Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Childby Faulkner Fox
When Salon.com published Faulkner Fox’s article on motherhood, “What I Learned from Losing My Mind,” the response was so overwhelming that Salon reran the piece twice. The experience made Faulkner realize that she was not alone—that the country is full of women who are anxious and conflicted about their roles as mothers and wives.In
When Salon.com published Faulkner Fox’s article on motherhood, “What I Learned from Losing My Mind,” the response was so overwhelming that Salon reran the piece twice. The experience made Faulkner realize that she was not alone—that the country is full of women who are anxious and conflicted about their roles as mothers and wives.In Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, her provocative, brutally honest, and often hilarious memoir of motherhood, Faulkner explores the causes of her unhappiness, as well as the societal and cultural forces that American mothers have to contend with. From the time of her first pregnancy, Faulkner found herself—and her body—scrutinized by doctors, friends, strangers, and, perhaps most of all, herself. In addition to the significant social pressures of raising the perfect child and being the perfect mom, Faulkner also found herself increasingly incensed by the unequal distribution of household labor and infuriated by the gender inequity in both her home and others’. And though she loves her children and her husband passionately, is thankful for her bountiful middle-class life, and feels wracked with guilt for being unhappy, she just can’t seem to experience the sense of satisfaction that she thought would come with the package. She’s finally got it all—the husband, the house, the kids, an interesting part-time job, even a few hours a week to write—so why does she feel so conflicted? Faulkner sheds light on the fear, confusion, and isolation experienced by many new mothers, mapping the terrain of contemporary domesticity, marriage, and motherhood in a voice that is candid, irreverent, and deeply personal, while always chronicling the unparalleled joy she and other mothers take in their children.
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House, Man, Child
I began to fantasize about being in a house with a man and a child when I was twenty-three. It was an ambivalent fantasy, in terms of motherhood; I wasn't sure if I was the child's mother. I was the man's lover, that much was clear, and the child looked like him. Maybe I was the live-in mother, or maybe I was a frequent guest and sex partner who went home to her own bachelorette pad in the city.
The fantasy opens with me in the foreground, working at a computer beside a large glass window. It's dusk and a purplish blue tinges the sky. I can see the ocean just outside the window and over a cliff--wild, angry, gorgeous. To my right at an open kitchen area, an attractive blond man is deveining shrimp for the paella he's preparing while listening to Miles Davis. The music is low (out of respect for me), and as the man has anticipated, it doesn't bother me. I like the sad and lovely trumpet drifting my way. At once, I feel relaxed and incredibly focused on work I love doing.
Between the man and me on a clean and bare floor, a blond four-year-old plays with wooden trucks. He loads tiny logs into the truck beds, then takes them out and splays them on the floor like a fan. He's happy without ever being loud, and he doesn't get up. He simply sits and plays.
Meanwhile, I keep working. There's no reason for me to stop. My work is going well, and paella takes a long time to cook. Eventually, when the sky is dark, I do stop, and we--meaning the man and I--eat at a table beside huge windows that face the sea. We drink red wine, and there are candles on the table, the kind that bob in oil inside clear glass cylinders.
I never see the child whenI imagine our meal. Maybe he continues to play quietly into the night, or maybe he has already put himself to bed. I never see it in my vision, but surely the man must have placed a bowl of apples, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of shrimp from the paella beside the child at some point. I might even have given him a mug of milk. Pouring luscious whole milk into a cool blue mug, bending down once to place it on the floor--I could do that. I could do it and still be myself.
In my real life at twenty-three, I lived alone, with chin-length brown hair, in a New Orleans apartment recently inhabited by two heroin addicts. A dozen needles lay in the weeds beside a banana tree in the backyard. My downstairs neighbor was a woman who seemed to be suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome caused by WWII. Often I would wake around 4 a.m. to her yelling or loud moaning. Sometimes Irene spoke in German; other times she would scream, in clear, crisp English: "Goddamn Jesus! Goddamn Jesus!" Irene didn't have a car, and I drove her to Steak and Egg on occasion, the only place I ever knew her to go. We sat in the grimy, maroon plastic booths drinking iced tea and smoking cigarettes. Irene was very lonely. So was I.
It was 1987, and I'd moved to New Orleans to study voodoo and witchcraft. I did this by interviewing and apprenticing myself to a variety of practitioners. I wasn't sure how much of my interest was academic and how much was personal. When I told one rootworker that I was doing research for a book I might write on women and magic, she said, "God sent you here, and you've come for a love potion." She was right, I remember thinking.
I felt myself to be living provisionally in New Orleans. Interviewing people, typically older ones whose lives I viewed as "real," contributed to this sense. I was an apprentice, an interviewer, someone who watched others to see how life could be done rather than someone who actually lived herself. I had a student's view of the world: Nothing counted yet, I was just gathering information.
"It never occurred to me that I was living a real life there," Joan Didion wrote of herself in New York City at twenty. "It was difficult in the extreme for me to understand those young women for whom New York was not simply an ephemeral Estoril but a real place, girls who bought toasters and installed new cabinets in their apartments."* I felt similarly in New Orleans. I never would have bought a toaster. I had no small appliances, and almost no furniture--a mattress, a card table, two attached seats from an out-of-business movie theatre. New Orleans seemed the obvious place for me to live since I wanted to write and study voodoo, but I didn't know how long I'd stay, how long the romance of New Orleans would last. When I left, I didn't want to be weighed down.
At the same time, I was curious about the girls with toasters. Were they happier than I was? It was unnerving to have such a tenuous, if romantic, attachment to my life. True, I met someone fascinating at least once a week and because I wore my interviewer's cloak, I got to skip the chitchat and move right to the questions that interested me most: What happens when we die? Is revenge ever okay? When people say "It was like magic," what was it really, and how did it work? These people weren't friends, though; I typically saw them just once. Intimacy was largely missing in my life, as was stability. Would I always sleep on the floor, support myself through a variety of low-paying and ever-shifting jobs, and fraternize primarily with a disturbed neighbor? I hoped not.
I knew I wasn't ready yet, but eventually, motherhood might provide me with a richer, more grounded connection to the world. How could it not? It would bring me to the hub of life; I would create life. How extraordinary, how transformative! And yet when I thought about the mothers I'd had the opportunity to observe in action, they didn't strike me as more rooted or wise about creation than anyone else. If anything, those with young children seemed less so. They had to wipe up too much.
I started taking long walks every afternoon through the tony uptown neighborhood adjacent to my own. Sometimes I hardly noticed my surroundings, so fully inhabiting my seaside fantasy of man and child that everything else went blank. But then I'd pass a particularly charming house, one elaborately decorated for whatever holiday was in the air--paper skeletons dancing from the porch rafters, glittery turkeys pasted on the windows with "Lulu" and "Charles" scrawled at the bottom--and I'd be wrested back to New Orleans, or rather, my imaginings of it. What was the mother of the charming house doing now? How did she feel? Did a man ever cook paella for her while she worked? I doubted it.
If you weren't in fantasy land, it seemed that some rather heavy trade-offs might be involved to live in a house with a man and a child. While I began to think I might eventually want the full life I envisioned inside a carefully festooned house, I didn't want to be the one to create it. All the trips to the drugstore to buy glue sticks and tissue paper, which struck me as likely to be exhausting, would be the least of it. I wanted to have plenty of time alone, and I didn't want to be lonely. Who could I be and accomplish this? A spinster aunt who lived in the attic and came down occasionally to help with homework and sing old camp songs? A single woman who visited a man and a child by the sea, then got the hell out before morning?
In truth, I knew nothing about the women in the houses I passed. I couldn't even see them. Uptown New Orleans is an oddly enclosed world. No one was ever on the porch, and the heavy green shutters were always closed. Perhaps people got used to shutting out the oppressive heat, or possibly some fear of crime kept them locked inside. I didn't know anything about these people; I could only imagine, based on what I saw on the porch--kid bikes, abandoned tea parties for dolls, expensive jogging strollers.
When my boss at the tutoring agency where I worked, Caroline DuChamp, invited me to her shotgun house on Prytania Street, I was thrilled. Caroline was thirty, and she had a two-year-old daughter. Finally, I'd get an inside look at young motherhood.
While Caroline was home with her child quite a bit, she was no full-fledged stay-at-homer. She ran a successful business, charging $25 an hour for my tutoring services, and paying me $11. If I had baby-sat her daughter, she wouldn't have paid me anything near the $14 an hour she paid herself for every hour I worked. Perhaps I should view Caroline as a role model, a mother who had a flexible and lucrative career. But I didn't want to run a tutoring agency. On the other hand, the three part-time jobs I currently had--teaching French at a Catholic boys' school, conducting weekend tours at the Voodoo Museum, and tutoring for Caroline--netted me less than $8,000 per year. Did Caroline know something I didn't?
If I did have a child, I could hardly drag her to the cemetery where I took Parisian tourists each Saturday to pay tribute at Marie Laveau's grave. My own spiritual beliefs were in flux, but I wouldn't want to take the chance that an unsettled ghost, hovering around the tombs, could curse my baby. If my child fell ill in a more traditional manner, I had no health insurance. Clearly, my life would have to change if I became a mother. I was eager to check in on Caroline's life and see if I could gather any tips for possible future use.
The occasion at Caroline's was a thank-you luncheon for the tutors, all single young women like me. Caroline served chicken salad, globbed with mayonnaise, and lukewarm potato soup. Cold or hot, I remember thinking of the soup--either way would be fine--but the in-between was so unsettling. Had she not had time to chill the soup because of her daughter? Her daughter was nowhere to be seen. The luncheon was a "special event," Caroline announced; we were special enough to warrant a baby-sitter's expense. But her child's existence seemed to dominate the house anyway. Toys were pushed into corners, but there were so many. A Disney sing-along machine fell off one precarious stack during lunch and began to squeak, in fake mouse tones, "Three blind mice, three blind mice . . ." We all laughed warmly, but I was thinking, I'd go mad in a house like this.
Caroline had invited a few of her friends, mothers with young children, to join us tutors. They seemed overjoyed to be at a grown-up luncheon. An intense-looking woman from New Jersey said she'd never left her sixteen-month-old before. "I feel giddy! I can't believe I'm here. And I'm drinking wine--think of that!" She closed her eyes and took a long, luxurious sip.
An hour later, after considerably more wine, she seemed less content. "I'm going to New Jersey next week," she told the table. "Joe says we can't afford it. Well, I need to see my family. I didn't ask to come here, to leave my job and my life. I'm going all right, on a Greyhound bus. It'll take forty-two hours. Can you imagine? Me on the bus with the baby? Joe thinks I'm crazy, but he won't pay for the airplane ticket."
I was horrified by her account. Did she love this man? How could he hold money over her like this? In 1987! It was late by the time she finished her story, nearly three, and still the mothers made no gesture toward leaving. How long could they stay away from their lives, lingering in the specialness of adult women's conversation, however depressing the content?
I didn't hang around to find out. I thanked Caroline for lunch and practically ran out her door, away from the drunk mothers, the plastic toys, the bad soup. I was pissed at Caroline for making money off my labor--a fact that chicken salad could hardly amend--but I sure didn't want to change places with her or her friends. My shitty little apartment had never seemed so welcoming. I lay on my mattress on the floor and counted my blessings.
Meanwhile, I kept having my paella-by-the-sea fantasy. My child, if I had one, wouldn't play with unsightly plastic things, and my man, when I found him, wouldn't put me on a bus. I'd drive my own damn car, or fly my own damn plane. Where were the good men, the ones who respected a woman's autonomy? A friend of my sister's told her they were in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
I flew up to visit my sister, who lived in nearby Northampton, and we drove to Shelburne Falls one winter afternoon. Oddly, we saw no males at all except one man burning leaves in his yard and another sliding pizzas into an oven in an Italian restaurant. They were both well over fifty. Too old, we thought. So it was back to our daydreams for both of us, and single life in the tiny, ill-furnished New Orleans apartment for me. For my sister, Celia, three years my junior, bachelorette life took place in a ramshackle one-room cabin between a junkyard and the Connecticut River.
Celia lived in that cabin for eight years, and I visited her often. In 1991, we celebrated Anita Hill Day there instead of Christmas with our friend Melinda. The three of us decorated Celia's ficus tree with pictures of Anita that we'd clipped from Newsweek and Time, then burned the images we'd collected of Clarence Thomas in the woodstove. We gave each other Thelma and Louise T-shirts. We were all looking for a good man, and at the same time we felt compelled to celebrate women who stood up against bad men, however high the cost.
Anita Hill Day at Celia's cabin was home, as deeply as I'd ever felt it, yet I was sad and lonely that Christmas, not to mention angry. Were the only cultural options--for holidays, as well as life in general--feminist boycott or acquiescence to some package of horrors? It appeared so when I was twenty-six.
The beauty of my paella fantasy, as I saw it in my mid-twenties, was that it held out an alternative vision of life with a man and a child, one I'd never seen in practice. Until I could figure out how to attain it, I'd go on with my single life, critiquing whatever I saw as oppressive. The critiquing was part of how I figured I'd get what I wanted: If you can't pinpoint what's wrong--with typical male-female relationships, in this case--how can you construct something different? But the relentless critiquing was exhausting and often demoralizing. By contrast, my fantasy gave me hope; it was the lighthouse I saw in the distance when reality, through my twenty-something lens, looked like women getting screwed at every turn.
Meet the Author
FAULKNER FOX teaches creative writing at Duke University. She holds a BA in literature from Harvard, an MA in American Studies from Yale, and an MFA in poetry from Vermont College. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband and two sons. Visit her website at www.faulknerfox.com.
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In Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, Faulkner Fox dredges up much of what the feminist movement taught us: that marriage oppresses. She¿s a difficult narrator to relate to she¿s very much an intellectual, which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but it sets a depressing tone for the book. The title, or more accurately, the sub-title, doesn¿t seem entirely accurate in describing this book. Did she learn to love it all? Or did she simply learn to stop obsessing over who she was as a mother and wife and accept herself for who she is, letting go of the anger inside her?
I have read some of the more recent reviews of this book and I am surprised by the number of readers who seem to have expected something warm and fuzzy or sweetly wholesome. (The book has those moments, but that is not what it is 'about.') This is not a 'feel good' or a 'how to' book -- it is a semi-autobiographical work of social commentary. And from where I sit, it is excellent because it makes me think about how our society works, what we teach our daughters and what we don't, what women want, what we expect, what we can control and what we can't, and, finally, how a particular individual may come to terms with a 'not-so-perfect life.' What a pleasure to read a book that asks smart questions (even when I didn't agree with the way the character framed the question, I was always interested both in how it the question is resolved in the book and in what my own conclusions are) and is not satisfied with the obvious/traditional answers.
This book was total disappointment for me. I don't know what I was expecting, but the constant complaining about the choices she made was annoying. I felt very little sympathy for her. Instead of writing this book she should have been in therapy and on an anti depressant. She put more pressure on her self than society could ever do.
Faulkner Fox has truly hit a nerve, and I¿m thrilled! Fox¿s voice is smart and funny, and her talent as a writer can¿t be missed. I loved reading about boycotting Gymboree and all the other Mommy-and-Me stuff that feels like such an obligation when you¿re a new mother. The concept of Frequent Parenting Miles cracked me up, and I too lament the days when I could talk for hours with friends about everything and nothing so I could figure out who I was and what I cared about. Like Fox, I love my husband and I love being a mom, but I also like to think. Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life reminded me that the thinking part of me is still intact, and that I¿m not the only conflicted, though usually happy, woman in the world. Bravo!
I devoured this book in a few hours and absolutely loved it. Faulkner Fox's exploration of the complexities of motherhood is bold, funny, incisive, and refreshing. I completely related to her take on seemingly mandated 'mommy & me' groups, I loved her concept of 'Frequent Parenting Miles,' and I agonized along with her about how to balance the parenting load with a partner. Anyone who has reckoned with a profound identity shift upon entering motherhood will recognize themselves in this honest portrait of one woman's struggle to make peace with the dream and the reality of the house, the man, and the child. -- Andrea Buchanan author of _Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It_ (Seal Press)
This book is about real life that for some reason people are so afraid to talk about. I laughed out loud when she describes a chat with a neighbor after being up most of the night with her newborn. To her neighbor's question 'How is it being home, enjoying a nice break from work?', she replied 'This is the hardest thing I've ever done, and my last job...involved death threats'. It was clear she had horrified her. But what was she supposed to say? She hadn't slept, eaten or did any personal grooming in hours. So as I read this book, those old familiar feelings started to surface. Why couldn't I lament the joys of parenthood with my neighbor? Do other women actually enjoy sleep deprivation? Were they so blindly thrilled with their newborn it didn't matter? What was wrong with me? Were they sugar coating, or am I just a wretched, awful excuse for a mother? Why was it I felt so compelled to work at home pursuing a new business? Couldn't I just be happy raising my children? Fox struggles with the ideal of being completely selfless after having a child. She is well educated and had a dream - to write. Why should she suddenly abandon these dreams because she became a mother? And, why was she was doing a majority of the work at home? The trials Fox and her professor husband endure are fascinating. While he pursued tenure at his university, Fox continued to pursue her dream of writing and wouldn't accept anything less. While the other professor's wives dutifully took on all the work at home, allowing their husbands to focus entirely on their careers (with a few getting divorced in the process), she still demanded her husband do his fair share. She was so angry at the inequality she created a chart of 'Frequent Parenting Miles', a running count of child care hours, the surplus of which could be turned in for time off. Now for those of you who could take a trip around the world with your miles, lets talk. Why is it, that many women work full time, just as men traditionally do, yet we take on the majority of the household duties as well? Why is it when a father has their children they are 'watching them?' I get so sick of people telling me what a wooooonderful husband I have because he does things with his children. Is he not their father? I can only surmise that we have been led to believe that if we complain, somehow that translates to either not being a good mother, or that we don't love our children as much as the woman with the perma-smile. Fox then explores her difficulty creating friendships with other mothers. Personally, I have found this to be one of the more disappointing aspects of being a mother. Why do we judge each other so much? Stay-at-home moms versus working moms. Bottle versus breastfeeding. A popular woman's website actually has message boards devoted to these 'debates' just so women can make each other feel bad. One woman Fox knew used a 'yardstick' to 'test' other women to see if they were friend-worthy. Breastfeeds - 10 points. Breastfeeds for more than one year - 20 points. Works part time - minus 5 points. eeeeeeeewwwwww. These women who I enjoyed high school and college with were suddenly the enemy. I was paralyzed by the air of mistrust. For instance, if you are bottle feeding, could this mom you just met at the park be like a raving breastfeeding activist? Dare you whip out the bottle to nourish your hungry offspring? Fox talks about hanging out at the local McDonald's playland to escape the harrowing judgment in her neighborhood park. Surely no one who let their child eat and play at McDonalds could be that morally superior. In the end, Fox learns to live and thrive with her husband, her children & her mother-friends. And she does it without sacrificing herself, or her dreams. Faulkner Fox has penned not only a provocative, flawlessly written book, but an important one. Women must bridge the gaps of inequality not only in the