In her short story “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,” Polly Rosenwaike writes about a woman struggling after the birth of her child. She visits a young acquaintance, who seems to be the only person able to console her. When she confesses that she doesn’t want to talk about her baby, he says, “I understand. I mean I don’t understand, of course, so. Do you want to sit down and have some tea?”
I, too, find myself a bit tongue-tied by the wonderful stories in Rosenwaike’s first book, Look How Happy I’m Making You. There are few clearer indications of the patriarchy’s influence on our literature than in the simple fact that pregnancy, childbirth, and the tentative life of infants have rarely been counted among the great themes of literature. War and death have been easy narratives for men to control. But bring up childbirth and its pains and implications, and we men might get lost.
The dozen stories in Rosenwaike’s collection concern themselves with pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, breastfeeding, and the often difficult first months of a baby’s life. The stories are sometimes frightening, sometimes wry, sometimes about difficult moments that all of us who have tried to raise children can recognize.
There are many tongue-tied, confused men here, but Rosenwaike doesn’t grant her women any easy heroics or sentimentality. They, too, are confused, often deeply embittered by the mewling creatures that have recently taken over their lives. Here’s a scene from “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.”:
Serena, who had never much enjoyed making meals for anyone, found herself grudgingly concocting piles of mush. She put Eve in her high chair in the dining room, fastened a bib on, and started feeding her with a baby spoon: an exercise in frustration. Eve puckered her lips, allowing only the tiniest bit to seep into her mouth. And then Serena turned away because the kettle was boiling and she was dying for tea, and while her back was turned, Eve managed to grab gobs of cereal from the bowl, which apparently wasn’t sufficiently out of reach, and she was smearing those gobs on herself and then throwing them down.
“Fuck!” Serena snatched the bowl away. “No, Eve, no!”
It’s funny, but it’s also hard not to sympathize with the anger of the exhausted parent. The mothers and the babies usually, but not always, find a way to survive.
Polly Rosenwaike’s stories feel absolutely new, even as they explore the oldest and most central human experience. She reads at Literati Bookstore Wednesday, April 3.