January 22, 2013
1) A friend emailed recently as she was doing a clear-out and wondered if I wanted any of her books on babies and birthing–Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Birth, Sheila Kitzinger, Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby. And it was such a pleasure to tell her no. I’d read these books already. I remember poring over Gopnik’s book when Harriet was six weeks old, desperate for some kind of understanding of this creature who’d arrived in my life. I remember the hours spent on internet forums trying to work out a pattern in the pieces of brand new life as a mother. I remember a lot of talking about talking about motherhood, the desperation of these conversations. How important they were for me to have at the time, but how there came a time eventually when I didn’t need them anymore. I have this fantasy that when our new baby arrives in the spring and my life becomes all-baby again that literature might be my one escape from the haze. That I might spend my summer reading about everything except babies, even if it has to be done in the middle of the night while the rest of the world (except the baby) is sleeping. But I’ve never had a second child before. I do not know if my fantasy will come true.
2) Motherhood still interests me, but on a broader level than the whole strollers on the bus brouhaha and whether breast is really best. The conversations I appreciate most about motherhood are those that don’t usually appear on the pages of glossy magazines, which rise above the Mommy Wars to broaden notions of what motherhood is and can be, and the ways in which different women’s lives are affected by various experience of maternity, and the elusiveness of “choice” (which is so often another fantasy, no?). Anyway, I’ve got more to say on the topic and the most exciting news ever forthcoming in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned.
3) We took a picture of my baby bump! How positively first-pregancy of us! It is not altogether flattering, as I’ve no make-up on, lighting is poor and I’ve had a cold for three days and it shows. But this is me at 22.5 weeks pregnant, which is kind of remarkable. I know many people find pregnancy pictures obnoxious, but as someone who has spent most of my life feeling fat and the last three years in particular trying to hide an unfortunate abdomen post c-section (3 years later, it is no excuse, I know, but still…) it is awfully refreshing to embrace and celebrate the shape I’m in. And it’s a remarkable thing, however ordinary, to have happen to one’s body, to change so much in such a short time, different every day.
4) I keep vague tabs in my mind of how my blog content is divvied up, the grown-up things, the kid things, the women things. I always have this notion that I’m doing terribly well when a string of posts doesn’t reference children or motherhood at all, and yet I don’t fully believe this either. My blog has always been a reflection of life as it is, and small children (and the books they read) have been a huge part of my life for some time now. I could pretend otherwise, but then I’d be left with not much to write about. Anyway, all of which is to say that I’m feeling self-conscious and babyish posting about pregnancy and belly-shots, but then here is where I’m at right now. The opposite of this scattered post would be an empty space.
May 13, 2012
The world already having had its fair share of bad mothers, bad mothers, and bad mothers, I’d wondered if Willow Yamauchi’s new book Bad Mommy was a necessary addition to the canon. But the book turned out to be quite different from what I’d supposed it was, not another tell-too-much so-bad-I’m-awesome mother memoir, but instead a satirical guide to motherhood, the perfect antidote to any baby book I ever read, particularly in the early days.
And best intentions do start early, don’t they? I spent my pregnancy reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Pam England’s Birthing From Within, eventually become a compulsive parenting expert, found becoming a mother akin to the universe exploding, and clung to its pieces with my few certainties: cloth diapers, front-facing strollers, not to feed baby to sleep, to breastfeed lying down at night, black and white mobiles, etc. At first there were the things I “knew”, and eventually, with enough confidence and experience, there were actual things that I really learned, though it baffled me how inapplicable my advice seemed to be to other people’s experiences. Why weren’t they taking my certainties on board? And even more baffling– why did I care so much what other people were doing? Why did other people’s (ill-advised, I thought) breastfeeding holds make me crazy? Why did nothing terrify me more than seeing other mothers making different choices from mine, I wondered? And of course, I see now that I was clinging to order in a chaotic world, imagining there was one path to good motherhood and that I was walking on it, because the alternative (which was the reality) was too much consider–that there was no path, and that all of us were all just stumbling blindly, making our own way as best we could.
I’m not sure I could have read Bad Mommy back when I was still clinging, when it was so important to me to be certain. Yamauchi’s irreverence is without restraint, nothing is sacred, and anyone and everyone is a target– she’s fair and balanced in that respect. Let’s face it, she tells us in her introduction, you are a bad mommy. You may be trying to be good, but you’re still bad, or at least somebody is going to tell you so. And in the next 40 chapters, she proceeds to tell us how: you will always be too young or too old to be a good mommy; no matter how you time your pregnancies, you’ll always get it wrong. Even if you remember the folic-acid, there will still be plenty of opportunities to fail your child’s development in utero– sushi, cheese, paint and kitty litter to choose from! You’ll gain too much weight, or not enough. You’ll deliver your baby in an idyllic water birth, and have the baby get stuck in the birth canal, or you will give birth in a hospital with painkillers which will result in an apgar score of less than perfect.
Everything you do as a mother, says Yamauchi, will be wrong, so you might as well have a sense of humour about it. Oh, and the breastfeeding– night nursing leads to tooth decay! Women who pack in breastfeeding are failures! Mommies who breastfeed into toddlerhood are perverts! The chapter on circumcision was my very favourite, the entirety of which I read aloud to my husband whilst laughing hysterically– “A common reason given for circumcision is that men want their little boys to ‘look like them’ down there. This is such a bizarre concept. First of all, what kind of parent and child compare their genitals for familial similarities?…” Though, she writes, don’t circumcise and your son will end up with STDs, Bad Mommy.
And so it goes, through disposable diapers and cloth, how to put your baby down to sleep (and the standards for this, Yamauchi notes, change every ten minutes, along with car seat requirements, and when and how to start solid foods), to vaccinate or not to, to work or stay at home. The point is to go confident in your choices, says Yamauchi, because you’ll only ever be wrong in them.
And there are so many ways to be wrong– I related in particular to the “Crafty Bad Mommy” chapter, as our craft supplies haul is mainly stubby crayons. You can be the Bad Mommy who sends her kid to school sick, or the Bad Mommy with muchhausen by proxy. You’ll have fat kids, or anorexic ones, you’ll look like a frump or a mutton-dressed-as-lamb, and onwards and onwards, so it goes, until you start to see that Yamauchi is joking but she also isn’t.
The book ran a bit too long to my tastes, and I found Yamauchi’s chapters more interesting than the case-studies that followed each of them (though even these had their moments), but in general, Bad Mommy is a great counter to so much of the faux-earnest or overtly polemic conversations about parenting going on all around us these days. Though everything is fair-game in the book, its point is not to abandon your principles as a mother (and for the record, I am still a cloth diaper fanatic. I just shut up more than I used to. Not that anyone actually wears diapers in our house anymore [!!!]), but to embrace them.
To be Willow Yamauchi’s bad mommy is simply to be the mother you are, but with gusto.
April 1, 2012
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsaing is author of the picture book A Flock of Shoes which we’ve adored for ages, and I’ve wanted to read her book of poetry Sweet Devilry ever since I read her poem “How to dress a two year old” (which begins “Practice by stuffing jello into pants./ Angry jello.) As A Flock of Shoes has autobiographical elements (the story’s main character has the same name as Tsaing’s daughter), there is some delightful overlap between it and Sweet Devilry, though they’re directed at different audiences. I love in particular the reference to Abby’s shoes flying high in the sky in the book’s final poem (though there’s no mention as to whether they sent her postcards).
I’ve added Sweet Devilry to my list of essential Motherhood books. The first poem begins, “On the morning of your birth…” and contains the wonderful line, “Learn a good latch, kiddo–/ it pays to hold on/ to someone you love.” And from then on, the book was unputdownable– I read it walking away from the bookstore all the way to the subway, even though my hands were cold. The first section includes poems about ultrasounds, various perspectives of pregnancy tests, poems about two year olds, tantrums and starting daycare.
The next section riffs on other texts, namely government-issued household manuals from the 1920s and well-known fairy tales, to reinvest familiar tropes with narrative. Section 3 is a long poem reworking The Little Mermaid. And finally, Section 4 explores the various corners of contemporary family life, including the joys of home-ownership in a “transitional neighbourhood” (“We find a pair of shat-on men’s underwear/ sitting at the back of our yard,/ casually, as though it’s always been there,/ as if it’s not embarrassed by its own/ telling state”). The rest are poems about loss (in particular of a parent), and how elements of loss and tragedy co-exist with ordinary life, and about the painful fact that love itself is always about letting go.
January 12, 2012
Sperm procurement is Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez’ basic challenge as a lesbian who wants to have a baby, a challenge further complicated by fertility struggles. Though the original challenge was pretty complicated from the outset– sperm is hard to come by for these purposes, and if you decide to go through anonymous donors, it’s next to impossible to find matches with your ethnic background, unless that background is white European. With precise, vivid and immediate prose, in her memoir How to Get a Girl Pregnant, Pendleton-Jimenez documents her journey towards pregnancy, which begins very early in her life when she knows she wants to be a mother as strongly as she knows that she’s a lesbian.
As a butch lesbian who wants to be a mother, Pendleton-Jimenez complicates ideas of butchness, and of motherness. But the arrangement has always felt natural to her, and her experiences co-parenting her partner’s children underline this instinct. As she approaches her mid-thirties, she decides to finally take the definitive step towards motherhood–and lesbians don’t do turkey basters anymore, she informs us. Turkey basters are too big, and sperm is far too precious a commodity to unintentionally get stuck up in the bulb at the top. There is also an amusing scene where she poses on her front porch for a photo with the tank the sperm is delivered in: “This may be all the baby gets to see of its biological parents together,” she writes, though upon reflection, she notes that she looks tired and unhappy in the photo. The stress of trying to get pregnant was already taking its toll.
Which would only get worse as she begins to undergo treatments at a fertility clinic, going in for regular visits for monitoring, to check for ovulation, and for fertilization. And in talking about infertility, she breaks a taboo, though this candidness does not come easily. She writes about the pain and isolation of what she’s going through, how women don’t talk about these experiences. She doesn’t want anyone to know, she doesn’t want to be pitied, to be “that woman who’s trying to get pregnant but can’t”, and so she is very much alone in the process. She also addresses the complicated dynamics of being a butch prone on a table being poked on prodded by nurses and technicians, learning to become accustomed to this, and of her strange pleasure in the compliment that her ovaries were “beautiful”. And in the hope each month that this time the pregnancy would take, and the predictable disappointment when it didn’t over and over again.
I know that longing, that desperation to be pregnant. Pregnancy came easily for me, but I remember how badly I wanted it, and identified strongly with Pendleton-Jimenez’ need for a baby. So that when she starts cruising for men at night clubs, I totally get it, and also admire the openness with which she writes, how she makes herself as vulnerable in her narrative as she did in the experiences she writes of. The openness works, because the writing is so good, beautifully unadorned and to the point. Pendleton-Jimenez also manages to write with both poignance and humour, and indeed, I laughed and I cried as I read this book. Like all great memoirs, this is an intimate story that manages to connect with the universal, and the narratives of pregnancy and motherhood are so much richer for it.
March 24, 2011
Lately I’ve been turning to Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books whenever I’m in need of parenting guidance. (I am also reading another book called Toddler Taming that recommends spanking and tying up children with rope, quite unabashedly, but then it was written in 1984 when that sort of thing was de rigueur. But actually, casual cruelty aside(!), it’s a great book. Just let me explain… Review to come.) I love Shirley Hughes, and I really love Alfie, and Harriet loves him too, so we’ve read his stories an awful lot.
And I don’t think the experience of parenthood has ever been better articulated in literature than with this one paragraph from Alfie Gets in First: “Mum put the brake on the push-chair and left Annie Rose at the bottom of the steps while she lifted the basket of shopping up to the top. Then she found the key and opened the front door. Alfie dashed in ahead of her. “I’ve won, I’ve won!” he shouted. Mum put the shopping down in the hall and went back down the steps to lift Annie Rose out of her push chair. But what do you think Alfie did then?”
This kind of tedious maneuvering is the story of my life, and if you’ve ever lived such a life, you understand that Mum has spent ages strategizing the perfect order in which to perform the tasks that will deliver her children and groceries into her house with maximum efficiency. I absolutely adore that recognition. Never mind Rachel Cusk as chronicler of motherhood, no, Shirley Hughes absolutely did it first.
I love her illustrations, and am fascinated by the interior of Alfie’s house. Harriet likes to comb the pictures for teapots, and I love to spot what else is cluttering the corners: discarded shoes, soccer balls, old ties, umbrellas, toy teacups, tennis rackets, folded strollers, and acorns.
Though Alfie’s mum, however rumpled, is a far better mum/mom than I am. Which I’m absolutely fine with, having chosen to take Alfie and Annie Rose’s dad as the parent upon which I model myself. He’s not around as much as Mum (and there I fall short. I never seem to go away), but when he is around, he’s usually behind a newspaper. I love that when in Alfie’s Feet, he takes Alfie to the park, he takes care to bring his book and his newspaper. A parent after my own heart, I think, and Alfie doesn’t seem any less content as he splashes through the puddles, his dad reading the paper on a park bench behind him.
August 9, 2010
“If only one way of infant feeding is permitted to be shown on television, in the moviesm and on social networking sites on the Internet, that way of feeding, becomes something like a monopoly. If women are made to feel anxious about their breasts or ashamed of them, breastfeeding becomes a less likely option for them. Needed information about this way of feeding is effectively blocked in the public media on the false basis of “modesty.” The choice for many is narrowed to which brand of infant formula to buy and what kind of bottle to put it in. Consider, for instance, how the symbol of the bottle has become the metaphor for infant feeding in the public media of cartoons, magazines, children’s books,a nd movies; there is little federal effort to counter the impression that bottle-feeding of artifical milks is better, more reliable, and more socially acceptable than breastfeeding for a human infant.” –from Ina-May’s Guide to Breastfeeding by (everybody’s favourite midwife) Ina-May Gaskin (via Meli-Mello)
From Chapter 16: Creating a Breastfeeding Culture
May 30, 2010
Thank you for the amazing response to my literary babies giveaway! My extra subscription to The New Quarterly has gone to Clare, whose name was that written on a scrap of paper plucked out of a yoghurt container by Harriet herself. Clare wrote, “…I think my favourite baby is Jem, Anne’s baby from Anne’s House of Dreams. It’s easily my favourite of the Anne books (maybe tied with Rilla of Ingleside) and Anne’s ecstasy over her little man is really sweet.”
If you’re really into babies in literature, I do urge you to check out the series of the same name at Crooked House.
Other entries were as follows, all fantastic: WitchBaby from Weetzie Bat, Rosemary’s Baby (and he was adorable), the baby from The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (which I now have to reread), the baby from Laisha Rosnau’s “Boy” from Lousy Explorers, the baby in Sara O’Leary’s Where You Came From as illustrated by Julie Morstad, Ede from F. Scott Fitzgerald “A Baby Party”, Pip from Swimming (yes yes yes!), Baby Nostradamus “from Sal Plascencia’s great, great novel, The People of Paper”, Sophie in novel Baby by Patricia MacLachlan, Baby Stink from The Lusty Man by Terry Griggs (which I haven’t read, but in my experience Griggs writes babies [and fetuses] better than anyone, ever), Egg from Hotel New Hampshire, James in The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie, Aurora from Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark, Emily Michelle Thomas Brewer from The Babysitters Club (which was a stunning entry), The Duchess’s Baby from Alice in Wonderland who turns into a pig, Sunny Baudelaire from the Lemony Snicket series and Jordan from Sexing the Cherry.
Before my own literary baby, let me provide a few runners-up. First, I was thinking about Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin, who isn’t lovable so much as memorable. I went back and reread passages from the babyhood portion of the book (first time since I’ve had a baby myself) and it stunned me for two reasons– 1) Lionel Shriver has never had a baby, but she *gets* living with a newborn so incredibly right. 2) the nightmare that was Eva’s life with baby Kevin was not so entirely different from mine in the early days of Harriet, somewhat terrifyingly. I’ve come around and Harriet does not appear to be a psychopath, but this adds a whole new texture to Shriver’s book.
Then there is Rilla’s wee soup-tureen baby in Rilla of Ingleside, “an ugly midget with a red, distorted little face, rolled up in a piece of dingy old flannel.”
And Arlo from Novel About My Wife, “He was perfect with his long eyes sweeping to the edges of his little walnut fae, with his beautiful breathing body, the heart fiercely beating under that boxy rhombus of his ribs.”
But my very favourite baby in literature is Glenn Bott, from my Adrian Mole omnibus by Sue Townsend. “I just bumped into Sharon Bott in Woolworths in Leicester, where I was purchasing Christmas presents. She had a strange-looking moon-headed toddler with her. “Say hello to Adrian, Glenn,” she said. I bent over the buggy and the kid gave me a slobbery smile. Is Glenn the fruit of my loins? Did my seed give him life? I must know. The kid was sucking the head of a Ninja Turtle. He looked fed up.”
May 19, 2010
It has been an absolutely bumper week for books in the post. Today delivered my copy of White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood from Demeter Press. I bought this book for selfish reasons, of course, but it didn’t hurt that my purchase will help to keep Demeter Press afloat. And may I please mention other fine Demeter books Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the MommyBlog and Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the Experts. As well as the gala event this Friday to raise funds for MIRCI and Demeter Press?
I imagine I’ll be dipping in and out of this beautiful book for some time. For Grace Paley, Sonnet L’Abbe, Rosemary Sullivan, Lorna Crozier, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Ray Hsu (with whom I used to work the Saturday midnight shift at the EJ Pratt Library, I’ll have you know), Leon Rooke, Laisha Rosnau, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, as well as many poets I have yet to discover.
There is also a Carol Potter. Do you think she is the Carol Potter,the most famous mother of all??
May 17, 2010
“Without question Tess was getting bigger and more complicated every day. But she was also growing her story. Growing a life that acquires its own description. Babies have only a handful of verbs. They eat, shit, cry, spit up, sleep, smile and wiggle. As a new parent, you live inside those few verbs with your child for the first year. In a sense, that’s part of the disorientation on top of sleep deprivation and all the other usual suspects. Some mornings I’d catch myself sitting with Tess and shaking the rattle, as I had the day before, and the day before that, or listening to her cry, or to her feed, and wonder where the hell all my verbs had gone. Could somebody open a window in there?
This might ultimately explain why parents are so punishing with their anecdotes. We are ecstatic, as if thawed from a long cryogenic sleep, with each rejuvenating action taken by our kids, no matter how banal. Like tourists with too many holiday slides, we prattle on to bored strangers, celebrating our return from new frontiers. ‘My god,” we say, ‘you should have seen the baby and the thing he did with the garden hose the other day! And this morning he made a brand new sound, sort of like he said, ‘multifaceted’ but, thing is, we don’t even use that word around the house, do we hon?’ Parents– all of us– send dispatches from another dimension where babies watching dogs, or futzing with garden hoses, is something blockbuster. And it is. Like, wow.
Or maybe you just had to be there.”
May 13, 2010
There is no better metaphor than blindness to describe new parenthood. Nobody knows what they’re getting into, nobody ever really sees the baby properly in the ultrasound, nobody expects what will happen when the baby arrives. Even those of us blessed with good vision have had trouble recognizing our newborns once they’re out in the world. And, um, even those of us with good vision have stuffed soothers into eye sockets and smashed fragile skulls into door frames. Parenthood is the kind of thing you have to pick up on the job, and there’s plenty of stumbling along the way.
All this is to underline the universality of Ryan Knighton’s experience as outlined in his memoir C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark. But of course to consider blindness as a metaphor is only part of the story. Knighton has been losing his vision since being diagnosed with a dengerative eye condition at 18, and he is now blind. What vision he has left has enabled him to see his daughter only in glimpses, as a blur. His story of fatherhood and blindness considers little details the rest of us take for granted– venturing out with the baby carrier when you can’t see where you’re going (though he should know that many of us have also walked around with our children facing out and covered in puke, and not realized it), how to find a silent toddler who has toddled away, how to change a diaper when you’re guided by touch, how to move around in the dark so the light doesn’t wake the baby (and it is perhaps here only that Knighton would have an advantage).
Knighton writes about life with a newborn better than any other parent-memoirist I’ve encountered. (The horror! The horror! Fear of colic! Fact of gas!) This might be because he’s the first father parent-memoirist I’ve ever encountered– I think most mothers get too lost in the murky swim of things to remember it all as pointedly as Knighton does, and even if they do, those memories fall victim to amnesia. What he gets really well, however, is how sound factors into early parenthood: the incessant newborn cries, the claustrophobia of being stuck in a car with a shrieking infant, that eerie silence once the baby is asleep and all ears are tuned listening to… nothing. Or was that a rustle? And oh shit, the baby’s up again. You go.
And did you know that baby monitors were invented out of the paranoia of the Lindbergh baby case? Um, and that if your baby woke up you’d probably hear it anyway, even without an electronic device?
Knighton’s book has a bit of the “There are the notes./ Now where is the money?” about it, which is refreshingly honest and illuminating. He describes the pressure to write, to produce, in order to support his family, which is probably common of most fathers and not something mothers would experience to the same extent. Because “Provider” is the one role that is defined for a father, the one job for which he’s not just a bystander. Knighton’s helplessness in supporting his wife in other tasks would not be limited just to a blind man– during pregnancy, labour and the newborn days, fathers are very much outside of the experience no matter how much they’re supportive, and Knighton does a fine job of describing what that helplessness feels like. So he does what he can do– he writes and writes.
Ryan Knighton belongs to that generation that believes it invented parenting (though it kind of did, grammatically speaking. was “parent” even a verb before that?) but as a father and as a blind man, he has a unique perspective to add to the mommy/daddy canon. His book is hilarious and beautiful, and a testament to love and to family.