“They must all hang their heads because they haven’t done it perfectly, and motherhood is, if anything, the assumption of perfection.”
My second novel, What Lies Between Us, is primarily concerned with the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, how it colors and flavors a person in ways that they must contend with throughout their life.
The book is also an exploration of motherhood and maternity in America. It is an attempt to understand what women go through in our society when they choose to become mothers. In my opinion, much of our culture is tragically unsupportive of mothers.
On one hand motherhood is posited as sacred. Women are often primed for maternity to be a wonderful and blissful time. Yet it can be also be a period rife with shame. The examples are legion. A mother will be told that she must breastfeed, and yet may be scolded by a perfect stranger for attending to her hungry baby. She will be told that the first five years set the tone of her child’s entire life, but unless she is wealthy, she will have to spend much of this time working, entrusting her child to the ministrations of strangers.
Once, getting a haircut, I remember thinking that the young woman cutting my hair looked distressed. At some point she burst into tears and ran out of the room. The other stylist told me that the girl had had a baby two weeks before and couldn’t bear to be separated from her newborn. But of course, she needed the paycheck, so here she was, attending to richer, more privileged women. I finished up my somewhat awkward haircut but I didn’t forget that girl, and the despair on her face haunted me for a while.
All this is to say: What does it mean when the society that surrounds one does not support this most basic and intimate of connections?
I think of the incarcerated mothers—of the many, many mothers who have hurt their children, who have ultimately destroyed their children. Along with everyone else I am horrified by these actions. But why are there so many in America, and how does that reflect our society’s views on maternity and children?
I think that in America, childhood is fraught. There is a sort of anxiety around it that I never felt in, for example, Sri Lanka, where I was born and still spend some of my time.
On a personal note, my husband and I have made the choice to be child-free. We were lucky to have found each other, lucky to agree that our work, not our offspring, would be our primary contribution to the world.
Yet I sometimes wonder if living in America has affected my ideas about children and childhood. When I am in Sri Lanka strangers often ask me about my children. When I explain that I don’t have any, there is a reaction of great pity. It’s annoying to deal with as this comes partly from the sexist idea that a woman without children is unfulfilled, but it also speaks to a way in which children are seen as the greatest blessing.
I was recently in Sri Lanka. Every morning because of jetlag, I would wake up at 4am and watch the glorious tropical light dawn over the sleeping city below.
One morning a scene in a garden below caught my eye. It was a Sunday and three children were playing, two girls in dresses to the knee and a boy in shorts. They had devised a very simple game: suspending a pole of some sort over two chairs, they’d run and leap over it in a blur of limbs. The girls flew by with their plaited hair trailing after them. Then the boy would leap, his face alit. They ran, they jumped, over and over. It was the most exuberant and free expression of childhood joy I had seen in years. They left much later, the three of them with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and from above I watched and missed them even as they left.
I have never seen such a thing in America. These children were around 12. By that age (in my admittedly narrow experience), American children seem cynical, jaded. They do not exhibit this pure joy. Already, perhaps, the fraught quality of childhood has affected how they think of themselves and their childhoods. There are of course, dangers in any childhood in the world, as I’ve made clear in my book—but still, those children have stayed with me, making me wonder what my life might have been if my family had not left Sri Lanka in 1976. I most probably would be a mother; I most probably would not be writing.
As with each book I write, What Lies Between Us is another attempt to shed light on these various and contradictory emotions. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you let me know what you think.
Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, and grew up in Nigeria. She emigrated with her family to the United States in her early teens, and now lives in Oakland, CA. Her first novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
What Lies Between Us was published by St. Martin’s Press on February 16, 2016.