The experience of new motherhood is wearying and transformative in a million different ways.
A woman, once exclusively her own entity, has now pushed a new human into the world, causing changes not only in her own body but also in her sense of self and society’s view of her. In layman’s terms, the entire process can feel separate from being human — like being a beast.
Rachel Yoder’s debut novel “Nightbitch” is an almost literal take on that feeling of mutation. The witty and bizarre story details the journey of new motherhood, where the main character, an unnamed artist who becomes a stay-at-home mother, slowly but surely turns into a dog.
When readers meet the unnamed mother, she has recently found a coarse, dark patch of hair on the back of her neck. She is convinced new canine teeth have started to grow in her mouth and she has begun to refer to herself as “Nightbitch.”
“When she had referred to herself as Nightbitch,” Yoder starts the book, “she meant it as a good-natured self-deprecating joke — because that’s the sort of lady she was, a good sport, able to poke fun at herself, definitely not uptight, not wound really tight, not so freakishly tight that she couldn’t see the humor in a lighthearted not-meant-as-an-insult situation …”
Although she calls herself Nightbitch, Yoder only refers to the woman as “the mother,” an intentional and sharp choice. Who the woman is — beyond a mother — is information erased from the start.
Nightbitch loves her 2-year-old son who never sleeps, and her husband who takes weeklong business trips. (“In fact, it was his 22nd weeklong absence that year, a year with only 24 weeks in total that had passed, not that anyone was counting,” Yoder writes.) The mother loves her family so much that she gave up her dream job to stay home with the child. Even though her husband did make more money, she knows in her heart that by choosing to stay home, she made the right choice for their son, even though she now feels bored, unfilled, stagnant.
It’s the classic stay-at-home-mom trope, where a woman’s life becomes lackluster and she is “mom-shamed” for not wanting her identity to be just motherhood.
But what makes “Nightbitch” stand apart from the usual early motherhood stories, teeth and all, is that Yoder doesn’t focus on how hard being a new mom is, nor does she romanticize the experience. Instead, by blending the real and the surreal, Yoder shows a woman following her primal instincts and becoming her own person — or dog, I should say — outside of cultural norms. And in doing so, she finds freedom.
“To what identities do women turn when those available to them fail?” the mother reads in a mysterious library book, “A Field Guide to Magical Women.” It is this book that begins Nightbitch’s mental metamorphosis, validating her experience and encouraging her to embrace the animal nature that is building inside. “How do women expand their identities to encompass all parts of their being? How many women turn to the natural world to express their deepest longings and most primal fantasies?”
Be warned — the novel is dark, gory, violent. But “Nightbitch” is fantastically rendered. Yoder’s voice is razor-sharp, poignant and wry. While it’s seeped in mythical qualities, the haunting premise doesn’t seem that far-fetched. “Nightbitch” is a stunning modern feminist fable that shouldn’t be missed.