I Am Not a Mother: I Am a Human Being

Guest Post by Tania Runyan

“You’re not a good mom!” My ten-year-old daughter shouted as she stomped up to her room. “Good moms don’t throw paper plates at their children!”

Of course, this declamation can be proven false. A good mother would construct a Chinese kite out of a paper plate, toss it toward her daughter at the perfect moment of uplift, and watch her little girl revel in the kaleidoscopic tail. A good mother would cover a paper plate with cookies shaped like autumn leaves, gently toss the plate across the counter, and giggle as the studying child discovered the surprise.

In my case—a sweaty, hair-flying, early-morning rage—I picked up the first thing I saw (made of paper, thank God), and flung it at her: “I don’t like you!”

Following the rules of nature and metaphor, the plate flew back in my face. But that didn’t stop my daughter from crying, my young son from running away in fear, and my middle daughter from staring into space, escaping into the methodical chewing of her apple.

With just four minutes until the bus’s ungodly 7:15 arrival, I had a decision to make. Would I let the school bell ring on my wrath, or would I try to take something wrong, whatever it was, and turn it into something right?

I should have harnessed some fail proof strategy. But I had once again fallen into a tar pit of parenting confusion. I’ve never been into all the “mommy” stuff: magazines and playgroups; Pinterest and its neurotic cupcakes; disciplined, highlighted hair. Sure, I drive a minivan, but I’m quite certain I drive it ironically. From the moment I got pregnant, I determined to stay myself, a self who just happened to have kids. Just another poet and English teacher with a bouncy seat in the living room, and a dark, inner vortex of anger she never knew existed.

[Read more…]

Honor Thy Mother

It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.

“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”

I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.

What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.

I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.

As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.

As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.

That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.

[Read more…]

Seeking and Sought by God

I did not enter a church until I was in third grade. My friend Vicky, who always wore long jean skirts and seemed to be liked by everybody, invited me to a Sunday school competition where she would be quizzed on Bible verses.

I remember dirt-colored shag carpet, wooden pews, a crowd of stern-looking women gathered around a microphone, their khaki skirts brushing their Keds. I remember Vicky standing beside them, unsure of how to phrase the lines of Psalm 23—was it a rod? A staff?

And I remember running up to the microphone myself, eager to talk, completely clueless about the Psalm. “It’s rod! It’s rod!” I said, unaware that my jeans and my loud voice were twisting the women’s frowns into tighter knots.

“That is incorrect,” one said. “Please sit down.” [Read more…]

Becoming Both Daughter and Mother

Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we are pushing out our babies.
-Louise Erdrich, The Bluejay’s Dance: A Birth Year

Last November, I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child. And these past few months, I’ve done little but vomit, sleep, and try to find foods that will stay down. My mother predicted that this would happen.

“When I was pregnant, all I could do was run to the bathroom,” she has told me, over and over, trying to assign some of her experience to mine. Trying to find something useful to say.

My mother had been pregnant four times, the first occurring when she was twenty-five and married to a man who, in her eighth month, smashed a champagne bottle on her head. She hadn’t seen her mother in almost ten years, and had no resource besides magazines and women at the office to guide her through. [Read more…]

Mending Our Mother-Daughter Story

I finally saw Brave this past weekend, and I can definitely say that I had the reaction I imagined I would: weepy and joyful, my mind filled with the film’s images long after my husband and dog fell asleep.

I had deliberately avoided seeing the film because I knew that its plot would strike my heart deeply: a young girl struggles against her mother’s difficult love to discover both who she is and who she isn’t, and in the movie’s words, looks to “mend the bond torn by pride.”

In my life, my bond with my mother hasn’t been torn by pride, but by misguided love. And if Merida, the film’s fire-haired heroine, had been around when I was a girl, I might have had a way to scaffold what my mother and I went through, a plotline that could have anchored us.

I have been trying to discern a plotline for my mother’s and my story since I was in high school, where I wrote sparse, angry poems about her affair, her quick temper, her long binges at the bar. [Read more…]