Laura Freudig lives with her husband and six children on the same Maine island where she grew up. She is a reformed multitasker, strong-coffee drinker, and the author of a children’s book, Halfway Wild.
“Mother and Child” was originally published in The Sun.
My husband, John, calls me a good mother. He says this with a glint of unease in his eyes, as though he is telling a lie or working a charm. He calls during his coffee breaks—he doesn’t drink coffee, so he has time to talk—and asks, “How is Clint?” and when I say, “Fine,” or “Sleeping,” or “Alive,” he asks, “And how are you, sweetie?” He’s learned that sweetie is a potent word. Still, my answers vary.
I know if he dared, he’d go next door to Humpback Ales after work and drink until I became bearable, which would be at least two hours for him, because he’s a slow drinker. But he’s home every day at 5:07 because he loves Clint, who is named after the ideal country lane where my husband grew up. He wants a similar childhood for his son, who may not be getting it.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
My oldest child just turned eighteen, but when he was born, I was appalled at all the contradictory, overwhelming emotions I experienced: I had never thought of myself as an angry person, but suddenly I found myself furious; I had never realized how selfish I was until suddenly I was at the mercy of another person all day long; I had never realized how all-consuming and terrifying love could be. I never left one of my babies on a rock in a storm, but I began to have a little insight and sympathy for women who did—there was such a narrow space between where I was and where they were, a space I was often afraid I would cross. That was the genesis of this story, though I didn’t write it for many years after my son was born.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote a version about ten years ago and sent it out to a dozen magazines. It was rejected everywhere, but someone from The New Yorker generously sent back a note with the manuscript that read, “Some interesting bits. Keep working on it and try us again.” That was amazing; however, I had no idea which were the interesting bit and which were the bits that were not interesting. I put the story away for a number of years. Then about three years ago, I got it out again and rewrote it to twice its original length. (Perhaps not the wisest way to edit . . . ) I sent it to The Sun, and it was published—after almost a year of intense editing in which it was pared down to (surprise!) half its length—in April 2018.
It seems as though Hannah almost enjoys being secretive, or withholding information, when it comes to her relationship with John. There’s a moment where she says, “Because we grew up in the same town, John thought he knew me,” and there’s bite to it. Does her secrecy, or unknowability, give her some sense of power? How is power at work in this story?
Yes, I think when you feel like you have no power in a relationship, withholding becomes one of the only ways you can maintain the illusion of agency. John doesn’t want to control her, but she has had only really dysfunctional relationships in her formative years, so she holds on to that secrecy, even when it is dangerous. With the birth of her child, she now has power over another person, which is perilous when the only models of power you know have been damaging: She has never seen power used to protect or serve. I think that is what John is trying to do—but ineptly, poor guy.
So much of this story relies on Hannah’s interiority, and her ability to imagine quite awful things happening to her or her loved ones. What was it like inhabiting this sort of mental state for Hannah as you created her character?
Well, Hannah actually is me—or could be. It is frightening knowing that I have the capability to harm the people I love, but it was freeing to delve and mine and inhabit that dark place for a while, to open the door long enough to give those vague, threatening shapes words and form. I think they lose their power that way: What seems to be the worst thing in the world is not the end of the story. Or your story, or my story.
Is there a point in “Mother and Child” in which Hannah realizes she does, in fact, have agency over her own life? Is leaving Clint outside something she chooses to do, or, as she says earlier in the story, it is just another thing that she does “without thinking I had a choice?” What does “having a choice” mean for Hannah?
Going out in the storm to rescue her baby and then approaching her husband, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to hide what she had done—that is when Hannah finally begins to have control over her own life. She chooses Clint’s life—and transparency—over hiding and inertia.
How has the Robert J. Dau prize affected you?
I have been writing in a closet my whole life, and now someone has opened the door and looked in. Plus, my aunt saw my name on TV! When asked what I do for work, I’ve actually said, “I’m a writer,” a few times in the last month without feeling like I need to apologize or backpedal.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the first draft of a young adult novel. I’m also working on finishing enough short stories for my own “slim volume.”
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Usually when I’m standing in front of the Recent Arrivals shelf at the Southwest Harbor Public Library. My little village library is special—it’s the first place I was allowed to walk by myself when I was a kid; it’s where my husband and I had our first date; it’s where I had the launch party for my children’s picture book, Halfway Wild. It’s the kind of place where the librarians are cheerleaders and friends and renew my books for me when I’m in the hospital having a baby.
Also, I discovered a number of titles that I can’t wait to pick up by reading here about what has inspired previous PEN/Dau winners!