The title of Silvia Nanclares’s book, Quién quiere ser madre–“Who Wants to be Mother”–is ambiguous, hovering somewhere between statement and question. On the one hand, it could be read as a phrase in apposition with the name of the author, describing and qualifying her: “Silvia Nanclares, who wants to be mother.” On the other hand, the pronoun “quien” (“who”) carries an accent, which in Spanish indicates that it is part of a question, the issue still up in the air: “Who wants to be mother?” Yet there is no question mark. We might imagine, then, the phrase to be grammatically incomplete, indicating an indirect question dependent on a missing main verb that readers have to supply for themselves: Tell me (perhaps) or I wonder or I don’t know “who wants to be mother.” The question itself, then, would be the object of enquiry.
And so it is that the book unfolds, following the efforts of one Silvia Nanclares to conceive as she enters her forties. Having, like so many of her generation of young(ish), middle-class professionals, postponed parenthood for the sake of career and (other forms of) life experience, she suddenly feels that it is now or never as she hears her “biological clock” ticking ever louder. She is motivated also by starting a relationship with a man with whom she can (finally) imagine herself having a child. But perhaps above all by the fact that her father has just died, which gets her to thinking about parenthood and inheritance, the passage of time and the transmission of life. Ever since his death, she wants to tell her mother (but doesn’t), she can “think about nothing else” (85). Indeed, the book is the story of an obsession–a personal obsession that is also both generational and cultural–with the idea of becoming a mother. As such, this is at the same time the story of what often feels like madness, of a longing that Nanclares can never be quite sure is really her own.
My student, Olga Albarrán, has written about this longing in her excellent dissertation, (Pro)Creación: Discursos de la maternidad. But let me add a few thoughts…
The question “Who wants to be mother?” (as opposed to “Who wants to be a mother?”) suggests a social situation, a dinner maybe, at which no mothers are actually present. Who wants to be mother… who wants to take on the role that mothers so often take or are assigned, such as serving out the food? It tells us that motherhood is precisely that: a role, a performance, a function in the domestic economy that could be fulfilled by others (even if it usually isn’t). Motherhood is, in short, both a cultural construction and also a form of play-acting, in which you are not being (quite) true to yourself. Perhaps this, too, is why Nanclares fears becoming a mother as much as she obsessively desires it: because it would mean becoming other, giving up on some sense of herself as independent, in control, self-defining. Becoming a mother, after all, would mean succumbing to the script that she and her thirty- or forty-something friends had hoped they had escaped. It would mean becoming (like) their own mothers.
But as much as motherhood is a cultural construction, it is also still stubbornly biological, as Nanclares is soon very much aware. Month after month she finds that she is not (yet) pregnant, even though she and her boyfriend try, with ever more dedication, to do everything right: she researches the details of the process of insemination, fertilization, implantation, and what can go wrong and how; she learns to discern the days that she is ovulating and the period when she is most fertile; the two of them install apps on their phones to help them calculate (and remind them) when they should get to their procreative “duties”; she takes folic acid, and they both strive to eat better and live healthier; they consult dieticians and doctors, and investigate the possibilities of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. The biological fact that they run into such difficulties conceiving drives them increasingly back towards culture: to the advice and folk remedies of friends and family; to online discussion forms and self-help groups; and to technology and the healthcare system. But above all it prompts Nanclares to write.
Writing, she tells us, is “once again, what will save [her] from all obsessions” (93). It is the only way she knows of praying (14). But perhaps most importantly, it is her job: as a magazine journalist, she “live[s] from writing” (189). And if she can’t have a baby, at least she can write about the process of trying to have one. For always intertwined with her biological and personal uncertainties (will she get pregnant? Does she really want to?) is the tale of her employment insecurity and economic precarity, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that rocked Spain more than almost any other European country. She and her friends have postponed motherhood for the sake of careers and independence, but in fact in the context of neoliberal austerity there are no more careers, and they are forever dependent on the next grant, the next freelance contract, the next opportunity to tide them over to the next paycheck. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why when Nanclares writes (in the first instance, in an entry on Facebook) about her frustrated attempts to conceive, she seems to touch a nerve and her post goes viral. Her editor takes an interest, encouraging her to write a blog, perhaps she can have a regular column, a permanent contract.
Nanclares is torn: does she really want to expose her and her boyfriend’s problems in this way? And perversely, the longer her tribulations, the more material she’ll have to write about. But to “find [her]self out of work now,” more than ever, “would be fatal” (133). She’s capitalizing on (monetizing) her own infertility, but in the end that’s all she has to fall back on. The conjunction of her father’s death and the loss of jobs for life and the safety net of the welfare state teach her that “at a certain point, we are body. Nothing but our bodies” (141). If other young women market their eggs (and men, their sperm) to survive, Nanclares can sell what she imagines as her own dried-up ovaries (like “raisins”). In a sort of bioeconomics, she is making her private life productive, even if it means selling out her friends’ privacy, too: one tersely texts her, “When I asked you not to say a word about my embryo transfer, I didn’t mean that you could tell all the newspaper’s subscribers about it” (151).
And so the blog that Nanclares is writing is (inevitably) entitled “Quién quiere ser madre,” and we discover by the end of the book (spoiler alert!) that she still hasn’t got pregnant but that she has, well, finished this book, which she describes with the terminology of natural reproduction: it “gestated for thirty-eight weeks, from the middle of November, 2015, to the beginning of September, 2016” (213). She has also given up (for the time being, at least) on the reproductive pact that she signed with her boyfriend at the outset of her quest. Indeed, she seems to have given up on pacts in general and to have embraced the uncertainty that otherwise plagues her throughout the narrative: “Life designed and controlled as a future plan doesn’t exist,” she tells us, adding that this is a lesson learned from her “father when he left us without any prior notice” (211). So Nanclares tries to make this moral a universal one, of life and death as the timeless condition of the cosmos. But there’s no doubt that it is a conclusion more quickly drawn by millennials today than by previous generations. And perhaps the fashion for so-called “autofiction” such as Nanclares’s novel (but also, for instance, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle) is a way of trying to come to terms with that: when all else is precarious, at least I can still write my self and my habits into being.