Monday, September 29, 2014

baby FAQ, month five

Q: What is your sense of self as a mother?

A: I was going to be a cool mother. I was going to rumble up to daycare in the Mustang Bullitt and unload a baby wearing the hippest of outfits and have a rule that the staff was not allowed to call her "princess" and so on. Of course it turned out that the realities of a car seat in the back of a two-door muscle car, and the ludicrousness of not getting use out of the fifty-some pieces of clothing we were given as gifts, overrode any investment in coolness I have. So I make a subdued entrance in my Focus, and hand over a baby who, when she's not dressed in pink head to toe, might well be wearing a shamrock-festooned onesie reading "Daddy's Lucky Charm" (it has long sleeves! fall wardrobe!). I don't even attempt to convince anyone that she's dressed that way ironically.

Like I've said before, I never thought of myself as a "natural mother", which term I think I defined as someone warm and hospitable and nurturing, who keeps a welcoming home and loves other people's children. Me, not so much. And so I fell back on the idea that I could be a cool mother, which was always ludicrous because I have never been cool at anything. Fortunately I produced an incredibly cool baby who wears the shamrock onesies and pink frilly jackets with aplomb. And I'm gradually figuring out that I don't need to be a generic ideal of motherhood: I need to be a mother to this very specific child, in our very specific family, while keeping myself happy and sane in my own specific way. YOU DON'T SAY.

It also occurred to me, because I write down lots of deep thoughts when I should be doing the dishes, that part of my struggling with a sense of me-as-mother is due to what we are led to believe about our bodies post-children. For me, it started with the breast-feeding debacle, when - setting aside my poor milk production and my need for screenings - the way my breasts were treated by the lactation consultants and nurses made me angrier than I have previously admitted to anyone. I've had breast cancer treatment, for crying out loud; you don't get more handsy towards the boobs than that. But no one involved in my cancer treatment or my post-treatment care ever just grabbed my boob and hauled it about without a by-your-leave or even a warning, the way the nurses and lactation consultants did. I only went to one breast-feeding support group, despite the enormous struggles we were having, and I only went to that one because Berowne was worried about me, and I made some excuse about how I couldn't try to feed her then and fled after fifteen minutes. I could not stand the thought of ever having someone treat my boobs like that again, and I knew seeing a lactation consultant meant just that. There really was an attitude that my breasts were not part of me-the-human at all: that they were merely tools which I was too stupid to use correctly and they had to be taken out of my hands. The very people waxing the most rhapsodic about how this was a beautiful natural bonding thing were treating my breasts like they were not connected to a human at all and were nothing but milk production machines (in my case, very faulty ones). I immediately wanted nothing to do with this. 

I didn't even tell Berowne this, because - tellingly - it didn't seem like a good enough reason to stop. Wanting my body to belong to me again seemed equivalent to wishing that I hadn't had a baby. I don't at all support the Fit Mom brand of shaming, but I also refuse to accept that if you choose to have a baby then you forfeit all right to your body as your own. That it becomes just a tool and you should only be aware of or invested in the nurturing things it can do for your child, not anything it can do for your own health or pleasure. 

Clearly, I'm cheating. I honestly feel that way sometimes, and that I must be merely watching this child until her real mother, who is willing to give up all bodily autonomy for her, comes back from building yurts for orphans and sweeps Perdita away to raise her in Brooklyn and Tibet with the money from her MacArthur genius grant and assistance from the rest of her interpretive dance troupe.

Yes, I know that the idea of a mother who gives up everything for her child also not being present during the child's first five months doesn't make any sense. This is not about logic. This is about feeling like I can't deserve something this joyful because I'm not miserable enough (which is not about logic either, obviously), and about being defensive regarding my fiercely drawn boundaries and my insistence on retaining them, and about having been one of those kids who's supposed to set the world on fire and never did. 

And I think I hit some sort of nail near the head with the concept that you only deserve joy if you're miserable at the same time. We are, after all, endlessly fed the claim that motherhood is suffering, sacrifice, Profound Love, and no fun. During my pregnancy I only heard that it would be a) the hardest thing ever and b) the most rewarding thing ever. Sounded solemn as hell, either way. In the event it's been utterly farcical on so many levels, and I laugh so much. Far more a Marx Brothers movie than a Pinter play, thank god. 

Of course, maybe motherhood is fun for me because I abandon my precious infant in dingo territory at daycare. I love her madly, and I miss her every moment we're apart, and come Monday morning there's the bit of me which can't wait to get back to my desk and my data. Plus she's learning the ways of the dingo getting all sorts of socialization and access to a Jumperoo. It's all good.

Q: She's sleeping through the night?

A: Most of the time! Although every time I brag about it she's up at two a.m., which serves me right. Some weekend mornings she even consents to go back to sleep after her five o'clock bottle! The first time this happened, though, it wasn't restful because I kept turning over in bed towards my bedside table, frustrated and thinking I must have left my lamp on. Eventually I realized that the irritating light was, in fact, coming from that thing called "the sun", which had not risen before I in five months.

Q: How is her separation anxiety?

A: Right, "hers", har har. Actually, she has developed the desire to always have me in eyesight when we're home: though she's perfectly happy to be left at daycare or with Berowne (who works from home two days a week, the lucky dog!), if I am home with her I have to tote her or drag her swing with me wherever I go or there is screaming. It being a very, very small house, this isn't any real hardship, although it does make taking the dog out or fetching the laundry from the line challenging. But we have nice conversations in the kitchen while I'm cleaning her bottles.

Q: Still in the swing? How long will that last?

A: Well, she can't quite sit unassisted yet; after a few seconds she tends to tip sideways. But she's so invested in crawling that her tummy time has become a constant Training Montage, complete with appropriate musical accompaniment (because, as established, I am having entirely too much fun with this whole thing). Who knows what sort of Pavlovian reaction she may have, down the road, to the opening chords of "Eye of the Tiger". 

Q: What have you read in between this silliness?

The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser. Intriguing, although at times it just turns into a long list of the con men and otherwise sketchy people Boser meets during his research, which gets a little tedious. 

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. Amazing. The Snow White story, updated to the 1950s and about race, and just astonishing. I was so mad when it ended, not just because the end is crazy-abrupt and without closure (my one quibble about its narrative structure) but because I didn't want to stop reading. 

Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve. Meh. Woman loses memory during WWI; is amazing at everything; all men are obsessed with her; best mother ever. Sorry, but I find that kind of protagonist more and more boring all the time. And I lost patience entirely when our amnesiac heroine discovers she has children, after a scene in which she, whom we are told is a brilliant nurse whose brilliant nursing has all come back to her, examines her own body and can't even be sure whether she's a virgin or not. THE FACE I MADE WHEN I READ THAT. Sure, her youngest is eight or so, and I know they say stretch marks fade (the ones puberty gave me sure as hell never did, but hey), but it still wasn't a successful choice on Shreve's part to go the "my heroine is so physically flawless that a trained nurse can't tell she's had children" route. "I so identify with this woman! I am invested in her success!" said no reader ever.  

Wait, says this reader, I thought you were just all up in arms about women being allowed to get their bodies back post-baby. In the sense of being allowed to feel ownership over one's body, yes. In the sense of completely unrealistic expectations of getting said body to look like it never grew a human, no. Even if I lose these tenacious last four pounds, and get close to being as toned as I was before (actually, my arms are better than they've ever been, because my child is huge), I'll probably always have the stretch marks and the linea negra. And I'm okay with that. I do look different: I look like I had a baby. Fancy that. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

obnoxious heroines, and on not being the wolf's human any more

Last weekend, our little family made an outing to a local Puppy Mill Awareness event (for the record, it was anti-puppy mills). There were some booths and a police dog demonstration, and Perdita slept through almost everything. Then we walked around town, and behaved badly at the local chocolate shop (you'd think $27 worth of chocolate would last longer than two days, wouldn't you?), and generally had a lovely time.

Bingley got lots of attention, which he never used to, being completely overshadowed by the Great White Rockstar. It was wonderful to see him receiving lots of scritches and praise, and hearing people comment on his beautiful brindle coat, and having little kids refer to him as "a BIG dog!" which, again, is something that would never have happened before. As I waited for Berowne outside a shop, a gang of late-teens-early-twenties girls came down the street, one of them complaining loudly about her awful day, and when she saw Bingley she broke off mid-sentence to ask, "May I pet your dog?" and, after much ear-rubbing and wagging, told me that her day was now 100% better.

Wonderful, like I said. He's a glorious dog and I've never felt he got enough attention or admiration. But that night, home and consuming chocolate, I confessed to Berowne that being out at a dog event without Darcy-Bear had hurt far more than I expected it to. For all the attention that Bingley got, we were still pretty much just a couple with a stroller and a dog. I grew accustomed to a lot more than that, in my five years with Darcy. I was used to jaws hitting the ground when we walked up, to being surrounded by a dozen or more awe-struck people at once, to know that absolutely everyone within a two-block radius is staring amazed at your beautiful giant wolfy companion. I never got tired of telling his story over and over, or of saying, "Shepherd-malamute mix" until the words stopped sounding like anything.

Not only did I love him for himself, because he was wonderful beyond words, but I was so proud to be his human, and I loved taking him places. I loved the attention we got. And oh, how he would have looked next to the stroller! His head would have been level with Perdita's gaze as we walked along, and she would doubtless have laughed with joy at this, as she laughs at Bingley's antics now.

I know that the only thing worse than dealing with his illness and death while hugely pregnant would have been dealing with it while also dealing with a newborn baby, or having the final moment come when we were in the hospital. But it was so hard to accept that he would never see the baby, nor she him. And after being part of something so special, realizing we're now just another couple with a stroller and a dog makes me feel his loss with a very sharp edge.

He was supposed to live long enough for Perdita to remember him (though I knew even before he got sick that that was a long shot). There were supposed to be Little Red Riding Hood photo shoots, damn it. He was supposed to live forever, because I loved him, and now I'm about to get into Auden territory about a dog, but it's how I feel. Every day I miss the big dog and it hurts like hell.

Well! That cheerfulness aside, there's a lot of reading, because I've slacked on writing about that:

Now You See Me, by S.J. Bolton. I wanted to finish this, even though it was total hate-reading from about page five, but it defeated me. Our heroine and narrator is ridiculous: so gorgeous that she has to wear fake glasses and baggy clothes at work to be taken seriously, got the highest marks ever at police academy but behaves like a twelve-year-old on speed when it comes to common sense or impulse control (she's supposed to be "rebellious", I think), and as a teenager lived on the streets for eight months and did tons of drugs because she is SO cool and badass (and magically immune to the effects of such a period on one's looks or career prospects). I learned all this by page three, though; page five is when it became apparent that the sleeveless-T-shirt-wearing, "turquoise-eyed", hyper-misogynist superior officer is her love interest, and that Bolton's idea of a love interest means having her heroine think, "I hate him SO MUCH but I lose all my breathtaking intelligence around him, and the incredibly offensive way he takes charge of my life and makes inappropriate comments about my fabulous body makes me all tingly, so I'm going to make inappropriate comments right back because that's how two adults who work together handle these things, right?" Also the fact that the serial killer is obsessed with her is presented as further proof of how awesome she is.

But still I trundled on, until our heroine is almost killed by a suspect, and when she wakes up in the hospital, her reaction is zero percent thankfulness that she's alive and one hundred percent screaming sobbing meltdown because her nose was broken and she might not be quite as beautiful any more. She's far too cool and jaded and sexy for emotions; people getting killed in front of and for her doesn't phase her in the least; but when she thinks her nose might become slightly crooked she throws a temper tantrum. (Wouldn't crying hysterically with a broken nose hurt like crazy?) And this is the cue for DCI What'sBestForYou to take her in his arms and declare his love, because nothing says "relationship material" like "cares more about her appearance than about the victims whose murders she's supposed to be solving". Nothing says "heroine with whom we're supposed to sympathize" like that, either, to the extent that I sent this book back to the library tout suite.

I've lost all tolerance, if I ever had any, for the female character who is a total asshole (because she knows how impossibly gorgeous, impossibly successful, and impossibly brilliant she is) but whom the author repeatedly tells us is the most generous and giving person in the world. These heroines are especially awful because they're always narrators, and so you have to spend a whole book in their head while they talk about how annoying it is to have men walking into walls around them, and how disgusting that fat woman over there is, and how pathetic and slutty this other woman trying to get a man's attention is, and how tedious other people are when you're the smartest person in the world, BLAH BLAH BLAH, and then there's ALWAYS some other character piping up with, "You have the kindest heart / most generous nature / best personality ever," as if the reader's just going to nod along with that after a couple hundred pages of flat-out mean narration towards everyone the heroine has ever met. A very good example of this: Diana Gabaldon's Claire, who spends thousands of pages thinking the nastiest things imaginable about gay men and all other women (because they are all after her man, don't you know), and also being casually racist, and when leaving her daughter forever (as in: will never see her again, never hear from her again, will be separated from her by a magical two hundred years, FOREVER), tells her, "Try not to get fat." To which the daughter's father replies, not sarcastically, that she is the best mother ever, the same way that all the other characters are constantly extolling her to the skies as the kindest person ever to walk the planet even as she's thinking vile things about them based on their race or sexual orientation or bodice size.

I just can't deal with that shit. I was floored by the "try not to get fat" thing years before having a daughter of my own, and now it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I mean, when I decide that the present has entirely too much hygiene and medical science to be sexy, and I must journey into the past for my sexy times, I don't think leaving my daughter a legacy of body hatred will be my first instinct. (Of course, taking said journey would not be my first instinct either, as my turn-ons include owning property and not dying in childbirth.)


Red Bones, by Ann Cleeves. Another in her Shetland mystery series, which I like very much. Makes me want to live on a Scottish island SO BAD (although, to be fair, waking up in the morning can also make me want that). 

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. Oh, Emma. She's such an amazing writer, and it's just all historical prostitutes, all the time. This one also had horrifying stuff about historical child neglect and illness which had me blubbering like a walrus (and briefly not wanting to live on a Scottish island unless I can find one with a state-of-the-art pediatric medical facility). 

A Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths. The latest in her archaeologist-sucked-into-police-investigations series. Around the second book the premise got strained, but I'm willing to go with it because I like the characters and the writing. However, I grow weary of how the protagonist's single motherhood is presented: as not nearly wearing enough. It's just a sort of tossed-off, "Ruth is often tired these days," when, as someone five months into fully-partnered parenthood, I am quite certain that after two years of completely solo parenting, being described as "often tired" would make you go into Blanche DuBois levels of hysteria if only you could remain conscious long enough. Ruth also occasionally feels guilty about being late for pick-up at the "childminder", but never does she have trouble finding childcare or worry about the money involved. Hrrrm.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Klein. To say that this is a book-club book is not to say anything negative about it - book clubs are awesome - but it does describe a certain type of book in a way that I hope you understand. It was a good book, and made me cry, and I hustled through it. 

I left unfinished Marisha Pessl's Night Film. All the reviews said it was pretty god-awful, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. The reviews were right.

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin. I... did not know this was in verse.

Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America, by Clint Richmond. This was my Early Reviewers book, about the murder of a mother and daughter in the Southwest in the 1930s, and how Richmond believes that it was related to espionage. He makes a good case, but the reporting was a bit dry and too heavy on portraying the law enforcement involved as rugged cool dudes. There is a way, I know, to write about an unsolved mystery without making the reader feel that their time has been wasting in reading about it. I can't quite articulate how it works, when it does, but it didn't in this case. 

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir. Very interesting after my last reading about the misinformation around Anne Boleyn; Bordo had some scathing things to say about Weir. There were indeed moments when Weir assigned motives (often spiteful) to Anne that the historical record doesn't support, but she was mostly good about admitting where the holes in our knowledge are. I got the feeling that Weir didn't like Anne, but was trying to be fair. 

Next time: adventures in chocolate budgeting! Ha, that will never happen.