In her collection of short stories, “Look How Happy I’m Making You,” Polly Rosenwaike captures the experience of motherhood from all angles. Rosenwaike cultivates her book’s appeal in the very first page, instantly dismissing any preconceptions a reader might have about a book on motherhood. It would be easy to write off this book as one for mothers — or at least for women — but Rosenwaike clarifies that this book is for anyone and everyone by starting her collection with the line, “We are all in love with the baby.” The book draws the reader in immediately, regardless of whether or not they have any special interest in motherhood. The narration defamiliarizes the experience of interacting with a baby, saying, “he tracks our shopworn, overly articulated faces,” effectively describing the silly faces we all make at babies in a way that is beautiful. This beginning, something we can all relate to, makes motherhood accessible and sets the stage for the arduous journey the book charts through the lives of many different versions of motherhood.
In a collection of short stories with different narrators, maintaining a continuity of theme from one segment to the next can be difficult. Not only does Rosenwaike make it seem easy, she exploits the different perspectives in order to force the reader to reckon with the decisions that come with motherhood. Every character is understandable to the reader, from the woman grappling with her aunt’s death at the same time as her baby’s birth, to the woman having an affair with a younger man right after becoming a mother. The most poignant comparison by proximity, however, was between the stories “Grow Your Eyelashes” and “Field Notes.” In the first story, the woman at the center tries desperately to conceive and keep a baby, and her failure to do so is rendered in precise prose. In the story that directly follows it, the woman gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. “Decides” is a strong word — it is already a foregone conclusion. She is sad about it, as anyone would be, but she never truly considers keeping the baby.
Even as a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose, it is almost impossible not to feel accusatory toward the woman in the second story. The first story puts the reader in the headspace of someone for whom having a baby would be a blessing, so when it is a curse for the second narrator, we still are angry with her for squandering an opportunity the first woman would have cherished. It produces a strange feeling in the heart and mind of someone who has always been pro-choice, one that is certainly illuminating. For people of all political persuasions, however, it finally depoliticizes the issue of abortion. Choosing whether or not to terminate a pregnancy once again becomes a human issue, one based on the minutiae of each woman’s experience, unable to be explained away by a single story.
Rosenwaike tactfully deals with another topic that is inextricably linked to motherhood, despite often going undiscussed: postpartum depression. Society likes to paint early motherhood as a rosy blossoming of the mother-child relationship fueled by the joy of watching a tiny person experience the world for the first time. This is the case for some women — but for women with postpartum depression, that picture can feel like a slap in the face. Rosenwaike slips in a short story that deals with postpartum depression head-on, right in-between other stories about various tribulations of motherhood. This is the first, and perhaps most subtle, success in dealing with this topic: she does not separate it from the others, which would make it seem shameful. Instead, it is just another story among stories, effectively normalizing a stigmatized subject. Her structure is also notable — she formats the piece as a list of sorts, titled “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,” like a WikiHow help piece. Her prose pinpoints the disgust she feels with the entire situation, describing her baby as “a disappointed old woman,” her birth as an experience that hurt so much “you thought something must be wrong,” and thoughts of hurting her baby that occur “within the realm of the horrifically possible.” Rosenwaike describes in excruciating detail the way support can sometimes feel inadequate, that all the expectations placed onto mothers can make one feel like “a manufacturing fluke.”
On a happier note, the book manages to capture some of the rosiness of pregnancy without sounding trite or clichéd. Rosenwaike reflects on the many wonders of witnessing a tiny being come into existence. Her characters say things like “Sometimes I thought my ballooning body was beautiful” and “I liked the way my skin stretched so tightly over my belly.” They ponder over things like “a brand-new face” and “the dawning of all kinds of consciousnesses.” They convince us so thoroughly of their reality and demonstrate so much resolve and pure awe in the face of struggles that have existed since the very beginning of humanity, that when Rosenwaike casually says that “the meaning of life” is “to continue it,” we do not even question it. Instead, it seems obvious, undeniable, like a foregone conclusion.