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Category Archives: motherhood

Narcissistic Mother

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Marcy and Stacy c. 1974

Marcy and Stacy c. 1974

The first time I had a poem published was circa 1974, in The Wild Iris, now defunct of course, a slender purple-covered collection of poems by women. I’d responded to their Submissions Wanted ad in Poets & Writers—in those days nobody

Marcy and Daryl c. 1974

Marcy and Daryl c. 1974


except agents charged reading fees, and dozens of these ads appeared in every issue of the magazine. The most they asked for was a SASE; I must’ve spent hundreds of dollars on stamps, rarely returned: count it as my donation to literary magazines and journals operating on shoestring budgets.

 

Shortly after receiving my two free copies of The Wild Iris, I brought one with me to my cousin’s engagement party to show my mother. When I arrived she and my Aunt Janice were in the bedroom, shedding their coats. I opened the journal to page 12, I think it was, and presented it to my mother the way I might hand her a plate of her favorite appetizer, Russian caviar. With my smiling aunt reading

Unknown

over her shoulder, my mother’s features slowly changed from wariness to disapproval. When she finished she handed the book to Janice,proclaiming, “It’s not even true!”

I was stunned and befuddled. Not true? How could it not be true? It was an expression of my feelings, stirred from an identification with another harried mother. Then it hit me: my mother thought the poem was about her! Well, I’ll be damned! Did she think every time I expressed a feeling it was in relation to her? As a matter of fact she did. I have since learned this is typical narcissistic behavior. At the time, however, I only knew my mother had crushed my pride and happiness over one of the biggest accomplishments of my life to date, and that I would never show her any of my writing again. (Things changed for the better over the years, including her attitude, but for a long time after this experience I kept my resolve.)

daisies

At the time my kids were nine and seven respectively, and had been living with their father and his wife for two years. Twice a month I rode the Long Island Railroad to pick them up and take them back to my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the weekend. On Sunday night I repeated the journey, this time dropping them off and riding back home alone. During the return trip I was sometimes giddy with freedom, other times depressed and lonely. Most of the time I spent the ride obsessing about how I’d manage to take them home with me for good. This schizophrenic arrangement lasted a total of four years altogether, and that’s basically what I felt like for the entire four years: alternately liberated and depressed, and a guilty conscience humming away in the background at every waking moment.

 

The poem had been inspired during one of my train rides home. A mother with three toddlers was sitting across the aisle from me, trying toFromJaritascontrol her restless children, who, by the way, had no coloring books, toys or other playthings to keep them amused. She yelled at and slapped the kids every time they stood up or shouted or messed around with each other: i.e., every time they behaved like kids. This is the poem my mother interpreted as a lie about her. It’s as if I, a fully grown adult, existed purely as her appendage or, better yet, her mirror. What bothers me most now, 40 years later, is that I cannot separate the poem, an expression of feelings about motherhood, from my mother. Nor can I remember the first time I had a poem published without remembering her reaction to it. Alive or dead, this narcissistic woman remains powerful enough to mess with my head.

cartoon mothers w: kids

 

 

The Other Mother

The other mother, children by her side
wears an angry scowl—my earlier face.
If I look at her she’ll be ashamed.
See the woman, or the mother?

Passers-by glare and frown as she slaps
half-heartedly and throws small bodies down.
If she catches my stare she’ll be ashamed.
I see the woman. I see the mother.

slap slap slap
sit still or I’ll leave you
slap sit still slap shut up
I swear I swear I’ll leave you.

When she notices me I see what she sees:
a single woman, unburdened, free.
Quickly I look away, ashamed.
She sees the woman, not the mother.

Alone I watch as the train rushes on.
The space between us looms large as a canyon.
Our strongest bond is being ashamed.
We are both women. We are both mothers.

slap slap slap
sit still or I’ll leave you
slap sit still slap shut up
I swear I swear I’ll leave you.

 

 

 

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Writer Interrupted

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Last November I began writing a short story, Who Won What?  that evolved into the start of a YA novel. On January 6th my son was hit by a car (his second time), and my life was overtaken by the crisis. To attempt writing at that time was useless; as Anne Tyler says in an essay in the excellent anthology The Writer on Her Work,  when the kids take over, you have to close the door on writing—and, much more rarely, the reverse.The Writer on Her Work

Two days ago I finally dragged the story out of my “In Progress” folder (a euphemism if ever there was one). I forced myself to sit on my hands while reading, to do no revising, extremely difficult for the slash-and-burn editor I am. I just wanted to read it, to see if I liked it and wanted to finish it. I did. The next day I picked up where I’d left off in January—but though I managed to squeeze out a few paragraphs, it was rough going, devoid of joy, and it showed. With great sadness I prepared to relegate Who Won What? back to the “In Progress” folder  with all the other aborted projects.

While out walking this morning, however, I suddenly remembered what I useed to do when my kids were growing up and my writing so frequently interrupted: Whenever I resumed, I’d go into revision mode, re-writing from the beginning up to wherever I’d stopped. By the time I worked my way through, I was back in the head space I’d been in prior to the interruption, and  ready to move on.

career-path

Little did I know that my life circumstances were teaching me the best lesson one can learn about writing: Writing is Rewriting. Or, Revise, Revise, Revise! (Both said by eminent writers, whose identities evade me at the moment.)

cartoon mothers w: kids Like every other mother on the planet, I’m accustomed to having my work interrupted. I complained about it constantly—and yet, looking back, I believe that motherhood taught me more about writing than I’d have learned any other way. Most of what I learned is intangible, but this is one lesson I can put my finger on with certainty: I learned how to write through frequent interruptions, long or short, simple or complex, painful or not.

tantrum

Here’s something I’ve yet to learn: Quit Yer Bitchin’! Whatever we might lose or think we lost because of some life experience, we’re likely to gain something else. I’m trying to learn to complain less,  as I return to writing. Who Won What? is one story that, howsoever it ends up, will not remain forever “In Progress”.

DeskChaos

Great Guilt Trip With Babs

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GuiltTrip

It’s not that there’s anything astounding or remarkable about Guilt Trip, the new comedy with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, mother and son on a road trip through hell. What’s so good about this movie is how utterly REAL Barbra is in the role of Joyce Brewster, a 60-something widowed mother. Most women of our generation will recognize themselves and their friends in the character–but when I say Streisand is real in Guilt Trip, I’m referring to more than characterization. Her acting is real in Guilt Trip; it’s possible she’s never done so well in any previous film. Anne Fletcher, who directed Guilt Trip, seems to have known exactly what to do with her.

I’m assuming direction makes the difference: in so many of Barbra’s movies–from Funny Girl to Prince of Tides right on up through Meet the Fockers–she has a tendency to overact, but in Guilt Trip I didn’t see a single instance of her usual emoting. Every smile, tear, conversation, and subtle reactions are conveyed in a way that is seamlessly real, and if I’m overusing that word, it’s because nothing else can better describe Streisand’s performance and persona here. Maybe it’s just, as Mick LaSalle says in The SF Chronicle, “Maturity has released something in Streisand, who, having gone beyond trying to sell herself as a babe (as in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”), has a new warmth.”

Seth Rogen is Streisand’s son, Andy Brewster, an inventor hawking his organic cleaning fluid on their road trip. Andy’s humorless presentations doom his product before it can get off the ground. He rejects Mom’s advice to zip up his performance, and who can blame him when it’s thrown at him amid  600 other pieces of advice to drink more water, visit his high school sweetheart, see a shrink, yada yada yada. Sounds like a stereotypical Jewish mother, but it doesn’t come off clichéd. I saw the picture with my son, and we both related to the mother-son dynamics. Besides, Mom is vindicated in the end, when Andy finally takes her advice and it pays off. In between rejection and triumph, of course, they have to travel a long long road. It’s great fun for the audience if not the riders.

628x471

(Above: Barbra as Joyce Brewster eats a humongous steak dinner in an hour, thereby getting it free.)

As an old Barbra Streisand fanatic who’s been watching her since 1963, hasseen every one of her movies, most of them multiple times, owns most of her recorded work and had a personal Streisand adventure of sorts (see my post on meeting her in a New York HoJo), I have the right and the credentials to criticize or praise her (though so does everyone else, come to think of it!). I say this because when I checked out  Rotten Tomatoes to see what film critics and ordinary viewers are saying about the movie, I was disappointed–even kind of hurt, since so many of them dismiss GT as crappy drivel for little old ladies. You know, us old fuddy duds who don’t know a thing about le cinema but adore false sentiment. Oh, boo hoo and a big boo to you too! I laughed my way through most of Guilt Trip, was emotionally moved, and saw a two-hour sliver of truth and beauty. I don’t expect every movie to transform my life. A lot of them don’t even transform my two hours of watching! This one had side-splitting laughs and the whole thing was fun. Which is enough for any piece of entertainment to deliver.

 

Playing By The Rules: Check Your Premises

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Politicians are always squawking madly that America works best when her citizens “Play by the Rules” (PBTR). The rules to which they refer are, at their most basic level, work hard, save your money, and don’t get into debt (that last one might be out of date). Depending on how disciplined you are or can be, more complex levels of the rules include heterosexual marriage, children, home ownership, and a zillion other lifestyle tweaks that add up to being a good clean-cut American citizen. Those who PBTR are rewarded, primarily, with enough money to make their lives comfortable or even luxurious. They can afford to buy  fun stuff—boats and vans and summer homes—travel to the far reaches of the globe, and go on adventurous vacations like jungle safaris, parachuting, and other wild thrills. Or they can simply accumulate lots of jewelry or cars or let the cash itself pile up.

Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently made a rather shocking statement: he said, expressing hostility towards them, that some people don’t want to PBTR. They don’t. Want. To play. By the rules.

I’ve been mulling this over since he said it, and you know what? He’s absolutely right! A lot of us do not want to PBTR. I am one of them. I’ve lived my entire life far outside the rules—consciously and intentionally.

I am a writer. Pre-Internet it was nearly impossible to make money writing, and even today, most of us cannot, do not, and will not work 9 to 5 jobs out of which we spin hot careers. We already have hot careers: as writers. Unlike most careers, however—except for the plum jobs like corporate newsletter editor and a very few others—writing doesn’t support its practitioners immediately, if ever. Writers have to find ways to support our careers until they support us. Sometimes they never do, and we surrender to some other occupation. Or we just surrender, period, and litter the landscape with our exhausted bodies. Or we keep on keepin’ on, usually unhappily, our lives a study in subversion of the rules and its deprivations. This is, of course, true not only of writers but of all artists: photographers, painters, sculptors, and other creative geniuses. We comprise a sizeable chunk of the American populace that doesn’t PBTR. This has always been the case, and it always will be.

Then there are those whose art is creative living: there were more of these back in the late 60’s, called “hippies.” I knew people who took the hippie lifestyle a lot further than I did: living on the land, sometimes communally, in teepees, cabins, and tents. My kids and I (usually) lived in a traditional house, though not strictly in PBTR circumstances.  For awhile we lived on a hilltop buried in snow half the year, in one of five cozy little bungalows huddled in a protective semi-circle, in each of which lived a single mother and one or two kids. I was the only adult with a real job—secretarial of course—to supplement my paltry child support check. I remember one of the women, a conservative’s worst nightmare, who claimed it was more principled to let the government support mothers via welfare so they’d stay home with their kids than for her to leave them every day for a job. As a feminist striving for independence, I found this rather shocking—but as time went by, I came to see her point of view as viable. I still do. In order to see it differently, I first had to check my premises—an idea promoted incessantly by Paul Ryan’s mentor, Ayn Rand.

“Check your premises” was, in my opinion, the most sensible thing Rand ever said—but Paul Ryan evidently didn’t pay attention to this piece of Randian philosophy. He hasn’t checked the premises that underlie the practice of playing by the rules. When he says some people don’t want to, he’s assuming evil premises, one of which is that if you don’t PBTR, you’re lazy. You’re not working hard. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience: there were times when I held three “part time” jobs that added up, both in hours and muscle power, to more than one. Sometimes I cleaned houses, and worked like a dog. And yes, sometimes I got lucky–like when I collected unemployment–and I got to take it easy.

And what’s so terrible about enjoying life? What’s wrong with spending your days playing music with your kids, or taking them ice skating? What’s so terrible about having a little bit of fun? Come on, tell us, Mr. Ryan: what’s wrong with having fun? Why, when you accuse us of not PBTR, do you attach evil premises to the practice? When I—or another artist or hippie–says someone doesn’t want to PBTR, it’s just a statement of fact. The underlying premise is neutral, with no value judgment attached. Really.

If not playing by the rules is simply a statement of fact without moral value, where does it leave us? At the end of the American Way of Life? Is that what Paul Ryan and those who believe so fervently in PBTR are afraid of? I don’t have an answer. I just think it would be a damn good idea if everyone, especially the people in power, would take a minute or two to check their premises.

Single Motherhood (Another Found Poem)

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Single Motherhood

When you’re poor
you live on the highway.
Every stop looks better
than the last.
You learn to decipher
blessing in disaster
relate deeds of devastation
in six amusing voices
cultivate several zany images
and one of deprivation.

You shield your eyes
from the sun one day:
squinting down the highway
you try to see beyond
the last hairpin curve
you traversed
and discover that
the highway has become
your permanent habitat.

written c. 1978

The Democratic National Convention

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Michelle Obama Speaking to Democrats
Google Images

I. Dream or Propaganda?

I don’t know. Sigh. What’s wrong with me? IS something wrong with me for not believing that the purpose of my life was / is to ensure that my kids’ lives be better—materialistically better, that is—than mine? Am I selfish because I thought / still think that the primary purpose of life is for each of us to evolve, to perfect ourselves as much as we possibly can, rather than to sacrifice ourselves / our lives for the sake of our children? I don’t believe in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, I certainly don’t value selfishness as a worthy principle, and I believe we ought to take care of one another. But if everyone sacrifices their lives for the next generation, when does anyone get to live on their own account?  It doesn’t make sense. And what about people who don’t have kids?

Was it truly a sacrifice “To build steel bars to the sky…and connect the world with the touch of a button.”?  Somehow I doubt the motivations for such accomplishments were parental in nature.

It worries me that perhaps the problems in my life stem from not having done what They say we’re supposed to do.

Now that my kids are adults, one of my kids’ lives is better than mine, and one is worse. Neither of their fates can be attributed to what I did or didn’t do. Of course, I frequently blame myself for the more troublesome life—but if  it were true, then I should be able to take credit for the one that’s better, and I don’t. Am I just an exception to the American Way of Life, the exception that proves the rule? The rule to which I’m referring, by the way, is the one Michelle Obama alluded to over and over again in the space of an hour, the rule that formed the foundation of her speech at the Democratic National Convention. It is, in a nutshell: If you work hard and play by the rules, your kids will have a better life than yours.

I like the First Lady enormously; she is beautiful and personable enough to watch and listen to endlessly—but the substance of her speech left me cold, just as it does when any politician gives it. The last time I heard it drummed out so insistently was by Mario Cuomo, whom I also liked and respected enormously, some 34 years ago. And it isn’t only politicians–last night the camera kept focusing on people in the audience, nodding their heads, their eyes tearing up, throughout the whole American Dream exaltation. Was something left out of my psyche, my soul?

Barbara Stanwyck/Stella Dallas
Video cover

Americans seem to believe in the “Stella Dallas” school of parenting.In the movie by that name, Mom lets go of her daughter completely, in an extreme version of The American Dream, so as not to hinder the girl’s progress up the ladder of success. As I said in my review of the film Spanglish, the only depiction of the immigrant story that, to my knowledge, turns the parental sacrifice plot upside down, Stella Dallas presents a depressing and dysfunctional role model for family relationships—and in a way it’s the role model for the dream Ms. Obama spoke about. I respect the mother in Spanglish much more for preventing her daughter from climbing so far up that she would become, as she says outright, “someone so different from me.”

I didn’t really know about this American Dream until I was an adult paying attention to politicians. If my parents  lived their lives for the benefit of my siblings and me, I wasn’t aware of it. They were typical working people who “did the right thing and played by the rules,” but that’s what everyone did. I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but they didn’t do anything specifically to give me a start as an adult, nor did they help me when I  struggled financially and otherwise as a divorced mother. But I didn’t know anyone else who lived this sacrificial American Dream either. My parents’ friends and my friends’ parents, mostly poor and working-class, weren’t sacrificing their lives–nor did they pay all that much attention to their kids’ future.  Even in hindsight all I remember is everyone just trying to get by.

I spoke to a photographer friend of mine about all this; like me, she’s lived the freelance artist’s life most of the time. We figured out that the “sacrifice” must be exactly this, that they didn’t go ahead and live their dreams, as we tried to do. They gave up any artistic dreams they might have had so they could hold down boring but well-paying jobs and raise their kids. Which is why they’re so pissed off now that they got screwed by the people who made the rules. Is this what everyone is talking about?  If so, do the Democrats think I don’t deserve a safety net, since I’m responsible for needing one in the first place?

I guess I blew it. I blew my life by making the mistake of thinking it was mine to blow.

Readers: I would so appreciate your comments and insights on this subject. Do you believe in The American Dream? How do you define it? Do you live it?

 

Part II

(Coming Soon: In Praise of the Dems.)

 

 

Perspectives On Abortion

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I just posted the following comment to NPR’s Perspective Page in response to one they aired this morning:

There was no doubt in my mind that I would have an abortion when I got pregnant by a man who told me he’d had a vasectomy. Planned Parenthood, that wonderful organization, said they’d heard the story before.

I was living in New York at the time, working as a legal secretary, trying to recover from the past decade, during which I had gotten married and pregnant at 19; gave birth to a son with hydrocephalus (a disorder of the central nervous system requiring several surgeries); had a baby girl two years later, got divorced, and, after two years as a single mother, let them go live with their father and his new wife while I figured things out. It was 1974 and abortion had only recently been legalized.

I am now 66. My children are grown; my daughter has two of her own. My son lives independently, despite ongoing physical and mental problems, a few miles from me. From this vantage point, my third pregnancy and subsequent abortion are minor blips in a difficult, complicated life. I rarely even think about it, except when women like Ms. Gresset tell their painful experience and extend it to everyone else by concluding nobody should have an abortion. There are as many experiences of abortion as there are women who have them. In my case, at the moment it was performed I did have intense feelings—but they lasted only for those few moments. I felt like life—not a baby, but the life force, life energy—was being sucked out of my body, which it literally was, and I cried. My first thought, however, was not of regret, but of determination. I said to myself, “This is never going to happen to me again.” And it hasn’t.

What if I’d had that baby? I would have had to care for him/her by myself. My two children, who’d already suffered through more difficulties than some people endure in a lifetime, would have felt confused and rejected that they were not living with me, yet I had another child. It would’ve taken me ten times longer to feel confident and competent enough to take them back, as I did after four years. If I’d had that baby, I have no doubt he or she would have a lot of problems as an adult.

Given the controversy surrounding this issue, I think it’s irresponsible to air an anti-abortion statement—which Ms. Gresset’s is—without giving equal time to the other side. Ms. Gresset doesn’t just tell her own experience, she goes on to proclaim that everyone should learn from it and never have an abortion. Wouldn’t it be absurd if I told everyone they should have abortions based on my story? It is just as wrong for Ms. Gresset to do it. I’m not even going to venture into that territory, but just say that I’m enormously glad I had the freedom to choose not to have a child when having one would have been, not “inconvenient,” but devastating.

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