The Wonder Years: Three writers talk about the time that leaves most of us speechless
It’s a truism of new parenthood that it changes everything — even our notion of what “everything” is. Too often we lack the words to describe the experience. As new parents and graduate students in literature, my husband Mark and I felt this challenge keenly. We frequently found ourselves at a loss for language, unable to communicate our life-changing experiences in terms our non-parent friends could understand. A simple declarative sentence “the baby cried all night” means little to the person who hasn’t held, rocked, sung to, cursed at, a baby. In speaking with friends, we could not come up with a metaphor to describe the unyielding torment of colic, the unimaginable peace of infant sleep, the daily challenges of simply getting showered and dressed in between nursing, rocking, and changing our endlessly demanding child. Tears and cries seemed more appropriate (we almost envied our daughter’s unending variety of cries), but hardly made our case to our patient-but-uncomprehending friends. We were ourselves in a kind of infancy, returned unwittingly right to the root of the word — infans (Lat.) “one unable to speak.”
Thankfully, there are writers out there who do have the words. In recent years, a new body of literature has emerged, penned mainly by established writers who have turned their attention to the transformations that accompany parenthood. The best of these books provide what novelist and essayist Louise Erdrich calls a “nonplatitudinous intelligence,” a way of speaking of the passages of parenthood with grace, lyricism, and a gritty realism, and without resorting to clichés or glassy-eyed generalizations. They are realistic, often brutally so, about a part of life frequently air-brushed by cultural stereotypes of contented mothers and precious babes.
In the throes of my daughter’s colic, for example, I really needed the words of Anne Lamott. In Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Lamott describes her own son’s bout with colic, and how, after a terrible evening he would fall briefly asleep, allowing her to wax sentimental over his angelic attitude. Moments later, though, “he wakes up and begins to make his gritchy rodent noises, scanning the room wildly. I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility, Oh, God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.” When I first read that line, I laughed out loud and grimaced at the same time, applauding Lamott for finding the words for her own, and my, inarticulate experience.
These memoirs don’t simply chronicle the wordless experiences of parenting; they articulate the challenge of coming up with words, any words, when in the presence of an infant. “One reason there is not a great deal written about what it is like to be the mother of a new infant is that there is rarely a moment to think of anything else besides that infant’s needs,” Erdrich writes. “I take her instructions without translating her meaning into words, but simply bypass straight to action. My brain is a white blur. I lose track of what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been, who I am.”
But as professional writers, these women feel compelled to persist, until meaning emerges from the fog. These aren’t parents struggling to balance job and family in the traditional sense. None of them goes to an office, needs to report on time, or has to count sick days. Yet fitting a child into the somewhat less structured life of the writer has its own difficulties. In Waiting in the Wings: portrait of a queer motherhood playwright and poet Cherríe Moraga notes that “with the appearance of Rafael in my life, I can never return to the writer I once was. Not because of the time constraints, which are awesome, but because my soul is never completely empty in the same way. I am conscious of another entity always pulling on me.”
Lamott, on the other hand, finds unexpected connections between parenting and writing. “Writing,” she reminds herself and us, “is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful you can trip off into this Edgar Allen Poe feeling of otherness. It turns out that motherhood is much the same.”
A novelist and recovering alcoholic, Lamott was single when she became pregnant in her late thirties. She decided to keep the child, against the father’s wishes. Her faith and her friends help her maintain her sanity through pregnancy and a difficult delivery, through colic, and through all the chaos of the first year. Her memoir, like most of the others here, is based on a journal she kept during that time. As a result, she recalls the things most of us are glad to have forgotten about early infancy. (The one benefit of sleep deprivation is that it wreaks havoc on the memory. Like pain amnesia, it’s one of the paradoxical gifts of motherhood.)
I often give Lamott’s Operating Instructions as a shower gift, to help parents-to-be ward off the feeling of otherness that Lamott describes so well. They usually laugh uncertainly, “So there really is a manual!,” and thank me politely. Some never mention it again, but others call me months later, thanking me for the book and its honesty. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but for those who can’t stomach the hearts-and-flowers school of early parenthood, Lamott fits the bill. She captures the ambivalence, the anxiety, and the deep joy of parenting, in a memoir that’s more gritty than sentimental.
In Waiting in the Wings, Moraga also draws on her journals to tell the story of bringing a child into her many families: a supportive gay/lesbian community, an extended Chicana family, a circle of writers and artists. With grace, dignity, and lots of anxiety, she negotiates the “do it yourself” quality of forging new relationships: first, with her premature baby, then between Rafael and his biological father (a gay friend who donated his sperm), and between a new family of three: herself, Rafael, and her partner, his comadre, Ella.
Lamott and Moraga both convey a poignant sense of the thin membrane between life and death. Having made life, both are acutely aware of its fragility, its preciousness, its precariousness. Rafael Angel nearly doesn’t make it. Born three months prematurely, he survives neo-natal intensive care, two major surgeries, and myriad infections. Things are tough all around. Friends die of AIDS, Rafael’s paternal grandfather dies, and through it all Moraga continues to write, to put into words the nearly unspeakable experiences of her life. “Rafaelito came to me effortlessly, our first try at conception. He was, literally, waiting in the wings . . . angel wings, waiting for me to finally decide to call him to this earth. But now I see Rafaelito is not so easily won. He enters this life with a delicate deep strength, as living reminder of the precariousness of our lives. I breathe through the isolette, call to him, to me, to us, to life. Rafaelito, Rafaelito, quídate aqui, hijo, con nosotros. Tu familia te espera. [Stay here, son, with us. Your family is waiting for you.] I call him over to this side.”
Cherríe and Ella fight a bureaucratic health-care system and unsympathetic hospital guards who, three months after the baby’s birth, still interrogate Ella about her relationship with the child. After they survive this shared fight, it’s dispiriting to learn that the experience of co-parenting takes its toll on the relationship and Ella moves out of the house, though not their lives, some months after Rafael Angel’s birth.
Like Moraga’s, Lamott’s memoir is haunted as well, by the death of her beloved writer-father from brain cancer ten years earlier, and by the imminent death of her best friend and honorary co-mother, Pamela Murray, whose cancer diagnosis comes during Sam’s first year. Pammy’s death, foreshadowed just as Sam is coming to life, defines the last third of the book, deepening its insights as it still struggles for humor and sanity. Who else would describe the early days of parenting as feeling like The Seventh Seal with diaper rash? Lamott does, and as she and Pammy dance with death and change the baby’s diapers, it makes sense.
Louise Erdrich’s memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, is a composite portrait of her three pregnancies and experiences of early infancy. At any time, the baby described may be her first, second, or third daughter. She weaves them into a seamless whole, structuring the book around the seasons rather than any particular child’s first year of life. Pregnant in the winter and delivering in spring, she manages to convey the rhythms of a natural cycle.
Erdrich’s is the most lyrical of these memoirs, the most reflective. I read it now haunted by the sense of her husband Michael Dorris’s suicide years later, but it is her own depression and suicidal thoughts that haunt Erdrich throughout the book. The title reference is revealed towards the end of the memoir when Erdrich watches in horrified fascination as a blue jay, wounded by a hawk, “screams, raises its wings, and dances toward” the predator. The birds scream at each other, but the blue jay continues to dance, finally so bewildering the hawk that it flies away, frustrated of its prey.
Erdrich finds a deep solace in such preposterous behavior: “Beyond the impossible corners, stark cliffs, dark wells of trapped longing, there is that manic, successful jig — cocky, exuberant, entirely a bluff, a joke,” she writes. “That dance makes me clench down hard on life. But it is also a dance that in other circumstances might lead me, you, anyone, to choose a voluntary death. I see in that small bird’s crazy courage some of what it took for my grandparents to live out the tough time. I peer around me, stroke my own skin, look into this baby’s eyes that register me as a blurred self-extension, as a function of her will. I have made a pact with life: if I were to die now it would be a form of suicide for her.”
The dance becomes a metaphor for the unlikely job of the writer-parent: to dance, to perform, to entertain and celebrate, even and especially when the pain seems overwhelming. Erdrich thinks that this is particularly a mother-writer’s job, and I am inclined to agree. While Erdrich’s dance is different from Lamott’s, different again from Moraga’s, all three are dancing, performing, bringing language and baby into being together.
The writing life and the mothering life can and do come together, with difficulty and immense patience. The payoff is not trivial, for them or for us: “One day as I am holding baby and feeding her I realize that this is exactly the state of mind and heart that so many male writers from Thomas Mann to James Joyce describe with yearning–the mystery of an epiphany, the sense of oceanic oneness, the great yes, the wholeness,” Erdrich writes. “There is also the sense of a self merged and at least temporarily erased — it is deathlike. I close my eyes and see Frost’s too peaceful snowy woods, but realize that this is also the most alive place I know–Blake’s gratified desire. These are the dark places in the big two-hearted river, where Hemingway’s Nick Adams won’t cast his line, the easeful death of the self of Keats’s nightingale. Perhaps we owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand that they wanted to be women nursing babies.”
It’s an arresting thought. Women are nursing babies, and they are writing books too. These books need not reach for metaphorical resonances of birth and nursing because they engage those actions literally, writing the body of the woman, the baby, and the life.