Last winter the skies were gray without a blink of sun for weeks. My kid was constantly sick—double ear infections, colds, and his first bouts of asthma. It took months for his final molars to slowly rip their way through his gums. Most days, I was confined to the house and isolated. Compassion fatigue set in, and my guilt made everything worse.
No one told me parenting could be such a lonely, deadening experience.
I went looking for a sense of connection online, spending interrupted hours perusing the world of mommy blogs and mommy forums. And came away disappointed. I wanted raw, visceral accounts of the drudgery of domestic labors and caregiving—not just its pleasures or funny moments—as well as some kind of analysis of what it all meant. I rarely found that kind of honesty.
I also wanted representations that went beyond traditional notions of gender roles and biology. I needed to connect with the experiences of other parents who stood outside the norm—gay parents, adoptive parents, single parents, parenting raising kids of a different race, any nontraditional parents.
After casting about online and getting suggestions from friends, I found three memoirs that granted me emotional relief, made me feel less alone, and exposed me to a more sophisticated vocabulary for this phenomenon called parenting.
Today I’ll write about the most gripping of the three. Some nights it was so intense, I had to put it down for awhile.
A friend who I’ve come to cherish recommended Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot during one of our semi-regular coffee dates. We discuss parenting, gender, race, feminism, and whatever else comes up. This friend is a retired professor who raised two daughters as a single mom in this small town at a time when single moms were even less accepted than they are today. She has spent years thinking, researching, and writing about literature, motherhood, and gender from a feminist perspective. So I get lots of good recommendations from her.
This searing book details Lazarre’s experiences as a young, stay-at-home mother who pushes up, hard, against the cultural imperative that she fulfill the role of “the good mother.” She writes about the love and the hate and everything in between that she felt toward her child and her life as a parent. By daring to describe her experience as it was, without gloss—in the late 1970’s—she creates a space for others to do the same without feeling they’ll be cast out by daring to say more than, “I love being a mommy!”
Judging by the dated cover of the old edition, I was expecting it to feel more like a 1970’s feminist relic. I imagined it would teach me something, but I expected to feel outside of Lazarre’s experience, as a gay, stay-at-home dad that she might not have been able to imagine at the time. Of course, it’s partly because of feminists like Lazarre that I am who I am today.
The blurb on the back includes the following from Adrienne Rich:
A wholly original and important book…I cannot imagine a woman who would not be moved, or a man who would not be enlightened.
Well, I was more moved than enlightened. I felt a deep, charged sense of connection to this book. Page by page, Lazarre’s account was highly recognizable to me—the mind-numbing and the sublime aspects of stay-at-home parenting, the struggles not to lose non-parental parts of identity, and her experience as a white woman raising a black child with her African-American husband.
I feebly try to explain parenting by saying it is more of everything—more feeling, more intensity, more full. The experience rarely conforms to a simple, single narrative. Maybe it’s different for other people, but whenever I hear someone say, “I just love being a mommy!” I think about this book and wonder what it’s really like for that woman when she’s alone in her house with a screaming baby. And why we can’t talk about that stuff too. Parenting can be full of meaning and full of internal contradictions; this is hard to capture, but Lazarre achieves it.
Although she writes about motherhood and being a mother in the 1970’s, she doesn’t rest on reductive notions of gender. We see her working hard and sometimes succeeding in living up to a feminist belief in a world where we don’t have to replicate the gendered behavior that’s handed to us. She resists the “good mother” mandate by detailing the ugly, harrowing, and uncomfortable parts of parenting. In one particularly memorable passage, she demands her husband be a more equal partner in caring for their infant son Benjamin. Her husband, whom she addresses here as “you,” arrives home from work, oblivious to her state of exhaustion and the domestic tasks that never end:
I checked his diaper, which was wet through to his clothes. Changing him roughly, angrier than Benjamin, I began to call you the awful names I had never called you before, but then, I had never been this far into the realms of outraged fury. “You motherfucking asshole, you goddamn pig,” and all the rest. Names you never called me, which I swore never to call you again. And I tried to tell you what it was like for me.
“Why is he mostly my baby? Do you think I know what I’m doing?”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe there is something to maternal instinct.”
“No (sarcastically), there is no maternal instinct, I just keep trying until he quiets down, that’s all. I feel committed to him. You try for five minutes and say, Fuck him, and read your goddamn paper.”
We talked a lot about what it was like to be a mother. I made you learn with my screaming and my demands and my precious selfishness. “Why should I go down the drain alone?” I asked. “It’s your baby too.”
There was something else. We found out about your patience and your inner calm. It was Benjamin who discovered them. Oh, I said one night as you quieted him into slumber, “Look at your maternal instinct.”
Lazarre’s other memoir, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: A Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, is waiting on my nightstand. Her new novel, Inheritance, was released yesterday.