Homing Instincts

Motherhood Without a Motherland - Sarah Menkedick

Photos:  Jorge Santiago
I had always had this perspective that I’m not from anywhere, I don’t feel a connection to anywhere; I’ve lived in all these different places. And finally, when I was pregnant and I was living in Ohio in a little cabin, I really did feel like for better or worse, this is where I’m from. And it deeply shaped me.
— Sarah Menkedick

For thousands of years, new generations -- and new mothers, in particular -- had the wisdom of their elders, of their culture, of their sense of place to guide them. Today in 21st-century America, where so many of us can only trace our ancestry back to one immigrant grandparent and what family we have is scattered across the continent (or the globe), modern motherhood can be a crushingly isolated existence. Add in the the demands of our go-go-go technologized life and an economically obsessed patriarchal society that doesn’t value motherhood as a meaningful pursuit, and it’s no wonder I often wish I could toss myself, my husband and our two little girls in a time machine and head back to a simple Little House on the Prairie-like homestead somewhere in my past. Except like so many modern displaced people of lost ancestry, I wouldn’t actually know where to point the time machine to go home.

So imagine my delight when I discovered writer Sarah Menkedick, who lived out my actual fantasy (minus an actual time machine). Four years ago, she ditched the modern world and her modern existence literary writing and trekking around the globe (teaching English to teenagers on far-flung Réunion Island, camping on the Mongolian grasslands) to start her family, offline, in a tiny 19th-century cabin on her family’s Ohio farm. The result was her beautiful daughter, and a magnificent memoir in which she explores the existential nature of modern motherhood and the meaning of home (but so much more): Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, which was released by Pantheon earlier this year.

I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview the brilliantly talented Sarah about her book and other writings (she’s a writer’s writer: bylines in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times and a Fulbright fellow, to boot), as well as how she’s taking lessons learned from a simpler existence into her life and home now, post-cabin. 

Here’s what we talked about:

  • Introducing Sarah and her book Homing Instincts

  • “We were perhaps a little naïve”: Pregnancy and early motherhood in a 19th-century cabin in rural Ohio

  • The constant pressure to be productive versus being in the world in a simpler way

  • Homing Instincts as “the anti-travel book"

  • Sarah’s life now in Pittsburgh

  • The experience of pregnancy and moving beyond always seeking “a better place"

  • Finding home in an age of lost ancestral homelands

  • “I have a people”: Her husband Jorge’s deep roots in Oaxaca, Mexico

  • How Sarah changed her perspective on homeland

  • Raising her daughter between two different cultures

  • “Why don’t people take writing about motherhood seriously? Because women do it”: The story behind Sarah’s op-ed in the LA Times

  • “It’s not just about mothers; it’s about birth being a pretty important experience for everybody. Just the fact that that’s a radical point is kind of crazy”

  • The two camps of modern motherhood: Motherhood as transformation or motherhood as a prison?

  • Food, raising children, and the cultural vacuum of America

  • Building a tribe of mothers in Pittsburgh (or not)

  • “It felt more natural there”: Family-friendly social life in Mexico

  • Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School

  • What’s next for Sarah: Exploring the cultural history of anxiety and motherhood

You can read more about Sarah and her writings on her website as well as connect with her on Twitter and Instagram. And be sure to check out Vela, her must-read online magazine of remarkable nonfiction writing by women. 

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Sarah's book: