Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.

Commencing Countdown, Jewelry On

The countdown to the release date of my novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, has passed the point where the time is measured in months and moved to where it’s measured in days.  Look, it’s right there in the column of widgets beside this post.  The moment has come to start opening the windows on my advent calendar.  The book’s release date is practically here.

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well...

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well…

In preparation, my literary fairy-god-sister, author Fran Kimmel, came along last week and held my hand as I booked a venue for the novel’s launch event.  It’ll be happening here, in the small-ish town where I live, on August 29.  The timing – a Thursday night right before the last long weekend of summer – is terrible.  I know that.  It won’t be convenient for anybody.  In my head, I’m already composing the passive-aggressive email I will send to all my first degree relatives living within a 100km radius of my house.  The message will explain that, while I will try my best to act like a grownup, if any of my nearest and dearest skip my launch party, I might be stuck thinking very, very hard about their absences for a very, very, very long time.

Yes, I’m fighting against an inclination to take the book’s release and launch far too seriously.  I keep coming back to that line from the sappy radio follow-your-dreams pop song that made me cry in the car on the way home from the venue last week: “I don’t want to waste this.”

In what was probably not a great moment in Feminism, I spent an hour in my closet trying to figure out what to wear to the launch.  My closet is usually a happy place.  It has everything from thrift shop finds to fancy satin bridesmaid dresses.  But nothing seemed quite right.

I thumbed through the hangers and thought about Trish – one of the many weekend editors I freelanced for at a car-crash of a boomtown newspaper during our years in the north.  She was tall and what someone writing a romance novel might call “willowy” – burgundy lipstick and dark, Morticia Addams hair.  She wasn’t satisfied with the mug-shot the last editor had been printing beside my columns and called me down to the office so she could take a better one.  When we met, she pulled her elegant spider-leg eyebrows together and tried to imagine my face in her new, fabulous arts-chick vision of the newspaper.  All she said was, “Oh, you’re such a mom.”

At the time, I hadn’t yet turned thirty and I had three children under the age six.  I hadn’t slept through the night in years.  I didn’t own any clothes that couldn’t be tossed into a washing machine.  The lipstick I’d put on in the rear view mirror minutes before had a distinct rouge-on-the-dead look to it.  I typified the shabby, faded waste of talent this lady (who did become a friend of mine) called “a mom.”

There are a host of arguments I could make for why she was wrong and why she was right and why looking like a mom can be glorious.  But in the closet, a month before my book release, none of that mattered very much.  I was mired in one of the shallower depths of my consciousness – one that dreads anyone seeing me at a podium with my novel and thinking, “Look at her.  Oh, she’s such a mom.”

In passing, I mentioned my wardrobe silliness to my publisher.  I think a part of me wanted her to send me a uniform – a matching Linda Leith Publishing t-shirt and cap, maybe even an apron and hairnet.  Instead of sending me a kit, Linda’s advice was simply to wear something that made me feel terrific.

Something terrific would be something I could forget about – something that could fade into the tone and rhythm of the reading and talking and celebrating I’d be doing during the launch.  And I was beginning to form a vague, shadowy notion of what that might be.  Ever since I signed the publishing contract last winter, I’ve been slowly dressing more and more like someone who’s written an artsy, Gothic love story because – dangit — that’s who I am.  I knew the spirit of what I wanted to wear but couldn’t yet read the letter of it.

My glamorous sister-in-law understood.  We’ve been together for over eighteen years.  That’s her entire adolescence and adult life.  She sees me from an angle similar to the one her brother, my husband, uses to look at me – one that somehow makes me appear genuine and beautiful and at the same time, one I hardly recognize when she describes it to me.  She took me to her favourite jewelry shop – the place where a nice old hippie guy once diagnosed me as psychic – and helped me choose a pendant I could use to anchor my launch-day wardrobe.

It’s set in silver and shaped like an eye – a blue eye like my eyes, my husband’s eyes, and the ten blue eyes I assembled from the atoms of my own body as the mother of our sons.  There — that’s me.

Selfhood, Motherhood, Childhood and How They’re All the Same

My son says this Fever Ray video reminds him of me. Is it the hair, the skinny legs, or all the going off to do weird stuff by myself?

I’m in a thrift store with my sixteen year old son.  (Anyone who doesn’t have a sixteen year old son should get one someday.  It’s kind of like having a stupid, darling high school boyfriend again only without all the icky tension.)

We get to the furniture section of the store – the part set-up like a dozen crummy little living rooms butted against each other.

“It’s like some old grandpa’s house,” my boy says.

And then, as I often can, I track of his train of thought.  It’s passing through the stop called “grandpa,” chugs in and out of the station called “the only dead person I know well” before it screeches to a halt in the busy rail yard labeled “death.”

“This is where they bring people’s stuff after they die,” my boy says.

“Yup,” I agree.  “This is where you’ll bring my stuff after I die.”

He doesn’t choke or get maudlin but he does say, “I won’t bring your stuff here.  I’ll keep it.  I’ll take your computers and find everything you ever wrote and print it out and save it.”

I tell him he’s sweet and we leave the store, bound for another thrift shop.  So far, we’ve bought a 1970s era Charlie Brown paperback and a discarded copy of a book I contributed a couple of essays to but we still haven’t found the t-shirt with the graphic of a killer robot with a Korean speech bubble that will be my son’s find of the day.  We get into the car, tune the radio to one of our favourite CBC shows – the one I work for a few times a year, – and we back into the Saturday afternoon traffic.

See it?  My life – including my life as a writer – forms a part of my son’s life.  It’s something he sees as enduring and inseparable from the imprint I leave on the world he is in the process of inheriting from me.

A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid” assumes motherhood and a stellar career as a writer are irreconcilable competing interests. The article’s hook of a headline (which was was not written by the author, Lauren Sandler), is beside the point.  This isn’t so much a piece about family size as it is about the level of personal investment it takes to write for a living.  On its way, it looks at mother-writers like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion to examine whether these women’s single-child families are the compromise that made it possible for them to excel at their careers while raising children – er, a child.

Of course, there are writers who do have more than one child and Sandler suggests that some of these women preserve their careers by hiring someone else to look after their kids.  Her other suggestion is that women writers can thrive in families willing to invert traditional gender roles and cast men as their children’s primary caregivers.

Sandler doesn’t seem convinced that any of these strategies is necessarily enough to transform an artist into something considered a good parent.  The article presents examples of writer-mothers being absent, self-involved, and dismissive – sending their lone children away with “Shush, I’m working.”  By the end of the piece, it’s acknowledged that there’s a difference between motherhood and “momish-ness” and artists often set the latter aside.

Right now, weeks before my debut novel is even released, I’m not what The Atlantic would consider a successful writer.  But I’m still free to fret over my own experience raising five children while writing.  Am I devastatingly dismissive?  Am I “momish?”  Do I have to be?

I admit I’m missing some of the traits of momish-ness – especially in the kitchen.  If my sons want cookies, they bake them for themselves.  I might make something special on holidays but I always garnish it with demands for praise and thanks.  “Hey, I made cookies.  Aren’t I good?  Look at how good I am.”  Honestly, I don’t even cook dinner very often.  My husband usually does that, without complaint, after a full day of demanding non-domestic work.

But is neglecting cooking enough of an an explanation?  Why do I still get prickly when I’m asked how I find time to write?  No matter how kindly it’s meant, the question seems to imply neglect and self-centredness – a lack of understanding of my own situation that misleads me to believe I can do two incompatible things at once.  I must be either willfully negligent of my kids or witlessly oblivious to reality.

Sometimes, I do put my kids off with my own version of, “Shush, I’m working.”  But there are reasons why being shushed by their writer-mother isn’t a developmental disaster:

1)      When my sons leave home, they will not be met with people who jump to satisfy all their wishes for food, attention, money, housekeeping, technical support, etc.  If I raise them to expect instant service, I do them and the other people who will live and work with them a disservice.

2)      By ignoring traditional areas of housework, I help the boys see distinctions between housewifery and motherhood.  They are not the same, they are not the same, they are not the same…

3)      Because I work inside the house where my kids’ lives are centred, they get plenty of “quantity time” so there’s not as much need to orchestrate fancy “quality time.”  I don’t arrive in the house as a celebrity here for a limited engagement.  I’m not a special attraction so I can relax and forgo behaving like one.

4)      All mothers have interests that eat up time they could spend with their children.  It might be paid non-writing work, making fancy scrapbooks, training for marathons, stoking reality television habits — anything.  When it comes to maternal attention, my kids aren’t that different from anyone else’s.

5)      My sons are not strangers dropped here at random.  They’re very much like me.  They are writers, artists, and creative people themselves.  Maybe they understand better than other people the importance of this kind of work.  They know it makes me happy because their own similar projects make them happy.  Maybe my self is overbearing enough to convince them to value in themselves what I value in myself.

The self – that’s the core of the problem I have with Sandler’s approach to writer-mothers.  She writes of our need to “negotiate a balance between selfhood and motherhood.”   I don’t know how these two -hoods could be separated, let alone set on opposite sides of a scale and balanced.  The self is far more like a casserole than a bento box.  (Hey, it’s a cooking simile – aren’t I good?)  Motherhood hasn’t effaced my self but it has been integrated into it.  A healthy self is a pliable one, not a brittle one.  It’s dynamic and able to accept how impressionable it is to powerful forces including – or especially — kids.