Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska

9780143126508m Drunk Mom: A Memoir
by Jowita Bydlowska

I was contacted by the author’s publicist a few months back with a request that I read and review this book, a memoir of alcoholism.  “Sure,” I said.  “Send me the book.”  The book arrived in the mail, and it sat on my night table, merged with the pile of other to-read books on my night table.  It took awhile for me to get to it, partly because that to-read pile never, ever shrinks, and partly because I sort of dreaded reading a memoir about alcoholism because alcoholism has profoundly impacted my own life – I knew this book would strike some painful nerves for me.

That Bydlowska, a Polish transplant to Canada as a teen, had a drinking problem was not news to her.  She had confronted her alcoholism in her twenties and achieved sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous for a number of years.  Then at her best friend’s bachelorette party, the bartender asks her “Just soda?” when she orders her usual non-alcoholic drink, and suddenly, her defenses against alcohol evaporate in an instant.  So begins her relapse.  Shortly after, she discovers she is pregnant – the morning after a drunken binge – and manages to stay mostly sober for the duration of her pregnancy.  But when her son is born, Bydlowska quickly descends into full-blown alcoholism – and it isn’t pretty.

On these pages she recounts the horrors of experiencing blackouts on a regular basis – of coming to with mysterious bruises and injuries and no recollection of how they occurred, of giant blank spots in her memory, of hiding bottles of vodka in her baby’s diaper bag, of her “mental map” of liquor stores, of drinking until passing out while caring for her son, of researching how poisoned her breast milk was after indulging again and again – and of the lies she repeatedly told herimage boyfriend, her friends, and most of all, herself.  It is a sad tale of an addict’s capacity for delusion and rationalization.

As she dissolves into full-blown alcoholism once again, she throws frequent barbs at AA.  She attempts a “harm reduction” group, which rejects the label of “alcoholic” and attempts to teach moderation in drinking.  She goes into inpatient rehab when her son is less than a year old.  She makes deals with herself about her drinking.  She makes promises.  Nothing, of course, works.  All the while, I’m reading, often with my fists clenched, thinking, “You stupid bitch.  You pathetic loser.”  Because, you see, I’ve had too many alcoholics in my life, and my sympathies tend to lean towards those around the addict, and less towards the addict who is wreaking hell on everyone around them.  And yet, I was secretly rooting for her.  I couldn’t help it.  When finally, “limping on my broken toe, I march all the way across town to an AA meeting,” I pumped my fist in the air, going, “Yes!” with tears in my eyes.

Obviously this book will stay with me.  Bydlowska is a gifted writer, and though the subject matter is not pleasant, she writes with clarity and utter honesty, with a thread of dark humor running through the whole thing.  Ultimately, this is a story of hope and possibility.  I hope it acquires a huge readership.

You can find out more about Jowita Bydlowska here.

Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

glitter Glitter and Glue: A Memoir
by Kelly Corrigan

To a great extent, women will not appreciate or understand their own mothers until they themselves are mothers – it’s just a fact of life.  In this new memoir due out in February (I read an advance copy), Corrigan recounts her trip around the world as a young adult during which she landed a job as a nanny for several months to a family in Australia, and how being thrust into the role of caretaker to two young children who had lost their mother gave her pause about her own mother.

“Things happen when you leave the house.”  That was Corrigan’s motto, and she was determined, upon finishing college, to see the world, have many adventures, and become interesting.  So she and a girlfriend buy round-the-world tickets and set off – only, part way through the trip, they start running out of money and realize they need to find temporary employment to pay for the rest of their trip.  Corrigan lands a five-month stint as a nanny for a widower and his two young children, whose wife/mother died from cancer six months previously.  Suddenly, Corrigan hears her own mother’s voice everywhere, and a longing to know her better – the woman, the person – grips her.

Soon enough, her nanny stint comes to an end, and Corrigan resumes her adventures, and the longing for and connection to her mother that she felt while caring for the Tanner children fades.  It isn’t until years later, when she becomes a mother herself, that those feelings resurface.  This book is, in its way, Corrigan’s tribute to her mother.

There were so many passages in this book that struck a chord with me – so many nuggets of truth, so many dog-eared pages.

” The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly.  They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention.  They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing, the golden rule.  The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation or acceptance.

“The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf.”

Referring to the little girl she nannies for in Australia –

“For better or worse, I’ve latched on to Milly’s ecosystem.  What happens to her happens – in some weird, refracted way that seems slightly dangerous – to me, too.  And it occurs to me that maybe the reason my mother was so exhausted all the time wasn’t because she was doing so much but because she was feeling so much.”

Reflecting on a skirmish with her own daughter over homework in later years, and the dark thoughts that surface in the night –

“After Georgia storms off, Edward says, ‘When I first met you, you didn’t drink coffee, and you were so mellow.’  How can I tell him that I was a dog in show, high-stepping with my shiny hair and sparkly striped collar?  Twelve years and two puppies later, I’m an ungroomed bitch who barks at flies.

“Beneath my frustration is real fear.  What if my kid lacks a handful of the critical Life Skills we’re always reading about in the school newsletter: Persistence, Coachability, Curiosity?  What if there’s iceberg hardening right now beneath this defeatism?  If a child can’t find a single word online about cheetah propagation, what kind of future can she hope for?  That’s why I snap and storm around and then spend long night thinking of the most damaged adults I know and wondering if my particular brand of maternal fuckups are how they end up like that.”

More than making me long to understand my own mother, this book has me longing for the day when my own daughters might understand me – and I realize that it won’t happen until they are mothers themselves.  The mother-daughter relationship is so fraught.

I love Kelly Corrigan.  I loved The Middle Place, her memoir about her battle with breast cancer that took place simultaneously with her father’s battle with bladder cancer.  She’s funny and honest and real, and reading her books feels very much like sitting down over coffee with a close girlfriend.  All through this book, I laughed and cried.  I only wished that her stint in Australia had lasted longer.

I’m sure this will be another best-seller; it’s good stuff.

Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti

Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti

I saw a write-up about this book in some magazine and I was intrigued.  I know – the title alone asks a question one might not associate with me, a mother of seven kids.  What drew me was the real question as posed in the write-up: given the fact that parenthood is so hard, given that there is so little social support, why do people keep having kids?

I read the book in two days and it really struck a nerve with me.  Because, you know what?  Parenthood – motherhood in particular – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And although many points in the book left me feeling pissed off, frustrated, and even sad – because of their truth – it was actually refreshing to have some of the feelings I’ve carried around validated.

Why do we have kids?

“Because after all, the expectation of happiness is why we’ve had kids . . . When that happiness doesn’t pan out, it’s difficult to admit – not only because it seems ungrateful, but because to the truth seems like an insult to the children that parents love so much.

“But maybe kids aren’t supposed to make us happy.  Historically, Americans had children to help with the family farm or to have an extra set of hands around the house – to produce members of a larger community.  Today, parenthood has become less about raising productive citizens than it is about creating someone to love us unconditionally, someone on which to focus all of our energy and love.  The enormity of that expectation not only leaves unhappy parents wondering why they’re not swooning over their children, but it is also creating a generation of young people who think the world revolves around them.  (After all, they’re just kids – that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on such tiny humans.)”

Written from a purely feminist point of view (the author, Jessica Valenti, is a celebrated feminist), the book is nonetheless based on numerous studies, statistics, and interviews, and it’s hard to argue with the underlying message: although motherhood is touted by our society as “the most important job in the world,” actual attitudes and policies certainly don’t support that notion, and as a result, mothers everywhere feel isolated, frustrated, guilty, overworked, and under-appreciated.  The author argues, in fact, that society gives so much lip service to the institution of motherhood – from the medical community’s attempts to dictate the way women should care for their reproductive health from puberty on, because females’ highest purpose, after all, is to conceive and reproduce, to society’s pressure on mothers to breastfeed (with very few policies in place, however, to actually support breastfeeding mothers) – as a way of continuing to oppress women, to subtly but surely keep them at home where they do their best “work.”  The very notion is enraging, isn’t it?  And yet . . . one can’t help but wonder.

Even in this supposedly enlightened and progressive age, when you get right down to it, having children impacts the course of women’s lives far more than the men who father those children.  Once a baby comes onto the scene, even the most previously egalitarian couples tend to adopt “traditional” roles, with the mother shouldering the bulk of the child rearing responsibilities – whether she also works outside the home or not – and the father playing a “supportive” role at home.

Valenti also postulates that the so-called Mommy Wars are born from frustration and feelings of guilt on both sides of the battle line: on one side, smart, talented women sacrificing autonomy and self-sufficiency in favor of the drudgery of everyday motherhood, and on the other, smart, talented women trying to balance work-for-pay with the demands of motherhood; both sides are desperate for validation, and rightly so.

Also under attack by the author is the notion of branded parenting styles, especially those that tout a “natural” or “back to basics” philosophy –

“It’s easy to appropriate a condescending fixation on “underdeveloped” motherhood when you have the financial means and leisure time to pick whatever kind of parenting works for you at the moment.”

***

“And for moms who don’t have time and resources to put a name to their parenting, the brouhaha over AP [Attachment Parenting] seems a bit trite.  Mothers who worry about having enough food to feed their children don’t necessarily kvetch on online forums over whether or not you should wear your baby.  Some parents cosleep not because they think it will promote the right kind of bonding but because they only have one bedroom – and maybe no crib.”

Whether you’re talking about Attachment Parenting or Elimination Communication, guess who shoulders the brunt of the work?  You guessed it: moms.

“But if one kind of parenting is “natural,” what does that make all other kinds of child rearing?  Despite all the empowered rhetoric around the new maternal ideal – women’s intuition! maternal instinct! – isn’t this just a spiffed up version of telling women that their most important role in life is a domestic one?”

The author covers a lot of ground, and brings up issues that we would all do well to consider.  The only criticisms I have are the fact that there are numerous typos in the book, and although the author pushes for changes in attitudes and national policies to better support healthy, well-rounded parenting, the book isn’t big on ideas about how to make that happen.

I really think this is a must-read, though – for men and women alike, although I suspect it will be more women than men reading it.  It’s unlikely that anyone will come away from this book without experiencing some outrage.