Published on December 9th, 2013 | by Meg Lemke4
THE MOTHERS: An Interview with Jennifer Gilmore
Jennifer Gilmore’s novel The Mothers is a work of fiction, but parallels her own unusual and tragic experiences trying to adopt. The book takes on issues of class, power, race, identity, fate—and sounds the obsessive depths of longing. It is not an easy read, but it is very hard to put down.
Gilmore recently adopted a son, just as The Mothers published. She lives a couple subway stops next to me in stroller-saturated brownstone Brooklyn. (The novel is set here, too, and its protagonist, Jesse, suffers much under the constant reminders rolling her down on the sidewalk). I’m so grateful to Gilmore for opening up to MUTHA about how she’s finding her self as a new mother—while caught in the media spotlight still about all the trials that came before her son. – Yours, Meg Lemke
MUTHA: How old is your son? And what is he like?
JENNIFER GILMORE: He’s almost ten months and he’s great. We’re really lucky to have him. He’s a good baby. He sleeps well, he eats well, he smiles all the time.
MUTHA: His name is Julian? Can I publish his name?
JENNIFER GILMORE: You can say his name. I’m cagey about discussing him because I was so public with everything before him [writing about infertility and adoption]. When we got him, I didn’t know if anything bad was going to happen. Not overprotective of him as a mother—in fact, I’m a much less fearful mother than I expected to be. But I became private about him because I’ve been so public. I was writing things that would then go so haywire. I feel like I should be careful.
MUTHA: You have some superstition about it.
JENNIFER GILMORE: It’s not superstition. It’s genuine fear.
I’ve done public interviews, such as Fresh Air, and even the way people were reviewing my book—I got lovely mail, but also mean mail. I don’t want to put myself up for that with my kid. As you know, when you bring up motherhood, or parenthood—or just wanting in general—people go crazy. A woman who wants something is a terrifying thing.
MUTHA: Surprise, people aren’t very nice to mothers.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Why is that? Here’s the thing, though. Before I became a mother, I was very aware of mothers. This neighborhood is where babies come from. A woman would be struggling with her stroller on the subway, and I would always help, always open the door. Never got a thank-you.
MUTHA: You didn’t?
JENNIFER GILMORE: No! I’m aware as a mother now of how I’m being viewed, because I was the viewer for so long, not even just people who want children or people who have children, but storekeepers, etc. I’ll say: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” or “my strollers so big…” I do feel that a lot of times, mothers don’t do that. They’re just really tired.
MUTHA: I don’t know. I literally cry and hug someone if they help me with the stroller. I’m like “can I lick your face?”
But what I meant was, the media generally isn’t family-friendly, in the portrayal of mothers. Mothers are blamed often, not just for the particulars of their family, but also for societal issues.
JENNIFER GILMORE: This is an American conceit, absolutely. The other day, I was out to dinner with my husband, which we never do, and Julian. It was daylight savings so it was 5 p.m. There was a woman screaming about how her child was special needs and everyone at his school was blaming her—because she worked and she wasn’t there, and all the others were stay-at-home mothers.
I was taken aback because she was being so loud, but also because it was horrible what had happened to her. Do you stay at home or do you work? We’ve been talking about these issues for so fucking long. I can’t believe it’s even still a conversation.
My mother worked full-time in the ’70s. That was a thing—but still it’s a thing. So, for this woman, also it’s a class thing, she worked because she had to work. You’re right: women get blamed for everything.
MUTHA: What did you expect, when you tried for such long time to become a mother? What were you looking for and is it what you expected?
JENNIFER GILMORE: I got asked several times: “Why do you want this?” It’s never been a question I could answer in a way that I found to be satisfying.
MUTHA: Not necessarily what you wanted, but what did you see? We have an idea of what our life will be like with a child, and then there’s the reality of it. It’s like any relationship; it’s unique. How has that happened for you, now that Julian’s come into your life?
JENNIFER GILMORE: Honestly: it’s great. That sounds ridiculous, because I’m a huge fucking complainer. People I’ve talked to, who have struggled to have children, have said, “You’re allowed to complain…”
But then someone said to me, “You also might not complain.” She had twins, and she said, “I never cared about the dailiness.”
I feel like that. I’m kind of a homebody. I’m a writer. I’m a social person but I’m home often. Before Julian, we had a dog who was our life. I know dogs and babies aren’t the same. But I’m used to giving myself over to somebody. Whether it’s an animal, or my work, or my baby. I am not in any way a selfless person, but for some reason in this particular regard in my life, I’m very happy giving myself over to it. That dailiness, I love it.
The big picture causes me anxiety. Getting into preschool. Or, is there lead paint? Should I believe in Montessori school? Will I be able to afford college?
MUTHA: Don’t worry, don’t worry!
JENNIFER GILMORE: Precisely! The dailiness, the minute-by-minute—which is even, should I give him broccoli or peas—is fine for me.
MUTHA: Tell us about your adoption saga. I’ve read the book, but many MUTHA readers won’t have yet. Tell us what happened to you, and how it relates to the novel.
JENNIFER GILMORE: My husband and I had a very protracted adoption process. I was sick in my 20s, like my protagonist [Jesse], although she has cancer and I did not have cancer. So I knew it was “going to be hard” to get pregnant. But I didn’t think that would happen. You’re told something but you don’t believe it. I waited until I was 35. I wanted to publish my books.
We tried; it was really hard for us. I did get pregnant naturally, and we had a miscarriage. I thought, these doctors are full of shit, I could totally get pregnant.
Then, we did IVF, we spent a lot of money. My husband wanted to do adoption before I did.
MUTHA: Just like in the book.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Yes. But I feel fortunate, big-picture-wise. My husband, he wanted a family. A family being the three of us. I believe a family could be two people; whatever you say a family is. But we wanted kids. He shared that with me. With many of my friends, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s hard.
People say, “well, you just adopt!”
We decided on domestic adoption. We started this crazy, crazy rollercoaster of being scammed, over and over again, having relationships with several different birthmothers. No, it would be wrong to call them birthmothers, because they weren’t pregnant. All the while, we’re learning the language of how you talk about adoption. We went to an agency. After two years, we decided: We can’t do this anymore. No one was helping us.
You do everything you are told. We had to use our first and last names. I’m a writer, I have a pretty big digital footprint. My husband is a painter. I think people saw our names…. It’s a joke, that you think a writer and a painter have money. It’s hilarious. But people didn’t always want money. They wanted attention. To feel paid attention to by someone who they felt was important in the world. If I wasn’t the person trying to adopt, it would be anthropologically interesting. These are people who lack power in their lives, socially and economically. My heart would go out to them if they weren’t scamming me.
It was not just troubling in our “journey to have children.” It was troubling about humankind. To be met with lack of compassion like that, to be taken advantage of in your most vulnerable moments.
Then, we ended up with a situation we were happy with, and I was in the delivery room for this baby. You can’t leave the state for several weeks—it was in Pennsylvania. We took the baby to where we were renting a farmhouse of a friend of ours, where they made cheese, and there were goats, it was a pastoral, beautiful place. Then it went seriously awry. We had to give the baby back. Not because the birthmother changed her mind. Which I agree with completely, ethically. If a woman gives birth to a baby and decides she needs to keep that baby, that’s her right. I would never question that law.
However, this person lied to us. The birth father came forward. She had told us he was in Mexico, deported. He was in the next town, supporting her. He had every right to his baby. He only spoke Spanish. My husband is a native Spanish-speaker. He called him.
That’s a day I never want to think about again.
We were scammed three other times after that. One was an Eritrean woman who we spent days with and then we never heard from her again.
I’m a novelist. These stories, they don’t have endings.
JENNIFER GILMORE: You just don’t know what happened. Was it me? Was I imagining it? Was she pregnant? My husband and I thought, “Well, she didn’t pee for five hours, but she’s pregnant?” “She’s not wearing a prosthetic, is she wearing a prosthetic?” Are we crazy to have these thoughts?
I’ve been criticized for not thinking about the particular birthmother. But this was our particular experience. I’m worried about women in general and I’m worried about the treatment of women and I’m worried about feminism. I’m also worried about my feelings. And if I’m being lied to, I’m worried about that.
Thank God we got Julian, because this was our last try. If it didn’t happen, we probably would have gotten divorced!
MUTHA: Also like the novel.
JENNIFER GILMORE: That doesn’t happen in the novel!
MUTHA: Even though they don’t get divorced, I felt like they weren’t getting along very well towards the end.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Right. I’ve written two other novels that don’t track my own life the same way. I’ve grown comfortable with that. I’m a novelist, so I was trying to find the best way to tell this story as a novel, as opposed to “should I write a memoir or not?” It was weird to write something so close to my own life. But I will say it is fictional.
MUTHA: Why did you write it as fiction? What did you leave out, in order to structure a narrative? Because the story is so brutal. It was intense. I wanted to keep reading it, and I did get drawn in—unable to put it down. But it’s such an unrelentingly difficult experience for every character involved, including the disenfranchised scamming birthmothers. But you left out, from what I’ve read, some of the hardest things, including the story you just told us.
JENNIFER GILMORE: That happened after the book [manuscript] was done. My editor asked, “do you want to take more time with this?” And I said no.
MUTHA: “Do you want to add this horrible thing that just happened to you to your book?” That’s lovely.
JENNIFER GILMORE: My editor, she’s not there anymore at Scribner, but she was such a good friend that she knew everything. But I said, “This is over for me.”
Nobody writes about the process. Everyone starts their story with when they get the baby and everything is fading. Now [that I have Julian], I’d tell this story as “this is what I had to do to get my baby.” It’s not even that the structure is different because you know the ending. The whole voice, the whole urgency is different.
I wanted to mark the process. This is the visceral horror of wanting. I knew that Jesse is a selfish character. She’s also in a bind. I wanted to investigate that. To be brutally honest, I wanted to make what we were experiencing interesting to myself so I wouldn’t pitch myself out a window. For me, work does that. Not necessarily therapeutically, because if writing was therapeutic there would be all these happy writers walking around. Just accumulating pages was helpful to me. I’m not so paralyzed that I can’t make work.
Now, I can’t believe I wrote The Mothers. I don’t recognize it.
MUTHA: Really? That’s interesting.
JENNIFER GILMORE: That happens to me anyways but this happened really quickly. Part of it is the way the book has been reviewed. It’s been such a brutal experience. And gratifying, too—they’re making a movie of it.
But the feelings I had when it was happening were so negative. I do events still, lectures. At the last one, I started to read from the book, and I just couldn’t.
What I left out? Everything you’re talking about—the physical drama of babies happening, happened after I was done with the book.
MUTHA: The ending has an unreal quality to it. It happens very quickly, which is probably true of life. It almost seems like a dream. You question what’s happening. Jesse must be questioning it too, given what she’s gone through. That’s not inaccurate. But I wondered about it, because you wrote it before you had your own child.
JENNIFER GILMORE: I don’t want to spoil the ending. But, I thought the ending was much more ambiguous than a lot of readers. I agree that it happens suddenly. In adoption that you wait and wait and wait and then it happens. I wanted to replicate that. In my first draft, there was a very pessimistic ending. With some help, I rethought it. You’re not the only one using words like relentless to describe the book. I needed to be a little more generous to the reader. There’s room for hope here.
MUTHA: It has to end. The book has to end at some point.
JENNIFER GILMORE: And also there can’t be one more telephone conversation! But that’s what I felt when I was writing it. My story is never going to end, and this story is never going to end.
MUTHA: So, I saw this in the New York Times review also. We meet Jesse in the book at a point where she’s no longer able to describe why she wants a child. It’s just a fact. It’s like her envy has overshadowed her desire. She has lot of anger.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Her envy or her anger?
MUTHA: Her envy. I will confess, I read the book as a Brooklyn mama, pushing her stroller around, and Jesse is very unflattering towards my kind. I want to ask you: You’re a Brooklyn mama now. Pushing your stroller around. How do you feel about that?
JENNIFER GILMORE: I feel self-conscious about it. The character in my book wanted to be a part of that way more than I do, as a person. I mean no disrespect, but I do not enjoy the playground, in and of itself. My desire to be a mother had nothing to do with the clique-ness of motherhood in Brooklyn. The talk of food harvested by moonlight.
MUTHA: All the stereotypes.
JENNIFER GILMORE: But come on, the stereotypes happen to be true.
I want to feel more a part of something, but when I am, I always feel like an outsider. Because I’ve been so hyper-conscious of it, I do feel, “here I am, being a Brooklyn mom, it’s so annoying.” It’s ridiculous, I have to go with it. I’m just pushing my kid down the street. I go to the park and it’s fine. Actually, I hang out with the nannies at the park.
MUTHA: He’s a bit young for the playground anyways? I didn’t take Lola to the playground until later. They can’t do anything there…
JENNIFER GILMORE: Well, the playground is right here. His babysitter started putting him on the swings. I would never have done it.
MUTHA: That’s sweet.
JENNIFER GILMORE: He loves the swing. He screams with delight.
MUTHA: Maybe I did do that when she was that age. I can’t remember!
JENNIFER GILMORE: He climbs. He loves other kids. He loves holding hands.
MUTHA: That’s so sweet! He’s a loving child.
I think [Jesse’s emotions] are realistic. I was describing to a friend what your book is about. I told her “the character hates these Brooklyn moms.”
JENNIFER GILMORE: She doesn’t hate them. She’s envious.
MUTHA: She’s sending them up. My friend said, “I’d feel that way too!” Of course you would.
I was caught off guard recently by a conversation with [another] friend of mine, someone who I admire. I was talking to her about my child and she got angry at me. She’s single. I didn’t think of it, that she was holding feelings about it, that she wasn’t partnered. She didn’t feel that I should talk about my life, essentially.
JENNIFER GILMORE: That’s fucked up, too.
MUTHA: I felt sympathetic in retrospect—and awful for upsetting her.
JENNIFER GILMORE: You don’t want to hurt anyone.
MUTHA: You don’t want to hurt anyone. But with your friends, what you do is talk about the differences in your life.
JENNIFER GILMORE: This is what you do right now, and this is who you are.
MUTHA: Having brought that upsetting exchange to the book, and then hearing this inner envy and hurt that Jesse experiences… We all have jealousy and we turn it on the people we see around us.
JENNIFER GILMORE: I’m hyper aware, because of what I went through, of everyone’s feelings. With a single person, I might frame it. With myself, I wasn’t single, but I was going through this horrific process, and everyone knew it. Someone would say the wrong thing to me and I would eat them.
MUTHA: In the book, the scene that is so galling is when the woman tells Jesse, “hold my baby, it will give you luck.”
JENNIFER GILMORE: People say the craziest things, but everyone’s trying to help you, in their own way.
MUTHA: They want to know your horoscope and feel like it will help you have a baby.
JENNIFER GILMORE: But what is my personality problem—that I can’t say, “OK, now I’m a mom in Brooklyn?”
You’re right, my kid is still young. I haven’t had playdate interactions yet. And I think it’s interesting to meet people and it’s not about my job, writing, or publishing, or the art world (because my sister and my husband are artists). It’s nice to meet people who do other things. But the whole thing is stressful.
MUTHA: It’s still really new. That’s my maternal instinct talking—allow yourself time. Don’t worry.
JENNIFER GILMORE: I’m not so much worried as aware. I still see a coffee klatch of women and their babies…
MUTHA: You get nervous.
JENNIFER GILMORE: I get nervous. I don’t want to do that. But why? I think that’s nice.
My sister has a two-year-old and she doesn’t go for any of that. I think we’re genetically anti-people.
MUTHA: But that’s what your book is about. The repeated question, “Who is the mother?” You are the mother of your child. That is who you are. It’s not just being his mother; it’s who you are as a mother.
And you do have mama friends; you told me [before we started recording] about them, don’t you hang out with them?
JENNIFER GILMORE: I don’t want to sound like I’m anti Brooklyn-mother. Because of my experience watching, now I’m dipping my toe in, as this person. Do I really want to go into the water?
MUTHA: In this city, we parent in public. We live in these small apartments.
JENNIFER GILMORE: That’s an interesting point. I love that. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
MUTHA: With small children—I had to get out, I had to leave the house. I had to just walk out. Then there’s a million other people. As they get older, there are natural relationships your child has. Your book is about identity and motherhood, how are you negotiating that public identity?
JENNIFER GILMORE: Everything is about the kind of person you are. I live in a city. I’m grateful I live in a city. When I had to go to Colorado to get my baby, my husband wasn’t available, he was in Italy. We didn’t have anything. I refused to have anything because of what had happened before. I came home, my fridge was stocked, friends had brought in everything. I guess that would have happened everywhere, but that’s what I love about my Brooklyn. And these were all moms, too. This community we have, I’m terribly grateful for it, as a woman, a writer, a person. I’m not disparaging it.
MUTHA: No, you’re describing exactly what I think people can find if they’re looking.
JENNIFER GILMORE: I love that today it stopped raining and I said “Let me just strap you on, let’s go to the beach.”
I live in this neighborhood, which I’m about to be priced out of, which is a whole other Brooklyn/New York thing. I know the shopkeepers, I know everyone. The trash collector came up to me today and said “when did you get that?” Meaning the baby. “I never saw you pregnant.” I never knew he noticed me.
MUTHA: He asked you that?
JENNIFER GILMORE: A lot of people do. It’s a city, but our neighborhoods are really provincial. I go get my bread somewhere, my meat somewhere. I’ve been in this neighborhood for 15 years. People ask, “What happened to you?”
MUTHA: Does it bother you?
JENNIFER GILMORE: No, I love it! When I first got the baby, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know what was right. Now I’m happy to say, “My baby is adopted.” Or make a joke, “Yeah, he’s super mellow because he’s adopted.” Because honestly, if he was genetically mine and my husband’s, he’d be crazy!
I’m proud my baby is adopted. I’m proud of our story. Everybody’s got their birth story.
MUTHA: People like to talk about their kids.
JENNIFER GILMORE: What was shocking to me was having a newborn in this neighborhood and walking into a coffee shop and this woman saying, “Oh my God, how was it?” and “My placenta came out!” I thought, what is she saying? Not that I was grossed out, but I don’t have that language. I have a friend who is about to have a baby, and she says “now I lay on this or that.” I can’t totally go there, because I didn’t have that experience. I’m OK with it, but it’s still a little bit painful.
But how I feel now is: Thank God I couldn’t have children, because I have Julian. And Julian is my baby.
MUTHA: And you do have your birth story. Your birth story is how you got Julian.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Exactly. That’s my birth story. Maybe me saying he’s adopted is the same thing as people saying “I had to eat my placenta.” I’m kidding. I know she didn’t have to eat it. Some people do, though.
MUTHA: I think it’s actually very hard to get it back from them [at the hospital]. I took a picture of mine because it looked like a weird ray fish, but I didn’t eat it.
JENNIFER GILMORE: To answer your question about being in public: I was very self-conscious, like any new mother. The interesting part, when you adopt a baby, was that my body didn’t change. I didn’t gain or lose weight. I maybe lost a little weight because of the anxiety.
MUTHA: That’s why all the women are talking to you. They want to know how you lost the weight so fast.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Seriously, it’s true!
Physically you don’t have those issues, but emotionally I was vulnerable in different ways. Because my body hadn’t gone through it, people don’t understand. But you have been through this process. Julian’s adoption was filled with drama, it was a nightmare, last-minute. By the time I brought him home, by myself, flew home by myself from Colorado—I feel like I’m still recovering from all that happened to us.
MUTHA: You had a postpartum experience, too. Do you have a relationship with the birth mother?
JENNIFER GILMORE: Open adoption varies in degrees. We know the birth family. We know the birth father’s family. It was a unique situation, because you don’t always know the father, and we do.
MUTHA: What is your relationship like with them?
JENNIFER GILMORE: We went out to meet the birth mother and birth father in Boulder. It was a month before she was due. She went into labor as we were literally boarding the plane to go home. We got a call from the birth grandfather: “She went into labor!”
We got off the plane—I have pictures of the ticket people saying, “Go, get your baby!”
He was four weeks early.
We don’t have that close a relationship with her; we hope that will change. Everyone says, “Don’t you want to take the baby and run?” But I really do believe in openness…
You have to do, like a biological parent, what’s best for the child. What’s best for the child is to not feel abandoned and to feel loved by more people, as opposed to no people, and to know where he comes from. So he doesn’t have fantasies that his mother is Joni Mitchell and that we are horrible. But, also the other way around. And the transparency—we get medical records.
That’s the society we live in now. Who knows what will happen in 10 years or 30 years, they’ll say, “I can’t believe they thought like that.” But as is age-appropriate, we’ll talk about his adoption. We have letters, ways, props to talk about it.
One of the reasons that it’s good that adoption takes so long is that you have to learn what it means. Not just what it means to parents. Adoption’s different.
I’m not saying all the pain of not having my biological child is gone—it is gone to a certain extent, but how I got there isn’t gone. It’s not that he’s not genetically linked, but I don’t know what’s to come about what adoption means. Just like you don’t know what’s to come for anyone. But that he’s adopted—I don’t know what it will mean to him.
That’s a long answer.
MUTHA: I think that’s a beautiful answer. Like we were talking about the process of the book being written before you got Julian—you’ve become a mother in the meantime, your views have shifted. Jesse’s concerns are about her identity, and your concerns are about your child. The openness of the relationship is rooted in your child.