What Makes a Mother?

The common cuckoo, native to Europe, is what is known as a brood parasite, surreptitiously laying its eggs in the nests of warblers and other bird species. A cuckoo egg will often hatch sooner than its nest mates, whereupon the chick celebrates its birthday with a bit of fratricide: it tips the native eggs out of the nest, one by one. Meanwhile, the warblers go on feeding and caring for the impostor cuckoo chick as if it were their own—which, for all intents and purposes, it is.

In Guadalupe Nettel’s novel “Still Born” (translated, from the Spanish, by Rosalind Harvey), parasitic European cuckoos have somehow landed in Mexico City and managed to con a couple of ostensibly street-smart pigeons into raising their chick. Laura, the narrator, watches from her apartment balcony as the sabotage unfolds: early in the novel, she finds a pigeon egg cracked on the floor of the courtyard. Later, she observes the adult pigeons fussing over a baby bird that looks nothing like them.

Scenes from this family romance alight on “Still Born” ’s windowsill at brief but regular intervals; they make up the anchoring metaphor of a book that blurs the lines between parents and caregivers, between family members and strangers, between mother and not-mother. “We have the children that we have,” Mónica, an acquaintance of Laura’s, says, “not the ones we imagined we’d have, or the ones we’d have liked.” A child might say the same of his parents—they peer into the baby’s crib, and the baby peers back, and a mutual question hangs in the air: Who are you, and how did you get here?

Laura, a Ph.D. student in literature, is avowedly child-free; being a not-mother is the negative space around which she defines her existence and her ethics, and she is evangelical about her stance. “For years I tried to convince my girlfriends that procreating was a hopeless mistake,” she says, because kids would be “a limit on their freedom, an economic burden, not to mention the physical and emotional cost they bring about.” When Laura, who previously lived in Paris, senses that a healthy relationship with a nice guy named Juan is beginning to soften her resolve—he’s good with kids—she acts swiftly: “On Monday I turned up at my gynaecologist’s office without an appointment and asked him to tie my tubes.” She returns to Mexico to finish her thesis and reconnects with her friend Alina, whom Laura thought to be an ally in childlessness. But Alina confides that she is considering undergoing I.V.F. treatment. “From now on,” Laura laments, “there would be an invisible rift between us: she approved of maternity as a desirable fate for women, whereas I had undergone surgery to avoid it.”

In the early pages of “Still Born,” which was short-listed for the 2023 International Booker Prize, Laura is a total pill. She accurately perceives the irrational structural burdens that Western societies place upon mothers—their alienation and vulnerability constitutes its own negative space—but she mistakes these burdens for proof that motherhood itself must be an irrational choice. She rails against sexism, but sees Alina’s desire to become a mother through a dull prism of sexist stereotypes. (“What would I talk about with her?” Laura wonders. “Reproductive methods? The La Leche League?”) One would not wish to spend two hundred pages with this Laura, not because she is so unpleasant but because she is so boring.

One of the welcome surprises of “Still Born,” however, is how quickly it swerves away from Laura’s anti-natalist campaigning, as if Laura, too, wanted out of her own head and into a broader web of experience. Alina’s baby receives an awful prognosis while still in utero, but the prognosis itself is unstable, ever-changing; any linear path of parenthood that Alina might have imagined collapses into contingencies and hypotheses, and Laura stays close by her friend’s side at every step. If “Still Born,” in its first movements, seems to promise an ontological investigation of feminine will and volition, in the spirit of Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood,” Anglophone readers may eventually see more affinities with the second half of Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This,” which likewise recounts the gestation, birth, and infancy of a severely disabled child from the vantage point of a close loved one.

As “Still Born” proceeds, it continues to gather mothers and children under its roof. Laura remains the narrator, but her story grows more polyphonic, less fixed and binary in its assumptions about care work and family-making. She is unwillingly privy to the difficult lives of her new next-door neighbors—Doris, the depressed widow of an abusive man, and Nicolás, her young son, who is prone to violent tantrums—and begins to intervene in ways that appear at once presumptuous and necessary, whether she’s bringing them food or taking Nicolás for a day of hooky or a visit to the Beehive, the local feminist collective. (Of Doris, Laura says, “She didn’t invite me in, but nor did she resist when I pushed my way into the hallway.”) Laura also interrogates her strained, resentful relationship with her own mother when they run into each other at a meeting of the Beehive, which is working to raise awareness of Mexico’s ongoing epidemic of femicide. Meanwhile, the pigeon parents exit the balcony without a trace, but the young cuckoo returns, as if searching for his foster parents or his home. Laura sees the bird with new sympathy, no longer as a mere intruder but as an orphan twice over, potentially belonging to anyone, and simply in need of care.

In Nettel’s previous novel, “After the Winter,” the two main characters, Claudio and Cecilia, are at times virtually entombed in their apartments, owing to their self-isolating foibles: narcissism and misanthropy in Claudio’s case, and deep insecurity and shyness in Cecilia’s. It’s not a coincidence that both “After the Winter” and “Still Born” feature deep and tumultuous relationships that are sparked by involuntary eavesdropping on a neighbor—Nettel’s communitarian vision depends on proximity, and therefore feels almost necessarily urban. If you can’t hear a boy’s sobs through a thin apartment wall, does he make a sound?

Laura, too, is a quintessential city creature. She takes her ultimate form as a particular kind of pushy, blunt, yet extremely kind and greater-good-oriented woman—a prickly, indispensable staple of community boards and volunteer organizations around the world. Her humorlessness allows her to approach her friendships with extreme seriousness; her lack of boundaries gives her latitude to take meaningful responsibility for her neighbors. Not having children, Laura believes, insures a woman’s freedom to travel, to be consumed with her studies or vocation, to be alone with her thoughts; “Still Born” posits that not having children also grants an equally important freedom to care for people outside of the legal or blood-borne status of family. By book’s end, Laura has even discovered a libidinal charge in abandoning herself to mutual aid.

At one point in “After the Winter,” Cecilia says, of a generous friend, “I felt that the best way to show my gratitude was by invading her life as little as possible.” “Still Born” argues the opposite: that, at certain moments, it is incumbent upon everyone to presume, to pry, to push your way into the hallway. You don’t have to be a mother—in fact, maybe you shouldn’t be. But you have to do something for whomever you find in, or near, your nest. ♦

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