“One day, the mother was a mother, but then, one night, she was quite suddenly something else,” Rachel Yoder writes in Nightbitch, the story of one mother’s harrowing and hilarious transformation from woman to dog.
In this unforgettable debut novel, Yoder delivers an outrageous Kafkaesque parable about the mundanity and monstrosity of early motherhood. Our protagonist, an artist turned stay-at-home parent known only as “the mother," has become a husk of herself after two years of raising a toddler without the support of her husband, who's all-too often away on weekly business trips. Soon, her mind and body begin to change; she grows dense patches of hair, her teeth sharpen, and she develops canine impulses. It’s only through her surreal transformation into "Nightbitch" that she experiences liberation from the pressure cooker of motherhood. Yoder touches on a kaleidoscope of themes, from the towering inferno of female rage to grieving the loss of self that accompanies motherhood, all of it undergirded by feral, ferocious scenes of our heroine feasting on rabbits and pissing on the lawn. Nightbitch will grab you by the scruff and refuse to let go.
Yoder's novel arrives amid a pandemic-related crisis for American mothers: NPR reports that more than two million women exited the labor force in 2020, leaving women at their lowest workforce participation level since 1988. Trapped in her home amid “a thousand artless afternoons," Nightbitch stews over a sentiment that mothers forced to exit the workforce might share: "An anti-feminist conspiracy seemed not only plausible but nearly inevitable." Yoder spoke with Esquire about false mythologies of womanhood, the tension between art and motherhood, and why underachieving is a radical act of feminism.
Esquire: Where did the novel begin for you, and how did it take shape over time?
Rachel Yoder: Probably the earliest flicker of the novel came a couple years before I started writing it, when I was reading Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. It's looking at a lot of the same themes that Nightbitch is concerned with. In it, there's this wonderful line where the narrator says, "It was never my plan to get married. I wanted to become an art monster instead." This idea of the art monster—an ambitious woman whose ambition was monstrous, but also a mother—that was very provocative for me. It seemed to hit a note that I could hear very clearly. So I typed out that passage, thinking I would write an essay about it. I never wound up writing an essay, but I started writing Nightbitch. In addition to referencing that passage, it was also a very personal book coming out of the frustration and challenges I faced in early motherhood.
ESQ: Something I loved about the novel is how often you're flirting with this question of just how much of what's happening to Nightbitch is real. You walk that tightrope beautifully, but I'm curious: during the writing process, how much did you entertain that question of what's real or what's literal?
RY: That question was always present. I really reveled in that tension, and didn't want it to resolve in the book. I wanted to play with it and have it be an open question that readers could grapple with and think about. I think it's interesting to interrogate as a reader, whether you think the mother is losing her mind or whether she's actually transforming, and what your answers to those questions have to say about the validity of women's experiences. I think that that makes it a richer reading experience. As I wrote, I wasn’t really sure if it was real or not, and I had to negotiate that question. It made the writing surprising, and it kept pushing me forward in the narrative.
ESQ: The principal characters in this novel don't have names; they're reduced to simply their roles in the family unit. What was your interest in that device of anonymity? Why did that feel like the right and necessary choice?
RY: It didn't feel like a choice when I began writing. That's just how the book happened, and I didn't interrogate it too much. Then as I moved deeper into the book, it became more of a question. "Why am I doing this?" It became clear that I was working in this mythic territory, and that was what interested me. Nightbitch is a parable of sorts; it's looking at these archetypes and how the archetypes move around in the world. I was really interested in the archetype of mother and wife, and husband and son, and seeing how those archetypes could be propelled through a new narrative. I wanted to come up with a new story for how a mother could move through the world. So for that reason, it felt proper to keep them as unnamed characters.
ESQ: To your point about archetypes, this novel is so steeped in mythology and folklore. I really enjoyed the sections of the books where you plunge us into A Field Guide to Magical Women, the guidebook Nightbitch turns to for information about what's happening to her. What was that like, writing a book within a book?
RY: I've always been really interested in books within books and fake documents. My master’s thesis was a fake writing handbook. My first instinct when I have a problem is to turn to books, so it felt like a very natural turn for Nightbitch to take. I think there's something about her having this book, and about how we share wisdom and communicate knowledge through generations. I wanted to place Nightbitch within this lineage and have Wanda White be part of that lineage. Having a field guide within Nightbitch was me trying to place Nightbitch the character within this context, and then also Nightbitch the book within a community of myths, and a history and tradition of mythology.
ESQ: I love the moment when she tells her husband she's been reading this book; then he wants to see it, and she says, “You can’t.” I love how the book becomes a very special friend to her, in the way that books that solve our problems do.
RY: It feels very proprietary to her. She has this very intimate experience with this book, which is quite similar to my relationships with books. Obviously I'm a writer, but as a reader, even from a very young age, my experience of being in relationship with a book and with the author was one of deep intimacy. Reading a book is like sharing someone else's brain. Nightbitch has a similar experience.
ESQ: There are multiple layers of folklore in this novel—the folklore of monstrous women, to be certain, but also the deceptive folklore of “have it all” womanhood, and of the tricks society plays on women. You get at this in lines like, “Her sense that society, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, all these things, were somehow masterfully designed to put a woman in her place and keep her there—this idea had begun to weigh on her… once she was stripped of all she had been, of her career, her comely figure, her ambitions, her familiar hormones, an anti-feminist conspiracy seemed not only plausible but nearly inevitable.” What’s some of the most dangerous folklore or false mythology that women are laboring under?
RY: What immediately comes to mind is something we might title The Perfect Mommy Myth, or Perfect Woman myth, which sort of encompasses an entire universe of falseness. This myth expects a mother to be everything, effortlessly and happily, for her to perfectly perform motherhood, and for her to constantly overachieve and succeed by standards that she didn’t define and which are outrageous to expect. I still struggle with perfectionism and lately have come to consider underachieving a radical act of feminism. It’s a constant challenge to lower my expectations for myself, but I think it’s the best sort of self love. To imagine that my mere existence is perfect and more than enough is a powerful concept in the face of a culture that tells women and mothers they will never be enough.
ESQ: In a section of A Field Guide to Magical Women, Wanda White writes what seems like a blueprint for this novel. She writes, “The unbelievable, while perhaps not communicating straightforward truths, can communicate deeper truths if a person is willing to be patient, to listen, to contemplate.” What truths did you hope that the unbelievable and fantastical dimensions of this novel would communicate?
RY: I don’t think I was so much trying to communicate truths as I was interested in opening up questions. I’m not sure what any of my book communicates, to be honest, but I did want to give the reader an experience. I guess you could say I'm interested in the truths that come through experience, which are deeply personal and must be actively sought out. It means we have to go through life consciously, awake to the sensations of experience. This is certainly the way in which Nightbitch finally reaches some sort of resolution or truth in her story. I do think that even if an experience is mysterious or unbelievable, there are still lessons to be learned from it. I would even go so far as to say that perhaps the more mysterious the experience, the more potential there is for profound insight.
There’s an embodied truth that I was trying to get at through the transformation of the mother. I think that the physical self has a lot of wisdom to offer. So many women have been taught to stop listening to their bodies, to deny their bodies' needs, to make their bodies take up less room. After first refusing what her body is trying to tell her, once Nightbitch embraces it, she comes into this deeper understanding of who she is and how she can actually transform in an internal and meaningful way.
ESQ: This reminds me of the line, "Modern motherhood has been neutered and sanitized. We are, at base, animals, and to deny us either our animal nature or our dignity as humans is a crime against existence." For those of us women who aren’t turning into dogs, how can we explore our animal identities and get back in touch with our animal nature?
RY: I think it comes back to the question of how we can come into closer relationship with our bodies, and with the messages and sensations of our bodies. There are many ways to do that. I've been really interested in somatic therapy and figuring out how to be in deeper communication with my body. For the past twenty years, I've been really careful about the words and sentences and stories that I write, and have paid absolutely no attention to anything that my body is telling me. One of the lessons and gifts of Nightbitch has been, "Hey, I'm not just this intellectual creature. I'm also this embodied animal." In order to be a full self, it's necessary that I don't only take my analysis and intellectualization of stuff seriously. I need to also listen to what's going on in my body.
Motherhood is a great opportunity, because it's such an embodied experience for us to have this new relationship with what's going on in our bodies. Listening to what the body is telling us is also how we get back in touch with our power. Getting really quiet and still in a society where things are built for us to be busy and to never really have a moment to sit down and think… that's where getting back in touch with my animal nature came from. First, I had to get back in touch with my needs and my wants, and that quietness and solitude.
ESQ: Part of the joy of Nightbitch’s embodied transformation is the joy of being outdoors. It's so fun to see her romp through the grass and pee on the lawn.
RY: During the pandemic, when I was stuck in the house, when I felt like I was going crazy and I needed to be grounded, I literally went outside and touched the ground and started gardening. There really is something going on with us getting back outside and putting our hands down in the earth, connecting with the energy and solidity and integration of nature. We weren’t meant to be giant brains communicating online that don’t have bodies.
ESQ: Men who read this book will surely see themselves reflected in Nightbitch's husband, for better or for worse. What do you hope that men take away from this book?
RY: I began writing this book purely for myself as a sort of cathartic exercise after two years of early motherhood during which I didn't write a word. I wasn't considering an audience when I began. I just wanted to get all of the rage and frustration and hopelessness I felt on the page. I do hope this story can serve as a catalyst for conversation between men and women rather than furthering the divides that already exist. And I hope that men can relate with this story as a means of understanding and moving into communication and discussion with women, rather than as an indictment.
ESQ: Late in the book, Nightbitch has a breakthrough about marriage. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry when you write, “Why had she not been demanding more?... where had she learned to push it all down to the pit of her stomach, all her sadness and rage and annoyance, to fill up the space above with white wine, to carry on to the best of her ability and pretend toward contentment when all the while she could have been saying things like, Fuck this! and Could you please? and I need.” Of course it’s that simple, yet it’s so much not that simple. How does that inner voice get silenced?
RY: There are so many different stories that tell women to just make do. "This is your lot in life." It starts in the Bible, right? I wanted to make sure that the husband wasn't purely a bad guy and wasn’t vilified, because I do think that the husband and wife are in a really complex dynamic. Part of her problem in the marriage is that she hasn't gotten in touch with what she needs to thrive, or what she needs to be a full person.
Part of her work is finding her voice to say, "No, this is what I need”—to make some demands. I think that her rage actually becomes a part of her self-care once she figures out how to wield it. Her rage becomes a source of great power and propels her into asking for what she needs. I hope women can latch onto that and see, "I have all this anger. What’s something productive I can do with it? How can I make it work for me and propel me into a more intimate relationship with my partner where we can have these conversations, where I can tell them what I need and he can hear that?"
ESQ: One of my favorite moments in the novel was a passage near the end when Nightbitch reflects on her own mother. You write, “How many generations of women had delayed their greatness only to have time extinguish it completely? How many women had run out of time while the men didn’t know what to do with theirs? And what a mean trick to call such things holy or selfless. How evil to praise women for giving up each and every dream.” You really hit on something profound and true here—how we praise women for entirely subsuming themselves in motherhood. What are the dangers of that rhetoric?
RY: We’ve conditioned generations of girls and women that abandoning themselves and participating in psychological self-harm is correct and even commendable. It really does feel as though we’re at some sort of tipping point, especially after the pandemic and over two million women leaving the workforce. So we’re already seeing the collapse of women in the workforce from this sort of rhetoric, but I think that the personal losses are even greater. The biggest danger to me seems to be how once you accept self-denial in one aspect of your life, it’s easier to let it poison other parts of your being. What does it mean when we have a culture of women who accept that they should be smaller, quieter, need and want less, show up less, and exist merely in service to others? What seems to me like it would be of most benefit to families and communities is the embrace of a vibrant, dynamic, and full-bodied womanhood, the sort we see Nightbitch ultimately claim. Kids are much better parented by whole human beings who are fulfilled and happy, who have all these dynamic facets of themselves, rather than by women who are denying vital parts of themselves.
ESQ: One of the most fascinating themes of the novel is this adversarial relationship between motherhood and art. You write, "There's not room for the child within the sun-washed studio, or rather there is not room for art within my house with my child. It is as if all my dreams have been reset. The walls are blank, and with them I am blank too." Can art and motherhood be generative, or are they inherently at odds?
RY: In terms of time, there’s an inherent tension, because as soon as you come into motherhood, your time is immediately compromised. But I’m interested in how, both in motherhood and art, there's creativity at the core. They're both propelled by creative forces. I felt very challenged in motherhood to balance my art with my parenting. Part of the work of writing Nightbitch was exploring how these are both creative forces, and how they can expand one another instead of taking away from each other.
Motherhood is creative in a very literal sense—when you become a mother, you’re creating new life. I've found my best moments of motherhood when I bring my creativity to motherhood—when I bring a sense of curiosity and play, and I'm open to an afternoon with my son that's unprogrammed. I don't know what we're going to do, but we just find our way through it with a very creative sensibility. It becomes an absolutely delightful thing. Those have been my most favorite moments of parenting. It feels very similar to having a good writing afternoon, where you're in a flow state in the present moment. You're bringing all of your talents to bear on what's going on.
I think there’s this similarity between making art and parenting where when you're in the moment, when you're fully present, it becomes this delightful thing. Nightbitch finds that too. When she brings her full self, when she allows her doggish play to come into her parenting, it becomes this delightful thing for her. When she integrates that back into her art, the art really takes off.
ESQ: I know there's a Nightbitch movie in the works with Amy Adams. What can you tell us about the movie?
RY: Movie stuff stalled during the pandemic, as everything did. Things have started moving again. I can't say too much, but hopefully there will be an announcement coming soon. I'm really excited about it. It's been amazing to talk to the people who are involved with it—they have a lot of great ideas about how a very internal book will be translated onto the screen. Another really amazing thing about the whole process has been that I have worked exclusively with women, which has felt really amazing, especially for a film production. Everyone I've talked to is really connected to the story, and really invested in making it something that maintains the integrity of the story—doing something fun, but also earnest.
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