I’m not exactly sure why I decided to read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. I’m many years away from being a new mother–I’m at the opposite end of motherhood–although thinking back to that time in my life is fraught with both terror and joy. I’ve admired Galchen’s writing, especially the fiction and non-fiction pieces she’s had in the New Yorker, and I was intrigued with the premise of Little Labors, written in the style of many current non-fiction books about life and motherhood such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculations.
Maternal ambivalence seems to be the hot new literary topic, though it’s nothing new in real life, as any parent–dads included–who is honest enough will admit. There is a part of us as humans that sometimes has to work a little harder to open up to the widening of our personal circle when a baby arrives, but then when it does, there is no holding back. At the end of it all, there can’t be ambivalence of any sort when one’s child grows up and walks away into his or her own life. A parent comes to feel as if there is a part of them that is missing, and the only possible solution is to live with this loss.
Galchen succeeds in portraying the enormity of change when a baby is born: “I had imagined that I was going to meet, at birth, a very sophisticated form of plant life, a form that I would daily deliver to an offsite greenhouse. I would look forward to getting to know the life-form properly later, when she had moved into a sentient kingdom, maybe around age three.” There is no way to prepare for the complete immersion in the helplessness of a baby who takes over one’s life. The difference is in life going forward–for Galchen, this feeling of ambivalence continues to the point that she refers to her baby throughout this short book (130 pages) first as a puma and then as a chicken. This is an amusing conceit at first–the animal nature of a newborn–but then I found it annoying, since calling one’s baby an animal distances mother from baby even more. She sounds almost resentful of her role as a mother and how difficult it is to write or accomplish anything in the same way she has been able to before the baby’s birth–and of course, this is completely normal–but the ironic distancing and tone of detachment never grows into anything more than a stance that does not admit any feeling or emotional growth, both of which I think are the prime characteristics of being human. The short pages–some consisting of only a sentence–elicit this feeling of incompleteness, but Gulches never achieves the ability to look back at herself and her writing with any kind of critical insight. Perhaps this is her take on the current trend in narratorial detachment, but it feels false when applied to something as intimate as caring for another as parent, care-taker, or human being.
So I would not recommend this book if you are looking for any insights about motherhood or parenthood. Nor would this be a good book to give to a new parent. I don’t know who this book is intended for. Although it’s a quick read, I’d suggest sticking to Galchen’s other works–her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances or short stories American Innovations. I think this tone of ironic detachment works much better in fiction.