Friday, May 15, 2009

On mommy blogs, maternal ambivalence, and my worst tendencies

I've been thinking a lot about writing and motherhood lately, as I put one on the back burner and prepare for the other. I reread Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work yesterday, which is such a complicated, dark and beautiful book. And two ideas glared at me from her introduction-- first, the inevitable backlash to any mother who dares to put her experiences down on paper (or blog). Cusk found herself taken aback, but reasoned the response with that "in writing about motherhood, I inevitably attracted a readership too diverse to be satisfied from a single source. The world has many more mothers than an author generally has readers." So many people read her book because they were interested in motherhood, because of "the desire to see it reflected, to have it explained, all that love and terror and strangeness, even if it is immediately repressed by the far stronger desire for authority and consensus, for 'normality' to be restored: to me, the childcare manual is the emblem of the new mother's psychic loneliness." But more on this in a minute.

Second, Cusk writes "with the gloomy suspicion that a book about motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers." Which I've been conscious of also here, as babies have become such a preoccupation of mine lately. As my personal experiences, the books I've read, the way I've been reading, and everything I've been doing have been so framed within the context of our baby's imminent arrival. Though Pickle Me This has never been a particularly serious literary blog, it's certainly become even less so lately. I'm not saying my hard-hitting criticisms of picture books aren't worth noting, but there are some readers, I'm sure, who are less than enthralled. And I really don't want to alienate any of my five readers.

Here's the thing: I have read mommy blogs. (Note, I didn't say "I read (present tense) mommy blogs". But now I'm getting all Brian Mulroney pedantic.) The term mommy blog is a slur, as is "chick lit", neither "genre" (let's say) helping itself by mainly comprising compost. Stephany Aulenback recently remarked on the ubiquity of parents chronicling their children's lives online: "I think when our children are grown up, they're going to have different notions of "public" than we do now."

My derision of women writing about their domestic lives ("compost") sits uncomfortably with me, because it's so easy to deride women's domestic lives-- everybody does it. By existing within the domestic sphere, these stories really serve to undermine themselves, which certainly bothers me when it comes to fiction. When with aesthetics as an excuse, fiction about women's lives is so often deemed less than literary, as craft is less than art, etc.

The problem I have with mommy blogs, however, is that I watch them in the same way I'd watch a train wreck-- even the incredibly well-written ones. I don't necessarily admire these women's "honesty" and how they "put themselves out there", but sometimes I really do have to tear my eyes away. Their deliberate provocations are often horrifying, my knee-jerk response is catty, and I'm not the only one. As Cusk says, "The world has many more mothers...", each one with her own opinions, and then fights break out in the comments section, commenters accusing other bloggers' "followers" of being sheep, and then baa-ing themselves. Controversial topics include diapers, breastfeeding, reproductive rights, between working moms who work at home or out, and these are controversial topics, but it's all handled a bit grade five. No one ever shows up to have their minds changed or expanded. My problem with these blogs is less with the blogs themselves, but how they feed on my worst tendencies.

(Though I also hate the smugness. The current trend is to embrace your inner bad-mom, and let her all hang out, but at the root of this is the sense that badness is in fact best. That anyone embracing domesticity has something up her ass, that liberation lies in the anti-domestic after all, but I'm really not so sure. I think a lot of these people might be misled. For all they're anti-mom, they not beyond-mom, and they certainly define themselves in relation to their [albeit messy] homes. And this is a bit dangerous, can all go very wrong-- I read one blog by a defiantly proud bad mom, and then her baby died. I suppose we are to make of that what we will.)

Which is not to say that maternal ambivalence, the experience of which these women are trying to project, is not real, or a subject deeply worth pursuing. It's just not very often expressed in a particularly thoughtful way within these forums. Whereas I've found the idea explored well elsewhere, in the experiences of women artists in particular. Perhaps because these women have a medium with which to convey their experiences, because they are well-accustomed to expressing themselves. Because it's a complicated issue requiring a high level of articulateness. We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Divided Heart, Who Does She Think She Is, Cusk's A Life's Work, Anne Enright's Making Babies, and I was recently introduced to Marita Dachsel's Motherhood and Writing Interviews (by writer Laisha Rosnau, who is the subject of one).

So somehow I find myself saying that inarticulate people have no business writing about their lives. Hmmm. (Or perhaps that they should, but I just shouldn't read them because I'm not very nice). For your own interest, please do check in in about two weeks times to see how articulate I've become with a newborn, and then again six months later when my house is a mess and I'm smashing my head against the wall and the stove is on fire. When I'm just as bad a mom as any of them, reality sunk in. Don't think I'm not aware of this, but it's still scary to consider.

But it's not simply black and white, good mom/bad mom and I appreciate the writing best that reflects this. How Rachel Power (author of The Divided Heart) wrote recently: "maternal ambivalence is not a state of being torn between love and hate for our children (meaning not them so much as what they've done to our lives) — but is a state entirely borne out of love. It is precisely this love for my children, being so excruciating, that I can feel has ruined me. This acute tenderness and sense of responsibility is something us mothers are never free of, and almost impossible to imagine until you’re in it."