Yael Goldstein-Love, THE POSSIBILITIES

Yael Goldstein-Love, THE POSSIBILITIES

Zibby speaks with Yael Goldenstein-Love about THE POSSIBILITIES, a powerful and wildly inventive new novel about a mother who ventures into parallel worlds to find her missing child. Yael shares her own harrowing birth experience, which inspired the book, and her journey as a novelist and a clinical psychology doctoral student. She and Zibby delve into the therapeutic aspects of writing and their shared maternal anxieties. The talk reveals Yael’s motivations in exploring the complex psychological landscape of motherhood, both in her writing and in her academic pursuits.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Yael. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Possibilities: A Novel.

Yael Goldstein-Love: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Yay. Can you please tell listeners what your novel is about?

Yael: Sure. It is about the psychological experience of becoming a new mother. I use a sci-fi metaphor to do that. It’s a sci-fi thriller, but it’s really just about becoming a new mother. It’s about a woman whose son almost dies at birth. She has this very bad birth. It seems like her son almost died. Then she can’t shake the feeling. He’s fine, but she can’t shake the feeling that it came too close. She can’t quite trust that he exists. Then when he’s eight months old, he disappears from his crib. Everyone starts forgetting, one by one, that he ever existed, the cops who respond to the kidnap call, his own father eventually. It’s up to her alone to find him and bring him back. That is complicated because it involves parallel realities. That is the book.

Zibby: Where did this come from? When did you decide to take it in this direction? Did you ever think, what if this, and what if that? and just kept going?

Yael: Yes, all of that. It came from my own experience of becoming a mother. The book starts with this harrowing birth scene. Anyone who has read that birth scene now knows my birth exactly. That birth scene was my birth of my son. I had a doozy of a postpartum experience as a result of that. I spent an hour not knowing if my child had lived or died. I was in the waiting room. No one could tell me. Is my child going to live? Am I going to take home a child, or am I in the middle of a tragedy? As you can imagine, that hour felt like it lasted a lifetime. Then I take home this baby. We’re cozy. Everyone’s happy and healthy. In my mind, I’ve just lived a lifetime where my child also died. It took that normal hypervigilance of motherhood where every little thing, you’re like, what if this? — what if that? What if that? You’re watching. It took it up several notches. I kept feeling as though every way things could’ve gone — you know that moment where it’s like, oh, my gosh, what if I hadn’t caught my daughter at the last moment and she rolled off the changing table? What if his head slips beneath the bath water? It would feel to me like each of those were spinning off into their own reality, on some sense. They were sort of crowding in on my cozy reality. It made for a really strange psychological experience. I never experienced anything like it. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about it. I was like, I need to capture this somehow. The first way that I was able to capture it was to come up with this sci-fi metaphor, which was to say, imagine if at the moment of birth, the laws of nature briefly change so that other ways, other possible realities, other possible ways things could’ve gone not only exist side by side, but can actually affect each other? That’s what it actually felt like to me. Then once I could put it in those terms, I could write through my experience and make sense of it. It helped me so much, so much.

Zibby: Wow. In the book, you have the main character seeing a therapist who diagnoses her with this, I think you said dissociative disorder. I can’t remember what the technical term was. Did you make that up? Was that a real thing? Is that what you had?

Yael: In the book, originally, her therapist just gives her the adjustment disorder.

Zibby: Adjustment disorder, yes.

Yael: That’s really just a therapist term for, I have to say something to insurance. You’re having a normal hard time in response to a hard thing in life. Then she has this very weird thing happen early in the book where it seems like either she’s crazy or reality is crazy. At that point, her therapist says, maybe these are some sort of post-traumatic stress symptoms with some dissociation in there. I didn’t have anyone diagnosis me at the time. Although, I should have been able to diagnosis myself at the time. In retrospect, yeah, I had — not nearly as bad as Hannah, who is actually having reality change on her, which I did not. I definitely had some post-traumatic stress symptoms. I couldn’t sleep. I was scared to sleep. I would have nightmares. I would avoid certain things that would remind me of the birth. I kind of existed in this bubble of pain and fear for months. It was bad.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. That’s really hard, as if it’s not hard enough having a baby at home and dealing with all of that. A joy, obviously, and a privilege and blessing, blah, blah, blah.

Yael: All of it.

Zibby: It’s almost like you were grieving. It’s like a loss.

Yael: It is a loss. That’s part of what I really wanted to get at in The Possibilities. There were a few aspects of the psychological experience of motherhood that I really wanted to highlight by changing the laws of reality in a way that you can get at psychological reality a little better. One was just the existential stakes. We roll our eyes at maternal worry. Oh, a worried mother. It’s like, no, no, no, this is not something to roll your eyes at. This is as deeply life and death, existential weight as any human being gets. You have this primal drive to protect this person, and you know you can’t because things happen. Chance happens. That gap is so much. Then the other part was this identity crisis that you sort of have to go through. Even if you’re having the best experience of becoming a mother, you have to mourn for the person you used to be. You have to mourn for the life you used to have. I feel like there’s another aspect of it, which is, you are learning so many things about yourself that you have kept out of your awareness until now. I think parenthood puts the thumbs to every pain point in your makeup. Suddenly, you’re like, why am I doing this? Why do I react this way? Why does this make me feel this way? All these things that you manage to keep out of awareness are coming into your awareness. I think there’s mourning in that too. It’s wonderful to get to know ourselves better. It’s enriching in many ways, and there’s mourning. I’m this way. This is a way. That other way that I thought I was is a way I’ll probably never be. That too involves mourning.

Zibby: It’s true, even all the inputs from your own family of origin and how much they’re affecting you. Oh, I forgot about this whole thing with my mom, and oh, this with my — you don’t need to draw up those memories so often in day-to-day life until all of a sudden, they are like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that just came out of my mouth. I never thought I would say that, but oh, my gosh, here I just said it.

Yael: Exactly.

Zibby: I am so sorry the birth scene was yours. Reading the birth scene, I feel like it was so vivid. The way you write and the emotions and the clarity and the arm, it was so real to me. The fact that you had to live through that was, of course, terrifying. I think that’s one of those other things, too, where in times we’re supposed to be so happy — you should be so happy. You have a new baby, but something else is wrong. Then it’s like you’re not even allowed to feel all those feelings.

Yael: Exactly. It’s so isolating, even from your own experience because I feel like then you’re trying to tell yourself, no, no, no, I’m happy. I’m happy. This is actually good.

Zibby: It all worked out. It all worked out, but it came at a cost.

Yael: But it came at a cost.

Zibby: Which is so sad. I also think this deep desire to keep kids okay is so — I know you said it was this primal feeling, which, of course, it is. It doesn’t go away. People joke about postpartum anxiety. I’m like, I still have postpartum anxiety, and my oldest kids are sixteen at this point. Even last night — I know this is ridiculous. I have all four kids at home. Thank God. They’re all back from summer programs. Woe is me, but they’re all here. I went to bed, and I was just like, okay, I can go to bed knowing that all four kids are here. They’re safe. They’re in my house. Thank God. Just thank God. I could sleep well. When they weren’t, I could not even sleep.

Yael: That makes perfect sense. There’s a part of your mind that is constantly being vigilant on their behalf. In my other life, I’m a doctoral student in clinical psychology. I see psychotherapy patients. I did my dissertation research on how mothers experience anxiety for the unknown futures of their children. I spoke to all these mothers about that. One thing I learned that I’d always suspected, but it was helpful to have confirmed, it truly never — I spoke to mothers who, their kids were in their thirties or forties, and they’re still feeling this way. I’m like, okay, so this is a lifelong condition. I have to find a way to find richness and meaning in it.

Zibby: What else did you learn from the women? What did you get from them?

Yael: A lot. I learned a lot. I would say, to me, one of the most interesting things I learned was that — one thing was that everyone worries about their worry. They worry about whether they’re worrying too much. If there was one takeaway, it was, don’t worry about your worry. It’s so normal that you have your worry, but don’t let it control you. You want to have some distance from it so you can be curious about your worry. Why am I worrying about this particular thing? Don’t take your worry as fact, I guess was the thing I came away from. Don’t worry about it. Just be curious about it. The worrying about it, then you start driving yourself crazy. Then you feel bad about yourself. Then you doubt every instinct. That was one thing. The other thing that I was really surprised to find was I found that the women who came in saying, “Oh, my god, I’m such a worried mess. I’m a disaster. Let me tell you all about it,” they were not a mess, actually. They were very worried. They were very aware of their worry. They also found, as I just said, this richness and meaning in their worry. They really did. They would say these beautiful things about how it gave them a sense of more of the abundance of life. They could feel the beauty of it because on any moment, it could be ripped away, just these beautiful, engaged, rich statements that they were gleaning from their experience of maternal worry.

Then the women who came in saying, “I don’t even know why I responded to this, to your call. I’m really not very worried. I’m very good at controlling my worry. I have the following tools and techniques that I use to control my worry,” they were a little bit of a mess because they were not letting in the worry and grappling with it and sitting with it and just acknowledging that it’s necessary. Our children’s futures are uncertain. You just have to make peace with that in some way. Instead of making peace with it, they were trying to keep it out of mind. Some really upsetting material would spring out as they were talking, just these dark images and fantasies of escape to safe havens. I found that really interesting. I felt like if there was a takeaway from that for me, it was, just acknowledge and make peace with and accept that this uncertainty is incredibly hard and inescapable. You have to find a way to sit side by side with it somehow.

Zibby: Wow. You’re a clinical psychologist doctoral student. You have written this novel. How old is your son now?

Yael: He’s six and a half.

Zibby: He’s six and a half. Do you have other kids?

Yael: It’s just him.

Zibby: When were you doing this book? How did you get this all done? How long did it take? What time did you find to write? How did you not let the book itself stress you out?

Yael: That last one, I’m not sure about. I am a compulsive writer. I am always in the middle of writing a novel. I don’t know how to not be in the middle of writing a novel. If I’m not in the middle of writing a novel, I don’t know where to put my thoughts. I just found the time. The pandemic helped me, I will say. Instead of seeing my psychotherapy clients in a clinic, I was seeing them at home over Zoom. I always stagger people by an hour because I don’t want one person’s world to infect another in my mind. I would take ten minutes after I was done with someone, stream of consciousness, write down all my thoughts and feelings about what had just happened, take a breath, write for an hour, see the next person, do that again. It almost was a palette cleanser. It would bring me back to myself. Then I’d be able to enter someone else’s world entirely. That was how I wrote it. I wrote it between psychotherapy clients and then sometimes early, early in the morning before my son woke up. How did I not let it stress me out? I think actually, this was the least stressful book for me to write. It’s been the least stressful book for me to publish.

Before I was a mother, I had a different relationship to my ambition and to my art. I was just like, I want this to be received this way. I want people to read it in this way. I want to be taken seriously in this way. All these things that had to do with how other people were going to experience it, how I was going to be received, how the world would . With this book, I was like, I don’t have time for that. My life and my internal world feels like such messy, fascinating chaos to me that this book, I just need this to make sense of it. This is my personal meaning-making project to make sense of what life is right now and what I’m going through and what other people have gone through when they go through this. There was an urgency, and a personal urgency, to it. Even now in the publication, it’s sort of easy to slip into, oh, The New York Times loved it. Everything’s great. That feels great for ten minutes. Then your kid is really mad at you because you got the wrong Pokémon card, and that’s the next three hours. You’re like, that’s real life. That’s what matters. It’s so much more grounded. I don’t stress about it in the way that I used to. It just feels like one tiny thing that’s happening in my life.

Zibby: I feel like maybe more than ten minutes, maybe an hour you could get from The New York Times. A day?

Yael: I think I had a full hour. My son really was quite mad about this Pokémon mix-up.

Zibby: I understand that. We have a Pokémon whole situation. We had nights where we were all putting them in the sleeves of the thing. Let’s put it this way. Can you help me? I’m like, oh, my gosh, why am I spending my time putting Pokémon cards in a sleeve? This takes forever.

Yael: The other night, I found myself — my son was already asleep. I was putting Pokémon cards in the right categories of the binder for fifteen minutes. I’m like, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? It’s a satisfaction.

Zibby: I have been in that exact position. Are they alphabetized correctly? I’m like, this is ridiculous. This is ridiculous.

Yael: There is a weird satisfaction in it, though, I have to say.

Zibby: I agree. Also, it’s nice to know, this is what my child needs, and this, I can do, as opposed to, I think he might need — I don’t even know. There are just so many things we don’t know, but this was so clear.

Yael: I think you really put your finger on it. That is part of the satisfaction. Your kid might be having trouble with their friends at school. You’re like, how do I protect them from rejection? You can’t, but you can organize those Pokémon cards.

Zibby: Oh, my god, that’s so funny. I’ve never thought about it that way, but yes. Maybe it takes a certain neurotic mother to find so much joy in that, but I feel very seen at this moment.

Yael: I do too.

Zibby: Then how did you get into writing to begin with? Tell me about growing up. Where did you grow up? What’s your whole story?

Yael: I grew up in New Jersey. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. I feel like I grew up in the eighteenth century a little bit, which I think is helpful as a writer because you look at everything from a — you’re like, look at this interesting world I’m in. What happens here in California in the twenty-first century? My mother was a novelist. That was just a thing grown-ups did. Some grown-ups were novelists. That was just a very normal thing. I always had it in my mind that that might be a thing I would do. It’s funny because this feels timely with the Barbie movie out now, which I’ve not seen yet somehow.

Zibby: What?

Yael: I know. I got to go. I got to put that on my priority list. My mother, for a while when I was young, was like, no Barbies. Feminist, no Barbies. Then finally, she caved. When she caved, she caved big. I had dozens of Barbies. I had this ongoing religious drama starring my Barbies. It went on for years. I didn’t have to clean up my room because the plotline would be disturbed if I had to clean up my room. I think that was when I became a novelist. I was just like, I am working something out here. I have a plotline and a story arc and characters that are going on for years, even though they are all Barbie. I think that was it. I was hooked. I was like, this is how I make sense of my world. This is how I make sense of everything around me. It’s through taking characters and having them go through difficult things. I will say also, my father — this is relevant to the book because there’s physics in it. My father is a mathematical physicist who works in foundations of quantum mechanics, which comes up in the book. I had both of these things, the novel writing and this immersion in science. I think that that came in particularly handy for this book and realizing, oh, a natural way for me to write is actually to do this sci-fi light, using a little bit of sci-fi to get at psychological reality. It was such a fun way to write. I think I’m going to do it from now on, honestly.

Zibby: That sounds great. Then did you debate, ever, being a full-time writer versus being a therapist or being a psychologist or other things you were interested in?

Yael: There were so many things I was interested in. For a while in my twenties, I just wrote. Actually, I think in my early thirties as well. There was a period of time after I had published my first novel — I think I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when I published my first novel — where I was just writing. I was teaching writing. Everything was about writing. That just did not work for me. There was some combination of — I think that the main thing that happened is that I realized I just didn’t like teaching writing that much. There were parts of it I loved. I felt like when someone gave you a piece of writing, you had two choices. You could either tell them how to make this into the best version of what they wanted it to be, or you could tell them how to make it something that might actually sell and be successful. I wasn’t really interested in the second part. I was interested in figuring out with them, the first part. What do you want this to be? I was like, maybe there’s another way to do this. Maybe that’s more like being a therapist. I think that, really, what that highlighted for me is that what I am so interested in as a novelist, as a human, as everything is, what is it like to be a human? What is it like to be other people? What is it like from the inside for everyone? I just felt like, there’s a job where I can do that. I can actually help people by doing that. That sounds really nice and like a good balance to being a novelist. I have found that. It’s also so nice to have a place to put your ego that is not subject to the whims of the market.

Zibby: Yes, I understand that too. I thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I took the GREs. I was an intensive psychology major in college and thought that’s what I wanted to do because like you, I am fascinated by people. I love understanding people. I never get tired of people’s stories. I think that’s why I do this. I hang on every word. I’m legitimately interested. I’m like, tell me your story. I want to hear it. It ended up just not being the path I followed for all these different reasons. If I had a sci-fi novel about my life that was The Possibilities, I think that I would’ve had a life in which I became the psychologist. We would’ve seen what happened there.

Yael: I’d like to read that. That sounds good.

Zibby: You could write that. I’ll give it to you. You take it. Are you writing anything new, by the way?

Yael: I am, yeah. I’ve started a new book. I’m sort of still in that place with it where it’s all play. It’s all just like, and maybe this. Then you have some weird image. You’re like, how does that fit? You just go down some rabbit hole of, maybe that’s how that fits. For a while, I was calling it my sci-fi house of mirth, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure it fits anymore. I like the sentence, so I still say it.

Zibby: I like the sentence too. Intriguing. Totally intriguing.

Yael: I’m glad you think that.

Zibby: Did you read a lot of sci-fi? What’s your go-to selection?

Yael: I do, yeah. I read voraciously, I think like most writers and book lovers do. I was thinking about it the other day. Obviously, I’m getting asked this a lot, about what sci-fi I read. I think this is true, but I can’t be sure. The book I’ve read most in my life — I think I’ve read it nine or ten times — is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I think that the writer I have reread the second most is Octavia Butler. I just love her. She does exactly what I find most interesting and valuable about sci-fi, which is, she tweaks the laws of nature just enough to show us our own reality in a new light. To me, that is the power of sci-fi. I think there are some people who write sci-fi for a complete escape of reality. That’s beautiful, but that’s not the kind of sci-fi I love. What I love is that it pulls back a curtain to show us something about our own reality in a completely new way. I admire her without bounds. I would say all of the sci-fi writers that I really love and respond to do something similar to that. There are so many. Then there are so many people who write — it’s sort of between genres in the way that this book, I was trying to do and I think I will do from now on. It’s like Victor LaValle. I don’t know if you’d ever call him a sci-fi, but it defies genre. He’s one of my absolute favorites, and Emily St. John Mandel similarly. It’s just these things where it’s like, who cares what genre this is? It’s a great story. Why do we need to know what genre it is?

Zibby: Okay, I’m sorry. I was just asking if you liked —

Yael: — Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I’m totally kidding. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Yael: That’s a great question. I would say enjoy it. Enjoy the writing because that is the only fun part. Maybe the more practical way of saying that is do not worry about what you think might sell because you have no idea what might sell. The fashions are constantly changing. Trends are changing. You have no idea what just flopped, what just did well because there’s too much of it to know. Write what you feel passionate about. Enjoy the process. If you’re not enjoying writing some particular scene because it’s feeling plodding, you are not writing it the right way. It is going to feel plodding. Following that joy in the writing is everything.

Zibby: I love it. You’re based in California? Is that what you said?

Yael: Yeah, I’m in Berkeley.

Zibby: You’re in Berkeley. Amazing. This is great. Thank you so much. I’ve totally enjoyed chatting with you. Congratulations on your book. I can’t wait to read the book we came up with together. I hope I get to meet you in person one day.

Yael: I hope so too. Thank you so much. This was a joy.

Zibby: Bye.

Yael: Bye.

THE POSSIBILITIES by Yael Goldstein-Love

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