“On Being a Mother,” by Mara Naselli
Essays that reveal their true nature as they progress have to strike a balance between misdirection and staying the course. The art lies in the writer’s ability to establish the reader’s trust as she feels her way towards the heart of her story. She must find a balance between anticipation and suspense, between questions and answers. Re-reading “On Being a Mother,” I’m struck again by Mara Naselli’s ability to create this balance and more.
Naselli, who has two children, begins her essay with the use of the second person. This creates the distance the writer needs to question what she’s done, in this case bringing a child into “a world of intractable cruelty,” over which she has no control. The narrator jettisons her first solution—to “prepare this child to . . . somehow become capable of giving more than he takes from others”—when she realizes that “the purity of your intentions is in its own way unforgiving.” But trying to raise a child “who can somehow live at peace with himself” may also be impossible.
The second person implicates the reader and makes this problem of child-raising a shared problem. I don’t have children, but I can’t ignore the moral issue here: how to raise a good human being. It’s a compelling and important question, and so I’m hooked, willing to read on to the next paragraph, a new section, which is also a surprise. First, there is the shift from second person to first, and then, unexpectedly, she is writing about the slave trade in the Middle East during the nineteenth century, about children captured and ferried across the Arabian Sea to Africa.
Since Naselli has mentioned children, and since this is an essay on being a mother, the decision to focus on slavery might initially seem confusing. But because Naselli is never abstract, she’s able to make this shift work. The prose style is crystal clear, and the details are precise. She writes, “Dhows were heavy, sturdy boats, but in the pictures I found, they gave the impression of dry, curled leaves floating on the surface of the water.” Oddly memorable, the delicate image of the boats contrasts with the ugliness of their purpose.
Naselli is an editor who works with scholars on their book manuscripts, and she has traveled to New York for work. A new mother, she is accompanied by her baby, who is still nursing, and her husband. While he takes care of the baby, Naselli meets with her author, a historian, who is working on a manuscript about the slave trade. Here, in the pages of the manuscript, she finds the cruel world she worries about in the first paragraph. It’s a world where children can be ripped from their mothers’ arms, the girls sold as domestics and concubines, boys turned into pearl divers. “It was difficult not to imagine their lungs, such small, soft organs, the pressure of the depth, the blue blackness of cold salt water,” Naselli writes. She can’t stop thinking about “the will of the master taken into the body of the slave,” and neither can the reader.
The tender image of the pearl divers, the violence of their submission to the water and their masters, lingers into the next paragraph when Naselli returns to her hotel room to nurse her child. There is no separation between her domestic and her professional lives; one must inform the other, each with their own hard realities. Slavery for the editor, sleep deprivation for the mother. The membrane between them is thin and permeable. The juxtaposition prepares the reader for what comes next: the confusion Naselli must work through several years later, when she considers aborting a third, unexpected pregnancy.
As she considers her options, the external world mingles with the internal, to the point where Naselli no longer recognizes herself. She lives in Michigan, where anti-abortion propaganda is part of the landscape, and even in New York, where she has returned for work, she can’t leave behind “the neighbors’ yard signs, the bumper stickers, the billboards, the picketers.” She thought she knew where she stood, but now she’s unable to hear her own voice.
There is no simple answer to this confusion. There are the facts, the bodily changes, the constant nausea, the possibility of this third child, who may become the kind of person who gives more than she takes. Or not. And then there are two parents stretched thin by their existing children, “two crying at once, or one talking and the other crying, or one screaming and the other crying, or one kicking and the other propped on my hip, or one nursing and the other trying to get in on it.” The sentence itself, with its multiple dependent clauses, embodies her exhaustion; the reader feels it with her.
The essay covers the time in New York, the trip to the clinic in Michigan, its twenty-four-hour consent law, the abortion itself (with a grimly amusing scene with a counselor). It’s a simple structure that allows Naselli to turn herself inside out without losing sight of the essay’s purpose. While the occasion for the essay may be the abortion, Naselli is more interested in the complex world that a mother must negotiate, on her own behalf and that of her children.