If you’re familiar with this recent essay on motherhood by writer, actress, and comedian Jessi Klein, it’s a good bet that you’ve seen it shared in a moms group you belong to on Facebook. (The link was posted in at least three that I’m a member of.) If you haven’t read it yet, we highly recommend you take some time today to do so, then come back here to discuss! If you HAVE read it, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
(Here was Kat’s take on her own postpartum identity crisis…)
Klein’s essay, published in The Cut, blends the literary and the everyday to form a new perspective on motherhood that — you know what? It’s hard to do justice to Klein’s piece in a single-sentence summary, so I won’t try.
The essay is actually an excerpt from Klein’s new book of essays, I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood. (Incidentally, I’m glad The Cut has changed the title from what they originally used online, “What My Toddler’s Nom-Noms Taught Me,” to “Epiphany in the Baby-Food Aisle,” because the original, slightly silly title made it easy to scroll past.)
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Klein, who is 46, opens the piece by sharing that she listened to one of Oprah’s podcast interviews with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert during an errand to buy teething biscuits for her toddler. Gilbert spoke to Oprah about the literary trope of the hero’s journey, and Klein paraphrases some of her thoughts by writing in her piece that the hero’s journey “is not the exclusive territory of men … and it does not have to involve faraway lands.”
After returning home with Nom-Noms in hand and googling Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey (Gilbert frequently cited his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the interview), Klein was immediately struck by how, as a mother, the hero’s journey felt so familiar:
What shook me about Campbell’s words is how perfectly they describe motherhood. To begin with: a “profound dream state.” The first three months after my son was born, for sure, were nothing less than a never-ending somnambulance. And even though I was not on a secret island or a lofty mountaintop, once I became a mom, I felt in my bones that deep sense of distance and isolation, of being far away from everyone else, stranded with my new “strangely fluid and polymorphous being” — i.e., my baby. If you’ve ever had a quality hang with a baby or very small child, you know a baby is as polymorphous as it fucking gets. Infants are from one minute to the next, by turns otters, mermen, humans, wombats, and puppies.
Here’s another key excerpt:
The truth is that motherhood is a hero’s journey. For most of us it’s not a journey outward, to the most fantastic and farthest-flung places, but inward, downward, to the deepest parts of your strength, to the innermost buried core of everything you are made of but didn’t know was there. And what I’ve learned is that there’s a reason motherhood as a story is so infrequently told.
It’s because, for so many people, our safest, sweetest, earliest memories are of nestling in our mother’s lap, in her rocking warmth, hearing her sing as we get milk-drunk and sleepy and burrow, heavy-eyed, into the crook of her soft arm. And if you knew that your mother’s journey was, intrinsically, a hero’s journey — if that was in any way an established narrative in our culture — you’d have to accept that this memory of womb-like safety, this foundation upon which so much of our identity is built, was often just an illusion. You’d have to realize that while you were blissed out on your mother’s lap, one of those epic battles, the kind that envelops heroes as they fight their way out of a ring of fire, was raging just above your head. No one wants to believe that in the moments you felt the most peaceful, the woman cradling you so softly was shielding you from a sword that she herself was holding.
Every mother you know is in this fight with herself. The sword that hangs over her is a sword of exhaustion, of frustration, of patience run dry, a sword of indignation at how little she feels like a human when she so often has to look and behave like an animal. Mostly, it is the sword of rage: the rage and shock of how completely she must annihilate herself to keep her child alive.
Not to hype this essay too much, BUT — I know we’re all busy as working moms (and burned out, and so on), but I really urge you to take a little time for yourself and read Klein’s perspective on the journey of being a mother. (The summarized general reaction that I’ve seen most moms have to this piece online is a blend of “Whoa” and “Wow.” Another appropriate one would be “Well, sh*t.”)
P.S. I’m pretty sure that the “toddler cookies called something like Nom-Noms” Klein refers to are really Baby Mum-Mum (toddler-mom memory unlocked!). However, “What My Toddler’s Mum-Mums Taught Me” would have been a pretty confusing essay title, no?
So, readers, please share: If you read Jessi Klein’s essay, what did you think? Did you immediately buy her book, as I did? (I admit I haven’t read it yet!) Can you relate to the concept of motherhood as a hero’s journey? Or do you see it in another way?
Social media stock photo via Pexels / Chelsi Peter (woman wearing a white T-shirt that says “mothers. daughters. visionaries. queens. rulers. women.”)