Pittsburgh author Sarah Menkedick’s new book is about Motherhood

Local author Sarah Menkedick brings visibility to the messy, problematic facets of a universal experience – motherhood and pregnancy.

by Jessa Gibboney
May 7, 2020

Sarah Menkedick sat steadily against a cobalt blue background staring at a checkerboard of names. It was April 15. Menkedick’s virtual book launch of “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America” with White Whale Bookstore was set to begin.

My arm got a workout as Menkedick guided us through her new book. She and the other attendees could not see me, but my Hitchhiker Bane of Existence kissed the computer screen with each sentence read aloud by Menkedick. I raised my beer to toast, to agree, to shout “yes!” into the void of my kitchen. I am a mother, and listening to Menkedick, I felt seen.

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Motherhood and pregnancy were not always the leading narrative in Menkedick’s writing.

In 2010, Menkedick received full funding, one of only two slots, from the University of Pittsburgh, to complete a master of fine arts in nonfiction. Prior to 2010, she was living in Oaxaca, Mexico where local experiences and travel dominated her narratives.

“Mexico really made me a writer, both practically and on a deeper artistic level in the sense that living there I could afford to write. We spent $150 on rent. We survived on very little and that was possible.” The “we” is her and her now husband, Jorge Santiago. They met in Oaxaca in 2006.

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Once at graduate school, Menkedick hit a wall. Her academic discoveries were not coming to life on paper like her previous “epic” adventures were. “I struggled to write anything about Pittsburgh. I didn’t feel connected to Pittsburgh yet.”

With one foot still in Mexico, she continued writing about travel and Mexican culture.

Once finished with her M.F.A in 2013, Menkedick returned to her parents cabin in rural Ohio and began a new adventure: pregnancy.

“I reconnected with much more interior energy and concerns,” said Menkedick. Narratives were found in the seasons, in the woods and the spiritual, biological and emotional transformation that was taking place inside Menkedick’s body and mind.

After their daughter Elena was born, Menkedick and Jorge returned to Mexico before moving back to Pittsburgh in 2016.

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In 2017, Menkedick released her debut essay collection, “Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm.” In eight essays, she poetically exposes the reader to her vulnerable and evolving thoughts on self, career, breastfeeding, family and more. It was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

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Menkedick had more to share about motherhood.

“Once I made that shift in my writing, then coming back [to Pittsburgh] in 2016, I was able to write in some ways, a much more local book,” said Menkedick reflecting on researching and writing “Ordinary Insanity.”

Menkedick earned a job at the University of Pittsburgh teaching an intermediate nonfiction class, which proved to be serendipitous. Because of her employment, she gained access to research about risk, fear and motherhood (at least what existed). That is not where Pittsburgh’s assistance stopped.

“Several of the women in the book are in Pittsburgh,” said Menkedick. “Being here and being a mother, I became friends with women that I might never have connected with in Mexico… some live out in the suburbs and are very different from me in all sorts of ways, but that was also this powerful way to understand the connections between women in ways that I hadn’t before, which really is what this book is also about.”

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Ordinary Insanity” is unlike any book covering the topic of motherhood I have read. It ran toward its complexity. It made me feel less alone in my anxiety. It dared me to face the risk that controls my life. Just as I toasted during the book launch, my highlighter slowly devoured every word. Menkedick examines motherhood from every angle: scientifically, socially, emotionally, culturally and historically. She owns motherhood, leans into it, paints it for what it is — a serious topic worth everyone’s time.

If I don’t have you hooked, the book’s trailer will.

“Ordinary Insanity” is accumulating local and national attention. Recently from her living room in Pittsburgh, Menkedick made her national television debut on Good Morning America via Skype. Susannah Cahalan of The New York Times Book Review says its “Searing… Menkedick is a skilled storyteller and her accounts of women from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and racial backgrounds drive home how little society has to offer mothers….”

Jill Yeomans, co-owner of White Whale Bookstore, said, “In ‘Ordinary Insanity,’ Sarah Menkedick gives voice to that powerlessness that so many of us feel at the overwhelming responsibility, love, grief, and fear of new parenthood. This is a deeply researched book, but Menkedick’s writing is full of empathy and verve. She writes from an angle that was missing in the market—every mother can find a piece of themselves in these pages.”

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“I’m going to do what has never been done for motherhood, which is treat it like a serious, fascinating, intellectual subject,” said Menkedick. “‘Never been done’ is probably an exaggeration, but I don’t know very many books that look at motherhood like this is a topic of critical, contemporary importance.”

All this research, writing and time spent with mothers in Pittsburgh and beyond has shaped and expanded Menkedick’s own mindset around motherhood.

“I think I am writing what I aspire to do, and maybe haven’t quite been able to do yet,” said Menkedick. “With ‘Homing Instincts,’ I was trying to let go of this very productive, future-oriented, success-oriented mindset that I’ve had my entire life and learn how to be quiet and see and be still.”

With ‘Ordinary Insanity,’ Menkedick wanted to figure out the origin of her anxiety surrounding motherhood in a historical, medical and emotional context. To understand her anxiety meant a step toward living a meaningful life within it.

“As women we feel so many of these pressures in our everyday lives, and it’s amazing how little is written about them or how little is researched about them,” said Menkedick, “so to discover the sources of some of that pressure, like the history of motherhood, that alleviated some of that burden.”

Image, via @pantheonbooks.

Menkedick doesn’t shy away from that narrative that motherhood can be messy and difficult. To first time mothers, she had this to say:

“It’s probably the hardest thing you will ever do, and not just in a practical way, like trying to balance work and motherhood or trying to be a calm parent to a toddler, but in terms of how it will alter your world view and sense of self and everything fundamental you may have taken for granted before.”

“It requires a sort of bravery and openness that I never would have considered before I became a mother. In terms of being really vulnerable and seeing all the ways that you are flawed as a human being all the time, and having to be open to that, and still forgive yourself and move forward.”

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Menkedick’s writing makes motherhood visible, significant and less lonely. “Women have been reading about men’s experience for all of eternity. This is about women, and women’s experience can be universal as well.”

I raise my glass to that.

For a signed and personalized edition of “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, order here through White Whale Bookstore.

Order Sarah Menkedick’s “Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm” from White Whale Bookstore here.

For more work by Sarah Menkedick, click here.

On Friday, May 15th at 8 p.m.,  join a short reading and discussion about anxiety and the hidden side of  motherhood with Menkedick as part of a Mother’s Week virtual event series with Clara Mae James. Register here

Header Photo via Sarah’s Instagram: @familiasantiago.

Jessa is a writer and poet, but above all, a storyteller. Her blog houses poetry and essays on sustainable style, freelance and motherhood. Through her writing endeavors, she has worked with local and global brands such as Carnegie Museum of Art, TRYP Pittsburgh | Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh Opera, Cartier, Earth Brands and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Jessa lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, Ben, daughter, Louise and their pup, Opal. She wears the same rings every day, believes anything secondhand has a good story to tell and likes her whiskey straight up.

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