The Barter

The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

 

I could not put down this creepy ghost story. The narrative is split between two mothers, one in the present, and one about 100 years ago (who becomes the ghost). I related so hard to Bridget, the contemporary stay-at-home mom: the subtle competition with her mom friends, the mindlessness and boredom, her fierce protectiveness toward her baby daughter. ‘Mommy wars’ tension seethes underneath every interaction she has with another woman, including her own mother. Rebecca, the turn of the century farm wife, was somewhat stranger. Through the stories of her older relative, Frau, mythical/fairy tale elements enter the story and lead directly to its horror. The title comes from Rebecca’s birth: while in labor, her mother was asked if she would trade an hour of her life, and an hour of her daughter’s, for both their survival. Of course, there’s a catch. Both Rebecca and Bridget have significant marriage problems. Bridget’s are fairly typical: her husband works too much and is never home, they don’t appreciate each other or connect as they used to. I found it harder to relate to the Rebecca’s marriage issues because they’re caused by extreme sexual repression and the husband’s complete refusal to engage in honest discussion. This is the kind of book I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of my head. The feeling of being stalked and watched in your own house, of your child not being safe–that is real terror.

Parenting Parody Books

I read a couple short books that are parodies of parenting advice books. Often these books are given to parents as gag gifts.

Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner

I felt ambivalent about this one. It’s mostly a lot of rants about people who make parenting harder, especially “perfect” moms who make the rest of us look bad and feel guilty and inadequate. There are step-by-step instructions are about how to slack or get away with slacking. And their definition of slacking is my definition of normal. There were a few essays that rubbed me the wrong way, but most were witty and truthful.

How to Traumatize Your Children: 7 Proven Methods to Help You Screw Up Your Kids Deliberately and With Skill

I preferred this book to Sh*tty Mom because it was actually reassuring in a weird way. It provides illustrated step-by-step instructions for ruining a kid’s childhood in several different ways. Chapter titles include “It’s All About You: Parent as Narcissist” and “Validation Is For Parking: Parent as Self-Esteen Killer.” Reading it made me feel better about the small mistakes I’m making as a parent–at least I’m not calling my boys names or literally neglecting them. There are moments in parenting when that perspective is helpful. The tone makes the joke clear: you, reader, are a good parent laughing at truly terrible people who damage their children.The illustrations provide extra humor.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.

I’m Published on HerStory

An essay I wrote is going up today on HerStory, a blog of women’s writing. It’s kind of a journal entry from almost a year ago. I wrote the meat of it back in March 2016 about how miserable I was at the end of my pregnancy, and returned to in October. That was when I cleaned it up and made sense of it to present to an audience. I hope it helps explain some of my time away from the blog. Here’s a permanent link. Enjoy!

Southern Festival of Books 2016 Recap

I spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville. I arrived at the downtown library at 9, unloaded the stroller and wheeled the baby to the auditorium for the early book talk. I didn’t know that it was sponsored by the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, an organization I’m glad to have learned about. There were little muffins and coffee cakes on the way in. I parked the stroller in the hall and found a seat in the back, on the aisle, near a door, with the baby on my lap. Curtis Sittenfeld, Adam Haslett, Danielle Dutton, and Yaa Gyasi sat in a row in comfy chairs on the stage, interviewed by a local host. Each read an excerpt from their books. Questions concentrated on their writing processes, which I actually don’t find all that interesting. It’s kind of a repetitive question that comes up at every author talk I ever go to. But it was interesting and heartening to learn that Dutton’s book took her 10 years to write, and Gyasi’s took her 7. I had heard of Dutton, but not of Haslett; now both of their books are added to my long list of books to read. Luckily I’ve become comfortable nursing in public. I fed the baby during the talk, but when he was finished, he thrashed around and hit his head on the arm of my chair, making him cry. I got up and ran out the door quickly–my strategic seating decision minimized disruption. I calmed him and went back inside. He slept through the second half.

When the talk was over, I hustled the stroller up the hill to the Legislative Pavillion where the rest of the festival was. I found the ramp and the big tent from Parnassus Books with all the books from all the authors. I picked three, limited by budget, and knowing I couldn’t count on having time to get more than that many books signed. I got Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and the new books from Lauren Oliver and Beth Revis. Then I had to figure out how to get up to the signing colonnade with the stroller. I had to go into the building on the ground floor, through a hall to an elevator, then up. I met Sittenfeld, and told her I’m from Cincinnati, where her book is set. Then I rushed back inside and down the elevator to the room where Lauren Oliver’s talk would be. It was a very full room. Oliver was presenting with Kendare Blake, a small, funny woman whose YA books seem dark and gory, in a good way. Oliver’s disciplined, prolific writing schedule awes me. She writes as many as 3 books at a time, at least 500 words a day on each. No wonder she has so many novels. I also found out that her first book, Before I Fall, will be a movie in the spring. After I went back to the elevator, up to the colonnade, and got in line with the baby, I saw that Oliver actually had one of the longest signing lines I saw all day. (J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, had perhaps the longest.) The baby smiled at people in line. Oliver actually remembered me from two years ago, or at least she said she did.

I had a break then; Beth Revis’s talk didn’t start for almost 2 hours. I went back down the elevator and outside. I walked to the food trucks and got chicken tacos. That area was really crowded and hard to navigate with the stroller. I realized I couldn’t carry the plate of tacos while wheeling the stroller, so I sat down there on a curb and ate. Then the baby was fussy so I fed him too. He liked playing with my empty water bottle. Then I took my time going back to the door to get to the elevator, glancing at booths, picking up a couple brochures and wishing I could spend lots of money on cute book accessories. When I got back inside, it was still early; another talk was going on in the room, so I went to the bathroom. There was no changing table for the baby, so I changed him in the stroller. I sat in a chair and nursed him again, and he fell right asleep. Someone helped me wheel the stroller to park it in the anteroom. The room was mostly empty and there were 10 minutes to kill. I spotted two girls I’d met before at another book event and talked to them a while, exchanging contact info. Revis’s talk was mostly a prepared speech about the ‘origin story’ for her new book, A World Without You. I think she presented it that way so that she didn’t get too emotional. She said that it was inspired by the life of her brother, who passed away from complications of mental illness and addiction. That’s the kind of connection I like to learn about at a book talk. She also said that her son was born the day after she turned the book in to her publisher (and he’s now a year and a half old). Another elevator to the colonnade, then back down and out, down the hill to the library, and $11 to the parking garage (!).

All that is to say:

1) Book festivals rock. The people I meet there are so friendly and cool and alive with a spark that makes them unique. They are passionately interested in their quirky little niche, proudly letting their freak flag fly, and that is a beautiful thing.

2) Navigating crowds and multi-floor events with a stroller is exhausting. I truly feel for disabled people who have to deal with that every day and don’t ever have the option to leave the baby at home.

3) Tennessee’s state government building is not set up to be very easily accessible for the disabled or for women with children. But they made as many accommodations as they could and were very friendly about opening doors and pushing elevator buttons.

4) People like seeing babies, so even though I felt like I was taking up too much space and potentially disrupting things, I felt very welcome. That was a huge relief, because I was afraid parenthood would stop me from enjoying events like this.

5) I am super lucky to have such a chill baby who is so friendly in crowds and doesn’t throw tantrums when I need him to be quiet.

6) I got introduced to some authors I’m now interested in learning more about, including Haslett and Blake.

7) I have 3 more signed books to read!

2016 Southern Festival of Books

As in past years, I’m excited to go to the Southern Festival of Books this weekend! I’ll have a baby in tow this time, so I’m not sure how many events we’ll make it to, but these are the authors I’m hoping to see:

Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, to be reviewed here soon

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Eligible, which have been on my “books to read” list for a long time

Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium trilogy, Before I Fall, Panic, Rooms, and Vanishing Girls

Beth Revis, author of the Across the Universe trilogy

Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay and Where She Went

Maggie Stiefvater, author of Lament, Ballad, the Shiver trilogy, Sinner, and The Raven Cycle

What Keeps a Mom from Writing

Does parenting–specifically, mothering–make writing impossible? Are writing and mothering inherently opposed activities that a single person cannot do in the same day, year, lifetime? A lot of people have a lot of opinions about these questions, as they are sure to do with anything that relates to mothers, and some of them even have relevant experiences.

While I was pregnant with my second child, I read an essay on the topic that I found most discouraging. It was called, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” It’s full of examples of successful writer-moms who had a single child, and how that child fit nicely within their careers. I can see why it would be easier to have just one kid. My three-year-old requires so much less attention than when he was a baby. If he were my only kid and I could look forward to increasing independence and decreasing demands on my time and attention, it would indeed make it easier to write. But damn, that’s depressing.

Kim Brooks, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” theorizes that because art is about disturbing easy, complacent sensibilities, while parenting is about offering comfort, mothers find it hard to switch gears and their creative pursuits often suffer. I was interested in her view and found it kind of interesting and persuasive, but this is far from my personal experience. The problem Brooks describes is not my problem. The writing I do must not be literary enough, or avant garde enough, or whatever, for this to be an issue for me. Writing doesn’t unsettle me or make me a disturbing presence in the lives of my children. The habit of soothing my children might make my writing bland and boring–but hey, that might have been the case even if I’d been childless, and boring writing is better than no writing at all, which has been more my problem.

By far my favorite response to this question was “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. This is one of those things I read and related to so hard that I wished I’d been the one to write it. I love that Thorpe finds hope in the idea that a lot of male writers who had children but neglected them were assholes, and they may have been still better writers had they been psychologically healthy adults, attentive parents renewed by their children. Thorpe locates the problem in the necessarily self-centered nature of an artist vs. a mother’s other-focused generosity. She makes her desire to be a mother who writes into something subversive and revolutionary:

“If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening.”

One of the most exciting and reassuring things I’ve read recently is this excerpt from a biography of Shirley Jackson. Jackson, author of many creepy stories like “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, seems to exemplify Thorpe’s assertion that motherhood can be fuel for profoundly unsettling literature. No one can deny that Jackson was a writer whose work is subversive and disturbing, and her biographer asserts that it was absolutely rooted in her role as a mother. Jackson viewed children honestly, unromantically, refusing to idealize them, and that’s what made her work so fascinating. What’s even more remarkable (and infuriating) is that she wrote her books in the 50’s and 60’s, with zero childcare support from her husband, whose expectations of her were typical of that period. Like Julianna Baggott, another prolific writer who has four children, Jackson would constantly think of her stories while doing the routine work of housekeeping. That’s a trick I need to learn.

When my first child was only a little older than my second is now, I wrote something about how I didn’t have any time to write, and how I resented the implication that my lack of time meant I wasn’t dedicated. It all still rings true. Another issue for me is still confidence–and whenever I step away from writing for a while, no matter the reason, my confidence takes another hit, and it’s that much harder to get back to it.

This is what keeps me from writing lately. It’s small practical things like the fact that the baby wants to nap on me, (he wakes up if I put him down), so I only have one hand free, if that, which is enough to scroll through facebook, but not enough to type anything longer than a tweet. It’s the way the easily bored baby fusses if I sit down while holding him; he wants me to either focus on him, talking and singing, or walk around and around the house, or put him in front of a screen. It’s the constant interruptions from the toddler, a terrible conversationalist who whines, “I want mommy talk to me.” It’s the tiredness that hits me so heavily and suddenly as soon as both boys are asleep, and I know I’ll have to wake up twice to nurse and make an early start to get myself ready for school in the morning. It’s the way the grocery list and the litany of chores left undone too long crowd my essay ideas out of my brain before they even make it to a Post-it note. It’s the free time that only comes in fifteen-minute chunks, while I keep an ear listening for a baby to wake and start crying.

As hard as it is to find the time and energy to write while pregnant or caring for a baby, I need to recommit myself to it once again because I know it’s important. I think something would be lost if mothers stopped writing while they’re in the thick of it, because memory changes things and softens the hard edges of these extraordinary years. Taking care of babies and toddlers is an intense experience, and it makes for a full, busy, tiring, wonderful life, but if that life doesn’t get recorded while it’s happening, then there can be no complete and truthful record of it.