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Pickle Me This

April 1, 2014

They just happened to be standing nearby

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“Strictly speaking…. this book is not about [my children]; they just happened to be standing nearby while I looked for illumination, and so they cast their moving shadows.”

March 5, 2014

It Was Not What I Expected by Val Teal

GoodHousekeeping1929-10We’ve had The Little Woman Wanted Noise out of the library, a picture book by Val Teal and illustrated by Robert Lawson, recently reissued by New York Review Books. Lawson is notable as the illustrator of The Story of Ferdinand and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, though it was Val Teal’s biography that most intrigued me. “In addition to her stories for children,” it reads, “Teal also wrote a memoir of motherhood, It Was Not What I Expected.”

It Was Not What I Expected is described in this 1948 review as “[s]teering away from sentimentality… a vivacious, gaily turned account of modern parenthood.” I liked the sound of that, as well as any parenting memoir by the author of The Women Wanted Noise, who in her dedication thanks her own three sons, “whose noise inspires the little woman.” The book isn’t easy to come by, long out of print and not held by local libraries, but used copies are available on Abebooks (though that I bought the cheapest I regret now, because it came without a dust jacket).

sunbthI had some ideas of what an account of modern parenthood published in 1948 might read like. I had these ideas because a long time ago I’d read Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford by Christina Hardyment, which is where I first encountered the idea of babies being aired from apartment buildings in cages. It is also where it was first made clear to me that childcare advice (and “parenting philosophies,” baby fads and gadgets, and dictums everyone from Ferber to Sears) is a complete load of bollocks, and that we ought to cleanse our minds of most of it, except for reasons involving amusement or historical interest. The more things change, the more they stay the same, which is both a cliche, and also Hardyment’s thesis and in this context, such a revelation.

For example, here is Val Teal on big strollers, which remain, of course, a contentious issue to this day:

“In those days buggies were built. None of your light canvas affairs. They had a solid steel framework and lots of it. They had a big wicker body and hood with a steel bottom with a diaper compartment large enough to hold a dozen or so. The baby-carriage manufacturers expected you to push the baby on really long trips. If you took the notion to walk to Chicago some afternoon to visit your aunt they would not stand in your way. They had prepared a perambulator with ample space for the baby’s and your luggage during your stay. They expected you to have a big baby and push him around until he was three or four years old and they had provided room for this, with enough left over to bring home the groceries, including a watermelon if you were so inclined. The buggy weighed several hundred pounds, several hundred and fifty pounds with the baby and his paraphernalia aboard. We did not have an extra garage to keep it in. It furnished our small dining room very nicely before we could afford a dining room set. While you pushed this young truck around like mad, your tongue hanging out the baby sat like a rosy king, taking in the world with his round eyes, the air with his pink nose.”

Dream-Babies1It is often said that nobody tells the truth about motherhood, though I think the reality is really that nobody ever listens. Because Val Teal was telling the truth in 1948, Betty Friedan in 1963 Erma Bombeck in the 1970s, Susan Swan in 1992, just to pick a handful of examples. Some early passages from It Was Not What I Expected were so similar to my own experiences, which had come as such a surprise to me when my first baby was born. Like this one, as Teal and her husband arrive at the hospital for their first baby’s arrival:

“Across the street a young couple were just getting home. They were laughing and talking softly as he found the key and put it in the door. We could have been just like that as well as not. We could have been just coming home from a party. Why had I been so eager? Maybe I’d die. Maybe we’d never come home from a party like that again together… We had been so happy. We’d had a good life. Why had I had to get ambitious? Darn it all, I didn’t want a baby. I just wanted to go home and go to parties.”

A few pages later, the baby is born, and mother and son are home:

“The Baby cried and cried. I had given up not feeding him at two in the morning long ago. Every time I fed him he went to sleep for half an hour. Then he cried again.

‘I didn’t know it would be like this,’ I wept to Bill. ‘I wish I was back in the hospital.’”

the-little-womanMotherhood was less complicated for previous generations, Teal explains. She describes a trip when her first son was seven months old, the directions they’d had to send ahead, provisions required, their car ridiculously packed. Along they way, they stop for the baby’s sunbath (as dictated by both government pamphlets and the Women’s Home Companion). She writes, “I used to think about [my mother] being cleaned up every afternoon, baking cakes for visitors, sprinting off peppy as a kitten to coffee parties, pushing her baby-sled full of clean babies, and I wished I’d lived then when babies were less complicated…”

It Was Not What I Expected takes great joy in dissecting the naiveté of the new mother, insistent upon raising baby according to the book (what book? depends which decade, I suppose). How stupid we all were in those early days, and how determined we were that we would be the masters of motherhood rather than motherhood be the masters of us. Naturally, hilarity ensues.

Memorable scenes include Teal getting locked in the attic while her son sits outside the door eating beads, and the time she hires a simple-minded creature prone to seizures to babysit as she tries to better herself at a meeting of the American Association of University Women and it all goes wrong. (“I began gradually to give up the International Relations section because Hitler seemed to go right ahead doing impolite and smarty things, even though we met every week with luncheons too, instead of teas.)

And like any mother, she frets about play dates:

“I learned at the Child Study Group that children need companionship. If you child did not have others to play with you must do something about it. You must see that other children came to your house. It was a matter of life and death. Or anyway the difference between success and failure. You must drag in companionship. You must inveigle children to come. You must offer them food and toys, anything, to get them there. Companionship was the breath of life to the normal child.”

Teal’s second child just escapes being born in the Piggly Wiggly. “Now I knew all about babies,” she writes. “Peter would be easy to raise. I was experienced. There would be no foolishness about who was boss. I knew who was boss.” Instead of books to raise this baby, she decides, she’ll employ her own instinct. She will let the baby do what he likes.

williams-dollMore adventures in motherhood with boys: the necessary acquisition of a menagerie, dogs, ducks and rabbits. The obligatory paper-route. She helicopter parents, terrified of her boys riding their bicycles and therefore driving along behind them in the car on the way to their music lessons.

She addresses her determination that her boys shall play with dolls, much to the concern of everyone around her. To which she replies, pre-dating Charlotte Zolotow, “If more boys had been allowed to play with doll there’d be more intelligent fathers. Boys have been taught for too long a time that it is shameful for men to have anything to do with the care and bringing up of children. Men need tenderizing. I’m going to raise them to, first of all, be kind and loving fathers, and considerate husbands.” This chapter is wonderful, and ends with her son packing his doll (Uncle Pat Mulligan), along with a toy revolver on a trip:

“What have you got that for?” I asked. “Leave [the gun] at home. You’ve got enough to carry.”
“No, I gotta have it,” Peter grabbed for the gun.
“What for?” I asked, holding it back.
“If Pat Mulligan turns bad on this trip I’ll have to shoot him in the stomach,” Peter said.
I gave Peter the gun. You never could tell when Pat Mulligan might turn bad.

good-housekeeping-february-1920-mdnTeal’s picture book and her memoir are excellent companions. In the former, the little woman cannot rest without noise and goes out of her way to acquire more and more animals to liven up her farm and fill the air with sound. With that same lust for more, Teal writes in her memoir of her own yearning for a large family, a yearning augmented by a miscarriage and a stillbirth. “What no man, no doctor, no woman who has never lost a child can ever know about, is the consuming desire to replace that child that comes to the woman who has lost one.” The losses are not dwelt on here, but neither are they swept under a rug, instead acknowledged in practical terms as part of the vast motherhood experience.

Teal’s narrative is remarkable for its blend of wry humour and depth, of exasperation and joy. She so perfectly articulates motherhood as the curious mix that it is of the spiritual and earthly, the perfect and perfectly awful:

“Sometimes I’d look down and see these children around the house and feel very surprised and young and incapable… My goodness, where had they come from?… How in the world had this come about all of a sudden? They weren’t dolls, dream-figures. They were real, alive children, going-to-be men; dear Heaven, what had I done? I had made people! I had made people, Lord help me, people with emotions and plans and wishes and disappointments and longings. People. With souls. And when it would come over me, I’d stand very still and get very scared and helpless feeling. But they always brought me out of it.”

January 27, 2014

Two Posts for Family Literacy Day

January 27 is Family Literacy Day, an excellent initiative by ABC Life Literacy Canada to promote the importance of families taking part in reading activities together. And because this is pretty much my favourite time of year, I’ve been busy writing Family Literacy Day-related things.

Today's_Parent

 

For Today’s Parent, I wrote “The Secret to Raising Readers.” Here’s a hint: it involves Trollope castles, letting your children eat their books and then throw them on the floor.

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And at 49thShelf, I wrote about why I censor our family’s bedtime reading. (Why? Because family literacy is not just about the kids.)

May all your story-times be fun, and your picture books be brilliant.

December 18, 2013

Six Months in, four years later

“My mother didn’t tell me much about motherhood, it’s true. She said she couldn’t remember. None of you ever cried, she said vaguely, and then added that she might have got that wrong.” –Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work

If I hadn’t written it down, I don’t think I would remember the blurry despair of Harriet’s early days. And even having written it down, the images are fractured. (Joan Didion: “You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.”) For a while I’ve supposed that it was really not so bad, and that my tendency to dwell (through writing in particular) had magnified the difficulty and my impressions of my own unhappiness. I have thought this especially since Iris came along and we’ve been weathering all the usual bumps in the road. (“Oh yes, this is why we never wanted to have another baby,” we remembered the other night when once again Iris refused to go to sleep, which, while we meant it, was delivered cheerfully, as a joke.)

The must wonderful and terrible thing about having a blog are its archives. They are, quoting Didion again, “Paid passage back to the world out there.” Sometimes the passage is treacherous though, embarrassing, agonizing, that one person (myself!) could have been so stupid. But it is ever illuminating, these glimpses that remind one to keep in mind the unreliability of memory, the mutability of self.

I remembering telling someone that it was not until around seven months in to Harriet’s life that I was happy in our day-to-day life. (This is important. I am someone who is accustomed to being happy in my day-to-day life.) As time I went on, I started to doubt that this had really been the case, particularly because of how easy Iris has fitted into my life, how much I’m enjoying these days which are mostly spent with her napping on me while I read and write. Surely, I thought to myself, it couldn’t have gone on that long. There are photographs of us smiling. I have excellent memories of wonderful days.

But then I went back recently to read my archives about Harriet at six months, curiosity occasioned by Iris having just reached this milestone. There is a picture of me halfway up a ladder at a bookshop, and I so vividly remembered that day. Stuart had taken the day off and his company was so welcome, and I remembering feeling so fat, horrible, and tired, none of which I mentioned in the post (and I remember feeling quite surprised in fact when the photo wasn’t terrible). It was shocking to me that this had been six months along–I’d remembered it being so much sooner. But then time moved a whole lot slower then.

And then my post about Harriet at six-months, which was useful because it reminded me of her Baby Self who is now lost to us entirely (who sucked on her toes, loved the chicken puppet and had eaten the shopping list the week before).

This was followed by: ” It’s so hard. And I don’t think it ever gets easy, but it gets easier. And then harder too, of course, in all new ways, but the whole thing is also totally worth it in a way I’m really beginning to understand now. Only beginning to, though, because it’s an understanding I can’t articulate or even make sense of to myself, and it’s more a steady current inside of me than a feeling at all./ She is delightful, and fascinating, and amazing, and I can’t remember a world in which Harriet was not the centre. Which is not to say that sometimes I don’t wish for a different focus for a little while, but it would always comes back to her anyway. It always does. And it will forever, but how could it not?”

Confession: I now have no idea what I was talking about. Partly because the writing isn’t terribly clear or good, but mostly because “I no longer perceive myself among those present” in these scenes. Who was that woman anyway? Certainly nobody I’ve ever been.

Isn’t it funny that we persist in imagining time as a line, one thing after another, a cumulation. When it is something else entirely, and only the “now” is ever-present, the past itself gone with a poof out behind us and salvaged sometimes when made into a story.

November 18, 2013

Breastfeeding Carnival: Send in the Nipple Clowns

This post is part of the first Humor in Parenting (and Breastfeeding!) Blog Carnival inspired by the anthology Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, a collection edited by Rachel Epp Buller and published by Demeter Press in August 2013. The anthology looks at the lighter side of nursing. All of its contributors found something funny to say about their days as a non-stop milk shop, even if it was a tough job to have.

This carnival celebrates the craziness that is parenting and asks the question of how we use humor to get through our days, or minutes, or years. Just what’s so funny about being a parent? And why is it so important to make life with kids funny even when it doesn’t exactly seem hilarious?

Please share widely and connect us with other funny parents who are blogging and Tweeting. Use the hashtags #funnybreastfeeding and #humorcarnival along with whatever witty originals you come up with. Those ought to be worth some laughs, too!

See below for links to the other contributors. And, as you might have said to your nursling once upon a time, enjoy the buffet!

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have-milk-will-travel

Two years ago, someone told Similac  that I’d had a baby, even though I hadn’t, or at least not for some time. But regardless, a huge box was couriered to my doorstep containing cans of liquid formula and a great big tin of the powdered stuff. I was kind of outraged, committed breastfeeding mother that I am. My daughter had recently been weaned at 2.5 years, a peaceful end to a pretty lovely breastfeeding experience, and I’ve been trained to  be wary of formula marketing schemes. All the same though, I put away that tin of powdered formula deep in the cupboard, supposing we’d have another baby someday. Everybody’s got a secret stash of something. And I wondered what I’d done to make Similac so confused. (Six months later and six months after that, I’d receive new packages from Similac congratulating me on my imaginary baby’s latest milestones, and including coupons for our next visit to Walt Disney World.)

**

Now imagine a montage, the comedy story of my breastfeeding life. Because breastfeeding comedy? I’ve known breastfeeding comedy. (Note: when you haven’t slept more than 3 hours in a row in 6 months, nothing and everything is funny.) Like when my baby was new and my breast was bigger than her head and she cried because it scared her. None of us blamed her.

This feature is shot on various locations, the first being at the zoo this summer as we sprinted toward the pandas in attempt to avoid the lineups, a jiggly shot from behind with my whole back exposed, me yelling at my four-year-old to hurry up. We got there, and the pandas were sleeping, of course, but at least we missed the lines. And the baby got fed.

All this flurry was so new to me. I never breastfed while mobile with my first baby, instead requiring soft-lighting, two pillows behind my back, a mid-range breastfeeding pillow, a good book and cup of tea in order to complete the transaction. This is also funny. Whereas with Baby 2, it’s not just at the zoo; I find myself breastfeeding on the subway while chaperoning a group of 15 children on a class trip. I’ve breastfed on a ferry boat, on a crowded streetcar, in the car while speeding down the highway.

**

But let’s go home now, back to the beginning for a shot of me and Baby 1, who at six weeks old decided that she would only feed without screaming if I rocked back and forth while nursing her. I don’t remember how long this went on. It was hard, and sometimes I spilled my tea, but we made do. I remember a Facebook conversation at the time with someone who suggested that if breastfeeding weren’t easy, we were doing it wrong, and how I laughed and laughed. Comedy gold. Zoom in next on my mother’s anxious face as I tried to feed the screaming baby around the same time. “Maybe you don’t have enough milk?” she suggests, to which I respond by squeezing my breast, milk shooting across the room. “I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think?” Not so secretly delighted because I’d been dying to pull off such a stunt for ages.

It is possible that the second-greatest pleasure of my breastfeeding life has come from horrifying people. This was a huge draw to breastfeeding my first baby into toddlerhood. We even had a plan, my husband and I. We were going to pump like mad with Baby 2 so that I could have a life of my own and also so that we could make breast-milk ice cream. We were going to make breast-milk ice cream so that we could eat breast-milk ice cream, but moreover so we could tell certain people that we had eaten breast-milk ice cream. “It was delicious,” we imagined reporting. “We flavoured it with mango.”

Unfortunately, that part of the movie never got made. The breast-pump we borrowed was fourth-hand, and the motor didn’t work. We tried it twice and it sounded like a dying cow, and so we pulled out the manual pump instead. Not so much for the ice-cream now, but because I had this fantasy of leaving the house for two hours when the baby was nine weeks old. But just as had been my experience with the first baby, I pumped and pumped and nothing came out. My midwife had suggested that perhaps I try pumping while not reading a novel. “You have to be thinking about your baby,” she said, but I didn’t understand that. In my mind, there was a direct correlation between lactating and reading and I didn’t want to know how to do the one without the other.

Desperate times though–we figured out a way to make it work. Picture this: during one Sunday in August, every time the baby fed (which was often), my husband would hook the manual pump to the breast she wasn’t feeding on and he would pump until his hand cramped. And how that milk would flow. He ended up with carpal tunnel, but we managed to fill an entire bottle, and I even got a couple of chapters read, though it was awkward to hold my book with him there.

Of course, when I went out, the baby wanted none of it. This is when the scene transitions from comedy to horror. All that effort was poured right down the drain, and then we put the manual pump away too, the way we always did, and consented to use formula instead when I went out by myself. As though we had control over any of this. I still had that tin of Similac left over from my imaginary baby. My actual baby, however, was as uninterested in the formula as she was the pumped milk, so now I just go out and she cries a lot.

Life is a compromise.

It is terrible and exciting that she starts solids in two weeks.

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Please check out these the other submissions to our humor carnival:

In “I Will Sleep When I’m Dead,” Zoie at TouchstoneZ needs some sleep but her kids have other ideas.

In “Laugh or looney bin,” Virginia of Ready or Not Mom shares how laughter (and tears) got her and her husband through two NICU stays and a whole lot more. “Just call me Bessie…on the move” shows some love for a nursing mom without a lot of spare time on her hands.

In “Boobs Are in the House,” Jenny of Half Crunchy Mom shares how her love affair with her nursing breasts was hindered only by the act of pumping, but she found a way to party with the pump.

In “Send in the Nipple Clowns,” Kerry of Pickle Me This shares a story in which a mother who hasn’t slept more than three hours in a row for six months reflects back on the comedy of her breastfeeding life.

And, from Have Milk contributors:

In “The importance of laughter,” Jessica Claire Haney of Crunchy-Chewy Mama gets serious about looking for humor with her kids where her own parents didn’t.

In “Underwater” and “Excuse Me,” Adriann Cocker of Cockerchat muses on the absurdity of parenting while leading a hip loft lifestyle
in downtown Los Angeles.

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To learn more about Have Milk, Will Travel, or to buy a copy for your favorite mom (or the people who love her), visit the Have Milk page at Demeter Press or on Amazon.

See how much Literary Mama liked the book at this review.

Keep up with readings and happenings on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HaveMilkWillTravel and follow the book’s feed on Twitter at @HaveMilkTravel.

 

November 7, 2013

On the Unbearable Uselessness of Mother Wisdom

harrietMy daughter Harriet is four, and she is a lot like me, except that she’s grown up in the city instead of the suburbs and she goes to the museum once a week. For someone who is four, she has some excellent ideas about where to get the best pastries in our neighbourhood. One day she’ll use chopsticks, but for now, she eats her sushi with a fork.

Which is to say that I am enamoured of her worldliness, and I’d like to think that between the two of us, we have this life thing figured out.

My illusion slips though when I glimpse the parts of her that are just a little too familiar. I observe the awkward ritual of her eating a cupcake. I catch her being unkind to a younger classmate. I see her making all the missteps I’ve spent most of my life learning to avoid.

***

IMG_20130812_170034It took me 25 years to learn not to leave dirty dishes piled in the sink. Which sounds like a lesson that’s awfully mundane, but it isn’t. First of all, because it made me the kind of person who doesn’t leave dirty dishes piled in the sink, which is useful. And also because it taught me the pleasures of a chore all done, the loveliness of a small window in my life in which there are no dishes to do. When there’s a job, get it done, is what it took me a quarter of a century to figure out, and this is just one of the things that I know.

I know that cupcakes are most delicious when I don’t lick the cream off first. This is also true of Oreos. I know that making my bed in the morning will improve the experience of going to bed tenfold. I know that I have to be the change I wish to see in the world, and that kindness is a subtle force, but one that’s powerful. That if something’s difficult, it’s all the more reason to try it. That fear is not an exemption from bravery. I even know how to eat an ice cream cone without it dripping down my shirt. Most of the time.

I know that books are the key to the universe. That after every winter comes a spring. That if I try it, I just might like it. That being loud is not the same as being heard. That if I take care of things, they last longer, and if I put them away, I know where to find them. I know that cheap shoes will leave a legacy of ruined feet. And if I’m going to eat a cookie, I better make sure that it’s a good one.

***

IMG_20131031_090232Let us imagine a conversation with my daughter. The one where I tell her, “I learned all my lessons so you won’t have to.” And she says, “Thanks, Mom,” my ever-grateful beneficiary. She will always get her homework done before dinner. She takes care of her teeth. She will seek out vulnerable classmates and befriend them. She never ever asks, “Are we there yet?” because she knows that whining doesn’t make a journey go faster, and she was born knowing that boredom is a kind of personality defect.

I am not completely a fool. I know that parents more experienced than I are reading this now and thinking, “Just you wait, lady…” My little daughter is only four and the stakes are cupcakes and whining; this is just the beginning. And it’s what lies ahead that is totally terrifying.

I think of other things I’ve figured out by now. Important things like how not to get hit by busses when crossing the street. How not to get a stupid tattoo. I know how not to get pregnant. I know how not to get so drunk that I’m left unconscious and therefore, in the minds of some, a fair target for rape. I’ve gotten quite good at figuring out how not to get my heart broken. I learned how not to give myself away, how to keep friends, and how to appreciate my own company. I fell in love with a man who knows he is lucky to be loved by me. I can drive a car without crashing. I know how to be secure in myself without having to whittle away at the self-esteem of another. These are lessons, some of them, that have been a long time coming.

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IMG_20130915_143434From exposure to a multitude of terrible cliches, I’ve known all along that part of being a parent is letting our children go, letting them fly, setting them free. It’s a lesson that’s easier to know in theory than in practice, but I still understand it as a necessary component of the mother trade.

And it’s a really romantic idea, at least when you choose not to think about Icarus. Instead, soaring eagles and everything. But what I never understood are the inherent risks of flying, that our children aren’t always going to soar. I didn’t realize that part of being a parent is also giving our children the freedom to plummet back to earth.

So far, being a mother has been one long continuing education, and the greatest revelation has been this: it is unfair to expect my daughter to immediately impart a lesson that I took 25 years to learn. From my daughter’s perspective, all my hard-won mother wisdom is utterly useless. No matter how many times I tell her all the things that I know, she’s still going to have to figure them out for herself.

***

I am watching Harriet in the playground, besotted with the big girls who have no time for her, following them around and seeming not to notice when they don’t respond to her bossy instructions for playing. The girls are playing with Barbies, and now she wants one too, never mind my lectures about their distorted bodies and deformed high-heel feet. Another group of kids is playing soccer, but Harriet doesn’t want to play with them, no matter my feminist imperative that girls can do anything. “I’m not good at running,” she says, which is actually true, because when has an apple ever fallen far from its tree? If Harriet had a sink, her dirty dishes might be piled to the ceiling.

But she is four. This is what I have to remember. What I keep telling myself. It would be a tragedy if she had it all figured out, and it would also make me quite redundant in the role of her mother.

As it is, however, she needs me. Not to have all the answers, but to stay close-by as she makes her own way. It’s my job to give her space, to let her fall, and to help pick up the pieces, if need be.

It’s my job to love her as she is, a work-in-progress just like the rest of us.

This essay was written in August. Mercifully, Harriet has not since mentioned wanting a Barbie.

October 27, 2013

Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems by Melanie Dennis Unrau

happiness-threadsMotherhood gets written about so often, I think, because we’re all trying to articulate the inexplicable. Edging closer and closer to the point, but never quite getting there, putting the most abstract, complex emotions and feelings into words. But poetry gets close to capturing the subtleties, in its smallness and delicateness, hovering just inches about how it is. I am thinking of Susan Holbrook’s poem “Nursery” from Joy Is So Exhausting, the workings of a mind through nursing marathons, as the baby moves from left to right and back again: “Left: Now that you’ve started solids, applesauce in your eyebrows, I’ve become a course. Right: Spider on the plastic space mobile, walking the perimeter of the yellow crescent moon. Left: Dollop. Right: Now it’s on Saturn’s rights; if it fell off, it would drop right into my mouth.” I am thinking about Sweet Devilry by Yi-Mei Tsiang.

And now The Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems by Melanie Dennis Unrau, which is a collection of poems about making art and making babies, about birth and loss, and about the very strange community that is the online forum. The collection begins with a poem called “my children are not my poetry”: “a mother’s job is to know/ what matters and keep it alive/ a poet’s job is to feel/for a pulse…”

The first section is a series of poems about a miscarriage,a frank and raw exploration of the physical and emotional experiences of it. Of how death amd birth go hand in hand. The second section is about pregnancy, though it seems to be that it’s here that saying these poems are “about” anything becomes a little too simplistic. These poems are curious, puzzling, their imagery not literal and challenging our expectations, surprising us. These poems are pregnancy and motherhood are written with the first section of the book in mind, with an awareness that motherhood has its own dark side of the moon, that it’s love with an outline of pain. This poet knows what the stakes are by now. “the womb is… a nightmare nine months/ of falling no idea what it is/ to land.”

The third section is about birth and babies, though the poem “reclining buddha” contrasts the story of my life (“when you come to my bed with your/ whimpers and needs/ bird mouth searching for my breast/ i know i will hold you the rest of the night/ cup your bald head/ in my hands soft…”) with the story of a Cambodian mother whose grown soldier son returns home to spend a night in bed with her as he had as a child. “another birth story” sets the experience of a woman finding and losing herself through the birth of her child against the language of feminism, women’s studies and academia.

And then “happiness threads”, poems inspired by communication on an internet baby-wearing forum, with all the inane abbreviations that occur in such places. These poems include a glossary, which is telling, I think, how motherhood necessitates a whole new language near unintelligible to the rest of the world. Here, Dennis Unrau captures the shattered nature of a new mother’s existence, these conversational threads written in the dead of night, presumably as baby nurses. And the reader charts the evolution of this mothers experience, as she finds her feet, finds new challenges, redefines herself as a mother over and over again and the world never really does become steady. I love the idea of threads, especially in light of Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thinking about these women on the internet in the middle of the night and all their literary antecedents thread-wise.

And then section five is “love poems”, whatever is left for the margins, conversation once the dishes are cleared and the kids are in bed. “don’t touch me i growl/ end of a day of cluster feeding/ your need does not move me.” Poems about the people we’ve come from. And then “Holiday”, which is so lovely, celebrating one’s partner in the chaos of it all:

your lullabies and page-turns are white

noise

    i sink

into a book notice later the music

stopped    you asleep together

map in one hand

a flashlight beam on a slack

cheek a moving eyelid

XX

Read an interview with Melanie Dennis Unrau at the Jane Day Reader. 

September 18, 2013

Sometimes Love Isn’t a Let-Down

1373648574846“I just never thought it would be like this.”

This is a line from an essay I wrote a few years ago, an essay whose title and central metaphor was a reference to breastfeeding: “Love is a Let-Down”. The literal let-down though had been the unhappiness I’d experienced during those difficult weeks after my first daughter was born. Not postpartum depression, a label sometimes too broadly applied whose tidiness undermines the fact that becoming a mother is really hard, that new moms are often insufficiently supported, that babies are a lot of work, and the learning curve in those early days can seem impossibly steep. I still maintain that my unhappiness in those days didn’t necessarily mean there was anything wrong with me.

But oh, was my transition to motherhood ever a bumpy one. I didn’t even have breastfeeding problems, and I was having breastfeeding problems. Baby’s latch was fine, my milk was plentiful, and somehow she still managed to lose (or I managed to lose her?) 11% of her body weight, a terrifying ratio for someone so small. I’m not big on mother-guilt, but that 11% is seared upon my brain. It meant that everything in those early days seemed so fraught, perilous. I’d been handed this enormous responsibility and was already doing it wrong just four days in.

Precisely two things would save my breastfeeding life (and allow it to continue for the next two and a half years). The first was my midwife’s gentle care the first day we were home from the hospital after my c-section. “Breastfeeding takes time,” she told me as she helped me with positioning. “And patience,” she said, as we woke up the baby who’d once again fallen asleep on the nipple. And suddenly it became clear to me that this was really going to be work, at least for a while.

IMG_20130705_131236But not so much work, and here we come to the second thing that saved my breastfeeding life. The lactation consultant who took a mother-centric view of my situation and determined I didn’t need to be up all night long while my baby suckled away with an excellent latch I was loath to break considering the recent fact of her 11% weight loss. Quite unfashionably, at least in some breastfeeding circles, the consultant weighed my daughter before and after her feed, and took in the fact of my copious milk supply. “She gets everything she needs in five to ten minutes,” she told me. I would be free to cut off the feed when I saw fit, and so for the next week I did, and my daughter still gained weight. It began to occur to me that I may have had some mothering instincts after all.

“Love is a Let-down” I wrote in my essay, because my milk letting down was something I was never able to feel—at least not until it had leaked all over my shirt. In fact, I wasn’t able to feel anything the way I thought I should have, love in particular, certainly not in the ecstatic manner supposed by the rows of congratulatory cards on my window-sill. (“I just never thought it would be like this.”)

But what I eventually learned was that in those early days, love was doing instead of feeling. Love was every time I changed a diaper with tears streaming down my face, every time night turned into morning while the baby screamed, those early evening walks through our neighbourhood with the baby asleep in her carrier, a tiny, gentle reprieve.

It is a bit of a mystery though, how I went from that desperate woman crying over the change table to being somebody who was pregnant again. On purpose, even! Part of it was that four years had passed, and while the vividness of my newborn memories hadn’t faded, I’d had time to get over the trauma. I’d also always known I’d want a second child, which had underlined all my despair the first time: that I’d one day have to do it all over again. And while I was quite conscious that having another baby would come with its own challenges, I’d learned a thing or two the first time and I was hoping that what I’d learned would prove worthwhile.

IMG_20130623_080439When my second daughter was born in June, I didn’t dare to imagine that we were prepared, but we had bought a queen-size bed so we could sleep comfortably with her, I had paid a woman $200 to made capsules out of my placenta in an effort to combat the baby blues, and my husband had taken 3 months off work to ensure that when I cried over the change table, I’d never cry alone.

And much to my surprise, relief and pleasure, these measures worked miracles. More, this time I was not so lost in new motherhood—I recognized the landmarks, was accustomed to the topography. It was so strange to encounter this world again, but this time not to be out of my mind.

“I just never thought it would like this.”

Because this time, everything was different, except the parts that were the same, but these were more easily weathered when I was feeling supported and strong. And the best thing of all, which no doubt paved the way for my easier experience—from the time she was forty minutes old and I was lying in the recovery room, immobile from my repeat c-section, my new baby breastfed like a champion.

As her new life began to be measured in days and then weeks, I kept waiting for the hiccups (metaphoric ones), for inevitable bumps in the breastfeeding road, but they never arrived. I never knew how much weight she lost after birth because the number never mattered. She was back to birth weight at one week old, and the road has been smooth ever since then.

photoSo these were my two experiences, shockingly disparate and I am one woman, suggesting a remarkable diversity in the experiences of new motherhood for women everywhere. If I’d had my second experience first time around, I’d have no idea what women were talking about when they talked about difficulty breastfeeding, though I would imagine that I understood. There was a part of me before that just assumed that having a newborn was as terrible for everyone as it had been for me, and that anyone who said otherwise was lying. So often, we might think we’re talking about the very same things, but they aren’t actually the same things at all.

irisandmeIt’s been a revolution, I think, they way we tell our stories now, and not just in hushed tones over coffee in suburban kitchens, but in print and out loud. But while I realize how important it is that these stories are being told, I also recognize something useless in this endeavour. I understand now how unhelpful was so much of the advice I offered to (or rather forced upon) friends who had babies not long after I did. I remember pronouncing like a sage that no one ever need wake a sleeping baby to feed, not considering matters of milk supply, for example. I feel a twinge of regret when I consider the women I might have terrified with “Love is a Let-Down”, women who might have imagined that my experiences would necessarily be their own.

So I think what we have to keep in mind as we’re sharing our stories is that stories are stories instead of facts or even destinies. That “I just never thought it would be like this” isn’t always a bad thing. The great thing about stories is that sometimes you get to write your own. That love is a let-down, and then sometimes it isn’t after all.

(From my presentation at last Friday’s launch of the anthology Have Milk Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding by Rachel Epp Buller)

September 10, 2013

Caution Against Any Recipe for Perfect Children

heather“I caution against any recipe for perfect children or for perfect families.” –Joan Bodger, “Afterword”, How the Heather Looks

How the Heather Looks is one of my favourite books about parenting and children’s literature, mostly for the wisdom contained in its Afterword. On a surface level, the book itself is really an incredible primer on the lengths parents can go to to make books come alive for their children, as well as a splendid introduction to so many kid-lit classics. But if you didn’t read Bodger’s Afterword, or her extraordinary memoir The Crack in the Teacupyou might imagine that the idyllic 1950s’ family depicted in her book was her reality. Instead we learn that even limitless exposure to the greatest books ever written cannot keep trouble from darkening one’s doors. For some of us, that’s a difficult lesson to learn.

I’m thinking about this now as we’re struggling at our house with an unexpected and really difficult adjustment to kindergarten. I totally thought that we’d gotten off scot-free because Harriet has been in schooling for a year now, and has loved her play-school experience so much. When she began play-school last year, she shed nary and tear and ran along to play like she’d been there always, and I secretly thought that this was a reflection of her character and resilience, as well as my own infinite wisdom as a parent for enrolling her in schooling when the time was right, and for preparing her so well to be in the world. But the last few days have been a hearty Ha! to that idea.

Living a life is so difficult, and loving someone little who is making their way can be so gut-punchingly horrible. You can never be prepared for that, or prepare that little one for everything she might encounter. There is no recipe for a perfect childhood, and while I’d like to wrap the world in cotton-wool, I can’t, so instead I will keep on reminding myself that just loving her so hard is enough,

July 5, 2013

One Whole Month of Iris

IMG_20130705_153356When I wrote “Love is a Let-Down”, the point was not to say that new motherhood is necessarily a terrible experience, but instead to underline how different it is for everyone. That for many of us, the experience didn’t align with the greeting card slogans. We’re not over-the-moon but instead completely overwhelmed by a world that has been shattered into pieces and put back together in a still-broken state. And now I worry that in my current state of mind I’m letting down the team a little bit, undermining the message of those who’ve dared to speak honestly about what it is to become a mother. But then again, I’m really not undermining it at all, but instead underlining my main point which is that every woman comes to motherhood in her own way. Because this time, with my second baby, the experience has been everything it wasn’t first time around. I’ve become a walking greeting-card slogan myself—“Everything is going really well!” If I wasn’t living it, I’d be convinced I was lying.

IMG_20130703_110453Of course, anyone who’s ever had a second baby will tell you that this is what happens. They told me, actually, but I didn’t believe them, or else I certainly didn’t believe that it could be possible for someone like me who was so notoriously terrible at new motherhood. That this time you know what you’re doing, you learn to ride the chaos instead of thinking you’re doing it wrong, that it all goes by faster and you really do try to enjoy every minute.

IMG_20130705_131230It is a different experience altogether. That first baby requires “becoming a mother”, which comes less naturally to some of us than others. I’m reminded of the trauma undergone by astronauts when they re-enter the earth’s atmosphere–my experience was the emotional equivalent of that. But this time, I’m a mother already and there is no becoming necessary. There is none of the shattering, the loss of self that was so terrifying to experience. I am fundamentally unchanged by the birth of Iris, except that our family is a different shape and the world is just a little bit bigger.

IMG_20130703_114555Motherhood is a storm, is the quote by Laurie Colwin that I seized on, the metaphor that so clearly articulated what I was going through. But it’s not been stormy this time. Instead, I’d say it’s been like a summer’s day, albeit one sometimes experienced from my bed but with the patio door wide open and the sun pouring in. The baby is screaming, her face so red that I’m reminded of a cartoon character with smoke coming out its ears, but this is funny instead of traumatic. I’ve got living proof asleep in a bedroom downstairs that this wretched, squalling foetal creature is in fact going to grow into an actual human being. And so that’s how one becomes a greeting-card slogan, all consumed by how fast the days are flying by and by the smell of the baby’s head.

It has been a good month. My husband has been a huge part of this. Whereas the early days of Harriet challenged our relationship like nothing else, we have been so kind to one another since Iris arrived. That he is able to be on parental leave means that the hardships weigh more equally on both of our shoulders. He has taken extraordinarily good care of me during my recovery. And as I’ve recovered, we have had fun together, with Harriet too when she wasn’t yelling at us. (We now understand why people enroll their children in camp all summer long.) And now that I am nearly recovered, a brilliant summer lies before us. It’s all more graspable than I dared to imagine it was.

We went out for lunch today (of course) to celebrate a month of Iris, and to toast to the three of us for so successfully weathering the last few weeks. And now Harriet’s asleep and Iris is squawking downstairs, so I must go down to feed her, but while I do, we’ll be watching The Hour, which is so so good, and this nightly television thing is the most excellent ritual. Previously, we’d both worked in the evenings and TV was a treat saved for Friday nights (with wine) but now every night is Friday night, and how can you fault a life like that? It might as well be July. And it actually is.

Iris is gorgeous when she sleeps, slightly weird looking awake, and entirely beloved by every member of her family. Her most remarkable attribute was that she was born with a tooth. We are curious about who she’s going to grow to be, but we love her already. She looks a bit like her sister, but more like her self, and a little bit like me who also had ginger eyebrows as a baby. She is usually asleep or calm when people meet her, undermining her reputation as a miserable person. She likes to sleep in my bed in my armpit, which is a bit counter to what the safe-sleep advocates say, but I guess we like to sleep dangerous. I think we’re safe though, because she doesn’t really sleep that much. She took a soother once, and I was overjoyed, but hasn’t done it after. Since her birth a month ago, she’s gained two whole pounds, which is amazing. She gazes at Harriet like she looks at no one else, though I’ve gazed at Harriet myself so I can’t say I blame her. Her mouth is beautiful. She also likes to fall asleep on people’s chests, and she’s not yet discriminating about whose. Her belly button is shaped like an @ sign. She screams a lot and hates most things, but still manages to be adorable. And there is not really much else one can say when describing someone her age, but we’re so excited to get to know more and more about her.

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Coming April 2014

The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm (w. Carrie Snyder)
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Burlington: April 29 at Different Drummer's Book and Author Series, 9am
Calgary: May 4 at 3pm, Shelf Life, 3pm (w. Susan Olding, Fiona Lam & Myrl Coulter)
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Toronto: May 15 at Another Story Book Shop, 7pm
Toronto: June 19 at Parent Books, 7pm
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