Amy Sohn‘s much anticipated Brooklyn-based novel on the dissatisfaction of urban parenthood comes to us just two years following the success of Prospect Park West. In this sequel, Motherland, we’re once again confronted with the complex motherhoods of Melora Leigh, celebrity mother now divorced from Stuart Ashby, and nonfamous Park Sloper Rebecca, who secretly had an affair with him. Thrown in with a cast of new characters, including double daddies Marco and Todd, we’re right back at Prospect Park Food Coop, walking the streets of Seventh Avenue, and minding the extensive stroller parking.
Author and mother Sohn shares with us why her philandering characters can’t keep it in their pants and why most media depictions of motherhood are pretty unflattering.
It’s an understatement to say that the characters of Motherland are dissatisfied with their marriages. Would you say that they are also dissatisfied with parenthood?
They struggle with it, like we all do. Rebecca has a very specific problem regarding a secret she has been keeping about her son. Melora has always been disconnected from her son because she has so much child care and had ambivalence about motherhood to begin with. Marco doesn’t want a second child and his husband does, so he’s really stuck — he loves being a father but isn’t ready to be a father of two. Gottlieb is jealous of the incredible physical bond that his sons have with their mother, and Karen is realizing that when your life is falling apart it’s tougher to be a strict disciplinarian. For her, that’s a good thing. She has to improvise more, compromise, and be more lax with her son than she used to be.
Park Slope in Brooklyn, where Motherland is set, has the reputation for being a breeder’s paradise. The novel complicates that notion, as did Prospect Park West, with rampant infidelity, drug use, and deeply unhappy marriages. Are you commenting on that particular neighborhood or modern parenting in general?
I am using Park Slope as a lens to talk about modern parenting. It’s such a rich locus. We are internationally known to the point where the parent coordinator at one of the public schools gets calls daily from French and German parents moving to NYC who want to tour the school. But I don’t think the issues in my novel are unique to Park Slope. Modern marriage is so tricky. The roles are ill-defined (parent/child, husband/wife, leisure/work) and it leads to a lot of confusion for everyone. We have female breadwinners, SAHDs, parents who want to be friends with their kids, self-employed or over-employed parents who never stop working and are on devices all the time. No one finishes work at five o’clock any more and it makes family life much more difficult than it was 40 years ago. Park Slope is my Peyton Place but there are many Park Slopes in many American cities.
As you said, Motherland explores a lot of modern parenting avenues, such as same-sex parents, single parents, and adoption. With them are more traditional parenting dynamics. But what are you seeking to say by paralleling say, a gay daddy cruising on Grindr with a heterosexual woman having birthed a baby from an affair?
As much as I wanted to explore the confines of bourgeois life and nuclear families, I also wanted to explore the odder, unique aspects of modern parenting. In a culture of extreme breastfeeding a woman may not realize she is fertile as long as she’s breastfeeding. That wasn’t an issue in the 1940s when few mothers breastfed. Grindr has only been around a couple years and has revolutionized gay dating, and some of the men on Grindr are dads. Modern parents today include single moms by choice, moms who chose never to marry, and single moms by divorce. There are so many new kinds of parents that I felt it was my duty to showcase them.
The main characters, all parents, do love their children. But the kids seem to take a back seat to the many other dramas or dilemmas in the character’s lives. Would you describe these characters as self-obsessed or just trying to cope with their circumstances? Or neither?
The characters’ primary problems are with their romantic relationships and not with their kids. The kids are very deliberately in the background in this novel. That’s because I wanted my characters to be having extreme adventures and those are hard with kids in tow. Some of the characters are self-obsessed but they are also in crisis and people in crisis become self-obsessed. They are trying to live again after feeling dead for a long time, and in the process of “living” again some don’t make choices that are the best for their children. But this has been a dilemma for parents as old as time. The difference is that I’m trying to show female infidelity when many American novels of the past half-century have been more interested in male infidelity.
I’m sure you’re going to get — if you haven’t already — a lot of wagging fingers for depicting parents, particularly mothers, as anything less than completely devoted to their children. Life very much does seem to go on for these characters despite that they have children and marriages, with many of the same dilemmas that some would attribute to childless, 20-somethings. Was that your intention?
Some of this novel is wish-fulfillment — we get to see parents doing things that would be logistically very difficult for a lot of us, much less ethically. But I hear true stories of infidelity, porn addiction, ugly divorces, and yes, gay-dating apps all the time. So I am drawing from real life even though my characters are invented and their arcs are invented. My generation of parents spent their 20s being totally self-obsessed and their 30s being martyrs to family — and I am not only talking about women. That takes a toll, those two extremes. Maybe the 40s is about finding a balance between the two. There is deep, rewarding intimacy within the context of family life. For some it just takes a while to discover it.
Motherland is fiction. But do you find the characters and stories to be representative of contemporary parenting?
Absolutely. The problem with Gen X parents is that we had too-high expectations for marriage and for family life. They were bound to be disappointed. We were so spoiled by being able to create our own careers and own schedules that we mistakenly thought we could create our own kind of parenthood. But parenting is giving up control. You are in jail for a couple of years or more, depending how many children you have. While older generations expected that jail, we thought it would work out differently for us, and when it didn’t, many of us got angry, got drunk, or got out. The problem isn’t marriage or family life itself, it’s our overly high expectations and projections. Esther Perel writes brilliantly about this in Mating In Captivity. If we didn’t expect our husbands to also be our best friends, fellow movie critics, hottest lovers, and biggest supporters we would probably be nicer to them. If we didn’t expect family life to resemble a J.Crew ad or the Novogratzes, we probably would snap at our kids less often.
I can glean from Motherland, but what sorts of mythologies or notions about today’s parenting culture do you personally find troublesome? What about media depictions of motherhood?
That mothers should be self-sacrificing at all moments, that they should be pleasure-avoidant, that mom and dad should each chip in exactly 50 percent.
Most media depictions of motherhood are ugly. There are helicopter moms (try too hard), boozy moms (should join AA), tiara moms (live through their kids), overly-sexed moms (mess up their kids), undersexed moms (too ugly), slacker moms (don’t do enough), working moms (should stay home), SAHMs (should work), hippie moms (are too attached), French moms (too detached). We just can’t win. If our culture began to ease up on motherhood, moms would have an easier time. I don’t see this happening any time soon.
One of the things I was getting at in my Awl story, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” was that modern mid-life mothers are acting out because they are in flux. They don’t know what they want or deserve to want and they’re afraid to take action. What are healthier ways to come out of flux than body shots and girls nights? Whether it’s grad school, an IUD, volunteering, therapy, or meditation, there are some good answers out there. Sadly, I think the erosion of American community has made it harder for women. There are few safe spaces for women these days and there need to be more.
Would you describe Motherland as an honest account of motherhood in the midst of iPhone apps and stroller parking?
I certainly hope so. Whether you find it honest, escapist, or cautionary depends on what kind of mom you are and what kind of community you live in. For some readers it will be all three.