Posts tagged ‘mothering’

Celebrate Mother’s Day with Motherlode!

My fabulous writing group, The Motherlode Writers, is reading at Book Passage on Sunday and we’d love for you to join us!

Motherlode is a Berkeley-based community of mother-writers. We work in a wide variety of genres, including essay, memoir, poetry, and fiction. Our work has been published in print and online outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, a variety of anthologies, and numerous other journals, blogs and ‘zines. Our recent books include Sybil Lockhart’s Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2009); Sophia Raday’s Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage (Beacon Press, 2009); and Caroline Grant’s Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Readers also include Marian Berges, Ursula Ferreira, Rebecca Kaminsky and Sarah Kilts.

Bring the kids and join us on Mother’s Day for a celebration of motherhood and writing!

Sunday May 10th 2 – 3 p.m.
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd.
Corte Madera, CA 94925
(415) 927-0960

Ten Quick Notes from AWP

The conference so far:

One blood orange margarita at Frontera Grill

Two meals with great writers and fans of Mama, PhD: Elline Lipkin and Elizabeth Coffman

Three sighing, meaningless invocations of the word “craft” (in one panel!), as in
Question: What makes this writing stand out?
Answer: Well [long pause], I’d say, really, well, it’s just … the craft.

Four (out of five) speakers on the Fictionalizing the Family panel who don’t have children, and so advised “Write as if everyone you know is dead.” Kill your darlings, indeed! I can’t write like that.

Five speakers on the fabulous Writing as Parents panel — Kate Hopper, Jill Christman, Shari MacDonald Strong, Sonya Huber and Jennifer Niesslein — who spoke much more relevantly to me. I loved all their presentations, and am thinking this morning particularly about Sonya Huber’s anecdote expressing the whiplash of talking with small children. Her son asked her one day, “How many days until the day we die?” When she responded, “We don’t know,” he asked, quite reasonably, “Why don’t we ask the one who made all our parts?” And then, as she was still struggling with her answer to that, he tossed her a softball, “How do you spell Chewbacca?”

Six more meals until I head home.

Seven readers at tonight’s Literary Mama reading at Women and Children First bookstore; if you’re in Chicago, please come!

Eight panels today that sound interesting to me, so many that I may not make it to any.

Nine times I laughed out loud during Art Spiegelman’s brilliant, funny, keynote talk, a swift survey of comic strips and his place in them.

Ten minutes in the bookfair before I was weighed down with free chocolates, pens, and subscription forms.

Mama at the Movies: Who Does She Think She Is?

My late father-in-law was an artist. After attending art school on the G. I. Bill, he and his wife moved to Italy for two years so that he could paint and study. When the couple returned to California, his career blossomed with several shows a year, including a solo exhibition at San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. But then his public career quieted, his output slowed; he shifted to smaller, more saleable projects like jewelry and jigsaw puzzles. I never understood this sharp turn in a successful career – had there been a devastating review? – until my first child was born and it occurred to me one day to map Jim’s career against his children’s birthdates. And there it was: sons born in 1967 and 1969; a rush of shows in 1969 and then fewer and fewer until just two in 1972, one in ’76, and then nothing for twenty years. It wasn’t the critics, I realized, but the kids.


I hadn’t really thought about the constraints of space and materials that visual artists work with until I watched Pamela Tanner Boll’s moving new documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (2008), which introduces us to several mother-artists and asks why, when making art and raising children are both crucial for our culture, it is so hard to do both. The film wants us to know about these mothers making art, and it puts their stories in the larger context of all women artists. Like all women, women artists find their work less well-known and less well-compensated than the work of their male contemporaries. Like all mothers, mother artists endure isolation from their peers, sleep deprivation, and myriad claims on their time which make it difficult to continue their careers. But they do.

Read more at Literary Mama!

This Week at Literary Mama

It’s always gratifying to update Literary Mama on Sundays and see pieces–some of which I first read several months ago–find their broad audience. I try to give each just a quick final read–they’ve all been through a couple rounds of editing and copyediting, but sometimes I might catch a stray typo–still, inevitably I forget myself and get drawn into the essay or story or poem as if for the first time.

This week, there’s Hilary Meyerson’s beautiful Voice: A Study in the Writer’s Art, which begins with a nightmare like one I’ve had myself:

The night before my daughter started kindergarten, I had a nightmare. . .that I was nine months pregnant with a third child. Not just pregnant, but in labor. In typical dream-reality, I had missed the pregnancy signs until labor was imminent. My dream voice broke as I told my husband that this child would be born September third, two days after the crucial September first enrollment cut-off date. Didn’t he understand? It meant that it would be almost six more years before this third child started kindergarten. Six more years before I’d have all the kids in school, before I could finally begin my new life as a writer. I woke in a sweat, grasping my belly, relieved to find it still less firm than I’d like, but not in fact, housing a third child.

In Children’s Lit Book Group, Libby writes about a different transition, as kids finish school and move away from home:

It’s back to school time around here. Four of my friends have packed sons or daughters off to college for the first time and are learning how to reconfigure patterns set over the last eighteen years of parenthood. As my friends face their new version of parenthood, their children have the gift of an extended transition, a prolonged adolescence as they negotiate the four years of college.

This month’s poems focus on a place dear to my heart: the kitchen! In Elizabeth Bruno’s Kitchen Daffodils: “their necks tilt Vincent-gold toward the glass.” In Cookie Bakers, Lois Parker Edstrom listens to “radio tuned to Queen for a Day”. I empathize with Yvonne Pearson who writes, in Eaten Alive, “All day I feed and I feed.” And finally Ann Walters notes, In the Kitchen, “A gingham tablecloth makes a fine parachute.”

And finally, I confess I got as caught up as the next girl in the gossip and hoopla surrounding Sarah Palin’s nomination as VP on the Republican ticket: I was up late reading blogs, looking at pictures, wondering what to make of the story, all the while feeling increasingly queasy about the way she and her family were being portrayed — and all my reading about it. So, since I’m in the fortunate position of knowing lots of good and thoughtful writers, I suggested to LM’s columns editors that we put put out a call for some op-eds on the topic, and I’m delighted with the pieces we received this week.

First, we have our own Subarctic Mama, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, unpacking “The Sarah Myth:”

I never voted for Sarah Palin. Politically, we don’t get along… But I did like her. I’ve never liked any politician so unlike myself so much. Many of my liberal pro-choice mom friends liked her too. She was an Alaskan after all–a mom like me, bundling babies in snowsuits and dragging them around in sleds. She nursed and governed. She seemed real, someone who, despite our differences, I could talk to. Like everyone else in this giant, small state, I was on a first name basis with her. “Sarah,” I’d say if I ever ran into her at the airport, “Hello.”

And in a terrific complement to her piece, Mama, PhD contributor Rebecca Steinitz writes about “Sarah Palin’s Kids, Our Kids:”

On the third night of the Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin finally spoke up. The next morning I woke up to a front-page article in The Boston Globe, announcing that Sarah Palin has reignited the mommy wars.

No kidding. Birth plans, breastfeeding, working moms, teenagers and sex: it’s like the national conversation has become one big mommy kaffeklatsch. Or one big mommy driveby, as women across the country wonder how Palin does it–when they’re not condemning her for doing it.

I couldn’t be prouder of all this writing if I’d written it myself; click on over to Literary Mama to check it out!


The blog tour is over, but I have to return to The Maternal Is Political for a moment here to mention one more essay which I read and thought, “Shoot! that should have been in Mama, PhD!” But on reflection, I’m really glad it’s in this book instead, because I want people getting this message everywhere: it’s important to think about the challenges facing student parents (not to mention faculty parents, and school administration parents, and school staff parents…). Don’t we want higher education to accommodate parents, so that it can better accommodate our kids as future students? Clearly this isn’t related for everybody in academic administration these days, but it should be.

So here’s a passage from “Shown the Ropes,” by J. Anderson Coats:

It’s graduation day at Bryn Mawr College. Today I’m at the top. My hands are cut up from the climb. The kid on my back got ten times as heavy and took way fewer naps. I wrote my senior research thesis while taking two writing-intensive history classes, toilet training the kid, and buying my first house.

But up I went, because I knew exactly how far down I could go.

I don’t leave here with a Fortune 500 gig or a slot at Harvard Law. I don’t leave with a dormful of friends or a shoebox of photographs from May Day.

I leave whole.

I leave enmeshed in a prestigious, uncompromising community that rolled the dice on an underage autodidact with more secrets than pedigree, a community I’m proud to claim as my own because it offered the rope without condition, without favor, without slack. A community that gave me the chance to fly and let it be my own.

Tomorrow will be another climb, and I’ll have to shoulder my way into grad school or a nine-to-five. I’ll have to want it twice as bad and work twice as hard.

But this too is what I leave with: an overarching sense of the possible.

Today I’m at the top, and the view from the clouds is something else.

Pick up The Maternal Is Political to read the rest. And if you want to do something concrete to ease the way for one student mom, here’s someone who’s trying to take on the challenge and could use a little help.

Calling all Mama Writers!

Literary Mama’s Literary Reflections department is seeking personal essays about writing as a mother, reading as a mother, or developing a career as a professional mother-writer. If any of you have such an essay in your portfolio or an idea brewing along these lines, we welcome your participation. Also, pass along this call to any other writers/mothers who may have an interest in submitting to LM.

Click here for the complete submissions guidelines.

Sick Day

I spent most of 6th grade working out ways to avoid going to school. There was nothing particularly terrible about school that year, just your basic pre-adolescent social anxiety, that who-will-I-sit-next-to-in-the-cafeteria, who-will-let-me-stand-around-and-talk-with-them-at-recess kind of thing. I would start my planning the night before an anticipated bad day, weighing the pros and cons of feigning cold, flu, or fever. I knew better than to try heating a thermometer with the light bulb, because I’d read a book in which the girl narrator tries it, and the thing explodes, sending little mercury droplets around the room. Somehow I was successful often enough that I kept doing it, although (unbeknownst to me at the time) I would have been quite a bit more successful if my sister hadn’t done the same thing, seven years earlier. My mother was working full-time by the time I went on my school strike, and so aside from just recognizing the signs, simply couldn’t afford to indulge me.

Today, Ben stayed home from school, and I swear if he were my daughter, if he were older, I’d think he was trying to tell me something. He woke up complaining of a sore throat, threw up his breakfast and then, after I’d made the calls to say he wouldn’t be at school, or at soccer practice, was fine. Skipping around playing a concert fine.

I know he loves school right now. And he certainly didn’t fake throwing up (something I was neither brave nor stupid enough to attempt). So we’ll chalk this up to one off day. But I’ve got my eye on him…


The place: JFK airport, just outside the jetway

The players: Mom and 3 (or so) year old daughter, who have just exited the airplane after our 5+ hour flight from San Francisco

The scene: Daughter lying on the floor, prone, kicking and wailing. Mother standing over her, exasperated.

The dialogue:
Daughter: (unintelligible)
Mother: “Get up! This is not a good place for a tantrum!”

I throw the mom a sympathetic glance as we walk by — I feel her pain, I do — but later Tony and I discover that the same tantrum check list has run through our heads: “Is this a public place? Is this inconvenient? Is this embarrassing? This is a great place for a tantrum!”

MotherTalk Blog Book Tour: Writing Motherhood

Very early on the morning of July 4th, 2001, I climbed out of bed and took a pregnancy test. As I waited for the result, I left the stick resting on the edge of the bathroom sink and sat down at my desk to write a few lines on my computer. A few minutes later, I went back and added some more thoughts, trying to absorb the fact that I was pregnant.

That was the start of my mothering journal.

I’d kept journals sporadically in the past: a small, cream- colored book my aunt gave me before a high school month in England; a cloth-bound book I bought before my junior year at Oxford University. But when I didn’t have a discrete period of time to document, I could never keep a journal going. I’d get fed up with myself for using it as a dumping ground for my complaints about adolescent life, or I’d get hung up with worry about someone finding it.

But this time was different. I’d just started a new job, I was pregnant, Tony and I bought a house: my life was changing fast, changing permanently, and I wanted to keep track of my thoughts.

That January, my computer crashed and took my journal with it. I lost teaching notes, syllabi, years’ worth of emails, but it was the journal’s loss that made me cry. It took me a few days to regain perspective (I hadn’t lost the baby, I kept having to remind myself, only the writing about the baby), but when I did, I took myself to a good art supply store and bought a nice journal with lined pages and an elastic strap to keep it closed.

And now I have a neat pile of six on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, with the current one, a pen in the middle holding my place, on the top shelf next to my lip balm, the current New Yorker, and a water glass.

I’ve kept it going.

The problem, though, was that before long the journal was not enough. I’d start something, jot down a funny thing Ben did or make an observation about my new life, and then it would sit there, undeveloped. I didn’t have any compelling reason to develop my thoughts into an essay. And after years of steady writing in graduate school, culminating in a nearly 300-page dissertation, I didn’t really even know how to write an essay about myself. I cast about for a year or so, writing unfinished essays during Ben’s naps, not knowing what to do with them. Eventually I lucked into a writing group and from there landed a position at Literary Mama and, between the gentle pressure of my monthly turn to present at writing group and the inspiration of the essays I edit, I found my way to a regular writing gig, a book, and a new life as a writer.

But it all would have been much simpler if I’d had Lisa Garrigues book, Writing Motherhood, back then.

I confess, I haven’t read any other writing books, so I have nothing to compare this to. Well, that’s not even quite right; I haven’t finished any other writing books. I’ve poked around Bird by Bird (and found it quite useful when I do), read a few lines of Writing Down the Bones, but I’ve always gotten a little impatient with the books, always had a moment when I realized, “Wait… no one’s asking me for snack, no one needs a dry diaper, I should be writing!” and put them down. So one of the things I like most about Garrigues’ book is that she invites you to do just that. It is not a book to read cover to cover (although I did, for this review, and it holds up perfectly well to that sustained attention), but one to pick up and read for twenty minutes when you have an hour free, or five minutes when you have ten: pick it up, find your inspiration, put the book down, and write. Because just as no one learns to parent by reading parenting books, no one learns to write without writing.

I like the bold orange cover of this book, which won’t get lost on my desk; that bright flash will always peek out from under the messy pile of drafts, bills, and Ben’s latest train drawings, and remind me to write. I like her tone, which is encouraging and friendly throughout; she leaves behind any kind of authoritative teacher voice and comes across as a woman you’d happily share a coffee with. Garrigues calls her writing prompts “invitations,” another subtle way that she manages to lighten up the task of setting down to write. And I like that she gives you lots and lots of good stuff to read, because the most important work in becoming a writer, after writing, is, of course, reading. Garrigues gives you her own short essays (on topics ranging from copying other writers, to marriage, to mama playdates); some of the little essays are hardly about writing at all, but about mothering, and then as she comes to the end and crystallizes the feeling that she’s expressed in the essay, she neatly raises a question for your own writing. She provides sample “mother’s pages” (essays written by her students), and she offers loads of great quotations from other writers. She also offers concrete advice on everything from buying a writer’s notebook to setting up a productive workspace. I have both of those things, but I still picked up a couple good ideas from her. She closes the book with an entire section on moving from new writer to a writer seeking connection and publication, with ideas on setting up and maintaining writing groups and taking one’s writing public. And then, in case there weren’t already enough ideas to keep you going in the text of the book, she offers a list of 99 writing starts and a bibliography.

I am keeping this review short because, inspired by Garrigues book, I want to get back to my writing! But I want to leave you with a couple quotations. The first, from Annie Dillard, resonated with me right now as I struggle to clear space in my days to write:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.

And now here’s Garrigues:

This book is, in part, a story of growing up and into a role I claimed for myself.

Is she talking about mothering or writing?! The point, as she claims throughout the book, is that the two are not mutually exclusive but complimentary roles that feed and develop each other. We should take advantage of that fact, and make time to write our lives.

Garrigues teaches writing classes, and those of you in the NY/NJ area should check them out. For anyone looking for on-line writing classes, I highly recommend Susan Ito’s parent lit workshop (which I have taken) and the new poetry workshop led by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza (my editorial assistant in Literary Reflections). Literary Mama will soon be offering monthly writing prompts, with personal feedback from th
e Literary Reflections editorial staff, as well as listings of workshops and other resources for writers. Get writing!

My Dangerous Boys

MotherTalk bloggers are talking about The Dangerous Book for Boys today; here’s what I’m thinking about danger and boys…

For three years after Ben was born, I thought we lived without a dangerous boy. We baby proofed the house, as recommended, before Ben started to walk, but in retrospect needn’t have bothered; he wasn’t about to attempt the stairs on his own, and he’d run from the kitchen when I opened the oven door. When we walked to the local pumpkin patch and considered the hay ride, three year-old Ben regarded it warily: “Mama, does it go out of the pumpkin patch?” he asked. “Are there buckles [seatbelts]? Is it bumpy? Does it go fast?”

Needless to say, we did not go for a hay ride. For the most part he will sit instead of stand, walk instead of run, cuddle instead of climb. The quintessential Ben moment was when he stood on the couch (an uncharacteristic height for him to achieve) and called out, about to jump, “Watch, Mama! I’m gonna be safe!” This boy who came out hollering after such a short, sharp labor–well, we joke that being born is the only fast thing he’s ever done.

And then Eli arrived. It took him 17 hours to make the trip out of my body, and he was so quiet on his arrival that the doctors and nurses rubbed his feet and hair vigorously as I cradled him in my arms until he squeaked his protest and they let him be. And yet for a while it didn’t seem like he’d be much different than our older cautious boy. He crawled at ten months, walked at sixteen, a similar pace as his brother.

But then he started to run. And climb. And now every day I find myself unpeeling his fingers’ tight hold on the kitchen drawer pulls, where he hangs midway up the bank of drawers, a rock climber with his summit (the cereal, the fresh banana bread, the clean wine glasses) just out of reach. “Where do we climb, Eli?” I ask him. “Pah-pah! [playground]” he laughs, and runs off, until he finds some other chair/table/lamp to climb.

I got this far in my writing when Tony brought the boys home from the park: Ben, looking just as he had when he left the house; Eli, covered in dirt and blood. He’d been running after a ball, tripped over a gopher hole, and gotten a bloody nose. Perhaps that’s my quintessential Eli moment—he throws himself full throttle at the world, and sometimes doesn’t manage a soft landing.

And I love it. I love my cautious guy (who reminds me so much of myself), and I love my adventurer. I want to encourage each boy to be exactly who he is, while continuing to admire the strengths of the other, too. I want each to have the confidence to take risks, the judgment to evaluate which risks are worth taking, and the strength (physical and emotional) to recover from the risks that didn’t quite work out.

Right now the risks are minor and the stakes pretty low – if I gave Eli a match today, after all, he’d more likely get a splinter than a burn. I wonder what the future holds, as my boys move farther away from my protection, as their world broadens. But it looks like one of them will be pointing out the dangers, the other one rushing toward them. My two dangerous boys.