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A mom makeover

Today's mothers are confessing to fallibility even as they display fierce love.

May 09, 2003|Janet Saidi | Special to The Times

Forget June Cleaver and Marion Cunningham, even Carmela Soprano. Mothers, it seems -- particularly of the Generation X variety -- are overhauling their image and reevaluating their jobs. Three memoirs out just in time for Mother's Day suggest that Mom is actually having sex, listening to punk rock, saying the F-word and occasionally forgetting to pay the Kaiser bill.

Ariel Gore's "Atlas of the Human Heart" (Seal), Andrea Buchanan's "Mother Shock" (Seal) and Francesca Lia Block's "Guarding the Moon" (HarperCollins) couldn't be further apart stylistically. But the three authors share a common purpose: to present readers with a raw, honest look at their maternal experiences.

And it isn't always a pretty sight.

Gore's pregnancy was spent washing dishes in a Tuscan village, hiding her wages from her less-than-supportive partner. Buchanan spends an entire chapter championing the proficient use of the mother of all expletives by her 2-year-old daughter. Block, meanwhile, lays out in darkly beautiful poetry the psychological terrors and transformations of an artist in the first year of motherhood.

These writers are part of a recent wave of writer-moms who are exploring aspects of their maternity not only in nontraditional ways but in nontraditional places. They publish on Gore's HipMama.com, Buchanan's Phillymama.com, on Salon.com or in Brain, Child Magazine, a literary quarterly about parenting.

The result is a cornucopia of moms who are getting it wrong and getting over it. They're forcing mainstream culture to treat motherhood as a serious subject -- as have Ann Crittenden and Naomi Wolf, who have published feminist studies on motherhood in the last two years -- but with humor and artistry.

Housekeeping, always done badly, and breastfeeding, done wherever and whenever necessary, have become politically charged topics.

Now 32, Ariel Gore was 19 when she realized she was pregnant while traveling in Italy. Her book chronicles the time leading up to the birth of her child, beginning with her impulsive solo journey to China at age 15. By the end of the book, which Gore refers to as a novel-memoir with only the details changed, she has traversed much of Asia, starred in an art/porn film, slept with a man for money, squatted in a London flat, begged for food in Italy and given birth to a daughter.

Rather than reading traditional parenting guides, this still-naive new mother looks for practical advice by tossing three coins and opening her I Ching. In the end, the young Gore -- mom and baby miraculously safe and on a long-haul flight home to Palo Alto -- observes: "All the immense landscapes and chanced-upon streets in me led to this tiny someone."

Gore has been at the forefront of the "irreverent moms" trend, having started Hip Mama as a college student, after returning to the U.S. The 'zine was partly inspired by Anne Lamott, with whom Gore took a creative-writing class and who published 1993's pioneering "Operating Instructions," a gutsy journal about her first year as a struggling single mother.

"I felt like a lot of the things I was writing in Hip Mama from the start were not terribly radical," Gore said during a recent phone chat, "that you can raise a child without a dad around, that a mother can still be a sexual being.... It's almost as if as women we grow up and have so many feminist freedoms, and all of a sudden when we have kids it's like, 'Back to the ironing board for you.' "

Using her experiences as a young and poor mother, Gore addresses in her books a group that is largely ignored by the mainstream culture, particularly by consumer-oriented parenting magazines.

For Francesca Lia Block, 39, the experience of maternity is incorporated into the whimsy of a bohemian fairy tale, part hall of terror but mostly enchanting magic. "Guarding the Moon" bedecks Block's daughter in names like Silky Milky, Girly Swirl, Charm School. Her Giggle Bean, Block writes, has wrought a magical transformation on her surroundings: "birds sing her lullabies at midnight, bunnies and bears and bouquets and books parade to our door."

But Block's world is not all ladybugs and bunnies, it's also become "all sharp corners and edges," which "come to life in the swirling night, little demons of destruction that I must battle."

"Mothers have become of interest in a literary way," says psychologist Peggy F. Drexler, a fellow at Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the author of the upcoming book "Mothers Make Men." Citing such recent books as "The Hours" and "The Lovely Bones" as realistic portrayals of motherhood, Drexler credits the current wave of young writing moms to the popularity of the memoir as a format for women writers and to a reappraisal of motherhood in the feminist arena.

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