Some Thoughts on Motherhood, Daughterhood, and Water
by Gail Aronson
Once a man approached me while I was reaching up to a high shelf in a used bookstore. He said unrepeatable things, and then asked me if I enjoyed sex. The employee behind the front counter intervened and these two men had a conversation, while I leafed through pages, pretending I’d stopped paying attention. When the bookstore employee said to the other man he couldn’t “do that” (that meaning verbally harass me) the other man replied, “but look at her, she’s beautiful.” (Sidebar, I’m not beautiful at all, just a woman.) During this conversation I had a dissociative moment, as if I’d just submerged myself into water and the edges were fuzzy—I was somewhere else. I realized these men were talking about me but not to me, as if I wasn’t there, as if I wasn’t a person at all. There have been plenty of other situations by virtue simply of being a woman that I’ve felt more endangered or disrespected. But this conversation struck me with a sense of invisibility.
At this time in my life, I worked with children. One child always remarked that I looked like his mother. As a nanny, other mothers often told me—while walking a stroller down the street or opening my arms to this toddler and all of her buoyant joy as she bunny-hopped from the edge of the YMCA pool and into my arms—that my charge looked just like me. For a woman of age with children in tow, motherhood was assumed.
There is something I struggle to describe that feels mechanical about daily life. Necessary habits of walking down the same streets, drinking from that particular coffee mug, coming up to the wind and rain against my cheeks as I have before. Our actions are filled with circles, and our minds circle back to those repeated circular days, of rising and falling back to sleep again.
When I wrote “The Only Daughter on the Coast of Mothers” I was captivated by the expected roles of womanhood. I wished to play with an imagined future reality in which a woman comes to know herself by being surrounded by what she isn’t. I wanted to remove the personal memories we associate with our upbringings, to illustrate a space in which women exist without men, but are still performing the cultural norms of what came before. Roles we inherit often emerge from this learned automation, doing things as our mothers once did simply because that’s the way we came to know how to do that thing at all. Can mothers mother without daughters? This, logically, seems like a silly question with an easy answer. I wanted to push beyond the factually apparent. To impress upon the everyday something less usual and mechanical that contributes to my own sense of invisibility, an atmosphere distant as the sea with just as much of its substance and complexity inside, underneath.
Of course, I am a visible person living my life in the world, just like everyone else. I am a woman, a daughter. An inner life can be difficult to reconcile with reality and the way others see you. Within the surreal conceit of a coast of mothers and a single daughter who mysteriously wash up to its shores, I hope the boundaries between the interior dreamlike states and exterior reality begins to muddle and melt away.
For me, I can’t separate a sense of complicated personhood from gender. My stories often include, only or mostly, women-identified characters. Not that I dislike men. In reality, the bookstore employee did exactly as any thoughtful, kind person would do. It isn’t easy to intervene, to defend a complete stranger. I don’t blame him that, in the moment, my life felt somehow robotic, my personhood invisible.
That the repetition of everyday life can begin to feel like a kind of automation seems inextricable from how the reality of lived experience is infected and skewed by capitalist culture. Street signs repeat and the lines between who we are and how we can create ourselves through material things naturally blurs. If, as human beings, we are to change or be changed by our own creations, I wonder what is next for humans as we evolve with the earth, which we continue to ruin. An earth we continue to treat as a thing rather than as a living, breathing home. As the atmosphere is altered, how will we change? I hope that the story might subtly lean into this without a direct critique. I often think about our world of capital and how the objects of our lives might encourage a reframing of commodity.
What is a woman, a person, when seen from a distance?
Mother. Daughter. And so on.
When I am most myself, as a writer and (mostly) as a person, I am drowning and floating all at once. Away from linearity, inside the feedback and fuzz, a muffled thing you strain to understand, and yet, it draws you in.
My mother wanted, always and without exception, to be a mother. Or this is how her story goes, how she chooses to tell it. She had me and I became an adult daughter. A nanny at the time, I was also a writer-woman-person at the YMCA pool with this impossibly perfect little new life. And into that momentary nothingness, dipping underneath the waveless not-so-deep water with a child who is a girl who will be a woman, and most of all who is not mine—these are the kinds of palpable and otherworldly moments – I cherish these the most.
Gail Aronson is a fiction editor for Omnidawn Publishing and her work recently appears or is forthcoming in Nat. Brut, Midwestern Gothic, The Adroit Journal, The Offing, Dream Pop, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Pittsburgh. Find her online @gailaronson. Aronson’s fiction “The Only Daughter on the Coast of Mothers” appears in Issue 42.2 of Cream City Review.