I was out on a walk when I started reading “My Mother’s Dream.” The opening section had me absolutely spellbound and anxious. Some friends were walking toward me on the trail and completely managed to startle me out of my stupor.
In this section we read about a young mother’s nightmare. Somehow, she realizes, she has forgotten about her baby and left her outside over night, and snow has fallen over the ground.
When she got outside she remembered. She remembered that she had left a baby out there somewhere, before the snow had fallen. Quite a while before the snow had fallen. This memory, this certainty, came over her with horror. It was as if she was awakening from a dream. Within her dream she awakened from a dream, to a knowledge of her responsibility and mistake. She had left her baby out overnight, she had forgotten about it. Left it exposed somewhere as if it was a doll she tired of. And perhaps it was not last night but a week or a month ago that she had done this. For a whole season or for many seasons she had left her baby out.
And then Munro throws this spectacularly brutal insight into the dream:
The sorrow that came to my mother was the sorrow of the baby’s waiting and not knowing it waited for her, its only hope, when she had forgotten all about it.
This intense fear and guilt is one I’m sure many parents have experienced, hopefully mostly within the context of a nightmare.
Imagine my surprise, then, when after finishing the story I realized, despite going into some dark places, it was one of the most upbeat and happy of all of Munro’s stories. This is because Jill, the young mother, widowed in the last days of World War II, and her daughter, who turns out to be our narrator, make it through a particularly momentous battle and, on the other side, find a lovely relationship, made lovely primarily through forgiveness and understanding — even if it seems to come from an infant. The daughter, writing as if she remembers the time as an infant, is the one writing the tale, which suggests reconciliation, understanding, and, again surprisingly, a touch of comedic affection.
A lot of the comedy comes at the expense of the mother’s two sisters-in-law, Iona and Ailsa. When Jill loses her husband, she is living in a tiny room while her husband’s family are much more comfortably established. Once he dies, Iona and Ailsa come and tell her it’s time she move in with them.
This would undoubtedly be difficult for anyone in the best of circumstances. The sisters don’t really know Jill, and she doesn’t know them. They all know her dead husband better than Jill. Still harder, Jill has never lived with a family, having grown up in an orphanage.
Those difficulties are only the beginning, though. As the narrator says eventually, “We were monsters to each other.” And this is not the narrator as an adolescent, nor a toddler, even. This is the narrator thinking back — imagining back, at least — to her days as an infant . . . to one day in particular:
It was about ten o’clock in the morning when they left, and the day ahead was to be the longest and the worst in Jill’s experience. Not even the day of my birth, her nightmare labor, could compare to it.
The story returns to the dark shadows in this section, told from the perspective of an infant who is crying far too much for her distressed mother.
The unique perspective has led some critics to ridicule the story, though it’s one Munro has stated she has affection for. I’m okay with it. Of course the narrator cannot remember this day, but giving herself the memory, and seeing herself as in conflict with her mother, leads to that lighter tone — one I associate with empathy.
The story does go somewhere a bit too complex for me, though. The narrator says that on this day she chose the love of her mother. But what throws me is this:
To me it seems that it was only then that I became female.
Is she doing this because this was a day she allied herself with an imperfect being and made that love sufficient for her sustenance? I’m not sure.
Similarly, the story’s final section leaves me a bit at a loss. I like it, but I don’t understand the narrator’s final desire to be seen as a ghost. I cannot quite fit that with the remainder of the story, which, though dark at times, still has a comic feel to me.
“My Mother’s Dream” addresses what it is to be an artist and then to become a mother. A young violinist of great promise gives birth. The story is unusual in that it specifically concentrates on the six weeks post-partum when exhaustion, sudden change, and collapsing hormones make a woman’s emotional balance precarious. Apparently the story was never picked up before being published in this collection. Perhaps it seemed flippant on a serious topic. I discuss below why I think it works.
The form reminds the reader of a fairy tale: take a very difficult situation and give it a very happy ending. The single parent has a widow’s pension that secures her future, and she has a brilliant skill that adds to her income and satisfaction. The reader enjoys the story as a wish fulfillment and recognizes that reality is usually very different. But it’s pleasurable to imagine things being “easy.”
In fact, the narrator says mid story:
In a fairy tale [Jill] would have risen off the bed with the strength of a young giantess and gone through the house breaking furniture and necks.
In fact, Jill does break furniture. She wins the battle with the baby; she wins the battle with the violin; she wins the battle with the sisters; she wins the battle against limited ideas regarding art and motherhood. To a degree, though, the story suggests that for women to succeed at combining motherhood and vocation it requires focus and a willingness to break with the past.
The happy ending of “My Mother’s Dream” makes a welcome contrast to the bleak and hard-boiled “After the Change,” in which an unmarried mother gives up her baby without ever seeing or holding it. That one is a tragedy, this one, a comedy. A mid-summer night’s dream.
The story depicts the natural disorientation and great difficulty faced by the new mother. The story dilutes the horror of post-partum depression and the very real possibility of psychosis by placing these outcomes in two separate people — the frustration-depression is in the mother, and the obsession for perfection and psychosis is in the sister-in-law.
The point of view is unique. It is the adult daughter telling her mother’s tale. This point of view allows a sympathetic view of the desperate baby’s demands, and it also allows a tone of wry pride and deep understanding that the adult daughter has for her mother. The story is in some ways an unsentimental hymn to the very special bond between mothers and daughters. The narrator’s story is, in fact, the love of a good woman for her mother.
The unsentimental truth of the matter between new mothers and their babies? Long after, the daughter describes the encounter of the new baby (herself) and her mother:
We were monsters to each other . . .
The story’s structure makes it hard going for the reader. The story begins at the end, but the reader does not know it is the end. Then the story jumps back to the middle, but the reader does not know it is the middle. When the story finally reaches the end, it does not tell the reader the key thing; the reader needs to insert the beginning four pages between sections 14 and 15.
Actually, to do this effectively, you need to number the sections before you begin reading. It takes two readings to sort it out. The narrator’s method is effective, however, because it mirrors for the reader every new mother’s (and this particular character’s) experience of new motherhood: intense disorientation, anxiety, confusion, desperation, nightmare, exhaustion, and in some cases, or for some minutes or hours, madness.
The drugs available to all of the women in the story interest me — the alcohol, the 222s, and the narcotics. It’s 1945, and drugs are so much the fabric of women’s lives that one of the neighbors is a doctor who offers his female friend “a bromide” to get her through a funeral. 222s were a common Canadian drug that contained aspirin, caffeine, and codeine. Good for headaches and migraines. (222s also appears in “Open Secrets” and may have allowed a murderer to go unidentified.) The woman who needed the bromide also had some narcotics in the cabinet. The story echoes the mother’s addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and many readers may actually feel somewhat comforted to realize that stories of their grandmothers’ and great grandmothers’ predilections or addictions were neither untrue nor isolated. At any rate, we see that our present problem with opioids has a long history.
The mental state of these characters interests me — the grandmother’s early dementia, the competent Ailsa’s stress, the high-strung Iona’s manic descent into psychosis, and the new mother’s post-partum delirium. Women’s lot is fraught by fate and finances and can result in mental disintegration. While depression, dementia, anxiety, and mania all appear in this story, psychosis is to be deeply feared, in that lobotomy could be the result. This is the treatment at the state hospital:
Drugs to calm her down, and shock if it’s better to blot out the memories, and an operation they do, if they have to, on people who are obstinately confused and miserable. They don’t do that at Morrisville. They have to send you to the city.
An easier way out is to dose yourself. That women are subject to alcoholism appears in the neighbor, who always smells faintly of liquor:
Mrs. Shantz carries a flask with her whenever she goes to a gathering of which — as she says — she can have no reasonable hopes. Drink does not make her fall about or garble her words or pick fights or throw her arms about people. The truth is Mrs. Schantz is always a little bit drunk but never really drunk.
I find all of this familiar. In about 1925, I had one grandmother in Connecticut survive an attempt to put her head in the oven and another grandmother in West Virginia who was addicted to little pills and alcohol. A fascinating on-line article entitled 10 Dangerous Drugs Once Marketed as Medicine lists, among others, Cocaine Toothache Drops for children, Bayer Pharmaceuticals Heroin Hydrochloride, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup of Maine and Laudanum of Philadelphia, both of which contained morphine or opium (see here). All of these were on the public market in the late 1800s and marketed for both women and children.
What makes the story really valuable to me, however, is the extremely concise description of the artist and her experience of art.
First of all, Munro explains the way many people who are not artists experience and misunderstand art:
My father and my father’s family had no real interest in music. They didn’t quite know this. They thought that the intolerance or even hostility they felt toward a certain type of music (this showed even in the way they pronounced the word “classical”) was based on a simple strength of character, an integrity and a determination not to be fooled. As if music that departed from a simple tune was trying to put something over on you, and everybody knew this, deep down, but some people — out of pretentiousness, from want of simplicity and honesty — would never admit that it was so. And out of this artificiality and spineless tolerance came the whole world of symphony orchestras, opera, and ballet, concerts that put people to sleep.
Then we hear how Jill herself perceives what art is to her.
How can I describe what music is to Jill? Forget about landscapes and visions and dialogues. It is more of a problem, I would say, that she has to work out strictly and daringly, and that she has taken on as her responsibility in life.
This speaks for me. I myself create photographs and books of photographs. This is exactly how I experience what I do. But I have never put it so perfectly into words. Thank you, Alice.
What is amazing and tonic about this vocational description is that it has no reference to the artist thinking of herself as a genius, no idea that she is a conduit to God or an avatar of God, nor any other romantic idea of the artist. Instead, the artist is someone who works hard. How the artist as a young woman distinguishes herself is that she has absolutely no interest in being “well-rounded.” In addition, she rejects without a second thought adult advice that she should be well-rounded.
Regarding art and motherhood, the narrator has this to say:
Suppose then that the tools that serve her for working on this problem are taken away. The problem is still there in its grandeur and other people sustain it, but it is removed from her. For her just the back step and the glaring wall and my crying. My crying is a knife to cut out of her life all that isn’t useful. To me.
The narrator thus explains the violence that the post-partum experience can be.
Munro has a keen sympathy for how vulnerable women are when they try to combine motherhood with vocation. Jill tries to play her violin, at which she is a master, and the stresses of motherhood doom the effort. Fate has removed her husband. Relatives ridicule her art. Relatives ridicule her as a mother. Nature makes the baby colicky, and bad luck makes nursing impossible. There is no guide, no duenna, no loving mother, no friend. None of these for the artist who’s become a mother. Exhaustion, isolation, and confusion combine. Practice is suddenly impossible. Desperate thinking is the natural post-partum psychological state.
Finished. She is finished altogether. The piece that she mastered months ago and perfected since, so that nothing in it remained formidable or even tricky, has completely defeated her. It has shown her to herself as somebody emptied out, vandalized. Robbed overnight.
The desperate thinking is not unrealistic, however. In real life, motherhood can interrupt the pursuit of art for years. And that’s a fact. So the additional fact is that for years, women can feel robbed. Or worse, they can feel vandalized. Think about that. Think about the perfection of that word.
What is the ordinary result of being so vandalized? Sylvia Plath committed suicide.
And she’s not the only young mother to have done so. We all know someone. Is a fairy tale a fair reply or an appropriate one to Sylvia Plath? After all, this young mother had an imperfect husband, but she never had to face the dilemma of divorce. In addition, her husband left her a living with his pension and she was able to go back to school.
For Sylvia’s sake, I will say that this story is a word of comfort. The story offers understanding. The word “vandalized” captures the desperation. Iona’s mania captures the impossible and disorienting exhaustion that is the state of new mothers. And the fairy tale ending says: this is what I would have wished for you, Sylvia. Life. Not death.