Balancing on the Edge of Motherhood: Anna Prushinskaya, "A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother"
The end of pregnancy is a strange time. You wait for the biggest change that can happen to a person other than death and yet, for most, you don’t know when the change will happen.
When will the baby be born? When will a woman become a mother?
When I was pregnant with my son, I read the title essay of A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya probably 15 times. It became almost a talisman to me, a promise that he would eventually be born, that I would be able to cross over to motherhood.
When my water broke just like Anna described in her essay, unexpectedly and fast, I still had no idea what was coming. I was still perched between womanhood and motherhood.
In A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, Prushinskaya writes beautifully about her experience balancing between places, between states: between pregnancy and motherhood, and between her Soviet homeland and her current home of Ann Arbor.
I spoke with Prushinskaya about her experience writing the book, how motherhood has changed her as a writer, and the birth of her second son. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your essay “Uncertainty: Or a Woman Is a Woman, and Then Sometimes She Is a Mother” meant so much to me as I was preparing for the birth of my son. The description of your house shifting after your son’s unexpected home birth sticks with me -- it encompasses so much that is heartbreaking and wonderful about birth. You also had your second child at home, right? How did that change the feel of your house?
A: I’m so happy to hear that reading that essay was helpful -- one of the wonderful things about publishing these essays has been getting the chance to hear more birth stories and other experiences related to pregnancy, birth, motherhood (or not). I did end up having my second son at home, too. I don’t think I will ever feel the same about school buses! I live by a school, and right around the time my second son was born, I could see the school buses lining up through the windows. Now around that time if I’m home, I’m taken back to the birth, even if for a moment.
Q: One of the most profound changes that I went through after giving birth was a sudden, almost painful, tenderness, as though I had lost all of my armor. I’m so impressed with your ability to stay articulate in your writing through the postpartum emotional landscape. Was that difficult?
A: Actually, the experience of writing this felt similar to my experience of growing a baby and giving birth, in that I also sort of felt like a portal for the writing. Writing this book, the writing just sort of flowed, and I haven’t experienced that kind of creative energy since. So, it was surprisingly easy to get the pages written in that way, although I agree with you, for me the postpartum emotional openness was also wild. The more difficult aspect of working on this book was being more open with the world about my experiences, and I doubt I would have been able to write this book and allow for that kind of openness without the context I was writing in. (Though I don’t think pregnancy and birth exclusively allow for this kind of experience -- I imagine other trying and transformative life experiences can carry the same kind of energy.)
Q: Your book includes photographs between each essay. What made you decide to include these?
A: MG Press, my publisher, also puts out a journal called Midwestern Gothic, in which the work of Midwestern photographers is featured alongside writing. My publisher suggested that I have a look through the MG photos for possible interstitials for the book. I had been thinking about how to create pauses between the essays, and I wanted the pauses to invoke a similar feeling of an imprint in time. So I found the images sort of serendipitously within the MG photo collection.
Q: What has been the most surprising way that motherhood has changed you as a writer?
A: I’m not sure if it’s a direct correlation, but becoming a mom made me want to have more direct impact through my writing. For example, I wanted to learn more about the 1,4-dioxane pollution here in our area and ended up writing some stories on the issue about one year after my first son was born.
Q: The last essay in the book takes the form of a short play. What made you chose to write it this way, and why did you pick this piece to end the book?
A: I mention the 36 questions to love study in the book, the study I came across in The New York Times, which “explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” I was thinking about my relationship with the baby, who felt sort of like a stranger though I was already in love with him, and I was also with the baby for long stretches of time, which I remember as feeling very strange at first. So, that’s the inspiration for that piece. I liked that piece as the end because for me motherhood creates more questions than answers.
Q: You mention a wide variety of writers throughout this book. Is there a book or author that you return to over and over again?
A: Yes, definitely! I have a few that I have returned to a couple of times, including many of the authors I mention throughout the book. Right now the book I am re-reading is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Anna Prushinskaya will do a quick Michigan book tour for "A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother" in spring 2018, kicking off at Literati around early April.