Standing on the Cliff of Motherhood: On Miranda July’s “All Fours”

By Jenessa AbramsMay 13, 2024

Standing on the Cliff of Motherhood: On Miranda July’s “All Fours”

All Fours by Miranda July

“THEY AREN’T YOUR playthings anymore,” the nurse announced in a honey drawl. She’d come to check my vitals. I’d asked a question about breastfeeding. Instead of responding, she turned away from me to address my spouse. The “they” she was referring to were my engorging breasts. “They’re his now,” she said, pointing to our newborn baby swaddled in his transparent hospital bassinet.

I’d been a mother for less than a day, and already my breasts no longer belonged to me.

I didn’t ask when my spouse supposedly took ownership, or who decided that my body couldn’t be both a sexual object and a milk factory, because I was still in the thick fog of the 16-hour induced labor; or maybe it was the thick fog of traveling to the hospital in a snowstorm the morning after my due date had passed; or maybe it was the thick fog of being left alone in a room no larger than a closet for a mandated nonstress test; or maybe it was the thick fog of having a fetal monitor strapped to my enormous stomach while a computer screen graphed the appearance and disappearance of my unborn baby’s heart rate; or maybe it was the thick fog of the blood pressure cuff squeezing the meat of my arm, once, and then twice, and then forever beeping frantically in apparent warning; or maybe it was the thick fog of being told that the baby was okay for now, but that my body wasn’t; or maybe it was the thick fog of holding my breath for the entirety of the nine months I was pregnant, certain the baby wouldn’t survive to take his own first breath; or maybe it was the thick fog of losing a baby a year earlier in a foreign country, staring at a different computer screen, being told in a language I did not speak that the speck of color in the center was my child and that my child had a heartbeat until seconds later, when the room became silent.

I didn’t have to ask because I already knew the answer.

¤


I read Miranda July’s All Fours (2024) on a foldout couch in an Airbnb near the hospital while counting the days until my baby’s due date. Really, I was counting time forward instead of backward. Marking each day my child was alive inside my stomach. Certain that a day would arrive when he wasn’t. Outwardly, July’s sophomore novel is about the binary of heterosexual love and the claustrophobia inherent in being a mother in a heteronormative family. More broadly, it’s a book about straddling two worlds. Two states of being. Two identities. A person or a wife. An artist or a mother. A sexual object or an invisible body. Pre- or postmenopausal.

July’s unnamed narrator is a married artist with a young child—not unlike the author herself—who has just turned 45 and plans to mark the occasion by traveling alone from her home in Los Angeles to New York, temporarily leaving the domestic space to conjure inspiration for her next project. Instead of flying, she decides to try to become someone who drives across the country. “This could be the turning point of my life,” she reflects. “If I lived to be ninety I was halfway through. Or if you thought of it as two lives, then I was at the very start of my second life.” The splitting of one life into two. Another binary.

She doesn’t make it to New York. In a move that rejects the traditional arc of the hero’s journey, she never even leaves California. But transformation happens anyway. The narrator rediscovers herself not by driving across state lines, but by standing a shadow’s length away—like appearing on the other side of the operating table during an emergency C-section to watch yourself watch a doctor remove a child that may or may not be dead from your uterus.

¤


When I lost my first baby, the miscarriage was incomplete. An infection spread through my bloodstream, so they had to operate. As I was wheeled down a foreign hospital corridor, the anesthesiologist became distressed. I was running a fever and had an inconclusive COVID-19 test. Putting me under could be dangerous. We could do local anesthesia, she suggested via my phone’s translation app. You’d be awake. I considered the possibility of staring at a thin blue sheet while a masked stranger emptied my body of a very wanted baby—the sheet dividing my physical form into two parts: a conscious mind and a child’s burial ground. If left awake, I would leap off the table. I knew this. I would rip the metal instruments out of the doctor’s grip. I would flee the hospital, my arm still hooked up to the IV, taking the dead baby with me.

In the end, I chose to be put under, accepting the tiny possibility of my life ending because that day it felt like it already had.

¤


Instead of traveling to New York, July’s narrator holes up in a nondescript motel just outside of town with a sudden yet insatiable desire for a local married man many years her junior. After learning that the man’s wife is an aspiring interior designer and that the couple is saving up for their future, she hires the wife and pays her thousands of dollars to transform the motel room into an aesthetic haven. July’s narrator literally constructs a Woolfian room of her own, using that space not for the explicit creation of art but for a sexually charged exploration of what it means to fully inhabit one’s body as well as to hunger over the youth and imagined possibility of another’s. This act, of carving out a place for herself in middle age to pursue artistic and sexual freedom, is what provides the financial means for the young local couple to journey into their own domestic sphere—the very domestic sphere the narrator is fleeing. There’s something adjacent to irony here, but softer.

It is only upon the completion of the motel room’s aesthetic reimagining that our narrator confronts the trauma that has anchored much of her adult life. It appears in the form of a text from her husband wishing her a happy due date. The message is an annual tradition, marking an end that was meant to be a beginning—the conclusion of a potential tragedy instead of their child’s birthday. Eight weeks before the narrator was due to give birth, she experienced a fetal-maternal hemorrhage (FMH) during which “all the baby’s blood […] drained out through the umbilical cord, into [her].” Learning about the FMH within the walls of the narrator’s immaculately curated motel room feels pointed. It is only in this intensely controlled environment that it is possible for her to conjure her birth narrative. The lush cocoon she has constructed grants her the temporary illusion of safety. A womb outside of the womb.

It is not lost on me that I am only able to write the words my miscarriage now that I’ve birthed a living baby.

¤


Throughout the remainder of the novel, the narrator is stalked by flashbacks of her emergency C-section. These consume her the way traumas do, in ordinary circumstances and seemingly at random: in a public restroom, during a grocery store checkout. Each time, she leaves her physical body and finds herself reliving the birth scene and its aftermath: “I turned my head and saw a tiny but perfect paper-white baby on a tray. Was it dead? No one seemed to know or be willing to say. Just minutes later I was sitting in a mechanical bed, abruptly empty and stapled shut.”

Once the baby is outside of her body, the child exists for the narrator as both dead and living. She reflects that “[f]or seventeen days there were two babies: one floated in darkness, fairly free and unbothered, and one was laboring in an isolette in the NICU, their tiny body filled with tubes and tethers to beeping monitors.” Even after the baby is released from the hospital, the narrator clings to the existence of both children, while her husband resumes living as though the FMH didn’t happen. In this way, the narrator keeps “one hand on the fire alarm,” unwilling—or perhaps unable—to let herself breathe for fear that if she does, the true catastrophe she’s running from might finally arrive.

Isn’t this being a mother? Worrying constantly about your child? Whether they’re dead, unborn, or alive?

Pregnancy is the transitional state of sexuality into domesticity. Matrescence. Breasts are “playthings” until they are food for a baby. That physical transformation is the confinement of pleasure, of eroticism, of desire into a presumed sexless vessel—a person viewed not as themselves but as a caregiver. Midway through the novel, while playing a game, the narrator’s child asks her: “Who I am? […] Who are you?” “I’m your mother,” the narrator responds.

“Mother? What’s a mother?”


“It’s a person who takes care of you because you are their child.”


“Child? What is child?”


All Fours can be read as the exploration and subsequent explosion of this inquiry: who gets to be a child? Which, within traditional parenting paradigms, is really another way of asking: whose life gets to be filled with desire—with reinvention—with wonder?

When the transition from person to parent is marked by violence, as it so often is across the spectrum of fertility complications, C-sections, rapes, failed implantations, miscarriages, and sudden inductions, sexuality—already a fraught and fragile thing in a society that distinguishes how a person gets pregnant from whether or not they deserve to have autonomy over their body—descends further and further out of reach. The birth canal splits open and we alone are left with the task of stitching ourselves back together.

¤


After recovering from an illness, people often speak of being “on the other side,” as though the illness is a country they visited but have since returned from, and whose borders are now shuttered. But as Susan Sontag famously suggested nearly five decades ago, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” July’s narrator straddles these two kingdoms. The FMH is something that has both happened to her and is still happening forever. Its haunting is reflected in her repeated visits to an online chat room for mothers of stillborn children. Because that is the most typical result of FMH. The child is not born alive. But that isn’t what happened to her. Not exactly. Her child was born with two grams of blood and needed six to survive.

How do we stand on the edge of a cliff, watching the ground under strangers’ feet disintegrate while the dirt beneath us stays firm? How do we stop ourselves from constantly digging our fingers into that dirt to convince ourselves that, really, the earth isn’t going anywhere? That our child who didn’t die will continue to live? How do we remove our hands from their chests? Who else will make sure their hearts are still beating?

At age 45, the narrator finds herself at another threshold: the possibility of menopause and the arrival of perimenopause, the state of transition when the body’s production of hormones begins to decrease. The end of the possibility of natural pregnancy. Menopause appears first as a death to the narrator—the presumed end of her sexual hunger. Then, as she begins asking people with uteruses about their experiences, she’s surprised to find that, once again, the supposed ending is instead another beginning. A doctor friend says: “[A] woman’s mental health postmenopause is usually better than it’s been at any other time in the life of that particular woman.” Then, offhandedly, she adds: “[O]f course, in a patriarchy your body is technically not your own until you pass the reproductive age.”

It is on the cliff of perimenopause—amid recurring scenes of her birth trauma—that the narrator’s sexuality is reborn. Though it first appears that the young married man she’s absorbed with is the source of this reclamation, his existence is merely the image of a door that reminds her that escape is possible. More aptly, it is her mental construction of him that transforms her: “And now I was masturbating without even deciding to […] his dick was my clitoris; I was fucking my own hole with his/my giant hard clit, […] it felt absolutely incredible.”

It isn’t him the narrator’s hungering for. It is her self. The self she lost in the hospital when her child was clawed out of her stomach—the self she hid in order to fit into her marriage’s domestic cage: “I was a throbbing, amorphous ball of light trying to get my head around a motherly, wifely human form.”

¤


The narrator’s actual transformation is consummated toward the novel’s end by ecstatic sex with two women, one much older, one much younger. We can understand these women, both unmarried and without children, as doubles of her: her past and her future; one premenopausal, one postmenopausal. They represent alternative selves, the parallel existences she could’ve had had she not been reduced to being someone’s wife or someone’s mother. Perhaps there’s still time for her to evolve into them.

The older woman appears early in All Fours as a shopkeeper who sells the narrator a pink satin coverlet—the object whose aesthetic inspires the motel room’s renovation. “It was the sort of very feminine and decadent thing I’d wanted my whole life; I was so good at knowing what I wanted and then choosing something else at the very last second,” the narrator says. If the motel room is her former life, radically reenvisioned by finally indulging her true desire, then the coverlet sold to her by this older, maternal figure is the physical manifestation of her rebirth. A manifestation that is later compounded by sex.

The younger woman is a visual artist whose freeness is intoxicating to the narrator until its boundlessness subverts her understanding of her own want. The narrator finds herself in a role-play of sorts, acting out the part of her husband: seeking intimacy and trust within a partnership while her female lover assumes the part of the narrator, feeling suffocated as she contorts herself into the shape of another’s desire. This striking reenactment follows the thought experiment of the novel to its end. In doing so, it presents All Four’s greatest revelation: It is not the opposite of what we have that we want, but something that exists outside of what we thought was possible. In other words—set fire to the binary.

¤


The novel ends with the narrator finally arriving in New York—four years later. She has flown across the country to go on a book tour. Her decision to fly instead of to drive is an unspoken form of self-acceptance—she’s no longer attempting to make herself into someone she is not. We can understand the book she has written as both the culmination of the inspiration she sought at the start of All Fours and perhaps the very book we’re reading. It is an artifact of her unraveling. It is her spooling herself back together. A story about the construction of a story. A woman looking into a mirror if only to introduce herself to the woman she knew would be there. The novel is as much about the journey of this one woman as it is a communal narrative about what it means to be female. In this way, July opens a channel between the author and the reader. That channel is what allows me to plant my story here.

As I write this, my breasts strain with milk. I soak through the fabric of one bra and then another. Milk leaks onto my keyboard. My eyes flit back and forth between the screen on my computer and the one on the baby monitor. There is a line in one of the books I read to my child about a mother rocking her newborn baby back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I hear the singsong of my voice trying to soothe him even when I’m writing a sentence that isn’t meant to be about him. Minutes go by when I can look at him and not fear something terrible happening. Hours pass when I don’t think of the dead baby. And then I do.

As I type this, I feel the cushion of the plush pink nursing pillow strapped to my waist. Its essence is not unlike the narrator’s coverlet—soft and hyperfeminine. At any moment, I must be ready to set my computer down and lift my baby up. To stop writing. To unhook the straps of my bra and put my breasts in my child’s mouth. He demands what he needs the moment he realizes his needs have not been met. As soon as he is hungry, he erupts with wanting. I want to be like that.

LARB Contributor

Jenessa Abrams is a writer, literary translator, and practitioner of narrative medicine. Her fiction, literary criticism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Chicago Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, and elsewhere. She was recently named a National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critic Fellow. Currently, she teaches writing in the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University. 

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