Why I want to hug Voldemort’s mom
It’s three A.M., and I’m squished in a twin bed in my baby’s room, clinging tightly to her as she sleeps, thinking about Merope Gaunt Riddle.
I spent a lot of nights like this in the year after my second daughter’s birth, a horrific experience that completely caught me off guard. I’d expected the baby to have an early and relatively uneventful arrival, like the birth of my first daughter. But my second was born a week late, weighing nine and a half pounds. Her shoulder caught as she emerged—an outcome called, I learned just that day, a shoulder dystocia, which is much more dangerous than it sounds. She was spared major complications, but I hemorrhaged badly, resulting in three rapid surgeries, several blood transfusions, and a lifesaving partial hysterectomy.
For months, even years afterward, I was haunted by flashbacks, persistent self-blame, and bargaining. What could I have done differently to prevent this? How had I failed to keep us safe?
Which brings me back to you-know-who’s mom. The hardcover set of Harry Potters were right there in a bookshelf in my baby’s room, poised for the re-read I had once anticipated would be a highlight of motherhood. Like many of us, I’ve gone through some complex revisionist unpacking of this series I loved, after its author has become such a public critic of transgender rights. Were there clues, I wondered, in the texts, evidence of intolerance, of misogyny?
One night my mind wandered to Merope, Voldemort’s mother. A minor character, but a memorable one. She died in childbirth, an act that, in the Harry Potter universe, makes her responsible for copious death and destruction. Infuriatingly, Dumbledore tells Harry that “she had a choice” and could have used her magic to stay alive, which he seems to believe would have prevented her little bundle of joy from becoming a genocidal warmonger. But she “refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.”
Unsurprisingly, the words “postpartum hemorrhage” don’t appear in The Half-Blood Prince. Instead, we learn Merope had a baby within an hour of arriving at Mrs. Cole’s orphanage and was dead an hour later. Probably a hemorrhage did her in, although in the book it’s presented more as moral and physical weakness.
It’s her fault, I felt that book whispering to me in the dark. (In Parseltongue, perhaps?) It’s yours, too. You could have worked harder to avoid an induction. You could have asked to be induced earlier, given the size of the baby. You could have…
Rationally, I knew all along the hemorrhage wasn’t my fault; if anything, a national medical system that ignores and fails to protect mothers is to blame. Merope isn’t responsible for what her son became, either. The idea that her absence allowed little Tom Riddle to become the most powerful and evil wizard of all time runs parallel to a common fairy-tale trope: get the mother out of the way, and the child’s real adventure can begin. Coddling, overprotection, nurturing: the fairy tale canon presents these qualities as both good and bad. The missing mother is someone to long for as well as someone who’d have hindered you. Dumbledore makes a similar contradiction; he disparages Merope for her frailty even as he claims she could have been the dam to hold Voldemort back.
One of the paradoxes of modern motherhood is that we’re simultaneously over- and under-valued in our roles. Our job is both too difficult for others to step in and help and yet somehow too easy, too rewarding and instinctual, for us to complain. Our every move is held under a microscope—baby-led weaning versus pureed food, daycare versus staying at home, shoes versus barefoot play in the mud—and yet we’re offered little meaningful support in what we’re assured is the most important job in the world.
As my own PTSD, self-blame, and self-doubt in my role as a mother began to heal, through therapy, I considered the many fictional mothers who deserve a re-write. When I began working on The Lunar Housewife, my novel about a woman, Louise Leithauser, who uncovers the CIA’s secret intervention in Cold War literature, I decided Louise’s own novel within the novel should attempt to do just that. Louise befriends a fictional Ernest Hemingway, and though she admires the legendary writer, she feels compelled to reinterrogate the ending of A Farewell to Arms after her own dramatic experience in childbirth. Hemingway’s Catherine, mid-hemorrhage, dies quietly and politely, even thinking to make sure Henry has a sandwich for lunch. Louise’s Katherine screams to high heaven and quite literally blows the doors off the room.
It was important to me to include maternal morbidity (which affects 50,000 American women per year, and is rising) in the novel, to make it messy, and to describe it in proper medical terms. What happened to me blindsided me, and, oddly, appeared to blindside my postpartum nurse, who threw away my first bloodied garment, an important warning sign that hospitals use to determine total blood loss. The worst of the United States’ maternal paradoxes is the way we overemphasize the value and capability of a mother and yet fail abysmally to protect her vulnerable life in childbirth, even more so if she’s a Black woman.
How could we make sure our healthcare centers are better prepared? They could start following the California guidelines, to start, which have halved maternal deaths in that state. White women like me could use our privilege to ask our hospitals and birthing centers what they’re doing to protect Black mothers. Literature, and pop culture, could also start speaking less politely and more frankly about birth and motherhood; I’ve been heartened by the stark depictions of maternal morbidity and PTSD in books like Fleishman is in Trouble and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
This Mother’s Day let’s collectively stop pretending mothers can do everything with the help of a magic wand and are to blame when things go awry. Mothers are human and deserving of protection. We also aren’t—shouldn’t be—the only important people in a child’s village.
And for the record, I think he still would have become Voldemort.