Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door is the second novel in her trilogy about British soldiers traumatized by World War I trench warfare. These particular passages, childhood memories of one of those soldiers, working class Billy Prior, struck me as particularly apropos in light of all the fuss last week about the breastfeeding mom on the cover of Time. Since the novel is set in 1918 when Billy is supposed to be twenty-three years old, this first memory would've taken place around 1900.
The bell of the shop rang as he pushed the door open. How old? Four? Five? A smell of cat pee and tarred string from the bundles in the corner. Beattie's cat had never been able to resist marking those bundles. Mrs Thorpe plonked their Alfie on the counter while she paid her bill. Alfie swung his short legs in their sturdy boots, puffing away at a fag end though he was only three. Between drags, he sucked his mother's breast, puffing and sucking alternately, peering round the white curve at Prior, who was a Big Boy and therefore an object of interest and suspicion. It was late in the afternoon. Mrs Thorpe would be far gone. Jugs of best bitter were her favourite, chased down by sips of something medicinal that she kept in a flask fastened to her thigh with a home-made elastic garter. Whiskey for the heart, brandy for the lungs, gin for the bladder. Alfie, guzzling away at his mother's milk, looked contented, and well he might, since it could hardly be less than 70 proof.
Shocking, isn't it? But it's the smoking and the drinking that are so shocking, not the breastfeeding. In Mrs Thorpe's defence, the dangers of smoking and alcohol to developing children weren't understood at the time -- and breastfeeding was just the way mothers fed their kids, for as long as they could. After all, she wouldn't have had to pay for that milk.
This next passage is about a brief encounter with Mrs Thorpe and another woman Billy has when he goes back to his own village in 1918.
Before the war, women used to sit on their steps in the warm evenings after dark, postponing the moment when the raging bedbug must be faced, and taking pleasure in the only social contact they could enjoy without fear of condemnation. A woman seen chatting to her neighbours during the day quickly felt the weight of public disapproval. 'Eeh, look at that Mrs Thorpe. Eleven kids. You'd think she could find herself summat to do, wouldn't you?' Now, looking up and down the street. Prior saw deserted doorsteps. Women were out and about, but walking purposefully, as if they had somewhere to go.
He supposed it was Mrs Thorpe's name that came particularly to mind because she'd been one of the worst offenders, with her lard-white breasts the size of footballs, and Georgie or Alfie or Bobby worrying away at them, breaking off now and then for a drag on a tab end. Or perhaps, subconsciously, he'd already identified her, for there she was, coming towards him, divested of the clogs and shawl he'd always seen her in and wearing not merely a coat and hat but flesh-coloured stockings and shoes. It was scarcely possible the attractive woman with her should be Mrs Riley, but he didn't know who else it could be.
They greeted him with cries of delight, hugging, kissing, standing back, flashing their incredible smiles. There was a saying round here: for every child born a tooth lost, and certainly, before the war, Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Riley had advertised their fecundity every time they opened their mouths. Now, in place of gaps and blackened stumps was this even, flashing whiteness. 'What white teeth you have, Grandma,' he said.
'All the better to eat you with,' said Mrs Riley. 'And who are you calling Grandma?'
Mrs Thorpe asked, 'How long have you got, love?' And then, before he had time to answer, 'Eeh, aren't we awful, always asking that?'
'Well, make the most of it. Don't do anything we wouldn't do, mind.'
He smiled. 'How much scope does that give me?'
'Fair bit, these days,' said Mrs Riley.
He remembered, suddenly, that he'd sucked the breasts of both these women. His mother had been very ill for two months after his birth, and he'd been fed on tins of condensed milk from the corner shop, the same milk adults used in their tea. Babies in these streets were regularly fed on it. Babies fed on it regularly died. Then Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Riley had appeared, at that time, he supposed, lively young girls each with her own first baby at her breast. They had taken it in turns to feed him and, in doing so, had probably saved his life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, found on Lauren Cerand's How I'll Spend My Summer pinterest board. (It's way more fun to plan how you'll spend your summer than to recap it once you're back "in school.")
Gorgeous rocker cradle by fine woodworker Scott Morrison.
The copy I borrowed of Babies: An Unsentimental Anthology, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, is long overdue at the library. A computer somewhere is totting up my fine as I type. And that is a shame, as I've been meaning to post number of excerpts from this delicious collection of amusing, unflattering, and often realistic snippets from literature about babies. Here is one of my favourites:
If you rock an empty cradle, you will rock a new baby into it. This is a superstition in viridi observantia, and it is quite curious to see the face of alarm with which a poor woman, with her tenth baby in her arms, will dash across the room to prevent the 'baby-but-one' from engaging in such a dangerous amusement as rocking the empty cradle.
The Book of Days, Robert Chambers, 1864, II, 9 July
I've been collecting lots of photos of beautiful rocker cradles and rocking chairs on pinterest.
On my facebook and twitter statuses the other day I jokingly misquoted this as "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your ONE WILD AND PRECIOUS HOUR TO YOURSELF?" Other moms understood.
But I do love the real Mary Oliver quote and isn't this photo by Ez of Creature Comforts, so pretty? She should sell prints. This would be nice in the kids' room.
Although it's been almost two years since my second child Sylvie was born, I recently started reading Life After Birth: What Even Your Friends Won't Tell You About Motherhood by Kate Figes with Jean Zimmerman. It was published in 1998 and was the first of a small number of books that address the incredible changes a woman must face after having a child. There are a lot of books on pregnancy and childbirth and a lot of books on parenting and child development but there are not many at all on this particular subject. While I was pregnant with Luke, my first, six years ago, Andi Buchanan was kind enough to send me a copy of her excellent collection of personal essays, Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and I think that it is the only book I read at the time that addressed what might happen to me, physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially, after I gave birth.
Of course, the things that happen to you after you give birth and take your new baby home are the kinds of thing you have to experience in order to even begin to fully understand them. It is one thing to read that breastfeeding might be difficult and another for your breasts to blow up to the size of balloons and hurt so much you're tempted to prick them with a pin, to see if relief might come with the pop. It is one thing to be told that you will be exhausted and another to actually feel so tired you could lie down on the dirty floor of a busy grocery store and fall asleep immediately. It is one thing to read you might not be very interested in sex again for some time and another to feel as if you might scream if your partner even touches the back of your hand with the tip of his little finger. It is one thing to be told that you have never before felt such love as the love you'll have for your baby and it is another to be taken hostage by an emotion so powerful, intense, and daunting that "love" isn't a strong enough word for it -- or, worse yet and not uncommonly, to feel nothing much at all, at least in the beginning.
In Life After Birth, Kate Figes contends that these kinds of intense experiences mean that mothers have more in common with one another than they do with other childless women who have similar backgrounds and interests. In almost an aside, she writes:
Motherhood is a great leveler. The most privileged mother has far more in common with a socially and financially deprived mother than with a childless woman from the same social background. As I searched for differences among mothers I became acutely aware of the fact that their experiences felt uncannily similar. Money, education, and expectations inevitably affect the way that women manage motherhood, but the essence of the experience is essentially the same. The experience of childbirth differs from woman to woman depending on her physical makeup, her state of mind, the position and size of the baby, and the environment she gives birth in, but the physical rite of passage of giving birth is the same for every woman. It is an extraordinarily powerful event that can be enjoyable or nightmarish, but either way it is a landmark memory.
She points out that almost almost all mothers share a sense of wonder at the miracle of procreation; sooner or later feel frighteningly intense maternal love; find it difficult to manage the demands of work and motherhood; undergo mental and physical difficulties related to pregnancy and labour and often don't have time to recover; and find that their relationships with their friends, families and, most importantly, their partners, have changed in unexpected and unpleasant ways.
I agree with all of this, yes, but I found myself taken aback by the assertion that I have more in common with other mothers than I do with, say, my childless friends who share my background and interests. What does this even mean, to say you have more in common with one person than another? After all, having "things in common" isn't something you can objectively measure. Certainly being a mother is now a central aspect of my identity, perhaps even the most important, but I am still the person I was before I had my children. Do I now have more in common with, say, an impoverished fifteen-year-old mother of four in an African village, someone who doesn't even speak the same language I do, than one of my good friends, a lawyer by training, an avid reader, and a writer of my age and social class, who also happens to be a woman who hasn't given birth?
Although it's true that I have perhaps a better understanding of that other mother's emotions and concerns than I ever would've before, and more compassion for her, I still can't possibly understand the challenges she faces in her day-to-day life and, in fact, wouldn't be able to survive them with my sanity intact were we to somehow change places. And, having spent a lot of time with other stay-at-home mothers over the last five years or so, many of whom are much younger than I am and who don't share my interests or educational background, I must say that I think I might've gone crazy long before if I hadn't been able to talk about anything other than motherhood and childrearing with like-minded (and yes, childless!) friends every now and then.
What do you think? Are you, by virtue of having given birth, a member of a new sort of tribe that transcends class, social, and economic boundaries? Do you have more in common with other mothers than you do with any other childless women? Or does that kind of thinking marginalize mothers even further?
Amy Poehler's speech, thanking Time magazine for naming her one of the year's top 100 most influential people, starts out funny and quickly gets serious:
But tonight, I’m genuinely very humbled and honored to be part of this evening, so I would like to take my remaining minute to um … I have thought very hard and long about what has influenced me over the past couple of years, and since I have been at this dinner in 2008, I have given birth to two boys and I’ve left Saturday Night Live and I started my own TV show, and it’s been a crazy couple of years, and I thought who besides Madam Secretary Clinton and Lorne Michaels have influenced me? And it was the women who helped me take care of my children. It is Jackie Johnson from Trinidad and it is Dawa Chodon from Tibet, who come to my house and help me raise my children. And for you working women who are out there tonight who get to do what you get to do because there are wonderful people who help you at home, I would like to take a moment to thank those people, some of whom are watching their children right now, while you’re at this event. Those are people who love your children as much as you do, and who inspire them and influence them and on behalf of every sister and mother and person who stands in your kitchen and helps you love your child, I say thank you and I celebrate you tonight.
I love seeing a successful woman, particularly a celebrity, acknowledging and thanking the people who help her look after her children. More women need to do this. More men need to do this.
Seeing this pretty and old-fashioned One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book makes me wonder if anyone is using twitter to write one tweet at the end of each day summing it up. Just one tweet -- no more allowed. Facebook could work like that, too. One status update summing up each day, no more. But both twitter and facebook seem much more ephemeral than a journal. Are all your tweets and status updates saved? If so, for how long?
My mother-in-law kept a five-year diary before she died -- I believe she faithfully jotted just one line or two about each day before she went to bed. And I know my father-in-law does -- he often surprises me with a comment about what we were doing on this day two or three years ago. This is particularly of interest when you have small children who seem to change so fast.
I've often thought of using something like My Quotable Kid: A Parents' Journal of Unforgettable Quotes but I already record almost everything interesting or amusing my children say either here or on my facebook page, which I know drives a lot of people nuts. But I'm even a sucker for the funny things other people's children say, which makes me the perfect audience for sites like My Kid Is Gifted.
Can you read the quote from Neruda's The Great Tablecloth carved into that lazy susan? The carpenter ant at the sticks and bricks shop in Northhampton, MA has been stamping poems into wooden furniture. She's done a trunk with a Maya Angelou poem, a drop-leaf table with one by Kahlil Giban and a Yeats wine rack. Something like this would make a lovely custom gift for someone. Incidentally, learning to refinish and rebuild wooden furniture like the sticks and bricks stuff is something I want to do before I die.
Or maybe they just had the same hairstylist: no one.
Can you figure out who said what?
1. "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax."
2. "A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds."
3. "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school."
4. "All generalizations are false, including this one."
5. "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
6. "I never think of the future. It comes soon enough."
7. "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."
8. "Don't let schooling interfere with your education." (Note the similarity to 3.)
9. "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense."
10. "Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered - either by themselves or by others."
11. "Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love."
12. "Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing."
13. "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."
14. "To refuse awards is another way of accepting them with more noise than is normal."
15. "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it."
16. "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
17. "Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today."
18. "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods."
19. "It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it."
20. "Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers. This is a cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves."
1. E. 2. T 3. E. 4. T 5. T 6. E 7. E. 8. T 9. T 10. T 11. E 12. E 13. E 14. T 15. T 16. E. 17. T 18. E 19. T 20. E
This quiz is in honour of the publication of Autobiography of Mark Twain, the first sample chapter of which I downloaded to my kindle last night. Unfortunately the first chapter consisted of pages and pages of academic notes. I can generally get a good hit off those frees of e-books but not in this case. Because of my kindle, I am beginning to be extremely widely read -- as long as one counts only the first chapters of books. Still, I dare say this makes me more knowledgeable than many a cocktail party guest or book club participant and they don't refrain from commenting.