Mommy Talks Back

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Motherhood has a new voice, and it's not soothing. It's strident; it's furious; it's incredulous; it's dog tired. A generation of women raised on a steady diet of self-determinism and you-go-girlism have had kids. And these competent, successful, articulate femmes are shocked by how hard it is. Pregnancy! Labor! Babies! Toddlers! Teens! What's an intelligent woman to do? Increasingly, the answer is, Write a book.

Because the notion of a traditional family has all but evanesced, lots of moms don't see their lives reflected in traditional parenting books. And although bearing and raising children are universal experiences, the basics of which have changed little since that first woman woke up wondering why she felt so nauseated, in the minutiae--and with kids, there are a lot of minutiae--every person's experience is unique. It seems there's now a book reflecting every style of motherhood, from Ayun Halliday's The Big Rumpus (Seal Press), a breezy chronicle of raising children in the more bohemian neighborhoods of New York City, to Rachel Cusk's cerebral A Life's Work (Picador), an almost anatomical examination of the thousand shocks that new motherhood inflicts on a woman's psyche.


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Jan. 17, 2004
 

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Lisa Belkin, who has collected her New York Times columns on balancing work and family into Life's Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom (Simon & Schuster), says "the emotional and economic tug-of-war" that modern mothers endure "is the central story of our generation." And the women who are enduring it seem compelled to tell their stories without leaving out the gory bits. In The Bitch in the House (Morrow), a forthcoming collection of women's tales of love, work and other burdens edited by Cathi Hanauer, the seven essays devoted to motherhood are assembled under the subtitle "Mommy Maddest." Then there's I'll Never Have Sex with You Again (Fireside), a That's Incredible!-style compilation of labor and delivery stories from B-list celebrities like Melissa Rivers and Peggy Noonan as well as from regular folks. And Susan Cheever breaks one of the biggest parenting taboos when she writes (against the advice of her lawyer, she notes) about slapping her daughter in her recently released As Good As I Could Be (Washington Square Press).

Why the spate of warts-and-all mommy memoirs? And why do the authors all seem so shocked by their condition? "The drudgery of looking after young children hasn't changed," says Belkin. "Our expectations have. We were the generation who were told we could have everything." When women who were raised to believe they could rule the world suddenly find they no longer can--and sometimes no longer even want to--they're taken aback. Especially since all the training and education they have undertaken have left them ill prepared for mothering. As a result, they feel as if they are the first humans ever to try to scale that mountain.

Indeed, these books may be a way to retrieve something of the mom's old self. That certainly was true for Halliday, who before she had children blithely threw herself into avant-garde theater projects and backpacking. Then, five years ago, India, known as "Inky," was born. "Shortly after you give birth," Halliday writes in The Big Rumpus, "most of the activities that defined your identity are suspended to let you mix apple juice, deal with somebody else's snot and develop a lot of highfalutin ideas about television."

Halliday, an Earth Mother hard-core enough to breast-feed on the New York City subway, found the cruelest blow of motherhood is the loss of self-expression. "The pain of childbirth is a white-hot constellation of torture," she writes. "It inspires respect. Taking care of the little criminals day in and day out is another matter...You're a dumb old pack mule." So, true to her let's-put-on-a-show old self, she started East Village Inky, an illustrated 'zine about the daily activities of her little family. And she started her book. "Getting serious about my writing was a side benefit of having a child," says Halliday. She also turned to the Internet, where she believes the new, franker voice of motherhood was born and nurtured.

The reigning mother superiors of the Web crowd are Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, co-editors of another 'zine, HipMama, and its online iteration at hipmama.com, based in Portland, Ore. "Many of the books written for moms are how-to or prescriptive: Do this; don't do that," says Lavender, explaining why mothers needed an alternative outlet for support and community. "I don't believe children can be raised like a loaf of bread." In Breeder, Lavender and Gore's collection of tales by anti-June Cleaver types released last year by Seal Press, the memoirists range from the mom who misses being a stripper to a pregnant 15-year-old who insists on keeping her baby.

Other mothers look to the past for comfort. Cusk, a British novelist, was blindsided by having a baby. "Other people exclaim at her goodness," she writes of her new daughter. "I am, apparently, her mother." Her daughter is colicky, doesn't sleep and nurses incessantly. "One does not often hear a woman observe with incredulity that her baby won't seem to go away," Cusk writes. "But that doesn't mean she doesn't think it, hasn't always thought it." Finding no solace in the regular baby books, she turned to her old friends the classics. A Life's Work offers analysis of the parenting chops of Madame Bovary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jane Eyre's Aunt Reed, and a comparison of mothers to the mythical Io, whom Juno cursed to be chased and stung by a malicious gadfly.

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