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Wistful thinking

A flurry of new articles focus on an earlier generation of
mothers writing about motherhood

Mother Lit” is hot.The publishing world has discovered motherhood, and mothers are snapping up new works reflecting the emotional contours of their messy -- and sometimes messed-up -- lives. Editors speculate that the popularity of books such as Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, Allison Pearson's I Don’t Know How She Does It and Cathi Hanauer's The Bitch In the House is the just the beginning of a profitable bookselling trend.

This, of course, is great news for women who hope to blend the work of writing with motherhood -- and we seem to be everywhere nowadays. The sudden proliferation of mother-writers is not necessarily opportunistic, since women poets, authors and journalists can and do become mothers. But there's also a dearly held theory that the writing life can be successfully incorporated into a daily routine which includes attending to the needs of young children -- not easily and not always merrily, but rumor has it that it can be done. Although a private space, if not a room, of one’s own is highly recommended, authoring is not an activity the requires the kind of expensive or delicate equipment that provokes the destructive impulses of a two-year-old, or one that's unusually time sensitive (as long as no editorial deadline looms). Unlike occupations that depend on the job-holder's ability to satisfy clients on demand or comply with a rigid schedule, writing seems to tolerate the necessary trade offs between working time and parenting time reasonably well.

Personally, I like to think motherhood opens up mental space for the type of introspection that tends to stimulate the creative process -- that perhaps as we go through the frequently grinding and unglamorous duties of mothering, we become more attuned to the complicated and changing ways our present lives are connected to our children, our partners and our pasts. Motherhood becomes a new lens through which to view the world, and, for good or ill (but mostly for good), a fair number of mothers are determined to write about it.

Mothers write about motherhood in any number of ways, but there is a particular genre of humorous writing about the daily challenges of child-rearing and homemaking that reached its pinnacle in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Mothers still write about amusing entanglements with the kids, the house, the husband and the pets in a with a lightness that replays their experience as both harrowing and hilarious -- short stories and personal essays in this style are the mainstay of every popular women's magazine, and the best of these works are a pleasure to read. But several thoughtful reviewers have come forward to suggest that none of the new contenders can compare to the true masters of domestic wit -- Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, and Shirley Jackson.

In the Summer 2003 issue of Brain, Child Magazine, Sundae Horn offers a retrospective of the works of Bombeck, Kerr (whose best known work is Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) and Jackson -- who, in addition to writing The Lottery and other dark short fiction, penned two charming books about the trials and tribulations of family life in small town Vermont. Horn wonders why these fifty-year old books still make us laugh. “Sure women have more options now,” she writes, “but revisiting these chronicles of domestic life before the revolution shows that motherhood and marriage, and especially housekeeping, haven’t changed much at all.”

Horn may be exaggerating a bit -- elements of all three authors’ material do seem seriously dated -- but there's no denying their writing is still smart and funny. Stylistically, Jackson, Kerr and Bombeck were worlds apart, but all shared a self-deprecating style of humor that hits the spot. Kerr had an especially wicked sense of timing and a flair for delivering the punch line dead on. All had an ability to be genuinely touching without resorting to syrupy sentimentality, and none batted an eye about describing their children as “horrible little beasts”.

Another interesting commentary related to this trio of mother/writers comes from Caitlin Flanagan, who highlights the work of Erma Bombeck in her essay Housewife Confidential for the The Atlantic Monthly (September 2003). Flanagan muses on the contrast between the modest expectations of the “old-fashioned” housewives of our mother’s generation -- the target audience for Bombeck’s acerbic observations about the casual absurdities of wife and motherdom -- and the over-inflated anxieties of “stay-at-home” moms today.

In comparison to housewives of the 60s and 70s -- who, Flanagan contends, viewed child rearing as an incidental aspect of marriage and homemaking -- today’s “at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can… She must find a way to combine the traditional women’s work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most importantly, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll’s House existence, of the housewife of old.”

Flanagan’s critique is not entirely unsympathetic to the new breed of middle class mothers who prioritize caregiving over careers (Flanagan describes herself as an at-home mother, even though she has a regular writing gig with the Atlantic Monthly), but she questions the self-absorption of mothers who've chosen the neo-traditional path of putting children first and foremost. More poignantly, Flanagan’s essay is also a gentle homage to her own housewife mother, who she portrays as active, involved and blithely unaware of the incompatibility of housework and a healthy reserve of self-esteem.

Two recent essays focus on the life and work of Jean Kerr: “Giving Mirth” by Elizabeth Austin in the March 2003 issue of The Washington Monthly and “Days of Wine and Daisies: The Happy Life and Work of Jean Kerr” by Susie Currie in the April 14, 2003 edition of The Weekly Standard. ”Days of Wine and Daisies” covers some biographical ground -- in addition to her popular books on the exigencies of domestic life, Kerr was a successful playwright -- but Currie manages to merge Kerr’s identity with the character played by actress Doris Day in the film version of “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” Currie seems slightly more entranced by Day’s portrayal of Kerr’s alter ego than by Kerr herself; there is a sense she imagines the author's life as a kind of film set where the inevitable upsets of marriage and parenting are brighter and more amusing than anything we could possibly muster in our dreary post-feminist lives.

Elizabeth Austin seems to labor under similar sycophantic illusions when she blurs the boundaries between Jean Kerr’s life and her literature in an essay for The Washington Monthly. “For modern women writers, balancing work and family is agony,” she writes. “For Jean Kerr, it was an art form.” We'll never know if the balancing act was agonizing for Kerr -- or for Jackson or Bombeck -- since these writers only describe the practical challenges of mixing up family with a literary career in passing, if at all. For Jackson -- who was a prolific writer, and by all accounts a highly disciplined one -- juggling the demands her rowdy household and her dark muse may indeed have been a struggle. And as Austin admits in her essay, Jean Kerr “never lets us that far inside.”

Though Austin concedes that even “in Kerr’s heyday, that image of the harried but happy mom occasionally smacked of the emotional airbrush,” she is not reluctant to confess that her private ambition is to emulate not the flesh-and-blood woman who was Jean Kerr, but the persona Kerr invented in her writing.

As a young fan of Kerr’s work, Austin latched onto the idea that the “blueprint for happiness” was to “find a nice, literate husband, buy a tumbledown Victorian house, fill it with clever mischievous children and big slobbery dogs with whimsical names, and spend your leisure moments tossing off witty little essays on the vicissitudes of domestic life.” From what we can glean from Austin’s essay, it seems that she actually gave this method a whirl (for example, she reveals she has two large dogs, whimsically and literately named “Benchley” and “Dickens”). Austin does not go into the details of any flaws she may have stumbled upon in her optimistic life plan, but she mentions that when she called Kerr -- who died in early 2003 at the age of 80 -- to complain that “it is far funnier to read about collapsing plaster, incontinent dogs and impertinent toddlers than it is to deal with them on a daily basis,” Kerr “freely admitted that she had edited out some of the less amusing aspects of both homemaking and publishing.”

Perhaps that should have been obvious from the get-go, but Austin gripes that “mother/writers of the half-century have focused on the anxieties and stresses of parenting.” She also grumbles that Erma Bombeck’s “wise-cracking oy-vey approach to life guaranteed her a huge audience, although it didn’t do much for the psyche of the American mother. It’s downright dispiriting to read much Bombeck. Her world is one of unappreciated, unfulfilled wives and mothers drudging away year after year, hoping to receive one glimmer of recognition that will make it all worthwhile.” Austin’s withering dismissal of Bombeck’s work -- which, in fact, is outrageously funny -- may be due to the fact that Bombeck, unlike Kerr, was not hesitant to inhabit a world where hostility pools close to the surface of domestic life.

In Austin’s most nostalgic moment, she writes: “The thing I most love about Kerr, and the generation of women who were her most loyal readers, is that they seemed to be taking motherhood on a pass-fail basis. They weren’t competing desperately for straight A’s on the homefront -- nor were they ‘surrendered’ wives and mothers, submerging their identities in the giant gaping maw of family life.” Austin’s longing for a happier time when women’s life choices were less conflicted seems to ignore the fact that Kerr’s side-splitting accounts of family life were, to a degree, fictionalized -- in essence if not in detail. But it’s worth paying attention to what Austin writes about the perceived difference between mothers then and now.

This generation of mothers -- and writing by mothers about motherhood that’s meaty enough to stick to the ribs -- does tend to project a certain aura of angst. In one way or another, most of us seem to be absorbed by our children’s constant needs, or preoccupied with the effort not to be -- a proposition that's bound to create emotional friction, either way. There's a suspicion that in the process of becoming mothers, we somehow lose our existential nametags and have to go through all the trouble of reconstructing our distinctive identities from Square One. Then there's the constant insecurity that, when it comes to raising children in today’s world, you can never be too sure you’re doing the right thing. With a little uninterrupted time and enough talent, we might be able to transform some of the more aggravating or mortifying incidents of family life into a brilliantly funny essay or two, but these moments rarely feel like barrel of fun when we’re living through them -- and I’d hazard a guess it wasn’t a whole lot different for mothers in the 50s, 60s, or 70s.

The thing that strikes me most about this collection of essays is that the writers share a sense of regret that our lives will never be as emotionally simple as we like to believe our mothers’ lives were. Our options for combining work and family are liberating, but they bear down on us as well. Cultural attitudes about the health and safety of children have also changed dramatically over the last 50 years -- Shirley Jackson never had to worry that her hyperactive and high-spirited firstborn might be ADHD, and Kerr never bothered say whether she frantically dialed poison control after her crafty little darlings devoured the famous floral centerpiece. Life is not as light as we might like it to be -- and perhaps that's the key to the enduring popularity of women's literature that minimizes the real pain and inevitable failures of marriage and child-rearing .

Maybe mothers today do need to relax, kick back, and stop fretting  so much about the kids and the meaning of it all. Obsess less and enjoy more. Allow ourselves to be imperfectionists from time to time. Let’s be happy-go-lucky, and let ourselves laugh about the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. But let's not get so damn slaphappy that we stop writing the truth about motherhood.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
April 2003

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of The Mothers Movement Online. As a child she favored the works of James Thurber, adored F. Scott Fitzgerald in her teens, and as a young woman read everything by Henry James. When she was writing this review, her husband noticed a collection of Erma Bombeck’s work on the top of her reading pile, and quipped: “That’s a little lighter than your usual fare, isn’t it?”


Housewife Confidential: A tribute to the old-fashioned housewife,
and to Erma Bombeck, her champion and guide

By Caitlin Flanagan
The Atlantic Monthly, September 2003.

The More Things Change… Revisiting the First Wave of Mother Lit
By Sundae Horn for Brain, Child Magazine, Summer 2003.

Also by Sundae Horn for Brain, Child:
The Women Who Would Be Erma (and Jean and Shirley): Modern Adventures in Writing and Mothering

Days of Wine and Daisies: The Happy Life and Work of Jean Kerr
By Susie Currie for The Weekly Standard, April 2003

Giving Mirth
by Elizabeth Austin for The Washington Monthly, March 2003

What are you reading? Let us know. Send your recommendations to editor@mothersmovement.org
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© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online