Mother of Invention

Mother of Invention asks us to examine our wombs–are we creators or captives of the future?

Tessa Callahan, feminist, tech executive, and protagonist of Caeli Wolfson Widger’s science fiction novel reminds me to grab hold of my feelings, dominate them, and never–not even once–give into that nasty little g-word.

That g-word is guilt; the infamous destroyer of women’s lives and careers.

G-word is that yellowed, dressing-room light showing us our flaws in a cracked funhouse mirror. It asks us why we aren’t doing more, achieving more, being more. See Karen over there? She’s doing it all, and she’s only had two mental break downs this month. What’s your excuse? 

Tessa Callahan isn’t doing it all either, and she’s haunted by the very word she banished in her self-help book: Pushing Through: A Handbook for Young Women in the New World. Tessa’s abstained from motherhood as a (mostly) personal choice, but even as a childfree woman in her forties, she can’t escape the complexities, the g-word, of motherhood. She’s even dedicated her career to easing the burden of parenting off mothers, so they can avoid that hefty motherhood tax that comes with having (or not having–you’re screwed either way ladies!) children. Her company, Seahorse Solutions, offers artificial breastfeeding machines, baby carriers, and post-natal procedures aimed at reducing “down time” as a mother. Tessa wants to give women the tools they need to succeed despite their wombs and their unspoken promise to ensure there is a future. What she hasn’t figured out is a solution for the time sucking nine months of pregnancy. Wouldn’t it be helpful, and deal a mighty blow to that g-word, if having a child took no longer than an extended European vacation? 

Reed Zimmerman thinks so. He’s on board with anything that can offer him the same legacy as his father’s social media company Facebook LikeMe. He’s a desperate playboy with a lead on accelerated gestation. He pitches this idea to Tessa Callahan, and now they have three women expecting newborns in nine weeks.

Are they ready?

I can’t read Tessa’s motivational monologues to these expecting mothers without feeling like she’s speaking to me. Like I’m the fourth woman in her company’s human trial. Can any person with a womb not feel intimately tied to what she’s offering? I keep looking back at my own experiences with pregnancy and birth, hanging on every word of Tessa’s promises just like the three swollen women offering their bodies for the greater-womb-good. They trust Tessa, and somehow, I do too.

But is Tessa ready? That’s a more complicated question. Tessa needs more than motherhood. Her biological clock isn’t ticking, but something else is. When she assures other sleepless, caffeinated women that their lives as executives, wives, friends, mothers, and well, people, are valid, I still think she convincing herself. After all, people are allowed to question. People allowed to fail. People allowed to be bad employees, wives, friends, and yes, mothers. People allowed to not have it all, and not want it all either.

And women are people.

However, Tessa’s story is only part of Mother of Invention’s multi-perspective plot. Widger chops up the book into intersecting stories: one with Tessa and Reed at Seahorse Solutions, one in the online chat rooms of children born with a dimple on their head, and one in the conscience of a government employee who’s making too many detours into the desert. I wasn’t sure how these stories fused, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a late-stage Great Reveal Monologue. This choice is not only disappointing but off-putting. In a story about motherhood and womanhood, a man deliver’s the long-winded climax because he’s feeling–you guessed it–GUILT.

Widger’s writing carries me through this info-dump reveal. She combines descriptive, almost poetic phrases with a business-like, clinical tone. The style is refreshing but never monotonous or superior. One moment, I feel like I’m reading a professional brief and the next, Tessa’s personal diary.

I still think about Tessa and her desire to liberate women from their wombs. Mother of Invention leaves me with a lot of unsettling questions. What would my life be like if pregnancy was nine weeks instead of nine months? What choices would I have made, or make? Is creation truly limited to motherhood? Or, can we build beautiful, lasting, fulfilling masterpieces that don’t require our wombs?

Is it really possible to have it all?

“It’s no longer a question of whether women can do it all. It’s just assumed that we will. It’s assumed that we can be great careerists and mothers and spouses and still magically keep the laundry in check. Which is not only impossible, it’s mass exploitation. It’s keeping women in a permanent state of fatigue and anxiety. I can’t be a part of it.” 

― Caeli Wolfson Widge

You should read this book if: You’re a womb-having person, know a womb-having person, or came out of a womb. Everyone. Everyone should read this book. It might not be for you, and yes, the ending’s Great Reveal cheapens the novel, but it’s still a fascinating look at motherhood and the politics surrounding how we come into this world. Motherhood is far from simple, and the solution to Tessa’s questions–to all our questions—do not have simple solutions. Widger’s added messages about capitalism, have-it-all culture, government conspiracies, and the place of experimental science in an increasingly technical world add to a complex plot but rewarding plot that may leave you needing to call your mother.

And say, thank you.

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