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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