Friday, November 7, 2008

Some Things

Dionne Ford and Margaret Gunther, contributors to the Fall 2008 issue of Brain, Child, are going to be on WBUR today; they're both mothers of biracial kids. (You read and loved the essays, no?) You can listen here from 12:10 to 12:30.

I'm also putting up the talk I gave at the ARM conference. I was going to make a video reenactment but my voice is pretty much somewhere between Kim Carnes and Macy Gray these days, so I'm sticking with the written word. It went pretty much like so:

Moral Support
by Jennifer Niesslein

When I first started writing this, I was at my sister’s house in North Carolina. Her son Nick was seventeen days old. It was not yet nine at night, and they were already in bed, nursing. To fill the down time, I sat at her kitchen counter with my notebook. In theory, I was there to help in a physical, tangible way, but my kid’s ten years old and my skills were a little rusty. Sure, I could get Krissy glasses of water and whip up some dinner. But when I burped Nick, he’d puke all over the both of us. When he fell asleep on my chest, I’d startle him as I laid his warm little body down on a cool sheet. My personal well of breastmilk had gone dry years ago.

Really, what I was doing was providing moral support for my sister. Do you remember the run-up to that first time you were going to be in charge of a helpless human being all by yourself? The day my husband went back to work, I had a panic attack. For me in those early days, motherhood didn’t go with apple pie. It went with scary love and sleep deprivation and the great big fear that I would screw up royally.

Krissy was using her time with me wisely. We went to Target. The idea was to show her that, yeah, she could no longer just sashay into the store, just her and her purse, but a life with a baby was do-able. I didn’t help her at all, which made me feel like kind of an asshole, but the point was that she could do it. So she stuck Nick’s bucket seat in the cart and we wandered through the aisles. People peeked into the cart to see Nick. He fussed a little in the store. By the time we drove through somewhere for lunch, though, he was screaming. But the world didn’t end.

It’s just that, for a time, it feels like it might.

I’m the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, and sitting in Krissy’s kitchen, it occurred to me that it’s not just new mothers who like to hear that the world doesn’t end. I needed that message a lot in the beginning when I was afraid that motherhood would swallow me whole, but ten years in, I still need it. The funnier essays we run might point out that the world doesn’t end when you daughter points out in a crowded restaurant that you just made a poop in the ladies room, or that you get through the witching hour by having a drink or three with your girlfiend. The world doesn’t end when you try some left-field parenting advice (elimination communication) and it makes you crazy for a time, or when the drugstore really screws up your kid’s medicine. More amazingly, the world doesn’t end when it seems like it really, really should: when a child dies, for example, or when a mother slips into a serious depression.

This is from one of my favorite essays that we’ve published, “Holding On,” by Johanna Rossi:

“These girls need large amounts of time. They need me, in my imperfection. They need aimlessness, patience, repetition. How can I provide all this and out be achieving too?

“I am not trying to be everything to my children; I am trying to be what they need. My children are passionate about me: all their childish emotion is wrapped around my unworthy, reluctant self.

“One morning I go with Evelina to kindergarten and she introduces me to her classmates as if I’m the greatest celebrity in the world. I sit on the floor and these kids are crawling all over me, leaning against me. Evelina cries when I leave, and I drive home through the endless woods with my chest collapsing because I don’t know how I can support this kind of love. I don’t know how I can pour it out for her when no one’s giving it to me.”

We originally published Johanna’s essay in December 2000, and when we reprinted it in our Greatest Hits anthology, I checked in with her for updates. She wrote back, “This motherhood desperation is hard to capture because when mothers are going through it, they’re too exhausted to write about it, but once out of it, it’s too hard to remember. I couldn’t write this piece now. Three years ago is another world.”

Johanna’s right. And as a reader, there’s something extremely valuable, I think, in finding that connection that you can’t really get from other mothers at the playground, or sometimes even your close friends. The subtext for in a lot of these essays is that you aren’t alone. They reinforce what we all know: that the world—as glorious and messy and frustrating as it is—didn’t end with a given moment.

But the truth is, some moments do end. Three years ago IS another world. People try to tell new mothers that—enjoy it! it doesn’t last forever! motherhood changes you!—but we don’t listen. I didn’t anyway.

After another week at Krissy’s house, I came back to Virginia. In her little coccoon, I was news deprived. Turns out, Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter was pregnant, and conservative talking heads were tripping all over themselves to seem to approve. The stock market was in trouble, and people were finally questioning the role government has in our lives. Health care was an issue on the front page. These were all things Brain, Child had been covering for years.

It occurred to me that, crap, I forgot! I forgot to tell Krissy the other important part!

It’s the part that comes after you find out that your world isn’t going to end and that you are doing it by yourself: You start to see connections between your experience as a mother and the stuff that either is, or should be, news. This isn’t the stuff we do all by ourselves. And this is the other part of what Brain, Child does: exploring that connection between motherhood and the bigger world.

It’s something that I think about a lot these days. Because while part of what Brain, Child does is connect mothers’ experiences, the other part of what it does is offer what the writer Jennifer Mattern calls a lens to to see the world through. When my son was Nick’s age, I have to confess: My eyes would glaze over when someone would talk about the economy, but it’s a different story when your readers are trying to find a job that will accommodate their need to have money and their need pick the kid up on time from pre-school. I might have let myself be scared by statistics about, say, teenage pregnancy or online predators, if it hadn’t become my job to know the truth. Motherhood in general and Brain, Child in particular brought the world’s issues home for me, but I think many mothers go through the same transformation, where they go from wondering how they will do it all by themselves to acknowledging that there are issues that they can’t tackle all by themselves.

I’m making it sounds as if Brain, Child is an activist magazine. It’s not. I have my own opinions, of course, but we report in a balanced way. This lens that we offer doesn’t lead to any definite conclusions. It’s not our job. Our job at Brain, Child is to bring readers feelings and ideas, comraderie and debate. We don’t have an agenda, other than to put stuff out there and see who grows it.

Stephanie and I have an essay in the book The Maternal Is Political, edited by Shari MacDonald Strong, in which we start off by talking about why the bumper sticker—you know the one, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History”—irritates us. And I think part of what we wrote about why we’re not activists fits well here:

“When you get down to it, some would argue, every time a mother’s voice is heard—this is what my life is like, this is what I struggle with, this is what makes life worth living—it is a poltical statement because we’ve been invisible, dismissed, for so long. The two of us believe that—and have to believe it really—to a certain degree. But we also recognize that what we do is limited. We provide a stage and hope that players—the ones who can take it to the next level, the lobbyists and activists and policymakers and voters—will jump on it.

“Months ago, the New York Times ran a piece on the mothers’ movement. The big color photo accompanying it featured Kiki Peppard, the Pennsylvania activist who has worked for years to get a maternal discrimination law passed in the state. Peppard ws holding a magazine in her hands. It was at an angle. We’re sure that most New York Times readers couldn’t tell what magazine it was, but we knew—it was Brain, Child.

“We can recognize a metaphor when we see one. Well-behaved women might not make history. But we’re hoping with all our journalistic hearts that we can make a difference.”

So, you might ask, why am I at this conference devoted to the mothers’ movement? Well, like I was in North Carolina, I’m here as moral support. I know a lot of you do research and work as activists in the movement. And I know it’s in an intense period. I want to say thanks for making my job even more interesting. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Krissy when we were hugging goodbye in the airport drop-off lane:

1. You’re doing a great job.
2. Call me if you need me.
3. Except at night.


Jenny said...

Fabulous essay (or talk, or whatever). And I had to laugh - I was just talking (though not quite so eloquently) with some folks about that irritating bumper sticker, too!

Libby said...

I love this talk! I have to say, I like the bumper sticker because it reminds me to worry less about what people think of me. But I also agree that "good girls" can and do make a lot of difference in the world, and I'm grateful for that.

Anjali said...

Love this. (And the "except at night" part is priceless.)

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much!

Cynthia said...

Great talk! Will be fwded.

As a mother still in the thick of it but recharged a bit now that her kids have learned to play together, I am finding more time to discuss the here and now with other mothers of young children. One thing I have found is a problem with our language. The words "activist", "feminist" and "stay-at-home-mom" and surely others are all terms that just do not fit many mothers today. For now we still use these words and are trying very hard to redefine them. I am curious if you have found some good new language to describe the activists-who-are-not-"activists" and so on. There are so many of us!

Jennifer said...

Hmmm--good question. I'm kind of two minds on this. On one hand, I understand it's good to have a shorthand for the kind of group you're talking about.

On the other hand, any sort of demographic label tends to come back and bite you in the ass, doesn't it?

What do you think?

Julianne said...

Excellent essay. That well-behaved women quote has always bugged me too but I've never been able to pinpoint why.

I have to thank you for co-founding Brain, Child magazine. I plan to stockpile back issues when this baby arrives to keep me intellectually stimulated and sane.

Cynthia said...

So true about labels coming back to haunt you.

I am hopeful that many of these terms are getting less emotionally charged the more we all discuss and write about them.