Sunday, February 28, 2010

Being a Mother: The Meaning & the Messiness

By some serendipity, or synchronicity, I’ve recently read  several  books about mothering that have really stuck with me, and since my last post on the tyranny of perfect parenting expectations clearly struck a nerve with a lot of readers I thought I’d share a couple of these “momoir” treasures.
Melanie Gideon is a gloriously imperfect mother.  I laughed and cried at her The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After, one of my favorite books yet on being a mom.  Melanie’s a 44-year-old, reluctant peewee lacrosse mom, and she’s taking a look at her life. Her description of her son’s Halloween costume escapades had me in stitches (not hers—she doesn’t sew, or cook) as did her stories of her son’s first foray to camp (complete with her hilarious fake voice messages and faxes from camp staff to overanxious parents), what happens when her son hears her curse and her Ninemandments-- everything you need to know about 9-year-olds.  

Whether she’s chronicling her struggles home with a sick child, sharing a crazy hulking camper with her husband who bought it online or caring for a dying dog and her son’s grief, Gideon is gloriously imperfect.  This is a mom who has to use a biofeedback device to calm herself in carpool line (almost orgasmically), and who is preparing to tell her husband she is having a love affair with their mattress--how can you not love that?!  She is also a proponent of the “Good Enough Life” and good enough parenting.  Gideon writes with warmth and humor, and--hey! what a coincidence!--those are the two most important qualities of being a mom.  

In Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, Ayelet Waldman rails against the cult of the perfect mother that is given new life online now in certain mommy blogs.  When we try and live up to unrealistic ideal of maternal conduct, “this creature of fantasy,” she argues,”It’s as if the swimmer Tracy Caulkins, winner of three Olympic gold medals, setter of five world records, were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid.”  Waldman shares stories of her own good days and bad and reminds us “how profound a problem a young mother’s loss of self can be. ”

On a related note, I’m happy to announce that my therapist from my new mom days in Dallas, Ann L. Dunnewold, Ph.D., has just launched a blog “Who Says?! --Who says women and mothers have to (fill in the blank)? Let’s question the expectations--of ourselves, of others.”  It’s on her website ( whose subtitle is the most excellent “Arming Women Against the Pressures of Modern Motherhood.” She’s also author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Some Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting, about what she calls “perfectly good mothers.”  What a concept.  What a relief.

As Waldman exhorts us, “Can’t we just try to give ourselves and each other a break?”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mothers Telling the Truth

“I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even--no, especially—when the truth is difficult. “
                                                                                                                                Ayelet Waldman

Telling the truth about motherhood and encouraging others to do the same has been a theme in my writing and in my conversations with other women since I became a mom 21 years ago.  Because I firmly believe that if we do not, we are doing ourselves and our children a huge disservice.  

Believing that we are perfect sets us up for huge downfalls, for the universe never lets us get away with that kind of self-deception forever.  Pretending that we are perfect, making others feel small and inadequate as mothers by only letting them see what we want them to see--the shiny side of our mothering without the dark side--hurts everyone ultimately. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes and unrealistic parenting expectations, and it prevents us from getting help when we need it—whether that is in the form of actual assistance or simple compassion.  
First, some truth-telling from this writer mom—I suffered from post-partum depression (PPD).  To be more accurate, it began as pre-natal depression and it just kept on going.  At some future point I’ll share more about what PPD is like, but in short, it is an abyss from which you don’t have the resources to believe you will ever climb out.  When I had it, the medical profession barely recognized it, and obstetricians and pediatricians had little response to a numbed mother’s attempts to let them know something was very wrong. 

I was, I suppose, a high-functioning post-partum depressive.  I took very good care of my baby, and no one could tell that I was dying inside. And I had just enough gumption in me to reach out, first to find an organization called Depression After Delivery (a rare source of information which also put moms suffering in touch with moms who’d come through PPD), second to call a pioneering therapist who ran an ad in a local parenting newsletter in the Dallas area for a new mom’s support group and third, upon finding that the therapist herself was on maternity leave, to call up one of the moms in the group.  

Bless that therapist, Ann L. Dunnewold, Ph.D.  And bless that mom, Cathy, who picked up the phone, heard a stranger in despair, immediately put her infant in her mini-van and drove to my house and picked me and my son up and took us out to meet with her informal PPD playgroup.  They brought me into the fold of that group and to the compassion, professional support and medication I needed, all of which brought me back to life.  Quite simply, they rescued me.

Years after the post-partum depression was gone I continued to muddle along as an imperfect parent, though, and continue to be one to this day.  I have made mistakes.  I have made lots of mistakes. I could have done so many things better.  I cringe at some of the stupid or impatient or less than compassionate things I may have said or done over the years not only in direct interaction with my son, but in interactions with others in his presence.  I wish I had pushed on some things I didn’t, and that I hadn’t on some things I did.  But my son had a great childhood and has grown up to be a wonderful young man.  And I was a good-enough mother.  We are, most of us, good-enough moms.  And that is not a put down.  It is life, in all its glorious imperfection.
I call out the moms who only share with one another the stuff about being a mom that feels safe, and feels politically correct.  I call out the self-righteous moms who want to tell other moms that their way is the only way to mother, whether it’s a grandmother who thinks the way she parented her child is the way that child should parent her own children, or a breast-feeding fanatic who doesn’t allow for the fact that in some cases a woman has to make the choice to bottle-feed and THAT’S OK.  Because what’s right for us isn’t always right for someone else.   And while it may take a village to raise a child, that doesn’t mean the village can run roughshod over a woman who is doing her best—her imperfect best, which, truth be told, is all any of us do as parents.

I am not, obviously, talking about cases of physical or psychological abuse, about criminals.  I am talking about the rest of us—who sometimes snap and yell at our kids, who only after a botched talk with a child acting out remember the training or advice on how that could have gone down better.  Whose houses are full of dust bunnies, sometimes or always.  Who find ourselves in an argument reduced to their level, whining and cajoling, where we’ve totally lost control of the conversation or lost sight of the fact that we are the parent and they are the child.  Who forget it’s our turn to bring snacks to t-ball and have to run to the closest convenience store and grab something last minute.  Who have never been room mother because we can barely keep it together working a full time job and taking care of the kids and maintaining some bare minimum level of housework. Who have locked ourselves in a closet alone in a house with our baby when we were at our wit's end with exhaustion and our spouse was working late again and screamed so the baby wouldn't hear us and be traumatized and the neighbors wouldn't report us to child services. For whom the best Mother’s Day present, some years, might just be, if we admitted it, to have our partner take our beloved child out for the day and leave Mom alone for the whole day.  Who don’t shop only the advised perimeter of the grocery store, where the produce and other healthiest foods are, but steer our carts through aisle after aisle of prepared foods, tossing “helper” this and “mac” that into the basket with wild abandon.  Who have let loose a string of curses a trucker would be proud of when our computers have gone on the fritz, or the dog crapped on the carpet or the bottle of orange juice slipped from our hands.  Who have fought with their father in front of them even though we swore we’d never fight in front of the kids. 

For about five years I wrote annual articles in Washington Parent magazine called “New Year’s Resolutions for Not-So-Perfect Parents,” some of which were picked up by other parenting publications around the country. Since then I have continued to remind mom readers that there’s no such thing as supermom, that they have to take care of themselves in order to take care of their kids, that they should trust their own instincts and that there are other moms out there floundering and learning on the job just like them.  Because that’s the truth. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cataloging a Changing Way of Life

I just got a blast from the past.  Cleaning out some files, I came across an article I’d written nine years ago called “Catalog Come-ons, or How I Got into Mail Order Mischief,”  about my addiction to catalog shopping.  I’d never gotten it published but took a look again today to see if I could update it and recycle it somehow.  Not a chance, I quickly realized. Wow, nine years was like a lifetime ago.  First and foremost, catalogs? Really? All of my references were hopelessly dated in the face of today’s online shopping opportunities.  Second, I’m just not the consummate consumer I was back then.  A lot of water under the bridge financially, and radical reprioritization of my income (little realities like college tuition, and what unfortunately was a novel concept to me for years--savings).  Plus as I get older I’m more about simplifying and decluttering rather than acquiring.  Third, there were many references to my then husband. Fourth, they’re just not sustainable environmentally.

Still, there was a time... I used to be an inveterate shopper on foot, so of course I segued nicely when direct mail catalogs really took off in the boom years for boomer incomes. In the beginning, it was just catalogs for clothes and shoes (not that I ever bought shoes from a catalog--who can do that? Not this size 11 wide!).  Then, the catalog companies got a bead on me and the floodgates opened.  New, more exciting catalogs started coming my way.  Stuff.  Neat stuff.  Beautiful stuff.  Handy stuff.  Exquisite stuff.  Stuff I could really use for my kitchen/yard/living room/son's room/bathroom, stuff I never knew about but now I couldn't do without.  Stuff in just the right color, in just the right size, just the right height, just the right fabric--how did they know me so well?  (Ah, how na├»ve I was.)

Let's face it--catalogs were and are entertainment, not just convenience. I used to read the old Banana Republic catalog cover to cover. This was back in the day when Banana Republic was about safari and adventure wear, not what the young urbanite is wearing to work like it is today.  It wasn’t that I was planning a trip to Kenya and needed supplies, but because I was an armchair traveller, and it had that special aura to it of good travel literature.  The Vermont Country Store catalog has, well, everything you can think of, from tried and true skincare remedies to flannel nightgowns to discontinued candies you used to eat when you were a kid. 

Certain catalogs are fun to read because they’re written so cleverly.  I’ve more than once thought that writing copy for catalogs would be a blast.  (I was so jealous when Elaine on Seinfeld was writing for the J. Peterman catalog—which, by the way, I just Googled, and they’re still in business and the descriptions are still positively poetic! ) Other catalogs make their impact with stunning photography.  Still others, like the National Geographic Travel catalog, are about big dreams. As Anne Fadiman wrote in her book Ex Libris, “My that I never want the item, I want the associated fantasy.” 

I cruised catalogs for the one-of-a-kind (hey, never mind that they have 6,000 in the warehouse) items that suited my style. I laugh when I think of the crap I didn’t buy (most of the crap I did is long gone to tag sales and donations).  Flower pots with bread-baking kits in them.  (I don’t even bake!) I was also an easy touch for humor, hence the near-order of a t-shirt that read:   Baroque (adj.):  When you are out of Monet, and the address labels with the picture of two nuns, one asking the other, "So, what are you wearing tomorrow?" 

Coldwater Creek still gets me, I love their clothes, their service, the whole nine yards, but I’ve been meaning to call and cancel the few other clothing catalogs I still get.  Well, maybe I have to keep Soft Surroundings, too.  True to its name it’s full of rich textures, clothes you want to wear (snuggly cashmere sweaters, angora socks, embroidered caftans evoking Mediterranean nights), linens to sink into (floral quilts from Provence I just admire; an aqua bamboo blanket I did buy and is so soft and warm) and powders you want to brush gently across your cheek.  Everything is sensual, tactile. I love the beauty of even the descriptions of the colors, like the silk pillowcases in blush, celadon, bisque, lake or champagne and the silk velvet poet’s shirt in garnet, peacock, chocolate or azure. What can I say? I’m a color junkie. 

Mail order, whether catalogs or now websites, have taken some of the fun out of being a collector.  No longer are collectibles things you found here and there, surprises in dark corners of antique storesor on a vacation somewhere exotic.  Now if you collect foxes, lighthouses, teacups or piano-related items, they not only all have their own catalog, they’re likely to have ten websites.  After a while, the thrill is gone.

I have, of course, taken my waning shopping libido online. Although I will say, there’s one thing you can’t do with an image on a computer screen—take it to the mirror with you to be sure a particular color of a sweater pictured in the teeny tiny photo will go with your hair and complexion.  And flipping through a catalog is such a good complement to mindless TV watching when you just haven’t got enough brainpower to turn off the box and read a real book instead. 

I used to deal with the onslaught of frequent and numerous catalogs by pitching them directly into the trash can without so much as cracking them open--there, I just saved $45,677.95 plus shipping and handling!  Of course, eventually we all learned there was actually a way to stop all those catalogs coming except ones you specifically requested.  And now I have a fool-proof system for lingering catalog longing.  I go through the dwindling number I still get, circle favorites and carefully fold down the pages for items that catch my eye.  When I reach the last page, I go back through and carefully weigh the choices, unfolding the pages of some I decide I can’t afford or can live without. Then I put the catalog into a beautiful antique, woven Chinese wedding basket where it lives until several months later, when I open the basket up, pull all the accumulated catalogs out, and toss them in my recycling bin, without spending a penny. 

Much of my catalog and later online shopping was with gifts in mind, but I have also cut way back on excessive gifting with friends and family, as we’ve all realized we don’t need any more stuff and instead focus on shared time together, as well as donations to charitable organizations in lieu of holiday and birthday gifts.

Yes, once upon a time I could tramp through malls for hours, giddy with the phrase of the day, “shop til you drop.”  Well, drop I did—financially, that is, and finally realized that my endless consumerism was not compatible with living responsibly, nor was it feeding my hungry soul.  Now the malls no longer beckon and the catalogs have lost their siren’s seduction. I lost my lust for shopping.  It’s the end of an era. Now connecting to others and to the universe draws me in instead and creativity is a bigger come-on. Oh happy day!  

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Entertaining Angels, Unawares

Is there anything more deeply satisfying than reading a great book?  That was a rhetorical question, as anyone who knows me will attest.  The answer is, no!

I just finished an enchanting book called Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin.  It’s about a woman aptly named Angel who runs a small but popular cake business in her neighborhood in Rwanda.  She and her husband, immigrants from Tanzania, live there caring for their five grandchildren, offspring of their two children who have passed away. There are ghosts of many “late” in this novel, set 15 years after the genocide in Rwanda.  But this is not a story of horror, though set against that backdrop.  It is instead a story of love and hope.  It’s the story of a very grounded woman who knows her neighbors, who serves her community, who enjoys the gossip among the people she knows well and who uses her great humble wisdom to help people figure some important things out for themselves--often through her role as cake designer. 

She is also not above using this role to right a few injustices.  She helps the lovelorn, the war-torn, those at loose ends, those estranged from family, people she knows and those she does not. Angel’s friends and neighbors are expats from other African countries and around the world, international aid workers, academics, taxi drivers, spies, sex workers and bank tellers, and they all command her interest and respect. Her cakes are labors of love, customized for each person based on their favorite things, no matter how unlikely the subject of a cake. 

Oh, and did I mention Angel is a frequent flasher?  A menopausal hot flasher, that is.  She goes through the days nurturing and flashing--as she makes dinner to deliver to homeless children sheltering in a nearby dumpster, as she navigates and, yes, occasionally exploits the foibles of the wazungu (white people) in the community.  She flashes as she collects money for and plans the wedding of a local girl who is motherless, serving as her official “mother” for the important rite.  She flashes as she comes to grips with her own relationship with her daughter.   And she wonders hilariously, “Surely a woman could not be stuck in the Change for ever? Surely she would eventually arrive at a point where she had…well…

Women’s empowerment is a not-so-subtle important theme of the book, one that does not detract from but enhances the storytelling. For example, Angel ponders the ethics of a cake to commemorate for a proud Muslim father his daughter’s circumcision.  Attending what she believes to be a party to celebrate the ritual (what does one wear, she wonders, to “a cutting?” and settles on black), she finds herself instead part of a conspiracy of women to circumvent it.  One of Angel’s friends, Dr. Rejoice, remarks then, about women supporting one another, “It’s like we understand now that we’re much stronger when we stand together, especially in places where we’re being beaten down.” Upon which another friend, Odile, adds, “Yes, like bread…The ingredients do nothing on their own, but when they’re all together, they stick together and rise.  They get beaten down and they rise again.” 

Author Gaile Parkin was born in Zambia and lives in Africa.  She volunteered for two years in Rwanda for VSO International, working with the charity on HIV/AIDS and gender advocacy and empowerment.  “Many of the stories told by the characters in [the book] are based on or inspired by stories she was told herself,” her bio explains, and indeed, Parkin’s intimate familiarity with the rich variety of women of whom she writes is evident in their conversations and other interactions.  
I guarantee you will finish this book with a much warmed heart, hopes for a sequel and a wish that you knew Angel personally.  And maybe the realization that you do—that there are Angels among your own friends and community, too.  Maybe even you?