Andrew Solomon + expanding our ideas of pregnancy & motherhood

far-from-the-treeAndrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I’ve felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods’ complexities. Solomon’s book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I’ve ever had. I read it two years ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon’s discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich– do parents try to cure their child’s autism or accept it– as well as his description of the “autism parents’ literature of miracles,” whose draw is hard to ignore.  

“Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept.”

The journey to find a cure for one’s child is exhausting and disappointing. One could devote, or lose, their life to that sort of thinking: if only I read the right books, or enough books, or find the right therapist, or implement to ideal parenting methods, etc. Solomon describes one mother who accepts her son’s condition as being more at peace than the other mothers with him he spoke: “Marvin Brown’s mother, Icilda, has delineated what she can influence and what she cannot, and she does not rail against what is beyond amelioration. It is easy to patronize “simple wisdom” by honeying the rough circumstances from which it generally springs, or by representing it as simpler or wiser than it is, but Icilda Brown seemed more at peace with her son’s condition than almost any other mother I met. A lifetime of nonchoices had given her a gift for acceptance. She demanded good services for her son, but did not expect those services to turn him into someone else.”

Solomon wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about pregnancy and depression, and I think this article works to do the same thing Far From The Tree does. Pregnancy, like parenthood, is not this joyful experience for everyone. The ending of the article is lovely, and the last line breaks my heart in its truth:  “Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.” Mothers will try to love their children, Solomon acknowledges, but not all mothers are able to love their child in they way they intended to love. I think what Solomon is saying applies not only to pregnancy but to motherhood, and not only to women with depression but also to women who struggle with the realization that they can’t be, for whatever myriad of reasons, the sort of mother they thought they were going to be.  

“We still have retrograde ideas about how pregnant women should feel, and we need to revise them — not only for depressed women but for all women. Pregnancy is portrayed and talked about almost exclusively as a time of rapture and fulfillment. But it involves a major shift in identity, a whole new conception of self that can lead to depression and anxiety. Change — even positive change — is stressful, and in this way pregnancy can constitute a kind of elective trauma. An abrupt transition into selflessness is not immediately appealing to everyone. Pregnant women long given to self-doubt may question their ability to take care of the child. A society that glorifies motherhood while resisting basic accommodations like guaranteed extended maternity leave makes the identity shift more frightening and abrupt than it needs to be. People given to anxiety now have a harrowing array of new anxieties to grapple with. As one woman I interviewed observed, “The things that make motherhood joyful also make it terrifying.” We should strive for a more pluralistic idea of pregnancy — for one that accommodates a wide range of moods and attitudes.

The British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker has argued that competent mothering requires two warring impulses — to nurture the child on one hand, and to push him or her into the world on the other — and suggested that maternal ambivalence was the catalyst for achieving these apparently opposed objectives. But modern society has stigmatized the pushing and sentimentalized the clinging, and so we have denied basic truths and caused ambivalent mothers to see themselves as bad even though ambivalence can be highly productive. Mothers often exaggerate, to themselves and to others, their protective, adoring feelings, and they discount their feelings of irritation or anger as weaknesses. But a child should meet with irritation and anger some of the time; he or she should understand what those emotions are, what provokes them, how they are expressed and how they are resolved. Depression is obviously not desirable, but openness about it is tied to being honest about the challenges that motherhood entails. And that openness must begin prenatally if it is to be realized once a child has entered the picture.

There are many things that can help depressive women: the love of a supportive partner and friends, of course, but also acknowledgment of their illness and ready access to effective treatment. Most who battle antenatal or postpartum depression are committed to their children, and are trying to commit to the identity that is motherhood. For some expectant mothers and new parents, love seems to be automatic; it wafts them instantly up to a new level of consciousness. Others have to climb a very steep staircase to reach the same heights. The fact that the exercise can be agonizing and that some women cannot quite make it does not dull the intent behind it. Depression calls on resources some women have and some women don’t, including a capacity to hatch intimacy out of despair. Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.”

Portals & poetry

I’m been thinking a lot about portals lately–you know, the doorways that are always appearing to characters in books and taking them to more interesting worlds. Lucky them, I have always thought. But after waiting a lifetime for a portal to appear to me, it seems that isn’t going to happen. I’m not sure portals appear often to adults to begin with and they certainly don’t seem to appear to mothers of small children, a minor tragedy of fact I’m trying to fix in some future stories. (Side note: great list by Lev Grossman of his top 5 portals, and also check out this thoughtful essay about writing portals from io9.) 

Tangentially, I have fallen in love with a book of poetry, something I haven’t done for about a decade, since I kicked poetry to the curb and took up fiction writing. The book is Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and the final poem of the book reads to me like a portal poem (if there isn’t such a genre yet, there should be). “Home” is especially moving after reading the entire book, which is full of anguish, loss, and a lot of grief. I felt like I was holding my breath for the first 109 pages and then to reach this poem, on page 110, was like a long exhalation of air. Finally the narrator gets to arrive here, to somewhere she wants to be. It’s worth noting this home is a place she has never been before but only dreamed about. The problem of how to get there is, unfortunately, not addressed. It makes me wonder what our own homes would look like if we got to create them.

Home, by Laura Kasischke 

It would take forever to get there
but I would know it anywhere:

My white horse grazing in my blossomy field.
Its soft nostrils. The petals
falling from the trees into the stream.
And the festival would be about to begin
in the dusky village in the distance. The doe
frozen at the edge of the grove:
She leaps. She vanishes. My face—
She has taken it. And my name—
(Although the plaintive lark in the tall
grass continues to say and to say it.)
Yes. This is the place.
Where my shining treasure has been waiting.

Where my shadow washes itself in my fountain.
A few graves among the roses. Some moss
on those. An ancient
bell in a steeple down the road,
making no sound at all
as the monk pulls and pulls on the rope.

Latest book obsession: autism

An Incomplete Autism Reading List

snow on windshieldWhen beginning a new story, I tend to go through periods of obsession with my reading. Race relationships in Chicago, cults, female veterans from the Iraq war, and so on. My latest reading kick is about autism. In part because my second grade son got diagnosed as being on the spectrum a few months ago and I really want to understand how he sees the world–meaning I want to understand why the world bothers him so much but also what he finds beautiful in it– but I’m also working on a story that happens to be about an 8-year-old son (or thereabouts) who is on the spectrum. (The above picture, by the way, was taken by my little guy.)

The books on autism I’ve read so far have been engaging and insightful, and it’s a relief to often see my son within their pages. The process of finding out what those with autism find beautiful–trying to understand how differently they see the world–has also just been very moving to me. I think some of us who are outside whatever spectrum of normal exists, whether by choice or not, can relate to the feeling of otherness that keeps surfacing in these accounts. In several books, I’ve read comparisons about how those on the spectrum feel like they’re visitors from another planet, or visitors from some other time, and I’m not trying to belittle the struggles that people with autism face, but I imagine many of us can relate to such feelings. Take this passage from Daniel Tammet’s worthwhile memoir Born on a Blue Day: 

“I liked spending time among the playground’s trees because there I could walk up and down, absorbed in my thoughts, and not worry about being pushed or knocked over. As I walked, it felt for brief moments as though I could make myself disappear by standing behind each tree. There was certainly no shortage of times when I felt like I wanted to vanish. I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable or secure, of always being somehow apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.”

Otherness sucks in a lot of ways, of course, but it also allows “the other” to witness or notice things most people can’t see. My favorite parts of Tammet’s book was where he describes his ability to recognize a beauty that probably isn’t accessible to the rest of us–a beauty in numbers, for instance, or in silence. This is what I hope for my son: that in addition to all the struggles he has to face, he will get to experience his own moments of contentment, satisfaction, and beauty, and in those moments, he will feel such emotions more intensely and fully than I ever will be able to. 

”There are moments, as I’m falling into sleep at night, that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers—hundreds, thousands of them—swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when I’m having difficulty falling asleep, I imagine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts.”

”I became an increasingly quiet child and spent most of my time in my room, sitting on my own in a particular spot on the floor, absorbed in the silence. Sometimes I’d press my fingers into my ears to get closer to the silence, which was never static in my mind, but a silky, trickling motion around my head like condensation. When I closed my eyes I pictured it as soft and silvery.”

“Everyone is said to have a perfect moment once in a while, an experience of complete peace and connection, like looking out from the top of the Eiffel Tower or watching a falling star high in the night sky. I do not have many such moments, but Neil says that is okay because being rare is what makes them so special. My most recent came one weekend last summer at home— they often happen to me while I am at home— after a meal I had cooked and eaten with Neil. We were sitting together in the living room, feeling full and happy. All of a sudden I experienced a kind of self-forgetting and in that brief, shining moment all my anxiety and awkwardness seemed to disappear. I turned to Neil and asked him if he had felt the same sensation and he said he had. I imagine these moments as fragments or splinters scattered across a lifetime. If a person could somehow collect them all up and stick them together he would have a perfect hour or even a perfect day. And I think in that hour or day he would be closer to the mystery of what it is to be human. It would be like having a glimpse of heaven.”

Books on autism that I’ve either finished or am currently reading

“When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterward do its details follow on. But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image sort of float up into focus. What part of the whole image captures our eyes first depends on a number of things. When a color is vivid or a shape is eye-catching, then that’s the detail that claims our attention, and then our hearts kind of drown in it, and we can’t concentrate on anything else. Every single thing has its own unique beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely. We may look like we’re not with anyone, but we’re always in the company of friends.”

  • “People Don’t Get Me, Mom“: an essay in Good Housekeeping my mom sent me by Jackie Mercurio. It’s beautiful and hopeful, but as I was telling my mom, so often Asperger kids are portrayed as sad and sensitive in the non-fiction I read. I want someone to write about having an angry and frustrated and even mean Asperger’s kid. (One reason why I am excited to start this new story). In response, my mom sweetly wrote, “I hope one day you can write J.’s story that is hopeful. His journey has just begun and you are in it to win. Keep the faith.”
  • The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s, by Temple Grandin: a collection of brief practical-minded essays
  • The Survival Guide for Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorder (and their parents): J. and I read this book together every other night for a few weeks until he told me this is more my kind of book. I keep it inside my nightstand table as reassurance. 
  • 1001 Great Ideas for Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, expanded 2nd edition: I also keep this book by my nightstand, finding it comforting and that this many ideas exist.
  • Temple Grandin (the HBO movie): It’s not perfect but there are many moving moments here relating to Temple and her mom’s relationship. I found the following interchange heartbreaking–the realization that no matter how many books you read, or how many new techniques you learn, or hard you work to be a better parent, there are certain things your child may never learn (like caring how another person feels? like kindness?).

Eustacia: Temple, look at me. Look at me. Do you know how people tell each other things with their eyes? This is me telling you that I love you and I respect you.

Temple Grandin: [long tearful pause] I will never learn how to do that.

Eustacia: I know.

Books I optimistically and perhaps unrealistically hope to read

Why did Middlemarch have to end?

finishing a long novel is really sad

As a reader, to reach the end of any book you have lived alongside for months can be somewhat unbearable. Where do those characters, those people, go? Why can they not stay with you? Though I suppose one must get on with one’s life and read other books, or do such things as laundry. I usually cry at the end of long novels, sometimes because the ending is sad and, worst case scenario, the characters are dead, or sometimes it’s because the book itself is ending and the process of reading it is over. 

In continuing my love fest for Middlemarch, I wanted to write briefly about the ending, which is one of my favorite endings out of any book. First off, it’s sad, of course, it has to be, the point when, in the final chapter, you realize you will need to say goodbye to the town and, more tragically, the characters you’ve grown to love (oh Lydgate). I was listening to the last hour of the book during a long run and I realized afterwards that one should not listen to books that will make you sad while running (hard to breathe there!).

The ending is a compassionate one at least, Eliot allowing you to say goodbye gently as she gradually increases the distance between the reader and Dorothea, the character who she ends the book upon, mentioning first Sir James opinion of Dorthea’s marriage to Ladislaw, then the town’s opinion, then stepping further back to an even grander view of Dorthea’s life. I love how the voice stretches here to become somewhat epic and oracle-like (“For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it”) then circles back to include St. Theresa of Avila, who opens the book. I also love how the narrator’s voice continues to expand even further to include the reader. “But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas…” And “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been…” There is irony to me in the final sentence, the talk of “hidden lives” and “unvisited tombs,” as Dorothea’s own life, through the act of the novel, has become extraordinary to us readers, and who wouldn’t lay a wreath of flowers at her grave if given the opportunity.

Below are the last three paragraphs of the ending. Pay attention to the second sentence of the second paragraph, as Eliot revised this extensively over the span of several years.

“Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin– young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone* will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

A useful footnote in my edition of Middmemarch mentioned that sentence in the second to last paragraph had undergone intensive revisions to get to its current and final state (“They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.”). To me, Eliot’s edits demonstrate how powerful the removal of entire sentences can be during the revision process.  

From the original manuscript:  

“struggling with imperfect conditions. Among the many criticisms which were passed on her first marriage, nobody remarked that it could not have happened if she had not been born into a society which smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age, and, in general, encouraged the view that to renounce an advantage to oneself which might be got from the folly or ignorance of others is a sign of mental weakness. While this tone of opinion is part of the social medium in which young creatures begin to breathe there will be collisions such as those in Dorothea’s life, where great feelings . . . ’ 

From the first edition: 

“struggling under prosaic conditions. Among the many remarks passed on her mistakes, it was never said in the neighbourhood of Middlemarch that such mistakes could not have happened if the society into which she was born had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age—– on modes of education which make a woman’s knowledge another name for motley ignorance–— on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs. While this is the social air in which morals begin to breathe, there will be collisions such as those in Dorothea’s life, where great feelings . . . “

When God Talks Back

When God Talks BackOne of my favorite books about religion, this is a very readable study of evangelical faith from an anthropologist’s point of view. I came across it after a great Fresh Air interview with the author and then it was also on the New York Times 100 most notable books of 2012. The world Luhrmann describes is somewhat magical and medieval in the best sense, a world where God can talk to you and miracles still happen. And you are always loved. Honestly, it sounds great. Just reading about someone’s firm belief in something unprovable is beautiful too, like the following passage, which I find so moving and powerful.