One of the infuriating things about being a writer on the topic of motherhood, especially one who writes primarily essays, is that when a man writes about himself and his children, it is often considered literary.
But when a woman does it (unless it’s deliberately experimental), it is Mommy Blogging. So one might excuse me if I am not always first in line to read Dad’s Thoughts on Dadding, by Dad.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a man, ostensibly writing a minutely detailed account of his own life, stealthily injected himself into the conversation I was having with myself about the state of my identity upon becoming a mother. Imagine my shock at finding myself identifying with him over hundreds of pages that detail sleeping babies, screaming babies, strollers, and birthday parties. Stolen moments for smoking or reading. Irritations and predawn wakings. And above all, the search for self within the context of family. Imagine how little I expected to find all of this in the man who is quite possibly the most hailed literary sensation of the past five years, Norwegian author and father of four Karl Ove Knausgaard.
With Father’s Day approaching, I’m ready to admit that Karl Ove (in my head, we’re on a first-name basis) is quite simply my favorite mommy blogger. I would like to think he would not take offense.
I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard several years ago, when the first volume of his large autobiographical novel, My Struggle, debuted in the U.S. in May of 2013. He came to me highly recommended by a trusted reading friend. The first book, which I loved, has nothing to do with children, other than the author himself being a child in parts. That was good news for me because I was not yet a mother and was not interested in reading Mother (or Father) Thoughts. Now that I’ve spent large parts of the past two years writing about motherhood, this amazes me — how uninterested I was in such a rich topic until it related to me personally. How selfish, but also unavoidable.
My daughter was born in February 2014, just a few months before the second book was published in English. Through the haze of Newborn Time, I ordered and slowly read this book, which concerns the early part of his relationship with Linda, the woman who became his second wife, and the birth of their first daughter, Vanja. Because of his wife’s career, Karl Ove spends some of the earliest part of his daughter’s life being a full-time father, known in the U.S. as a stay-at-home dad.
At first I didn’t recognize the way Karl Ove Knausgaard, a 47-year-old Norwegian man, had gotten to the deep heart of my experience of parenthood. But he inhabits the role so wholly, and owns his ambivalence so completely, that I soon felt a kinship with him that I have almost never felt for another parent on the planet.
On ambivalence, for example: “In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else,” he writes, very early in the book. “The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.”
Knausgaard isn’t disdaining parents in general, but fathers in particular, who, as he sees it, have become feminized as they’ve taken over playground duty. But this passage was, I’ll embarrassingly admit, a revelation to me. It put into words a vague feeling I had had in the first spring of my daughter’s life, when I began taking her out on a daily basis, into the Brooklyn neighborhood where I had lived for nearly a decade.
Streets I knew not just by name but by smell and character, individual buildings I’d watched change tenants over time, were suddenly different. I avoided particularly rough terrain because pushing a giant stroller over it was a nightmare; I stopped going to the supermarket I loved because its aisles could barely accommodate my new companion. I walked new streets instead of the old ones, and because my neighborhood was not yet so gentrified that it was overrun with parents, I still felt like a pioneer. I also felt, without consciously feeling it, judged: a lot less “cool” now than I used to be. I worried my presence was unwanted and annoying, my baby loud and gross. I had not yet fully accepted or made peace with my new role.
Neither had Karl Ove, but I put the book down and didn’t come back to it until almost a year after I’d begun writing about my own experiences of motherhood. Ambivalence in writing about our children is nothing new. In many circles, complaining is the most valuable currency — not necessarily about how hard parenting is (for we of the middle class know we are more privileged than many), but how demanding it is on our very fragile, creative constitutions.
We joke about this, but it’s not funny so much as laughable. And acknowledging my own laughable position has made it easier for me to accept: Motherhood is emotionally hard for me. “I enjoy reading and adult conversations. I was rather old when I became a mother. I need time to ‘think’ for my writing,” I tell myself, but it all boils down into one simple truth: I am very selfish.
“I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swaths of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive,” Knausgaard writes in the beginning of Book 1. And it is this panic and aggression that I felt in common with him, this lack of control over your own existence, when everyone around you seems to exert their own so clearly.
He writes of seeing his first daughter for the first time: “I understood with the immediate clarity of an insight that she was not ours. Her life was utterly her own.”
But so soon after he says, “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy … I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.”
Yes, there is an element of self-involved wallowing here. That is the point. It’s hard to acknowledge that becoming a parent, or even being a good spouse, involves some loss of self, and some people struggle with it more than others.
But it does in parts lead to true revelation as well. For just as Karl Ove masterfully details his heavy-sighing escapades, his trips into bookstores while his fitfully sleeping baby rests in a stroller, the moments he steals for what he’d really rather be doing (reading), so too does he expertly, lovingly, capture the manic obsession of loving a toddler:
“Get in the stroller, Heidi,” I said. “Then we’ll go for a ride.”
“Don’t want stroller,” she said.
“I haven’t got any leeegs!” Vanja said. She screamed the last word.
I felt the fury rising within me.
This exchange, which runs for several pages, made my blood run cold with recognition. It is infuriating and yet poignant, a grown man reduced to a fine powder by his two small daughters, who are smart and funny but so irritating simply because their priorities do not match his own. I could feel his stress even as I laughed at him.
Because he is so minutely observant, and because he has clearly spent so much time marveling over his own childhood, Knausgaard’s attention to detail results in a high level of insight when it comes to his own children. He may not relish every single moment with them, he may wish to be elsewhere doing other things, but when he is with them, he is tuned in, even if he can’t admit it.
I find myself in mental kinship with Karl Ove because, like me, he says that he would often rather be working than with his children, and he knows, I think, that this is no reflection on his relationship with his child. Parenting a small child can be fascinating or boring, depending on one’s mood, but it is never all fascinating or all boring: It is usually a complicated combination of both, and we humans demand variety.
I don’t know if Karl Ove — because he is a man or a European — has ever experienced the backlash that can come from saying that you would sometimes rather be working, but for me it is the most serious of all claims. To say not “I need to work” but “I want to work” is considered a transgression against your child in some circles. Many people will grant that Mommy needs a few hours off for a break, a night out or a few moments to get her hair done, but somehow saying “I would like some intellectual stimulation outside of my child” is more troubling. I accept this and, in reading Knausgaard, find that he gets the nuance of the situation: We can want both things. We can desire it all.
And that is, of course, the point: This is not about me, but about Knausgaard. But there’s something at once so particular and so universal in his writings on parenthood that speaks to me and to many people. In an interview I watched with him and Charlie Rose, Charlie asks, “Does your life deserve all this attention you’re giving it?” “Everybody’s life deserves this kind of attention,” is his answer.