Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Motherhood Is Kicking My Ass

When you're up at 3am because the baby is crying and you're trying to teach him to calm himself down, so you are only going in every five-ish minutes, so you don't want to go to sleep because getting up every five minutes for two hours is too brutal, so you're reading in bed at 3am--at those moments, you can be somewhat critical of a parenting memoir. That's why last night (technically this morning), I put down It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong, and finished up Under the Jolly Roger, by L.A. Meyer. That was an awesome book about pirating, which you should read after you've finished the first two in the series, starting with Bloody Jack.

When I came back to It Sucked and Then I Cried this morning, after a short sleep and a shorter nap, I was not quite as ready to sell my beloved son for a pudding pop and a bottle of NyQuil. I read, and I love Heather's writing (I feel that I can call her Heather, since I read her blog and that's what she calls herself). And I didn't mind at all that most of the content was from the blog--in fact, I appreciate the amount of work she put into making it come together in chapters instead of keeping it short, distinct essays.

She's hilarious, and a great storyteller/anecdotist. (My spellchecker is accepting that word, so I don't think I made it up.) I'm a little disappointed by the book, though, for a couple of reasons that I think are tied into the Rampaging Wakefulness I went through last night. Mostly, it comes down to this: I wish the book had plumbed a little deeper than the blog posts.

I think I wrote this summer about how I see blogging as a very specific style of writing. Hers are funny--even when she's talking about things that are important and difficult, there's a thread of funny that I don't know if she could lose if she tried, and I think that's great. But I found that the laughs that worked so well online kind of kept the book from coming together. The truth--emotional and factual--of a lot of the stories are hard to get at past the hyperbolic humor and caricatures.

That might be okay in another book. I didn't see the movie Life is Beautiful, but I suspect it's a similar thing--tragedy told through humor. The difference, though, is that we all know the tragedy there--nobody hasn't seen a dozen holocaust movies, nobody doesn't know the horror story. This is why the warmth and humor can be transcendant--it does something different with something familiar.

Her story, the "motherhood, especially early motherhood, can be painful and soul-wrenching" story, hasn't been told enough. I wanted to read that story, I wanted to hear the voice of this person saying, yes, it's that hard. And she says it, but then she giggles because she just said the word "hard," and I feel a little let down.

I think it came together for me in the chapter in which she enters the hospital, near the end of the book. I realized that each of the anecdotes, while told in a sequential and narrative way, is emotionally separate from the others. She says that she cried, threw things, felt a mess. But then she tells other anecdotes that don't have any real emotional weight either way, and you're not sure how this relates to either the glory or the horror that she's going through. When she goes to the hospital, it's almost a surprise, because you didn't feel the escalation coming throughout the story. She talks about her suffering, but the sense of it doesn't permeate it.

Maybe I just had very specific expectations, because I'm a new mom and I've been struggling. I don't have the illnesses that she has always struggled with, but this job is not easy, and sometimes the intensity of my feelings, the question of where my life went, the agony and the ecstasy--never forget the ecstasy, even when someone's peeing on you--is overwhelming. Heather's a great writer, and I was really hoping to read something here where someone wrapped her arms around these feelings without sentiment or dry academic language, but with humor and sympathy.

But she went a different way--this is a humorist's book about a serious topic. And it does that job well. It's just not the job I was expecting.


Linden said...

Sharon, I had a similar reaction to the book. It was really funny, but I was hoping for something a little more serious. Like you, I found it a little unrewarding that the book often says parenting is hard, but does not really show the hard parts - she doesn't allow me to understand how she really feels in between the jokes and exaggerations. It probably also doesn't help that, although I'm also finding parenting hard, it seems like I find different things hard than she does, so it's more difficult for me to relate to her story in the details.

Anonymous said...

Oh Sharon, the motherhood thing gets better - you probably didn't realize it at the time, but I did a happy dance every time I arrived on time to Linda's class last summer (I'm here, I'm getting my brain and my life back). Just think, in a few years, you'll have a captive audience with which you can share all your favorite books (although my kids still don't understand why Santa loves to bring so many books at Christmas).