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August 9, 2010

Something like a monopoly

“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

Favourite literary babies

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

I receive White Ink in the post

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

Dispatches from another dimension

“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.”

–from C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark by Ryan Knighton (and my review is here).

May 13, 2010

C'mon Papa by Ryan Knighton

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.

March 3, 2010

The Association for Research on Mothering, and Me

UPDATE: Ann Douglas speaks with ARM’s Founder and Director Andrea O’Reilly.

I am only one of many people upset at the news that the Association for Research on Mothering at York University is set to close at the end of next month. (This is particularly devastating, coming on the back of more bad news for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which played such a big role in my discovery of feminism via the magazines I bought there that I’d never seen anywhere else, ever). Though I’ve only been a mother for nine months, and my relationship with ARM has been peripheral, I can honestly say the two books I’ve read from their Demeter Press (which is also to close) have done more to enhance my understanding of my new life than anything else.

Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the Experts is the very best book on motherhood I’ve ever read. I’ve been a smarter, more confident, more open-minded and better parent since encountering it in November, and have been much better equipped to deal with the onslaught of other resources constantly undermining my authority. Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the MommyBlog has played a fundamental role in helping me to address my ambivalence toward mommyblogging (which in some ways is an ambivalence toward motherhood in general), and got me engaging with ideas I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with.

And though these were both scholarly texts, I devoured them. And not just because they were telling me things I needed to hear at a trying time in my life, but because they taught me things I need to know, and they challenged ideas I thought I knew. These two Demeter books were incredible, and to think there will be no more of them is an enormous cultural loss for everyone.

Please read Ann Douglas’ blog on more about the ARM closure, and plans afoot to try to do something to stop it.

February 26, 2010

The trajectory of a downward spiral

So please, may I draw you the trajectory of a downward spiral? It’s when you get The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems out of the library in October, The No-Cry Sleep Solution out of the library in December, and you pick up a used copy of Nighttime Parenting by Doctor Sears come February. This last one signals complete surrender, along with the fact that I bought a bed rail last week.

It’s funny how unwilling I am to give up on my insistence that some book somewhere will contain the answers to our sleep issues. I think this is where desperation can take you. And it’s even funnier, because in no other area of my life would I even consider self-help books, except this one. I scoff at self-help under most circumstances, thoroughly convinced that the truest wisdoms are to be found in fiction. (But aren’t there a dearth of babies in fiction? Real babies, I mean. Literature is rife with narratives about pregnancy, but who would want to read a book about life with an infant? [Though some people have, of course: check out Stephany Aulenback’s Babies in Literature Series at Crooked House]).

The Sears book might be the one that actually works though, because it seems to take most things that we’re doing, things that I worry we’re doing wrong, and then tells me my child will grow up to be maladjusted unless we keep on doing them. And seeing as I am the laziest nighttime parent the world has ever known, we really might be on to something.

(Though Harriet is still moving into her own room this weekend. She does manage to spend about half her night asleep in her crib, and the very best part of her move is that we’ll be able to read in bed again. I can’t wait.)

January 6, 2010

On my newfound trekker, newfound confidence, and the mystery of defensive mothering

Oh, if I could go back seven months, what a lot of things I’d have to say to the me I was then. I would urge that shattered, messed up girl to, “Get thee to a lactation consultant” a week sooner than I actually did, and advocate better for myself and baby whilst in the hospital, and promise myself that life as we knew it was not gone, gone, gone forever more.

I would also tell myself to run out and buy a Baby Trekker. I know why we didn’t in the first place– I thought Baby Bjorn was the end in baby carriage, but that $150 was too pricey. Since then, I’ve learned that you get your money’s worth, and that Bjorn’s not where it’s at anyway. We’ve had the Trekker for about three weeks now, and I’ve used it every day (it’s snowsuit friendly!), whether to haul Harriet around the neighbourhood, or to cook dinner with her happily strapped to my back (and this has improved our quality of life more than I can ever describe).

If I could go back about six months, I’d tell myself to START PUTTING THE BABY TO BED EARLY. That she doesn’t have “a fussy period between 7:00 and bedtime”, but that she’s screaming for us to put her to bed then. Of course, I wouldn’t have believed myself then, and even once we’d figured it out, it took another six weeks to learn how to actually get it done. This, like everything, was knowledge we had to come to on our own. And most of motherhood is like that, I’ve found, and it seems to be for my friends as well, which is why all my well-meaning, hard-earned advice is really quite useless to them. But even knowing that we have it in us to do so, to figure it out, I mean, is certainly something worth pointing out.

Even more useful than my Trekker, I think, the best piece of baby equipment I’ve acquired lately is confidence. I had reservations with Naomi Stadlen’s book, but she was right about this: “If [the new mother] feels disoriented, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her.” Though it actually was the bookshelves of literature that showed me I could go my own way, mostly due to the contradictory advice by “authorities” in each and every volume. (Oh, and I also read Dreambabies, which made it glaringly obvious that baby expertise is bunk.)

Solid food was the turning point though. I have three baby food cookbooks and they’re all reputable, and each is good in its own way, but they agree on nothing. When to start solids, what solids to start on, and when/how to introduce other foods, and on and on. It was good, actually, because I found that whenever I wanted to feed the baby something, at least one of the books would give me permission to do so. So I decided to throw all the rules out the window, and as teaching Harriet to enjoy food as much as I have the power to do so is important to me, I decided we would make up our own rules. As we’ve no history of food allergies in our families, and Harriet is healthy, we opted not to systematize her eating. We’ve fed her whatever we’ve taken a fancy to feeding her, without rhyme or reason, including blueberries, strawberries, fish, chicken, toast, cheese, beans, chickpeas, smoothies, squash, broccoli, spinach, spaghetti, and cadbury’s chocolate, and she’s devoured it all.

Okay, I lied about the chocolate. But the point is that my instincts told me that this was the best way to feed our baby, what made the most sense, and so I tried it and we’re all still alive. And it was liberating to know that the baby experts could be defied– I really had no idea that was even allowed. That as a mother, there could be something I knew about my child and our family that an entire panel of baby experts didn’t. And we can go onward from there.

What has surprised me, however, is that confidence hasn’t done much to reduce my defensive-mothering. You know, feeling the need to reassert oneself whenever someone makes different choices that you do. How not going back to work, for example, makes me feel like a knob, and moms going back to work feel threatened that I’m not, and we keep having to explain ourselves to the other, in fitful circles that take us nowhere.

It’s not just working vs. not working, of course. It’s everything, and this past while I figured it was my own lack of confidence that was making me so defensive. The best advice I’ve received lately is, “Never be too smug or too despairing, because someone else is doing better and worse than you are.” And it was good to keep in mind that any residual smugness was due to probably due to feelings of inadequacy anyway.

Anyway, it’s not just inadequacy, inferiority. Even the decisions I feel confident about prompt defensiveness when other mothers do differently, and now not because I’m unsure of myself, but because I’m so damn sure of myself that I’m baffled when you don’t see it the way I do. And there’s this line we’re meant to spout in these sorts of situations, to imply a lack of judgement. We’re meant to say, about our choices: “It’s what’s best for our family”, but that’s the most sanctimonious load of crap I’ve ever heard. Some things, yes, like me not going back to work, are best for our family, but other things, the other “choices” we’ve made: I’d prescribe them to everyone, and that not everyone is lining up for my prescriptions drives me absolutely mad.

Mom-on-mom action continues to fascinate, nonetheless. There are politics like nothing else, like nothing in the world of men, I think. It brings out the best and the worst in me, and I don’t think I’m the only one. And I doubt the action is going to be letting up anytime soon.

December 31, 2009

The very best decision

The very best decision I made all year was to choose Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over as the first book to read after Harriet was born. Harriet herself and her birth having been that big storm that knocked it (me) over, and did it ever. Like everybody else, I had no clue how hard those days (and endless nights) would be, but somehow I knew that Colwin’s lightness and humour would be a kind of balm. That this would be the kind of novel I’d actually get through at a time like that. And what a comfort it would be to read what Colwin wrote about motherhood, and its early days, attesting to the awfulness of it, validating my experience, but with a touch that assured me that things would get better. Underlining the joy that was there, and please, may I quote the passage again that said it all?

“Motherhood is a storm, a seizure: It is like weather. Nights of high wind followed by calm mornings of dense fog or brilliant sunshine that gives way to tropical rain, or blinding snow. Jane Louise and Edie found themselves swept away, cast ashore, washed overboard. It was hard to keep anything straight. The days seemed to congeal like rubber cement, although moments stood out in clearest, starkest brilliance. You might string those together on the charm bracelet of your memory if you could keep your eyes open long enough to remember anything.”

Truly, truly, books can save our lives, and make our lives. All the very best for a joyous 2010.

December 7, 2009

Then the worm turned

“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit. Seventh and eighth grades were a place into which one descended. One descended from the relative safety and wildness and bigness one felt in sixth grade, eleven years old. Then the worm turned, and it was all over for any small feeling that one was essentially all right. One wasn’t. One was no longer just some kid. One was suddenly a Diane Arbus character. It was springtime, for Hitler, and for Germany.”– Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions

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