If you’re looking for something new to read this summer, one book that I would strongly advise you to put at the top of your TBR (to-be-read) list is Nora Murphy’s suspenseful and expertly written The New Mother (available from Minotaur Books on May 30th). This story, which is told primarily from the perspective of attorney and new mother Natalie, who has just moved into a home on a quiet street in suburbia with her husband, Tyler (also an attorney), and is struggling to balance being a new mother with her career, and the perspective of next-door neighbor and professor turned stay-at-home dad, Paul, who it may be argued is not what he seems and who has a secret agenda of his own, will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Nora about the story behind the story, the challenges of balancing work and motherhood, the importance of reaching out for help when it is needed, work-life balance, and more. Read on to see what she had to say.
Andrew DeCanniere: First of all, I’ve been wondering what the story behind the story may be. How did you come up with The New Mother to begin with?
Nora Murphy: It was inspired mostly by my own experience being a new mother. The book is about Natalie, a lawyer who has moved into a new house and who has her first baby. He cries all the time. He doesn’t sleep. He only sleeps when he’s being held. That was very much like my own experience with my first son. He would only sleep when he was being held, including the entire night. Every time you got him to go to sleep, he would immediately wake up. There was just so much exhaustion, and then there was the whole matter of going back to work, plus there’s this interesting shift in identity. So, all of those experiences made me think about how vulnerable and isolating that is, and then that sort of sparked the idea for a thriller where you have this new mother who is feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and isolated, and what might happen if someone in her life takes advantage of that.
DeCanniere: And I will say that the ease and speed with which that was able to happen is pretty disconcerting.
Murphy: Right. They say sleep deprivation is a form of torture. So, just think about even a few weeks of severe sleep deprivation, and dealing with a new baby. At the same time, she’s also dealing with how much her identity as a person has changed. This massive shift happened when she became a mother. Then, she meets someone she feels is helping her, while it turns out that just the opposite is true.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. And it seems that in Natalie’s case — as is the case with so many people — so much of her identity is wrapped up in what she does for a living.
Murphy: I think that’s right. Exactly. Natalie is a lawyer. She has all these years of higher education, and all of a sudden, when she adds this layer of motherhood, she has to find a way to balance those. She’s just exhausted. She’s not feeling well. She has taken time away from her job. Her life has changed so much. Meanwhile, her spouse is not having the same experience as she is. She feels [as though] his life has not changed as much as hers has, so it is this sort of identity crisis. How can you be that same person you were before? How can you be as competent at the things that you used to do, while you are also dealing with this massive undertaking of raising a human?
DeCanniere: And I do think that in Natalie’s case — and in the case of Natalie’s husband — it can be this sort of perfect recipe for resentment.
Murphy: And that’s just another piece to the challenges of dealing with the baby, and dealing with career. There’s also this shift in the relationship between the spouses, which also leads to Natalie’s feelings of isolation. She feels like her teammate is not always on the same team as her, and is not going through the same things she is going through.
DeCanniere: Right. Obviously, spouses do not have to practically be the same people or anything like that. There can be significant differences, but I do think that you need to be on the same page with certain things. Sometimes it seems that they’re not even reading from the same book.
Murphy: I think that’s true, and that is what leads to issues. They’re not on the same page. They’re not communicating effectively, because everything is overwhelming. That just makes it spiral and adds to the vulnerability of the new mother.
DeCanniere: It seems like it also is a combination of personality, societal pressures and the fact that we now live in the age of social media, and when it comes to social media, people by and large only post the good parts of their lives — not the bad or difficult parts. So, perhaps it is all too easy to compare yourself to other parents. I think that all comes together, and I think is part of what leads her to not ask for the help she clearly needs.
Murphy: She is definitely a Type A perfectionist, so she feels a lot of pressure to be a good mother, and maybe the definition of what that means in her mind is not completely reasonable — because of, as you mentioned, social media and other depictions that she sees. That causes her to feel so much pressure, and she’s trying to hold herself to a standard that’s probably unnecessary, and possibly even counterproductive to her goals.
DeCanniere: Even though she doesn’t realize it in the moment, it’s arguable that perhaps they’re not realistic standards. It seems like she’s trying to do it all, which I’m not sure is feasible.
Murphy: Right. It’s not even possible, so something suffers. She’s trying so hard to be perfect, and she’s trying to do everything by herself, and she’s trying to be strong and tough, and that’s just not possible. That is hurting her, and if its hurting her, it cannot be the best thing for her baby — which actually is the thing that she’s trying to avoid — but she’s not thinking rationally or clearly. That goes back to the sleep deprivation and all of the hormonal changes that happen. It can just be impossible to see clearly.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. She can’t see the forest from the trees, as they say. Paradoxically, you bring about precisely what you’re trying to avoid. I also think that holding yourself to what can, at times, be impossible standards and thinking you don’t need help, or that you shouldn’t even have to ask for help because other people don’t — which I don’t think is even necessarily true, but that’s how it can feel — basically leads her to not ask for professional help when she needs it.
Murphy: And I think that a big thing is that it almost doesn’t even occur to her that she might need professional help, or help with her mental health, because she isn’t even capable of seeing that something is wrong. She needs somebody else to recognize it for her.
DeCanniere: I guess that is what makes the neighbor so dangerous, in a way. He’s someone who doesn’t want her to see that something is wrong and that she needs help. Her recognizing the fact that she needs help would not work in his favor. As long as she doesn’t recognize that something is wrong, and that she is in need of help, he can use that for his own personal gain.
Murphy: Yeah. So, he recognizes some of the feelings of his wife, some struggles that his wife went through when she had their daughter, and so instead of helping her, he is the sinister character thinking of how he is able to use the situation to his advantage, in order to achieve something that he wants.
DeCanniere: Not that I’m trying to play amateur psychologist or amateur psychiatrist, but it seems to me that he is the quintessential sociopath.
Murphy: He definitely has those tendencies, because he’s entirely wrapped up in himself and what he can do to meet his own needs. He’s also a character who thinks that what he is doing is in the best interests of his daughter, too. So, I think he has a distorted view of reality.
DeCanniere: I can see that. Although, like I said, I am not a mental health professional, I think you could also argue that someone who is a sociopath may also find a way of justifying everything they are doing. That certainly seems to be what he does.
Murphy: That’s true. He thinks about what he wants, and then he finds a way to make that work.
DeCanniere: It’s almost like, from his perspective, everything he does is reasonable or rational or justifiable, regardless of what it may be. That would be the last person I would want living next door to me. Speaking of Paul, though I think that their relationship is very different from the one that Natalie has with her husband, I think you can see that there has been this long-term resentment between Paul and his wife, Erin, as well. Thankfully, I think that Natalie and her husband ultimately have a very different relationship and, thus, there’s a very different outcome.
Murphy: Right. Paul and Erin also experienced a shift once they became parents. Their daughter is 10, but once they became parents they experience this shift and Paul became the stay-at-home caregiver, while his wife, Erin, was the breadwinner for the family, and she continued building her career. They’ve had years of resentment and conflict that has built up, which ultimately gives Paul the idea for his plan.
DeCanniere: I feel it’s a very stark contrast in a way, because ultimately Natalie and Tyler are very different. People may need help at various points in their lives — somebody to talk to — and I think that, at some point, both couples get to that point. However, I think that, overall, Natalie and Tyler are healthy, well adjusted people. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Paul and Erin who — although you do admittedly end up getting more of Paul’s perspective than Erin’s — seem like they are anything but healthy or well adjusted.
Murphy: That’s true, and you really don’t get to see Erin’s point of view, except for a little bit through the other characters. So, it is skewed by Paul, and we talked about his kind of sociopathic ways.
DeCanniere: What I also found interesting is that, in a way, the magnitude or realization of how significantly having a child changes one’s life almost doesn’t seem to occur to Natalie or Tyler until they are on the way home from the hospital, with their new child. It’s only then that it seems to hit her in a way that it seemingly hadn’t up until that point.
Murphy: Yeah. Natalie is a planner, and she’s focused on planning her pregnancy, and she thinks that she has planned everything. Yet, it’s something you can’t really plan for. You also just don’t know how your baby is going to be, because you might have a baby you can put down and who will immediately sleep for five hours straight — or you might have a baby who you can never put down. So, when she gets home, and she’s thrown into it, it is like her life explodes. She has almost no control over her days and what this baby does. She’s consumed with taking care of him, and it’s a lot more difficult than she ever imagined it would be.
DeCanniere: I don’t have a child myself, but it is pretty clear to me that no matter how much you read, no matter how many friends you have who have children themselves, and no matter how much preparation you do in theory, theory and reality are very different.
Murphy: That’s very true — especially when it comes to a very Type A person who plans a lot. They might think that they know the kind of mother they’ll be, and what kinds of things they will and will not do, and then you just have so much less control than you were expecting. It can be very difficult, and that definitely has to do with her character and her character traits. She’s not a go-with-the-flow type of person, who can just be laid back. She’s also so completely sleep deprived that she’s not able to manage the hardship or ask for help, because she’s not thinking about things rationally.
DeCanniere: Adding to the complication also seems to be how quickly Natalie is expected to return to work. That seems to be looming over her as well. While being a parent is, in and of itself, a full-time job — and one that is frequently seriously undervalued — there does seem to be all the more pressure on those who are expected to go to work and raise a child, as many parents are expected to do.
Murphy: Right. She’s somebody who enjoyed working before she had a baby, and then she gets eight weeks off, and she thinks that feels like such a long time to take off from work. Really, it goes by in such a blink, and then at eight weeks — It depends on the baby, but most babies are still getting up to eat every two or three hours. In the book, her baby is waking up even more than that, so after she has been up all night, she has to get ready for work, take the baby to daycare, drive to her office and sit there and bill her hours that she needs go and get her work done. It’s a high pressure career. Meanwhile, she’s still nursing — she’s having to pump for the baby. It’s like all of the pressure and the stress she had before is still there, but now she has so much more responsibility. Then, of course, she has these feelings of guilt about whether she’s doing the right thing. Now she’s a mom and a lawyer. Is she doing them both poorly? How can she possibly have success at both of these things? That’s what she really starts to struggle with.
DeCanniere: And I think that gets to another point. Employers need to guarantee leave to their employees following the birth of a child, the leave needs to be longer, and it should be guaranteed to both new mothers and new fathers — not just to new mothers. They need to be able to take that time off.
Murphy: That’s such a great point, because I think what is considered “generous” leave in this country is something like 12 weeks paid leave. Speaking from experience, if you take that and then you go back to work full-time, it might feel like enough, but it’s really so difficult. I think that whole first year — not that I would advocate that everybody needs to, or should want to, take a whole year off — but it would help a lot to have the option of taking that whole first year off or of going back to work part-time. There is just so much pressure to do everything, and a fear of being judged no matter what you do, so it’s almost like you can’t win.
DeCanniere: And, though I don’t want to get too off into the weeds here, I do think that too many workplaces still don’t particularly value, encourage or emphasize a work-life balance. It does seem like that stems from our culture, where it has almost become a matter of pride to work an enormous number of hours per week. As long as that is the case, it is hard to see things changing.
Murphy: And I do think that even if employers do offer some paid leave, it is sort of like when you are expected to go back, you are expected to just get right back into it the way things were before. Things have changed so much, that’s not really possible. I think a lot of employers say they value work-life balance, and it may look that way on paper, but there is a silent culture that belies that. That’s definitely true for Natalie — although she is working at a law firm that is not really advertising itself as offering any work-life balance. In addition to that, and this pressure to hit billable hour requirements, there is also this sense of distaste about taking time off for kid-related things and talking about your kids — having those kinds of things interfere. There is a feeling it should be kept separate, and your career can suffer if it is not.
DeCanniere: Which, when you really think about it, is a little weird. While there are people who are single and working to support only themselves, there are many people who are working to support a family. Yet, you are expected to sparingly — if ever — acknowledge that this familyand this other part of your life exists, or that your family has needs.
Murphy: Obviously, I only know how it feels to be a woman, but I feel like for women at work, there can be this sense that you shouldn’t bring these things up. If you are on a client call for work, and you need to end the call at a certain time because you need to take your kid to tee-ball, there’s this feeling that you shouldn’t say that. Instead you should say, “Well, I have another call at 3:30,” rather than saying “I need to log off to take my son to tee-ball.” It’s an unspoken thing, because you fear people will think you are not as hard of a worker, that you’re not as dedicated to your work, which is probably not true. Not that non-parents aren’t, but parents can be very efficient. That’s a skill all parents have to learn to develop — to be efficient and to multitask.
DeCanniere: I also do think that some of this trouble with workplaces not really valuing or emphasizing a work-life balance may stem from the fact that, in a number of fields, historically there weren’t many women in them. So, I don’t know if part of the issue is that there is this holdover from when there weren’t that many women in the workplace — and certainly not in more senior positions or executive positions. I certainly would like to think so, in a way. That’s certainly better than if they are still, to this day, actively trying to discourage women from being in those fields — or from applying for those senior or executive positions.
Murphy: I do think that’s true, because I think that in Natalie’s case, she is practicing corporate law — which tends to be male-dominated. Her superiors are much, much older, and are far removed from having small children. They may not have been that involved when they did have small children. Also, some of the women she might work for are people who, when they were rising up in their careers, it was made so difficult for them because of sexism, that they developed these coping mechanisms and hard shells. So, that could cause them to be not quite as supportive — almost inadvertently — to a young woman who has small children. There’s this sense that they should be able to do it the way they did it, or this feeling that nobody held their hand. It’s not to be purposefully difficult or cruel about it, but it’s almost like an inadvertent attitude.
DeCanniere: I feel as though there really is so much more that we could discuss, but is there anything in particular that you wanted to discuss that we haven’t touched upon just yet?
Murphy: I don’t think so. I think that this has been a very interesting conversation, and this is exactly why I wrote the book. It’s supposed to be a thriller. However, as with my first book, The Favor, I try and write books that are suspenseful but that also touch on real issues that are affecting women, specifically. I think that the issues in this book affect every parent. It was written with an eye toward the postpartum struggles that a woman goes through, and all of the mental health challenges that raises, and how common they are, and how difficult it can be to recognize them — how difficult it can be to admit you need help, and to go even further than that and get that help. Those are the kind of issues I was thinking about when I decided that I wanted to write this book.
DeCanniere: And personally I think that it is wonderful that your book does encourage these kinds of conversations to take place, because they are so timely and so very necessary.
Murphy: Thank you. That’s my goal. It’s like “How can we talk about these issues more?” It could be written as an essay, but I like writing fiction. So, it’s fiction. Fortunately, I didn’t have a neighbor like Paul, but a lot of it was based on my own experiences. It was actually a really cathartic experience for me to write this book. I feel like I had this book lurking in me — like I needed to write it to process everything I went through after I had my first son, because it was just so difficult — and this book really helped me do that. You know, the first part of the book is not really a thriller. It’s just Natalie’s experiences when she comes home with her baby, and then she has to go back to work. I had so much of that in the book — it just went on and on — I think that it was cut in half, but I just had so much to say about it, because the experience is almost like a trauma that you go through. It’s so odd, because it’s such a happy time. Especially if you’re having postpartum mental health issues, and if you’re trying to go back to work, it can be so difficult. Writing Natalie’s story really helped me process my thoughts, and to reflect on what I had gone through.
DeCanniere: Unfortunately, there can be an issue of accessing the necessary help, but I think that the first step would definitely be for someone to recognize when they need that help — when they need to talk to somebody. Fortunately, I think that there are resources that are out there, which people can utilize to get the help they need. There probably aren’t enough. There should be more. They should expand those services. Hopefully, however, people know that there are places they can go to get the help they need.
Murphy: I think that it’s great now that they have a lot of virtual therapy options. A lot of therapists offices, locally, are offering virtual therapy. That’s something that is a lot more accessible for people who are home with a baby. Getting childcare, and having to drive somewhere, and having to leave the house, can be a lot more overwhelming. I think it can be a lot less overwhelming to do it from your own home.
DeCanniere: I could certainly see how that would work a lot better for a lot of people. To begin with, as you say, the logistics can be much easier, thanks in part to technology.
Murphy: Right. I think we’ve all kind of gotten used to doing things virtually that we wouldn’t have done before. I think that piece has been good. Of course, one of the first challenges is recognizing that you need help.
DeCanniere: And while I do not have first-hand experience with this, it does seem to me that much of the care is very baby-centric. In many ways, I think that is to be expected and makes a lot of sense, but I would also hope that they would check in with the mother — or with the parents — during these appointments as well.
Murphy: So, I don’t know if this is nationwide or state-by-state, but I know that pediatricians can have the mom fill out a postpartum mental health questionnaire, when she brings her baby in for the appointments all the way through six months. That questionnaire feels very extreme. It’s more focused on harming yourself, or harming your baby. Can you take care of your baby? It feels very baby-focused. And then the mom has her postpartum appointments with her doctor, but the doctor might say “How are you doing?” and you might feel as though you’re there for your physical health — you’re not there to talk about your mental health. It might feel like too broad of a question, or you may feel rushed because you know they have ten other appointments, and you’re thinking about “I need to get home to my baby,” because it may be your first time being away from them. Or you might not realize anything is wrong, because its sort of surface-level. So, it doesn’t always come up, and then I also think there’s a desire to be in denial, or to want to be tough — to be like “I’m a mom now. It’s not about me. It’s about the baby. So, I’m fine.” That’s what happens with Natalie. She’s just so obsessed with taking care of her baby, that she can’t even recognize she’s not okay, and that her not being okay can actually affect the baby. The fact that she’s not okay matters, too, and she has just completely lost sight of that.
DeCanniere: Right. Not to sound cliché, but it’s that whole thing of putting your oxygen mask on first. If there’s an emergency on a plane, they say to put yours on first, because if you don’t, you really are ultimately hindering your ability to help those around you.
Murphy: Right. That’s so true. It’s almost like she puts the mask on her baby, and then she never puts her own mask on.
DeCanniere: Obviously, it’s only right that she’s concerned about her child’s well-being. I think that it can be much more easily said than done to remember to take care of oneself, and to realize that taking care of yourself is helping take care of your child or children, but it’s also important to realize that.
Last, but not least, I always find it interesting to know what an author may be reading or what books they might recommend.
Murphy: I’ve been really focusing on audiobooks lately. I have two small kids now, so it is definitely difficult to find the time to read, but that’s why I like audiobooks that I can listen to moving around and making lunches and all of those kinds of things. So, I just listened to Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan — and I know they made that into a Netflix show. I loved it, and so I immediately listened to Reputation, which was the book that came after that. Now I think I’m going to go back to her first novel, because I just loved them. They were so good, because they were thrillers, but they were more nuanced than a boilerplate thriller. They were just extremely compelling.
Nora Murphy attended law school in Washington, D.C., then worked as a judicial law clerk before transitioning to private practice. A practicing attorney who writes as much as she can, usually on her phone, Nora resides in Maryland with her husband, two sons, and four rescue pets.
Additionally, you can read my previous interview with Nora regarding her debut novel, The Favor, by clicking here.