Monthly Archives: July 2010

My Little Piece of Luggage

MaryAlice, the younger of my two children was born 21 months after her brother, Stuart.  Because parenting, period, was still uncharted territory for me in a lot of ways, the idea of parenting a toddler and a newborn made for exponentially janglier nerves as I anticipated her arrival.

The way I opted to cope was to spend every waking hour that we were together with MaryAlice literally attached to my person, thereby freeing up at least one arm — two if I bothered with some kind of babywearing apparatus — to coddle Stuart into submission. (My proprietary technique involved equal parts Kiki’s Delivery Service and Dum Dum Pops). I affectionately thought of MaryAlice as my little piece of luggage. Not like some mildewy nylon gym tote. Maybe … a vintage, bubblegum pink train case. There. Suitably cute?

The take-away lesson from Round One of my experiment in parenting was this, written on Mother’s Day in 2007: “Being a mother to an infant is a little bit like caring for the world’s most exotic, demanding, and time-consuming pet. A pet you feed with your boobs.” I arrived at this conclusion in the otherwise-fruitless wake of my obsession with trying to articulate, in hard-and-fast terms, trying to apply meaning to, the miasma of emotions that overtakes one’s sense of reality when contending with a colicky baby whose interests are limited to emitting raptor-like shrieks and staring at ceiling fans (while his dislikes include kisses and … kisses).  “All you have to do is love him,” I remember a nurse telling me shortly after Stuart was born. I mean, I knew there was the implied addendum, “… and feed and clothe and bathe him.” Still, I was incredulous. That’s all? Like, all-all?

Without rehashing the bumps in my road to acceptance of this nurse’s guidance, I can say that, by the time MaryAlice arrived, I was a true believer. And, thusly, MaryAlice was transformed into the living, breathing equivalent of an overnight bag. Her demeanor definitely helped seal the deal. I can’t say whether she was so calm and tolerant and content to observe her surroundings because I treated her like an exceptionally precious appendage, or whether her general agreeableness just cemented my faith in this approach. Whatever the case, it was “no harm, no foul” as far as I was concerned. 

Same goes for Stuart and those suckers. He “passed” his first dental exam with flying colors!

(Okay. Maybe I do feel a little guilty about that one).

Except, even as MaryAlice was, by all appearances, blithely thriving, it was hard for me to let go of the equation of, say … highlighting meaningful lines in Wislawa Szymborska poems and poring over pediatric malady-of-the-day web sites … with Caring. With Love. It still is, sometimes.

For example, the other week, the discussion in an online forum for parents of toddlers born around the same time as MaryAlice turned to milestones.  Among the accomplishments one of the moms on this forum cited, with regard to her 22-month-old, were possessing a 200-word vocabulary, being able to count to ten, and knowing the alphabet.

MaryAlice … is not there. She doesn’t know the alphabet (this in spite of my mom’s claims that I could recite the alphabet at 15 months. I’m still incredulous). She can count to two. I have no idea about the size of her vocabulary, but I do know that her favorite words are “awesome,” “dude,” “poop,” and, uh, “damnit.”

So, yes. She’s not there.

A part of me worries that the reason she isn’t is that we don’t “do” milestones anymore. Sure, they’ve all happened so far, in spite of our non-effort: some probably slightly behind schedule, some probably slightly ahead of schedule. We just don’t pay much attention or give a lot of credence to the standard timeline.  (Whereas, again, if Stuart wasn’t tracking lateral motion at two months on the dot, my fingers were itching to dial the pediatric triage nurse line).

The informal measuring stick I try to use, with regard to milestones, assesses the whys rather than the whats. Look at it this way: being able to name colors isn’t really about being able to name colors — it’s a touchstone to indicate how the brain is processing visual information. If a child is able to demonstrate this ability in other, general ways, why let yourself get bogged down in the specifics? Does being “behind the curve” portend some kind of functional difficulty for the child, or does the child have all the skills they need to exist, happily and safely, within their environment? (And, piggybacking on the latter part of that question:  If not, is it the environment that needs changing instead of the child?).

When I apply these criteria, MaryAlice is doing just fine.

The temptation I need to avoid, then, is using my children’s milestones as benchmarks of my own success as a parent. I have some control freak-y tendencies (a fact that has been reinforced in this very post!). I have wished, at times, for a manual that dictated “Practice A” + “Practice B” = “You win at parenting!”

We’re dealing with the virtually limitless variables — “unknown unknowns,” to quote (gulp!) Donald Rumsfeld — that are kind of integral to … well, the beauty of the human experience. Paraphrasing a friend’s observation: “I can make parenting choices that I know to be healthier for her, based on empirical evidence. But there’s no guarantee that it will make her a smarter or more accomplished person.” (And, tangentially, “smarter” and “more accomplished” don’t mean “better,” either).

It’s hard work, this intellectualizing my way out of the fear that I’ve ruined my daughter.

Of course, in the time I spent hatching this argument, I could have been grilling her with vocabulary-building flashcards.

We’ll reach 200 words yet. Damnit.


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Rearranging My Bookshelf: An Introduction

My husband and I are in the process of liquidating a huge portion of our home library “holdings” (too haphazard to even be considered a collection) via the secondhand sales arm of a well-known, online retailer. Everything is priced so that we’ll net at least a dollar per item after seller’s fees and shipping costs are factored in. But, although making a little money is a good side-effect of this effort, it isn’t the driving force behind the decision.

Basically, we have too much stuff. Books sit on shelves, unread or unviewed for years, simply because they’re like proud, little testaments to the complexity of my personal tastes, the diversity of my background. For example, I’m parting with a lot of the source material for major critical essays and research papers I did in grad school. The De-Moralization of Society stays (good old Gertrude Himmelfarb. I may not agree with you on much, but thanks for the unwitting help with my thesis!), as do The Other Victorians and Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry. And I’m keeping the majority of the referenced literature (except in the case of duplicate copies. Anyone need a spare Cranford ?). Plus way more Adelaide Anne Procter than any non-academic should ever have, really.

In other words, you can still look at our bookshelves and say, “Here resides a person who enjoys parsing the socio-historical implications of Victoriana. To an absurd degree.” But I have come to terms with not needing  to woo any (theoretical) potential friends with a heap of impressive-sounding (or provocative-sounding: au revoir, Straight Sex) titles. No. One. Cares.

In part, too, I’ve kept all of it for as long as I have because I want to remind myself that my interests were once, well, “interesting” (at least according to my somewhat oddly calibrated fascination barometer). A lot of my hobbies and pastimes have  had to be sublimated  in order to let parenting take the front seat for the time-being. I can usually accept that as a value neutral Fact.

Nonetheless … I guess I have this nagging worry that this acceptance means I’ll be discovered as one of Those Moms.

What moms? Well, that’s the thing about Those Moms. Their demographic profile  is very fluid, chameleon-like, insidious . They simultaneously serve as the objects of self-congratulatory derision and, more shamefully, as totems of our feared incompetence.  They were a near-constant spectre, haunting my every parenting-and-child-related decision’  in the beginning.  The first incarnation of Those Moms for me was, in fact, a prenatal one: Those Moms-to-be, if you will.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, there was a lot of talk about Those Moms: usually in the form of a rationalization for my “great undoing” (as feared my decision to parent would be universally viewed).  I’d try to adopt a kind of apathetic tone: “Yeah.  So, I’m going to have a kid (shrug). But don’t worry. I’m not going to be one of Those Moms.”  Then I would quickly change the focus of the conversation to something mildly transgressive or intellectual or as far afield of placentas and fluid retention and swaddling and breastfeeding as I could get.

It’s depressing that I was hooked into these “masking behaviors” so early on. After all, even the IRS acknowledges that having a child is a Major Life Event.  I should have felt like I was at liberty to celebrate and fixate as much as I wanted. But I think I can pinpoint where my inhibitions kicked in.

Among  the first non-family-members I told about my pregnancy was a close friend: my best friend in high school and college. One of the official witnesses at my wedding. Although our paths had diverged over the years, we were still friendly in the sometimes-disappointingly-cursory way that adults living in different cities, working in different fields, and pursuing different goals are. This situational stuff had definitely muted the intensity of our friendship. Still, I wasn’t expecting to be dropped like so much dead weight upon disclosing the existence of my then-kumquat-sized fetus.

“I didn’t even think Amanda wanted kids,” she warily confided to a mutual acquaintance. It seemed I was being cowed by my husband; trying to “keep up with the Jonses” (two of my other friends had recently given birth); drinking the status quo Kool-aid.

In retrospect, though, I’m pretty sure that she was projecting her fears – of being abandoned; of being unable to relate by dint of her childfree status; of being conscripted as a babysitter more often than called for movie dates – onto Those Moms, too, believing that Those Moms were soon to include me among their ranks.

The reputation of Those Moms had wheedled its way into my life and summarily skewered what had been one of my most enduring relationships. I imagined that, in my friend’s eyes, Those Moms were unfun. Baby-obsessed. Entitled. Shallow. They let their “true selves” be obscured by a tiny little parasite and never really recovered.  So I resolved not to fit that definition.

Or at least pretend that I didn’t.

In light of all this, I would like to do a lot of flag-waving for the “Those Moms as Strawmen” theory. However, I am starting to think that they at least take root from a kernel of truth. I mean, look at my book-purge project. Why is Blues Legacies and Black Feminism en route to Tallahassee, Florida while A Child’s Work remains on the shelf?  Similarly, when was the last time I went for dinner and drinks at a restaurant that did not offer apple juice in plastic cups with bendy straws? How often have I visited the adult women’s section at a department (or, let’s face it, big box) store before combing through the children’s sales racks? And, most tellingly, why am I not more indignant about any of this?

Am I really one of Those Moms?

A better question may be, “Why are Those Moms vilified in the first place?” In my case, is being (subjectively) boring and homebody-ish and, uh, not suitably invested in esoteric  feminist texts an accusation to fear?

Decidedly, no.  I’m not crying over the loss of cachet. Because I was never “cool” to begin with, but, moreso, because I know it isn’t a forever thing .

Which means that my kids’ childhoods aren’t, either.

That does make me a little misty-eyed: for sentimental reasons (“I can’t imagine them not being my babies !”) , yes. And for the realization of how common, yet how unacknowledged, this tension seems to be: how women are expected to be and not-be one of Those Moms, turning on a dime from hour to hour, relationship to relationship, and life-stage to life-stage.

So, with that said, back to the bookshelf:

Much of the thinking I’ve done about my parenting experience thus far has been about integrating worlds that are traditionally — and sometimes fiercely — separate, about needing to justify my choices in one sphere to denizens of another in order to maintain sufficient traction in either.

The bookshelf-as-Public-Self metaphor actually works well for me in expressing the possibilities and limitations of  reconciling competing facets of the person other people see as Me. On this bookshelf, Hubert Selby, Jr.’s The Demon can easily occupy a spot next to Francesca Lia Block’s motherhood memoir Guarding the Moon, though the cognitive dissonance may give librarians heartburn, and perplex people browsing for like titles. But it is, nonetheless, possible for the structure to simultaneously house books on an array of subjects, and for volumes to be added and switched out at will or as necessity demands. I can push the book of vintage erotic photography back into a remote corner and obscure it with a vegan cupcake book or the OED when we have more prudish house guests. I control what topics are afforded a greater percentage of the space, and which books are displayed prominently, at eye-level.

However, there is only so much room on the shelf. Priorities have to be established and evaluated regularly; some books may have to be boxed up in the short term (a how-to guide for beginning organic, raised bed gardeners),  or even donated to charity (2004’s  Lonely Planet: Puerto Rico). While his does change the tone, the flavor, of the books in aggregate, it does not nullify their diversity.

Yet it’s hard to think of many other circumstances shared by such a huge number of people as motherhood that are seen as opaquely coloring the entire character of a person. Of obviating, even, other elements of our experience. Have a baby and you’re an instant archetype.

Pushing back against the idea of mothers as a lumpen class is complicated, especially because the group identity we’ve been handed truly does have collective social stakes, which are simply part and parcel to being the parent of a child. When the additional layer-of-complexity that is fighting among our supposedly uniform ranks (the original inspiration for this blog) is factored in … well, it’s no wonder that I feel simultaneously stuck and untethered. When I was pregnant, despite the creeping dread, I half-convinced myself I could avoid all of it  — could eschew the reach of Those Moms and with my blase attitude, my frantic hat-switching, my everything-to-everyone intentions.

In the first few weeks after my son’s birth, I had to admit, to myself, that this highly compartmentalized duality wasn’t tenable. Now, I am working on admitting it more publicly: not defeatedly, but as a (very meek and tentative) rallying cry.

I am writing toward the possibility of a paradigm shift. I am making peace with a card catalogue that’s cryptic and in-flux.

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