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A third of the way through Rachel Yoder’s new novel, Nightbitch, I found myself less enjoying the author’s fine prose, and more doing the thing that parenting Instagram accounts beg you not to do: judging. The book follows an artist-turned-stay-at-home-mom through a period of deep maternal depression before she finds joy through a mother’s getaway of sorts: her occasional transformation into a dog. This middle-class narrator, whose engineer husband is out of town for work every week, is all alone with her 2-year-old child in the house, having taken him out of day care as a baby because it was staffed by “loud, tired women feeding the babies formula through plastic nipples.” She seems to have no supplemental child care, nobody to pay to come stay for an afternoon or two a week to give her a break, though it seems like she could afford it, and she could sure as hell use it.
Steadily, since giving up her job, this mother has become more and more furious at her life. She is a resentful cosleeper who must lie with her toddler every night for hours for “night-night”—an exercise that makes her so angry that, one evening, she screams, thrashes, and breaks a bedside lamp. He wakes up throughout the night, and won’t nap without her either. She flagellates herself for this sleep situation, but can’t manage to do what “all the books said” and “sleep train”—a prospect she paints as draconian and impossible, though some form of it would be, for a mother like this one, utterly transformative. (Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason!) She finds playing trains “really, really boring,” yet forces herself to do it. (Why?) Her child pulls “a baking sheet, a muffin tin, a skillet, the grater, from the cabinet next to the oven,” a mess she will have to clean up—and she just lets him. Woman! Some boundaries!
My judge-y, “you’re in your own way” feeling, so familiar to me from late-night Facebook parenting group browsing, wasn’t the one I was expecting to have while reading this book. I’ve gulped down the other titles in the little emerging canon of 21st century literary motherhood—Galchen, Cusk, Kiesling—with a sense of deep recognition, happy to finally see my own Feelings and Experiences rendered in beautiful prose. But I read my way through Yoder’s narrator’s catalog of domestic woes not nodding my head at the way motherhood “is,” but instead flinching at the ways this mother is making herself a martyr. This is good. It’s good to have a range of these beautifully executed treatments of motherhood, which is not, after all, a universal experience.
A lot of those other books are about infancy; this story of maternal transformation is, appropriately enough, about toddlerhood. First-time parenting gets especially intense around the time in a young child’s life that Nightbitch takes as its setting. As the child segues from infant to toddler, learning how to walk and beg and really, really scream, the parent loses adrenaline, stops feeling so dreamy and hormonal, and truly moves into exhaustion. The child, newly mobile, finds all kinds of new ways to say what they want, and the parent must figure out whether they will be the “kind of parent” who says yes, or the “kind of parent” who says no. There are politics to each such decision, as observing grandparents will let you know during holiday visits. This daily need for accommodation between parent and toddler as they move out of the honeymoon phase is, as they say, “the work,” but it’s not a very interesting plot for a book.
Yoder manages this problem by making things weird. The fantastical twist two-thirds of the way through Nightbitch—the mother, in becoming a dog, finally accomplishes a happy adjustment to her new life—perfectly demonstrates, in its improbability, how totally out of reach maternal happiness can feel when you’re stuck in the shit. After all, this mother needed actual magic to happen, in order to dig her way out. This particular magic turns out to be about embracing animality—something like what all the attachment-y breastfeeding-focused advice books tell you to do, without considering that you may have obligations that would preclude “letting the baby lead the way” and “just doing what’s natural.” This mother gets “natural” imposed on her, and it turns out to be just what she needs.
This transformation into a dog starts to happen against the narrator’s will, but after a while, the narrator embraces her new nature. “She is becoming a better mother because she is becoming a better dog!” the narrator thinks, as she starts doing things like romping in the yard with the boy and drinking out of a bowl on the floor. She wants to do even more along these lines: “She longed to tend to her son the way she felt she should, licking him and biting at his feet lovingly, yowling as they played, and feeding him raw meat.” The boy, of course, loves every bit of it, and their days grow harmonious and happy.
Her canine-ness fixes everything: It frees her from her oppressive ambition, helps her become playful, even allows her to finally “sleep-train” her child, which she does by giving him a kennel to nest in and making a game of it. She finally makes a real mom friend, after years of halfhearted proximity to the local moms at library story hours and playgrounds. She does go too far one night, when she’s lost in her dog-self, and there is a cat murder scene (content warning!) that will speak to any parent who has started to find a previously beloved pet wearisome after children enter the picture.
But mostly, things get better. Nightbitch puts her foot down with her husband and tells him he’s doing bedtime every night he’s home, to make up for her track record of being the suffering “night-night” parent for two years straight. Meekly, almost, he acquiesces. “Why, she had only ever to ask!” she thinks. “If it was this easy to get him to do things, why had he not been doing them from the start?” The happy ending of the story has her using this new doggishness for her creative life, creating a performance piece that gives her a new place in the art world that she’s been missing.
There are parts of the book that seem to be trying too hard—I could do without the subplot where the narrator reads a mysterious book about magical women and sends long letters to its author. But as a meditation on the radical evolution parenthood demands, it’s perfect. Nightbitch proposes that a person can find resolution to the contradiction between selfhood and parenthood, but only by becoming something strange, impossible, and a little bit disgusting. And if a cat or two get murdered along the way, so be it.