News & Ideas

Mother of Invention

Juniper trees in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Juniper trees in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo by rjamphoto

One day in January, I was sitting in my office at Byerly Hall; the next, I was at Mount Auburn Hospital, delivering my baby girl.

When she was born, COVID was not in my thoughts—and while I was so excited for motherhood, I kept thinking I needed to get back to the fellowship, that I had to work. I wanted to be the kind of mother who could do it all. I had a vision of taking the baby in a carrier to fellows’ talks and lunches. I never got the chance. The only time my daughter visited Radcliffe was when I packed up my office after the University shut down.

Back home in Wyoming, the world (and wonder) of a newborn, rather than the world of my novel, held me rapt. There was no rushing around, no moving from appointment to appointment. I witnessed how my daughter Juniper breathed when she slept, the grunts she made in the night, the feeling of her sleeping on my chest as I rocked and rocked in a glider. How her milky face looked after a feed. How her eyes, light when she was born, turned darker.

After Memorial Day and George Floyd’s death, I thought so much about how my biracial child would live in the world: the meaning of race in a country transformed. I couldn’t help but feel scared when I looked at my baby. These thoughts, this anxiety, made me immobile.

Because I live in a rural place as a person of color, I have always felt that art is my activism—a way to participate in bigger conversations. Slowly, I began to reimagine my novel. The idea that a book can be a form of protest, a kind of banner speaking to a crowd, felt more vital to me than ever. In the past, I had been nervous about how I talked about race, worried I was biting off more than I could chew.

The idea that a book can be a form of protest, a kind of banner speaking to a crowd, felt more vital to me than ever.

This year has taught me equilibrium. That one can hold a sleeping baby, and one can also protest. Dissent takes many forms. All of us who are staying home can still take action. Mine is in making art.

I still spend a lot of time watching—just watching—Juniper. In the past month, she has learned to crawl. She projects her body forward uncertainly, sometimes swaying precariously, sometimes belly flopping to the ground. This little person, so small, that I held up to see the Charles River when she was born, now moves ahead on all fours, going forward, always forward. She is figuring out how to pull herself up. To stand slowly and surely. Her teeth are coming in. And I think to myself, bite, bite. Learn to bite hard.

This essay appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Radcliffe Magazine.

Nina McConigley was the 2019–2020 Walter Jackson Bate Fellow at the Institute. An assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, she is a fiction writer whose story collection Cowboys and East Indians (FiveChapters Books, 2014) won the PEN Open Book Award and a High Plains Book Award.

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