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Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child

Overview

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 ...

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Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Forecast: Fox will go on a driving tour of North Carolina, where she now lives, which should stir up interest in her book. She's done poetry readings for a few years and could parlay that experience into successful book readings. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this memoir, which began as an essay on Salon.com, Fox chronicles her dissatisfaction with her admittedly na ve American dream come true. Although grateful for her upper-middle-class life, she is blindsided by the demands of motherhood and feels guilty. New mothers will identify with some of Fox's frustrations (e.g., the unequal distribution of housework), but many others will be equally frustrated by her whininess and child-rearing methods (e.g., she took her kids to a Druid ritual). But then, those mothers who work full time outside the home and conscientiously attend every school function will probably be too tired to read this book. Fox pursues teaching and writing while struggling to achieve domestic bliss, but options she takes for granted (like therapy) aren't available to everyone. Though well crafted in a stream-of-consciousness style, this book will likely polarize its potential audience. Its controversial nature, coupled with heavy media coverage, will spark demand.-Margaret Cardwell, Christian Brothers Univ. Lib., Memphis Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A young feminist pulls no punches in her examination of motherhood. Fox (Creative Writing/Duke) candidly reveals her ambivalence, frustrations, and anger about the stresses imposed on women when they have children. Although she interviewed other young mothers, looking for confirmation that they shared her feelings, her personal story holds center stage here. (Indeed, Fox found many interviewees reluctant to admit their frustrations with maternity.) Her youthful vision of an uncluttered, stress-free life with a house, a man, and a child, she admits, was a fantasy. The reality, she learns, is that it’s not easy to combine selfhood with motherhood, to balance a writing career with childcare, or to achieve egalitarian parenthood. To explain to the reader where she’s coming from, Fox shows herself as a single woman: ambitious, edgy, fighting for liberal causes, looking to find a feminist prince. Once married to her prince, she discovers that pregnancy changes everything. Issues of control are real: How does one choose to be in control of birth and at the same time choose to avoid excruciating pain? (That the pain was real is left in no doubt as the author provides unnecessarily full details of both her home and hospital deliveries.) As a nursing mother, Fox finds that her husband’s parenting duties and hers are clearly out of balance. Keeping a record of time spent on a chart called "Frequent Parenting Miles," she tallies in quarter hours what she figures her spouse owes her. Collect she does, and in the process conducts a mild flirtation that leads the couple into therapy and eventually into a more equitable partnership. Fox also explores her attempts to connect with other women, a task shefinds far more difficult once husbands and children are part of all their lives. Her very honest account exudes relief at the chance to express her feelings and a measure of pride that she has faced some of motherhood’s inherent conflicts, if not entirely resolved them. Unconventional, challenging, sometimes even warm and funny. Agent: Christy Fletcher/Fletcher & Parry
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400049400
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/16/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.59 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

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 when I 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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 House, Man, Child 15
2 A Pregnant Self 43
3 A Birth of One's Own 63
4 The Joint Project 115
5 Judging Friends 165
6 Mother and Child 215
Acknowledgments 257
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First Chapter

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.

Copyright© 2003 by Faulkner Fox
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Reading Group Guide

1. On pg. 6 of the Introduction, Fox makes a piechart of possible reasons she is unhappy. What would your unhappiness chart look like? How about your happiness chart? Do you think it's useful to identify and quantify causes in this way?

2. Why is Fox upset about the smoked chicken her husband's boss brings the family on pg. 8? Have you received well-intentioned gifts that have also made you furious?

3. Fox writes on pg. 14 of the Introduction that she hoped her story could help other women feel "less alone, less crazy, and possibly less guilty." How can an autobiography--in this case, one that also contains a significant amount of cultural analysis--accomplish this? Were there times reading Dispatches when you did feel less alone, less crazy, or less guilty? Discuss which passages in the book evoked these feelings most directly. What other emotions did you feel while reading the book, and where, exactly, did you feel them?

4. How would you describe Fox's style? Is it appropriate for a book on contemporary domestic life? Why or why not?

5. What do you find most appealing about Faulkner Fox's voice as a writer? Which aspects of her character do you most--and least--identify with?

6. What role does humor play in Fox's book? How does the humor work with poignancy, anger, vulnerability, and cultural critique?

7. Dispatches has been called "part memoir, part parenting book, part cultural analysis." How does Fox keep all of this going at the same time?

8. At the beginning of Chapter One, Fox gives her 23-year-old self's fantasy vision of life in a house with a man and a child. What is so compelling to her about this fantasy? Which aspects of the fantasy do you identify with?

9. In certain ways, Dispatches is a book about loneliness. What is it about motherhood, in your opinion, that causes loneliness? What is Fox's opinion?

10. On pg. 193, Fox goes to McDonald's with her children to escape the judgments she feels in her own neighborhood. Have you ever felt compelled to make a similar escape? Where did you go, and did it work?

11. On pg. 201, Fox surmises that the women in her bookgroup--all mothers of young children--don't want to talk about motherhood while in bookgroup.

She wonders if they see bookgroup, instead, as more of a chance to temporarily escape from their domestic lives. If you are currently in a bookgroup, what do you think brings people to your group?

12. One of the major themes in Dispatches is judgmentalism, particularly among new mothers. Discuss the times in your life when you have felt most intensely judged, and most intensely judging of others. What set these moments off, do you think? Did you find yourself judging Fox as you read this book? Why or why not?

13. How does Fox combine "showing" (vivid description and precise anecdotes) with "telling" (analysis and reflection on meaning) in Dispatches? Discuss the mixture of showing and telling in the passages of the book you find most compelling.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2005

    More of a rant than a journey

    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?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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