a spanking for frances?

We have the book Bread and Jam for Frances. It’s a book I remember loving as a child. A picky-eating badger turns her nose up at her mother’s cooking a few times too many and finds herself eating bread and jam for every meal, until she gets sick of it and decides to try new things. Luckily our girls haven’t been particularly picky, but they seem to enjoy the story, even if to them “bread and jam is just for breakfast.”

bedtime for frances

Today at the library, I saw some of the other Frances books. I asked the girls if they’d like to try them, and they picked out Bedtime for Frances. In this story, Frances keeps coming out of her room after bedtime, because of tigers, giants, and scary cracks in the ceiling. Her parents are at first bemused and then increasingly frustrated. And then all of a sudden, Frances’s father says that if she comes out again, she’s getting a spanking.

“What’s a spanking?” sweet four-year-old Claire asked. “Well, sometimes parents hit their children on their bottom when they do things they aren’t supposed to do. Kind of like how you sometimes get time outs. We don’t like to hit, so we don’t do that,” her dad explained

I’m thankful my kids have made it to four years old and find it unthinkable that an adult would hit a child, that they’ve made it this far and don’t even know what a spanking is. I wish I could say that I find the idea of hitting my children unthinkable, but the truth is, I have wanted to. Children have their ways of pushing you to the limits of your energy, patience, empathy, and self-restraint. I have been so tired, angry, and frustrated with my children that I wanted to hit them, that I felt that impulse. But that’s what it would have been if I had given in: impulsive, angry, and wrong. It wouldn’t have been about teaching them, it would have been about me lashing out in my anger. The only thing it would have shown them is that I am no more capable of managing my emotions and impulses than they are.

I am not one to say “there but for the Grace of God go I” very often, but this is one of those areas where I really do feel it’s only grace that has kept me from that brink. It’s only the whisper in my ear that tells me to walk away, take a breath, make a different choice, hide in my room if I have to long enough to cool down. Because maybe giving a kid bread and jam for every meal for a while is creative parenting, but bedtime spankings don’t make sense to anyone in my family, even in my tiredest, most rock-bottom moments. Thanks for the reminder, Frances.

*Note: I’m not interested in debating spanking with you. I only presume to know what is best for my family.*

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she will know that i am mother

I’m in my next to last week of classes for my MA program. I’m in the middle of a bunch of academic writing on books like BelovedCeremony, and Salvage the Bones, all of which explores the power and ferocity of woman- and mother-hood.

I’m also quietly in the trenches, dealing with a sick baby who’s been running a high fever and barfing so much she had three baths in one day yesterday. It’s a funny thing, the juxtaposition of all of my intellectual thinking about motherhood as some sort of abstract force against the raw power of literal motherhood as this thing that I do, this person I am as I hold a tiny person and just go ahead and let her finish vomiting all over me, just sit there and let it happen, because I know she’s not done yet and attempting to move, or get out of the path of the flow will just exacerbate the mess.

The last lines of Salvage the Bones (which, I swear, this isn’t a spoiler) are “She will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought…She will know that I am a mother.” In this case, I am the she. I am the one who knows. And I am the one who is. In caring for my sick baby, just as I have already many times before in my 8 month stint, just as I will many times to come, I just become unblinkingly confronted with this new fact of my existence. I am a mother. I am the heart that beats the rhythm of comfort under the skin and bones upon which rests the fevered cheek of the one who is flesh of my flesh. What a strange and wonderful privilege it is to provide that resting place. To encircle that tiny, weary person with my arms. To know that I am her mother.

Reading Salvage the Bones with Claire resting in my lap. Etta was napping in the bouncer that I rocked with my feet. It's how this mother gets her schoolwork done.
Reading Salvage the Bones with Claire resting in my lap. Etta was napping in the bouncer that I rocked with my feet. It’s how this mother gets her schoolwork done.

labyrinth

Last weekend we took our first baby-free weekend to visit my sister in Nashville while the girls stayed with their Nonni and Poppi. A good time was had by all.

We also visited my heaven, aka the most amazing new and used book store called Bookman Bookwoman.

On the trip, I still had to do some reading for grad school, and this week it was Jorge Borges, an Argentinian writer. His short stories kind of warped my brain a little bit, as they explore themes of infinity, truth vs. fiction, what is truly real, the way fiction influences reality,and other crazy themes. They also feature a lot of labyrinths. At least two of the stories I read featured books, particularly 1001 Nights, influencing reality in strange ways. And then I began to feel the stories themselves were influencing me…..

First, I read a short story in which a man has died of an overdose of a drug called “veronal,” only to realize I had just read a completely unrelated story by a totally different author for another class that featured a woman trying to kill herself with the same drug. Coincidence, or books reading my mind? Then, I read a story about a labyrinth right before we went to check out a corn maze! (You can check out my sister’s post on the subject here.) Verdict on the corn maze: it was maybe 30 minutes too long, but hey, at least it wasn’t infinite! Also: do NOT tell us not to pick corn. Also: thank God we didn’t have a small child with us, because even we were very much DONE by the time we found our way out. And: essentially, any kind of scenic activity for my sister and me becomes an Instagram field trip. We may have even “styled” some cornstalks for better shots.

Many jokes of the “what the shuck?” variety were made.

 

 

 

American Gothic
Seesters.
Jon reaps a freaky-assed harvest. (If you aren’t squeamish about cuss words, check out the McSweeny’s piece “It’s Decorative Gourd Season Motherfuckers.” You will not regret it.)

Also mind-bending was the simultaneous feeling of absolute freedom to be away from the girls, staying up late, having cocktails, sleeping in, and also missing them to pieces at the same time. We squeed over every picture and video Nonni sent of the good times they were having. Overall, it was very needed. We had a blast and came home overjoyed and re-energized to see our girlies.

This week we face a challenge possibly even more mind-stretching than a labyrinth: flying to Denver with TWO BABIES. If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them. Right now my plan is to strap them to us in carriers, and possibly to bake and hand out cookies (and possibly earplugs) to everyone unfortunate enough to sit near us. I know if I were on a plane and saw two people lugging two babies come aboard, I’d seriously be praying “Oh PLEASE let them sit far far away.”

on re-reading The Awakening

The graduate student in her native environment.

While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….

But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.

One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.

Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.

It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.

The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.

She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.

Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.

Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.

wearing ugliness

ugly doll. Image via Flickr user walknboston under a Creative Commons license.

I have to confess: until The Bluest Eye was assigned for one of my classes this term, I had never read any Toni Morrison. And WOW. She’s amazing. Her prose is amazing. I can’t get over it. I’m so glad Beloved is also on my comps reading list.

I just finished The Bluest Eye and one of the things that stuck out to me is the theme of beauty vs. ugliness. Now, of course, I have to preface this by saying that race and socioeconomic status play huge roles in this theme throughout the book. I am a person of racial and socioeconomic privilege, and I do understand that I cannot fully relate to the characters in the book, but, who really can fully relate to the experience of another, ever?

Anyway, one passage just so aptly described what I KNOW to be true that I have to share it. It’s describing a family that everyone perceives as ugly:

You looked closely at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each of them a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.

I feel like society hands women ugliness every day. It’s the message leering at us from the billboards and movies and magazines full of women who literally do not exist. They have been created in Photoshop and through lighting and makeup and editing and styling to become fictional representations of all that we are not. And these mirages reach out to us and hand us ugliness. They tell us we can be them, if we use the right skin cream, have the proper surgical procedures, wear the right clothes, follow the right diet, but they can’t even be them. They don’t even exist.

Another passage describes a character who comes to believe she is ugly in comparison to the women she sees in movies, women like Jean Harlow. Worse than judging herself, she judges her own daughter by that standard of beauty. She hands her own daughter ugliness:

She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed from the silver screen.

I know so many beautiful women who are utterly convinced that they are ugly. That they are less-than. That they are not worthy. But the truth is, their ugliness doesn’t really exist, not on their faces. It’s just a garment they’ve been handed and they choose to wear it. Eventually it maybe even becomes a part of them, but they weren’t born that way.

Are you wearing ugliness where you should be acknowledging beauty? You don’t have to take it from them when it’s offered, you know.

eating, praying, and loving myself

One of the new and exciting developments in my new life in Little Rock is that I’ve joined a book club.  I’ve wanted to join a book club for years, and I’m so excited to have finally found one.  As I discovered taking my free grad classes in English while working at The College, I believe sitting around talking about books is one of my most favorite activities in all the world.

The first book I’m reading with this book club is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  To be honest, I did not expect to like this book.  I’m not even really sure why, because, as you can tell by the subject matter I most often write about, Eating and Prayer (or God) are two of my favorite things to think about, talk about, and write about.  I think I maybe expected Elizabeth Gilbert to be more insufferable? I mean, someone who gets paid an advance to travel around the world eating amazing food in Italy and studying Yoga in India has to be a little insufferable, right?

But, just like my discovery with Julie and Julia, namely, that I AM Julie, I’m finding I really identify with Elizabeth Gilbert.  I feel like her neuroses are my neuroses, like her passions are my passions, like her search is my search.  And then I got to Chapter 64, and I literally read the whole thing out loud to Jon, asking him if, perhaps, it sounded familiar to him.

Gilbert, like many writers, is a talker.  And at this point in the story, several weeks into her time studying Yoga at an Ashram in India, she’s decided that maybe she should try to be That Quiet Girl, because obviously, the truly spiritual and devout are the mystically silent types.

Oh boy, oh boy, have I been here.  In the beginning of my time in Charleston, I found myself part of a Christian Bible study group made up of women married to doctors and residents and medical students.  And, with a few exceptions, I did NOT fit in with these women.  For one thing, they were all a good 5 years older than I, and most were stay-at-home moms with multiple children whom they often got together for play-groups.  Even if I hadn’t had a day-job, what was I going to do, bring my dog and have her lick their children in the face?  How was I ever going to make it to their book club on weekday afternoons, either?

For another, they were Good Christian Wives of the Proverbs 31 Woman variety.  I, on the other hand, am clearly a crazed Feminist harpy who must, to their minds, make her man miserable.  I remember quite vividly one exchange, in which another member of the group confessed that her husband had taken to making strange statements like, “You know, WE should really clean these floors” or “You know, WE should really clean up the kitchen.”  This young wife was worried about these statements, and unsure of what to do.  The general consensus from the rest of the group was that, obviously, she should clean the floors and tidy up the kitchen, because these things were bothering her husband, and she should serve him by taking care of these things.  My response? “Have you asked him what he means when he says these things? Does he know where you keep the broom? Did you hide the cleaning supplies? This all sounds awfully passive aggressive of him and you should tell him so! If the floor really bugs him, maybe he should clean it!” They looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head.  Apparently, my usual approach of asking my husband what he means when he says strange things and then sharing with him how those things make me feel is considered un-Proverbs-31 or something.

I’m not even sure what it was that caused me to leave Bible Study in tears another night and come home and sob to Jon about how maybe I was just the wrong kind of person for that group.  I’m pretty sure it had something to do with another member of the group riding me really hard about wanting to reschedule an event when I’d just lost my job that week.  But I did, I came home and sobbed and told Jon how I felt like none of these women liked me, and how I felt like I couldn’t be myself around them, and how I felt like I was constantly judged.  I asked him if he thought I needed to be some sort of Good Christian Wife.  He hugged me and held me and assured me that I am loved for who I am, and that he’d really be upset if I turned into some sort of subservient wifebot.

Later, I confessed to a fellow member of the group that I was thinking of leaving the group because I just didn’t fit in.  She invited me over to her house for lunch.  Little did I know that this lunch was a pretext for giving me a speech about how Jesus wanted to make me a quieter, gentler, meeker, more wifely sort of person.  Basically, she thought Jesus wanted to give me a lobotomy.  I’m pretty sure I was quiet and meek that day, but it’s because I was stunned into silence.  Here I was hoping this woman had invited me over to let me know I am liked for who I am, and she basically tells me I need to completely change my personality in order to really be a Christian.  I didn’t go back to the group after that.

So, back to Elizabeth Gilbert in India—she’s decided that she needs to try to become That Quiet Girl, but on the very day she makes this decision, she receives a new assignment at her Ashram to be a kind of hostess for visiting groups, a job that actually requires her to be a regular Chatty Cathy.  In fact, she realizes, her personality is basically required for this job.  Gilbert writes:

“If there is one holy truth of this Yoga [it is that] God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.  God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person behaves.  We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality…To know God, you need only to renounce one thing—your sense of division from God.  Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character.” (192)

Yes! My personality is not some sort of flaw. Neither is yours!  God, if God’s creation is any indication, is a fan of variety.  I can only imagine that there are so many species of birds and plants and animals and even varieties of people because our creative God delighted in creating them.  God desires an intimate relationship with ME, as I was made to be, not as I imagine God might like me better, because the truth is, God couldn’t love me any deeper.  And rather than break my back (and my heart) trying to conform to some narrow idea of what a godly woman looks like, I should instead look for ways my unique traits can be used in the service and blessing of others and the world, just like Gilbert found a role as a hostess at the Ashram.

Still, Gilbert does point out that there are ways to grow into a better, more spiritual person while still being accepting of who she was created to be.  Part of it rang especially true to me:

“Or here’s a radical concept—maybe I can stop interrupting others when they are speaking.  Because no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this: ‘I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.’ And I can’t find another way to see that than: ‘I believe that I am more important than you.’ And that must end.” (193)

Not interrupting others is something I’ve been working on for a while.  It’s something I’ll likely be working on for a long while to come.  It’s a way I can hone the shape of me while still respecting the basic outlines of my design.  It’s like sanding my rougher edges without obliterating the sculpture altogether, because I’m a work of divine art.

I look forward to finishing Gilbert’s book, and I can’t wait to discuss it in book club next week.  Here’s hoping they like me the way I am.  I’ll do my best not to interrupt anyone during the discussion.