Spilt Milk

By – April 26, 2021

Court­ney Zoffness’s book of per­son­al essays, Spilt Milk, is a pow­er­ful explo­ration of a range of expe­ri­ences that many women face — sex­u­al abuse, child­hood trau­ma, con­cerns about social jus­tice, and anx­i­eties around moth­er­hood — viewed through a Jew­ish lens.

In ten essays, Zoff­ness weaves trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries from her child­hood and young adult­hood togeth­er with her cur­rent expe­ri­ences as a moth­er of two young sons. She begins with a reflec­tion on the inher­i­tance of anx­i­ety and fear. Dur­ing her child­hood, her par­ents’ wor­ries about poten­tial tragedy — indi­cat­ed by their obses­sion with alarm sys­tems, lock­ing doors and win­dows, and hav­ing emer­gency bags pre­pared — cre­at­ed deep anx­i­eties for the author. Images of this hyper­vig­i­lant par­ent­ing are jux­ta­posed with descrip­tions of her son’s anx­i­eties and pan­ic attacks, and her fears about her own inabil­i­ty to help him relax.

Zoff­ness writes about her dif­fi­cul­ties nav­i­gat­ing a par­ent­ing style dif­fer­ent from that of her own par­ents, and how her desire for a healthy fam­i­ly is com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that she her­self is still see­ing ther­a­pists, and even astrol­o­gists, in order to be a less anx­ious woman and moth­er. These anx­i­eties bleed into oth­er areas of par­ent­hood, par­tic­u­lar­ly when her four-year-old son becomes fix­at­ed on police offi­cers, an even­tu­al­i­ty she describes in Boy in Blue.” Zoffness’s hon­est, con­tem­pla­tive essays regard­ing white priv­i­lege and racism and the way soci­ety encour­ages a desire for pow­er and con­trol in young boys make this book extreme­ly rel­e­vant and high­ly engaging.

Some essays focus par­tic­u­lar­ly on Jew­ish themes. Holy Body” revolves around an explo­ration of sur­ro­ga­cy from a Jew­ish per­spec­tive as Zoff­ness dis­cuss­es why one of her friends, who is a mikveh atten­dant, chose to become a sur­ro­gate for a Jew­ish cou­ple strug­gling with infer­til­i­ty. Zoff­ness sec­tions this essay into sev­en Hebrew med­i­ta­tions con­nect­ed to the mikveh. She con­tem­plates a more pro­gres­sive approach to the mikveh by rec­og­niz­ing that it has been used by bar­ren and fer­tile women alike as a means to sep­a­rate pro­found moments, includ­ing wean­ing and the reclaim­ing of one’s own body. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, she dis­cuss­es the sur­ro­ga­cy expe­ri­ence of her friend, who believes in the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of good­will and in the beau­ty of pro­vid­ing a cou­ple with par­ent­hood. Ulti­mate­ly, Zoff­ness feels that sur­ro­ga­cy is not talked about enough in the Jew­ish community.

Oth­er chap­ters, such as Daugh­ter of the Com­mand­ments,” humor­ous­ly yet care­ful­ly com­ment on bat mitz­vah par­ty woes, rang­ing from dis­com­fort about mon­ey to a boy crush ruin­ing the par­ty. In oth­er essays, such as Hot for Teacher,” Zoff­ness por­trays issues that plague women — such as grop­ing, unwant­ed atten­tion, and a spe­cif­ic case of high­ly inap­pro­pri­ate com­ments made by a male stu­dent in one of her cre­ative writ­ing cours­es — to show how they impact her self-per­cep­tion and her approach to rais­ing two young boys in a coun­try that val­ues pow­er over women. Zoff­ness nav­i­gates moth­er­hood while trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences from the past and anx­i­eties of the present cause her to con­tin­u­al­ly rethink and con­tem­plate her reac­tions. Spilt Milk is full of acute obser­va­tions that any woman and moth­er will find relatable.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of McSweeney’s

  1. Spilt Milk rais­es ques­tions about what it means to be both a moth­er and daugh­ter. If you are either a moth­er or a daugh­ter your­self, did you find your­self iden­ti­fy­ing more strong­ly with one or the oth­er? If you’re nei­ther, did you gain new insights into mothering?

  2. The author’s spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is an impor­tant com­po­nent of the book, emerg­ing in some form in many of the essays. Did her reflec­tions on Judaism res­onate with how you live and/​or con­nect to your own faith?

  3. Zoff­ness writes an inti­mate por­trait of her own life but this is not an auto­bi­og­ra­phy; we don’t know every sin­gle place she’s lived and job she’s worked or mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence she’s had. How effec­tive is it to con­vey a life sto­ry in dis­crete essays cen­tered on events and mem­o­ries as she has done?

  4. In what ways does Spilt Milk explore the idea of inher­i­tance? How does the nar­ra­tor open up the nature vs. nur­ture debate?

  5. The author is an accom­plished fic­tion writer, and yet this is a book of non­fic­tion. What ele­ments of the fic­tion craft does Zoff­ness bring to her non­fic­tion writing?

  6. What themes or ideas devel­op or deep­en as the book pro­gress­es? In what ways does the order of these essays advance your under­stand­ing of the material?

  7. How did your opin­ion of the nar­ra­tor evolve as you worked your way through the book?

  8. If you were to write a snap­shot of your own life in essays, what would you choose to include first?

  9. If you could ask this author one ques­tion, what would it be?