TCR Talks: Michelle Ross Motives for Shapeshifting
by Lisa Loop
A poet once said, “War is man’s tragedy. Woman’s is motherhood.” Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I think she was getting at something. The role of warrior has been mythologized, plumbed, and dissected throughout the ages. Motherhood? Not so much.
I wish it had. Nothing I read prepared me for the loss of self that came with motherhood. Bringing my first baby home from the hospital was a swim through auditory hallucinations, a fugue state both painful and radicalizing. I found out later that my temporary insanity is common. One in eight new mothers suffers from at least one form of postpartum depression, or psychosis. But we rarely talk about how giving birth unhinges people, driving them over the edge of a cliff curtained by pretty pinks and blues. And as little as it has been discussed, the subject has been written about even less.
Given how seemingly radical a topic for art maternity is, it’s good that Michelle Ross didn’t think about too hard about breaking taboos when she wrote Shapeshifting (Stillhouse Press, November 2021). She told me recently that her motive wasn’t to delve into unconventional territory. Once she become a mother, she found herself in a different world, invisible, dramatic, and at times, powerfully strange. The writer in her was taking careful notes.
LL: The stories in this collection share a deep, seemingly hopeless yearning for completion that exists simultaneously inside of and outside of motherhood. Your first collection of stories seemed to wrestle with the absurdity of mortality. The stories in this collection are about mothers and the motherhood’s imperative demands, both physical and emotional, a topic that is almost impossible to write about. You capture a kind of casual evil that co-exists with harrowing desire for nearness that can never be satisfied. Motherhood seems to be almost an unrequited love story, accompanied by a kind of physical peril embodied in depression, physical sacrifice, competition, and actual death. None of these mothers see themselves clearly. Their children are victims, judges, and co-prisoners in a cycle they don’t control. The drama is overwhelming, seemingly so mundane, and yet vibrating with feeling.
What made you take the risk of delving where so many writers have feared to go?
MR: Thank you, Lisa, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me! I’m not sure it occurred to me until I was nearly finished with this book that parenthood, specifically motherhood, was considered by some an unworthy—or uninteresting?—subject matter for literary fiction. Of course, there’s a long history of the lives of women being considered less literary than the lives of men, and likewise, domestic concerns being considered less literary than public concerns. But it wasn’t until I was finishing this book and thinking about sending it to presses that I really thought much about the marketing challenges a book of stories centered on mothering and motherhood might face. Will male readers be immediately turned off? Will women who are not mothers and/or who are disinterested in becoming mothers be likewise turned off? Likewise, will mothers who are more sentimental about their roles as mothers be turned off by Shapeshifting’s lack of sentimentality? I don’t know. But no book is for everyone, and I’m not really interested in writing to please readers who don’t share my interests and concerns.
In fiction, I try to go after what interests me, what I obsess over, what I can’t help but write about. That’s the terrain where a writer’s best work comes from. Since becoming a mother, I couldn’t really help but write about motherhood. For one, motherhood is a fundamental part of who I am now. Also, it’s a huge source of tension and conflict in the lives of mothers, and arguably, all women and girls, because of the way women are defined by that role whether or not they intend to take it on. Also, my son is always giving me so much to think about, helping me see the world anew, inspiring me.
LL: In “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter,” there is an incredible insight in Second Week when the narrator observes Power, you came to understand, is one of the joys of motherhood. And then in the tenth month, the baby sighs burned out, close to giving up on you completely. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
How thin is the line between a normal amount of maternal omniscience, and the voice inside, there to let her know, no mother will ever be enough?
MR: In writing this collection, and this story in particular, I was grappling with a lot of different questions and concerns at once. On one hand, yes, mothers face an enormous amount of judgment and scrutiny, and I certainly don’t want to reinforce that. But on the other hand, mothers—all parents—do have responsibilities toward their children. When they fail to meet those needs, children suffer. As the daughter of an emotionally unavailable mother, I know firsthand what it’s like to not have important needs met by my mother. However, until I became a mother myself, there was always a part of me that blamed myself for the poor relationship with my mother. I had internalized the stories my mother told me about myself—that I was insensitive, cruel, ungrateful, etc. When I became a mother myself, I was able to see myself as a child, see the enormous power my mother had had over me in those years and how she had sometimes wielded that power in harmful ways. Becoming a mother helped heal those old wounds in that in mothering my son, in giving him the unconditional love and attention and respect I didn’t receive, I felt like I was mothering myself in a way.
“Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter” is the most meta story I’ve ever written, and it’s also the most autobiographical fiction story I’ve ever written. Ultimately, the narrator is the adult daughter, who happens to be a fiction writer. The story’s second-person point of view is kind of a first-person point of view in disguise. In trying to imagine her mother’s point of view, the daughter makes assertions she can’t possibly know, as all writers do when they fictionalize real people. She goes back in time to when she was a mere fetus in her mother’s uterus. She goes into “present” spaces that she also cannot truly access, either. Toward the end of the story, the reader learns that the daughter has written and published a story inspired by her relationship with her mother and mailed her mother a copy of it, hoping that the story will communicate something about their relationship she doesn’t know how to communicate in any other form. The daughter describes her mother tearing up the physical pages of the story, but given the estranged relationship between the two of them, the daughter doesn’t really know what her mother thought of the story, what she did with the physical pages. Through that lens, the story “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter” seems to be yet another fictional story inspired by the daughter’s relationship with her mother. And in this case, the use of second person makes the story read much like a letter, like the daughter is speaking directly to her mother this time.
LL: Some of these mothers are quite ill, and others are seemingly fine until we realize they too are cracking up. Reality is sometimes crashing down, as in “Keeper Four,” and “A Mouth is a House for Teeth.” Annabelle risks her entire relationship with her granddaughter in order to see where Gaby Giffords was shot. Other times, the woman herself, Annabelle or the Narrator in Lifecycle, are unreliable.
How difficult was it to create that sense of fragility of motherhood, of life being malleable and easily dismantled?
MR: Motherhood is so profoundly strange in how it dismantles a woman’s body, life, and personhood, making her over into something else. It’s a form of shapeshifting, only as the protagonist of the title story muses, “Shapeshifting isn’t the way I’d imagined it. I’d always pictured myself behind the wheels of other bodies I assumed. This is the opposite. I’m the wheels, not the driver.”
One challenge I faced in writing is that I felt that realism couldn’t always do justice to the strangeness of that transformation, of becoming alien to yourself, of becoming disconnected from the world and from who you once were. “Three-week Checkup” explores these feelings, but the mother is only three weeks into motherhood; the feeling is new and, presumably, temporary. The mother will soon enough return to work, and she will be once again connected to the world outside. Also, while that woman’s partner is not particularly present or supportive, he is at least physically present in the evenings and on weekends when he’s not at work. I wrote “A Mouth is a House for Teeth” in a more speculative fashion because that approach helped me get at a truth about how isolating and erasing motherhood can be in a way that realism couldn’t quite capture. In the world of this story, mothers are not supposed to leave their homes ever. They are completely isolated from the world. They sacrifice their lives in the service of keeping their children safe. So, for five plus years, this mother has been alone in that house with her daughter. The husband works away from the home for months at a time, and this mother is the only mother in Shapeshifting who doesn’t even have a friend she can commiserate with. By the end of the story, the mother seems a little out of her mind, her grip on reality loose. And is it any wonder? In the world of this story, the isolation of motherhood is so extreme that it induces a kind of cabin fever.
LL: There are images of violence or death in almost every story; rabbit heads, poisonous snakes, bears, attackers, drunk drivers, mass murderers, rapists who leave their victims pregnant.
What is the relationship between the mess of pregnancy and birth, and that of violence?
MR: I’m not sure it’s so much that I think pregnancy and birth are directly related to violence, though they certainly can be when women’s autonomy in making decisions about their own bodies is taken away from them—and also, sure, birth is kind of horrific—but it’s more that violence is a regular, mundane part of the lives of women and girls. Even if a woman doesn’t directly encounter violence, the possibility of violence shapes her everyday way of interacting with the world. Women make daily decisions, many of them unconscious, predicated on the reality that there are plenty of men in the world who would willfully do them harm if given an opportunity.
LL: Finally, the story about a miscarriage, “Galactagogues,” shows the reader that no baby can ever be lost. Carla is continuing to pump breast milk, long after she knows Millie is gone. When she tries to breastfeed the doll, knowing it is not her baby but needing the oxytocin, she feels almost like a drug addict in need of a fix. Other characters have given up alcohol for their babies.
-Is motherhood itself a form of addiction?
MR: That’s an interesting question I don’t have the answer to. But insofar as so much of what we call nurturing behavior is at least partly induced by hormones, such as oxytocin, then it would seem that at least for some women, mothering might have an addictive component. I recall well how enormously relaxed and woozy I felt when breastfeeding, which is to say how enormously relaxed and woozy oxytocin made me feel. I also remember feeling a little creeped out about that—knowing how little control I had over what I was feeling, knowing my instincts were being driven by chemicals I had not willfully turned on. But also, that’s just life; mothering/motherhood isn’t exceptional.