Let the wild rumpus start!
There I was a few months ago, clicking obsessively through the stats pages for this site, carefully cataloguing who links to me so that I might send each writer a crisp, new $100 bill and a handwritten thank you note, and I happened across a link from Ayun Halliday. Ayun is the creator of the zine The East Village Inky and author of several books, including Dirty Sugar Cookies and The Big Rumpus. She's also the mother of two small children, and, because her link pointed to my page of advice for NICU parents, it was immediately obvious she and I had been around the same block. (Her own good advice is featured here.) I ordered The Big Rumpus, Ayun's chronicle of her early years of motherhood, immediately.
In a strange but compelling coincidence, the book arrived on the same day as Ayun's e-mail asking if I'd participate in her virtual book tour for its U.K. release (retitled Mama Lama Ding Dong but otherwise unchanged, "motherfucker"s faithfully unswapped for "Eh, wot?! Tally ho, guv'nah!"). I don't usually participate in these because, egad, what modern mother has time to read when we're all so busy drinking? But because Fate, costumed in one of her grubbier guises as the UPS delivery man, had decreed it, I told Ayun I'd love to.
Remember how I said up there that Ayun and I had been around the same block? Well, as I read The Big Rumpus, it quickly became clear that that was true, as far as it went, but that she's the breezy, funny, wisecracking woman ambling happily along the sunny side of the street, whereas I am the dirty guy crouching miserably on the corner holding out a tattered Partho-cup, shaking it feebly, asking for change, and then bellowing an outraged "BITCH!" after anyone who refused.
Whoa. Sorry. Maybe Ayun's colorful descriptions of Manhattan life were just a little too evocative.
Anyway, to abandon that poor slaughtered metaphor, what I mean is that while Ayun and I are both mothers, our experiences of parenthood are, so far, vastly, vastly different. She stayed in the city to raise her children; Paul and I abandoned it before we even started trying to have one. She conceived both her kids easily: "I had all the contraceptive luck with breastfeeding that I've had with my diaphragm." Her birth stories are hilarious and touching. And breastfeeding for her is a joy:
Shortly after moving to New York, I decided I'd better make a plan in case I got pushed in front of a subway train. [...] I wondered what I'd say if I were pinned between the train and the platform with just minutes to live...I could instruct the gaping herd to bring me my baby. "I want to feed her one last time..." Someone would put Inky to my breast. I would die happy.
Well, hell, I'd have people bring me Charlie, too. But if it had been while we were still giving nursing a go, I'd have cradled him close to my breast, stroked his head, and said, "No, no, it's okay, baby! No screaming! Hey hey hey, shhhhhh! Shhhhhh! Aw, bunny, it's okay! I'm not going to make you try this time."
These differences aren't necessarily upsetting, because I try to be a hundred-flowers-bloomer, but some of them do seem exotic to me. For me, much of The Big Rumpus read like a fascinating travelogue or perhaps an intriguing anthropological treatise — if anthropologists ever enjoy a rollicking laugh about head lice, that is. It was absorbing. It was thought-provoking. A lot of it was really, really funny. But to much of it, I couldn't really relate. And a few parts of it, I admit, even sent my hackles soaring skyward. And if you've ever tried to scrape a hackle off the ceiling, you can appreciate how long I spent swearing on the stepladder with the putty knife after reading this:
Some of my supporters would be horrified to learn that I breastfed Inky until she was two and a half, still sleep in the same bed as Milo and regard the highly popular Ferber technique of getting children to sleep through the night by leaving them to cry as close to sanctioned child abuse. Not that I judge anyone who Ferberizes her child! Oh no no no no no! We all do what we have to in order to make it work.
Oh, my stars, no. Not that we judge each other! No no no no no.
But there are a few places I found common ground with Ayun. The first came as I read the part of the book called "Neonatal Sweet Potato: Dispatches from the New World," specifically her stories of her daughter's stay in the NICU. India — her zine's eponymous Inky — was born full-term but spent two weeks in the hospital after contracting a mysterious infection.
My baby's bassinet in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit looks like one of the large plastic bins we used to store lettuce back when I was waiting tables at Dave's Italian Kitchen. It is lined with half a dozen hospital-issue baby blankets, expertly folded to perform a variety of functions. They anchor the crib sheets, warm the tiny occupant, and form a protective horseshoe around the eggshell head. The burgundy and turquoise stripes that edge the white flannel make me think of Mother Teresa's order, nuns in homespun saris. I steal one of the blankets to cuddle and cling to on the nights when I am in bed on the maternity ward and baby is in her salad bin one flight below. When I'm not crying into it, I hide the blanket in my fake-wood nightstand. I don't relish the idea of being busted, but I have reason to think I'll be treated with clemency if my theft is discovered. All the other new mothers get to keep their babies. Who would begrudge me a soft little blankie that smells like the dryer?
I remarked to the same nurse, "I can't complain. I know there are other people here whose situations are much worse than mine..."
"Well," the nurse replied, "it's a place of broken dreams. No matter what the situation is, it boils down to somebody's dream being shattered."
But Ayun and I were both lucky:
After she said that, I felt like I could relax. Yeah, my dream was shattered but my baby is alive. [...] What are dreams? They're plates you can afford to hurl against the wall as long as the important things escape unharmed.
And the important things have. Ayun can stop you in her tracks with sudden blasts of perceptiveness and honesty. "How does Inky drive me crazy? Great leaping Jesus, how doesn't she drive me crazy?" she writes.
It's rooted in desire. Her constantly voiced desire to purchase a "beauuuuuutiful dress" like the one she saw in the catalog at her grandmother's house. My desire for my children to look like something other than the hemophiliac offspring of English royalty. [...] My desire for her to occupy herself quietly with a coloring book until it's time to go to bed early. Her desire for me to color with her. My desire not to do that. She drives me crazy.
I drive her crazy, too.
And she didn't lose her sense of humor.
I don't want to be one of those mommies who snap at their children for doing it wrong; neither can i stand to see a big glob of glitter glue squirted where it doesn't belong. Glitter glue should be distributed evenly, to form a pleasing shape. Actually, glitter glue should not be distributed at all. Please do not give glitter glue to people who have children, even if they are artsy. If you have given glitter glue to Inky in the past, please refrain from doing so again. It turns her mother into a bitch.
Maybe, but a funny bitch. And that's ultimately what allowed me to get off the stepladder and move past the few parts of the book that made me uncomfortable to the parts I could truly enjoy. That more than anything else is what my favorite mothers have in common, after all. And although our experience of being parents is radically different in many ways, at bedrock I'm glad that she's here to speak for all of us: raising children, she says,
...is like getting off the graveyard shift at Burger King with fifteen minutes to make it to my second job in the coal mines. Of course, once a week I am summoned from the mine shaft to accept the Nobel Prize, but goddamn it, I earn those.
SPECIAL BONUS AFTERTHOUGHTS!
Because Ayun's been so generous with her time as her virtual book tour moves around the Web, answering interview questions and sharing pictures, I thought I'd ask her for a picture of her daughter in her blanket to post alongside the ones I have of Charlie. I did, and she responded promptly, sending two pictures of a brand-new sleeping Inky.
I loved the pictures. I wasn't prepared, however, for how her accompanying note hit me:
"i sent 2 b/c the nicu picture looks so crazy alarming and I don't want to scare pregnant first timers."
My first reaction was a startled bark of laughter. I mean, wow, my entire blog reads like it was designed to scare pregnant first-timers. Not that most of you are pregnant first-timers — but just in case you are, do me one leeeetle favor: please skip all posts from March 2003 to, oh, about November 2005, okay? Because if you don't, Jesus, are you in for a shock.
My second reaction, as I thought about it more, was a complicated kind of hurt. I'd felt no such hesitation about posting our first pictures of Charlie (QuickTime, 316 KB). Why should I? I thought. This is my truth, important for me to tell, and every bit as beautiful, in its own roundabout way, as "3 pushes, all natural, no tearing." Should those of us whose truths are not so pretty think twice before the telling?
My next reaction was confusion. The parts I liked best about Ayun's book were the funny, honest parts, the parts where she was, I felt, telling it like it is, dirty-fingered crazy-making motherhood. So I was disappointed that she'd pull her punches here.
My next reaction — the hits just keep on coming — was to take a good long look at the picture itself. It didn't alarm me, not in the slightest, but as I looked at it I had to be fair: I could see why it might be frightening to someone who hadn't seen worse. It constitutes proof that bad things happen, suddenly and at random, that dreams, like the nurse said, get shattered.
But that didn't sit well with me. Bad things do happen, whether we're looking or hiding our eyes. And anyway, no matter how it looked at first, Ayun and Inky (and Charlie and I) aren't the scary stories. We're the happy endings. And isn't that a truth worth telling? A lucky break worth celebrating?
I read The Big Rumpus cover to cover and found plenty worth considering, as I wrote above. But a single line from Ayun's e-mail has made me think longer and harder than any of it. I'd like to know how you handle this. Are you careful with your unpretty truths?