Wednesday, February 23, 2005


For some reason, some review I read somewhere, quite some time ago, inspired me to jot down a title: Amanda Bright@Home, by Danielle Crittenden (May 2003). I suppose it was that review that brought to my attention that there was such a thing as mommy lit, and that, essentially, it was about me, the same way that Bridget Jones and Sex and the City were about my friends.

I've never read any mommy lit. I've read books about women who had children and women who were incidentally pregnant, but I don't think the genre includes, say, Brick Lane or the novels featuring a pregnant Thursday Next.

Last week I read amanda_bright@home (as it is oh so cleverly styled), proving that I have not lost the ability to read altogether and, when circumstances are right, can squeeze out time for a silly book and lose myself in it.

The title character is the stay-at-home mom of 2 kids, ages 3 and 5.

The writing is not very good. Some of this may be excused considering the novel was originally serialized (in the Wall Street Journal); small chunks set against financial news may not appear so lifeless, sapped of all colour and energy, as when bound in a single volume.

Just a few pages in, there's this:
"Her own practical one-piece was faded and stretched after many summers of propelling toddlers through the shallow end of her public pool."
"...five years of constant interruption from small children had taught them both to wait for the right moment to talk."

Although I can relate to the feeling of a constant demand for my attention, you'd think she tended a large brood that never left her side, when in fact the children when not in preschool are entertaining each other or are being watched by other people's nannies (not that this makes a mother's experience easy). We don't see much of Amanda's daily life with her children. To be fair, this is not a book about raising kids; it's the story of the mother's perception, the mother's life — those moments of self between the mother times, the spaces in her head. However, a little more of the day-to-day might've made Amanda a more sympathetic character.

The bigger problem is that there is no sense of Amanda's "real" self on which to hang a story.

Amanda considers returning to work. Her business suits hang in the closet. The point is made repeatedly that she's college-educated and that the play-group mothers are vapid even if they were once professionals. That she wants adult interaction. But we're given no glimpse of her education, her work, her interests. How do you sympathize with nothing? Maybe that's the point — she doesn't know who she is anymore than we do. Motherhood can do that to a woman.

For a subplot, Amanda's few-days-long lust for a stay-at-home playwright dad is dispelled when his play is poorly received at a seniors' home. I was completely removed from her embarrassment and the overwhelming shame of her feelings. Likewise, her jealousy regarding a woman of her husband's acquaintance is out of proportion with what little we know of Amanda's emotional life.

I can't feel sorry for her. I can't root for her. I don't particularly like her. I don't know her at all.

I find it hard to fathom the gusto with which the blurbs lavish praise on this book. The characters are weak; the humour is mild; the emotions not believable; the resolution unsatisfactory. (Just like real life?) Reviewers, perhaps, merely were excited to herald a birth — chick-lit chicks "grow up" (age, anyway) and have babies.

Perhaps this novel is evidence of the difficulty of capturing the essence of "Everymother." While packed with circumstances and events that any mother can relate to superficially, there is no universal truth. Mothers' stories ought to be told, but they deserve more reflection and care in the telling.

A bit of escapist fluff. I loved hating every page of it. An antidote to recent "mommy madness."

There is commentary everywhere regarding Judith Warner's Newsweek article.

From the New York Times review of the book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:
Warner channels a big, explosive feeling, which she identifies as frustration at "the mommy mystique" or, more resonantly, "this mess."

Other quotable bits:
  • Just because we have issue fatigue, that doesn't mean we don't have an issue.
  • For all its excesses, overparenting is still preferable to its alternative.
  • But insofar as mothers with jobs and mothers without them could conceivably band together to form a very large interest group, we do represent a whopping opportunity for change. Whether we take that opportunity depends on whether we can pull ourselves out of our mess long enough to persuade those around us to clean up theirs.

  • In an interview with Salon, Warner starts out sounding reasonable enough, but it doesn't take long to spark controversy:
    One generation back, our mothers didn't put the same pressures on themselves to be sitting on the floor, building with Legos. They were ironing or gardening or cooking dinner or talking on the phone, and not feeling guilty about doing that.

    The bad memories that women seem to have, interestingly enough, is of overinvolved mothers who were frustrated and unhappy with their lives and who were overinvested in their children as a result.

    Warner goes on to proclaim that it's a lost cause to get fathers to do their fair share.

    Of note, and not exactly, but kind of, in keeping with the generally accusatory tone of her articles:
    I think that parents have to take some responsibility for their children's behavior. In the past, I know, mothers were blamed for absolutely everything, and this was ridiculous and hateful. I am very clear to say in the book that I don't want to play into that same history of mother blaming.

    However, I think that we have gone too far now in the direction of avoiding parent blaming — and this is an issue of parental behavior, not just of mothers'. It is now politically incorrect to even talk about the family environment as playing a role in children's "issues" — behavioral or emotional. Everything now is brain chemistry and genetics, and, frankly, while that is up to a point true, it also lets parents and society, which is the larger point of the book, entirely off the hook.

    While I in no way want to add to mothers' guilt, I think it does our children a great disservice to not even open our minds and hearts to the possibility that some of the things we do — and by "we" I mean mothers and fathers and educators and society; I can't make this point strongly enough — have deleterious effects.

    Me on mommy dilemmas and motherhood supports: I don't know.

    I remind myself: "Just because we have issue fatigue, that doesn't mean we don't have an issue."


    Karin said...

    Thanks for the thorough review; it was magnificent. You've saved me some reading time and I appreciate it. I have a hard time relating to someone whose kids spend so much time away from her feeling stressed by being constantly in demand.

    Michele said...

    What a wonderfully written review. I love when you do a post about a book; they are always captiviating.

    Mamacita said...

    ". . . a pregnant Thursday Next. . . ." Oh my gosh, you KNOW! Aren't those books awesome?