The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling opens with Daphne at her office job at a University in San Francisco, lost daydreaming of rural home of her grandparents. Then Daphne hits the road, leaving work at 10:30 AM without her co-workers noting her evacuation. As Daphne prepares for her trip she reflects on her morning.
As Daphne’s morning as a mother unfolds in this opening of the novel, I was immediately enthralled. It’s possible I could have written Daphne’s morning routine. Her daughter, Honey, calls from her crib as she guiltily takes a shower “after calculating the number of days without, four, too many.” Daphne swiftly but carefully readies for a trip and picks up Honey on the way out of town, and the novel turns into both a road adventure and a heavy, lonely journey, which in a way reflects motherhood itself.
I’ve thought a lot about why I enjoyed this novel so much. It evokes so much about my experience of motherhood: the utter joy and love and happiness and fear and guilt and monotony of mothering a young child. When I went to check out Amazon reviews for the book (out of curiosity), several reviewers had challenged Daphne as an awful mother, as a woman on the edge of a breakdown. Some call Daphne unlikeable because of her parenting decisions or because of the way she mishandles her financial situation. I found these reviewers’ perceptions troubling because of how much I identified with Daphne, how alive and vivid I found her depictions of mothering her daughter, and because of how hard I thought Daphne seemed to be working.
I saw Daphne’s struggle to independently provide stimulation and enjoyment and love and safety to her daughter while her husband was stuck in Turkey, having been illegally forced to surrender his green card by US immigration officials. Daphne wavers, trying to make justifications to herself, when downloading a few Elmo episodes on the restaurant wifi before heading back to their disconnected house. Daphne wants to give her daughter everything and feels like she’s always falling short. Instead of hating her for falling short, I empathized with her for the constant trying and failing.
Sure, Daphne makes some poor decisions. She drinks a bit too much and smokes – almost exclusively out of sight of her daughter – and her daughter injures herself almost constantly, which of course is an unfortunate reality of a newly-toddling human. She is in a highly stressful situation, alone. Some reviewers did think Daphne was a nutcase, but I prefer the description Alice, an old lady who Daphne befriends in Altavista, gave her: “I don’t think you’re a nutcase. Just highly strung.”
Kiesling’s writing of motherhood through Daphne perfectly isolates the dualities of being a mother. Deep love tied with never-ending need and a fervor to do everything perfectly with the bone-deep exhaustion of never being able to. Just listen to Daphne before bedtime:
“She puts her hands on my breasts and pulls at my shirt and pats my face and tells me all sorts of things I don’t understand and I think this is the happiest moment of my life not only because of the smile on her face the smallness of her body the love for me she communicates with her entire being but because of the almost erotic knowledge that soon she will be in bed, the whole evening ahead of me without her.”
Although the reason I loved this book was because of its portrayal of motherhood, it isn’t exclusively about motherhood. It’s also a new take on the traditional road novel, mixing the classic drop everything and hit the open road with the demands of being a woman and being a mother, both experiences the genre has previously left out. The New Yorker does a great examination of The Golden State taking on the road novel.
The Golden State also offers a wonderful commentary on American identity through the eyes of an American who has been grounded in another culture for years (Turkish, her husband’s culture and the language she has studied). This approach was also particularly enjoyable as someone who has lived abroad, offering a zoomed-out view of America. Some of Daphne’s observations are so spot-on they are laugh-out-loud funny, even though they are also depressing. On the progress of her husband’s green card – perpetually stalled at the same point – she thinks “We’ve both just given up on it ever being resolved, which is probably what the Department of Homeland Security is hoping for, a general degradation of morale resulting in one fewer green card.”
The Golden State felt like the first time someone wrote about motherhood and I felt that, yes, that is motherhood. That is likely because Daphne’s life and my own align in many ways – white, thirty-ish, middle class, college-educated mothers who have lived abroad and returned to the US in the early years of motherhood.
As Daphne uproots herself and Honey from their day-to-day life, distance allows her to recognize things she has been feeling for months without taking the time or energy to notice them. This story tells a lot of stories in beautiful, almost lyrical writing (which does take some adjustment to read the lists without commas, the in-your-head style that Kiesling uses). The writing is like being in Daphne’s head – thinking too much, unable to latch onto one idea or the next and going from one emotion to the next. I was grateful to crawl into another mama’s head for a few moments and see that, and go along on her journey for a little while.
The only insight I have developed about parenting so far even though I always forget it is that when you feel like dying you should try to leave your physical location and go to another one.
I get up to go in and check on Honey who has now been sleeping a very long time and my first thought as always as I approach the door is that she has probably died in her sleep.
I pause to feel sad that this store of Honey-based knowledge I have been building up which is so insanely specific to this time and place and person will live and die with the versions of me and her that exist at this moment. And that Engin is missing his chance to amass this same knowledge, if indeed this knowledge has the same weight for fathers as for mothers.
Overseas we called my grandparents every two weeks and we wrote letters and that was it and it was just easier than doing this Skype dance with all its awful reminders that the person you want to be here is not here.
Why did I have a child? To have a child is to court loss.
But just the weight of the day, the weight of duties and time that suggests itself periodically since I had Honey, first I will cut up the enchilada I will be polite with this old woman with her unimaginable bereavement I will wipe Honey’s hands we will pay the bill I will put Honey into her stroller and we will leave the bereaved one and walk all the way back to Deakins Park and probably Honey should have a bath and definitely she must brush her teeth even though she hates hates hates it and then we will have milk and story and crib and it’s an hour away at least and then night and then the day begins and we do everything over again, and somewhere in there I will have to make decisions earn us money find my husband and at the same time absorb that this woman’s three children are all dead, and Ellery Simpson is dead and countless children all over the world I’ll never know about are dead.
But whenever I look at Honey she is the age she is at this moment and I strain and strain to see her perfect tiny baby head the first time she crawled the first step she took and the only thing I can see are the photos we took, photos which unbeknownst to us at the time of taking them would obliterate all other records. I wonder whether I have stunted my memories of my child with the very tool I used to capture her various epochs, or if women who didn’t have cameras were left with nothing but the child they had at that moment, whatever age she happened to be. If in the absence of a camera the only way to recall the memory of holding your sweet baby was to have another, grasping at something by its nature out of reach and aging and exhausting yourself in the process by suddenly having a whole herd of them to look after, any number of which could still then die or find some other way to break your heart.
Suddenly I have what I think may be my most important epiphany about motherhood which is that your child is not your property and motherhood is not a house you live in but a warren of beautiful rooms, something like Topkapı, something like the Alhambra on a winter morning, some well-trod but magnificent place you’re only allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every individual jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through another and another and another and another until they finally turn out the lights.