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Shock value

Mother Shock:
Loving Every (Other) Minute of It

By Andrea J. Buchanan
Seal Press, 2003 (paperback)

When I was invited to review Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock, I accepted with some trepidation. I really wanted to like this book, but I was afraid I might be in for another soppy rendition of one woman learning the ropes of motherhood, complete with sanitized descriptions of the emotional free-fall of family life and cheery anecdotes about the cute, crazy-making things those oh-so-lovable kids do to make your life a living hell. Frankly, I’ve read enough of that sort of thing to last a lifetime. So I was delighted to discover that Mother Shock is a refreshingly down-to-earth account of pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood that transmits something truly important about what the complicated and conflicted life of real-world mothers actually feels like.

Buchanan compares the emotional upheaval of the early months of new motherhood to the experience of culture shock: “Imagine you have just moved to a foreign country. You have the worst case of jet lag ever. The guidebook you brought, which seemed so comprehensive before you left home, does not tell you everything you need to know. You don’t speak the language, and everything is confusing …Despite the newness of everything, in this country you are expected to adapt immediately. But the rhythms of life are different here …You miss your old life, where everything was familiar. You miss your friends back home, who only imagine the excitement of your travels and are unable to understand the difficulties you describe.” It’s a clever and apt analogy, and it serves Buchanan well as she recounts the internal sea changes and tectonic shifts that rocked her world during the first years of her daughter’s life.

Mother Shock is a collection of short essays written over a period of several years; a few of the readings were previously published on HipMama and in print anthologies. A number of the entries are only three or four pages long, making Mother Shock an ideal read for mothers who are hard pressed for personal time (and who among us is not?)-- one can easily polish off one or two slices of Buchanan’s smooth prose in under 30 minutes. I’d be hard pressed to pick a short list of favorites, but “Loving Every (Other) Minute of It,” “The Invisible Woman,” and “Confessions of a Bottle Feeder” should be required reading for every mother and mother-to-be.

Mother Shock is indeed a pleasure to read, but it can also be appreciated as an act of resistance. Buchanan rejects the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural cues that encourage mothers to put on a happy face -- even if their hearts are roiling with confusion, dread, and bitter disillusionment. Sociologist and author Susan Maushart describes this facade as the “mask of motherhood,” and Mother Shock invites us take a long, hard look at what lies beneath.

While the essays in Mother Shock take the classic approach -- which is to say they elaborate on the emotional and practical challenges of becoming a mother -- Buchanan recounts her personal experiences from an angle that is not necessarily comforting or comfortable. For example, she lets the reader know in no uncertain terms that it’s impossible to really know what to expect when you’re expecting. Not all pregnancies end up as beautiful babies boys and girls – some come to an end almost as soon as they begin, but there is scant social recognition of the sadness and sense of vulnerability a mother feels after miscarriage. And by the way, those lovingly crafted birthing plans are completely meaningless when the course of nature and modern medical intervention take over the show.

For those unusually resilient or uninitiated individuals who’ve manage to cling to a few tender fantasies about perfect maternal moments filled with transcendent bliss, Buchanan is here to reminds us that it’s much, much easier (an a lot more blissful) to imagine being a mother than it is to actually be one -- and that the perfect moments of motherhood are subtle, rare, and almost never bear any resemblance to the pictures we carry around in our heads.

Some readers might complain that Mother Shock is overly pessimistic, but in fact Buchanan’s style is funny, bright and extremely accessible. The author definitely has a flair for dark humor; she walks a thin line between making light of a serious topic and plunging the reader into the depression zone -- and does so with incredible confidence, so that what the we see and absorb is the unvarnished truth about motherhood, stretch marks and all.

My only misgiving about Mother Shock is that it's the kind of book women tend to pick up after the baby is born -- after they’ve reached that weary, disenchanted stage when it's become painfully obvious that this motherhood gig is not all it’s cracked up to be. Buchanan’s book would make a far more enlightened shower gift for the new-mom-to-be than those dreadful how-to-have-a-healthy-baby guides that clutter up the bedside tables of pregnant women everywhere.

Then again, expectant mothers might reject Mother Shock as the dispirited work of a pathetic malcontent who wasn’t cut out to be a mother in the first place -- because if the writer was Grade A motherhood material, surely she would have cheerfully assimilated into her new role and would have presented us with a very different sort of book -- one filled with charming essays about all the cute, crazy-making things those oh-so-lovable kids do to make your life a living hell, etcetera.

Those of us who have been roughing it through the rocky territory of motherhood for a few years understand that such mothers would eventually grasp the delusional quality of this type of thinking. But even if they find the message of Mother Shock hard to swallow, at least brand-new mothers -- or mothers-to-be -- who’ve sampled Buchanan’s excellent book will never have a good reason to ask the perennial question: “why didn’t anyone ever tell me that motherhood was going to be like this?”

Judith Stadtman Tucker
October 2003

Also of interest:

The "Mother Shock" web site

Andi Buchanan's Mother Shock blog

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