What We Carry

A Memoir
Trade Paperback

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“A gorgeous memoir about mothers, daughters, and the tenacity of the love that grows between what is said and what is left unspoken.”—Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk
 
If our family stories shape us, what happens when we learn those stories were never true? Who do we become when we shed our illusions about the past?
 
Maya Shanbhag Lang grew up idolizing her brilliant mother, an accomplished physician who immigrated to the United States from India and completed her residency all while raising her children and keeping a traditional Indian home. Maya’s mother had always been a source of support—until Maya became a mother herself. Then the parent who had once been so capable and attentive became suddenly and inexplicably unavailable. Struggling to understand this abrupt change while raising her own young child, Maya searches for answers and soon learns that her mother is living with Alzheimer’s.
 
Unable to remember or keep track of the stories she once told her daughter—stories about her life in India, why she immigrated, and her experience of motherhood—Maya’s mother divulges secrets about her past that force Maya to reexamine their relationship. It becomes clear that Maya never really knew her mother, despite their close bond. Absorbing, moving, and raw, What We Carry is a memoir about mothers and daughters, lies and truths, receiving and giving care, and how we cannot grow up until we fully understand the people who raised us. It is a beautiful examination of the weight we shoulder as women and an exploration of how to finally set our burdens down.

Praise for What We Carry

"Part self-discovery, part family history. . . [Lang's] analysis of the shifting roles of mothers and daughters, particularly through the lens of immigration, help[s] to challenge her family’s mythology. . . . Readers interested in examining their own family stories . . . will connect deeply with Lang’s beautiful memoir."Library Journal 
(Starred Review)

 
“A stirring memoir exploring the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters . . . astutely written and intense . . . [What We Carry] will strike a chord with readers.”—Publishers Weekly

“Lang is an immediately affable and honest narrator who offers an intriguing blend of revelatory personal history and touching insight.”—BookPage

Praise

“This memoir is more than the sum of its parts. . . . [It] becomes a larger meditation on motherhood, daughterhood and feminism—claiming oneself above all, and the moral struggle involved in doing so. . . . In exquisitely precise prose, Lang makes an argument that honesty is what’s truly empowering.”—Mary Beth Keane, The New York Times Book Review

“A book with such a brave message.”—The Observer

What We Carry is an exquisite exploration of the boundlessness and limitations of love that makes us examine the unknowability of who we are and the strength of our bonds with those who shape us. This story is so elegantly told, with such rawness and compassion, that I fell madly in love with Maya Shanbhag Lang and her complicated, unforgettable mother and could not put this book down.”—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

“Nothing short of radical.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

“A dazzling, courageous memoir about the weight we carry as women, daughters, and mothers—and what happens when we let go—What We Carry is a love letter to everyone who has swum through turbulent water before reaching the shores of selfhood.”—Chloe Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortalists
 
“Maya Shanbhag Lang thought she knew her capable physician-mother, but when Alzheimer’s hit her mother early, Lang found herself adrift in a sea of unwelcome truths and ambiguous loss. Anyone facing the ordeal of caregiving, with all its love, loss, and unexpected gifts, will be inspired by this searing and extraordinary memoir.”—Katy Butler, New York Times bestselling author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door
 
What We Carry is a wise, tender, and unswervingly honest memoir that reads like a mystery. With emotional precision, Maya Shanbhag Lang investigates the many ways we participate in the often-painful mythology of family. Just as thrillingly, Lang’s ultimate revelation is a hopeful one, reminding us that we are stronger than we think.”—Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men
 
“A profoundly moving memoir about secrets and trauma . . . In exquisite prose, Maya Shanbhag Lang writes about her extraordinary mother and the cruel circumstances that complicate their relationship. At its heart, What We Carry is about one of the greatest gifts any parent can give a child: the power to save yourself.”—Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club
 
“How do we really know the ones we love? Lang thought she knew her Indian immigrant mother through her stories until profound truths and unsettling secrets began to emerge, giving Lang an opportunity to come to terms with the ties that bound them. Truly, this is a gorgeous memoir.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You

Excerpt

1

I am six months pregnant, living in a city that feels utterly alien to me, talking on the phone, as I so often do, with my mother. Talking to her makes me feel less isolated, more assured, though on this particular day our conversation takes a strange turn.

“I am thinking of taking an easier job,” she says, “now that I am old.”

“Mom,” I scoff, “you’re not old.”

“Soon I will be sixty-­five.”

“That’s two years away!”

“I must face reality. I can no longer be who I was.”

I go quiet, unsure if I am supposed to argue with her or not.

My mom has a history of abrupt decisions. Ten years earlier, when I was in college, she divorced my dad after nearly thirty years of marriage, a shock to our Indian family. She quit her job and moved from Long Island to the unknown suburbs of New Jersey. These decisions weren’t bad ones—­I’d wanted her to divorce my dad for some time—­but they were startling for the way she did them, all at once. “Why New Jersey?” I asked from my dorm room. It was all I could think to say. “It will be good for work,” she replied. She was right. She landed a dream position running clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies and was happier than I had ever seen her.

However perplexing, her decisions have always worked out. Who am I to doubt her? When I was a girl, there was once a car accident on our street, a motorcyclist flung onto a neighbor’s lawn. My mom rushed outside and took control of the scene. This is how I picture her, a doctor radiating authority, even in a nightgown. She is the most capable person I know. I may not always understand her, but I have complete faith in her.

A week after that phone call, she gives notice. Her boss is stunned. He offers to reduce her hours, eliminate travel, hire assistants, all to no avail. She has already applied for a position at a state hospital. “A state hospital!” her boss cries. “You’ll be bored to tears!”

My mom sounds pleased when she shares his reaction with me. She is up against a wall no one else can see, which is more or less her ideal state.

“What if you don’t get the job at the hospital?” I ask nervously.

“I will get it.”

“Is this what you want?”

“It is not what I want. It is what I need.”

Such are my mother’s pronouncements.

“But why?” I press. “You’re giving up your dream job.”

“This way I will have a pension. If I am ever in a nursing home, those places are so expensive, you would not believe.”

Off she goes citing statistics. I picture her absorbing the numbers through her reading glasses. She is far­sighted: eyes like a hawk for distance, but unable to see anything up close. This applies not only to reading.

An immigrant, she came to this country for her children. Throughout my childhood, she fixated on the costs of sending me and my brother to college. If my outgrown jeans showed ankle, she told me to wear longer socks. “Everyone at school thinks I’m poor,” I mumbled. “Let them think that,” she snapped. “Their parents will have credit card debt to go with their nice jeans.”

In the distance, she sees her goals. She funnels herself toward them. She scowls if anyone suggests alternatives. Help and convenience are to be batted away.

A few days later, she gets the job at the state hospital, just as predicted. This is the thing about my mom: She may be cryptic, but she is always right.

“I don’t know if I should congratulate you,” I confess.

“This is for the best.”

“Maybe you’ll be able to visit me more, with a less demanding job.”

She chuckles. “That would be nice. What matters is my pension. I do not want to burden my children!”

So it goes between us. Everything she does is for my benefit. This is what a mother’s love looks like to me. It looks like suffering.

I accept it. I am about to become a mom three thousand miles away from her, in a gray, drizzly city that feels wholly unfamiliar. Soon, I will be the one putting my needs last. It helps to believe that somewhere in the world, I still come first.

2

Before moving to Seattle, my husband, Noah, and I lived in Manhattan. We had grown tired of the city—­exorbitant rents, minuscule apartments—­and were at a crossroads in our careers.

I was about to complete my PhD in comparative literature. I was no scholar, but I was happy enough pretending to be one. I got to read books all day. It felt like a grand luxury.

I wasn’t sure, however, what to do with my degree. I didn’t want to apply for tenure-­track positions. I’d wanted a PhD for the same reason I’d ever done anything: to be impressive. At twenty-­eight, I had a series of stints behind me. I’d been pre-­med, then a management consultant, then an academic. I had leapt from one role to the next. None fit.

Noah, four years older than me and from Southern California, was working as a lawyer at a big firm, a glamorous–sounding job he loathed. He hated watching partners yell at secretaries, the lack of women and minorities in positions of power, and the fact that many of the companies he defended (tobacco and chemical conglomerates) deserved, in his mind, to be sued. Noah’s conscience was one of the reasons I fell for him. He grew up poor. He didn’t want his future kids to go without health insurance the way he had. His pragmatism and conscience butt heads in his work.

The funny thing is that because Noah grew up poor and Jewish, we understood each other perfectly, though I had been neither of those things. He understood why I felt guilty buying a nice pair of jeans. I understood why he felt excluded at Christmas. We had both been shaped by guilt and frugality and a complicated shame. We were the kids who had shown up to school with our textbooks wrapped in brown paper bags. We knew what it was like to be on the outside, looking in.

We also learned what it was like to be on the inside, looking out. We had escaped our pasts. Noah’s family never expected him to put himself through law school or move to New York City. My Indian parents never imagined that it was acceptable to read books all day. We had proved them wrong. We had made it. Yet no matter how impressive our jobs (a lawyer at a big firm) or achievements (a PhD at twenty-­eight), we felt like misfits. We didn’t really belong.

When Noah was offered a job as in-­house counsel at Nintendo while I defended my dissertation, the timing seemed perfect. Here was a chance for him to join a feel-­good company, for us to leave Manhattan, and, best of all, for me to duck the question of what to do with my life. We were moving across the country! It was like being handed an alibi.

We packed our small apartment into our car and headed west. Our dog, Lola, a black Lab mix, sniffed curiously at the fresh air from the back seat. We had just put an offer on a house, something we had no experience doing. We were filled with conjecture about what it would be like to be homeowners. Any concerns came from Noah. I was in charge of the giddiness. “Relax!” I told him. “We’re going to love it.”

Were we? He raised some good points. We didn’t know Seattle well. I had pushed us into buying a house because I wanted something to show for myself. When friends said, “You bought a house already?” I felt a little better.

I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a plan. Beneath my enthusiasm, I was filled with doubt. Never before had I uprooted like this. It was the sort of all-­in move my mom would make. I thought about how her gambles always worked out. I wanted to believe that if I sounded confident the way she did, if I laughed off concerns, I would land on my feet just like her.

Reader's Guide

1. When we first encounter the story of the woman in the river, Lang expects it to be about maternal sacrifice. She is surprised when her mother says, “We must not judge. That is the real lesson of the story. Whatever a woman divides, it is not easy.” How do Maya’s judgements of herself and her mother change over the course of the book? Have you ever found yourself judging yourself or someone else differently over time? 

2. Returning home from the hospital after giving birth, Maya is overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood. When she asks her mother how she handled these demands, her mom answers, “I don’t know… I just did.” Maya has no idea that this response is an obfuscation of the truth. Do you think this answer helps or harms her? 

3. Maya’s mother describes depression as “a broken bone no one can see.” How do you interpret this metaphor? Do you think the general public views depression this way?

4. When she experiences suicidal thoughts, Maya asks her mother to visit. Her mother replies that if she were to get on a plane, she would “die of exhaustion.” Why do you think Maya’s mother responds this way? How would you feel if you were in Maya’s shoes? Maya eventually begins to feel angry, but it takes a while for the anger to arrive. When it does, it feels to her like a “small red balloon.” How do you think it helps Maya to think of her anger as something inside of, but separate from, her own being? 

5. As she settles into motherhood, Maya begins writing a novel. This is her form of self-care. “Only in my writing am I able to let go,” she writes. “Perhaps this is what we should give new moms: A laptop and a cup of coffee. A notebook and a pen. Permission to dream.” What messages do you think our culture sends to mothers about the value of caring for themselves? What methods of self-care are condoned or disparaged? What feels like true self-care to you?

6. “There is a certain dark point at which self-sufficiency becomes a dare,” Lang writes. “Why ask for help when you can pretend not to need it?” Why is asking for help difficult? How do you feel when you ask for help? 

7. If my mom could do it, so can I. Maya repeats this to herself as a mantra. Do you have a mantra to motivate yourself? What does it come from?

8. When Maya realizes that her mother is exhibiting signs of dementia, she understands the distance that grew between them over the preceding months. “She wanted a false story from me,” Lang writes. “Without realizing it, I wanted one from her. We’ve been hiding from each other.” When do we present false stories to others, and when do we expect false stories from them in return? What do those false stories offer us? 

9. As Maya struggles to understand the idea of home, Zoe tells her, “Home is the place that’s always open.” Maya realizes that her mother made her feel most at home in the world. How would you define home? Is there someone or something that helps you feel like you have a place in the world? 

10. We shouldn’t ask so much of any one part,” Louis tells Maya. “Too much strength can be its weakness, you know.” Maya is stunned. Why do you think this means so much to her in that moment? Do you have examples from your life when you or someone you has exhibited too much strength? 

11. Why do you think Maya’s mother neglects to share that she received help as a mother? What is the legacy of that omission? What long-term effects does this have on Maya and the choices she makes? 

12. Of caregiving, Lang writes, “I want to separate the myth from reality, to reconcile the mom I always imagined with the more complicated person I’m just starting to know.” What realities does she learn? Can you think of an instance in your life when you put someone on a pedestal? What enabled you to see the person differently?

13. “Maybe at our most maternal, we aren’t mothers at all,” Lang writes. “We’re daughters, reaching back in time for the mothers we wish we’d had and then finding ourselves.” What does she mean by this? Can you think of examples-from your own life or someone else’s-that show how this is true? 

14. “She didn’t always know how to care for me the way I wanted,” Lang says to her mother. “She cared for me the way she knew how.” How do you think Maya’s mother expressed her love for her children? What do you think of this type of caregiving? 

15. Towards the end of What We Carry, Lang revisits the story of the woman in the river. “The woman chooses herself,” she reflects. “Once she makes the choice, everything follows.” Lang finds this idea empowering and uplifting. Why? What does it mean for a woman to choose herself? 

16. How do you think the idea of mythology plays out in the book? What myths inspire you? How do the stories we tell-about ourselves and others-shape us? 

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