Parenthood arrived swiftly and gave no quarter. I’d read snatches of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, been gifted Your Self-Confident Baby twice; I added The Birth Partner to a random cart at the recommendation of a midwife in anticipation of my wife’s labor. The books provided comfort and a template for managing expectations, but I was more interested in learning how to maintain my sanity while my identity was pulled in different directions for the sake of keeping a tiny human alive. Then there is the détente with pediatricians, the minute signs of when to panic tempered by the fact that there is only so much you can do. There is the uptick in familial attention—who gets to come and see the baby, and when? There is the coalescence around the infant, a couple’s sense of intimacy and tenderness diverted, leaving very little margin of error within spousal interactions.
Astute readers will note that I am merely the father. My existential retching is made insignificant in the face of my wife’s physical recovery, frequent PT appointments, and the bodily closeness of breastfeeding—all rewiring one’s identity into that of a person who has given birth. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” but parenting doesn’t allow for such lofty declarations. Compartmentalizing the self, the spouse, and the parent—assuming these roles at opportune times without shattering into pieces—is simply how one breaks even.
For an artist, the border between these selves is the fine line between fertile ground and sinkhole. It’s fitting, then, that in My Work, the Danish writer Olga Ravn sheds light on parenthood’s competing interests. In a wondrous and wide-ranging translation by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell, Ravn maps the internal and concrete terrains present before, during, and after giving birth. Describing the reading experience, like trying to describe motherhood, risks platitude—“There is nothing like it,”; “It completely changes you.” Calling this a novel feels comically rigid when the epistolary is juxtaposed with literary criticism and poetry blurs the edges of memoir. It also runs afoul of the traditional novel structure’s need for completion. Ravn has compiled a series of beginnings, continuations, and endings that, in their dissociation from chronology, set the narrative clock to an infant’s time. The opportunities to write with a child come in snatches, and the roulette of forms and chapter lengths that appear in My Work articulates a desperate attempt to find a shape for a constantly evolving situation:
This endless manuscript overwhelms me. It’s bringing me to my knees. I do not want it, this destruction. Take it away from me. I write from a brain-dead place. Without Aim. Without connection. Without recognition. There’s madness here, and exposed flesh. This is why no one wants to read the books of mothers. No one wants to know her. To see her become real. But if we don’t look, we live stunted half lives, each isolated in loneliness, shamefully pushing strollers down the boulevards and suburban streets, between the apartment blocks and through the cemeteries amongst the dead.
This is the “Seventh Beginning,” penned by Anna, Ravn’s narrator, two years and five months after the birth of her child. Writing, as an act, is now liminal for Anna; parenthood provides material, but to render it requires removing oneself from the child. Isolation is a requirement of both writing and childcare, and one of the book’s great insights comes in weighing the shame of absentee parenting against the shame of writing. Being present sequesters one’s identity; stepping away risks exploiting one’s own child for narrative.
Ravn’s kaleidoscopic structure allows an observational dragnet to snatch up auxiliary issues and inform the greater project. There is the waxing and waning threat of going broke in a global city like Copenhagen, where Anna and her husband, Aksel, live for a spell—the stereotype of artists being priced out is complicated by their desire for “elegant garments made from understated, luxurious materials.” There are the delicate challenges of daycare, too, of whether they should send in a child who is borderline sick to buy some time for errands. There is everywhere the slow-burn misogyny aimed at new mothers—brilliantly encapsulated by a nurse denying Anna two sedative pills, even though she has not slept since giving birth, until Aksel intervenes, and also by Anna’s innate ability to change diapers—the feminine stereotype of playing with dolls “exist[ing] solely to prepare her for this moment”—weighed against Aksel having to ask a nurse for help.
And there is Aksel himself: an objectively decent person who wants what’s best for his wife and son but who confuses equality with equal outcomes. (This observation is based on the genius born out of my own weeks of postpartum stupidity.) In his mind, both technological and intellectual advances have leveled the parental playing field, so the mental crises Anna experiences must be self-imposed rather than forced upon her. Why breastfeed when you can pump—and why breastfeed at all when there’s formula? Why hang around the apartment with the baby when you’re supposed to be writing and your spouse is on leave? Implied in Anna’s fury during an early-book blow-up is everything that Aksel doesn’t see: the times when she comforts the baby in the middle of the night while Aksel is sleeping; the look in the baby’s eyes when he wants to be fed, an instinctual relationship that cuts against Aksel aligning his entire life to a schedule:
“You don’t have more claim to the child than I do, Anna.”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s essentialism. We’re equals in this. We agreed we would be equals.”
“You’re an idealist. You can’t be an idealist here. We aren’t equals.”
“I’m just saying it like it is, Anna. The bond between mother and child is not sacred.”
Later, in a journal entry, Anna bitterly notes that she equated “his minimal efforts” to hers “while [she] bled from wounds in inner organs he did not have.” Then, when shaking the sand out of her shoe at a park, she accidentally hits their child with her elbow and goes to comfort him, until a jealous Aksel turns his back to her and steals the opportunity:
Suddenly, Anna understood that Aksel had imagined that they would both be mothers to the child. That Aksel had assumed he was going to be the mother. . . . In the absence of role models, he had rejected fatherhood and reached for motherhood instead.
After shooting down Anna’s request that he not confuse their roles, Aksel utters a heartbreaking line that summarizes the heavy strain that parenthood has put on their relationship. No matter how hard he tries, he won’t have the same sway as Anna: “‘I’m mommy,’ he said, hugging the child close to him. ‘I’m not going to die.’”
Readers may go scouring through the handful of chapters with dates—oriented by the child’s birth—to approximate where they are in time and space. But the book’s themes of expanding identity, uneasy adjustment, hovering poverty, and growing pains in a relationship are so relentless that they order the book by their emergence. The anticipation of their gnashing on the surface of Anna’s consciousness gives My Work a voyeuristic propulsion.
Agitating timelines is only one of the author’s tactics. If you, yourself, are postpartum, then the very hindrances created by your situation would theoretically prohibit you from writing about your involvement in it. As a result, the profoundest move that Ravn makes is in constructing Anna in the first place. Her main function is to provide distance, so that Ravn may speak frankly about the experience of child-rearing. Ceding proximity gives the author freewheeling range while forcing her to look at herself (and her husband, and her mother, and her child, and her therapist) as another would. One of the sharpest turns in the book is when the writer herself acknowledges the technical conceit of her aesthetic project. “To write in the third person was to create someone else to endure the pain,” Ravn writes. “One invents her. Her name is Anna.”
To unravel the suffering, I had to find a place to begin.
Certain things cannot be written in the first person, so they
are transferred to the second or third.
A woman looking at someone who looks like herself from a
Distance; she describes this person
She starts to walk. She crosses a field. As she moves forward,
She walks into falling snow, and there in front of her she sees
The other woman. The woman who could be mistaken for her,
And she comes closer step by step. But when they reach one
Another and see each other’s faces, she realizes they do not
Look anything alike, it only seemed that way from a distance.
The woman she described is a stranger.
The third person is a helpless woman.
In the book’s acknowledgments, we learn that Ravn took the name Anna after Anna Wulf, to honor the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. That book, too, was composed of the protagonist’s notebooks. The potential for postmodern affect abounds. Is Ravn letting loose Lessing’s Anna into her Anna’s specific consciousness as a commentary on the psychology of both authors? How much does Ravn’s scribble-and-go facsimile sync up with Lessing’s synchronistic technique in Notebook? The paratextual implications are enough to send even the most uncritical readers down a few rabbit holes; on the other hand, Anna (or Ravn) barely has time to breathe, much less craft a full-fledged homage. “I recognized myself in it,” Ravn says to end the entry. This, in light of the book’s implicit desire to make motherhood’s tumult visible, is justification enough.
As for me, I let the invitations to “call if I needed anything” turn brittle until I had to make sure I wasn’t crazy—and if I was, whether or not being crazy was normal. The first thing I talked about with my friends who were already parents was how little early parenting is discussed. Why didn’t anybody tell us we’d be fighting this much? How do you show patience and empathy toward a spouse when you feel like you aren’t receiving any? What lingers, long after My Work is put down, is Ravn’s voracious search for answers. In diagramming her experience, she has pinpointed pregnancy’s unique loneliness with brutal honesty and deep aesthetic intelligence. My Work is a marvel, and it puts Ravn in rare company amongst contemporary authors. It’s not often that architects of such finely engineered structures point them toward our collective humanity instead of their own mechanics.
My Work by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell (New Directions, 2023).
© 2023 by J. Howard Rosier. All rights reserved.