Family Lore, Baby Lore
When I was a young child, I reveled in my father’s love of language and silly puns. He found the poetic and the comic in the everyday; joining him for the most mundane errand turned into an opera as he revved up our van and his vocal chords. I can still recall one of my father’s random Saturday to-do lists: “I’m going to put the junk in the trunk, and give it a bump in the dump. Then I’m going to the store to buy something for the door. And then something for the knee and me.”
My mother, for her part, transformed herself every summer into our own personal elementary school teacher, donning the name “Ms. Pillowcase,” doling out pencils just sharpened for the first time, and fanning out a pile of above-grade-level workbooks and marbled composition books. My parents read to their four children in their bed every night. My memories of those nights span decades: six people in a pokey, busted spring bed, the low fan humming, and my despair when the red boxy numbers on the clock signaled bedtime and an end to board books and, later, chapter books, series, and classics.
As a child, I clung to my parents’ speech idioms, errand-poems, bedtime stories, and puns. Later, as a poet, I was inspired by our family histories, jokes, sayings, legends, and legacies. Now, as a mother, I am drawn to the myriad, wonderful, and edgy comments of my toddler. I keep a journal I have titled “Baby Lore” to savor linguistic milestones. I wrote my daughter’s first words in its pages and have added any and all of her significant or mundane statements, questions, songs, and ramblings during her early years. Not only as a mother, but as a writer and storyteller, I became immersed in the awkward beauty, humor, and emotional sincerity of my daughter’s questions and statements. Keeping a Baby Lore notebook was easy; when inspiration struck, I would write down the last few memorable verbal exchanges my husband or I had with our daughter, Juliet. The creation of the notebook not only documented my daughter’s burgeoning imagination, but served as a springboard for my own writing.
My Baby Lore journal captures childhood through the language and lore of a child. It is a keepsake of linguistic milestones as quirky and nuanced as my child. This interests me not only as a mother who is prone to indulge her precocious firstborn, but also as a writer, poet, and educator always hunting for musical cadences in everyday speech. When else will any human being tell you what he or she is thinking, without all of the masking, irony, evasiveness, or self-deprecation we use to distance each other—except in early childhood?
For all parents of young children, the default mode is domestic blahness—laundry, dishes, grocery shopping—and linguistic blahness—the trinity of “No,” “Stop,” and “Now” spoken to intransigent toddlers. The challenge for us as mothers who write is to discover the inherently poetic, inherently feisty, inherently curious words of our children. The very words that chart our child’s emergence into personhood. Words vivid, pushy, spontaneous, arched, elliptical, emotive, intense enough for our poems, our stories. What could be mundane about that?
When Juliet saw blue cotton candy for the first time, she said it looked like “a lollipop of fur,” which sounds repulsive unless you are a toddler. She grasped what a pun was, not by lofty explanations, but when she saw a local tattoo artist’s chalk drawings at the park: she stomped on the shark’s “real hammer nose” and laughed. When Juliet said, at age two, “I’m not an ordinary toddler!” I realized she was the best documentarian of her own experience, and included such self-aware, braggadocios commentary in her Baby Lore book.
As I was logging Juliet’s sayings, I found myself intoxicated by my child’s development of language. Juliet was quickly becoming my muse every time she recreated a story or song, substituted words to express herself, made a joke, or creatively manipulated me. Her wordplay, much like that of my parents, inspired my own stumbling into the dark for words, for poems about motherhood and childhood, a draft of a children’s book, and for critical essays about mother-child relationships in 20th century poetry. I felt more deeply connected to art that mirrored my own life, from the sculptures of breastfeeding infants and stout mothers at the New Orleans Museum of Art to parenting blogs to American confessional poetry about mothers.
When I read a recent poem by Ananda Lima in The American Poetry Review, about an immigrant mother who tasted her first peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she was pinned under a sleeping toddler, desperate and starving, I was moved by the way the most familiar moments of mothering can be oddly enlightening. The fatty, sugary sandwich, which Ananda Lima once looked down upon as American over-processed crap, tasted incredibly life-sustaining in that moment of unity with her slumbering son whose sandwich she swindled from a little half-opened fist. While I am not suggesting that I want to write only poems about nursing or about PB&J’s, I, like Lima and many other mothers, discover poetic material and richness in everyday parenting experiences. I think this is encouraging for women who find themselves blocked artistically after childbirth, to know that your child will likely invent words that make you laugh, igniting your writing voice.
The joys of writing and mothering come together for me most concretely when I see Juliet expressing herself and learning language, and so this notebook about my daughter’s language development is also a kind of writer’s notebook for me. I am drawn to words as language, but also as attempts to figure out a world that is complex and awe-inspiring to a young child. As a toddler, Juliet showed the typical paradoxes of thought: on the one hand, she was highly structured and literal, on the other, poetic and divergent. At nightfall she asked, “Where did the sky go?” She made her first metaphor at age two when asking, “Mama, is the ramp a slide for cars?” Mysterious and mischievous, she danced around the orange cat, telling her, “Don’t be afraid of me, you never know what blessings I may bestow,” a line as much Winnie the Pooh as Shakespeare.
As much as I enjoy hearing my daughter talk (and she talks constantly), I am fascinated by the vast poetry of motherhood, and the way children creep into poems literally or metaphorically. Sylvia Plath’s poems about motherhood and early childhood reveal the intensity and drama of a child’s perception and seemed to merit her best creative juices. She yearns to preserve the child’s freshness, to somehow fend off anxiety and depression (for herself, for the child). Plath says in Child:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing / I want to fill it with color and ducks, / The zoo of the new // Whose names you meditate.
Confessional poets of the 1950s and ’60s broke new ground in poetry by writing about breastfeeding, pregnancy, sex, children, and one’s own parents, and dignified the dailiness of many women’s lives in particular.
Instead of seeking a nonexistent absurdity of an interruption-free life, I write where I am, about where I am. When Juliet was born, I remember being upset about not having an office to write in. Now we live in a shotgun house without any doors, which means no separate rooms, and the four of us sleep together in the large loft. The intimacy and continuity of our living arrangements have become a metaphor for how blended my writing and mothering have become; if there is such a thing as a writing zone, it is as undefined, sloppy, messy, omnipresent, and rambling as the mommy zone. Even when I am working at a café during a frenzied writing session, or just at the kitchen table during her nap, I remember Juliet’s voice. Sometimes the act of recording Juliet’s sayings in Baby Lore inspires new poem topics: a poem built around a quote from Juliet is at times just as good a starter as a quote from Sappho.
Not every moment of our days goes into Baby Lore. I would like to burn my memories of fear, fear that my second baby, Chadwick, would surely die when I looked down into my coffee tumbler, my eyes off of the kids for a moment, of the choices I sometimes had to make between peeing and risking sibling violence. I wish I could forget the times Juliet clobbered her newborn brother with a drum stick, threw a Jack-in-the-Box at him while he was nursing, whipped him with her blankets in the backseat of the car. But then there was the moment she finally “got it,” expressing her newfound understanding of the helplessness of babies: “He’s the littlest guy I’ve ever seen; he’s delicate.” That went in the book.
I wish I were above all the potty talk, baby talk, and mama-brain talk. I wish I didn’t spend an enormous amount of mental energy on repetitive, nagging, corrective talk, sing-song babble, dance-party chorus-hype of Lupe Fiasco’s “Out of My Head” and the Frozen hit “Let It Go.” I would like to think I am better than the mundane conversations about meals, clean-up, and the alphabet, but I have embraced the grittiness of motherhood. I have found renewal in recording my child’s funny or interesting phrases.
Often I would laugh out loud after writing down one of her statements, or after reading it aloud to my mother, a friend, or my husband. There was humor, inspiration, and amusement in recounting Juliet’s words. I felt closer to her by keeping the book, as if through its pages, I could remember the best, most adorable side of her, rather than the fights to leave the park, the exhausting three-hour nightly bedtime ritual, the four times a night I wake up with a child.
For contemporary writers and mothers, the work and the life are never as separate as previously assumed. When W.B. Yeats (the epitome of the dead white male) says, “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work,” he doesn’t account for the messiness of motherhood, the messiness of writing, all meshed together. As a writer, you are always on. As a mother, you are always on. I write in my head while running and pushing a jogging stroller, sometimes composing a very long poetic line because I feel so free in the line, I’m not ready to break it, and my breath is steady. There are days when I am so hungry as a writer, and I find myself drawing upon my parents’ words, the imagined words of the deceased, my toddler’s questions, the OED Word of the Day, and even the sidewalk art I pass en route to the park.
At a recent poetry festival in New Orleans, Nicole Cooley said that motherhood made her poems messier and better. Her entire poetry process changed after the birth of her daughter because she no longer had an eight hour day to write. She would have five minutes here, then five minutes there, so she started putting poem ideas and lines into a big folder, writing on construction paper, and then, when she had more than a few minutes, she would go through the folder and compose a poem. Cooley also commented on the beauty of watching a child learn language. I would add that there is so much richness, variety, and messiness that new mothers stand to gain, not only in altered writing habits, but also in observing the language acquisition and the speech of a child. While as mothers we may admit to waiting for our child’s nap so we can write, we also wait for them to talk, write, and read, knowing that we can inspire each other to creativity.
Even as my nine-month-old son nurses, even as my toddler learns the English language from me, I am taking notes. I am remembering my own childhood through the repetitions and enactment of parenting. Book illustrations, nursery rhymes, clap games; these all came back to me when I had children. Amelia Bedelia, Hot Cross Buns, Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, you were never as gone as I had feared. Psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips says that we never really have our own childhood; rather, the stories our parents tell us create the childhood that would otherwise be blank or, at best, very faintly remembered. When we become parents, we enter a childhood that we can remember—that of our kids—and it triggers our own never-accessed trinkets of childhood: stories, lore, games, and even language. When I talk to my mom about my daughter, she tells me about myself; we are tradition-bearers of this nebulous thing called childhood.
As a mother, I decide the kind of childhood my two small children are having, because I am the one who will tell them about it. One of the most exciting aspects of motherhood is to be such a critical witness, folklorist, teacher, and listener to the story a child is telling about herself.