Who Bears The Burden? A Review of The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood
In recent years, we’ve witnessed a minor literary explosion as women writers mine the emotionally rich subject of becoming a mother. Michelle Herman enters this arena with her memoir The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood. Displaying a deeply reflective voice, Herman’s book creatively weaves her memories of growing up with her observations and anecdotes about her preadolescent daughter’s first decade of life. She brings a poet’s flair for precise, evocative language and dramatic structure to the business of writing a memoir. Herman does this, in part, by dividing her book into four sections, loosely organizing her observations and memories according to themes, and saving the final two sections to offer her meaty, emotional revelations.
The first part of the book, “Superstar,” is a memoir piece introducing the main “characters” in the author’s life. Herman gathers steam — and emotional conviction — in the second section of the book, “Enough Friends,” making her memoir an engaging look at the internal challenges of growing up, becoming a mother, and growing older. In the third section of the book — “Bookends” — Herman discusses how she faced the difficult emotional and physical shock of menopause and makes fascinating correlations to her daughter Grace’s life as Grace stands poised on the brink of her own personal earthquake: adolescence. In the final section, “Hope Against Hope,” Herman confesses to the soul-rattling events of her daughter’s infancy and preschool years, conjuring up — at last — some difficult, honest, and astute observations about becoming a mother.
Herman begins the book by revisiting the loneliness and loss that haunted her girlhood. Now 47, Herman describes her childhood in New York City, focusing on her depressed mother, who spent most of her time lying prone in a darkened bedroom, “protected” from her children and the outside world by a young, mostly absent husband and a take-charge immigrant mother. Herman was left to fend for herself emotionally, seeking out friendships to sustain her and learning to demand nothing from her mother or the rest of her family. “Devotion and dread: my constant companions” (33), she remembers. Despite the strong terms, this section still feels distancing. Herman never fully revisits these moments. She has a way of telling the reader about a situation or explaining what she was feeling rather than showing it through dialogue or scene.
In “Enough Friends,” Herman uses observations about Grace’s life as a springboard for sorting through her own life, which works well when Herman focuses on the bumpy emotional terrain of growing up and the challenges of personal change. While reflecting on her daughter Grace’s initiation into the unspoken rituals and rules that girls create with their friends, Herman tries to come to terms with her own friendship history. She gives particular attention to the topic of “best friendship,” admitting to her need (and arguing it is a universal female urge) to develop a relationship with another female who understands and respects her completely: “We need it — we need something; sometimes it feels like everything — from our friends. We start young. And we don’t get over it.” (93). Even after meeting and marrying her artist husband, Herman identifies a strong desire for a profound female bond. These first two sections are straight memoir with no conclusion, and, while lovely writing, left me wondering where she was going.
Herman’s memoir is most effective when she moves beyond mere memories and digs into the past — as messy as that can be — in order to come to a deeper understanding of the motives and dynamics that shaped her choices as a friend, a daughter, a wife, a writer, and a mother. She does this in sections three and four of the book, “Bookends” and “Hope Against Hope.” She tries to make sense of the mixed maternal messages she received from her late-blooming mother and her no-nonsense, strong willed maternal grandmother without expecting that she will ever truly resolve the nagging questions and ambivalence that came with these relationships.
It’s this second half of the book that eventually connects the dots for the reader — and Herman herself — as she delves into the details of the traumatic events of Grace’s sixth year of life. Herman tries to sort out her own culpability in these events while facing the painful maternal legacy she inherited. “My daughter is twelve weeks old when she tries to starve herself.” Herman begins her the final and most powerful section of the memoir with these words. [Excerpts of this section ran in Literary Mama’s Creative Nonfiction department in Hope Against Hope: Part One and Part Two.] She recounts the episode when her daughter stopped nursing and refused to take a bottle. Frantic, Herman tries unsuccessfully to coax her daughter to feed and finally settles on feeding Grace when she’s asleep, giving up her own sleep and physical comfort out of desperation to satisfy her daughter.
This incident is emblematic of Herman’s approach to raising Grace. “Meet every need” was her mothering mantra. She expands this way of thinking by developing her commandments of “motherly perfection” that she itemizes this way: “Be available, be attentive, watch and listen, keep your child from hunger, want, grief, loneliness, frustration” (152-153). Herman’s attempt to protect her daughter from experiencing any disappointment or dissatisfaction eventually becomes a liability for both of them. There is a hint of the trouble brewing earlier in the book when Herman vows that she’ll never tell her daughter that “life is unfair” — she’ll have an explanation for everything and share it with Grace, beginning with Grace’s earliest days of life (95). Herman works overtime to be the kind of mother she thinks she should be, the kind of mother she never had, and ironically this undermines her ability to have the kind of healthy, balanced relationship with her daughter they both need.
While Herman reports that she and her daughter enjoyed a special bond in Grace’s early years, and that Grace is articulate and poised beyond her preschool peers, the price of “motherly perfection” is a steep one. Shortly after Grace begins first grade, she begins to save and hoard paper and trash and to display obsessive/compulsive behavior in order deal with “bad feelings” she cannot bear otherwise. To her mother’s horror, Grace begins to say literally everything that crosses her mind. Herman and her husband pack up their daughter and travel out of town to get the official diagnosis from the best psychiatrist they can find: their little girl is expressing her severe developmental delay around “issues of separation/individuation” (194). In her attempt to meet every need, Herman has held on too tightly, hovered too closely, and both she and her daughter must begin the painful steps toward emotional independence. This diagnosis brings with it much blame that Herman heaps only on herself. It’s understandable that Herman questions her culpability in Grace’s disorder, but to label her instincts — what she calls “true mother-feeling” — as actually “miswired impulses” (197) seems too simple and borders on self-denigrating. However, Herman seems acutely aware of this, too, and she admits in other parts of the book that being a mother is a complicated, difficult business. She feels both a sense of responsibility for Grace’s illness and anger at a society that would have women believe that motherly perfection is something desirable and attainable.
Herman makes it clear, in this final section of the book, that the “needs” she was trying so hard to meet were actually her own need for unconditional love, friendship, and deep connection. She tried valiantly to make up for the maternal loss and profound loneliness that colored her childhood by giving “everything” to Grace and leaving nothing for Grace to discover, to want, to need. Herman muses: “Who knew that not learning how to let things go just might be worse than never having them at all?” Certainly not the author, who clearly blames herself for “failing” her daughter while also acknowledging that she had no healthy role model for being a mother. She looks back now, with a daughter who has regained her mental health, and realizes that she herself was stuck in what she calls her “mother-infancy”: “I’ve spent the last two and half years trying to catch myself up” (200).
While Herman sometimes seem quick to blame herself for her daughter’s illness, she is careful not to point the finger too directly at her mother (married at 19) or her grandmother (married at 15), who were, Herman speculates, not old enough to raise children but had them anyway and had to find their own ways to cope. But I was perplexed by the absence of her discussion of her husband Glen’s presence in her life and Grace’s childhood. Although Glen is an artist who Herman says is likely to disappear into his studio for hours at a time (perhaps abdicating his responsibility?), surely he had thoughts, ideas, and opinions about Grace’s refusal to eat as an infant, about Grace’s odd behavior at age six. The reader isn’t let in on any of these. And, when Herman reports about the success of her struggles to separate from Grace in healthy ways, I wanted to hear about how and if Glen supported both his wife and his daughter as they reinvented their relationship. By leaving out any fatherly influence, Herman takes the burden of her daughter’s difficulties on herself as a mother, and seems to let Glen — and fathers in general — off the hook.
Herman finishes her memoir by musing about the complicated truths of motherhood. She uses her experience as a mother who wanted to do everything perfectly, and ironically ended up with a “very sick little girl” on her hands, to conclude that good mothering cannot be boiled down to anything — in fact, she says, it can’t be boiled down at all. This conclusion — and this book as a whole — is a welcome antidote to the recent books that attempt to describe, diagnose, and prescribe a cure for the “curse” of modern motherhood. Herman affirms my own complicated emotions about being a mother by using a number of metaphors. My favorite one describes being a mother as “an elaborate meal, one course after another, cookbooks open everywhere, pots boiling over, the kitchen a mess” (213). We may start with a recipe, but then we quickly learn to improvise, feeding our families and feeding ourselves as best with can with the ingredients we have on hand.