didn’t have, to come for two hours, and then I went to the coffee shop and ate a cookie and just sat there, I still should have done that, because that would have been me taking care of myself in the way I needed to and respecting who I was and valuing myself properly.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. I know self-care is something you wanted to talk about specifically during this conversation. Tell me what the word means in our culture and then what it means to you.

Rachel Yoder

I get this look on my face when you say, “Tell me what it means in our culture,” because it feels so superficial and corrupt at this point—you know, the commodification of self-care. It feels like a business, and whenever anything turns into a business, it feels like it’s far away from its original intent to me. Again, I was talking to my best friend about this, how real self-care requires you getting to know yourself and getting quiet and still with yourself and figuring out what you need and want and what needs aren’t being met. I think there’s a trap that you can fall into of superficial self-care. “I went and got a facial, and I should be feeling great now.” Maybe those are your forms of deep self-care. It’s different for everyone. But I think the real self -care comes in taking care of your internal self and coming into a better relationship with yourself. That’s what we’re really going for here.

Lara Ehrlich

What’s your form of self-care? What do you do?

Rachel Yoder

Writing is a huge form of self-care for me. Whenever I’m not writing—and my husband actually sees this sooner than I do—he’s like, “You’re a mess. Do you need to write?” And it’s like, yeah, I actually do. It’s my way of being still and quiet and going somewhere that feels really sacred and working from there, which is what I need. I’ve also found that gardening is a form of self-care, touching the earth and being in relationship with these amazing things that are alive and are so weird and have so much vitality and personality. I’m looking at my flowers right now. There are so many personalities out there. They all have something to say. I’ve also recently gotten into somatic therapy. I’ve started working with a somatic therapist who, when I asked her what I can do when I’m feeling really anxious, she’ll say stuff like “you could drink a glass of water” or “you could look out a window at something very far away.” And I’m like, “You’re insane. What are you talking about?” But really, what she’s getting at is how can I become more a part of my surroundings? How can I become more aware of my body as a thing in this incredible system that’s all around me? A huge part of self-care for me, for this past year, has been understanding how to communicate and listen to my body. So many women are estranged from their bodies and from the sensations of their bodies. That has been a mind-blowing thing for me, too. Nightbitch has a lot to do with being in communication with the sensations of your body. That has been some real self-care for me, negotiating my relationship with my body.

Lara Ehrlich

I feel the same way, actually. I’ve heard that from a lot of women on the show, that sense of disconnect from our bodies and how somehow motherhood brings you back into your body, through pregnancy and then through nourishing your child with your body. Even women who don’t give birth and who don’t breastfeed still come back to their bodies in a very vital way. Did motherhood bring you back to your body?

Rachel Yoder

That’s a great question. I loved being pregnant. I loved all the sensations of pregnancy. This sounds totally crazy, but I love giving birth. That’s, obviously, a mama who gave birth seven years ago saying that. Did it bring me back to my body? Yes. It made me understand my body had a lot more potential than I thought it did, and therefore I had a lot more potential than I thought I did, in terms of strength and resiliency and doing something really hard. That has been a big piece of my relationship with my body. I also have some autoimmune stuff and incredible pain in my body, which has been something that I’m also negotiating, and I think part of the horror of the body in Nightbitch is a body that seems to be out of sync with you or at odds with you. I’m really interested in that tension and what stories that has to tell.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, let’s stick with that for a second and talk about transformation and women’s bodies and that out of sync feeling. Just go deeper there. That’s so fascinating.

Rachel Yoder

I think what was interesting to me about Nightbitch is that it is a narrative of her being literally at odds with her own body. Like, there’s another animal in there that she’s warring with, but also the fact that her body, on a literal, physical level, is expressing things that she cannot express. In her silence, in her inability to take action, in her internalized, repressed rage, her body begins to change, because it’s like, “I am not going to wait for you. Catch up. This is where we’re going, and you’re coming along, whether you like it or not.” At first, she resists her body, but then, as she figures out how to negotiate it, how to wrangle it, she sees that it’s saying something very important, and it’s crucial to her coming into her own power, to her transforming into this artist and woman and mother that she always wanted to be. It just seems like we can’t go there without our bodies. We have to bring our bodies along. I’ve recently gotten Botox in my face, and I’m like, can I do that? Can I do this and be the person I want to be? Is there any way to get Botox in my face that doesn’t reinforce the message that I am flawed? Is there any way to do it? I don’t know if there is. I’m feeling it out. It doesn’t mean I’m not ever gonna get Botox again. It means that’s an open question right now that I’m negotiating, and more will be revealed. But for lots of people, there’s a thought that the mind and the body are separate, and we can do one thing in one place, and it won’t affect the other place. It’s become incredibly clear to me that we’re this one unified animal. I’m really interested in the ways that all those parts of us are working together, because I think they constantly are, and they’re constantly telling us things, whether we hear it or not.

Lara Ehrlich

Well said. I think this is a good transition to maybe sharing a little bit of Nightbitch, if you’d like to read to us.

Rachel Yoder

Sure. I can read just a little bit of the beginning and give you a little taste. This is the first time I’m reading from a finished copy here, so thank you for the opportunity to do this. It’s really exciting. Okay, so this is from the very beginning of the book:

When she had referred to herself as Nightbitch, she meant it as a good-natured self-deprecating joke—because that’s the sort of lady she was, a good sport, able to poke fun at herself, definitely not uptight, not wound really tight, not so freakishly tight that she couldn’t see the humor in a lighthearted not-meant-as-an-insult situation—but in the days following this new naming, she found the patch of coarse black hair sprouting from the base of her neck, and was, like, What the fuck.

I think I’m turning into a dog, she said to her husband when he arrived home after a week away for work. He laughed and she didn’t.

She had hoped he wouldn’t laugh. She had hoped, that week as she lay in bed, wondering if she was turning into a dog, that when she said those words to her husband, he would tip his head to one side and ask for clarification. She had hoped he would take her concerns seriously. But as soon as she said the words, she saw this was impossible.

Seriously, she insisted. I have this weird hair on my neck.

She lifted her normal hair to show him the black patch. He rubbed it with his fingers and said, Yeah, you’re definitely a dog.

That’s their relationship in a nutshell.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you for reading, and I’m honored to be the first place in the real book. Let’s talk on a craft level for a second about that opening and about how effectively and beautifully you set up the entire rest of the book with those first few paragraphs in such a matter-of-fact way—here’s what’s happening to this woman, she accepts it as a matter of course, even if she’s going to rebel against it—and just how efficiently you do that in the first page. Talk about that.

Rachel Yoder

Well, thanks. There is a lot going on there, I think. When I just read it now, I was like, oh, what’s so evident from page one is her own internal gaslighting, her own internal doubting of what’s happening. Then that’s reinforced by her husband, who’s like, “Oh, you’re being silly again” and “yeah, you’re totally turning into a dog.” That’s a dynamic that I think a lot of us can relate to, where you don’t take yourself seriously, for many reasons. That’s also a really big tension in the book, her not knowing whether what she’s thinking is worth being taken seriously, and her getting to a point where she’s like, “No, what I’m saying must be heard.” It starts off as a joke. She wants to be a cool girl who can take a joke, she’s not uptight—which is a vibe I definitely relate to and have related to throughout my life—not wanting to be confrontational, not wanting to be uptight about feminist stuff. I think now in midlife, I’m like, “No, it’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit.” And it’s all designed to make us feel bad about standing up for ourselves, make us feel bad about being angry, make us feel bad about hurting the man’s feelings or confronting a man. It’s just so insidious. I feel like all of that is sort of swirling on this first page, and I think it sort of swirls between the wife and husband in the book. That was a really interesting dynamic to write, because I don’t think he’s a bad guy, and I didn’t want to make him a bad-guy character, but I did want to show that they were both part of this pretty insidious dynamic that was really unconscious to both of them until it gets to a point where she realizes the power is within her grasp to transform their dynamic.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, and actually, you just touched on this, too, but the power of naming, too, that she claims this name for herself, and it has the word “bitch” in it. You know, claiming away from those who use it in a disparaging term against women who are angry or women who speak out. There’s just so much power in the book generally, but in that first page plus, you really start off with a bang.

Rachel Yoder

Well, isn’t it interesting, too, that “bitch” is a word given to women by men? Because I feel like if someone’s a bitch, I want to be their friend. Like, that’s a plus in my book. I want to know what’s going on with you. It’s just this very obviously gendered slur. I did think about that, like, should I take it back? Do I even want to take it back?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. This is such a technical question, but was the book always called Nightbitch?

Rachel Yoder

It was. The title was the very first thing. I did talk to some editors who were like, “If we publish this, we can’t keep at Nightbitch.” And I’m like, “That might be a deal breaker for me.” I just felt like that’s what it had to be.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, I mean … if you see this on a shelf, you’re gonna pick this up, right? It has meat and the word “Nightbitch.”

Rachel Yoder

It’s also, like, totally absurd.

It is very angry, but that had to be leavened with the humor. It was also just really fun to write, because I could be utterly absurd and just play around.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s talk a little bit about the book on a publishing level. Tell us a little bit of story about publishing Nightbitch and about what’s next for it, because you have some exciting next steps for the book.

Rachel Yoder

The deal happened right before we all shut down for COVID last year. Really quickly. I found my dream editor. She saw it, and she knew. She was like, “Yes, yes, we’re doing it.” And I was like, “Okay, yes, let’s do it.” It’s been a joy to work with her. Her name is Margot Segmanta, and she works at Doubleday. We did some editing during the pandemic. It wasn’t really in-depth editing; it was adding a little bit more to the MLM mommy narrative and building that out, fiddling with the middle backstory part, which was always a little problematic and hopefully works now, and then just fine-tuning language in some areas. That went really smoothly. And it should be noted that every single person who I have worked with on this book and with the film, which we’ll talk about, has been a woman. Every single person, which I find astonishing. I feel so lucky. It just hit me the other day. Especially for film stuff, you don’t get to work with women, but the executive who I’m working with, the producers are women. Soon after the book was sold, some sort of magic happened, and everyone in Hollywood had the manuscript. I still have to get clear with my agent on how exactly this happened. But I got hooked up with a film agent, and she’s like, “Okay, we’re gonna sell it.” And she did her thing. During the pandemic, I was taking calls with producers and with Amy Adams. It was a pretty long process, but it was also really interesting, because you would have calls with these producers, and they just wanted to talk about your work and talk about the story, which was really fun and gratifying. It was great. I think about it took about six months to get a contract, and everything kind of paused at that point. Hollywood was shut down. But now we’re in July again—how is it July again?—and it seems there’s been some movement and hopefully there will be an announcement soon. Things are moving forward in a really positive way with people who are just really vibing with Nightbitch. So many moms and women are vibing with my pitch, and so I’m just really excited to see what someone else does with the story. It feels like something that is no longer mine. I think on July 20, it’s really not gonna feel like mine. It’s gonna feel like this thing that is doing something out in the world.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, July 20, and then the book will be on shelves. I want to be respectful, because there are some things that you are not able to talk about yet, when It comes to the film, but can you tell me about any of the calls that you had? Can you tell me about talking to Amy Adams and what that conversation was like?

Rachel Yoder

I think so. It was funny because my son was home, and I got the time zones wrong, so I had just gotten out of the shower, and my phone rang. I was literally in the towel, and she’s like, “Hi, it’s Amy.” And I’m like, “Um, I’m sorry, I got the time wrong.” She was very sweet. She’s really smart, and it was a very personable conversation. It’s pretty amazing to be able to ask, you know, what scenes resonated with you the most? And what was it about the book that captured your imagination or your interest? She said she was really interested in the feral rage of the book. She’s been taking edgier roles of late, but still, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen completely unhinged Amy Adams. I think that’s probably an exciting prospect for her to go into this new territory. I think it is in the right hands. It can be something that’s really singular and funny but also deeply earnest and serious. It was completely surreal. She said she really liked the script from arrival, because at the beginning of it, she had no idea how it was going to end, and she likes things that are really surprising. She had a very sophisticated aesthetic sensibility, so I was like, “Yes! Yes. Thank you! This is what I want, too!” It was wonderful. It’s just been wonderful working with everyone who I’ve worked with so far and feeling like what I wrote is being respected and understood and handled in a way that’s gonna do it justice. By women, it should be noted.

Lara Ehrlich

Like I said, I think that the scenes and the ferocious energy of the book really resonate especially now. It feels like there is a swelling of rage among women that you’ve really tapped into, so it’s the right time and place for this book, I think.

Rachel Yoder

I hope so. I hope that women will be able to read it and say, “Oh, this is what I can do with my rage,” or it’ll give them a way to think about how rage can be generative and propulsive and creative and can actually serve you very, very well, if you know how to come into relationship with it, instead of trying to repress it or push it away. Like, inviting it in, inviting the beast in and asking what is up? What do you want? That is what I hope women do, come into closer relationship with their rage from this book.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s talk about that a little bit more. This goes back to something you said early on, that with your upbringing, rage is something that you hold at bay. I think that’s something, whether you grew up as a Mennonite or not, women are taught, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, to hold their rage at bay. You’re not supposed to be angry. You’re not supposed to be a bitch. You’re not supposed to argue. Can we talk a little bit more about your grappling with that complexity and where you’ve come out the other end? You say you want women to invite the beast in. What can it do for you?

Rachel Yoder

I think rage is a piece of self-care for me. I feel so guilty sometimes, going and getting a hotel room for the weekend after my husband’s been gone, being like, “Peace, bye, you’re with the kid on your own.” The way I get through that is you summon the beast. Here is your ambition. Here is Nightbitch. Like, Nightbitch needs to fucking go and get room service and have no one talk to her for two days. Like, let’s get serious. There are lots of different ways of talking about it. It could be rage, it could be bringing your fierce mother energy to yourself, to your own caretaking. Rage has been so propulsive for me. I mean, it created a book where I was like, “I haven’t written in two years, I am a writer, I am going to write a fucking book now.” It gave me focus, like, this is what I’m doing. There’s no negotiating my way out of it. Here we go. If you feel guilty, cool—we’re gonna do it anyway. If you feel like you’re abandoning your family, cool—we’re gonna do it anyway. The rage is really at all of the other voices who would have me act otherwise, and that is power, to have a fierceness that you can bring to all of this other stuff around you. That has been really helpful for me, to focus my rage in those ways and to use it to protect myself, to protect my time, to protect the thing that makes me me. I have to do it every day. It’s a constant negotiation. You can see it in how I’m sitting. You take the rage, and you put it in your chest, and that’s how you activate it. You can take the rage, and you can put it in your guts, and it’ll eat you alive. You can hold it in different parts of your body. Yeah, this is what’s always going on in my head these days. I don’t know. Pandemic. Too much time to myself. But that’s how I think about it. Like, where is it in my body? How does it feel? Where does it feel like it’s harming myself, when I feel sick with rage? Where is it then? How can I become more comfortable? Can I drink a glass of water? Can I look at a tree far away? Yeah, all of this work on myself—all of my work with my physical ailments, all of my art—it all just really feels like it’s converging now. That’s what this book was, a convergence of all of these different relationships and negotiations and problems and trying to find how that all comes together in this story. And it can be a story that’s hopeful in the end. Not everything was resolved, but she’s headed there. She’s found a first stage on which to perform this self, and we can be hopeful that she’s now on the right path.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Rachel. That’s the best ending, right there. Thank you so much for joining me. This has just been such a pleasure. I’d like to talk to you every day. It’s been such a pleasure, everyone. Thank you all for joining us. Stay tuned for the next episode. Go out and get your own copy of Nightbitch, and I will see you all next time. Thank you, and good night.

Transcript: Writing Motherhood & Mental Health


July 7, 2021

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and this is a special episode about writing motherhood and mental health with writer mothers Alicia Elliott, Liz Harmer, and Megan Leonard. Please share your thoughts and questions with us in the comment section, and we’ll weave them into our conversation. And I’m honored now to introduce Alicia, Liz, and Meg.

Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer whose essays have been nominated for national magazine awards and whose fiction was selected for Best American Short Stories 2018. Her first book, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, was a best-seller in Canada and the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2020 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award. She’s working on a novel and lives in Ontario, where she has a 14-year-old son. Alicia describes writer motherhood in three words as “difficult, meaningful, confusing.”

Liz Harmer’s first novel, The Amateurs, received starred reviews with Publishers Weekly and the Quill & Quire and was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novels Award. Her second novel, Strange Loops, is forthcoming in 2022. She writes about love, madness, motherhood, and religion, and she’s working on a memoir on her experiences of psychiatric crises and treatment. A Canadian living in California, Liz has three children, ages 9, 11, and 13, and describes writer motherhood in three words as “challenging, interesting, deep.”

Megan Leonard is the author of A Book of Lullabies, a collection of poems that explore mental illness and new motherhood through the lens of fairy tales, Disney princesses and labyrinthian language. She teaches writing through the Connors Writing Center at the University of New Hampshire and has been a mental health advocate for more than 20 years. She has four children, ages 8, 5, 3, and eight months, and she describes writer motherhood in three words as “playful, adaptive, messy.”

Now, please join me in welcoming Alicia, Liz, and Meg. Thank you all for joining me. We have a full house here tonight, so let’s get started. Thank you for being brave enough to join me to talk about an issue that is often ignored in our society, mental health, especially for mothers. And we’ll talk about that a little bit. But before we do, I’m going to ask each of you just to tell me why this topic is important to you. What’s your personal story? What brought you here? And we’ll start with Liz.

Liz Harmer

Hey, thanks, Lara. I just want to say, first of all, it’s important because it’s so stigmatized. I still feel the effects of that stigma, and no matter how sane I appear to be, there’s still a feeling of if I transgress and I don’t seem mentally healthy, it feels like I’m doing something wrong and other people are judging me. So anyway, I just wanted to put that out there—that it does feel kind of scary to talk about it, because there’s such a strong stigma. I’m writing a memoir, which is about when I was 17 and had a pretty severe crisis of depression and anorexia. It led to a long, manic psychosis. That led me to be in the hospital for about six weeks of my final year of high school, and then figuring out what all that meant and what the diagnosis I received meant, and whether I should stay on the meds and how to care for myself. All of that has been my life’s work. I’ve been writing about that ever since. That was over 20 years ago. I’ve also experienced pretty severe postpartum depression. I have three kids, and only with one of them did I have postpartum depression, and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through. I’m talking about that in de-stigmatizing. That’s really important to me as well.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Liz. Yeah, we’ll definitely talk about postpartum depression, and thank you again, because it takes a lot of courage to come on and talk about something that there’s a lot of stigma around, and rightfully so. And so now, let us hear from Alicia. Alicia, can you tell us a little bit about your story?

Alicia Elliott

Yeah, it’s a little bit complicated. My mother had bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed with different things throughout my life, and I’m fairly sure her most recent diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, which is bipolar disorder with schizophrenic elements. I was mostly being cared for by her. Our family was very traditional: my dad went out to work, my mom stayed home and raised the kids. We dealt with her having this mental illness and saw it in front of us in ways that really shaped how I felt about about the world. And I saw the ways that she was criminalized, in certain senses, as well, for having mental illness. There was one time in particular, where she was tasered in front of my young siblings while we were on the res, and this was because she has a mental illness. This kind of binding up of mental illness with criminalization, using the police, in some senses, to deal with us … I saw that growing up, and I wrote about that in my book of essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. My mother talked about mental health, and at the time I wrote it, I had only really experienced depression and anxiety—like bad depression for years. But then I had a mental health crisis last year, of mania and psychosis where I ended up in the hospital, mandated there by the court, by my siblings. It was a very complicated thing. I’m still dealing with the fallout of that, in terms of how my family sees me, despite the fact that we all grew up with a mother who had mental illness. The novel I’m working on now actually talks about psychosis and what it’s like as a mother, particularly having postpartum psychosis and things along those lines.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, thank you, Alicia. That’s a lot. Having a mother who was dealing with mental illness must have been traumatic to have witnessed as a young child. We’ll definitely come back to the criminalization of mental illness. I think the phrase of having the police “deal with us,” quote unquote, is so telling, especially with the criminalization of mothers with mental illness. That’s something that we’ve all seen in the news, as well. Meg, same question to you.

Meg Leonard

I love your podcast, Lara, because of this use of the word “monster.” I feel like motherhood is this space where how our society defines what’s healthy and acceptable is so narrow, and I feel like the mentally ill mother and the selfish mother are the two tropes that show up in media and movies and songs and writing as the two things that are like the most monstrous that a mother could be. And of course, writers, to some degree, have to be selfish, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’re seen as selfish. I feel like being a mentally ill writer mother has the potential for this monstrosity. That really interests me. I have a long mental health history. I had multiple hospitalizations in my 20s, I was very ill as a teenager, sort of did better in my 30s, but mostly because I had lots of therapy and lots of support and knew my own illnesses better and knew how to manage them better. I have four children, the oldest one is 8, the youngest one is eight months, and I had postpartum psychosis after my first and fourth children, and then just sort of a run-of-the-mill postpartum depression after the second and third. All of my friends know this about me. Most of my friends are also people with complicated mental health histories. And when I became a mother, suddenly, I felt all of this pressure to be quiet about that part of my identity. I felt like if I talked about it too much with other mothers that that would be scary to people or might make them think twice about being my friend or think twice about me. I was interested in how this one identity as a mother made this other identity that I was pretty comfortable with sort of unravel, in terms of my public comfort with it. I feel like we don’t have a lot of models for healthy mentally ill writer mothers. If we think of mentally ill mothers who write, we think of Sylvia Plath and and Sexton. We don’t think of the women who survived and wrote dozens of books. I’m interested in having these conversations so that we can talk about what healthy writer mothers with mental illness might be, and how that’s possible. And I’m also just interested in talking about how these monstrous identities like mental illness and selfishness are not monstrous and are actually just part of being human. The two do not have to be in opposition to each other. When I was writing my book of poetry, I was interested in those identities and how they hide each other and subvert each other. And so I was excited to learn about your podcast, and I’m so happy to be here today, because I feel like this topic is one that touches a lot of writers and a lot of mothers. I think our collective feelings around it are not going to shift until we talk about it more.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, thank you. Man, that was really eloquently said. And I should have said at the top of the show that you actually came to me with this idea and helped me craft the episode around motherhood and mental health. You’ve brought so many amazing ideas and questions to this moment, where now we’re all gathered to discuss. This is a great group of strong, monstrous—in the best way—women. I want to keep the focus on you all as the panelists, but just for the sake of transparency, I also struggle with anxiety and depression, and having had a child, raised the stakes for that. You kind of realize how much there is to lose and how easy it is to to lose the things that you love and how fragile your children are. That, for me, raised the anxiety level. Motherhood and anxiety and mental health, for me, are very intertwined. Just putting that out there. You gave us a good launching off point with monstrousness. Can we talk a little bit about monstrousness and about the stigma, as Liz named it, around mental health specifically for mothers? Who wants to take that runway?

Liz Harmer

I don’t know if I have anything to say about that, but I just love what you said, Meg, about healthy mothers who also have mental illness—like, those things coexist. The monster thing … I feel like there are people in my life who think I’m a monster. It doesn’t matter how well I do and how stable I am and how good I am. It seems like some people have decided that I’m a monster. It’s pretty terrifying to come out from under that. One thing that is really useful is that because I’ve gone through these things, I’m less afraid of what might happen to me, and I’m less afraid of the judgments I might receive, since I’ve received them all. In a way, it’s very freeing, because I can be bold in ways that maybe would be frightening if I hadn’t gone through those things already.

Lara Ehrlich

How does that come out in your work, that boldness?

Liz Harmer

I’m not hung up on apologizing for being selfish or choosing art. Because for me, art, or being a writer, is a very important part of how I cope and make sense of my experience, so it doesn’t seem to me like a selfish act. It seems like it’s an important thing that I do. I choose that as a healthy choice for myself. I guess that’s one way that it comes out.

Alicia Elliott

For me, also, just thinking about the ways when I was younger, I conceived of my mother as a monster when she was manic, for example, or when she was super depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. Those kinds of things, you don’t understand as a child, particularly when, in my case, a parent is basically telling you all of these things, like you need to look for this, you need to look for that. Basically, I was kind of policing my mother’s mental health, by, like, “Oh, you got to make sure that if she isn’t sleeping much, she’s doing this”—all these different things that made it so that it was kind of like this carcerality imposed into my head, in terms of how I conceived of my mother. I never really had a chance to really reckon with that until I was writing, particularly an essay about her specifically in my book. It was then that I was trying to reckon with this way that I had conceived of her as someone else entirely when she was sick. Having been on the other side of that now gives me this difficult but necessary insight into what was happening with my mother at the time and all the ways my father had failed her, in terms of giving options, like giving the idea that you could be healthy, in any sense, while you have mental illness. It felt like there was no model for that for our family. We fell into these patterns that are still very much there. At least, I saw them when I had mental illness and saw how my siblings reacted. As a society, despite how many years we’ve been aware of mental illness, there has not really been any significant changes. It’s been illuminating to think about that and put that into my work, that double-sided awareness of being on both sides of that, as a mother myself and as the daughter of a mother who had mental illness, I was encouraged to think of her societally and within my own family. Seeing how people were to frame me, once it was clear that I had mental illness in very similar terms, despite there being 30 years difference between when those things happened.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, Alicia. Forgive my ignorance in asking the question, but I wonder what it was like for you growing up on a reservation. In that rarefied society, did you notice differences in the way mental illness was addressed or not addressed, as compared to where you live now?

Alicia Elliott

I think it’s important to note that I didn’t grow up on the res, I moved there when I was in grade nine. I had a significantly different experience than my siblings who were much younger and spent most of their lives growing up on the res. We were in a very particular situation, because my mother was not indigenous. She was white. My dad just moved us there. He had been very abusive to her in the past—including moving us there to begin with. He didn’t do anything to make it so that she had legal standing there. She basically had to hide that she was there the entire time, and if you know anything about the way that reservations in Canada work as a result of the Indian Act, there was a period where if you were an indigenous man and you married a white woman, she would gain status and therefore be able to live on the reservation, whereas, if you were an indigenous woman and you married a white man, you would lose status, and all of your kids would lose status, and you would basically be forced off the res. That kind of sexism was really embedded into the Indian Act, and that affected my family because right before my parents got married, they had changed it, so she didn’t have any status there. That meant that because she had no status, she was not supposed to be living on the res. All it would take was someone to find out she was there and be mad at my dad and report it to BAM Council, and they could send a letter evicting us. We were in a really precarious situation, considering the historical context. When she did have mental illness, we couldn’t take her into Branford, for example, to get help, without it having to be something we would pay for. Instead, we would have to literally drive her to Buffalo, and my dad would have to call the cops on her and get her put into the hospital as a threat to herself. That’s kind of how it went. It was this constant trauma. Sometimes, all the kids would have to be in the car so she wouldn’t get out of the car while we were driving on the highway and things like that. I think that my dad really was very aware of the power he had in that situation. It was a complex situation. I think as a result of intergenerational trauma, we don’t like to talk about mental illness on the res. You kind of put it to the side. We’re all dealing with our things, or not dealing with our things, and that’s not what we talk about. This idea of silence got really reinforced through the places where I was and the historical context I found myself in.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, different layers of silencing, not just womanhood but being on a reservation, indigenous culture, the context that you were living in. That touches on something that Meg noted. Alicia, your word power—the power that your father had in that situation, the power that the authorities had to step in and try to manage, that leads into monstrousness and some of the power dynamics that you mentioned as well. Can we talk a little bit about power and powerlessness of women, particularly mothers, when it comes to mental health?

Meg Leonard

Alicia, one thing I loved that you said that I think is so important is you talked about how the systems failed your mother. And in her case, it was many layers of systems. I think for those of us in this conversation, that seems very obvious, but it’s such an important thing to name. I think there is this thing in our culture, especially around postpartum depression, but also around a lot of other mental illnesses, to where we view them as individual crises, and we view the treatment as individual: it’s a pill and it’s therapy. There’s something wrong with the individual’s mind. This is very similar to how our society currently treats new mothers. It’s very individual. People are parenting in silence, they’re not with their families, they’re not getting time off from work, we don’t have these big communities who bring us hot meals, there’s nobody to hold the baby at night. Mothers, even if they’re married with great, supportive partners, are very, very isolated, in a way, and their challenges are individualized in a way that’s very similar to how we individualize mental illness. I think this allows us as a culture to not look at the way the systems are failing us, and they are failing us as mothers, and the systems are failing people with mental illness. And it’s so much more so for people who are people of color or queer or living in poverty. We know that the systems actively make marginalized people ill, yet we persist in believing that the problem is in the individual mind, where the problem can only be solved with individual treatment, instead of thinking about: how do we radically change these systems, so that women have more support when they have young children, so that people with mental illness have more support? I’m glad that you brought that up because I think that’s crucial to the conversation.

Lara Ehrlich

Absolutely, thank you, Meg. And that leads us to the importance, as you said, of naming issues and of defining terms. Let’s take one step back and just define what we mean by postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, for people who don’t know what that means, and talk about new mothers’ experiences with mental health specifically. Who wants to take that one?

Liz Harmer

I had postpartum depression, but to be able to define it would be very difficult for me to do. I could talk about my experience. I have a very complicated relationship to my diagnosis, because I rejected the diagnosis I received when I was a kid. Part of what I’ve been exploring is trying to figure out what happened to me if it wasn’t this biochemical thing. I’ve been reading a lot about systems and ways that families can create these problems, or the way that lack of resources or certain kinds of stresses can exacerbate mental illness. I have three kids, I wasn’t on medication for any of them, but only with one did I experience the depression. This is part of my mystery for me of what it means to be on a spectrum, to not have a clear idea of what it means for me to be mentally ill. That’s my caveat. As a result of that, I was used to taking a lot of responsibility for my own illness as an individual. When I became bereft, I kept describing myself as shattered. I couldn’t get through a day. I could hardly walk. Every day just felt like a mountain I was climbing. I remember one way I was thinking about it at the time was like, oh, here comes 9 o’clock again. Like there was nothing. Like I just had to get through it. But I couldn’t get the rest I needed.  People who might be vulnerable to hormonal fluctuations or lack of sleep, in addition to all of the other anxiety that comes with being a mother, I believe that sets you up for the possibility of having postpartum depression. For me, I was in this confusing relationship with psychiatry. They wouldn’t put me on antidepressants, because antidepressants can cause mania, so I couldn’t get the kind of help that maybe I needed, so I kind of suffered alone. I feel like I am lucky to have survived it. Because when I look back at how desperate I felt, it might not have been survivable. That went on for a year for me—an experience of not feeling like I could be a good mother, and the feeling of not feeling like I could be a good mother somehow made my mothering worse. You get into these guilt/shame cycles. I don’t know, Meg, if this connects for you at all, with your experience.

Meg Leonard

Yeah, I had a very similar thing, and I really appreciate you saying that you’re glad you survived because it was potentially not survivable. I feel like that is one of the things that mothers are not allowed to name. It’s like, once you become a mother, it’s one thing to say, “I have the baby blues, and they put me on Zoloft.” And that is really hard, but in terms of acceptability. Then, if you talk about being so unwell that it’s a miracle you survived, that’s the sort of thing that we don’t say at dinner parties. People are really uncomfortable with it sometimes, or perhaps it’s that we perceive people will be uncomfortable with it. I feel like I’m afraid to say those things a lot of the time. I had a very similar experience after my first was born. I actually had postpartum OCD, which was interesting, because it helped me understand my lifelong OCD in a completely different way, because it was so magnified, so in a weird way, it ended up being almost like a gift. I sort of hate to use that word, because wasn’t a gift at the time, but now, at age 40, having survived it, I feel like that experience allowed me to understand my own mental health in a new way. But it was so extreme, and it lasted well over a year, which goes outside of the typical diagnosis. I was back at work two weeks after I had my baby. Now I worked from home, and I was working part time, but I was working two part-time jobs, so it was a lot of hours. I feel like a lot of what made it so dangerous for me was things like I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t have people to talk to, I hadn’t met a lot of friends with young children yet. It was this isolation and this longstanding ambivalence with the psychiatric community, because I had a very long mental health history. A lot of what you say really moves me. And I think what you were saying earlier, Lara, about power, when someone feels like they can’t trust the potential care providers, or when they feel like they have to be alone with their symptoms, because if they say the wrong thing, it’s going to trigger a chain reaction of responses. Or if they say out loud to their friend how desperate they are, that would be entering in the taboo, and, somehow, that renders a person powerless. You can’t speak any of those truths, because of all of those very legitimate fears.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. Alicia, would you like to add?

Alicia Elliott

I think it’s hard for me to talk about anything to do with postpartum stuff, just because I was a teen mom. When I gave birth to my son, it was a month and a half before I was supposed to be going to university, and I was very fortunate in that my partner’s mother was willing to basically take care of our child while we were going to university. We were coming home every weekend, and for the first six months, I was still trying to basically pump breast milk, and trying to figure out how to not tell people that I couldn’t go out because I had to be home to pump breast milk every four hours, put it in this little freezer, and then be able to take that back on the weekends. It was like very isolating in a different way. A lot of guilt for not being there with my baby, even though I knew that we were trying to make it so that we could have a better life, ultimately for our son. It was one of those things where I felt so much shame, I didn’t tell anyone anything. In my residence that I was in, I didn’t really talk to anyone. I was just nervous to talk about any of this stuff. It’s hard for me to know, I guess because I was so young, what was going on with me mentally and how much of that was situational and how much of that was other stuff. It’s kind of depressing to say, but for so much of my life, I’ve dealt with depression, so it’s hard for me to be able to point my finger at something and say, this was a time where I wasn’t depressed.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, that resonates with me, too. Like, what would it feel like if it were to go away? It’s interesting to think about. Let’s talk a little bit more about support. You have mentioned a broken system that was actively moving support away from you, and in other cases, a lack of support from family or friends or people who understood what you were experiencing. How important is support? Have you found support? Since you’ve become mothers, have you found communities that you’ve entered into or created for yourselves that have helped with surviving, to Liz’s point?

Alicia Elliott

Because I had my son so young, it kind of set me apart from a lot of the mommy groups that were around at the time. A lot of the women were older than me, and there’s always this judgment of young mothers. Even with my son growing up: we have an apartment, and the other people that were in his classes were in their 30s, established, and had houses, and we’ve never had that. Having to deal with that sort of stuff has been difficult, in terms of not feeling support. Having a child before you’re a certain age, I guess, society deems is appropriate. It’s always changing, it seems. We did have, like I mentioned, my partner’s mother. She was very supportive. But there was always this underlying fear that she might not let us have our son again. When we would be in fights, that would be something that would come up. It was constantly me having to worry about being considered an appropriate mother enough for a court to me give access to my child or custody of my child, and that kind of thing constantly played in the background. I remember when I was first pregnant. I decided to have my baby in a birthing center on six nations because I was terrified of the general hospital, where it was common knowledge that young teens from six nations who had babies, they had basically social services outside of their door as soon as they were born, asking questions or taking kids, specially if they had any kind of involvement themselves, when they were children with social services, and we did have that in my house, so I was terrified of that. You have this fear of policing of particular racialized communities and their ability to be mothers at the drop of a hat. That was something that was also difficult to navigate. I’m just glad that my family has always been supportive of me. My dad was there every single weekend to pick us up all the way from Toronto and drive us home, and then drive us back on the Sunday night. My dad is flawed in a lot of ways, but he also is someone who’s really supported me in a lot of other ways. That was helpful when I was feeling otherwise isolated and not sure how I was going to be able to fulfill my role as a mother while trying to do these other things to make it so that society would see me as someone who should be a mother and would be able to have my child.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Alicia. This is a point that Meg brought up before the show. And you’ve led us into it. This is the way in which this mirrors how women writers are often working in isolation and without structural supports in my language, which affects their ability to create and reach an audience. Let’s pivot a little bit to the writing and how you see the things that Alicia really beautifully pointed out playing out in our careers as women writers. Who wants to start? Liz has something to say.

Liz Harmer

I have kind of a funny—to me, funny—anecdote, which was that I was reading over my psych records as part of writing my memoir, and they’re always looking for “delusions of grandeur,” so they would constantly find me writing a novel and calling me “grandiose,” like I was having a delusion of grandeur. I really was just always writing novels. It wasn’t a delusion; it’s just what I did. The writing: In my case, I feel like my family was really supportive of writing—like, writing was a really important thing. We were kind of … I call it “shabby intellectuals,” because we really didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of education. That’s possible in Canada. I don’t know if it’s the same in the States. There were always books around my mom’s library, and my dad was an elementary school teacher, so writing was really important and valued. When I had this episode that everybody kind of had to recover from, I’m interpreting it, at this point, as like a trauma. It’s not just that the trauma can exacerbate the symptoms, but the thing itself causes a secondary trauma—the breakdown itself and all the treatment and coping with the treatment. While that was all going on, everyone was just not sure what would happen to me, and I kind of felt like nobody expected anything. They felt like we would be lucky if Liz got her degree. I felt left alone to figure out my ambition. To me, that was kind of a blessing with having had this crisis. I could just go ahead and do my thing, because no one expected anything. That’s maybe not fair to my parents, but that’s kind of how I feel about it.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, Meg, this was your point to make, so I want to come back to you and ask you if you want to talk a little bit about how women writers are working in isolation and how that plays out.

Meg Leonard

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I had a baby in the pandemic, and my book also launched in the pandemic. In the poetry community, we talk a lot about being good literary citizens. Practically speaking, what that often means is buying each other’s books and going to each other’s readings and promoting each other on social media and inviting each other to speaking events and networking to be on panels and things like that. I feel like this group of people will understand that when you have a young child, that becomes impossible pretty quickly. And when you have a mental illness, that becomes impossible for different reasons. I have started noticing, in my own life, how much I have to say no—because I have to go to bed at 9, because my baby’s gonna wake up at 5, and if I don’t get enough sleep, I am going to be in a bad place with my mental health. Or, you know, I find networking so exhausting, and it takes such a toll on my mental health, so even if it’s something I enjoy, it might be something that I have to limit to some degree. The poetry community tends to be kind of small, so I don’t know if this is true in your writing circles as well, but we put so much emphasis on this work that people do behind the scenes, and women especially. A lot of it is about the way we use our relationships to promote our work. I’ve just been thinking about how I just can’t do a lot of those things—things like residencies. I can’t go to a residency. I’ve been breastfeeding somebody or pregnant with somebody since 2012—so, basically my entire 30s. So, right at the time, when I’m supposed to be trying to promote myself and get out there, I’m sustaining other people with my body, and it’s time consuming. I don’t know how to solve that. I think one way to solve that is to make things like writing conferences and residencies child friendly. That would be huge. There is no residency that I know where you can bring a breastfeeding infant. I went to AWP when I was really pregnant with my first, and I haven’t been back to one because it’s too hard to travel far away from very young children. So: Making things child friendly would be one thing. And then I think recognizing that literary citizenship is going to have to include people with mental illness and chronic illness and other disabilities, and in order to include everyone, there has to be space for just recognizing that not everybody has the same energy levels, or that staying up late to get stuff done can mean very different things for different people, and that can shift for individuals over time. I feel like right now, we’re at a point where we’re just, as a writing community, starting to recognize that things that we label as working hard or hustling are actually just keeping out anyone who doesn’t have uncomplicated health. I’d like to see those things change. I think that will help women. And I think that will help women with mental illness. Hopefully this can be part of that conversation, and we can all start shifting our thinking around those things.

Lara Ehrlich  47:35 

I love that Meg. Thank you. Yeah, and I agree. I’ve heard a lot of women on this podcast talk about residency, specifically, and fellowships, and how these are often one- or two-month long experiences. I’ve just gotten to the point where my daughter’s 5, and I’m like, maybe I could go away for two weeks—maybe. But a month? No. It’s definitely different.

Alicia Elliott

I also feel like one of the things that is complicated, particularly when you’re dealing with mental illness, is up in Canada, we have festival circuits, when you’re promoting your book, and things that you’re expected to do. People don’t really talk about the fact that you write a book, and you’re just supposed to write a book, but that’s not how it works. You have to promote it. In some instances, audience members or other people on the panel ask really inappropriate questions, or you have to deal with other people saying things that are super offensive. And you have to keep smiling the whole time and make sure that you’re viewed as professional because to show any signs of weakness or anger, these are things where you would be considered monstrous. If you’re a mother, too, people have all these expectations: What does your family think about this? Where’s your son right now? They’re projecting these societal shames onto you, and you’re just supposed to smile because you have to sell books. That’s something that is really difficult. When I was touring my book, there was a lot that was going on in terms of me having dealing with depression but also trying to push myself to do all of these things. There was also a lawsuit launched against, and I was terrified of people asking me about it. There are all these things that I don’t think people really think about, in terms of how they’re making spaces for writers, especially if we’re writing about things that are very difficult. There’s this expectation that we should always be slashing our wrists open and letting everybody see all of the mess. We chose what we wrote about because we felt comfortable writing about it, so when you’re asking all of these deeper questions, it’s like, I didn’t write about that for a reason. It’s kind of gross and appropriative or exploitive. People don’t really consider those things, or what it means to hold someone who’s trying to talk about their work that’s very difficult and has a lot of personal things blended within it.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. We talked before the show about the way that this industry reinforces ableism by not treating our work on these subjects with care and respect. I think, Alicia, you’re getting at that, but that there’s a sense that if you put yourself out there through your work that people have permission then to dig at wounds and ask you to display yourself in public. I don’t know, I’m just putting this out there, but what if the same request is made of men who write about mental illness? I feel like that’s literary, if men write about mental illness. What do you guys think about how it’s perceived when women write about mental illness? And we talked about monstrousness and shame. There’s definitely a disparity there, I think.

Liz Harmer

The problem being taken seriously as a woman is compounded by being a person who’s perceived as mentally ill. It’s just being credible, people taking seriously what you have to say about your own experience about anything. It’s a big problem.

Alicia Elliott

Oh, yeah. There is always this sense that men have more authority on whatever they’re speaking about, that they have more control over themselves. Just the idea of women, as you know, having hysteria, this whole idea of madness that is specifically female. It has its roots in being in women. This whole notion of this is so prevalent in our culture, it’s hard to not see it, wherever you look, this idea of how when men break up with women, they’re “my crazy wife,” “my crazy ex-wife,” “my crazy ex-girlfriend,” whereas, you don’t as often hear people saying, “Oh, my crazy boyfriend” or “my crazy ex-boyfriend,” even if they were abusive in different ways. There’s this idea of a certain level of harm that’s acceptable to lobby towards women, and if women respond to that in any way, then they’re crazy. If they have any sort of emotions that aren’t just smiling, docile, this version of submissive femininity, then we’re crazy. Automatically, there’s always this kind of idea lodged against us. But then when you are on top of that, when you actually have a severe mental illness—or any mental illness, really—then that also lowers your credibility to a certain extent, where people don’t believe anything you’re saying, even people who are close to you. They’re always seeing you as someone who they can’t trust. They can’t trust your perceptions of what’s going on around you. They can’t trust your memories. Then, that kind of makes you wonder about how much you can trust your own memories or how much you can trust your own perception of the world. It kind of creates this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, where you’re mired in this doubt about yourself and about your worth. I really do believe, too, that the literary industry just doesn’t make space or provide the respect and care necessary for the works of mentally ill women. There’s this notion that our book is our product, and we have to be able to sell them to people, and there has to be some sort of pitch for it, in terms of, well, who wants to read about a crazy woman? No one wants to read about that. It’s really gross.

Meg Leonard

I really relate to that, Alicia, because I think we do see motherhood and mental illness and women as a niche subject, when the reality is, we all, every human, has mental health. We have mental health days that are great, and we have periods of time when our mental health is less strong, even if it doesn’t cross over into the line of a diagnosable mental illness. We all have mental health; that is a universal experience. And almost all of us have mothers. Yes, there are people who don’t, but everybody came out of a uterus.

This is how we all got here. We all have some relationship to motherhood, whether it’s an absent mother or a painful mother or a loving, wonderful mother; whether it’s mothering our own children or imagining how we might mother other people. We all have a relationship to motherhood, and we all have a relationship to mental illness, yet the book marketing industry pretends like this is a niche thing. And if you say, “I wrote a book of poetry about motherhood,” people will go, “Oh, like Sharon Olds?” Well, there are a lot of people who have written about this, not just one. It’s fascinating how both motherhood and mental illness is used to discredit women, and how writing the truth about this — or a truth, writing our truth — is a way to push back against those cultural beliefs that would discredit us. There’s a real fierceness to that. I think this is why I love reading motherhood stories, and I love reading about women who have experienced mental illness, even though it can be very painful to read sometimes, because the very act of putting it out there pushes back against this idea that it’s unimportant or uninteresting or not reliable … that we somehow can’t be experts of our own experience. That’s BS. I love these spaces, like this conversation, where people take the time to say, “No, that’s a lot of crap.”

Liz Harmer

I wanted to just add one thing. I love what you both are saying. I was just thinking about how rebellious I felt to that notion, like becoming a mother was so transformative and weird. What’s more interesting than that, I can’t think of a so-called masculine topic more interesting than that. I guess war and mafiosos? I’m trying to think of masculine topics. Race-car driving? Those things don’t interest me as much. First of all, like a psychotic experience of feeling like something has happened to your mind and other people are no longer in the same world that you’re in. I mean, that is an incredible thing to go through. And motherhood is also a transformative experience. It doesn’t even make sense to me why would that be diminished. It’s just interesting inherently.

Lara Ehrlich

I want to keep going here. I think it was Meg, in an email, who mentioned Britney Spears. I feel like this is a really timely conversation, given the publicity of Britney Spears’ testimony in court recently, about her conservatorship. I think it speaks to all of the things that we’re discussing here about trust and about trusting a woman’s perspective on her own mental health and her own lived experience. Let’s talk just for a second about that example. And Meg, since you brought it up in an email, do you want to start with just why you felt like that was something that we could talk about today?

Meg Leonard

I’m getting credit where it isn’t due. I wasn’t the person who brought up Britney, but I’m so glad somebody did.

Alicia Elliott

I think what resonated with me and a lot of other women who have mental illness was the fact that her conservatorship made it so that she had to get an IUD implanted, and they would not allow her to marry or have any more children. And the way that that ties into this idea of eugenics, whether women with mental illness should be parents or our ability to parent and be mothers, and not only mothers but also productive. On the one hand, this conservatorship was making Britney so that she was working over 10 hour days, all the time, to make all of this money for the conservatorship and for these people who are profiting off of her. And yet, at the same time, she can do all of this and be on these sets for hours and hours a day and months-long residencies in Las Vegas, she cannot have another child. She should not have had children to begin with is the the idea that I think is being implied there. I think that because she’s so famous, and this has happened to her, it’s shocking to some people in a sense, but they maybe have never had to deal with court systems and the ways that police come into play with mental illness and controlling mentally ill people, specifically women, and also racialized people. People are looking at this, and they’re saying, “Yes, this is so terrible,” and they’re thinking about the fact that all states, that I’m aware of, have laws where you can force someone into the mental hospital, outside of their will—that’s definitely the case in Canada and all of the provinces. When my siblings put a Form 2 for me, they hadn’t even spoken to me in weeks. I was not asked to go to the judge, I could not defend myself in any way, I didn’t even know any of this was happening until I was arrested. This is the kind of stuff where we talk about things like this happening to Britney, but I don’t think we’re doing enough work as a culture to really interrogate the assumptions underlying the situation, so that other people, who are not famous and rich and resourced like Britney Spears and privileged in those certain ways—what are we having to deal with? What are the assumptions that are put into law that make it so that we are not able to make decisions on our own, even if they’re bad decisions? I think we all probably have friends who have made terrible decisions, and they’re still allowed to do that, and yet, if you’re mentally ill, and you decide that you want to do something that other people determine is not okay, then they can force you to do that. We are talking about defunding the police and things like that, but I don’t think there’s enough attention being paid to the fact that a lot of the people who are being killed, even in terms of indigenous and Black people in the States and Canada, are people who have the cops called on them for mental health issues or mental health checks. The fact that they’re considered monsters immediately, and therefore, it’s okay to kill them, not only because they’re racialized but because they have a mental illness and they’re somehow dangerous or more dangerous than other people, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, all these statistics make it very apparent that people who have mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than to be perpetrators. I feel like there’s so much there, and these things are all intertwined. I just think that if we aren’t looking at what these bigger standout cases say about the society that we’re in and the assumptions that we make, the laws that we have, etc., then we are failing, in some sense, to really do justice to this topic and all the other people who are not getting the same attention as someone like Britney Spears.

Lara Ehrlich  1:05:23 

Yeah, thank you for suggesting that we talk about her, because, like you said, all of these issues are coming together in this one really hyper-visible example. But you’re right, there’s a sense of spectacle involved, too, because she is so well-known, and people are interested, but are they interested because it’s important to change the laws and the systems that are in place that have led to this point, or are people interested because it’s Britney Spears, and they want to read about her testimony in court? I agree, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done and contextualization that needs to happen.

Meg Leonard

Alicia, I think this speaks to something that I have noticed about women and mothers in particular, that we’re allowed to occupy this very narrow space around difficult subjects. Like, it’s okay to talk about or write an essay about a miscarriage, but nobody wants you to write an essay about 12 miscarriages, and there are women who have 12 miscarriages. I feel like mental illness is like that. A lot of the narrative I’ve seen around Brittany is that she shouldn’t be in this position, because look at her—she can do all of this work, and if she can do this work, she should be able to make these decisions about her own body. But the real thing is that anybody should be making decisions about their own body. There shouldn’t be a point where we say, “Well, that person doesn’t get to.” With the police brutality, even if someone is having an enormous mental health crisis, they still do not deserve to be shot. I think about this in terms of writing, and I love that both of you are bold enough to write some autobiographical things. I don’t write a lot of autobiographical stuff, even though I approach mental illness in my poetry, and part of that is because I struggle with this window. I’ll share a brief story. After my first child was born, I had this horrible postpartum experience. When I was pregnant with my second child, I went into my midwives office, and I said, “Okay, you know what? I had a really, really difficult time with mental illness after my daughter was born, and I want to get ahead of this. I want to have support in place ahead of time.” My biggest fear had been that if I was honest with my practitioners about how I was feeling that I would be forced to take medication I didn’t want to take or that I would be separated from my child because I would be hospitalized. I was talking to my midwife, and I was asking, “Do I have to worry about them? I don’t want to lose that autonomy.” And she was like, “No, of course not. We would never make you take medication if you didn’t want to, we would never, make you be hospitalized if you didn’t want to.” And I was like, oh, thank God—now I can be honest with her. And then she said, “Well, unless, of course, you were suicidal, thinking of hurting yourself. Then we would make you take medication, and we would hospital.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So, now I’m aware of my window, and it’s small. I can be honest right here. But everything out here is very risky to tell someone who could help me, because in asking for help, I could lose autonomy, not only over my own body but also with my relationship with my infant child. I think for some people, having time away from their baby to rest and recover can be really healing. For me, just because of what I was experiencing, being separated from my child, even for a 72-hour hospital stay, would have made things so much worse. Just knowing that I couldn’t be honest with my care providers and get help because I could lose my own ability to advocate for myself—it was ridiculous. Like, this should not be the case. This should not be how we’re treating women with mental illness. I like what you’re saying about Britney as this big example. In some ways, she’s a sympathetic example. A lot of us grew up with her, grew up listening to her music, and we can see that she should have autonomy over her own treatment and her own body. But that truth really needs to be applied to every person with mental illness, no matter how extreme their illnesses.

Liz Harmer

I was thinking about how I was told I shouldn’t have children, at some point, when I was very young. I had just had the diagnosis, and I was being told what the course of my life was going to look like, and it was not going to include children, if I wanted to be safe or careful or good or whatever. Obviously, I rejected that, but I do feel very distressed by the news around Britney. It’s partly the way people talk about it. I was trying to watch something on the news about it, and I had to turn it off, because this lawyer was like, “Oh, we’ll have to see how she performs mentally.” And I’m like, what would she be able to do that would prove to you that she’s been proven ill? I’ve had that experience, before I my diagnosis, where you could have a day where you were feeling jubilant or excited—a symptom of mania—and now I can’t behave in any way because I’m being watched, and my symptoms are being reported on. It’s just very painful to watch and to think about—the IUD thing, the social situation, the whole thing is unbelievable. I remember being very careful about what I told my doctors around birth, because I wanted certain kinds of psychiatric care, but I didn’t want to raise red flags. If you talk about anxiety and depression, or your former eating disorder, those are kind of like, “Oh, we can deal with those. Just get more rest. Here’s some vitamins, here’s your anxiety support group.” If you start talking about psychosis and more serious illness, you lose that credibility, and you no longer have that kind of control over how you’re treated in those situations. It’s all kind of flooding back to me, but I’m glad we’re talking about it.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you for sharing that, Liz. And you use the word “perform,” which I think really ties into what Meg was saying here, and what Alicia has been touching on. You said the lawyer in the courtroom would have to see how Britney performs mentally. Can we talk about that word “perform”? I hear you saying that there’s a level of performance when it comes to healthcare and motherhood, that there’s a line that you shouldn’t cross, and in order not to cross it, there’s maybe some performance that you’re navigating. Can you talk a little bit about that word “performance”?

Liz Harmer

I think a lot of people in my life don’t know that I have this history, and when I talk about it, I start to feel like I’m testing to see whether people are going to be too alarmed. Or you’ll overhear people saying things that are horribly ablest, and it’s very shocking and upsetting, and you think, this is what people think of me. I was thinking about the ways that I have been unconsciously strategic, and one of those things is that my partner is a white cis man who’s very successful, doesn’t suffer from an any mental illness at all, and is able to very much be my advocate and ally and is able to speak for me when people don’t listen to me. I was thinking a lot about how I’m finding a support person or a person who’s able to resist all of those other things happening, all of those other people who mean well but who are maybe doing you a disservice. That’s part of the performance of my life. Partnership is a resource for me, and it protects me.

Meg Leonard

I love that. And Lara, I’m so glad you brought up, or pulled out, this word “performance,” because it’s making me realize that there’s so much performance of wellness when you live with mental illness. And there’s also so much performance in motherhood. Unfortunately, I think it’s really hard to step out of the performance that our culture requires of us when we’re mothers, and I really see writing as something that dramatically resists both of those types of performance, and that when we’re authentic in our writing, even if it’s not telling our own story, just when we’re authentic about motherhood in our writing, or when we take up space as mothers who write, or when we take up space as people with mental illness who also choose to mother, that it takes away some of this power that the requirement of performance has, so I love that we’re talking about that.

Alicia Elliott

I think that another aspect of performance is the ways that everything is okay, in terms of how society sees you, if you’re performing your job, hitting your deadlines. It doesn’t really matter what’s happening to you outside of that, because you’re doing those things. If you are, for example, having a mental health crisis and need time off work, what does that mean then? Are you going to actually take that time off work, or do you not have the money? I believe that this idea that we all have to be constantly performing under capitalism and making sure that we’re making money and spending money contributes to that stigma, because if we’re not doing that, then we’re hangers-on, we’re burdens. There’s this notion that if we are too mentally ill and can’t make money, then we have less value to society in general. I’m not just talking about values in terms of social value but also literally economic value, and the ways those all fit together. What would it look like if we not only had maternity leave but paid mental health time off? When you start thinking about the ways that we can’t care for ourselves because we’re stuck in this wheel, it really does make matters worse.

Lara Ehrlich

Absolutely. I know we’re coming to a close, but I want to come back to something we talked about at the beginning and what a healthy writer mother monster who lives with mental illness looks like. What can that look like? Tell me your vision for a healthy writer mother monster.

Liz Harmer

Oh, you can read my face. It’s a curse. It’s been my curse. This has been something I’ve been working on a long time, because I was very afraid of my emotions. For me, what’s really important is healthy expression of emotion and accepting that emotions are healthy to express, even negative emotions. Being distraught, being angry, and things that are frightening to others, we don’t find those frightening in our family. To us, it’s sort of like being able to have a narrative around emotions that gathers them all up and says, “Hey, this is what it is to be human. There’s nothing to be alarmed about.” Because I think sometimes that stuff can just build. For me, the gift of being a person who’s a healthy mentally ill person is that I can not be afraid for my kids in the same way, because I can love and see them and not be afraid of symptoms that I might perceive, and that kind of thing.

Alicia Elliott

I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like in a lot of ways. I know that through my experience, one of the things that I was always worried about is what would happen if my son had a mental illness as well. I think, if nothing else, the experiences that I’ve gone through have made it very clear to me what someone needs in that situation and what someone doesn’t need in that situation. Going through that, and being able to turn those negative experiences into wisdom, helped me figure out how to then approach others who are in similar situations. I’m not just thinking about it in terms of me as an individual, but what it would mean to be a good community member, who is aware of these things happening with other people all the time and being able to know how to advocate. I guess I’m still figuring it out.

Lara Ehrlich

Still figuring it out is, I think, a good place to be. That’s where we all are, right? Endless work. And Meg?

Meg Leonard

I think for me, one thing that I love to think about and that really helps me feel grounded in health is when I let myself believe that my mental health and my writing life are not in competition with each other, and that my writing life and my children are not in competition with each other, and that my mental health is not in competition with my children—that I can attend to all of these things and take care of myself. Like I said, that might mean going to bed early and not going to a reading that I feel like I should go to. Maybe I missed out on some writing time that I wanted. I can also take some writing time and let my children watch TV for the afternoon, if that’s what I’m needing. There’s space in my life for all of that. I don’t have to choose or put these things in competition with each other. And Alicia, what you were saying about capitalism really resonated for me. When I start thinking that there is not enough time or enough of me to live as a healthy mentally-ill person and a poet and a mother, it’s usually because of these embedded capitalist beliefs that have me thinking I need to produce more poems, I need to somehow be doing something with my children that I’m not doing, that I need to be more outwardly productive in some way that goes against my mental health. When I can release those ideas and uncouple them from my own belief system, then I do find that living in that space of health is really fulfilling, and really very possible.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you all so much. I think those are some great words to end with. And I really appreciate all of you, your honesty, and your bravery to be willing to speak to these experiences in this truth. It’s so important, this conversation. You guys have brought tears to my eyes—like, I’m tearing up here. Thank you all for joining us tonight.