On Little Labors by Rivka Galchen

Michael Magras

New York, NY: New Directions, 2016. 136 pages. $16.95.

As any new mother or father will tell you, parenthood is a complicated business. There are undeniable joys for adults susceptible to its pull: a baby’s unconditional love and endearing dependence, the chance to watch him or her make one wide-eyed discovery after another. Middle-of-the-night demands for nourishment and the panoply of bodily upheavals, however, are considerably less thrilling. Of course, that’s the package you sign on for when you bring a baby into the world. You also sign on for a year or more in which an unbroken eight-hour rest is a rare luxury. Fortunately, babies nap, which gives exhausted parents a chance to catch up on their sleep. But if you’re a culture-obsessed parent and have the stamina, you might occasionally use that time to revisit favorite novels or films that pertain to parenthood in an attempt to gain perspective on the responsibility you have undertaken.

It’s no surprise, then, that Little Labors, Rivka Galchen’s slender essay about her first months as a mother, contains many references to books and films. The most prominent reference, and the work on which Little Labors is fashioned, is The Pillow Book, the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, lady-in-waiting to Empress Fujiwara no Teishi in the Heian period. Galchen describes The Pillow Book as “not a novel and not a diary and not poems and not advice,” a book of “185 entries, many of them quite short, some of them anecdotes, some lists, some pronouncements.” That’s what Galchen has created here. She has divided her essay into dozens of short sections, each one containing random observations on parenthood: her feelings about it, the ways in which her relations with friends and family have changed, and the effect her daughter’s birth has had upon her writing.

The Pillow Book isn’t the only work of Japanese culture Galchen cites. Another is “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a tenth century folktale about a girl from another world who was found in bamboo. The myth, Galchen writes, is “a straightforward and realistic tale about babies: their arrival feels supernatural . . . and they are certain, eventually, to leave you.” The impression one is left with after reading Little Labors is that Galchen, like a lot of new parents, understands these sentiments. The birth of her daughter was an unprecedented event, the child appearing in Galchen’s life seemingly out of nowhere. She admits that she didn’t give much thought to babies before—she writes that, when she had one, she became like politicians “who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an ‘issue,’ like, say, Dick Cheney”—but since becoming a mother, she can’t even walk past a poster for a movie like Keanu Reeves’s “The Forty-Seven Ronin” without forging parallels to motherhood. She knows the poster will be replaced eventually, just as her daughter will one day grow up and leave her. “[T]hat was part of the poster’s message,” she writes. “[T]hat the accumulation of tomorrows was not . . . going to cease producing its predictable melancholy.”

We never learn her daughter’s name. Galchen refers to her throughout as “the puma.” In one witty passage after another, Galchen reflects upon the puma’s influence upon her personal life as well as her career. She says, for example, that she never wanted to write about babies, but then “a cabal of neuronal circuits, ronin of their own kind, organized against me and went about coordinating their own thoughts.” Later, she mentions other women writers’ attitudes toward babies, such as Doris Lessing’s infamous claim that there is “nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children,” and wonders whether her daughter will engender similar feelings.

Thanks to the puma, Galchen pays closer attention to the depiction of children in other works of art. She notices that in the books of authors she admires, from Margaret Drabble to Toni Morrison to Lorrie Moore, babies who appear for more than a moment of a story “tend to be catalysts of decay or despair, as surely babies now and again in real life actually are.” Late in the essay, she observes that babies in art don’t look like real babies. They are instead “depicted with the proportions of small adults.” The most realistic depiction of babies she has seen is the tilt of the head of the Virgin Mary when she holds the baby Jesus. That is the same as “the tilt of the head of babies who are just beginning to develop the strength of their neck muscles.” That’s an astute observation, even though Galchen’s focus appears to be only on art from before the Impressionist period and overlooks depictions of babies in such works such as Berthe Morisot’s The Cradle (1872) and Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Woman and Two Children (1901).

Then there are reactions of others to Galchen and her child. A Hispanic homeless man used to spit at Galchen whenever she left her apartment, so she took to crossing the street to avoid him. After her daughter was born, however, the man began calling out, “What a beautiful baby,” and high-fived the girl whenever they passed him. This man was in the majority, as many of the people Galchen encountered had positive reactions to the baby, even strangers who approached her at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and, pointing to the baby in the sling, “said of the baby’s inadvertent performance art, ‘That’s my favorite piece in the show.’”

The only people who didn’t like the baby, Galchen reports, were “the group with which I am particularly comfortable, the young-ish, white, well-employed, culturally literate male.” There’s nothing inherently reprehensible in their reactions, she writes, but it does make her evaluate her standing among friends and, by extrapolation, in the literary world. As she poetically puts it, “[Y]ou feel you have slip-slided into another strata or you feel you have gone Precambrian,” and “you are contributing, somehow, to the next geological strata (or both at once) and you begin to wonder what formed each geological layer, and what really was the geological layer you were in before, and what is the geological layer you are in now.”

One wonders how some readers will react to lines such as, “I never especially cared for babies. When I heard about babies dying there was a part of myself that thought, At least it’s not a child!” But it’s hard to question the love of a mother who has “a problematic inability to hand the child over to another caretaker, even for just a few hours,” and who says that, whenever she’s away, “I miss my baby, and am desperate to return home to her.”

It’s no secret that parenthood turns you into one of those politicians for whom previously trivial subjects assume newfound importance. And the magnification can be overwhelming. “It’s true what they say,” Galchen writes, “that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” But one of the messages of this witty, lyrical little book is that for Galchen, as for most parents, it is also one of the more satisfying feelings in the world.

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