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Friday, November 27, 2009

respecting differences

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday and didn't eat beyond capacity, something I seemed to do. Two meals, spaced five hours apart = too much food.

I’m sure many of you have read Lynn Harris’ Salon article “Everybody Hates Mommy,” in which Harris tries to unpack why there is so much anger and downright hatred directed towards mothers, particularly white, middle-class mothers (and particularly those that live in Park Slope).

Whoa, people. The comments that this article elicited are incredible—so many are full of such vitriol that I stopped reading after two pages.

But I’m interested in what Harris has to say. I think one of the important points she makes is that mothers are judged no matter what they do or don’t do. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a “good” mother, and if the mother in front of you isn’t fulfilling the role, well, hell, let her have it.

Another point she makes has to do with the fact that women—and especially women who are mothers—are supposed to be invisible. She says, “Women—still—are not ‘supposed’ to take up space. Mothers, in particular. We are—still—supposed to remain in the background, doing whatever it is mothers do, smiling. We grow a belly, we need a seat, we say ‘excuse me, please,’ we speak up (or, God forbid, blog), and we’ve crossed the line, said or asked too much, become ‘entitled.’”

The reason I do what I do—write about motherhood literature, teach my Mother Words class, host an annual Mother Words reading, work for Literary Mama—is to help create a space where literature (and yes, it is worthy of that word) about motherhood—the varied and complex, often stunning and often heartbreaking writing by women who are mothers, is taken seriously as art. Because of course it’s often not taken seriously for the very reasons that Harris states in her article. Women are still supposed to be quiet. Mothers, especially, should be quiet. We should not write about the truth of our experiences. We should definitely not write against the myths of motherhood.

Motherhood writing is often discarded (or ignored or not published at all) because of its subject matter. But memoir is never so much about its subject matter as it is about, as Brett Lott says, the relationship between the writer and the subject at hand. I don’t like boxing, but I love Toure’s “What’s Inside You, Brother?” and Gay Talese’s “Ali in Havana.” William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says, “Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”

But it’s funny—and not in a ha-ha sort of way—that when the subject is motherhood, people don’t seem to be as willing to read, to let themselves be drawn in.

One of the people who commented (early, before I stopped reading) on Harris’ article posed this question: “When are people going to start treating respect as if it mattered?” When indeed?

I forwarded the link to Harris’ article to my current Mother Words students, and one of my wonderful students responded with a link to an article in the new online literary journal Candor.

It was Women Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation Between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker, and in this conversation, writers Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker discuss what they have in common and what they don’t, and both are very honest about what kinds of stereotypes they’ve bought into and what kind of judgments they’ve made about mothers and women who chose not to be mothers. This is a long conversation, but it’s worth the read, and I think it adds another dimension to Harris’ article about the way mothers and nonmothers are pitted against each other. (Which on some level has to do with the cultural myths of motherhood still perpetuated in our society…)

I very much like the way this conversation ends. Rachel Zucker says, “I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.”

I wonder what would happen if people were truly interested in exploring differences and similarities rather than pointing fingers and slinging insults at one another. Could we come to some understanding? Could we learn to be kind, to respect each other? Could we—please—learn to respect each other’s writing?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Over the last year, I have tried to be very deliberate about being thankful. We have continued are pre-dinner ritual of going around the table and listing things for which we’re thankful. D and I, especially in the last few weeks, have been thankful—very thankful—for his new job. But even when there wasn’t that prospect, that light at the end of a tunnel, we were able to find something for which to be thankful: our house, the generosity of our families, our health, our beautiful girls. When we go around the table, Stella almost always says: “I’m thankful for our family, and that we’re here together eating.” Sometimes she’ll throw in something else—that Christmas is only a month away or that she gets to play with a friend the next day or that her Auntie Sara is visiting. Even Zoë babbles away when it’s time for her to speak: “Nanana and Stella and Zoë okey okey okey.” And then she laughs her infectious high-pitched gremlin laugh.

Today I am thankful for you, for my community of writers and readers in cyberspace. This fall, which has been long and challenging, was made less so because of your words of support and encouragement. (My grandpa is doing okay and we’re all hanging in there with him.) It was also made less hard because of your stories, the journeys and struggles you share on your own blogs.

Being a writer can be so lonely, so isolating, as can being a mother. But I don’t feel isolated because I can always turn to your words, immerse myself in your stories. Or I know you’re there, reading mine because you have left a comment or sent me an e-mail. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this.

I have a blog award from mummy mania and cath at musings in mayhem that I’ve been sitting on for months. (Thank you both!) It’s time to pass it on.

I am supposed to list seven things about myself and then pass the award to seven blogs. Instead of seven facts about me, though, I’m going to list seven things for which I’m thankful (in addition to the things I’ve mentioned above):

  1. The matter-of-fact way that Stella tells me stories, her eyebrows raised, her blue eyes wide: “Really, Mama. That really happened.”

  2. The way Zoë runs from one side of the house to the other and back again, legs and arms pumping like a miniature linebacker.

  3. That my parents both live nearby and that they love to spend time with my girls.

  4. Friendships old and new, virtual and in-person. What would I do without my friends?

  5. That my daughters know their great-grandfather.

  6. Teaching and my students—my wonderfully smart, talented students.

  7. D—for everything.

Okay, I’m going to pass this on to a few blogs I’ve been reading for a while and a few that are newer to me:

hatched by two chicks: dispatches from the nest — Erin is a really wonderful writer whose essay “East Wind” was in Creative Nonfiction a few years ago. We connected in June around the time I was weaning Zoë.

Louise Kinross writes the wonderful new blog Bloom— Parenting Kids with Disabilities, in which she highlights the stories of young people with disabilities and their parents. You don’t want to miss this amazing blog. It never fails to touch me.

mama sweat—Kara’s blog always makes me laugh, though it does sometimes make me feel guilty for not running. (I haven’t been running. Why haven’t I been running? Oh, yeah, I forgot that I don’t have time to run. Kara somehow manages it, though, and she has *four* kids.)

finding joy in simple things—Mary is wonderful, and her blog makes me think, sometimes makes me cry, and always makes me appreciate the small things in life.

heart-heal-hope is Sara’s blog about loving and losing her first child, Henry, and living with and loving her second child, Kathleen. She writes about her journey with incredible grace.

lisa romeo writes is full of wonderful author interviews and writing discussions. This is a must-read for writers and readers.

the motherhood muse blog—this is the blog associated with the new online journal The Motherhood Muse, which will launch in January. Check this out.

Thank you all!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

fight for preemies

I am half-way through my revision of Ready for Air, which is both exciting and daunting—exciting because retyping it has forced me to cut unnecessary paragraphs, to put pressure on my prose, and to never let the narrative threads slip too far from sight; daunting, of course, because I still have 150 pages to go, and now that I’ve lost my morning writing time, I’m not sure how I’ll make this happen. (My deadline, which now seems impossible, was December 31st.)

It’s been interesting to retype this story, to dive into a present-tense narrative six years after the fact. I expected the time away from the manuscript to allow me to see it more clearly, which it has. But I also thought I’d be so distant from the material that it wouldn’t affect me. This has not been true. I find myself tearing up suddenly at the coffee shop as I rewrite scene after scene.

It has been six years since I developed severe preeclampsia, six years since Stella was born at 32 weeks, six years since we spent a month in the NICU. But, like most preemie parents, those memories are never far from reach. I have blogged about this before, here and here and here.

But today I want to post an excerpt of Ready for Air for the March of Dimes' Fight for Preemies. November is Prematurity Awareness month and today, November 17, is the MOD Fight for Preemies. Over 400 bloggers are posting about prematurity, posting their stories. You can read them here.

From Ready for Air, the first time I see Stella, who is three days old:

On the counter next to Station 5, there is a can of something that looks like hair mousse. D sprays some into my hands and then his own. Antibacterial foam, he says. It’s sweet, floral, and I realize that this is the source of the sweetness, the scent of the NICU. I watch how he rubs it into the grooves of his knuckles and up his wrists. I do the same, then stare at the monitor, which hangs above Stella’s bed. It flashes numbers and jagged lines: red, blue, yellow, green. Red, blue, yellow, green.

“Kate,” D says. “Look at the baby.” He nods at Stella.

I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to look at this tiny thing. I don’t want this tiny yellow thing to be my baby.

D’s hand is on my back. He presses it gently.

I look at Stella. The phototherapy light is off and her goggles hang, limp, from her temple. On the other temple is a circle of Velcro. Velcro on her temple. Glue and Velcro on her temple! I look at her eyes, which are closed—yellowish red lids over bulbous eyes—then take inventory: toothpick ribs shudder, wires snake away from her chest.

D cups the top of her head with his palm—dwarfs her head with his hand. “You can touch her,” he says.

I nod and reach for a foot. Wrapped around one foot is a cuff with a red light on it, so I go for the other one. I close my fingers around it, and I can’t get over it, how small it is, impossibly small. How can a foot be this small? And hot. She’s been baking under the light and the heater, which blows hot air down on her, and now her feet are on fire.

I remember the videos from birthing class, how the babies, still covered with the white slime of birth, were pressed to their mothers’ chests. How the babies rested in their mothers’ arms. How the babies nursed, latched on right away. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. But here I am, touching my three-day-old baby for the first time, and nothing is as it should be. I’m covering her foot with my fingers, rubbing her hot ankle with my thumb.

Suddenly she stretches her arms and legs and pushes against me with a force that surprises me.

“I think you’re tickling her,” D says.

I look up at him.

“You’re tickling her.” He nods at her foot, at my hand on her foot.

“Oh.” I lift my hand away, irritated. How does he know I’m tickling her? Maybe he’s tickling her. But as soon as I’m no longer touching her, she’s still again. She settles back onto the fleece blanket. Oh. I was tickling her. He was right. He knows her better than I do. I have a baby too ticklish to touch and I didn’t even know. I feel like crying, but don’t want to cry here. “Take me back,” I say. “I’m ready to go.”

I say nothing on the way back to my room. D keeps asking, are you okay? and over and over again I say fine, because I don’t want to talk about our tiny baby. I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t prepared for how small she would be. I knew she was small. Three pounds is small. But I didn’t understand it, not really, what a three-pound baby hooked to a ventilator looked like. I couldn’t see her mouth. I don’t know what her lips look like. I’m not sure why this seems important, but it does. This is part of my problem, I think, not feeling prepared. But the other thing that’s bothering me is the fact the D does seem prepared. He’s taking this—our tiny baby, the move to the NICU—in stride, as if it’s no big deal. I am failing as a new parent, and he is passing with flying colors.

20 million babies worldwide are born prematurely every year. Half a million of these births occur in the United States. Many of these babies die. Many have disabilities. According to the March of Dimes, 25% of the youngest and smallest babies who graduate from the NICU live with long-term health problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness and other chronic conditions. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 found that children born prematurely were at greater risk for lower cognitive test scores and for behavioral problems when compared to full-term children. For babies born at less than 500 grams (1 lb, 1 ounce), the mortality rate is 863 deaths per 1000 live births.

There are success stories, of course. Huge advances in technology and medicine have given countless premature babies a chance at life. But still, having a baby born prematurely is devastating. It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen.

What can you do? You can donate to March of Dimes or to a local hospital NICU. You can help spread the word about the dangers of premature birth. You can sign up and write a post about prematurity today.

I volunteer at the hospital where Stella was in the NICU, and tonight our committee will tour the new unit, which has just been completed. And I know that as I walk through the shiny new NICU, I will be thinking of the babies who will soon reside there. In a few short weeks, each of the private rooms will be filled with the beeping and whirring of machines, with the forced breath of a small life, with the heartbreak and hoping of parents. This post is for them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I’m sitting here in my small office, that tiny room of my own, staring out the window. The wind is scattering the fluff of milkweed across our lawn, and I know that next spring it will pop up everywhere, pushing through grass, undeterred by the mower, which will plow it down, again and again.

I want to thank you so much for your words of support, and for keeping me—and of course my grandpa—in your thoughts. He’s doing okay: not as bad as he was last Thursday, but not altogether better. And this bothers him, I know. He has never *not* gotten better.

Yesterday he handed me a medical book, which he had bought at a garage sale for 25¢, and asked me what I thought caused the fluid in his abdomen, his discomfort, and his inability to sleep.

I paged though the book, but even if it had a chapter on congestive heart failure, which it didn’t, I don’t think I would have been able to tell him. And really, it’s not my place. This is something his doctor should tell to him, a doctor trained in doling out disappointment and hope. (I’m not even sure which one is order here.)

“I don’t know,” I said slowly.

“Don’t tell me it’s because I’m old,” he said.

“Well, Grandpa,” I said. “You are one hundred.”

He snorted, disgusted with my lack of imagination.

The man has been healthy his whole life. He’s had a couple of surgeries on his knee. He’s had his gall bladder out, but he’s never taken a daily medication, not ever. And he’s not ready to die, or even to begin to die. He is undeterred, and he plans to be here in the spring.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

not ready

Maybe you remember my grandpa. He’s 100 years old. Maybe you remember the post I wrote about him last January, before his birthday. Maybe you remember my post about the hectic nature of our weekly errand days, when I drive him and my girls out to West St. Paul to the grocery store, where, after we shop, we sit at the deli and eat hard rolls and butter and, as Grandpa says, “chicken drumsticks.” During these expeditions, Zoë is up and down in the shopping cart, chicken grease smeared on clothes; both girls are generally whiny; and there is always a harried rush back to the car—me trying to get the girls and the groceries in before my grandpa pushes his cart into my car or the car parked next to us.

Often Grandpa will push his own cart around the store, picking out items himself. Sometimes, he follows me around, so I can put the items in his cart for him. But on Monday, he decided to go straight to the deli and drink coffee while Stella and Zoë and I did his shopping for him. Other than that, he seemed fine.

As we drove him back to his apartment, which is in my mom’s finished basement, I asked him if he remembered the Flu of 1918. He would have been nine years old. He did remember, of course—the man remembers everything—and he described how he and his brothers would sit up on the hill overlooking Granite Falls, Minnesota, where they watched the funeral processions go by, day after day. “No one in my family got sick,” he said. “Funny. Almost every family lost someone.” He proceeded to name the doctors who had succumbed to the flu, and then added, “Your grandma’s mother was very ill, but she survived.” Apparently, my great-grandfather brought out a nurse from this Twin Cities to care for his wife, and she recovered. My grandparents didn’t know each other then—they began dating in high school—but he remembered how scared my grandma had been.

Yesterday afternoon, my mom told me she had taken Grandpa to the doctor. He hadn’t been feeling well the last few days—trouble sleeping, trouble catching his breath when he lay down, fluid in his abdomen. His doctor—a wonderful doctor, the kind of doctor I wish everyone could have—said he had a rapid heartbeat. He prescribed some medicine and said for Grandpa to check back in a week.

But this morning he was up at 5 am, trying to sleep in his chair, unable to. His symptoms point to congestive heart failure, and I know what it means, sort of. I know it could mean the beginning of the end. But this is the thing: I’m not ready for that. I am not ready for him to go. Please don’t tell me how lucky I’ve been to have him around so long. Please don’t tell me how lucky he’s been to be that healthy, to “make it” to 100 years old. I know all of this. I know. Still, I need a little more time.

This last year has been so stressful, and I’m tired; I’m worn down. It’s as if the constant stress has removed a barrier, rubbed away my skin, and now there is nothing left to protect me.

This is an odd post, not the kind I usually write, and my only excuse is that I needed to get these words down. So often I can write my way out of darkness. So often I can write my way into some kind of understanding. This is what I had hoped I could do today.

But writing and blogging are different things, aren’t they? I blog for specific reasons: to promote motherhood literature, to encourage dialogue about motherhood and art, about writing and life, about where all of these things overlap and intersect. But I’ve found that your words, your comments, also ground me, keep me tethered. I actually don’t know what I’m asking for today. That you think of my grandpa Spencer? That you know how much I love him? That if you pray, you’ll pray for a little more time for him, for me to be with him? I don’t know.

It's obvious that I haven’t written myself into any kind of understanding today. Nothing seems clearer to me. But still, here I am at my computer, and somehow I feel a little less alone.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a change

D got a new job, which is, of course, a huge relief. It begins in a week and a half, and it means health insurance and a regular paycheck, a paycheck that will actually come when it’s supposed to come, a paycheck that won’t be a week late (or two weeks or six weeks late). It means summers together and no travel.

But this very good thing also means that I will lose my morning writing time because D will have to leave early every day. I don’t know if you remember how crazy I felt a year and a half ago, after Zoë was born, when D was traveling a ton and working twelve hour days. I felt desperate. I had no time that was my own, no time to put words on the page.

When D’s schedule let up a little, we agreed that things needed to change. I starting going to the coffee shop from 7-9 am, and he started going to work late, after I got home. That consistent time to think, to play with words, to write an essay and begin my revision of Ready for Air, changed my outlook on life. I felt like a person again, a writer again, finally.

I’m nervous about giving that up now, nervous that I’ll become irritable (or more irritable). I’m nervous that I won’t get the revision finished (even if I spend Saturday and Sunday mornings at the coffee shop). Will I get out of the groove if I only have two days a week to write?

I know this is the best thing for our family—the best-case scenario. So I’m trying to roll with it, to Stay Positive. I guess I also better write as fast as I can.