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Pickle Me This

May 20, 2015

Survival Gear for Our Stories

IMG_20130605_154726A lot went wrong when my first child was born, most of it involving the loss of my mind, but there was also the fact of the loss of my hard drive when the baby was four weeks old. I lost everything on my computer, which was actually kind of liberating—this all happened on the day I turned 30, and I was intrigued by the idea of a fresh start, a clean slate as I embarked upon a brand new decade. The only thing we lost that I truly regretted were photos, unflattering ones taken soon after the birth, photos of us in the recovery room as we were learning to breastfeed for the very first time. These were the kind of photos one wouldn’t post on Facebook, all bare boobs and double-chins, and besides, I was still then the kind of person who didn’t want to put too many pictures of my child on Facebook. I didn’t want to be one of those people.

The baby had only been around for four weeks, but those early weeks are such times of enormous change. At four weeks, she’d already amassed multitudinous selves, passed through several incarnations, and it was impossible to keep track of all them. And most of that was irrevocably lost when my hard drive went kaput, taking all my photos with it. Except, ironically, for the few photos I had posted on Facebook—an exercise I’d undertaken with remarkable restraint. And suddenly, those few photos were the only ones I had. Facebook was my saviour—who’d ever have imagined?

So I was converted by the time my second daughter was born four years later. There were going to be so so many pictures. We were also going to have her photographed immediately after her birth by ceasarean, all purple and gloopy and as foetal as she’d ever be again. I wanted to see it. I’d missed it before, when Harriet been all cleaned up and wrapped in a blanket before I saw her at all, her father by my side reporting that, “Our baby has so much hair.” There had been a gap between her birth and her life that I was never able to get over, the medical screen never really coming down, and perhaps I’m just coming up with metaphors to explain my failure to process that this child was mine, but there it was. I wanted pictures this time. Of all of it. I didn’t want to miss a single thing.

When Iris was a few weeks old, my computer began to fail again, laptops seeming to have a similar lifespan to the space between my children. But we’d learned our lesson and backed up our photos, so that all of them now live on a portable hard drive. Which means they’re inconvenient to access, but they’re there. And I pulled them out not long ago to prove my case in point

a-year-of-days“Words and pictures—survival gear for our stories,” writes Myrl Coulter in her memoir, A Year of Days, and I underlined that part. Survival gear indeed, for when I started looking at photos—hundreds of them—from the days after Iris’s birth, I scarcely recognized any of the moments documented within. At least not at first, but then the memory of these moments started returning to me. Mundane things that would be of no interest to anyone but me, for whom they’re unbearably precious—photos of me lying in bed at home with my children, who were discovering each other as sisters; crazy eyed bloated fat face photos from post-op; breastfeeding pics galore; and even a photo my incision just before the staples came out, because I couldn’t actually see it and was unbelievably curious.

I’d forgotten all of it, which is natural, I suppose, and it’s possible that it’s unnatural to have so much documentation, that it may tax our minds to have so much evidence of… of what? Of life, I suppose. And these photos bring it all back so clearly. Having taken them certainly does not mean that I was any less in the moment (and really, being a mother is to be eternally in the moment no matter how you try to swing it). If it had only been about the moment and not its preservation, those memories would have been lost altogether.

mommyblogsThere has been a lot of criticism thrown at my generation, and those younger, for oversharing, for selfies, for self-absorption, and toward mothers in particular for conspicuously mothering on social media. (This is a criticism I was responding to when I resisted baby photos on Facebook so many years ago). But the idea of survival gear frames it all in another way. In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, May Friedman writes against criticisms that mommy blogs will cause harm to the children who later in life encounter their own childhoods documented online. She writes:

Children are silent witnesses to their own parenting, unable to recall the nuances of their own infancy and early childhood. Indeed, it is arguable that children can only remember parenting as it becomes combative. By reading not only about their mothers’ struggles, but also about their mothers’ obvious love and care, perhaps adult children may find their relationships with their mothers bolstered rather than damaged. Whether the outcomes are positive or negative, mommyblogs allow children to see their mothers as three-dimensional individuals…

Smears-of-Jam-Lights-of-Jelly_MP_071_RGB-300x240This morning when I read of the sudden death of Today’s Parent editor Tracy Chappell, I thought about her post from December, “Why I’m breaking up with my blog,” which is one of the most thoughtful pieces on blogging I have ever encountered. I’m going to be using it in my course going forward. She writes about blogging makes you live your life in a more reflective way, see the world differently, and how blogs are such remarkable records of these lives we live.

Chappell writes, similarly to Friedman:

I hope that, through this blog, they will learn to see me as not just “Mom” but as a woman who had her own things going on—a career, relationships, dreams, struggles, goals—as I was wiping bums and making dinner and gently (oh-so-gently) brushing knots out of hair. I hope they’ll see the value in taking lots of pictures and marking special moments. I hope they’ll understand that parenting is really hard and also has great rewards. I hope they’ll see how much fun we had. I hope they’ll see that I recognized and appreciated their many beautiful, individual gifts, even if they thought I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. I hope they’ll see how hard I tried. I hope they’ll see how much they were loved. I hope they’ll see how proud I’ve always been to be their mom.

These would be poignant words anyway, but mean so much more now with their writer’s death. What a legacy for her girls, all those posts, which will provide them answers to those questions all of us have about our childhoods, answers that are forever lost to time, confusion, blurry brains. How they will still have this remarkable access to their mother’s voice, even now that she is gone. It will never make up for their loss, but what a gift too, to be able to know who she was. And how profound her love was for them.

All of which underlines my sense that these acts of documentation are some of the most important things we’ll ever do.

May 5, 2015

Motherhood and Creativity: In Conversation with Rachel Power

motherhood and creativityEverything is a circle. I first learned about Rachel Power’s work through serendipity and (what else?) blogging and talking about books. In 2008, the Australian writer  and artist left a comment on my blog about the ambiguous ending to Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, and I discovered her blog and her book, The Divided Heart

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and so still very much on the periphery of “the motherhood conversations” of which I’d be privy to in the months to come. And so The Divided Heart was my first hint of these, where I first read about maternal ambivalence, the struggle (emotional and practical) for mothers to assert their creative selves, and the myriad ways women find to make it work. It was a hugely important book for me. I read it before I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work

And because everything is a circle, The Divided Heart is now back in print as Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, and where Power left a comment on an interview I’d done seven years ago, I’m now interviewing her—about the book, how it’s changed in its new edition, the ways in which the motherhood conversation has changed since 2008, and how motherhood can connect us to our creative selves and to the world.  

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Kerry: The Divided Heart was one of my foundational texts on motherhood and mothering—I read it while I was pregnant in 2008. Which seems like a lifetime ago now, but I am so pleased that it has found new life as Creativity and Motherhood. The book played a huge role in my own experience of my heart actually not being so divided when it came to motherhood and creativity—you showed examples of how women combine the two, even when the balance is tricky. These women showed me what was possible. So I really like the new title—but how did the title change come about?

Rachel Power: Thank you for those generous comments about the book. It’s very flattering that someone as well-read as you would consider my book any kind of “foundational text”! I know your book has become the same for so many women out there.

dividedheartWith this new edition, called Motherhood & Creativity, the publishers had some radical changes in mind for the title, which I have to admit I largely resisted. I actually pushed pretty hard to keep “The Divided Heart” in there (it became the subtitle), because I still believe it represents the central drama of the experience for many if not most creative people with children: the desire to be in two places at once; the fear that being properly dedicated to one role inevitably risks neglecting the other. For me, those words introduce the initial question the book is trying to address. But as you say, that doesn’t mean it is full of women who are bogged down by those feelings; rather, it’s full of examples of artists who’ve found ways to forge ahead despite, and sometimes because of, those dilemmas.

As for using the word “creativity” instead of “art” (the original subtitle was “Art and Motherhood”), this felt like a necessary recognition that creativity is an important part of many people’s lives, expressed in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they all identify as “capital-A” artists. That’s why I really wanted craft-maker and blogger Pip Lincolne in this new edition: she has such a strong creative drive—and such a creative approach to life!—but I don’t think she would identify as an artist, as such. I knew that many readers would relate to that.

Kerry: It’s a very different book for me now—not just in title. I’m much more experienced in both motherhood and being creative than I was in 2008, and I relate to different parts of the conversations. How has the book changed for you? Was revisiting it a welcome experience?

Rachel: Like you, of course, I’m much further along in my parenting (my kids are 13 and 10 years old now!), but the issues remain very current to me, so I found it easy to slip back into the mothering and art conversation for the new edition. The demands are different, but just as intense, I find. With my son starting high school this year, I feel like I’m going back to school myself—my weekends have been almost completely hijacked by helping him with his homework!

But one of the main realizations for me, as someone who works full time, is that holding down a day job has been a much greater barrier to creativity than mothering. In the first edition, writer Anna Maria Dell’Oso said that when she was at home with small children she felt much closer to “the centre of her integrity” than when she was at the office, and I totally relate to that now. Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.

“Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.”

Kerry: What about the book’s actual changes? What else is different in this new edition?

Rachel: The new edition contains around half of the interviews from the former book and the same number again of new interviews. Much like the first time around, I approached women I admire, and was lucky enough to interview one of Australia’s best-loved actors Claudia Karvan; visual artists Del Kathryn Barton and Lily Mae Martin; writers Cate Kennedy, Tara June Winch and Lisa Gorton; musicians Holly Throsby and Deline Briscoe; and craft maker and blogger Pip Lincolne.

The other coup this time around was adding a preface from musician Clare Bowditch, who as an old friend and neighbour of mine, not only witnessed the genesis of this book, but also shared in the early years of child-rearing with me. So apart from my own family, there is really no-one closer to this book than Clare, and her preface is affirming and moving and humbling all at once. I’m very grateful for it.

My introduction and conclusions in the first issue are heavily truncated into one opening chapter in the new book. I had done a lot of research before writing the first edition and basically presented my poor editor with a 140,000-word thesis! This was cut back heavily, obviously, but the new publishers felt that it was still a bit too academic in style. So the new intro is a bit less wordy and hopefully more accessible as a result.

Kerry: How did the new edition come to be? What were the signs that the demand for it was out there?

Rachel: The Divided Heart went out of print a while ago, and it was really upsetting me that people couldn’t get their hands on a copy. I was still getting lots of letters and emails from potential readers asking where they could find books, but I only had one copy myself! So it was very exciting to find a new publisher in Affirm Press. Initially, it was just going to be a shortened version of the original. But as we went forward, editor Aviva Tuffield and I decided that it would be good to create a different book, to bring it up to date, and so there was new value for those who already had the original edition.

Kerry: Are you finding the reception different this time around? My sense is that we’re living in a slightly different climate now in regards to talking about motherhood—there is more space for nuance. Though this might be because I’m now in that climate instead of looking on. What do you think?

Rachel: That’s an interesting observation! I think there is definitely more space for nuance in the feminist debate generally, and that we have largely moved on from the dispiriting “mummy-wars” that were dominating the conversation around the time I first published The Divided Heart. Motherhood has definitely taken centre-stage in a way it hadn’t when I had my first child, and so there seems to be less division between the different parts of people’s lives nowadays—and between those who have kids and those who don’t—which can only be a good shift for society, I think. That said, most of the criticisms I’m receiving this time around are the same as last time: chiefly, that this is a bunch of middle-class women indulging their hobbies and complaining about their kids (which is such a tedious misrepresentation of the actual stories it contains).

From the outset, part of what interested me in the subject of artist-mothers was that I saw the unique contribution it could make to the feminist debate, precisely because it is a nuanced issue—both in terms of work/economics and of family/housework. Writer Alice Robinson summed it up beautifully in her recent piece for Overland journal, when she said that “as a stay-at-home parent by day, a writer by night, I am doing what untold numbers of people in each camp, and all those in both, are doing: two challenging but largely unpaid jobs. … each undervalued in the remunerative sense, but fundamental in the cultural.”

“To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations.”

To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations, because of the self-driven nature of art and the lack of guaranteed compensation. At a personal level, asserting your need to create; to carve out the time and space that art demands; to feel confident in the validity of what you have to say–requires a special kind of drive and determination for anyone. Doubly so for mothers, whose own interests and desires are expected to be sublimated to the needs of others.

So, in my mind, endeavouring to be both artist and mother raises some of the biggest questions about how we choose to live and view the world: self versus society, partnering versus independence, feminism versus masculine, sacrifice versus self-interest, creativity versus economics… In this way, I think the experience of artist-mothers can speak to the feminist debate at a particularly subtle and sensitive level.

on-immunityKerry: Motherhood is so incredibly interesting, the ideas around it far-reaching and important. I’m thinking about the book On Immunity by Eula Biss, a vast and important sociological text, and in her acknowledgements, she thanks the mothers in her community who made her realize “how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are…”

 I didn’t really understand this when I first read your book, when I first became a mother—the ramifications of the ideas you’re talking about, we’re all talking about. (I certainly had no idea that motherhood would be so interesting that I’d end up editing an anthology about it too years later….)

Another interesting thing is that it’s ever in flux. What are the questions and ideas around motherhood that are preoccupying you these days?

Rachel: As you say, mothers are raising the next generation, so their actions and decisions are far-reaching and important indeed! Mothers have a unique stake in the future, and that’s why they are spearheading so many campaigns and movements around the world. In Motherhood & Creativity, writer Tara June Winch, who herself set up onethousand.org (a charity to promote female empowerment), says, “I’ll argue that most NGOs, globally are run by mothers in one way or another.”

m-word-coverMotherhood is a galvanising force—and one of the best things about writing The Divided Heart was that it connected me to an incredible community of mothers, who think very deeply about the way they parent but also about the world that they have brought their children into. Fathers are there too, of course. But among the families I know, while fathers are very much involved, it’s largely mothers who are still doing much of the logistical work as well as the theoretical thinking behind the parenting—and most of the worrying, sadly!

Personally I have always found mothering hugely confronting; the role presses me to be a stronger, braver, more industrious person than I feel capable of being most days. And we are raising kids in unusually complex times. I’m very conscious of wanting to raise children who feel empowered in a culture that is: 1) largely driven by a consumer-capitalist ethos; and 2) facing potential catastrophe as a result. The big question for me is: how do we raise kids who are critical and creative thinkers, who will make ethical decisions, and who will treat the environment, themselves and other people with respect, when right now all they want is a PlayStation 4 for Christmas?!

I think creativity can play a big role in all of this. I love Pip Lincolne’s comment in the book: “There’s a forgiving, nurturing quality about handmade that should be applied to life. Not everything is perfect, but it was made with good intentions and there were so many little, meaningful decisions along the way. I think that mindful approach is such a good thing and an ace ethos for a family.”

Could there be a better approach to bringing up kids? I reckon Pip has it pretty sorted!

April 9, 2015

Motherhood Milestones

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The M Word was published nearly a year ago, and Mother’s Day is just about a month away. To mark both these milestones, I’ve made a list of Canadian non-fiction books that have been expanding the conversation about motherhood along with The M Word.

April 6, 2015

Departures and Arrivals

IMG_20150405_072206We leave for our trip this week, and I keep waiting for that lull between our departure and the time in which nobody in our family is sick, but the window for such a thing is disappearing, and I am so very tired. And sick, again. There was about five minutes on Friday when I wasn’t, and then cold symptoms returned on Saturday morning shortly after my child threw up in a shoe store, which was a brand new milestone for all of us. But nevertheless, Easter was had, a holiday we celebrate for its pagan roots and not the Jesus bits. We’re all about the eggs, and the new life that comes with spring—I met a baby today who turns two weeks old tomorrow, and she was a miracle unfolding. We had a lovely visit with my parents, and saw friends on other days, and Harriet and Iris got the new Annie movie on DVD, and Harriet has watched it five times already. There are crocuses across the street. We are assembling our playlist, a CD of driving tunes for the journey from Berkshire to Lancashire (which I’m the smallest bit nervous about, Iris having just now decided that she hates cars. “Car, no. Car, no.”)

mad-men-best-of-everythingTonight we’re watching the new Mad Men, which premiered last night, but we watch it on download from iTunes so are behind the people who watch it on TV. I don’t know what I’m going to do in a world without Mad Men, a show that has been such a huge part of my life for years now and which has seriously informed my reading life too. It’s a good time to re-share The Canadian Mad Men Reading List, which I made last year, and am seriously proud of. Oh, Stacey MacAindra. Maybe I’ll finally get around to finishing The Collected Stories of John Cheever. I still haven’t read “The Swimmer.” I’ve been saving it, I think, of the post-Mad Men world. In which I am probably going to go right back to Season One.

Today I found a poem about motherhood, bpNichol Lane, Coach House Books and Huron Playschool, written by Chantel Lavoie for the Brick Books Celebrating Canadian Poetry Project. I find myself struck by the poem and the various ways it connects with my life, and how literature and motherhood and the fabric of the city are all so enmeshed. Particularly in this neighbourhood.

And finally, I am in a peculiar situation book-wise. I don’t know what books to take with me on vacation. Now, on a certain level, bringing any books on vacation is simply stupid because all I ever do when we go to England is buy books. And when I look at my to-be-read shelf now, no contenders jump out on me—nothing good for an airplane, nothing I am truly destined to love, no book with which I’d be thrilled to be holed up with in an airport terminal. You can’t take chances in a situation like this! So I have decided…to bring no books with me. This is truly the wildest and craziest thing I’ve ever done. This year, at least… To pick up a book at the airport, and trust I’ll find the right one there, and then live book to book. No safety net. This is terrifying. And yet potentially exhilarating, rich with adventure. The book nerd’s equivalent of jumping out of the sky.

April 1, 2015

Mrs. Peter’s Birthday Cake

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I’m about as crazy about literary cakes as I am about books illustrated by Marla Frazee (and written by Mary Ann Hoberman, no less), so I’ve been meaning to write about The Seven Silly Eaters for quite some time. A book that I’m actually ambivalent about, even though it has rhyming couplets. It’s down the other end of the spectrum from Mem Fox’s Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild, another book illustrated by Frazee. Harriet is the story of a mom who reaches her breaking point after being sorely tested, and she finally explodes at her extremely irritating (albeit loveable) daughter, and then apologizes and everything is okay. Because mothers are human. Getting angry and upset is what people do, and I think there’s nothing wrong with mothers modelling this. Imagine the child who’s gone through his entire life without learning the fact that people get upset sometimes, that one’s behaviour can have consequences; what a rude awakening the actual world is sure to be.

IMG_20150325_180036But then there is Mrs. Peters who seems to never have heard of birth control (with seven children in as many years) or setting limits. One by one, each of her children conspires to destroy her person and her cello-playing dreams by making  ridiculous culinary demands: her first child refuses his milk unless it’s warmed to a precise temperature; her second will only drink homemade pink lemonade;  third would only eat freshly made applesauce; with the fourth it’s oatmeal, unless that oatmeal has the suggestion of a lump and then he dumps it on the cat; the fifth demands homemade bread; and the twins will only eat eggs, poached for one and fried for the other.

And while Mrs. Peters is happy in her bubble of domestic chaos—this is certainly the life she chose and she likes the pace—the resentment does eventually seep in. Not overwhelmingly, and she seems to accept it the way she’s accepted everything. “What a foolish group of eaters/ Are my precious little Peters,” she muses as she strains the oatmeal for the 4000th time. She thinks they’ve forgotten her birthday, and then she goes to bed sad—has there ever been anything more pitiful than that?

She should have put a stop to the whole thing years ago. “Make your own fucking applesauce, Little Jack. I’ve got a cello to play.” Mothers are people. It’s a good thing for a child to know.

IMG_20150325_183659But! Here is the twist. The children have not forgotten their mother’s birthday. Instead, they’ve crept downstairs in the middle of the night to make their mother all their most beloved foods—and do note that they don’t think to make her favourite food. It is quite possible that they’ve never considered that she has one. And because she gave them all a fish instead of teaching them all to fish, proverbially speaking, they have no idea how to cook anything, and so they abandon the project in the middle of it all, their dubious concoctions dumped in a pot and stuffed in the oven.

Where Mrs. Peters discovers it in the morning: miraculously, a pink and plump and perfect cake!

IMG_20150325_183715Naturally, we wanted to make it. The Seven Silly Eaters is a book that was born to have a recipe at the end, but there is none. Sadly. And we’re not the only people who thought so (google it: the Internet is rife with parent bloggers making Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake)—due to such a huge demand, Mary Ann Hoberman herself came up with a Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake recipe! So we made it too. Though I thought it was cheating because lemon juice in the milk (to create buttermilk) isn’t really pink lemonade, and she pinks the cake with red food colouring. So I decided to add lemon zest to the cake to make the lemon more authentic, and had the clever idea to make it pink by adding pureed beets to the applesauce (which isn’t in the recipe at all—perhaps Mrs. Peters went on to have a beetroot-loving eighth child?). My clever idea fizzled out, however, because by the time the cake was done, all the pinkness appeared to have been baked out of it. Alas. But the cake was totally delicious. Maybe not delicious enough to make up for more than seven years of domestic tyranny, but I was not asking such things from it.

IMG_20150325_190007We love this book. I hope I haven’t suggested otherwise. Frazee’s illustrations are so chock full of detail that they can be explored for ages, and there are all kinds of extra-textual stories going on in the background. The family dynamic is fascinating to consider, and perhaps it’s a good discussion point for children—what happens when a family allows its mother to be treated this way? It’s a call for everyone to do her share. It’s a plea for less ridiculousness when it comes to the demands of picky-eaters. But mostly, it’s a cautionary tale for mothers, I like to think. To have limits and live inside them, to not give and give until you have nothing left for yourself. To admit that you too are a person whose needs must be met, and therein lies the negotiation of family life—a useful education for any child.

March 25, 2015

After Birth: Redux

after-birthRedux is the wrong word. I haven’t stopped thinking about After Birth since I finished reading it last week. This morning I had the most interesting conversations with a woman who is a newish friend of mine (and don’t you find that new friends become more and more precious as one gets older?) with whom I’ve had the pleasure of so much company over the past few months while she’s been on maternity leave with her third child. Fortuitously, her house is a stone’s throw from mine, her son and Harriet are passionate friends, she’s so ridiculously smart and funny, and she just read After Birth. (I wish every woman a friend with whom to discuss After Birth.) So this morning we sat around my living room while my baby mauled her baby, and we talked about the book, how it made us both uncomfortable. Because, I think, I said, trying to put my finger on it, it doesn’t tidy up. Nothing is resolved, it moves is a circle. It is an unsatisfying book, which I mean as the highest literary praise. Like another fine book, Harriet the Spy, After Birth is about a female person who doesn’t change, who doesn’t stop ranting, who doesn’t stymy her anger. And we need this anger, I think—to seize on its power—, and we need this insistence on circuity, as opposed to the narratives we’re being sold most of the time about how we should tuck our anger and our lives, our selves, inside tiny tidy boxes. We’re being sold narratives of binary—breast and bottle, wohms and sahms. Just today, there is an online fracas because someone wrote an inane justification for stay-at-home-momming (don’t seek it out or read it. Nothing new under the sun. Argument is best articulated and refuted here). The writer articulating her lifestyle in opposition to somebody else’s, and I just though, how boring. I thought about the writer’s argument in contrast with the vibrant thinking I was a part of this morning, and all I could think of to say to her is, I wish for you the freedom to live your life on your own terms. Not to care anymore. Not to have to purport to have all the answers, or believe there even needs to be an answer. We’re all cobbling together our pieces, and the patterns don’t have to be the same. And yes, I wish for the public conversations about motherhood to be like the ones we’re having in private: the passionate, expansive ones that are challenging, rich and about the whole wide world.

March 23, 2015

Where I Find the Time to Read

reading2I read a lot. I read for a living, and I read to save my life, and, “Where do you find the time to read?” is a question that continues to baffle me. It’s like being asked where I find the air to breathe. The time, like the air, is out there in abundance, and having children hasn’t changed that. It just means I have to be creative in finding a way to make that time my own.

The following is a list of ordinary occurrences disguising excellent opportunities to steal a moment with a book.

  • Extended Breastfeeding: Of the many benefits of breastfeeding, the time to read in is paramount. Once you’ve mastered holding a book open with one hand, it’s effortless, and oh so efficient—nourish a baby and your mind in a single shot. When my first daughter finally weaned at age 2 ½, I so mourned the loss of reading time that I had to have another baby.
  • IMG_20130606_151120Before Bed: Every night, there is a window of sometimes up to ten minutes between the moment my head hits the pillow and when the baby awakes, and so I read then. And when the baby does awake, I breastfeed her. (See previous point.)
  • Weekend lie-ins: Obviously, I don’t get out of bed in the mornings. Would you? On Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is always time to get a chapter in before I return to the vertical life, and if I stay in bed long enough, somebody probably will bring me a cup of tea. And then I don’t have to get up until I’ve drunk it.
  • reading4Walking: Walking while reading is walking the one risky behaviour I indulge in on a regular basis. Doing it while pushing a stroller is even more reckless, I realize, but sometimes one has to live on the edge. Also, I could make it to kindergarten and back with my eyes shut, so there’s no harm in doing with text in front of my face.
  • At the playground: I will argue that reading at the playground is not entirely the opposite of being present for my children, mostly because there are only so many mud-pies I can pretend to gleefully devour. Also, every time they look up at the bench and see me reading there, I’m increasing their own chances of being readers by setting a good example. Everybody wins.
  • reading6During interruptions: Basically, I find the time to read by always having a book in my bag. Sometimes two. And this means that when my husband takes the kids to the bathroom after a restaurant meal, I can finish a chapter along with the dregs of my tea.
  • Sitting alone in restaurants by myself: And other times, I forfeit the husband and kids altogether, and take myself out for a chai latte and oversized cookie, or even an entire lunch, and read the entire time. Cultivate your own company, is what I mean, and you will get so much reading done.
  • In waiting rooms: As a parent with a book in her bag, there is nothing more luxurious than having to wait for appointments while the children are asleep in their strollers or in the care of somebody else. I’ve spent some of the best afternoons of my life in recent years reading for solid blocks of time at the passport office, my doctor’s, or the dentist.
  • While flossing: Regarding the dentist, I have never before been so attentive to dental hygiene. I’ve become a vigilant flosser since I learned to floss and read, which is a skill involving holding open a book with my feet. I do this daily. For ten to twenty minutes at a time.
  • In the bathroom: Also, for ten to twenty minutes at a time. My digestive system is getting a bad reputation. But there is a door that locks and a stack of books nearby—why would I ever leave?
  • reading1Pancakes: I don’t spend all my time avoiding my family, however. Every Sunday, I make whole-wheat banana pancakes from scratch, which sounds selfless and well-meaning until I explain that once the batter is mixed, I pull out what’s left of the Saturday paper, flipping the pancakes between articles. (“Go away. Mommy is cooking.”)
  • But not at the table. Unless it’s breakfast or lunch…We don’t permit reading at the table at our house, because meals are a time for togetherness. We bend the rules for breakfast and lunch though, because bendy rules are useful for teaching flexibility. And because tables are so useful for having the Saturday paper spread across.

March 9, 2015

On Immunity by Eula Biss

on-immunityI will admit it: until recently, I was one of those parents whose children weren’t vaccinated due to my concerns about a number of toxic ingredients found in vaccines. But then when people started sharing vitriolic and expletive-filled Facebook statuses and tweets about “fucking anti-vaxxers” whose children deserved to die of smallpox, they really convinced me, and I finally came around and saw the error of my ways.

Okay, none of the above is true. First, because my children received their vaccines on schedule. But mostly because the described scenario doesn’t exist—no one’s going to change her mind in this climate. The rhetoric surrounding the vaccine “debate” is so inflamed and divisive that as it stands that there is no hope of reconciliation. I also have some sympathy for parents who doubt the safety or necessity of vaccines. While I have absolute trust in my doctor and her advice, and in the importance of vaccines for public health, I was one of the many people who put down that fear-mongering story in The Toronto Star last month on the HPV vaccine and said, “My kids are never going to get that.” And then the whole furor blew up, and I saw how we’d been played.

Which is the point at which I decided to read On Immunity by Eula Biss. Biss, poet and award-winning essayist, wades into the vaccine issue, not to seek a middle-ground—because she acknowledges that there isn’t one; the science is conclusive; her own child is vaccinated—but to seek context, to create something richer than a polemic. More than a book on “issues”, even, this is a book on language and metaphor, about how both frame the way we understand our bodies and our world, and about vaccinations and immunity might serve as a metaphor for America and the world today. “And it has vampires in it,” so notes the blurb on the back by Rebecca Solnit. Because, yes, this book is blurbed by Rebecca Solnit AND Anne Fadiman, which makes it basically a non-fiction holy book. And it is oh so very good.

Biss begins with the myths and fairytales, those stories in which “parents…have a maddening habit of getting tricked into making bad gambles with their children’s lives.” Including the myth of Achilles whose mother seeks his immortality. Biss writes, “Immunity is a myth, these stories suggest, and no mortal can ever be made invulnerable,” and considers the desperate ways in which parents seek to protect their children from their fates.

Her son was born as H1N1 panic spread across the world, around the same time my elder daughter was. I remember lining up for hours at Metro Hall downtown for the flu vaccines we were eligible for because we resided with a member of the vulnerable segment of the population. “It was not a good season for trust,” Biss writes, as financial markets were crumbling and many people were considering the response to the H1N1 panic to be overblown, a plot by big-pharma, the vaccine’s components considering dubious by many in the chattering-mother set.

Biss invokes Bram Stroker’s Dracula, a story that serves as a metaphor for disease. “What makes Dracula particularly terrifying, and what takes the plot of the story so long to resolve, is that he is a monster whose monstrosity is contagious.” And the story, she continues, is as much about the problem of evidence and truth as it is about vampires. How do we ever know what we know?

Public health, Biss notes, is rarely seen by members of the middle class as intended for “people like us.” She uses the example of prominent anti-vaccine campaigner Dr. Bob Sears who writes of the hep B vaccines, “This is an important vaccine from a public health standpoint, but it’s not as critical from an individual point of view.” Biss explains, “In order for this to make sense, one must believe that individuals are not part of the public.” But such a limited perspective is hardly novel, Biss shows shows, with historical epidemics thought to be the scourge of foreigners and outsiders (like Dracula!), and poor black people forced at gunpoint to be vaccinated in Kentucky a century ago. Historically, vaccination of those living in poverty would have benefited the wealthy, whereas the tables have now turned—the vaccination of children who live in privilege now serves to protect the vulnerable (in terms of income level and health). Biss extends her examination of this switch: “If it was meaningful for the poor [historically] to assert were not purely dangerous, I suspect it might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be ‘threatened’, but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous.”

But we feel threatened, we do. Here, Biss returns to poor season for trust, and explains how risk perception has more to do with fear than quantifiable risk. “Perhaps what matters,” Biss quotes the scholar Cass Sunstein has saying, “is not whether people are right on the facts but whether they are frightened.” And we certainly live in a culture of fear, which is ever heightened. Which has recently manifested in a paranoia against chemicals, countered with a strange faith that nature itself is benevolent. But vaccines, note Biss, reside where between the two: “vaccines are of that liminal place between humans and nature—a mowed field.” She further complicates the issue by using the example of the Americas’ native populations, decimated by disease after the arrival of Europeans: “Considering this course of events ‘natural’ favours the perspective of the people who subsequently colonized the land, but it fails to satisfy the ‘not made or caused by humankind’ definition of the term.”

Nothing is straightforward, and science writing, and misperceptions of science writing, skews things. Did you know that there is no causal link between DDT and cancers? I didn’t. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her book that sparked a revolution by suggesting there is no boundary between the human body and its environment, and while this is indeed the case, and while spraying DDT from airplanes over towns and vast tracts of farmland is indeed dangerous and does irreparable damage to ecosystems, Silent Spring‘s greatest legacy, as noted by journalist Tina Rosenberg, is that it’s “killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.” Malaria has resurged in countries where DDT is no longer used against mosquitos. While Carson recognized the utility of DDT for disease prevention, Biss writes, “the enduring power of her book owes less to its nuances than its capacity to induce horror…. Like the plot of Dracula, the drama of Silent Spring depends on emblematic oppositions.”

Biss traces the origins of vaccines to folk medicine, practiced by women until they were pushed out of their positions of power in their communities by the medical establishment (men who pushed women into unsanitary hospitals to have their babies, many of whom would die there because these doctors didn’t know to wash their hands). Biss notes the strange relationship between anti-vaccine mothers and vaccination itself, both born out of the same anti-establishment systems that seek/sought to undermine women and their intuitive knowledge vs. scientific fact. This is certainly not a story about emblematic oppositions after all. But still, not a reason to turn away from science altogether. We need science, notes Biss, via Donna Harraway. “Where it is not built on social domination, science can be liberating.”

My very favourite part of this book, whose every bit I appreciated so much, was the end-note to page 8 (and it’s a testament to the goodness of On Immunity that I read its notes in entirety. I didn’t want the book to end). Biss writes something that reads like an echo of my introduction to The M Word, about motherhood being one’s occupation and preoccupation in the early days, about all those conversations about motherhood between new mothers making sense of their world, which is also the world. And this is what I find so exciting about this book, that such a work of literature can be from those “productive and necessary” conversations.

Biss notes:

“These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are… I am writing to and from the women who complicated the matter of immunization for me…In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument. This is a productive, necessary argument—an argument that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and does not resemble war.”

February 1, 2015

Wonder About Parents

readingThe weekend was unexpectedly quiet, all plans cancelled, and unexpectedly long. Thursday night delivered a stomach ailment that felled all of us, and meant we spent Friday lying down and eating popsicles while a brutal winter wind raged outside, and we didn’t really miss it. The children slept for hours after lunch that day, which meant I got to spend the afternoon reading in the tub—such an indulgence. On Friday night, we watched episode 3 of Broadchurch Season 2—we’re wholly riveted, even when it gets ridiculous—before finally getting a good night’s sleep after missing Thursday’s entirely. Saturday was a lot more lying down, and then we watched Gone Girl. This morning we were ambitious enough to go skating, which was wonderful, but it’s all still touch and go—we’re still only 20 hours since the last time anyone threw up. But other than the sickness and far too much laundry and really only eating bread and butter and saltines, it’s been kind of a nice weekend. There is nothing like being ill to make one appreciate feeling better, and nothing like being ill with 2 small sick children to make one appreciate a spouse who is a partner in every sense of the word—for better or for worse.

The whole thing made me think of the story “Wonder About Parents” from Alexander MacLeod’s collection, Light Lifting. It’s the story about lice, perhaps my favourite in the collection, the one I bring up whenever I’m recalling just how extraordinary that book is. That one scene with the father changing his sick baby’s diaper in the truck stop men’s room, the shit covered baby clothes he tosses into the garbage, and how his wife makes him go back in there and fish it out again. Because she likes that outfit, and it was a gift from her mother. That’s a moment so emblematic of the people parenthood turns us into, the absurdity of these situations. Those nights, those crises. We never think about them when we sign up for any of it.

light-liftingWe could never have imagined. I was thinking about this on Thursday night as I lay in bed sleeping in five minute bursts, interrupted by Harriet throwing up downstairs, Stuart on the floor beside her bed, a pile of soiled sheets and blankets growing up in the corner. I could not sleep because I was hearing strange voices singing, every muscle in my body ached, because I kept having to get up and puke in a bucket, and because I was listening desperately for the sound of Harriet sleeping finally, but she wasn’t. (Her door downstairs just opened now, and its squeak has me wracked with anxiety.) Finally at 3am, I went down because I was finished being sick, and Stuart came up to get some sleep. I was awake until 5am beside Harriet but listening for Iris, who woke up then as usual, and then she was sick. And a new pile of soiled sheets was started in our room. By morning (or at least the part of it when the sun was up), we were all sleeping on top of beach towels, those of us who were sleeping at all.

And it occurred to me at several moments throughout that night, that long long night during which the every passing hour brought a little relief because we were that much closer to morning, when I was holding on and holding my bucket as my child cried, thinking, “it really doesn’t get much worse than this.” It occurred to me it had been remarkable luck and not foresight that 12 years ago I’d met a boy on a  dance floor who would become a man who’d take such care of our ailing daughter in the middle of the night, who’d spend the following day doing our laundry as I lay listless on the couch, even though he wasn’t feeling so hot himself. How do you ever, ever know? And what fortune that the whole thing worked out anyway. “You can’t tell anything in the beginning… Could go any number of ways.”

know-the-night“The present tense. Everything happens here,” writes MacLeod in “Wonder About Parents,” and this is what makes the whole thing so mysterious, I think. How did we get from there to here? How did we become this people awash in a sea of vomit, these children wretchedly ill in a way I had no idea people could be ill (and now we even know it’s totally normal. We go through it a couple of times a year now)? If someone had told me about it, I would have speculated the whole thing was unsurvivable. One of oh so many things you think you could never get through, until you do. I am thinking of Maria Mutch’s Know the Night too, and how I never knew just how many minutes there were between midnight and morning until my children born, an unfathomable number. (In Mutch’s book, referring to her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy,” which I think is part of what I’m getting at here.)

Everything was always the present tense, which makes it that much harder to understand how it turned into the past. Like the night, it always seemed to be an eternity until it wasn’t anymore. MacLeod writes, “The place where you wait for the next day to come.”

“We get to choose each other, but kids have no say about the nature of their own lives… What are we to these people? Genetics. A story they make up about themselves.” –from “Wonder About Parents”

“Wonder About Parents” is a story whose workings are fascinating, and I would like to write about it in a more in-depth way when I’m not recovering from illness and the loss of 1.5 nights of sleep. Though I also suspect it’s a story whose wonders are mostly firmly grasped from my current state of mind, if not wholly articulated. The story begins with a couple picking nits from another’s heads, their household under siege. “It’s the third week”.  There is so much laundry. “Can’t go on forever./ No.”

The fiction is part entomological investigation of the mighty louse. “The history of the world indexed to the life of an insect.” The parasitic relationship between louse and human is vaguely connected to the parent/child relationship, something persistent in the sheer determination of louse to be, related to that of the human, of the human’s drive to reproduce. The force of life also bringing with it death—typhus is transmitted by lice, MacLeod’s narrator tells us, and killed 30 million people after WW1. And then a scene with the family lining up to be inoculated for swine flu, all that hysteria, fights in the line-ups that started at 4 in the morning. What we do for our children, the ridiculous scenarios. How fragile is our safety, but still we all go forth.

And then before the children, achronological, but all still present tense, and fertility struggles. You never do imagine the care with which you might end up examining your vaginal mucous, all for the eventual outcome of sailing on a  sea of vomit, tucked into bed beside your finally-sleeping child wishing that you hadn’t bought her a $45 foam mattress (though the vomit would ruin it anyway, so perhaps it was all for the best).

“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we’ve ever done before.”

There are the worst nights, hospital visits with babies a bundle in your arms. A reference to the DDT that solved typhus, but dug its way deep into the food chain before anybody noticed. Causing infertility, cancer, miscarriages. “But life adapt. They go on. Become resistant. Completely unaffected by DDT now. Not like us. Trace amounts of it in every person’s blood.”

The baby has kidney disease, “a congenital abnormality.” We’ve seen this girl already in the shower receiving her lice treatment: “A scar on our daughter’s stomach from before.” So we know which way this story will go. But MacLeod leaves us here, in the hospital, the couple only four months into parenthood, and already they’ve entered its darkest places. And how they lean on each other, how they need one another. They are everyone they’ve ever been, squeezed together in an uncomfortable vinyl chair. Wedded to all of human history.

“Darkness in the room. Our baby makes no sound. Only the bulb from the machine now. Inscrutable purple light flashing on the ceiling. Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of an ancient fire in a cave.”

September 29, 2014

May Friedman on Mommyblogs and uncertainty as a valuable critical end

mommyblogs“In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” –May Friedman, Introduction, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” —Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” 

It pains me to link to this smug and stupid post I wrote in May 2009, just 11 days before my first child was born. When I purported to understand anything in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because I really didn’t. And when I tried to pin down mommybloggers, detailing my discomfort with the form, and my discomfort with that discomfort. I thought I had it all sewed up, because I was surer of things then, and I had no idea of the seas of uncertainty I’d be wading into when it came to mothering, motherhood, and issues around motherhood. Five years later, The M Word was to be partly my means of coming to terms with the beauty of the mess of it all—when in doubt, make an anthology.

When, three months after that embarrassing 2009 blog post, I reviewed the book Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog by May Friedman and Shana Calixte, my thinking had evolved somewhat, but I was still pretty stupid. (This is the curse of any blogger: you are forever presented with undeniable evidence that you were pretty stupid. And that mostly likely you still are.) But I was getting a sense of things—that motherhood and any ideas surrounding motherhood refused to stay put in my tidy pat conclusions, and that there were many women who didn’t want even them to.

May Friedman’s new book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, occurs at a pivotal intersection in my writing life. Outside of my blog, it is my writing about motherhood and my mothering life that has found most resonance with readers, so much so that when a recent published story contained nary a reference to mothers anywhere, I was a bit relieved. And I’ve also been blogging for 14 years this October, which has led to the opportunity to teach the course, The Art of Blogging, at the University of Toronto (whose latest session starts a week from tonight!). In my blog teaching, I embrace and celebrate the messy chaos of the blog form, as unpindownable as mothers are. (You can read my posts with thoughts on blogging here.) I welcomed the reflections, revelations and insights of Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood not just for what they had to say about mothers and mommyblogs, but for the perspective the book provided on the history and implications of the blogosphere with a lens on women (who, as in any history, are so often left out of the story).

True confession: I have an allergy to Foucault, and once they start referencing Bahktin, they’ve already lost me. As an academic text, Friedman’s book stands apart from others that I’ve encountered in that her critical framework serves to transform the familiar into something altogether new, rather than rendering it intelligible. In Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, she examines mommyblogs in the frameworks of hybridity (as a form, of the identities of blog authors, of the experiences of readers), cyborgs (of the author and her text via technology, and also of the complex and nuanced networks created through blogging communities, how mothering is reworked away from being an individuated task) and Queer theory (a movement away from the patriarchal institution of motherhood toward an otherness) to show that mommyblogging is indeed a radical act that has already changed the way motherhood is regarded in the public sphere, and whose further implications are still before us, rich with possibility.

It is as applicable to that mythic blogosphere as a whole what Friedman has to say about “the mamasphere”: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” That lack of generalization doesn’t freak me out anymore, and I appreciate Friedman’s excellent book for reminding me why certainty is anathema to everything I like best about the world, both online and off.

See also: “Mary Pratt, On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time”

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