By Faulkner Fox
Harmony Books, 272 pp., $23.00 hardcover
If you are one of those "mothers who think"--which I take to mean those of us who think about our complicated roles as mothers, those of us who use humor and cynicism to cope with some of the not-so-lovable parts of parenting, and those of us who crave information via the written word--then Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect-Life may speak to you.
Faulkner Fox carries on in a long tradition of feminist writing about women's lives that dares to name a "problem" that has no name. In this case, Fox is tackling the emotional terrain of motherhood. Make no mistake. This is not a book about parenting, nor is it a guide a la What to Expect When You are Expecting (more on that later). Rather, it's a memoir (of sorts) that deals with what it feels like to give up one's sense of self in the process of becoming a mother.
As can be inferred from the title, this emotional process is a complicated one for Fox--it is complete with anger, isolation, frustration and self-criticism (as well as, yes, love). But Fox's book is deliberately giving voice to many of the unglamorous yet vitally honest emotional experiences in her path to parenthood. A teacher of creative writing at Duke (with degrees from Harvard and Yale), Fox's motherhood memoir is beautifully written with great intelligence, humor and irreverence.
Dispatches follows, chronologically, Fox's personal experiences, from her decision to become a mother with her first child (she now has two sons), her pregnancy, labor and delivery, to co-parenting with her egalitarian husband. Deeply personal, with her own brand of neuroses and her own quirky life choices, Fox admits she made herself unhappy at times. But her rawness and willingness to look at that intersection between her own psychological makeup and the minefield of cultural forces that are visited upon us when we enter the realm of motherhood, makes this a brave book.
Starting with her long-held fantasy of the perfect marriage and the perfect home with the perfect child, Fox delves into the world of expectation versus reality. From the moment she is pregnant, she chronicles her confrontation with the "profoundly public nature of pregnancy." Inundated by the tyranny of What to Eat When You Are Expecting, she recalls her fears of being hauled off for child abuse for drinking a verboten herbal tea.
Choosing homebirth created some strange bedfellows for Fox. Motivated by her distrust of the medical establishment, she found her anti-hospital decision aligned her with a birthing class comprised of "hippies and Christian fundamentalists." On the first night of class, she recalls, she and her husband were the only couple not sporting either a tie-die or a crucifix. Firm in her decision on the one hand, she was not comfortable with the extreme expectations of the midwives on the other, who suggested to her that sometimes women have an orgasm during childbirth. "Which women?" she asks, "those who practice masturbating with a chainsaw?"
She writes honestly about the stresses parenting put on her marriage. She is ashamed, she says, of becoming a "sleep accountant." Motivated by blinding sleep deprivation, she develops a hilarious program of "frequent parenting miles" intended to document how much more time she has spent with her young child than her husband. Taking out her anger at her loss of time for herself on her husband, she admits that her misplaced desperation led her to question if he was a "fake feminist, an armchair spouter of equity talk" and, more profoundly, the marriage itself.
It makes sense that a feminist book on motherhood would include a chapter on sisterhood. Fox acknowledges that "sense-making talk with women" had always been the connective tissue of her life. She expected becoming a mother would be a "conversational bonanza." Instead, she became isolated, depressed and judgmental. She felt judged (and admits she was her own worst enemy) that every mom-and-baby activity she went to was a public test of her love for her child. And in her most anxious moments, she was guilt-ridden that she "had to become someone else as a mother, someone cheerful, selfless, and aggressively devoted to my children's enrichment."
Amidst the humor and the angst, Fox is not afraid to ask the big questions. How can one be subject to cultural forces and be critical of them? Is writing honestly about motherhood a hostile act? Are mothers stuck with being either selfless or selfish?
Fox's book begins, "When I had a three-year-old and a seven-month-old, I loved my children passionately but I was very unhappy." This is not a feel good book about counting one's blessings in the face of adversity. And this is not a book that will speak to or for every woman. But if you have at least one "a ha" moment while reading this or laugh out loud (which is guaranteed) then perhaps Fox has succeeded, in the best of feminist traditions, in skillfully translating her experience into the written word and helping some women to feel so not alone.