findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “motherhood”

Reading with a Theme: Bad Mothers

Every now and then I happen to read a couple of books with a similar theme and then I am tempted to seek out a few more with the same theme. So I end up with a mix of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and even poetry about a topic, which gets me thinking about my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. This time the topic was: bad mothers. Or perhaps it should be called just ‘mothers’, since, as a friend of mine often says:

No matter what you do or don’t do as a mother, you will get blamed for everything anyway.

PaulaDalyPaula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You?  – may be a question most mothers ask themselves at some point during their lives (or at least once a week in my case), but the mother in question is relatively blameless compared to the ones I’ll mention below. Lisa Kallisto: she was just so overwhelmed – this is what it will say on her headstone. And who cannot relate to that? We can all empathise with her as she tries to juggle work and family life, so many plates to keep spinning. Is it any wonder that one of them may occasionally fall? Yet when one of those ‘plates’ is the daughter of your friend, who was supposed to be staying for a sleepover with your own daughter, but now has disappeared, is it any wonder you blame yourself? A seriously addictive page-turner, because it is so relatable for any mother.

Mother Mother by Koren Zailckas has been described as crime fiction, but really it’s not the mystery which keeps you reading. It’s the sheer horror of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Yet this too offers searing moments of recognition. I wish I could say I view these moments with humour (or shocked dismay), but in fact they rip open scabs on wounds I had long thought healed. Or wounds that I’ve refused to acknowledge thus far, wounds which I thought I had inflicted on myself. Although I usually despise labels and their limitations, it does help that I now have a name for something which may be involuntary, a kind of illness rather than deliberate malevolence: narcissistic mother. And no, I’m not talking about myself!

MothermotherThere is a lot of melodrama in this book, deliberate switching of viewpoints to increase the suspense, but they also help to provide a more rounded picture of Josephine, the mother in question. A monster? Yes, perhaps, but not entirely unappealing, even if her young son Will is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. But then, who is? I would ideally have liked to see how outsiders perceived her – we only have a hint of that with the comments of the social worker who comes to talk to daughter Violet at the hospital.

This is not an easy book to read, it’s a painful dissection of dysfunctional families and the ways in which we torture and manipulate each other (sometimes with the best of intentions). I found the portrayal of Will and the ineffective husband/father particularly well written. Too little too late comes to mind, and I shudder to think how the reverberations of the events described in this book will continue to affect the protagonists for many years still to come.

Anna Gold : Bienvenue (in French)

Bienvenue_V1At the bedside of her dying mother, the narrator, Léa Blum, seeks to come to terms with her Jewish heritage and her estranged family. A story as old as the hills – the teenage girl who rebels against her upbringing, finds an unsuitable boyfriend (in this case, unsuitable because he is not Jewish) and falls pregnant. Yet the way in which the full extent of her mother’s betrayal is gradually revealed is particularly painful. Léa repeatedly tries to break through her mother’s coldness and lovelessness, tries to understand and forgive it as a trait of a Holocaust survivor, but finally she gives up. She seeks refuge instead in her literary creation, Sonia van Zijde, a Dutch Marrano Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam, who becomes friends with Rembrandt and his wife Saskia, and through them gets to know the philosopher Spinoza. The contrast between the multiple lives of the narrator: the one she was expected to live, the one she did live and the one she would have liked to live, all meet here, as we alternate between Sonia’s story and her own. Perhaps a little predictable as a story, but it ends on a hopeful note.

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (to be translated and published soon as ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’)

DelphinedeViganThis is not a Mommy Dearest portrayal of a monster, but a daughter and a writer trying to understand and interpret her own childhood, that of her mother, the mother’s manic depression and an unusual but rather attractive family. There is a lot of love and forgiveness in this book, a lot of painful honesty, as well as a meditation on whether we can ever be truthful in our representations of reality, or just how reliable memory is. Unlike all of the other books on this theme, this is most resolutely memoir rather than fiction (however thinly disguised some of the other fiction is). Of course memoir is interpretation, it is fiction too, and this book is not just a family history and the portrait of a troubled mother, but also a meditation on the nature of memory, of how stories are constructed and retold, of the power and dangers of silence. Out of all the conflicting family accounts from her mother’s brothers and sisters, which will the author choose as ‘the truth’? And ultimately, is there ever a single truth, can we ever know what drives a person to despair, depression and suicide?

Delphine’s mother Lucile was a beautiful child model, the third child in a large and apparently picture-perfect family.  Yet the family was touched by tragedy: the childhood death of a younger brother was just the start. Lucile marries far too early, has children when she is barely out of her teens and soon finds herself struggling to make a life for herself and her daughters as a largely uneducated single mother in Paris. As her moodiness and occasional sadness descends into delusions and paranoia, the girls struggle to anticipate her behaviour and surmount their own fears. Could anything or anyone have saved Lucile from suicide? Could her life have been better? And can we ever doubt her love for her children?

For a more detailed review of this book, see this fantastic blog.

NightRainbowClaire King: The Night Rainbow

Another depressed mother, another account of a potentially damaged childhood, this time a fictional story seeped in the sun of Southern France, as seen through the eyes of a precocious child narrator, Pea (nearly six). This could be a very dark and sad book in terms of subject matter: the rather horrific neglect of Pea and her younger sister Margot, the infuriating apathy of a severely depressed, heavily pregnant  mother struggling to overcome her own grief, the well-meant interference of other villagers, the hilarious but also dangerous scrapes the girls get themselves into (a scorpion in a jar, a haircut which goes terribly wrong). Yet all of these are counter-balanced by a delicious freedom and poetic description of country life which few children are able to enjoy nowadays. The smells, sounds, textures of the fields of hay, of the market-place, the taste of freshly-picked peaches, the breathless run through to the treehouse. It was a book filled with nostalgia, just like the de Vigan book, evoking a lost paradise (the days when Papa was alive and Maman still used to laugh, hug and cook), but here we are allowed to hope in a better ending, an improved life for all.

Have you read any of these books or others about ‘bad mothers’? And how do you feel about themed reading? Does it get too much after a while to read about the same topic, or is it fascinating to see the many different takes on it? Motherhood is one of those topics which never gets stale (although in this case it did get a bit depressing, even if I interspersed them with other reading), nor will it ever be elucidated. Complex, mysterious, complicated, joyous and troubling: our relationship with our mother is one topic which is never likely to disappear from literature.

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

AftermathThere seem to be an awful lot of books out there with ‘Aftermath’ in their titles, but I am referring to the one by Rachel Cusk, published in 2012 to a howl of indignation from many readers and critics. In it she talks with unadorned consternation and painful honesty about the breakdown of her marriage and its consequences. And she talks about it at length. Every passing mood is recorded – too much for some tastes, but it may help many women who are struggling to come to terms with separation. I am not usually much of a fan of memoir-writing (certainly not of ‘misery memoirs’) and yet I rather liked this one.

Of course it is self-centred and self-absorbed, but is it ‘infuriating and narcissistic’? Of course it represents a small sliver of life: the story of a rather privileged, well-educated woman who can come across as elitist. She does not have to go out and work night shifts as a single mother to support her children. She does not have to take her ex-husband to court for neglecting to pay child support. (On the contrary, he is the one demanding support from her, since he sacrificed his career to help raise the children. The bitterness is palpable in this section of the book and shows the battle of the sexes is still alive and well.) But does that make her pain any less valid, her struggles any more risible?

Cusk has been accused of blatant exhibitionism, but there is little detail here about what caused the collapse of the marriage. Instead, we find here a dissection of mind, heart and soul, sometimes a little fuzzy and self-justifying, but very often with scalpel-like precision. There are some interesting extended metaphors strewn throughout the book: comparisons with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; the failure of a cake she bakes for her mother’s birthday (‘the difference between what I could conceive of and what I could actually do’);  a bloody tooth extraction on the day the husband moves his possessions out of the house. These are the ‘distancing’ moments, when fiction is weaved into the fabric of the memoir, and when I feel the author is writing her best work.

There is collateral damage; the fine mesh of life is torn. He has caused unnecessary pain, and trauma to the other teeth.

Aftermath2What I found most touching were the descriptions of the effect the divorce had on her daughters. The author is constantly worried about how the separation and her own mood-swings will affect her children – it does, and it is described in a most sensitive way. It’s at these moments when Cusk becomes most alive: a mother ferocious with love, sad at the pain she has inflicted on her offspring, and nursing that eternal feeling of maternal guilt.

Conclusion: Not an easy read, but certainly a contrast to the grim crime fiction characteristic of my month of February.

Last Day of Holidays!

SnowCastlesNot that I am ungrateful for the time I get to spend with my children…

But perhaps I simply try to cram too much into the holidays…

Perhaps I overestimate their and my capacity for wonder, social interaction and quality time…

Perhaps I underestimate the amount of time it takes me to write even something as simple as a blog post, a book review or a letter for French administration, let alone a novel. OK, maybe the French letter is marginally more complex than a novel.

Perhaps there are other things weighing my spirit down and it’s really not fair to take it out on them.

Anyway, I’ve tried to pre-empt this by gearing my reading and writing matter this month towards the light, easy and colourful. Among my reads: Cara Black, Sarah Caudwell and Ben Hatch’s hilarious road-trip across France.

AwesomeLegoAnd I try to tell myself that somewhere, somehow, amidst the repeated requests to do homework, to tidy up, to come down for dinner, there might be some golden childhood memories building up…

Mother Love

Can’t take my eyes off you

compact form

rubicund cheeks

biggest mischief-eyes

your bounce in every step.

From the spectators’ gallery at the gym

I pour all my love my admiration

I’d even adore, if that weren’t so embarrassing…

But only at a distance…

As long as you don’t speak, never whine,

when your mouth does not form into stubborn slit

as long as no grumble rumbles in our umbilical cord

as long as you stay unmarred and perfect.

Inspired by gym galas, Yummy Mummys and scruffy ones like me…

Linked to the Open Link Night fun over at dVerse Poets, where we are discussing passion over form this week. Well, my son is passionate about his trampolining, but his form… Still, in my eyes, he is the best competitor out there!

Still: Time and Distractions

There was a reason I named my blog ‘Finding Time to Write’.  18 months on, and this is still the greatest challenge for me.

I am ashamed that this should be the case. ‘First World’, ‘middle class problem’ and ‘mountain out of a molehill’ are expressions that come to mind whenever I want to write about this, even in the privacy of my diary. I feel humbled by stories of true courage in the face of adversity, such as Amy Good’s account of writing with aphasia  or a poet’s moving account of writing while caring for her invalid husband. I haven’t quite figured out why I can spend hours genuinely sympathising with friends who struggle to balance career, family and creativity, but am so bitterly unforgiving with myself when I dare to voice the same concerns. With others it’s justified and I take their arguments at face value. With me, it’s petty little excuses.

I chide Ice Queen Me for requiring so much space (both physical and mental) to write.  I try to reason with Ritualistic Me that a notebook, a pen and a corner of a table should be all that is required for my writing happiness.  I quarrel with Harridan Mum that absolute silence is not enforceable, practical or necessary for inspiration. And I do daily grim, wordless battle with Ms. Procrastinator, serving her a steady diet of frogs to swallow first thing every morning, before challenging her to a sword-fight.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves.

August: month of no children, family, work or social obligations.

Second draft of novel completed, 21 blog posts posted, 27 books read, 12 book reviews completed, 12 new poems written, 2 poems edited and submitted to competition.

Children came back 10 days ago.

treehouse1

Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica.

Since then, I have done zero writing or editing on my novel, 0 poems written, 2 blog posts (both cheats: one a poem I had written earlier, the other a simple list of reading), and 1 book review which I had half-written previously.  And I finished one book (which I had started before their arrival).

I’ve started reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals and so much of what she says resonates with me:

Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all of these people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.

It is almost frightening how content I was with the lonely life, how quickly I adapted to a day shaped around my writing, how nothing else seemed to matter. Yet, of course, now, when I clasp those bony knees and scraped elbows, making a bundle of them in my arms, trying to fit them still within my protective embrace… I know that something else does matter.  I don’t know if being a mother has changed me as a writer or improved my writing in any way. I fear not. It’s not just the spectre of time that is haunting me now, but also the Ghost of Courage Past. I seem less willing to venture out on that limb, with no thought of return. I need to find my way back. To them, my beloved millstones. Tell myself that old lie, which sometimes fails to comfort: that there is still plenty of time to progress, learn my craft, write and publish.

So perhaps I could have been a writer without being a mother, but I do know that I could not have been a mother without being a mother. Or without being a writer.

What I Never Was

I never was my mother          except

when I distort the truth and tell

strange tales that no one else can fit

in nor recognise nor believe.

I never will be my mother

but when I feel that vice is gripping              whispering

‘bereft of friends’

I wonder: is that an echo of her whingeing?

No reflection of my mother              except

grey-peppered hair, turgid jaw,

or does my voice harshen when I offer

praises lethally counterpointed with ‘but’?

We are strangers on drifting shores

each other’s greatest disappointment.

Yet darkness floods us both alike.

If we could mention it

there might be hope.

They Keep Me Here

They keep me here,

those lips puckered up for good night kisses,

the tooth fairy duties,

odd chuckle in the night.

 

They keep me sane,

those questions about fairness, children who have

nothing, polar bears drowning,

how drains and bridges work.

 

They wash away anger

with silly puns and toilet jokes,

songs half-remembered,

the la-la shrieked out loud.

 

They ground me.

Clip my wings.

Imprison me with love.

Know not what they do.

Nor ever will.

I swear.

Midlife, Middling

You showed me how easily

the cheesy wotsits crumbled through your fingers

sticky orange dust filling your hands

my heart pouring its molten mass onto your palms.

 

You hold out your hand

and laugh softly, beckoning, seducing,

wordlessly, I bend to lick off the crumbs,

nibble those long fingers,

caress my liquid heart aquiver in the scoop of your hands.

My tongue feels pure joy

electric flashes.

***

 

And then the morning-starved yell of one fat baby

pierced the thickening dawn

and that was it

dream gone

querulous mouths back demanding

running up and down those stairs

retrieving wellies and jumpers to pull on protesting limbs.

 

Yet that dream glow stayed with me all day

as I gave my serviceable Mum-shoes a miss

and slipped on lethal heels.

That day I felt attractive again.

 

We first kissed under the laden waft of Chernobyl

all that summer we were ablaze

counting the hours since our last kiss

you only knew my body in its sinewy smoothness

not the quaver softness of child-stretched flesh

you only remember hopes and ideals

not the compromises and shortfalls

I like the picture of myself in your mind’s eye

still dewy potential, spirit and energy.

 

But then the pale sceptre arises with rueful smile

admitting, ‘I’m tired now. I’m off to bed.’

 

The Maternal Twist

This is an older poem, which I have already shared on Cowbird, the storytelling website with which I am currently obsessed (I try to limit my time on it, but always end up reading ‘just one more story’).  I remembered it and wanted to add it here after reading the wonderful and funny poem  ‘Nursery Crimes’ by DP Bowman.

Twinkle twinkle little star

What a bore you know you are!

How the trill of sing-song rhymes,

high-voice patience, hurried smiles

breaks the wit that I had borne.

Salt in wound I stand forlorn.

 

Yet baa baa black sheep

Have you ever lived

‘til childish breath rests on your cheek?

Half-chewed toys brought to your bed,

wilted flowers, kisses wet.

Salted lashes fluttering now.

Sleepy smiles and furrowed brow.


 

Dandelions & Bad Hair Days – how mental health & motherhood woke up the writer in me

Dandelions & Bad Hair Days – how mental health & motherhood woke up the writer in me.

Looking forward to reading this book – the anxiety that dare not speak its name in the competition of upbeat self-deprecation of the school run!

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