The first months as a new parent can bring an almost overwhelming feeling of responsibility. It’s a bad time to lose your mind.
In author Carol Goodman’s latest novel, two women become fast friends at a support group for new moms. They’re opposites: meek and mild Daphne Marist, the protagonist, and brash and fashionable Laurel Hobbes, the other mother, but they quickly bond over their shared postpartum struggles.
As the tale unwinds, identities are mirrored and merged, and similar stories seem to play out at different places and in different times. The narrator is unreliable but never unsympathetic. Goodman writes scenes that can be read in more than one way, but at no point do the possibilities become too complex to hinder the story’s momentum.
The Other Mother is Goodman’s 20th book. She’s written 17 herself, including fiction, young adult and adult fantasy, and three with her husband, the poet Lee Slonimsky. She lives in Red Hook and teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY-New Paltz.
Do you think of The Other Mother as a Gothic novel? And if so, what does that mean? That description caught my attention because it reminded me of some 19th century novels in which the protagonist repeatedly wonders if he or she is going mad, and that question certainly comes up in this book.
I think am influenced by the Gothic and I like the Gothic. I think some of the elements of that are psychological stressors, and questions about identity, and sanity, and very often in Gothic literature the heroine has to question whether what’s happening to her is real. I’m drawn to those elements and I think they’re probably ancestor to the modern psychological suspense novel.
In a lot of Gothic novels, space and geography and interiors add to the sense of menace and they mirror very often that sense of being trapped. Being trapped in rooms is often an element of the Gothic, so a lot of those factors do exist in The Other Mother.
There are questions of identity, questions of sanity, and particularly in The Other Mother, two of the characters are experiencing some forms of postpartum mood disorders, and what I think is particularly interesting about that phenomenon is that you can have a temporary madness, and people can behave very differently under that influence than they might have in another time in their lives. And also it can be a very disorienting and very changed form of life. All that fits in with the Gothic tradition.
You live in Dutchess County and went to college at Vassar. I was wondering if the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie provide inspiration for the asylum in the book?
The Hudson River State Hospital was definitely a touchstone. I have gone to look at that. I looked at it a number of years ago after it had closed. I read an article about it many years ago just when it had closed and it mentioned in there that it had a lot of architectural similarities to Vassar’s Main Hall. So yes, this probably isn’t the first time [in a book] I’ve imagined a psychiatric institute looking somewhat like it.
Questions of identity occur throughout this story. Does that relate to the theme of motherhood? Do you think becoming a mother uniquely alters and unsettles one’s identity?
Yes, I do. (Laughs.) I actually can’t think of anything more in my life that has changed me more than being a mother, and I know some other mothers — no pun intended — have experienced something similar. People tell you, you just don’t know how you’re going to feel, you don’t know what it’s going to be like, and that can be frustrating [to hear] before you have children, because you’re like, “I think I know who I am, and what I’m going to be like.” But in fact it is such an altering experience that, you don’t necessarily become another person, but you have very different emotions and respond to things very differently. It’s not something you really can anticipate so I think it does change your identity.
For women it changes almost immediately how they navigate the world, because suddenly you have another person who you’re pretty much attached to if you don’t have the money to have a full-time nanny, and even if you do, suddenly you can’t go to the bathroom without thinking where this little person is, so it changes your life pretty dramatically. And if you choose not to continue working, or however it changes your life, there are questions of, well, who am I now? I defined myself before as this person who had this job or this person who looked a certain way, and that’s all changed. I think motherhood can certainly bring up issues of identity, some that end up being very productive and that you grow and learn from. But it can be disorienting at first.
Did you have any reservations about writing a novel that deals with postpartum depression/psychosis?
I wanted to treat it sensitively and without stereotypes because it is a hot-button topic. Unfortunately, the most dramatic cases of it we hear about are when women kill children, which are very rare. I didn’t want to sensationalize or exploit that, but on the other hand I feel that postpartum disorders are an issue that don’t get talked about honestly enough, often enough. I thought that if I could address it and use it in a way that started a conversation about it and made people aware of it, made people less wary of talking about it, that that could be a positive thing. In order to bring that home I did a fair amount of research on postpartum mood disorders and I include in the book a P.S. section that has an interview with Teresa M. Twomey, the author of a book called Understanding Postpartum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness, and I use a quote from her book at the beginning of The Other Mother. In the interview we include information about where to go if you are experiencing or if you know somebody who is experiencing postpartum mood disorders. I always feel like if I’m exploring something like that I have an obligation to treat it as fairly and as intelligently as I can in the hopes that it will bring awareness to the subject. One of the myths about motherhood is that people feel like, “Oh, I’m supposed to be happy, and why am I not?” And people who feel that way are often ashamed of discussing that, or admitting to that. A more frank discussion of all the possible emotions that can come up postpartum is all to the good.
What was the hardest scene to write?
I just did a reading from the first part of the book recently. In the prologue, Daphne talks about having this moment of thinking about— not thinking about hurting her child, but having this vision of walking up the stairs and picturing herself dropping her child from the stairs. As I read that out loud for the group, I found that excruciatingly painful because I had that [vision] when I was a new mother. And just as Daphne says, oh I wouldn’t do it, I knew I wouldn’t do it, but I had the visualization, and it was scary, and so it was scary sharing that. There were probably some other scenes that were hard, like the last scene, but I think right from the beginning it was hard. My daughter is 26 now so it’s been a long time since I was a new mother. Going back into that mindset of being a new mother… although it was a very joyous time of my life in many, many ways, it was also very hard to go back into that mindset for the book.
Do you think it’s important for the reader to like or identify with the main character?
I went to a book group last that was for the book The Bostonians by Henry James, and we all agreed that there really is no likeable character in that book. But it’s a fun book and it’s a satire. I tend to like to write books in which that there is a character that the reader identifies with. I’ve always had a central first-person narrator, and I feel like that person is somebody that is taking you into this world, and that I hope my readers do identify with. But she is by no means perfect or always reliable. And people we identify with are not necessarily perfect or 100 percent reliable.
In writing across genres, for younger and adult readers, under your own name and under a pseudonym, what unites your work? What’s different?
When I started writing fantasy I thought of it as a continuation of what I had been doing because although I’d been writing mysteries — and my mysteries are often not really sold as mysteries but they’re books in which people die, and there’s some sort of suspense going on — there’s also often a lot of mythology and folklore and those kind of Gothic elements that we talked about before. When I started writing fantasy it was like, [what if] that folklore and those fairy tales were real, what stories would I tell with that? For me it felt like a continuation, however my publisher thought it was very different, and that’s why the first fantasy books I wrote were written under a pseudonym, Juliet Dark, and then my husband and I wrote a series under the pseudonym Lee Caroll together. The same element would often be the fairy tale and folklore element I had used in my previous books. Also, still very often was a central female narrator, still a sense of exploring psychological issues that I thought were important. In a mystery you use the solving of the mystery to illuminate a psychological exploration. In a fantasy, you’re using the fantasy elements as a metaphor for addressing psychological exploration. And they tend to look very different because in the fantasies there are fairies and there’s a lot going on that’s very different. But to me I’m still exploring character in all of the books, I’m just using a different type of storytelling to explore that.
What influence did your classical studies have on your writing?
It had a really huge influence. I was a Latin major in college and I came to that out of a love of language and poetry and wanting to understand the beginnings of language. It expanded my understanding of language and it gave me a life-long love of mythology and how language can really be its own kind of transformation. Through language things become other things, like girls becoming trees in the myth about Daphne. Language can make that happen. Latin also was the first thing I did academically that really required a lot of discipline. I think studying Latin made me a more disciplined person, which would end up being very valuable for the work of writing books and editing books and really sustaining that. People think about inspiration, but just being able to sit down every day and continue writing takes a particular kind of discipline and I think Latin gave that to me.
Do you feel like as a creative writing professor you have a unique vantage to observe the anxieties and interests of young people?
Sometimes that changes in terms of what my students are dealing with. I guess I would say I’ve seen some increase in real-world worries and anxieties in my students, as in the world at large, or at least it certainly seems like that. It strikes me that my students are often dealing with an awful lot, and I don’t know if that’s my perception or if that has really increased. But in terms of writers’ anxiety I see that. Every writer I know, when they’re telling the truth, you just scratch the surface and it’s a hive of anxiety and worry. I know that doesn’t sound very cheerful.
Which is not to say that I don’t feel a lot of hope and optimism in students. I think, for instance, it’s been really inspiring to see what the high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida [have done], how they’ve taken that tragedy in their lives and really turned it into an opportunity for activism and that they’re making real change and having their voices heard. I’m not at all pessimistic about the ability for the human spirit to overcome. But there is a lot to deal with right now. And probably there always has been, it just seems like a lot right now. I’m always really inspired by my students and optimistic about young people when I am with them.