“I have somehow become a woman who yells": On Lauren Groff's "Florida"

“I have somehow become a woman who yells": On Lauren Groff's "Florida"

Lauren Groff | Florida | Riverhead Books | June 5, 2018 | 288 Pages

Lauren Groff's latest collection of short stories, Florida, opens with a portrait of a mother grappling with her own uncontrollable frustrations. “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” the narrator of “Ghosts and Empties,” the first story in the collection, explains, matter-of-fact, “and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.”

It’s a fitting opening for a collection of stories that is filled to the brim with discontented mothers, women who love their children fiercely but chafe at the confines of what being a mother often entails. Groff’s mothers are filled as much with breathtaking adoration for their progeny as a simmering rage at their circumstances.

On its face, that Florida is a book about parenting isn’t immediately clear. It’s a book about the eponymous state and its residents. And within its pages, to be clear, there are stories that focus their attention elsewhere, outside of domestic life. There are stories of travel, to Brazil, France, remote cabins in the Floridan wilderness, around suburban neighborhoods. There are stories of survival, full of deadly snakes, lurking panthers, cataclysmic storms, and myriad other uniquely Floridian challenges that characters must face. But rarely a story goes by that doesn’t somehow consider the theme of caregiving, and in particular, what it’s like to be a woman tasked with, and blessed by, the work of raising children. In doing so, Florida becomes a study in the overwhelming, seemingly contradictory feelings women experience under the pressures of parenthood.

Take the narrator of “The Midnight Zone,” who confesses that “while it’s true that my children were endlessly fascinating, two petri dishes growing human cultures, being a mother never had been, and all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting.” Such assignments include menial tasks like making dinner, arranging playdates, keeping the family’s schedules—the banal, rarely appreciated responsibilities of running a household that still disproportionately fall to women.

Even in families that seem idyllic, rage lives alongside love. To be a mother is to always be on the edge of a scream, Groff writes. Watching seagulls outside her window, the mother in “Yport” observes that the birds are “three-fourths scream, they are the birds of rage, all of them mothers; even the male gulls are mothers.” The steady undercurrent of discontent runs underneath the surface for all the characters, even for the ones who outwardly seem to have perfect families, who laud their husbands and co-parents as loving, wonderful, present, selfless, those men who do not yell. Even the women who are able to offload some of the tedious tasks of motherhood—the undressing and the sluicing and tucking in, for instance—to their partners find themselves still filled with suppressed anger.

This quiet rage flies in the face of the widespread messages American mothers usually receive about how they should feel about their offspring, messages that usually emphasize the importance of what sociologists call “intensive mothering,” a doctrine of parenting that puts children’s needs at the center of a mother’s universe. It’s an idea that has become deeply ingrained in North American culture over the past few decades, though the term for it has only been around since the 1990s. “What is important according to this ideology,” writes Rebecca Feasey, a British scholar who studies representations of gender in pop culture, “is that the ‘good’ mother is not committed to her children because she feels that she should be or because she feels that it is her stay-at-home duty, but rather, she habitually puts her child first because she wants to. She finds it fulfilling rather than frustrating, satisfying rather than stifling, and has no negative feelings towards her family for putting her own social, sexual, economic or creative needs in second, third or fourth place.” Feasey observes that “although there is a myriad of ways in which women can and do mother, the mass media seems committed to presenting the strict, rigid and narrow ideology of intensive mothering in a range of newspapers, self-help books, parenting manuals, magazines, advertising campaigns and feature films.”

In this kind of cultural environment, it feels radical that the mothers of Florida at every turn subvert the idea that motherhood is some kind of all-encompassing task, or an entirely satisfying one. Groff isn’t the first one to do this, of course—recent acclaimed releases like Meaghan O'Connell's And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and Jacqueline Rose's Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty come to mind as books that tackle the subject in all its messy, frustrating realities. Electric Literature recently deemed 2018 the ‘Year of Mothers,” The Evening Standard observed that the subject is “in vogue,” and The Paris Review declared that as a literary trend, “motherhood is the new friendship.” Groff stands out in that her book isn’t directly about motherhood, per se. And yet it is. It’s just that the mothers often find themselves pulled in other directions, often by their intellectual pursuits.

In “Flower Hunters,” the mother forgets to bring her son’s kindergarten class muffins; she half-asses their Halloween costumes; she pushes them out the door to trick-or-treat with their father. She wants, more than anything, to be home alone with her thoughts, thoughts that are dominated not by cute costumes or themed treats but by William Bartram, the 18th century Quaker naturalist she has become obsessed with. That’s not to say she feels entirely justified in neglecting the standard rituals of Halloween, that most iconic of child-centric holidays. She’s struck by the image of her son waiting hopefully for her to appear in the doorway of his kindergarten classroom bearing “boo-berry muffins,” only to be disappointed. She’s aware of the role she’s supposed to play as the mother of a kindergartener, even if she can’t muster up the will to enact it. But she doesn’t let herself be guilted into participating in the chores of intensive mothering, either. She stays home while her spouse takes the boys around the neighborhood to gather candy, alone with her thoughts of Bartram and of the recent dissolution of her closest friendship. She feels no desire to join them, to take part in that particular rite of childhood passage. It’s not for a lack of love. Her children, she says, are two of “the only four people on earth she could take in every dose imaginable to man.” Still, her family is not her singular obsession. There are other passions to consider.

For the novelist mother of “Yport,” a similar intellectual pull comes in the form of a 19th century, syphilis-plagued French writer, whom she has traveled from Florida to France to research, dragging her two young sons along with her. Guy de Maupassant has captivated her since she was an 18-year-old exchange student, and she has returned to Europe to study him. But, pulling away from a distant husband working 18-hour-days she’d rather not talk to, she’s also reclaiming some of the independence of her younger self, albeit with kids in tow. “She is most herself in French, she hopes,” and she wants to share that piece of herself with her children. She travels through the country over the course of several weeks, flanked by her sons, who spend every waking moment with her, and some sleeping ones, too. It turns out to be not quite as idyllic as she had hoped. She spends more time watching them play and figuring out how to feed them than doing the research she has purportedly come across the ocean to pursue. “God, I’m lonely,” she thinks, midway through her journey. She is never truly alone, but at the same time, she’s always completely alone, adrift from any adult companionship. She readily puts off her work in order to entertain the kids, and never regrets her choice to travel across the world alone with them.

Still, the company of two prepubescent children is not enough. How could it be? Motherhood is never wholly satisfying. Few things are.

Groff paints this dichotomy with a deft touch. The dual nature of early parenthood, as both a blessing and a burden, is always present. Yet these women are not swallowed up into their familial roles. Though thoughts of their families are never far from their minds, Florida’s mothers are their own individuals, with esoteric interests and motives. It’s only natural that they should dwell on their progeny, these tiny humans that they have created and whose lives they have shaped, but those thoughts are not all-engrossing.

Which makes it surprising that most of the mothers that Groff’s stories center upon go unnamed. In “Yport,” the story that dives most directly into what it means to mother small children, the main character is known only by her familial role: “the mother.” This choice recalls the tired “wives and mothers” trope, where women are known only in relation to their families, elevating it in this case to more important work. These women have expansive interior lives. All women do. Without names, the women of Florida serve as both unique and universal characters, their experiences blurring together to create a Greek chorus of mothers across the pages. And yet the characters themselves would no doubt object to being referred to as such, their identities erased by parental responsibility, their complicated selves boiled down to that collective maternal scream. But perhaps they would at least be relieved to find themselves in good company.

The stories of Florida are filled with environmental dangers. And yet in many, the danger is coming from inside the house, so to speak—from inside a woman whose failure to be entirely content as a wife and mother poses a threat to the family’s function, at least as the ideology of intensive mothering would dictate. It is this discontent that propels the narrator of “Ghosts and Empties” out of her house on compulsive evening walks, that distracts the mother in “Flower Hunters” from participating in her family’s Halloween rituals, that sends the mother of “Yport” to Europe in search of Guy de Maupassant. These intellectual exercises don’t help them assuage their feelings of rage, really. But it keeps them from screaming, at least.

For them, as for many American women, there is no escaping the tension between wanting an independent adult life and facing the occasionally grueling, occasionally life-affirming tasks of keeping young children alive and thriving. It’s this unresolvable discontent, lovingly, intimately rendered, that ultimately makes Florida so compelling.

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