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Archive for the ‘mothers’ Category

old woman & shadow of ladyI had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that “Like Father, Like Son” would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: it was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 am on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then — keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics Ur-Momma has always loved to talk about — nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies, and to be out with iDaddy and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film — a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told — she turned to me and said, “I was lost; I couldn’t follow it at all.”

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library’s copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn’t follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her the most about aging, she’s always told my brother Avuncular and me, is the prospect of losing “my head.” That’s what worries me, too. “If you don’t have your head, who are you?” she occasionally asks. That’s it, exactly. If you don’t have a lively interior life, and a recollection of all the escapades that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought — that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with Ur-Momma, it seemed to me that the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The article described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident, and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person’s fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans, and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn’t exactly what I’m worried about in Ur-Momma’s case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn’t a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to Ur-Momma. If she can’t read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can’t follow even the most basic movie plot, she’ll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I’ve known her, have made it worth living.

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Nutmeg and I have started a book club, and last night we had our third meeting to discuss Room by Emma Donaghue.  (I think Nutmeg and I loved it a little more than the others did, but we had a rousing conversation even with those who were a little less in awe of the book, which I still heartily recommend.)  In the course of our book talk, we ended up talking about The Bridges of Madison County, a book Nutmeg picked up the summer before she went to college, read without knowing anything about it, wept, and proudly announced that when she went off to college she would have a ready answer to the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite book?”  Easy, Nutmeg said; her new favorite book was The Bridges of Madison County.  To which Meta promptly replied, “That book is crap.”

It was a funny story, and it was germane to our discussion about whether Room is a gimmicky book like The Bridges of Madison County or some Stephen King books, or whether it’s something better.  But I took it another way.  As we laughed at Nutmeg’s story, she said something that made me a little sad.  “Yeah, she knew it was a dumb book.  That’s because Meta was the smart one, and I was the stupid one.”

That’s not exactly true, but it’s truer than I want to believe.  Meta was always super-smart, almost dysfunctionally so, and she was a tough act to follow, even for Nutmeg, who was really smart, too.  Meta always was reading, inhaling Shakespeare and Victor Hugo from a very young age, and Nutmeg liked books but had other things she preferred doing.  I tried to deny that we had typecast the girls quite so blatantly, but Nutmeg was insistent.  “Remember that card Dad made when Meta graduated from college and I graduated from high school?” she said.  “That was the running joke — she was smart and I was sporty.”  She smiled as she said that, and it looked like an  authentic smile — but this morning I’m not so sure.

I was especially sensitive to this whole idea of typecasting and favoritism at the book club meeting because I had, just hours before, had a long phone interview with a sociologist who’s spent the past 20-plus years studying the effects of parental favoritism, both on the parent and on the child.  She told me that almost every mother she interviewed (who were generally in their late 60s to early 80s) was willing to admit that she preferred one child over another along at least a couple of dimensions.  They were responding to questions like “Who do you feel closest to?” and “Who would you call in an emergency?” and “If you need caregiving, who would you most like to provide it?”   Just recently she started asking another question, an especially fiery one: “Which child has most disappointed you?”

And here’s the thing: the preferences are normal, and inevitable.  But the “kids” (who in this study were generally in their 40s and 50s) suffered as a result.  In families in which the favoritism was most extreme, the researchers found, kids were most likely to have psychological problems like depression.  And this was true whether or not the kid in question was the most favored one.  In other words, in families where it’s clear that Mother prefers one kid over another, it’s just as oppressive to be the chosen child as it is to be the unchosen one.

All of which makes me wonder: when we joke around with our kids about which one’s smart and which one’s sporty, when we make the suggestion to one of them that the other one’s driving us crazy, when we babysit more for one son’s kids than for another son’s or give one daughter a necklace that the other one wanted, are we doing more damage than we know?  In that same hand-made graduation card that Nutmeg referred to last night, iDaddy and I had included the line, “and they loved them very very much, and exactly equally.”  Because we did — we do — love them equally.  But is that enough?

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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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I don’t know much about poetry, but the poems that strike me most deeply are the ones about parents and children — in particular, the ones about mothers and daughters.  I kept one on the refrigerator for years, until Meta, at the time an English grad-student with heightened sensibilities, told me it was banal and tacky.  But I like banal and tacky!  That’s the stuff that makes me weep!  And besides, I had created such a nice little tableau with that poem.  I had posted it on the fridge with an ironically childish refrigerator magnet from Nutmeg, which she made as a camp counselor the summer after she graduated from high school, when we had already abandoned her for our new life in NYC.  I have the magnet still: it’s an apple (Big Apple, get it?) on which she pasted a yellow taxicab, a blue C (for Columbia, where iDaddy had his new job), and a steaming cup of cappuccino to represent all the cafes in which I would soon be doing my writing.  As for the poem, it’s gone, I fear, taken down because both girls wanted it gone.  I recently searched the web site of The New Yorker, where it was published, to see if I could find it, but I can’t remember enough of the poem for that.

But another poem came my way just this morning from its author, whom I met at a literary dinner the other night.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to Becky, and we talked all the way through our meal, from the cold cucumber soup to the blueberry cobbler, about our writing and our kids.  Today Becky sent me this poem about her daughter, who’s 27, and she said it would be okay to post it on my blog.  So in honor of that generous spirit, and in honor of National Poetry Month, here it is.

Ode to a Pair of Pants

by Rebecca Okrent

For my daughter

Like moulted skin they tell

you’ve become other than you were,

no help from me since my misguided offerings

are piled like insults at the back of a drawer.

Well-worn when you found them

beside junked Tee’s and

catechism frocks at the thrift shop, the pants,

unwashable, must carry your DNA,

might have foretold

the rheumatoid arthritis that translated

your body into another language,

spooling your hopes.

The threads are Christmas tinsel,

interwoven with psychedelic blues.

The elastic band sagged at your waist –

I watched: daughter as saltlick

for Beelzebub bar mitvah boys.

Where they’ve been: college,

Appalachian Trail, dance studios,

Vancouver, Seattle, etc., Greece,

Istanbul, on your body,

into my lap, pants frayed to transparency as

you never will be, dear enigma.  It’s insulting,

you say when I wonder what I might have done

differently, not from disappointment,

but to spare you the bloom-bruising

hail and a garrisoned heart.

I never get it right.  If I found these pants again

I’d be too late.  Presuming your desire, confusing it

with mine, I have failed.  I wear my love,

tattered as these pants are,

its weft not tinsel, but mail.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Two ideas here are the ones that resonate the most with me, the ones that seem best to capture the quandaries of parenting grown-ups: “Presuming your desire, confusing it/with mine” is one of them.  And the urge “to spare you the bloom-bruising hail” is another.  Both things to watch out for, and I thank Becky for expressing these universal sentiments so specifically, and so poetically.

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As focused as I’ve been in thinking about being a mother to adult children from the point of view of the mother, I seem to have lost sight of the fact that I also have a stake in this issue from the point of view of the child.  My mother, God bless her, is still alive and opinionating at age 85, and our relationship in recent years has become a lot more mellow than it was at its worst.  (And its worst, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not during my adolescence, when I was a pretty placid and agreeable teenager, but during my young adulthood, when there was something about my sense of a self as a mother of daughters that poisoned the way I felt about myself as the daughter of a mother.)

But sometimes, even though our relationship is basically good, we flare up at each other.  We did today.  It seemed to come out of the blue with a phone call this afternoon, in which my mother — what should I call her as a blog nickname?  how about Ur-Momma — called to inform me that she was very offended by what she heard as “disdain” in the outgoing voicemail message I had left on her new cell phone.  “Don’t bother to leave a message, she can’t retrieve it,” I said in what I remember was meant to be a sort of joshy tone.  “Just call back.”

I was leaving the message on her behalf because I was giving her a different cell phone — my old phone, since I had caved in and accepted the hand-me-down smartphone that Nutmeg was offering me.  (This was a difficult decision on my part, which I arrived at mostly because whenever I heard myself saying things like, “But my own stupidphone works just fine,” I knew I was sounding just like Ur-Momma.  I didn’t want to turn into Ur-Momma.)  And here’s the crucial bit: on her old cell phone, Ur-Momma’s own outgoing voicemail message was, essentially, “Don’t bother to leave a message, I can’t retrieve it.”  She had made exactly the same joke.

Now, I told her that.  I told her I was only trying to imitate her own clever message.  She told me to listen to it again myself (three hours later, and I still haven’t, and don’t intend to) to hear how dismissive and disdainful my tone was.  It’s not funny that I don’t know how to retrieve messages, she said.  I know I’m a Luddite, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.

I could tell that the outgoing voicemail message wasn’t what was really bothering her, but I couldn’t get Ur-Momma to tell me what was.  We hung up on bad terms, and I looked for a wireless retailer where I could re-activate her old phone.   I called her back to tell her I would walk down to her apartment, take the old phone and the new phone, walk the two blocks to the wireless retailer, and get her the old phone back so she wouldn’t feel like such a technoklutz.   No answer.  This happens sometimes when Ur-Momma is feeling “down” — she just ignores the phone.  I called her back half an hour later.  I made my phone-switching offer, and then I asked her what was really going on.  I’m down, she said.  Why, I asked.  And suddenly we were yelling at each other about what was really bugging her — that my brother (let’s call him Avuncular) had called me last night, and I had told him that I was in the middle of a meeting and we’d have to talk another time.  When Ur-Momma called me this morning to see if I had talked to Avuncular, I told her that he had called but that we hadn’t spoken because I was in the middle of a meeting.

Turns out she was upset because I didn’t follow that up with “and I called him back when the meeting was over.”  Did she really need to know that it didn’t end till 11, and that I sent him an email early this morning suggesting that we talk later tonight?  Is it any business of hers?  I’m 56 years old — am I not allowed to deal with my relationship with my 53-year-old brother on my own, without one of us calling the other “because Mommy says”?

Apparently she thinks it is her business.  (And in another post I’ll say wonderful things about how smart and funny and involved and generous Ur-Momma is; just give me this one, about how annoying and intrusive she can be.)  After we stopped yelling, Ur-Momma went on and on about her favorite topic — my brother and me.  “The only thing that matters to me in my life is that my children are there for each other,” she said for the gazillionth time.  Avuncular and I grew up with the sing-song in our ears of “Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world.”  Ur-Momma is the oldest of three sisters and they are extraordinarily close, so even without the relentless sloganeering, Avuncular and I would have gotten the message from their loving example that siblings are a lifelong commitment.  AND I HAD ALREADY EMAILED HIM.

I get it, sort of.  I want Nutmeg and Meta to be friends and to rely on each other; in fact, before Ur-Momma ruined my day, I was still smiling after a lovely lunch with Nutmeg in which she had told me in hilarious detail about an endless Twitter and g-chat exchange between her and Meta regarding live yogurt cultures.  (Meta had even included me in the discussion by g-chatting me, “your other child doesn’t know what YOGURT IS MADE OF.”)  Like my own mother, I’ve always wanted my kids to be friends, to love each other, to know they could depend on each other.  Sometimes their relationship is good, sometimes less good — like any relationship.  But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do when it’s not going so well is to insert myself into it to try to make it better.

That’s what Ur-Momma has been doing between Avuncular and me our whole lives, taking the temperature of our relationship to make sure it meets her exacting standards — and if for some reason it doesn’t, to try to fix it.  That’s what she was doing today.  Amazingly, my brother and I love each other anyway.  I love my mother, too, but at the moment she’s pissing me off, and reminding me that with even the best of intentions, the parent of an adult child can sometimes make mistakes.

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the mommy card

The language maven Paul McFedries, curator of the Word Spy web site, is often spot-on about finding a language trend that reveals something fascinating about pop culture.  I’m not so wild about what today’s Word of the Day reveals about us.  Today’s word: the mommy card.

Here’s how McFedries describes it (with citations of its earliest uses, a cute modern interpretation of the Oxford English Dictionary’s style).

mommy card
n. A calling card that includes a mother’s name and contact information. Also: mom card.

Example Citations:
Being a parent is a job in itself, which is exactly why Carrie Hendrix developed “mommy cards,” business cards for parents….Depending on the design chosen, some mommy cards come with a bit of ribbon snaked through them. It makes them stand out from the everyday card, Hendrix said.
—Allison Miles, “Several Crossroads businesses jazz up their business cards,” Victoria Advocate, July 26, 2009
In the past few years, “mom cards” of all description have been showing up at baby groups, soccer fields and playgrounds. Some are printed with cutesy one-liners (“Get your mommy to call my mommy”) while others are emblazoned with damask or leopard prints. But the basic information is the same: the mother’s name, phone number and a job title such as Rugrat Wrangler or Annabelle’s Mom.
—Adriana Barton, “Networking mommies: Here’s my card, let’s do sandbox,” The Globe and Mail, January 11, 2010
Earliest Citation:
Tracy Ottinger left behind her suits and business cards when she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t miss the suits, but she was frustrated at not having a convenient way to provide information about herself. She started making her own “mommy cards” that listed her job, “Mother of Jake and Eli,” her address, phone numbers and e-mail address.
—Peggy O’Crowley, “Moms’ formal introduction,” The Star-Ledger, March 14, 2004

I actually thought, when I first saw the word, that it referred to someone PLAYING the Mommy Card, sort of like the Race Card –“No, sorry, I can’t get involved, I’m the mother.”  Or, better yet, “You better let me into your room, buster, I’m the mother.”  But this meaning, a literal card that people are literally using — eeuw.  No matter how central a part of our self-identities being a mother might be, surely there’s a less tacky way to announce it.  (How’s this for a suggestion: don’t announce such a thing at all.  Ever.)  In the end, though, maybe this is just one more indication of how much things have changed since Meta and Nutmeg were little.   Ah, the good old days — no cell phones, no soccer moms, no business cards.

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There was a line in an article by Dave Itzkoff in today’s New York Times about a mother and daughter appearing onstage together — Rhea Perlman and her 26-year-old daughter Lucy DeVito, about to join the cast of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” — that gave me pause. It’s about boundaries, something I’m always careful of trying to maintain with my own two daughters, who will henceforth be known by the pseudonyms Meta (age 29) and Nutmeg (age 25).

Using pseudonyms for them in this blog, which for now they don’t even know about, is one way I’m trying to impose my own boundaries. Boundaries between me and my girls is something I’ve never been that good at.

The line that struck me was this, referring to how Rhea Perlman was only offered the role in the play after the director asked Lucy, who was already acting in it, if it would be OK. “Sometimes you love to do things with your mother,” the director explained, “and sometimes not.”

It doesn’t work that way for the mother, at least not this mother.  I ALWAYS love to do things with my daughters.  Ask me to do something, Meta or Nutmeg, and I’ll drop everything to say yes.  It’s the same with my own mother, who is 85; she will always turn her schedule upside down if there’s something I suggest we do together, but as for me — well, sometimes not.  So I have to keep reminding myself of the fact that this mother-adult child thing is often a one-way street. I might love to do stuff with the girls just about all the time, but they don’t always love to do stuff with me.

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