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Highlights: New Novel Trudges Through The Conflicting, Intense Realities Of Motherhood

Rachel Yoder published her novel "Nightbitch" (Doubleday) on July 2021.
Photo courtesy to Doubleday.
Iowa Public Radio
Rachel Yoder published her novel "Nightbitch" (Doubleday) on July 2021.

The author of Nightbitch discusses the uneasy transformation of motherhood and her protagonist, who suspects she is turning into a dog.

A new mother quit her dream job at an art gallery to stay home with her son. Meanwhile, her husband's work travel has him home on only the weekends. In the isolation of her house and against the cries of her child, she is changing. Her behavior is different. So is her body. She's beginning to suspect that she might be transforming into a dog.

Rachel Yoder’s much-anticipated book, “Nightbitch,” is having a moment, frequenting must-read lists across the country. OnTalk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe discussed why this book struck a chord with audiences. She discussed the novel and how it brought Yoder to understand her own experience as a mother and her own mother.

[Editor’s note: These highlights from the Aug. 2 interview were edited for length and clarity.]

On the release of “Nightbitch”

Charity Nebbe: "There has been a huge amount of buzz leading up to the release of the novel. It's now been out for almost two weeks, and the buzz continues. This is really an incredible moment. What is going on with you? How are you doing?"

Rachel Yoder: "Yeah, who knew that the dog mom book would really take off? Yeah, I mean, I'm doing great. I am really getting in touch with the fact that there's a reason I'm a writer, and that I really enjoy being alone most of my day in a room with my thoughts. And so it's a big shift to kind of turn more outward and start talking about this writing that has felt very personal that I've been working on for years and years. And that was something I'm discussing with people all the time. So it's been a shifting of gears, but it's been a nice way also to kind of rejoin society as we're kind of coming through the pandemic. Nice way to sort of celebrate getting back together."

On “Nightbitch’s” protagonist and holding fast to other identities, not just mother

Nebbe: "There’s a mother at the center of the book. We never even learn her name. And that is pretty symbolic of her struggle with who she is in this moment. Tou're going to read us a little something from the novel, but leading up to that, fill in some of the blanks for us."

Yoder: "… It's all a little ambiguous. We're not sure whether it's just her (the mother’s) anxiety and anger that's making her think these things are going on, or if they're actually happening. … This is a very personal book for me.

"Obviously, I never thought I was turning into a dog, but I did struggle a lot in early motherhood because I had been very ambitious myself. I had two MFAs. I had a big writing career planned and a career as an arts worker planned. These were all things that I had wanted and had been very calculating about since I was a girl who grew up on a Mennonite commune in Ohio. You know, I saw what the possibilities were available for me there and said, ‘Oh, no, thank you. I will leave now, and I will have a life.’

"And so I have had a pretty clear vision of this life. So after a lifetime having worked against these scripts that I was given at the Mennonite Commune for how to be a woman, I was arriving at this point, where it just made sense after I have a child within my marriage — financially, logistically — to stop working as a woman in her late 30s. To drop out of the workforce for a number of years and be at home with my child was not something I ever saw coming.

"I was, on one hand, absolutely thrilled to be able to hold my baby and stare at my baby's face for as long as I wanted to every day. That was something I cherished and I wanted. But after a number of years, I sort of looked around and thought, ‘OK, I'm 40. I have nothing on my resume for the last couple of years. I thought I had a plan that was foolproof, right? But here I am. And what do I do now?' After two years of not writing; that was another thing that had left me in early motherhood. I just kind of felt absolutely lost. Like I had abandoned myself. And I guess that's where 'Nightbitch' came in."

Nebbe: "Our society is built so much around what we do that that's our identity. When you introduce yourself to someone, they want to know your name and what you do. So for a lot of women and men who leave the workforce to care for children, all of a sudden there's this part of you that feels completely lost."

Yoder: "I didn't realize at the time that it was going to be really important for me as a person to hold fast to something that wasn't motherhood, to identify and be in touch with a part of myself that made me, me — a part of myself that wasn't in the domestic sphere, that didn't identify as a mother. And I just let all of that go — as so many of us do — because we're just so in love with our children, and we want to give everything to them. And now I'm seeing how important that that sort of holding fast to the thing that makes you, you — whether you're a mother or a father going into parenthood — can be for getting through, especially those like first early years that are so all-encompassing."

Nebbe: "Yeah, and it's a transformative process. I think about the early years with my kids and of course, a lot of these struggles sound very familiar to me. But also I don't feel like I became me until I had kids. So it's also you're forging this new identity where you thought you were this person, and now you're a different person, and that may be better, that may be worse. But it's like going through puberty again."

Yoder: "In some ways it is. I mean, the integration can be very painful because where have we seen how to do it? What scripts do we have that show us how to do that? How to integrate these different selves into a new self?

"I have said that this is very much a coming-of-age story. How do I move from girlhood into womanhood and motherhood? How does the main character in this book do it? She does it very inelegantly and chaotically."

On transformation and motherhood

Nebbe: "Becoming a mother is a transformational process in a lot of ways. And it's a hard time for a lot of people whether or not they leave the workforce. But if they leave the workforce, it can be a time of this feeling of loss of identity and trying to figure out who you are and what you do. It's also a time where you don't have a lot of extra intellectual energy.

"I mean, I worked part-time, half-time for the first five years of being a parent. And I can't tell you the number of times I felt like somebody was reaching into my head and just tearing my brain in half because there are all these powerful forces and there's just not a lot left now.

"The character in this book is so isolated, her husband works away from home, just as your husband did. But she also hasn't found a community, and that's another weird process that happens with early motherhood, where you have all of these relationships and these friends, and then you bring a child into the world and suddenly all of those relationships are turned upside down. I mean, was that something you wanted to explore, that sense of change and loss?"

Yoder: "Absolutely, and also just how impossible it felt to create that community sort of after you have the child, right? My dad grew up in a big Amish family with 15 kids. So that's sort of this built-in community of sorts. The older kids take care of the younger kids. Everyone's there together. I grew up in this Mennonite commune in Ohio where I knew everyone who lived there. I could stop by anyone's house at any time. It was completely contained. Right? So I wasn't going to wander off.

"Here in Iowa City, when I was a new mom, where would I even turn to? Not only just make friends but to actually have a community? Like does that even really exist anymore in contemporary secular America? I don't know. And I think that's what I really longed for was this return to a time or a place where I knew everyone on my street, and I knew all the kids. And that was already sort of built-in. Right? So when I had a baby, I would already have the sort of support system. And so going to these prefab sort of baby activities was great, you know? It gave me something to do. And it gave Nightbitch something to do in the book. But it was really hard when your brain feels like it's splitting in two, when you're sleep-deprived, when your body is all different sorts of things, to then forge an authentic connection."

On well-meaning husbands and inadequacy

Nebbe: "One of the interesting choices that you made in the book is in exploring the relationship with her husband. I thought you did a really beautiful, nuanced job of exploring what really is a healthy relationship and a happy marriage and a well-meaning husband — and yet they find it hard to communicate."

Yoder: "I definitely put a lot of thought into the husband character because I didn't want him to just be a singularly bad guy. I wanted him to be a husband. Like many husbands I know who have a job, support their family doing their thing, and are maybe not as emotionally intelligent or empathetic as they could be. Who isn’t as willing to sort of delve into emotions as he could be and how Nightbitch negotiates her marriage with him. You know, how is she able to finally get him to hear her? What does she need to do to change the dynamic? And I think at a certain point, she has this realization that, 'Oh, I need to start asking for things. I need to start saying this isn't working for me.' Can we change it instead of sitting in silence?"

Nebbe: "Which is a very familiar thing to her."

Yoder: "Coming into her own sort of voice and power and being able to negotiate that, instead of feeling wounded by this sort of dynamic and just sitting in silence, because I think so much of the beginning of the book is her not being able to advocate for herself, not being able to say what's going on with her and being very isolated, very secretive and just having all of her rage and frustration play out, but only for her. It's only when she finally is able to show that to other people, little bit by little bit that she’s able to show it to her husband. That's when she starts to change those relationships and shift into better relationships with those folks."

On fiction, reconciliation and Yoder’s own mother in “Nightbitch”

Nebbe: "Some of this was clearly autobiographical for you in writing about this mother who raised many children and was committed to her children but was not in a position to pursue her own identity outside of the family, outside of growing up on a Mennonite commune. And yet, you know, in your character, she, through motherhood, develops a much deeper understanding of her own mother. Is that something that you went through?"

Yoder: "Yeah, I mean, I think that was a big surprise in writing this and a blessing in many ways. There's a center part in the book that's a flashback. I struggled with that part the most. I almost completely just took it out at one point. Why do we need this? Why do we need to know about her Mennonite roots? But I do think that for so many people coming into motherhood, it reframes how you think about your own mom, right? And you begin to understand better what were they doing, why did they act that way?

"I definitely had that sort of aha moment with my own mom where — and obviously it's not a nonfictional depiction of her in the book by any means — but I did sort of see how talented and capable and competent my mom was at so many things. From a very early age, I just had the sense that my mom can do anything, you know? Like she's so amazing. And meanwhile, she never needed anything. She never took anything for herself. She never said, 'Well, I'm going to do this or that because it fills up my cup.' It was always this sense of duty and being a good wife and a good mother. And she was very supportive of all of my academics, very supportive of me getting as far away from home as possible. And I see that now as like a real act of love. That she saw that.

"After a lifetime of having trouble with my mom, not knowing how to talk to her — and of course, leaving the Mennonite church, which was a whole other thing — but coming back now in middle age to say, 'Oh, I see you. I'm your daughter and I can see you. I see how amazing you are and thank you.' That feels like a huge gift from the book."

On readers and their reaction to “Nightbitch”

Nebbe: "The book is an entertaining read. It's hilarious at parts; it's gut-wrenching at parts. And I mentioned, of course, there's this whole supernatural arc, but we're not digging too deeply because I don't want to ruin it for anybody because that was the most fun part of the ride. But it's also, as a mother and a woman, I found it to be a really cathartic experience to read the book. And as you are now talking to people who have read the book, I'm resisting pouring out my heart and telling you everything that I went through as a young mother. But are people just sharing their stories like crazy?"

Yoder: "Yes."

Nebbe: "Even though very few of us turn into dogs."

Yoder: "Yeah, I'm waiting for the person who's like, ;and also I turned into a dog,' that would be amazing. But so many women on Instagram DMs and Twitter DMs and email, they're finding me and just saying, 'Yup, this is me,' and telling me their very personal stories, which I feel incredibly honored to hear.

"I think we're all just ready to talk about it, especially after the pandemic when so many women left the workforce and we were all stuck at home with our families and our kids. People are ready to have this discussion. And I think 'Nightbitch' is a conduit for that. It's a way to sort of open up the discussion of motherhood and child care and dreams, ambition and how these are all handled or not handled within our society."

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa