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IMG_0105_2Ten days in, and hanging out at the beach with Peaches and her parents has turned out to be really sweet and easy. I do hold my tongue occasionally or make myself deliberately scarce — like the previous two days, when Nutmeg’s best friend came to visit with HER brand-new baby, and I thought the two new mothers might have lots they wanted to talk about without me horning in — but generally it’s been really easy to not get on Nutmeg’s nerves at all, and she hands me Peaches to hold and cuddle at least a few times a day.

It’s amazing how slowly things move when there’s a one-month-old around, and when there’s not anything you really must do but get her and her parents enough food and enough sleep. I’m trying to get into that nothing-important-to-do rhythm, which Nutmeg and Southpaw have adopted quite successfully — though I did write a couple of short articles this past week for a little bit of money, mostly to remind myself that while Nutmeg might be on maternity leave, I’m not.

I went to free yoga on the beach a couple of times, but I ended up thinking it might have made my ailing knee (a torn meniscus compilcated by arthritis, or maybe arthritis complicated by a torn meniscus) worse instead of better. Same for bike riding, which I did a few times when we first got here and haven’t done since. I walk some, and swim the equivalent of a couple of laps when we go to the beach at the bay, but by and large exercise has not been high on the activities list. The truth is, I don’t know what HAS been high on the activities list — there are so many things I keep meaning to do, various antique-shopping excursions, going to a picture framer, that kind of thing, but the slow pace of everything here at the house makes me sort of dozey, too. Instead I just do a lot of laundry, a lot of straightening up, and a lot of collecting groceries for and then preparing dinner — for the four of us, usually, but also sometimes (like tonight) also for friends of Nutmeg’s and Southpaw’s. I don’t mind the continual flow of their friends, and their friends’ kids, because one thing I really miss about the old days when Nutmeg and Meta were teenagers is the continual flow of young people into the house. And I do want Nutmeg and Southpaw, even as adults, to keep inviting their friends to stay over, because I want them to think of this house as their home, too.

Most of all I want to keep reminding myself that these are lovely, lazy, summery days, and that I should treasure them.

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mother and her baby silhouette, isolated vector symbol

mother and her baby silhouette, isolated vector symbol

We brought Peaches and her parents home from the hospital a week ago last Friday — a kind of difficult undertaking, actually, since waiting in a car in front of a big-city medical center is a dicey proposition, and it took forever to get Nutmeg the “escort” she apparently neded. And then iDaddy and I stayed for a while, holding Peaches, sitting around the apartment, talking a bit, running out to the local grocery store to buy stuff for lunch and help lay in some supplies for the next couple of days.

When Nutmeg mentioned that my brother Avuncular and his wife were going to come over for a viewing on Sunday afternoon, which was Father’s Day, I promptly invited us over, too. “Sure,” said Nutmeg, with no apparent hesitation. But I spent the next day worrying that I had overstepped, inviting myself over to hang around with this new little family at just the moment when they really would rather not be receiving a lot of company. A bagel brunch for four had become, through my unfiltered “Can we come, too?” a bigger deal, brunch for six. If nothing else, I had moved the venue, with my outburst, from the coffee table to the dining table, with all the extra work that entailed.

As I fussed over how to check in with Nutmeg on Saturday to make sure I hadn’t overstepped, and to give her a chance to un-invite us if she felt that I had, an email pinged into my inbox. “Co-working with Peaches” was the subject line, and the email was addressed to both Meta and me. It read:

If you guys want to come some day this week, either together or separately, to work from here and hang out with Peaches,, you are welcome to! (You might be asked to run an errand or hold her while we run an errand or something. But in exchange you can hang out with her on your chest while she sleeps, which is the best!)

The generosity of that invitation, the willingness it reflected to have me actually be there and be a part of their lives, made me weep. I couldn’t even read it aloud to iDaddy without breaking down.  Naturally, I said yes.

So in addition to a quick Father’s Day visit with iDaddy along with Avuncular and his wife (Nutmeg assured me it was fine; she said she expected we’d bring more food than we ate and clean up more than we dirtied, which is how it unfolded), I got to go back on Wednesday for my “co-working with Peaches” experience. I didn’t get much actual work done that day, but who cares. I helped a little with a couple of chores — grocery run again, mostly — and I did get to hold Peaches on my chest while she slept. Nutmeg is right: it IS “the best.”

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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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Nearly three months have passed since my last post, in which I mused about whether my daughters really minded having me write about them, even on a barely-noticed, anonymous blog.  A couple of Momma Loshen’s few readers wrote to ask whether I had decided to stop the blog altogether.  In a way, I had.  If it came down to a choice between my daughters and my little blog, or even my career as a writer, there was no contest, the girls would win.

But is that really what it comes down to?  Have Meta and Nutmeg even noticed that I’m not writing here anymore?  For that matter, had they noticed that I was writing here in the first place?  Meta had, I think, since she postsed comments occasionally, but Nutmeg seemed basically uninterested in the whole enterprise.  Now, however, Nutmeg and I are thinking of entering into a joint book-writing project (Meta wanted no part of it, though I would have loved to have her help).   If the stars align — if the publishing gods come through with a decent advance — Nutmeg and I are going to have to figure out how to mix personal revelations with plain old-fashioned journalism.  So maybe I should go back to practicing some of that here.

I’ve also wondered, on and off over these past three months, whether my ideas about privacy and decorum are positively archaic.  Has the notion of self-scrutiny and confessional totally changed in the Wide World of Web 2.0.?  When I see what people, including Meta and Nutmeg, are willing to reveal about themselves online, I realize how outmoded my thinking seems to be.   Maybe I don’t really want to be left out of all the chatter — I had been having a good time nurturing this blog, and I’ve missed it.

I realize that, in some ways, blogging is so last-year, almost as out of date as the legacy-media magazines I ordinarily write for.  If I want to really understand how people are using the Web, what I have to figure out isn’t blogging, it’s microblogging.  Eh.  Maybe later; at the moment Twitter is beyond me. But I’m going to take another stab at Momma Loshen.  In doing so, I hope I can stake out a balance between being honest about myself and my relationship with my grown daughters, and being sensitive to my daughters’ right to their own stories, without my intrusive filter.  I’m going to walk this tightrope one more time, because it was kind of fun while it lasted, and we three are all adults now.  We should be able to figure out how to make this work.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted here — I look at my blog stats and see that I had only one post in June, and before that only one post in May.  Part of this is because I’ve been working on a long magazine article that was due in mid-July, and that I’m still working on because there are (as there always are) editors’ revisions to address.  But part of this, I think, is because I’ve been a little uncertain about this whole project.   I worry that my original plan to write about mothering grown-ups, first in blog form and maybe eventually in book form, might be something that endangers my relationship with my daughters, and that I refuse to do, even for — especially for? — the sake of my career.  So that’s tempered my enthusiasm somewhat about posting on Momma Loshen.

I always knew that Meta didn’t want me to write about her anymore.  I got her permission to write this blog, not using my real name and giving her a pseudonym, before I began.  And when I thought that maybe a book about this topic would include some personal memoir-type stuff about mothering adults (and that time it WOULD be using my real name), she said only “I don’t love that.”  (“Said” is a relative term here — this conversation took place, as many of ours do, on g-chat.)  But I didn’t recognize the true feelings behind “I don’t love that” — didn’t recognize, maybe, because it was convenient for me not to — as that old bad feeling Meta used to get whenever I wrote about her, even in what I thought to be a loving way, that had led to her original prohibition.  That old bad feeling was still there.  “Don’t love” was her mature version of “hate.”  It took an in-person conversation with Nutmeg, in which I asked her directly how Meta felt about me writing a parenting book that mentioned her, to realize how angry she is at me for even considering it, after she had repeatedly made her preferences very very clear.

Nutmeg, too, it turns out, isn’t so wild about me writing about her — so there goes my Plan B, which had been to write in the preface of whatever  book I might end up writing, “I have two daughters, but the older one has prohibited me from writing about her, so in this book I’m only going to write about the younger one.”  The younger one doesn’t really like that idea, either.  And if there’s to be a memoir-ish element to a book about parenting grown-ups, I can’t fail to write about at least one of them!

I just spent a long beautiful summer morning sitting on the back deck of our house (yes, iDaddy and I just bought a second home in a sweet little beach town in Delaware) erasing traceable evidence on this blog of Nutmeg’s true identity.   I had originally chosen a different pseudonym for Nutmeg, a nickname she used to use — but I recently realized that she’s using that nickname now on her Twitter account, and her ID could easily be traced back to this blog for anyone who cared.  (Meta had pointed this out to me when I first chose the pseudonym, but Nutmeg said she didn’t care — and the original pseudonym was a better name for her than Nutmeg is.  Nutmeg is the name of her pet hamster when she was 8 years old.)  When I suggested to Nutmeg that I’d try to expunge all use of that first pseudonym on this blog, since she’s using it for Twitter, she said that would be good.  She didn’t ask me to do it directly, but I did anyway.  It took two fucking hours, but I consider it two hours well spent if it protects her from whatever scary internet privacy invasion she might have suffered because of something I’d done.

All this is a long way around today’s topic — writing about our children.

A couple of months ago, the wonderful monologuist Julia Sweeney — who’s made a career telling touching and hilarious tales about her mother, brother, daughter, priest, and anyone else in her orbit — said she wasn’t going to talk about her daughter Mulan anymore.  Mulan is now 10 years old, old enough to read or hear her mother’s stuff and to be embarrassed by it.  Sweeney figures there will only be more of that ahead, so she’s calling it quits, at least that part of her storytelling.  As she put it in her blog, “I plan to hang up my mouth.”  (I was alerted to Julia Sweeney’s blog by another wonderful blogger, Melinda Blau, a writer who, for all I know, is thinking about writing a book exactly like the one I’d like to write.  Melinda’s blog, MotherU, is a collaboration with her grown-up daughter Jennifer.  More on MotherU in another post.)

Here’s what Julia Sweeney wrote in her farewell post (it was posted in March, but I just discovered it today) that hammered it home for me:

I began to look at the darker side of telling stories about my personal life.  The guilt, the anguish, the desire to emphasize this over that, the slant, the small or large exaggeration, the worry that someone I’m talking about will see or hear me.   Then I suppose you could say the tipping point was Mulan.

Also, she expressed a concern quite apart from hurting people’s feelings, and this I found interesting, too (though less discomfiting) —  a concern about sapping your energies by writing about or pursuing the wrong things.  As Sweeney put it:

Sometimes I feel that my creativity, (and not just mine, but everyone’s creativity) is like the snow on a mountaintop melting a little at a time.  All my various outlets – performing and writing in all its manifestations — create little rivers through which the snow can melt.  I always liked having so many things going at once.  I always felt that in show business, you had to have five pots on the stove just to get one of them to boil.  I benefited from being so multi-able.  I could do voice over and then perform at a club, I could write a monologue and then write a pilot for a TV show.

But lately it feels that I have fragmented my focus with this policy.  I want the snow to melt into a couple of larger rivers, not into several smaller streams.

The idea that by blogging and journal-writing and whatever else I do, either to make a living or to procrastinate, I’m diverting my creativity that should be going to whatever the hell else it is that’s my real goal — well, that gives me pause.

Does this mean that I’m giving up ever writing again about Meta and Nutmeg, except anonymously?  I don’t know.  Does it mean I’m even giving up on writing about them anonymously, as in this little, nearly-invisible blog?  I don’t know that, either, but I don’t think so.  But like Sweeney, I’m mulling.  I’m spending the next month at our new house at the beach, here with iDaddy and occasionally with family and a couple of dear friends, and I’m mulling.

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A little while ago I came upon Mother Words, a lovely blog about mothering and writing and writing about mothering.  It’s written by Minneapolis writer Kate Hopper, author of the forthcoming Ready for Air. We found each other in blogville, I forget how exactly, and Kate asked if she could do a Q&A with me about some of the landmines involved in writing about your children.  Her daughter Stella is only six, and Kate’s book is about Stella’s premature birth and her blog is in part about life with Stella, so she’s curious about what might happen 20 years from now when Stella realizes she’s been turned into “material.”

I was happy to say yes, because I like Mother Words so much.  Kate said it was OK for me to cross-post the interview here on my blog, too, so here it is.

MONDAY, APRIL 5, 2010

WRITING ABOUT ADULT CHILDREN: AN INTERVIEW WITH MOMMA LOSHEN

As you know, I’m interested in the ways mother writers deal with the ethical issues that arise when they’re writing about their children. I’ve posted about it here and here. And you can read the responses of writers I’ve interviewed here and here.

It’s easier to find essays out there about raising young children, and part of the reason, of course, is that those young children aren’t telling you what you can and can’t say about them. Hell, they probably don’t even know you’re writing about them. But when kids get older, they have opinions about what you can and cannot say/write about them. It gets more complicated. But I love to read the writing of women whose children are older, because, well, I find it interesting—it’s a glimpse into our future.

So I was thrilled to stumble on the newish blog, Momma Loshen, where Momma Loshen writes about the ups and downs of parenting adult children. Momma L. agreed to a few questions about writing about one’s children, so I’d like to welcome her to Mother Words today:

KH: On your blog you say, “In the interest of protecting the feelings of the innocent — my daughters in particular, whose feelings I’m not known to have tried to protect in personal essays I’ve published through the years — I’m using pseudonyms and trying to keep a low profile. Luckily, a low profile is an easy thing to keep on this overpopulated blogosphere.”

I’m interested in hearing more about your decision to blog anonymously. You feel you need to protect your daughters’ privacy, yet you’re drawn to writing about mothering and motherhood. Can you talk a little about this?

ML: My need to protect my daughters’ privacy comes after years of NOT working too hard to protect their privacy — and having them get bothered by that. Actually, it’s only the older one, whom I call Meta on the blog, who was really bothered — when she was a teenager, after I wrote a series of personal essays about her and her younger sister (whom I call Nutmeg on the blog), Meta told me I was never to write about her ever again as long as I lived. I had thought I was very careful about what I wrote about them — even when they were children, I showed them what I was writing first — but at least in Meta’s adolescence, the only rule she would issue was a zero-tolerance rule.

KH: How is writing about your daughters anonymously different and/or the same as writing about them non-anonymously? Is your purpose for writing different now?

ML: I still showed them the blog, after I had written a couple of posts, and asked them if it was OK for me to continue with it anonymously. Meta also blogs anonymously, and knows it’s possible to protect your identity, but I wasn’t worried about their public identity so much as I was worried about how they would feel reading the stuff I was writing — I mean, THEY know who they are! Meta said it was OK, that I wasn’t writing about her (which would have violated the zero-tolerance rule), I was writing about me in relation to her. A subtle distinction, but I went with it.

After a while, I did let some friends know that I was blogging as Momma Loshen, and some of them have become regular readers. Oddly, Meta is a regular reader, too, and occasionally posts comments on my blog. I don’t know if she’s mentioned it to HER friends. Also oddly, Nutmeg, who has told me often that she loves the essays I wrote about her because it’s kind of like looking through a photo album of what she was like as she grew up, doesn’t seem to have been reading the blog at all.

My purpose in writing this blog was originally to see if there was a book worth writing about this subject — and then, of course, if I really ended up wanting to write a book on this topic, my plan was to go public with the blog so I could use it as a way to create that all-important “platform” that every author is supposed to have. But I’m not there yet, and I’m not sure what Meta would say if I eventually did want to reveal my identity and, therefore, hers.

KH: When did you begin writing about your children? Why? What kinds of reactions did your daughters have to this when they were younger?

ML: I started freelancing when Meta was born (she just turned 30), and some of my earliest assignments were for parenting magazines, so occasionally I mentioned my kids, even when they were little. I wrote about Meta’s problems with weight when she was 6, and how I put her on a diet — it appeared in a woman’s magazine, along with some photos of her, and I think that was what started her on hating being written about. But if she complained, I didn’t really notice. When she was about 8 I wrote about Meta getting reading glasses to prevent myopia, for a major newspaper, and again there were some photos of her — I thought she sort of liked it, but now I wonder. And when she was about 10 I wrote an article for that same newspaper about getting kids to be less sedentary, and for the first time I insisted to my editor that Meta get a chance to speak her piece in a sidebar that she wrote herself. Meta had a chance to point out my own relative sedentariness, too, and to write, “I guess the point is, when it comes to your children, they should do as you say, not as you do.” Touche!

I wrote about Nutmeg playing soccer when she was about 8 — also a women’s magazine, also a photo of the team — and she kind of loved it (except for me saying she wasn’t such a great player when she was on a co-ed team). I also wrote about her a lot when I had an occasional newspaper column — getting whistled at when she was 12, wearing clothes that showed her bra straps, playing girls’ basketball, also at about 12 or 13. I’ve written about them a lot, I realize — book clubs I’ve been in with both of them, Meta’s bat mitzvah and what it meant to me, Meta going to an all-girls college, and blah blah. Sometimes I worried about being too much like Joyce Maynard, using their lives for my own purposes, turning my family into material. But I felt that if I always asked them if it was OK, it wouldn’t be so bad. And anyway, most of my professional writing activity had nothing to do with them — these essays were occasional, and they were the fun part.

KH: What advice would you give to parents who are new to writing about their children? Are there things you wish you had done differently?

ML: Based on Meta’s subsequent anger at me, I probably wouldn’t have written at all about her weight. And I probably would have been more careful about being absolutely sure they were OK with whatever I was writing when I wrote it. For a long time I cared only about what made the best essay, and the best essays are the truthful ones, no matter who it hurts. I can still make a case for that — but there’s a good argument to be made for sparing people’s feelings, too. Maybe that’s because I’m 56 years old. In the end, what you end up with is a relationship with your children, not with some anonymous reading public, and that’s the thing that’s essential to preserve — even if it means the essay isn’t as good as it could have been.

Kate ended her post by saying she was curious about how some of her readers tread the dangerous shoals of writing about their kids.  She’s gotten two comments so far, neither very specific.  I, too, wonder the same thing about MY readers (you’re out there, aren’t you?).  This kind of thing has long been a problem for writers and the people who live with them — not only for their children, though maybe most hurtfully for their children.  David Sedaris was once confronted by his sister, who was angry at him for using an anecdote from HER life in one HIS stories.  “Well,” Sedaris told her, in a reply that strikes me as totally logical even as I recognize its thin edge of cruelty, “YOU weren’t going to do anything with it.”

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I made the bed in Nutmeg’s old room today with a quilt I created for her with my own two hands.  It wasn’t supposed to be here in my apartment, dressing up Nutmeg’s old twin bed.  It was supposed to be with Nutmeg, in her grownup home.  But things took a different turn than I’d anticipated.

I’d had such a great time making that quilt — well, not a great time, really, since I’m a total domestic klutz.  But as I pricked my fingers and strained my eyes piecing the thing together all through the winter of 2006, I kept picturing how excited Nutmeg would be about it when I gave it to her for her college graduation in May.  I had made a quilt — my first, and till then my only — for Meta’s high school graduation in 1997, but Nutmeg’s high school graduation in 2002 had come and gone, swamped by the frenzy of that time, as iDaddy and I sold the girls’ childhood home and, just a month after the school year ended, moved hundreds of miles north.  I had always felt bad that the quilt I’d promised for Nutmeg to take with her to college, just as her sister had taken hers, had never materialized.  Now, four years late, I was about to present her with her handmade quilt at last.

“Don’t get ahead of her,” iDaddy told me whenever I mentioned how psyched Nutmeg was going to be when she opened her gift.  It was something he’d often said to me — a piece of advice that has always irritated me greatly, but that is, of course, very wise, because iDaddy is a wise and temperate man.  Making the bed with Nutmeg’s quilt this morning, I realized that this phrase is especially wise when it comes to parenting grown-ups.

“Don’t get ahead of her.”  Don’t get more excited about the quilt than she will (reader, I did that — details below).  Don’t like her boyfriend more than she does (I’ve done that, too).  Don’t urge her to take a class she isn’t sure about, go to a college she doesn’t want, consider a job that isn’t right for her.  Don’t live her life for her.  Don’t live your life through her.

Now, Nutmeg is a thoughtful, sensitive, delightful person, and when I gave her the quilt, gift-wrapped awkwardly in a huge shopping bag, she smiled and expressed much gratitude.  She even took it with her to Boston when she moved in with the boyfriend I liked so much (with whom she’s since broken up; as I said, I’d gotten ahead of her).  But she never really loved it — not the way I had pictured her loving it, not the way I had loved picturing her loving it.  When she moved from Boston to Brooklyn, Nutmeg gently gave the quilt back to me.  “It works better with your color scheme at home,” she said, even though I had deliberately picked colors — with the help of my best friend Judy, who creates spectacular art quilts in her spare time — that I thought were Nutmeg’s colors, not mine.  Wasn’t that apple green the exact color she’d painted the walls in her college apartment, the color she told me she wanted to have in every apartment she lived in for the rest of her life?

It wasn’t about the color scheme, though.  Nutmeg returned the quilt because she could sense, I think, that it was loaded with more freight than she wanted to bear.  I’d gotten ahead of her after all.  The quilt, in a weird way, contained my own vision of how her life should shape up, and she was trying to tell me that ownership of that vision was hers.

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