Donna Dias Manuel writes I wanted to talk about the fragility of motherhood; break free from the notion that mothers are supposed to be perfect. And that’s how my second novel, What Makes Us Alike? was born.
In the summer of 2017, I accompanied my eldest sister to John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, for her annual eye checkup. As I waited for her in the cafeteria with my two-year-old, an uneasy feeling struck me. I was having a rough day and felt sorry for myself, wondering if I had made the right decision to stay back to spend time with my family while my husband returned to Thailand. The thought of handling a two-year-old on my own on a twenty-three-hour flight back home was unnerving. As I wallowed in self-pity, my eyes caught a pregnant woman in her late teens across the hall. I waited to see if she had company – a parent, sibling or the father of her child. No one joined her. A few minutes later, she sat down, protectively cradling her belly with one hand and texting with the other. I began to imagine different scenarios—was she married? Did the guy opt out? Soon I began to feel silly about my earlier discomfort with handling my daughter on my own. My thoughts began to wander further away. Was this teenager’s family supportive of her decision? Did she independently choose to go down this road? In those moments, I had a flash of inspiration—I felt the need to write a story that challenged societal expectations of mothers. There are thousands of women whose motherhood story does not follow the regular narrative. I wanted to talk about the fragility of motherhood; break free from the notion that mothers are supposed to be perfect. And that’s how my second novel, What Makes Us Alike? was born.
Eira, the protagonist of my story, represents many women who’ve taken the path less travelled, choosing to be single mothers. For instance, we have Sushmita Sen and Neena Gupta, who have unapologetically lived life on their terms. They defied the norm and have been an inspiration for several women. Not everyone may agree with their decisions, but do women still need society’s approval? During the pandemic, parents (especially mothers) had an additional responsibility of helping their children transition to virtual learning and balancing their careers. It made me think about how much harder it must be for single mothers with little to no support to stay afloat during these challenging times. The physical exhaustion is only a part of what women go through, then comes the guilt—am I a good mother? Am I making the right decisions? I’ve felt that guilt too. Until recently, I was part of the essential services and didn’t have the opportunity to work from home. People who were close to me questioned my decision to enrol my daughter in in-person learning. I had just returned to the workforce after five years away. Quitting my job meant widening the gap. I had to make that tough decision and do my best to make it work. As I quote Neena Gupta from one of her interviews, “The difficult part is not making a choice…the difficult part is to accept what you have chosen and stand by it.” I told you so is the last thing you want to hear from the uninvited guest at your life’s party.
The pandemic gave me a chance to experience motherhood like never before. I channelled my anxiety and used my experiences to re-write some of the emotionally heavy scenes. I believe What Makes Us Alike? will resonate with many women—mothers or not—who’ve felt the pressure of living life based on societal expectations. They will relate to the conflict the characters experience in their quest for selfhood.
‘Why do you want to keep this baby?’ Dhruv snapped. ‘To make me look stupid?’
‘We’re not a couple. We didn’t plan this baby. Why do you want to get married? Do you love me?’ Eira blustered. ‘I don’t.’ She wrapped up before he could say yes which was a response she wasn’t ready for, and a no would just be heart-pricking.
‘We could. Hundreds of people in India do that every day. They get married and fall in love later. It’s called an arranged marriage.’ Dhruv made a feeble stab at humour. ‘I like you, and we’re physically compatible for sure. I have a decent job. We could make this work. But you have to give it a chance.’
‘I don’t see why we have to give this a chance. I am not in the right space to get into a committed relationship. I am not ready for motherhood either, but I know it is the right thing to do, and I want to do this. You and me, I don’t see us building a life together.’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ Dhruv was affronted by her refusal.
‘Nothing. Nothing is wrong with you. But I don’t want to get married. Stop forcing this relationship. If we’re meant to be, we will, even if it takes us ten or twenty years. Right now, it’s not happening.’ Eira argued with little success at making her point.
‘What about your mom?’
‘What about her?’ Eira thundered.
‘Wouldn’t she expect you to marry the father of your child?’
‘She expected me not to get pregnant. I let her down.’ I’ve always been a disappointment to her, Eira thought.
Excerpted with permission from What Makes Us Alike? by Donna Dias Manuel, published by Leadstart.
Donna Dias Manuel’s debut novel, Love is Never Easy, was published in 2017. She presently lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter. What Makes Us Alike? is her second novel.
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