Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I've just raced through

an extremely troubling book, Michelle Herman's The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood. Though the flap copy presents this as a mother's story about her child's breakdown, the book's really made up of four essays of varying lengths. I didn't take to the first two at all--you know, with this memoir stuff, it gets very personal in terms of how one reacts to the author's voice/self-presentation, and I just hated what felt to me an immensely narcissistic and adolescent preoccupation with the lost loves (boyfriends, best friends) of childhood and teenage years and so forth: the material didn't speak to me, in terms either of content or of presentation.

But the second half of the book is much, much better; these are the two essays that tackle the questions of what damage this so-well-intentioned-and-intelligent-and-wonderful-mother has done to her daughter, who ends up a complete mess around questions of separation and individuation. The first, "Bookends," is very good, and the last essay in the book (the one the flap describes, really), "Hope against Hope," is really excellent: it begins with the sentence "My daughter is twelve weeks old when she tries to starve herself," which might be seen as sensationalizing, and yet here for the first time I really sympathized with this panicky frenzied mother who has not seemed particularly likeable in earlier sections of the book. The writing just works here for me as a reader, in other words, in a way it doesn't in the essay about best friends ("Enough Friends"). Here the essay-writer sounds thoughtful, self-reflective (and I strongly suspect that lots of non-fiction agents and editors would have urged the writer to recast the book using this as the frame for the entire thing, and turn it into a book for a wider audience--a real trade book, in the good ways you use that phrase--rather than the university press book it is--again, for better and for worse).

There are occasionally annoying moments. Consider, for instance, these sentences, which come at the very end of an essay of thoughtful and painful and ultimately deeply engaging self-recrimination for having fostered excessive closeness between self and child on the basis of what are imagined by the mother to be the child's needs but are really of course her own. The author's describing her daughter in third grade coming home from a school day where two boys got punished for using the word 'fuck': "First she wanted to know about 'fuck.' She'd heard the word before, but only at poetry readings. She had never asked what it meant, and I had always figured she'd assumed it was a 'poetry word,' like erstwhile or o'er." Uh, poetry readings? Oh dear... you (or at least I) feel that the thoughtful self-examining person who wrote the essay has temporarily vanished; I am consumed by my personal horror at the idea of this poor child brought to poetry readings! (It's the literary equivalent of the stage mother.) And there's the fundamental problem of privacy, that the very process the book so movingly describes--of a mother fighting her own instincts in order to let her daughter have her own life--seems antithetical to the breaching of boundaries of all kinds implicit not so much in writing as in publishing a book like this one. (Someone should get Ayelet Waldman to review it. It would be interesting to hear what she thinks. Really, I mean. Get her to review it for Salon!)

But the piece as a whole is really, really moving, an extremely effective piece of writing. There are some passionate and angry paragraphs near the end, written more obviously in the mode of critical argument as opposed to personal reminiscence, that seem to me infinitely more to the point than almost anything you read in our problem-of-motherhood-saturated culture. On the whole work-life-motherhood balance question:

And if it's reductive to think that 'solving' this problem will make the whole thing--motherhood itself--a snap, what about the insistence on the part of some that they have solved it--that (A) it's obvious that children benefit by the example of mothers who are thoroughly engaged in the world, who are forces in the world, who are taking care of themselves (just think of the example we're setting for our daughters! No child would be happy, raised by a mother who is unfulfilled, resentful, bored, or angry--and who could argue with that?); or (B) it's absurd to imagine or pretend that our children don't need their mothers front and center in their lives, not just for a few hours in the evening and on weekends packed with chores and errands (and cellphone calls and e-mail from the office, paperwork to finish, charts to read, numbers to crunch), and what's the point of having children if you're going to pay someone else to raise them?--plus, argues this camp, today's full-time 'stay-at-home mom' cannot be compared to the forties and fifties pre-feminist mothers who raised us, since today's mom makes a conscious choice, unlike Betty F's respondents, who did what was expected of them (and became depressed): today's homemaker-mom demonstrates to her children not only the principle of choice, important in itself, but also that she's chosen them, forsaking a career or else a good chunk of one, making it clear to the kids just how important they are and how much they mean to her--and who could argue with how much our children mean to us, or say that we shouldn't let them know that?

You see Herman's written it very cleverly, emphasizing the problematic rather than the pros and cons of each choice--most of us would obviously prefer one or the other of these standpoints, but once she writes it this way, you have to listen to the impossibleness of the choice. Another good pair of sentences:

If you mean to do right by your child and be true to yourself, too--and you understand that it is not always clear what being true to yourself is, that what seems true to your self is complicated by what you do or don't understand about your self--and you understand that the question of making yourself 'happy' is not necessrily related to what will constitute doing right by your child--then you are in for years, decades, of trying to figure out something at least as hard as working out the repeating lines of a poem in which the first five stanzas are triplets and the last stanza is a quatrain, and the first line is also the last line in the second stanza and the third line is the last line in the third stanza. Or as hard as investigating the properties of Fermions, half-integral spin particles that obey the Pauli principle, and Bosons, integral spin particles that don't, or the anomalous magnetic moments of leptons, or the quark structure of matter.

I find the second sentence there slightly silly, and yet it works. Anyway, this essay in particular is well worth reading, and there's an excerpt available online, at a web magazine called Literary Mama.

(Thanks to the excellent Lauren Cerand for sending me the book.)

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