Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthoodby Camille Peri, Kate Moses
the gritty truths and unreserved pleasures of contemporary motherhood.
Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, which grew out of Salon's popular daily department of the same name, comprises nearly forty essays by writers/b>
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From the editors of the cutting-edge online magazine Salon come provocative essays that take an unflinching look at
the gritty truths and unreserved pleasures of contemporary motherhood.
Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, which grew out of Salon's popular daily department of the same name, comprises nearly forty essays by writers grappling with the new and compelling ideas that motherhood has dangled before them. Elevating the discussion of motherhood above the level of tantrum control and potty training, this collection covers an unparalleled range of topics, from the impossibility of loving your children equally to raising a son without a father, from worrying that your privileged black child is becoming too "white" to the free-floating anger most mothers feel but wouldn't dare admit--except to other mothers. The intelligent, candid essays in Mothers Who Think are a testament to the notion that motherhood gives women more to think about, not less.
Coeditors Camille Peri and Kate Moses have assembled the best writing from the website's first two years, including works by "Mothers Who Think" regulars Anne Lamott, Chitra Divakaruni, Susie Bright, and Stephanie Coontz; eloquent new essays by Jayne Anne Phillips, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Straight, Jane Lazarre, Nora Okja Keller, Beth Kephart, Ariel Gore, and Alex Witchel; and more than a dozen un-forgettable new voices.
Irreverent, wistful, hilarious, fierce, tender, these essays offer an unsparing look at the myths and realities, serious and silly sides, and thankless and supremely satisfying aspects of being a mother.
Erin Aubry, Karen Grigsby Bates, Susie Bright, Stephanie Coontz, Chitra Divakaruni, Celeste Fremon, Mona Gable, Leslie Goodman-Malamuth, Ariel Gore, Arlene Green, Nora Okja Keller, Beth Kephart, Anne Lamott, Jane Lazarre, Lori Leibovich, Ceil Malek, Joyce Millman, Kate Moses, Beth Myler, Debra S. Ollivier, Camille Peri, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth Rapoport, Jennifer Reese, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Cynthia Romanov, Catherine A. Salton, Sandi Kahn Shelton, Rose Stoll, Susan Straight, Sallie Tisdale,
Kim Van Meter, Cathy Wilkinson, Alex Witchel
Adoption, Babysitters, Baths, Birth, Blenders, Bodies, Boys Without Men, Brothers, Car Pools, Cold Coffee, College, Cupcakes, Custody, Daughters, Death, Diapers, Divorce, Dramas, Dreams, Escape, Expectations, Experience, Fantasies, Fathers, Food, Grandmothers, Growing Up, Gumbo, Home, Hunger, Kiddie Pools, Language, Lists, Love, Memories, Mothers, Nursing, Pets, Pregnancy, Pride, Princesses, Rage, School, Separation, Sex, Single Mothers, Sippy Cups, Sisters, Sleep Deprivation, Smells, Soccer Moms, Sons, Stepmothers, Tantrums, Teenagers, Time, Vibrators, Waterbeds, Working Mothers, Writing Mothers
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Theory and Practice
I NEED TO PUT in a quick disclaimer so when I say what I'm about to, you will know that the truest thing in the world is that I love my son literally more than life itself. I would rather be with him, talk to him, and watch him grow than anything else on earth. Okay?
So: I woke up one recent morning and lay in bed trying to remember if the night before I had actually threatened to have my son's pets put to sleep, or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to keep them alive when, due to his neglect, they began starving to death.
I'm pretty sure I only threatened to not intercede. But there have been other nights when I've made worse threats, thrown toys off the deck into the street and slammed the door to his room so hard things fell off his bookshelf. I have screamed at him with such rage for ignoring me that you would have thought he'd tried to set my bed on fire. And the list goes on.
He is an unusually good boy at other people's houses. He is the one the other mothers want to come play with their children. At other people's homes, my child does not suck the energy and air out of the room. He does not do the same annoying thing over and over and over until his friends' parents need to ask him through clenched teeth to stop doing this.
But at our house, he--comment se dit?--fucks with me. He can provoke me into a state of something similar to road rage.
I have felt many times over the years that I was capable of hurting him. I have not done this yet. Or at any rate, I have hurt him only a little--I have spanked him a few times, yanked him and grabbed him too hard. I have managed to stay on this side of the line. If you've gone over the line and hurt your child, obviously you need to get help--and soon--but in the meantime, we want you to know we've all been there. (If you don't have the money or anywhere else to turn, please write to me care of this publisher and I'll do whatever I can to help you.)
When Sam was a colicky baby, it was one thing. I felt free to discuss my terrible Caliban feelings because I was so exhausted and hormonal and without a clue as to how to be a real mother that I believed anyone would understand my feelings. I felt confused, though, that no one tells you when you're pregnant how insane you're going to feel after the baby comes, how pathological, how inept and out of control. Or how, when they get older, you'll still sometimes feel exhausted, hormonal, without a clue. You'll still find your child infuriating. Also--I am just going to go ahead and blurt this out--dull.
A few mothers seem happy with their children all the time, as if they're sailing through motherhood, entranced. However, up close and personal, you find that these moms tend to have tiny little unresolved issues: They exercise three hours a day or check their husband's pockets every night looking for motel receipts. Because not only do moms get very mad; they also get bored. This is a closely guarded secret, as if the myth of maternal bliss is so sacrosanct that we can't even admit these feelings to ourselves. But when you mention these feelings to other mothers, they all say, "Yes, yes!" You ask, "Are you ever mean to your children?" "Yes!" "Do you ever yell so that it scares you?" "Yes, yes!" "Do you ever want to throw yourself down the back stairs because you're so bored with your child that you can hardly see straight?" "Yes, Lord, yes, thank you, thank you . . ."
So, let's talk about this.
One reason I think we get so angry at our children is because we can. Who else can you talk to like this? Can you imagine hissing at your partner, "You get off the phone now! No, not in five minutes . . ."? Or saying to a friend, "You get over here right this second! And the longer you make me wait, the worse it's going to be for you." Or, while talking to a salesman at Sears who happens to pick up the ringing phone, grabbing his arm too hard and shouting, "Don't you dare answer the phone when I'm talking to you!"
No, you can't. If regular people saw your secret angry inside self, they'd draw back when they saw you coming. They would see you for what you are--human, flawed, more nuts than had been hoped--and they would probably not want to hire or date you. Of course, most people have such bit parts in your life that they're not around to see the whole, erratic panoply that is you. Or they actually pay for the privilege of torturing you. But children--God, attending to all their needs is so exhausting that our blowups may be like working out cramps in our legs. You feel sometimes like male emperor penguins after the eggs are laid, standing there in the cold holding the eggs on their fuzzy, feather-warm feet. They have to stand there, because to lay the eggs down on the snow would mean death. And maybe in the deep freeze, emotions don't run so hot, because otherwise, I tell you, I would last about twenty minutes as a penguin.
The tyranny of waking up a sleepy child at 7:00 a.m. and hassling him to get him clothed and fed in preparation for school means you're chronically tired, resentful, and resented. Then, in this condition, while begging him to put on socks, you are inevitably treated to an endless and intricate précis of Rugrats. It's like having Pauly Shore administer the Chinese water torture.
This is how Sam told me about his school day while I was trying to watch the news last night: "So David says she didn't draw it and then she goes like, she did draw the picture herself, and then he goes like, 'Oh yeah,' and then she goes like, 'Yeah, I asked her to but she said I had to,' and then he goes like, 'Oh, yeah, riiiight,' then I go . . ."
I am not an ageist. If Jesus wanted to tell me in great detail how he runs the fifty-yard dash while I was watching the news, I'd be annoyed with Him too: "See, most kids start out like this--the first step is a big one, like this--no, watch--and then the second is smaller, like this, and the next--no, watch, I'm almost done--so see, what I do is, I start like everyone else--watch--but then my third step is like small, and the next one is bigger, so like, this PE teacher who sees me do it goes, 'Whoa, Lord, cool,' and then she goes . . ."
Before we go on, I want to say that people who didn't want children just roll their eyes when you complain, because they think you brought this on yourself. Comedian Rita Rudner once said that she and her husband were trying to decide whether to buy a dog or have a child--whether to ruin their carpets or their lives. So people without children tend not to feel very sympathetic. But some of us wanted children--and what they give is so rich, you can hardly bear it.
At the same time, if you need to yell, children are going to give you something to yell about. There's no reasoning with them. If you get into a disagreement with a regular person, you slog through it; listen to the other person's position, needs, problems; and somehow you arrive at something that is maybe not perfect, but you don't actually feel like smacking them. But because we are so tired sometimes, when a disagreement starts with our child, we can only flail miserably through time and space and the holes in between; and then we blow our top.
Say, for instance, that your child is four and going through the stage when he will only wear the T-shirt with the tiger on it. With a colleague who was hoping you'd come through with the professional equivalent of washing his tiger T-shirt every night, you might be able to explain to him that you were up until dawn on deadline, or you've got a fever, and so did not get to the laundry. And the colleague might cut you some slack and try to understand that you simply hadn't had time to wash the tiger shirt, and besides, he's worn it now four days in a row. But your child is apt to--well, let's say, apt to not.
They can be like rats. I mean this in the nicest possible way. They may still be drooling, covered with effluvia, trying to wrestle underpants on over their heads because they think they're shirts, but in the miniature war room of their heads, they still know where your nuclear button is. They may ignore you, or seem troubled by hearing loss, or erupt in fury at you, or weep, but in any case, they're so unreasonable and capable of such meanness that you're stunned and grief-stricken about how much harder it is than you could have imagined. All you're aware of is the big, windy gap between you and your lack of anything left to give, any solution whatsoever.
Friends without children point out the good news: that kids haven't, thank God, taken all their impulses and learned to disguise them subtly. Maybe what kids want and when they want it is in your face, they'll say, but still, it's wonderful for people to be who they really are. And you can only say, "Thank you so much for sharing." Because it's not wonderful when kids ignore you, or are being sassy and oppositional. It's not wonderful when you're coping well enough, feeding them, helping them get ready, trying to get them to do something in their best interests--like "Zip up the pants, honey, that's not a great look for you"--and then, under the rubric of What Fresh Hell Is This? the play date for the afternoon calls and cancels, and then there's total despair and hysteria because your child is going to have to hang out here alone with you, horrible you, and he's sobbing like the dog has died, and you're thinking, What about all those times this week when I did arrange play dates? Do I get any fucking credit for that? And it happens. Kaboooom.
It's so ugly and scary for everyone concerned that--well. One of my best friends, the gentlest person I know, once tore the head off his daughter's doll. And then threw it to her, like a baseball pitch. And I love that in a guy, or at least I love that he told me about it when I was in despair about a recent rage at Sam. Because, while I'm not sure what the solution is, I know that what doesn't help is the terrible feeling of isolation, the fear that everyone else is doing better.
Of course, it helps if you can catch yourself before you blow up, if you give one of you a time-out. I'm sure it helps to have a spouse, and it also helps when people tell you their own terrible stories of blowing up, so you can laugh about it: At one of my lowest points, a friend--a teacher--told me that she looks at her child and thinks: I gave you life. So if I kill you, it's a wash.
What has helped recently was figuring out that when we blow up at our kids, we only think we're going from zero to sixty in one second. Our surface and persona is so calm that when the problem first begins, we sound in control when we say, "Now, honey, stop that," or "That's enough." But it's only an illusion. Because actually, all day we've been nursing anger toward the boss or boyfriend or mother, but because we can't get mad at nonkid people, we stuff it down; we keep going without blowing up because we don't want to lose our jobs or partners or reputations. So when the problem with your kid starts up, you're actually starting at fifty-nine, only you're not moving. You're at high idle already, but you are not even aware of how vulnerable and disrespected you already feel. It's your child's bedtime and all you want from Jesus or Baruch Hashem is for He/She/It to help your child go to sleep so you can lie down and stare at the TV--and it starts up. "Mama, I need to talk to you. It's important." So you go in and you muster patience, and you help him with his fears or his thirst, and you go back to the living room and sink down into your couch, and then you hear, "Mama? Please come here one more time." You lumber in like you're dragging a big dinosaur tail behind you and you rub his back for a minute, his sharp angel shoulder blades. But the third time he calls for you, you try to talk him out of needing you, only he seems to have this tiny problem with self-absorption, and he can't hear that you can't be there for him. And you become wordless with rage. You try to breathe, you try everything, and then you blow. You scream, "God fucking damnit! What! What? Can't you leave me alone for four seconds?"
Now your child feels much safer, more likely to drift off to sleep.
Good therapy helps. Good friends help. Pretending that we are doing better than we are doesn't. Shame doesn't. Being heard does.
When I talk about it, I don't feel so afraid. The fear is the worst part, the fear about who you secretly think you are, the fear you see in your child's eyes. But underneath the fear I keep finding resiliency, forgiveness, even grace. The third time Sam called for me the other night, and I finally blew up in the living room, there was a great silence in the house, silence like suspended animation: Here I'd been praying for silence, and then it turns out to be so charged and toxic. I lay on the couch with my hands over my face, just shocked by how hard it is to be a parent. And after a minute Sam sidled out into the living room because he still needed to see me, he needed to snuggle with me, with mean me, he needed to find me--like the baby spider pushing in through the furry black legs of the mother tarantula, knowing she's in there somewhere.
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Meet the Author
Camille Peri is the editor of "Mothers Who Think." Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Parenting, Lear's, and Savvy.
Kate Moses is a founding editor of "Mothers Who Think" and a senior editor at Salon. She was previously an editor at Berkeley's North Point Press and the literary director at San Francisco's Intersec-tion for the Arts.
They both live in San Francisco with their families.
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