Friday, March 5, 2010

mama book review # 1 - Finding Your Inner Mama

Steinberg, Eden. (Ed).  Finding Your Inner Mama: Women Reflect on the Challenges and Rewards of Motherhood.  Shambhala Publications: New York, 2007. 

I seem to have developed a bit of an addiction.  Mama lit.  I love it.  Devour it.  Can't get enough of it.  I don't mean advice books, or how-to-be-a-better-mama books,  which can be found in an annoying abundance in any bookstore.   I have no desire whatsoever to read these, which will only tell me (yet again) that I am not good enough, not loving enough or too loving, or that my-children-will-turn-out-badly-if-I don't-subscribe-to-some-theory-of-parenting.   Meh to them.  I mean books that talk, in some kind of real way about the good, the bad and the ugly of parenting, and of mothering in particular. 

Currently on the bedside table is Finding Your Inner Mama, an collection of essays put together by Eden Steinberg.  I got it from my own mama this year for Christmas, and had actually avoided picking it up for a few months because of the emphasis of one of the sections of the book on religion, spirituality and parenting (most notably Buddhism - the book is put out by a Buddhist publisher - but other avenues of spirituality are also touched upon).  This bent is, well, not my gig. You will have to trust me when I tell you that I am the least zen-like person you will ever meet; and titles like "Children as Spiritual Teachers," "Parenting with Mindful Awareness,"  "The Sacred Chaos of Parenthood" and "Recognizing our Hidden Wounds" make me want to, well, hurl.  A litte bit of earnest I can deal with.  A little bit of earnest is even good every now and again.  A lot a bit of earnest?  Hidden wounds and mindful awareness?  Not really my cuppa tea.  (I think this may be a remnant of being raised by hippy social workers ;-)

Urge to toss my cookies notwithstanding, I did pick up the book and start reading.  It was the right choice.  I was nodding and amen-ing by the time I read Steinberg's well-crafted introduction.  Here's one example:   "I realized that if I was going to survive this thing, I was going to have to grow and change. . . I also saw that I was ultimately going to have to let go of my very self-concept, my idea of motherhood, and my expectations of my child. All of it had to go. . . . I thought that as a mother I would carefully mold and shape my children. If I did my job right, my children would turn out to be well-adjusted, loving, thoughtful and interesting people. As it turns out, motherhood is molding and shaping me. At the end of all this, I am the one who could end up well-adjusted, loving, thoughtful and interesting." (Steinberg, xv).  Indeed.

Amoung the stand-outs for me was poet Lousie Erdich's "Writings from a Birth Year," the collection's very first essay.  Erdich's writing is so lyrical and yet not overly sentimental.  She made me cry, and this is no small feat.  I'm not generally a weepy Hallmark commercial kind of girl.  It is at once celebratory and gut wrenching - she has deftly woven snippets of being a mother and of being a daughter in an immediate, visceral way.  I particularly enjoyed Erdich's description of the necessity of community with other mothers:  "In talking to other mothers over years, I begin to absorb them somehow, as if we're all permeable.  Some days I'm made up of a thousand mothers who have given one ironic look, one laugh at the right moment, one exasperated wave, one acknowledgement.  Mothering is a subtle art, whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as by instinct" (9).  This part reminded me how important communities like Offbeat Mama are, how important parenting communities in general are, how amazing it is to be able to tell the truth about our realities with those around us who are able and willing to listen.      

Ariel Gore's "The Way I Dreamed It" relays the drama-dy of  a feminist, savvy (and dare I say 'hip') mama who envisaged her daughter's teenage years far differently than they occured.  She writes:  "I taught her my politics, my values, my fashion sense. . . We went to protests together.  We travelled the world.   We thought the same things were beautiful, the same things were scary.  I was a zine-ster, she was a zine-ster.  I was a writer, she was an artist.  I wore black, she wore black. . . . And then one day she woke up, put on a pink shirt, and announced her plan to try out for the cheerleading team" (Gore, 44).   I laughed and cringed all the way along with Gore, as she very wittily described her experiences with her teenager; bursting my bubble about what teenage years with laid-back, open-minded, sex-positive parents will be like with each passing paragraph.  It was a great read about growing up, moving along, and learning to change along with your kids and I loved it (even though it sort of dashed my own hopes of being able to retain some vestiges of parental cool-ness!)

"The New Momism" excerpted from The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Undermines Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels (Free Press, 2004), is a funny and insicive critique of cultural imagery and expectations of mothers.   The authors write:  "If you're like us - mothers with an attitude problem - you may already be getting increasingly irritable about this chasm between the ridiculous, honey-hued ideals of perfect motherhood in the mass media and the reality of mothers' everyday lives.  And you may also be worn down by the media images that suggest that however much you do for and love your kids, it is never enough (Douglas and Michaels, 159).  Attitude problem?  (Who, ME?), irritated?  Worn down by impossible to achieve ideals?  Um, check, check and check.  I haven't read the authors' aforementioned book yet, but you can be sure that after reading this essay, it's on my ever-growing to-read list!

A few other standouts picks include:  Andrea Buchanon's "Giving Birth to Ambivalence" - a brave and raw look at the dark side of becoming a mother, complete with post-partum baby resentment and some despair thrown in for good measure;  Muffy Mead-Ferraro's critique of motherhood and consumerism in "Goodbye Herd"; and Anne Roiphe's aptly titled "Guilt -- What it does to us." 

I'm not going to lie and say that the book was my favourite ever.  As with any collection of essays, some were stellar and lots were on the banal, irritating and/or annoying side.  And the whole of Part 2: The Inner Work of Motherhood is probably best skipped if you, like me, aren't so much into the spiritual life bit.   Because I'm an academic at heart, I'm going to give the book a grade - let's say it's a solid B, even a B+.  Due to the fact that I only really loved about 1/3 of the book in it's entirety, I wouldn't recommend rushing out and buy it from the bookstore (even though on my rather limited budget I'm still the kinda girl who sees book-buying as a necessity of life).  I certainly would say the good bits are worth putting a hold on it at your local library and then settling in for a nice wine drinking, essay reading bath night.

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