In her third novel, The Mothers, Jennifer Gilmore traces with unflinching candor the long and painful quest of a New York couple, Jesse and Ramon, to adopt a baby.
About The Mothers
After enduring in vitro fertility treatments without success, they decide to pursue open adoption, the predominant form of domestic adoption in America. What follows is a frustrating, humiliating and heartbreaking process that starts with letting strangers scrutinize every facet of their lives and continues on to bewildering encounters with potential birthmothers, women who may or may not be what they say. Along the way, Jesse meditates on motherhood, feminism, bringing a stranger into your house to raise as your own child, religious and cultural differences in raising children, and just what is love, anyway?
The Q & A
Your previous novels, Golden Country depicting Jewish immigrant families in the early to mid-20th century and Something Red set in 1979 about the political activism of three generations of a Jewish family, must have involved a lot of research and careful plot structuring. Was it harder or easier to write The Mothers, which is based upon your own life?
There is lived experience and there is researched experience. I think we tend — as a reading culture — to think the latter is more factually accurate and therefore more “true.” But that is not the case. My spouse and I were going through a fraught and protracted open adoption — when I decided to write about it, it was more finding the voice that was difficult. And letting myself write in the first person voice of a woman with a rich and complicated inner life. That was a harder hurdle to jump for me as I am aware how women’s voices are perceived in the publishing culture. But I put all that out of my head. As the great Grace Paley said, “Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.” So that was it.
Several reviewers have focused on the thin line that The Mothers treads between novel and memoir. In a laudatory review, The Washington Post suggested that you may rewrite the story as memoir. What do you say to those comments, and do you think you will write that memoir?
I’m a novelist — which in some ways means I can’t stick totally to the truth. These are fictionalized characters. I felt I could see this couple more clearly — and perhaps be harder on them — if they were fictionalized. The issues that adoption brought up for me — issues of race and class and motherhood as it functions in our culture — was better suited for me to the novel, which is the filter through which I tend to see the world. Writing fiction is the best way I know to tell the felt/lived truth.
Jesse is a women’s history professor, and there are many pungent insights on the lack of progress in the women’s rights movement. What do you say to books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”? Do you have hope for the future of feminism?
I was at a dinner party the other night and a good deal of the talk there was about Lean In. I find this shocking and also a little sad. That we are still having the same conversation we had in the ’70s, when our mothers worked. Now we add this corporate structure — this issue of extreme wealth, who has it, who does not — to the equation. My hope for feminism? My hopes are so big and wide; they involve equality in and outside of the home. For all women. It’s sort of simple. Our mothers paved the way for us. It takes a few generations for this to happen, for ideas to actually become the culture. For the roles of people to be in tune with the culture. I understand that. I just want the conversation to change.
There are so many examples of “mothers” in the book: Jesse’s own mother who is often away on business trips; Claudine, the housekeeper, who raises Jesse and her sister Lucy in their mother’s absence; Ramon’s overbearing and possessive Italian mother; even Jesse herself as mother to her beloved dog Harriet. In the Dictionary of Jennifer Gilmore, how do you define what it is to be a mother?
If writing this book and the questions that have come from its publication has taught me anything, it’s that this definition of motherhood is elastic. It changes; it’s different for everyone. Perhaps for me it’s putting your child first — but I have an infant. That is so easy to do in this stage because my son’s needs are concrete. I am trying to understand all different kinds of mothering.
Open adoption has become the norm for domestic adoptions in the United States. You write that “over eighty percent of all domestic adoptions have some degree of openness.” Was that why you pursued open adoption, or were there other factors that went into that decision?
If you adopt in this country, it is likely to be an open adoption. When it’s successful it is good for all parties, not least of all the child, who won’t have a fantasy of who his birth parents are but will know them to some degree. He won’t have to make that critical and life-changing decision of searching for them or not searching for them. That was attractive to us, what was best for the child. And while it was very easy for us to forgo the genetic link to our child, having that child from infancy — which is one of the aspects of open adoption — was important to us. We were open to so many factors in regards to parenting a child, but we did desire an infant in the best-case scenario. But let me be clear: these adoptions are not always successful. Open adoption can leave a trail of heartache in its wake. People need to know that it is not for everyone.
With adoption as its central theme, this truly is a unique and very brave novel. Were there any books, fiction or not, that inspired you?
Thank you. I wanted to write a fierce and “tight” book that put a fictional voice to this experience. I mention above how hard it was to make that leap to first person, contemporary and female — I also had to let go of this self-hating idea that domestic issues — in this case a woman’s desire for a child — are not important. Elena Ferrante — her book, The Days of Abandonment — made me ashamed of myself. She charges at issues of domesticity and takes no prisoners. There is no denying her voice is an important one and that issues that affect women are important and are stories that need, urgently, to be told.
The novel ends optimistically but without the definitive happy ending that many readers crave. Why did you choose to end it that way?
In adoption, most people will tell you, so many of the stories have no end, for all parties: birthparents, adoptive parents, adoptees. One of the things I had to deal with most was not knowing the end of my story and also the end of the story of so many of the babies we had written into our lives. The ending is not intended to be deliberately ambiguous. It was the only way I knew how to make the ending true.
Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to The Independent.