Editing Through the Looking Glass
Agra Lieģe Doležko is a publicist, journalist and an activist, who focuses on the topics of motherhood (both as an institution and her private experience), gender equality, sexual violence, and women's reproductive rights. She's been collecting the stories of other young parents (primarily mothers) for her project "My First Year Too" (illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa), initiated the series of #MeToo stories in Latvian media, lead research on expressions of institutionalized violence at birth, and writes a column for the online magazine "Satori". In her essays she analyzes autobiographical novels, fiction and nonfiction which centers around motherhood and actively follows and reports on the rapidly deteriorating situation of women's reproductive rights in Poland, where she currently resides.
It happened a few months ago. I had recently read a book by Israeli sociologist Orna Donath called Regretting Motherhood, based on her research on the phenomenon of motherhood regret in Israeli society. Less than two years earlier, I had become a mother myself and for at least half of that time, like the women Donath interviewed, I was convinced that I had made a terrible mistake. When the first year was over, I gradually started to feel better and it seemed that I had narrowly skirted disaster, but my interest in the phenomenon of regret remained.
Most of my writings and essays on motherhood are also quite explicitly about gender equality, and so I knew that I was not going to get along with the monthly Tempo of Riga* whose staff have always been quite clear about position regarding feminism, equating its tenets with ‘ideology’. But since I had been reading this ‘intellectual journal’ (according to Wikipedia) quite regularly since I was a teenager, and in many ways enjoyed its existence, the subject of regret lingered in the back of my mind, and I thought about it again.
After all, the way in which I analysed my motivations for becoming a mother, and the frightening revelation that I might not be suited to the role, thoroughly blurred the clear, feminist guidelines with the help of which I had confidently discussed other aspects of motherhood in a socio-political context. My own experience made me at least question more carefully whether the idea of the natural, maternal mother might be just a mythical image maintained by a patriarchal society to constrain women and to allow for the possibility that maybe a mother is after all meant to be one who is not ambivalent and who has never regretted or felt loss.
The lack of a clear answer seemed to qualify my experience this time as potentially valuable for an article in an issue of said magazine, so I mustered up my courage and wrote an email to V. Olivander**, one of the editors. A close friend who sometimes works with the magazine had said that he was not as prejudiced and misogynistic as the others and was quite amenable. That’s how it in fact seemed at the beginning. I sent him a letter in which I offered to write about the theme of regret in the context of motherhood, referring to Donath’s research and my own personal experience.
He replied that the topic seemed ‘quite interesting, even though (but perhaps because of this) it is unfamiliar to me’ and that the Tempo of Riga would be happy to consider publishing such an article, stressing that the inclusion of personal experience in the text was highly recommended. We arranged a meeting on Zoom, after which I got down to writing, and on Tuesday, 1 November, I sent V the finished text. He promised to reply by the end of the week, but when I still hadn’t heard anything from him the following Monday, I decided to give him a call. On the phone, V said that he had read the article and that ‘for a first article’ for this magazine it was good enough and would be accepted. I was to wait for an e-mail from him with corrections and some small additions. I was happy and relieved and waited to hear from him, but on Wednesday I received an e-mail asking me to meet V on Zoom on that very same day.
In this conversation, he stated that after reading the article more carefully he had realised that it would not really work for the Tempo of Riga in this form, and when asked to explain what he found problematic in the article, V admitted that although ‘you can write’, the language was good and even the structure of the text was fine, ‘you have chosen the wrong companions for this journey of yours’. In other words, V did not like either Donath or Sheila Heti, whose autobiographical novel Motherhood I had also discussed in my text. He found Donath’s arguments, her analysis of the phenomenon of regret and extracts from her interviews with mothers in Israel unconvincing, because they largely dealt with regret as a social phenomenon and not as an individual psychological flaw, which is the way V thought of it.
During the conversation, V told me about his own experience – about the birth of his twin children many years ago and how difficult and full of medical problems the beginning of their lives had been. ‘Yet at no point did I feel like this, it never occurred to me to regret what had happened,’ he declared. I was unpleasantly surprised because I found it difficult to understand why he was telling me this. So that I wouldn’t feel so naked in front of him because I had shared my hard experiences of early motherhood and so we would be in a similar position where we had come out to each other? Or to ‘refute’ the findings of the long study by Donath, an experienced academic, with his own experiences, which had nothing to do with the regrets of motherhood?
Even though Heti’s autobiographical novel was lauded in The Guardian as ‘very likely to become the definitive literary work on motherhood’, V found reflections on her own suitability for the role of mother superficial and unsuitable for my article. Instead, he thought it would have been better to talk to a psychologist who could explain the phenomenon of motherhood regret without any problems. In other words, I should stop seeing it in the context of society and return it to the level of the individual ‘illness’. V also asked a question, which really shocked me: ‘Have you read Women Who Run with the Wolves? This book would be more suitable.’ I hadn’t read it, but I had a rough idea about it, and I found it incredible that the editor of a serious magazine would recommend using it in an article. Okay, the subject of regret was new to him, but where did he get the conviction that it should be explained by way of esoteric tales? When I googled the Latvian edition of the book, the description in the e-bookstore began, ‘A strong woman is in many ways like a healthy she-wolf: she has unerring instinct, timeless wisdom, and admirable courage – qualities bestowed on her by the Primal Woman.’ Huh?
Despite my genuine shock at the suggestion to trade the findings of a world-renowned academic’s research for references to ‘Primal Woman’, I was not ready to give up. We agreed that I would have less of Donath in my article and that I would highlight the story of my own experience, in parallel with several fiction texts that dealt with the theme of motherhood regret or contradictory motherhood.
That evening V sent me back my text with his comments. Some of them seemed valuable – V asked me to clarify, to expand, to give examples, to avoid being too verbose – but two of them gave me a very uneasy feeling, because after reading them I began to doubt whether it would be possible for us to agree on a common denominator regarding this topic.
One of them related to a quote from Heti’s autobiographical novel: ‘It is sad not to want those things that give others fulfilment in life.’ Heti described a situation in which she had observed an acquaintance’s daily life with her husband and children, and for some time wished that she could desire this life for herself, but soon realised that it was not for her at all. V had highlighted this quote and commented: ‘Really? What’s there to be sad about? Aren’t there many other things that give meaning and fulfilment to other people’s lives? It is sad not to be able to fulfil those things that give you meaning and fulfilment.’ I found this statement so shallow and silly that it was hard to believe that it was coming from the editor of a respectable magazine, a man from whom, after all, we expect a certain subtlety and ability to delve into the text.
The second comment was in relation to the passage in the article in which I talked about my obsession with other women’s stories. In these stories, which became into a project dealing with the first year of motherhood, women wrote about the unbearable feeling of isolation, the resentment that their husbands can go to work and meet other adults, eat hot food for lunch, and go on living a normal human life; about the chronic sleep deprivation, the sometimes painful breastfeeding, the guilt, the loneliness, the boredom, and the postnatal depression that make the prospect of going to hospital or even the morgue seem more and more attractive every day. And yet, in almost all cases, the authors of the stories concluded with a more or less well-reasoned ‘but it’s worth it’. My children are the best and most beautiful thing I have. This love cannot be compared or replaced by anything else. At times, when an author seemed to be at pains to find the strength to express such positive emotions, the conclusion was a little more down to earth: yes, it has been and still is very difficult, but this experience has made me learn a lot. To grow as a person.
I had mentioned all this to describe, in the context of motherhood, what I thought was a chronic inability to tell a story about an unsolved problem – to write about an experience without the reflex to end the story positively, even if the positive solution was illusory. I thought that it would be clear to even a not very careful reader that my own writing was an attempt to overcome this reflex and to write about failure, doubt, and perhaps even regret, without at least attaching the label of character growth to the narrative. But V latched on to the last ironic sentence ‘Growing as a human being’ and remarked quite unironically: ‘This seems to me to be an important aspect of treating childcare consciously rather than mechanically. Maybe somewhere down the line you can look at yourself from that angle.’ At that point, I was quite sure that I was being actively invited to move away from the direction I had chosen and to fall back into the trivial, familiar narrative of ‘positive resolution’ and growth that I had so consciously moved away from.
Be it as it may, I tried to compromise even with this comment and allowed for the possibility that it was my newfound humility that had made me ‘grow as a person’ – humility in the face of ignorance, humility in the context of making a possibly wrong decision, because before, the cornerstone of my self-esteem had always been confidence in myself and my decisions; I also highlighted in the article my own experiences and several works of fiction that I had found significant in the context of motherhood, such as Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.
After a long and nervous wait, the great news finally came: ‘This version is definitely better as an article for the Tempo of Riga’. Please look at the corrections to see if they are acceptable to you. I will look forward to receiving back the cleaned-up version.’
And yet, three days later, during which time, as requested, I had tracked down and transcribed on my computer all the original quotes from the article, I received a final message from V, which began: ‘This will be one of those e-mails I most hate to write and yet I must. The long and the short of it is that my fellow editors (there are three of us) think that your article is not suitable for the Tempo of Riga.’ V's e-mail was long, and it said that the article ‘lacks something that could be called a spiritual or, if you like, metaphysical dimension, which requires a descent into the depths of one’s soul’, and ‘I don’t know if you are familiar with Jung’s psychology, but when you go on such a journey, you can hardly do without him.’ She-wolves, primal women, Jung – all welcome. Contemporary scholars and authors who question the status quo and call for important issues not to be confined to the story of individual growth, but to look at them from the angle of systemic inequality – no thank you.
Finally, V mentioned that his colleagues said that the article was very suitable for the Perfection magazine***. I googled this women’s magazine, whose website says that it is ‘made for us who want to live with joy. To feel good in our bodies, in our minds, in our age and in our time’. When the opportunity arose, I bought Perfection because I didn’t want to dismiss it without reading it, but ironically the direction that V had originally suggested, Women Who Run with Wolves, seemed more appropriate for its content. But okay – Perfection was, of course, his colleagues’ suggestion – let’s not shoot the messenger.
The ‘messenger’s’ last words to me were: ‘I really enjoyed working with you. The main thing is that you can certainly write, and I hope you will continue to do so.’