This year, I ate so much on Thanksgiving that my kids believed me when I told them I had twin babies in my bulging belly. They were genuinely disappointed when I took it back and explained that I was simply round with stuffing and gravy. And there, in a holiday nutshell, is the pivot point where my life as a mom and my life as a writer intersect. It’s all about the spinning tales, the fabulism of little lies.
All writers are inventors, carving life into the shape of words. We take memories and facts, dreams and imagination and give them a beginning, a middle, an end.
Moms tell stories too — it’s part of the job — but the ties between motherhood and storytelling are more complex than that. Motherhood has been a story itself for as long as it has been a coherent idea. From the pious domesticity of the nineteenth century woman, through June Cleaver’s impeccable decorum, and on into today’s fascination with Helicopter or Tiger Moms, our culture has devoted a great deal of itself to the formation of mommy tales, stories of what it means to be a mother.
A good mother, that is. On the flipside of every shining example there is a harrowing cautionary tale. The news is filled with mothers broke and mothers broken, the shortchanging of an impossible cultural ideal. In the middle, in the crosshairs between triumph and disaster, there can be an awful lot of guilt for those of us — most, I imagine — who widely miss the mark.
When Rainbow Girl was born, I looked for the accompanying handbook but there wasn’t even a one-page instruction sheet. I am fairly certain the maternity nurses cringed when I took the baby home. For the first few years, I depended heavily on parenting books. Was I “attached” enough? Should I nurse through the night or let her cry it out? Crib or co-sleeper? I weighed out every decision to the gram, charting the pluses and minuses in my head, looking to the experts for categorical answers.
And there weren’t any. Just stories. The problem is that some stories — what will happen if you let your child have a pacifier “too long” or if you don’t teach her to self-sooth or if you teach her to read too early or too late or don’t feed organic or use the wrong bubblebath — some stories dress themselves as truths without room for contradiction. And when stories are dressed as truths, they are as bad as coffins, cutting out the light.
Parenting — living — got easier when I stopped looking for absolute answers. Instead of black and white, my world these days is more like a Jackson Pollack splatter painting, filled with strands of overlapping color. And every color has its tale.
As parents, we are world-builders, inventors of make-believe. We wrap childhood in the sweetness of fables, a sugar-spun construction made of devotion and air. Sometimes, we skirt the cusp of truth, in favor of the myths of childhood, the Santas and tooth fairies, the miracles of spinach and carrots for growth, the dangers of leaving the house without a coat. We are fabulists, finding familiar shapes in among the clouds.
As a mom, I am a tattle-rattle-teller. I soothe hurts with honey-words. I chase demons with fairytales. Stories spill out, slip slosh, as I mumble-stumble through my days. And if it’s true that motherhood and childhood are woven out of stories, then it’s also true that my stories are a bit like orphans, looking for a home. They are much like children — wayward, persistent, and full of questions — and they don’t come with handbooks either. We learn, together, along the way.
Raising stories, raising children — for me, they are two sides of the same bright coin. There isn’t an easy path in either case, no simple line from A to B. Motherhood and writing — they’re both trial and error, make-it-up, kitchen-table experiments. A dash of this, a sprinkle of that. They are journies of invention, of fantasy. My children look to me with both skepticism and wonder — Mama, are mermaids really real? If I reach with all my might, can I really touch the moon?
As parents, we wake up thinking we’ll pack a week inside a day. We whistle in the dark to chase away the monsters. We push against the stories that limit, that pass themselves as truth — for ourselves, for our kids. We construct ourselves, our lives, while we raise these little people, these sweet believers. How marvelous, these tales. How wonderful, the telling.
Have you ever stumbled against a story posed as truth? How do you weave stories into the everyday?