Rivka Galchen: Little Labors

Review by Jennifer van Alstyne


Little Labors, by Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen, is a surprising collection of poetic essays and musings that touches on contemporary issues of motherhood, particularly within an urban setting in which “Godzilla,” too, “is a childlike creature, innocent of his destructions.” Galchen’s book touches on both the mystery and monstrosity of babies as well as the deep emotional connection between mother and child. In the case of Frankeinstein, the nameless monster is also a baby, pictured “shortly after creation, peering over the edge of a bed, like a toddler in his parent’s room.” He, too, wishes only to be loved by his creator. This is also a metaphor for being a writer who births a book as one might birth a child, and how the two might impede or assist each other. In “Notes on some twentieth-century writers,” Galchen lists female writers, their number of children, and their number of works, contrasting them vividly with the same figures of their male counterparts.

Galchen’s daughter, who in the book is referred to as the “puma,” and later “chicken,” after she has become mobile, is separated from the material ‘Objects’ of the world even as she is surrounded by them. Galchen touches on this in the essay, “Orange,” in which the baby and the home have accumulated many items, including a much-remarked-upon snowsuit, all of which are the same orange as the cloth-covered book itself. The color becomes a statement of parents both trying to abandon the conformity of the blue/pink color-gendering and falling into a less intentional (but perhaps more predetermined) accent or pop color of the season. Once noticed, we cannot deny seeing the orange pop in paint color, the new construction of a bakery and school, and the puma’s crib. Orange can even be seen in the publicized photos of Guantanamo detainees, which came out during the same color season, a season Galchen largely attributes to the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

The notion of time is often contemplated in relation to the baby who, by nature, grows both quickly and slowly. Compared to other mammals, a human baby’s gestation time is long, as is its time of dependency pre-mobility. It relies on its parent(s) in a helpless and somewhat parasitic way. In “When the baby came home,” Galchen remarks on her baby not crying after being placed in her crib for the first time. “It’s as if she assumes that we will, of course, love and care for her. It seemed so strange for her to assume that. I respected her fearlessness.” Throughout the book, the baby is pictured at different stages of development – just home from the hospital, standing, pulling things from a cabinet, so tiny only a hand peeks out from a baby sling. Time moves in a nonlinear way and is often remarked upon as such, as if comprised of tiny static moments, the way each essay becomes a passing thought in a world in which “little” is not insignificant, but rather a central aspect of the text.

The world in which Galchen writes does not exist separate from her baby, and similarly, it reflects upon the babies of others and the challenges of parenthood. Galchen’s writing discusses the change in what is considered “normal” in parenthood over the past decade, as it references single women seeking motherhood and a close male friend who financially cares for his ex-wife’s child from another relationship. Galchen touches upon how other people see her baby: a nemesis in her apartment building who comments on the puma’s size every time they meet or the inordinate number of remarks she receives about the lovely shape of her baby’s head. She talks about how “Other people’s babies” are “often noted to be not of interest,” but how images of babies are also prevalent in tabloid media; for instance, People paid $14 million for the first photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins.

Galchen meditates on feminist concerns, such as men having the ability to have children without their committed partner’s knowledge (as with Arnold Schwarzenager), or what to do if one fell in love with a child they carried for someone else through surrogacy. She wonders what she would do if she found out her own child were not biologically hers. Would she be able to give up that child? Overall, Galchen’s book is “difficult to characterize. It’s not a novel and not a diary and not poems and not advice, but it has qualities of each.”  This is how Galchen describes The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, but those words could just as easily apply to her own work. Little Labors is a collection of musings that begs witness of motherhood and babies in a way few works of literature have. Confessional in nature, Little Labors is an expression of contemporary motherhood that seeks to be honest, humorous, and harrowing, and succeeds.