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Da ich in letzter Zeit ungewöhnlich viel Lesezeit hatte, nebenbei aber auch noch die ein oder andere Hausarbeit zu schreiben hab/tte, hab ich beides verbunden: ein Paper über Literatur. Und weil bald Muttertag ist, und eine meiner Arbeiten sich mit der Darstellung von Müttern in aktuellen amerikanischen Romanen befasst, dachte ich, ich stell das mal online. Peu a peu, ungeschönt und nicht Korrektur gelesen (dafür schon bewertet). Insgesamt gibt’s 3 Romane zum Thema „Motherhood“, die ich diese und in den kommenden beiden Wochen online stelle

Pamela Erens’ novel Eleven Hours centers on the experience of childbirth, as it portrays two women: one of them, Lore, is in labor, the other, Franckline, is her midwife and also pregnant, but not yet showing. The omniscient narrator shifts back and forth between Lore and Franckline, sometimes without clear boundaries, so that particularly at the novel’s climax it is hard to distinguish whose perspective is given. This is supported by the lack of individual chapters; the novel is told in a single flow and can in part be described as a variation of a stream of consciousness [1], even though it shifts from one character to the other and back. The structure of the book therefore establishes its two protagonists as closely connected to each other. Their unique experience of childbirth is thus brought together: while each woman has her own memory of each time they give birth, those childbirth scenes are still interwoven and have to be interpreted within the broad context of motherhood.

Erens’ novel stands out precisely because it centers childbirth. As the title already suggests, the plot’s timeframe is basically limited to the eleven hours it takes Lore to give birth to her daughter, allowing only for flashbacks and a short glimpse into a few hours after the birth. The reader does not get to know what happens to Lore and her baby after they leave the hospital; it even remains unclear whether the baby was born healthy.

In Eleven Hours Erens displays a variety of mother tropes: there is the absent mother, typified by Lore’s, Franckline’s and Julia’s mothers. All three women have lost their mother. At the novel’s closure, Lore, too, becomes the absent mother, as she is sedated, in bed in post-op (Erens 152), her child at the intensive care unit. She is unable to follow through her birth plan in which she had stated that she seeks to “touch, hold, and breastfeed the baby if possible, and as often as possible.” (154).

Beside the absent mother trope we find the theme of the mother in deathbed: Lore, who took care of her mother as she was dying of cancer; her, Lore’s life, seemed to be on hold and to begin only after her mother had passed away. It is only when Lore moves to New York after her mother deceased and when she meets Julia and Asa that she feels her life begin (26). With regard to deathbed scenes in literature, Kegan Gardiner has emphasized that

[c]ontemporary psychology … highlight[s] four problem areas in mother-daughter relationships which appear metaphorically condensed in the maternal deathbed scenes […]: primal rage, self-boundary loss, sex-role socialization and inability to form adult erotic attachments. (Kegan Gardiner, 147)

It is especially the last problem area that can be observed in Lore’s development after her mother’s death. While she meets her partner only after her mother has died, she is unable to keep the relationship. Moreover, the narration indicates that Lore is also interested romantically in Julia, her female best friend, but she is unable to give in to her desire. Also at the novel’s closure it is Lore who is at the threshold of dying; the last pages describe a dream-like scene in which it is uncertain whether Lore, indeed, survived giving birth after she was hurried into the Emergency Room. In a way this can be interpreted as Lore temporarily taking her mother’s place, thus losing the boundary between herself and her mother, another problem area mentioned by Kegan Gardiner.

An additional aspect that is noteworthy within the novel are the ways in which it portrays expectations of motherhood, and, in consequence what is expected of fathers. In flashbacks Lore remembers that Julia’s mother, after Julia had been raped, did not come to visit her and take care of her. Instead, the mother, who had left the family in order to pursue a career as an artist (and who now has started a new family with another man) is described as having left her daughter (59) – something that seems to come as a surprise, unexpected of a mother. In comparing Julia’s mother to her vague notion of what artists are like, Lore says:

That Julia’s mother had left the family and moved all the way across the country Lore could almost understand: artists were cruel, artists were selfish, otherwise they could not do their work (58).

It seems as if the novel sees artists in stark contrast to mothers who do indeed fulfil their maternal duty. If, as is the case with Julia’s mother, they decide not to care about their offspring, they are described as “cruel”. This is apparent especially when seen in contrast to the way in which Lore remembers her father, who was, just as her friend’s mother, absent from her life: “As a child she had not been quite sure what fathers were for. Money, one would think.” (73). The absent father, in contrast to a mother who chose life as an artist and left her child in order to pursue this career, is not described as cruel; the infant Lore simply imagines fathers as suppliers, but she does not dwell upon any emotional shortcomings she has suffered due to her father’s absence. It is the absence of her friend’s mother, her willful decision to leave her child, that startles Lore. What we see here is an expression of the notion of the “maternal instinct”, something the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has challenged in her book “Mothers and Others”. As she argues, it is not only women who are capable of nurturing their infants, but men are “equally wired” to fulfill that task. (Schulte, Motherhood).

While Lore is taken aback by the behavior of Julia’s mother, she seems to have endured her own mother’s sickness with patience, not reacting in any way aggressive towards the fact that, while her own mother was still alive, she was constantly in need of her daughter attending her. ”She is proud of having cradled and eased her mother until the end. But it had left her so very hungry” (Erens 70). In a way, Lore’s mother, too, can be interpreted as a weak and absent mother. Lore describes her as fragile: she “stoop[s] above the gasping lilies. She bent over the stuttering sewing machine” (103). Because this description is in stark contrast to the way both Julia’s and Asa’s parents are described (they are university teachers, both fathers history professors at Columbia University, 103), Lore’s mother appears to be weak: there is no career she had followed through. The only pass she followed, so it seems, was to get sick and keep her daughter close to her, obliging Lore to take care of her, despite the fact that Lore feels this hunger for her own life. As her illness is closely linked to symptoms of depression it can be argued that what Erens portrays here is something that French psychoanalyst André Green describes as “the dead mother”. It is not her actual death that Green focusses on, but her children’s experience with a mother that is absent from within, suffering from depression and withdrawn from the world (Green 21). It is exactly what we see in Lore: her hands were devoted to the body of a sick and dying woman (Erens 70), and only after her mother is gone Lore comes to life. After her mother’s death, Lore experiences the exquisite touch of a lover and a friend (70), a touch that seems to be feeding her and ending her hunger for life.

In accordance with her mother’s sickness, Lore’s relationship with her mother in general is described as being one of difficulties:

No, people like them never accumulated much, only culled a little corner of the world to call their own, then moved on when trouble pushed them aside. […] Two females, doing what females do: getting by (72).

The information that can be gathered about Lore from this excerpt is that her life has to be characterized as a life of struggle; she is “getting by”, not living a happy life. This only seems to change after her “dead mother”, in the terms of André Green, has indeed deceased.

Julia’s mother, the artist, is described as cruel, while Julia describes the artwork that Lore’s mother had liked as merely “sentimental” (102). Julia despises easy beauty, and in a way the reader gets the feeling that Julia, who is an artist herself, in a way also despises the easy life Lore and her mother had been living. This becomes apparent when Lore describes how she feels betrayed by Asa and Julia, how she never actually got the feeling she was the right fit for them, unworthy of their friendship (71). While Lore struggles to stand up against Julia and to tell her straightforwardly that she does indeed like the painting that her mother hung up in their house and thus, in a way, embraces her mother’s sentimentality, Lore also likes one of Julia’s pieces of art. It is a depiction of “a birth scene, in fact: a squatting woman and the emerging torso of a child” (131). When Lore describes the reason why she likes the picture, she compares raising a child on one’s own to giving birth to that child (132): “Her mother had cared for her, but there must have been times when she’d felt she was being split open by the burden, … ” (132). This is especially relevant when compared to Lore’s own labor: her own child might also be splitting her open: “It will tear her if it must.” (83). Here we see that Erens’ book is candid when it comes to the depiction of giving birth and the pains associated with labor. Lore fears labor; in the months before the due date, she has nightmares in which she realizes: “The baby will have to come out. It will have to come out that way” (63).

Finally, as Eleven Hours deals with still-births and pregnancy loss, anxieties around pregnancies and childbirth can be identified as another motherhood theme within the book: Motherhood in Eleven Hours is therefore a fragile motherhood. We encounter women whose pregnancies and consequently whose maternities are not a given fact: Lore’s labor takes a dramatic turn, it is unsure whether she survives or if her child, a girl, will be healthy. Franckline, her nurse and midwife, is also pregnant, but she is very uncertain as to whether she will be able to give birth to that baby or whether she will encounter another miscarriage. With Franckline, the reader gets a wide display of the insecurities a pregnant woman might face: she frequently goes to the bathroom, checking if she might have leaked some blood. She feels pain of which source she is not sure and multiple times consults a doctor apart from her usual check-ups. At one point she attributes her pain to a stressful day (the day when Lore is in labor), but she also speaks of bad spirits, a line of thought she has brought to New York from her home in Haiti. There, people still believed in evil spirits. Also, Franckline has not yet told her husband about the pregnancy, even though she is at week 15. Unlike most pregnant women, her fears are not limited to the first trimester, but go beyond that:

At first she had told herself she would speak to Bernard at the end of the first trimester, when the earliest risks would be over; then she wanted one more week to be sure […] It is in the later weeks that the worst dangers will come: her water breaking early, preterm labor, deformity leading to death in the womb. If she tells Bernard about the child, only to lose it, she will feel as if she has once again stolen from him the life that she should be having with her […] (29f.).

Franckline, the skillful nurse, experiences her pregnancy as “her anxious secret alone” (2). Her fears seem to be a major part of her, even though there are a few moments in which she is able to overcome her anxieties.

When a young man enters Lore’s labor room, “carrying an enormous white stuffed panda with a store tag still dangling from one ear” (82), its T-shirt reading “WELCOME BABY” (83), the reader encounters once again the fragile character of motherhood in Eleven Hours: the man, intending to congratulate his sister on the birth of her baby, has entered the wrong room. He is not Lore’s brother; he simply mistook her room for another woman’s room. So his congratulation cannot be fulfilled; the stuffed animal displays its congratulations incorrectly: Lore’s baby has not been born yet, so the congratulations in the form of the panda’s T-shirt come too early. Also, they are not meant for Lore and her baby.

Eleven Hours unfolds a wide array of pregnancies that did not result in what could be considered a “happy ending”: Franckline has lost a baby before, Julia had an abortion and Lore nearly dies when giving birth and at the novel’s closure has not been able to hold her daughter. Lore stands “precisely for the fact that things did not turn out as you had planned” (24). She, who attends the childbirth classes all by herself, has drafted a detailed birth plan, only to find out that it cannot be followed through. Fragileness, thus, can be considered the novel’s most prominent theme.

There is one aspect in the novel that allows the interpretation of rather strong female characters, namely the fact that, while most often we can observe male medical power and the female patient responsibility, this is is challenged in Eleven Hours. Here, it is basically the female nurse in whom Lore puts her trust; she does not like to be examined by the male doctor. Even though she eventually has to be brought into the Emergency Room und undergo surgery – something Franckline can not provide, but which is performed by a male surgeon, both Lore and Franckline seem to feel comfortable with each other. Evidence of this can be found when Franckline gives in to Lore’s request not to constantly wear the fetal monitor, therefore trusting her experience more than the male medical power.

All things considered, it seems reasonable to argue that, even though Erens tells stories of fragile pregnancies and fragile motherhood, even though she portrays a number of weak or absent mothers, by letting her novel unfold from a female narrator’s point of view, she provides mothers with an active voice, enabling them to have agency and ascribing them subjectivity. Eleven Hours can thus be described as a feminist piece of literature, one in which the portrayal of motherhood reflects its complexity without rendering mothers as merely weak or absent.

[1] Since we do not encounter the showing of free direct thought, the narration can not be labeled as stream-of-consciousness as such, but as a variation of it.

Erens, Pamela. Eleven Hours. Atlantic Books London, 2016.

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