“One thing about having a baby is that each step of the way you simply cannot imagine loving him any more than you already do, because you are bursting with love, loving as much as you are humanly capable of―and then you do, you love him even more.” ― Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
I have an awkward admission to make: I read what are fondly known as Mommy Blogs.* I’m embarrassed that I actually spend precious downtime reading these often narcissistic and sentimental odes to a Pottery Barn catalog version of life so I won’t even stoop to the level of sharing the ones that I skim—even if just once a month—because many of them embody so much navel gazing and consumerism. Let’s just chalk it up to the thirty-something-mother version of watching Saved by the Bell reruns after school. (Don’t deny it unless you’re going to admit to watching Charles in Charge instead.) Why don’t I like these online chronicles of motherhood? Let me count the ways: They commodify children. (Can you imagine having tens of thousands of people looking at your child’s mug every day?) They often take a sarcastic and demeaning tone. (Listen, I completely understand the trials of preparing meals for picky toddlers, but pulling out the big sarcasm and provocative-language guns and essentially poking fun at your offspring in a very public forum to generate sympathetic and commiserating laughs is just juvenile—and I can be a very sarcastic person. #soblessed) And lastly, these online snippets of “real life” are often viewed by their authors as tools to catapult to their fifteen minutes of fame. (Just hop on over to the Huffington Post and read the posts by mothers who are faux angry for this, that, and another reason and then watch all these posts go viral.) In short, many seem to me to be one-dimensional “soft” versions of what mothering truly encompasses; many mommy blogs present an ambience or a general feeling. So why, then, do I still read them? These blogs give me a peek into what makes my American contemporaries tick, sometimes they provide a good chuckle when I see how stylized every facet of bloggers’ children’s lives can be (even in attempts to “keep it real”), but often, it’s just fluff entertainment.
I’m going to postulate that the love that Lamott describes above happens for many privileged, Western women because they know it’s supposed to unfold like that, and the blogs I read only regurgitate that notion. But what of those outside of this self-reinforcing world?
That leads us to Frog Music, Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel. I think it’s fair to say that the author’s passion for motherhood (she has two children with her partner) fuels this novel as it did her previous one, the Man Booker finalist Room. And it leads us to Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer who lived and performed in San Francisco during the stiflingly hot and smallpox-infused summer of 1876 and who would never give Pinterest or Instagram a second thought if she were kicking around these days. Donoghue has created a fascinating historical fiction whodunit based on the true story of the murder of Blanche’s friend, the cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet. As she did in Room, the author has woven several meaty and thought-provoking themes into her work, but the one that struck me the most was the heaviness (in both good and hard ways) and all-encompassing nature of motherhood.
Blanche is a mommy blogger’s worst nightmare. The performer/prostitute who works her magic in the seedy and wild-west House of Mirrors in San Francisco’s Chinatown had “stepped into the life [of a showgirl] like a swimmer entering a lake, a few inches at a time.” Despite the submissive and exploitive nature of her job and the fact that her relationship with her lover Arthur is also one between pimp and prostitute, Blanche thoroughly enjoys her “work.” And although she adores the accolades and admiration from her constant audience, Blanche soon discovers a new role that casts a shadow over everything she does: Mother. The reader doesn’t even realize that she is a mother until it is revealed that her nearly-year-old child has been “farmed out” to a place similar to the types of orphanages that pop up in journalist exposés. Although she has obviously given birth and had the technical title of “mother” pinned to her from that moment, it is not until she sees for herself the deplorable conditions that her P’tit (as in P’tit Arthur, or “Arthur Jr.”) shares with other forgotten or burdensome babies that Blanche becomes a mother in her heart.
This is not a role without confusion, though. Despite a new maternal instinct in her heart, her body doesn’t really know what to do and fumbles to calm this misshapen and malnourished baby who one would assume has attachment issues. “The important thing, it seems, is for P’tit not to be confronted with his mother’s face. Any attempt at a cuddle horrifies him.” Similarly, although she feels a hypnotic pull toward her son and experiences that innate need to protect him, this newfound responsibility devastates her: “Blanche shudders. That’s a notion that shouldn’t occur to a mother. Much too late to wish this small life undone. And yet she does wish it, every time her eyes approach him.” Further, “Frankly, she’s sick of waiting hand and foot on this tiny, unsmiling stranger. She wouldn’t drown him in a bucket, but she can’t say much more than that. Guilt hangs on her like a lead apron. There are moments, tying a diaper or transferring P’tit from one arm to the other, when Blanche begins to feel competent at this kind of drudgery, but that doesn’t help; it only sharpens the feeling of estrangement from herself.”
If we were to encounter these sentiments from an acquaintance we would, at the very least, be directing her to a mental-health professional, and perhaps even calling CPS. But Donoghue is foisting a fictional persona onto Blanche, so we hang in with her and recognize that despite these dark thoughts, something new is brewing within this woman who is already accustomed to giving others what they want. This time, however, she has to teach herself to give even when no return pleasure or satisfaction seems imminent. Giving her will, her soul, and every ounce of her energy to her child seems more tricky and challenging than giving her body to strangers.
And, soon enough, she learns. Even though “Being saddled with a baby, Blanche feels as if she doesn’t quite count as a woman anymore,” her next separation from P’tit—as he is whisked away by Arthur and their friend Ernest—is unbearable to her. A quick study, Blanche learns one of life’s tricks of the trade: Fake it until you make it. “Mothers in the street who caress their children—they may all be faking it, it occurs to her now.” Because she has no other option acceptable to her, she fakes it as well.
The beautiful part is that Blanche, in fact, does “make it.” “The thought [of abandoning her son] makes her squeeze P’tit so tight that he howls even louder. She couldn’t walk away. Not now, not ever.” Similarly, “Whether [getting her son back from Arthur and Ernest] works or not, in years to come Blanche has to be able to tell herself that she tried, bet everything, for P’tit’s sake. This is what mothers do for their babies: they bite their tongues and let the world ride them into the ground.” She doesn’t “make it” all the way to blog-world perfection (in fact, according to Donoghue’s historical research, the real Blanche most likely lived only another few months after getting her son back in her possession), but her love grows so real that she can’t bear to live life without this little being.
Donoghue’s fictional reconstruction of Blanche provides a way for this great expanse of maternal feelings (whether overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative) to be unleashed. Fiction provides a safe place to explore just how powerful motherhood can be. Donoghue doesn’t make Blanche a sometimes-despicable character because she feels this way, and not even because she’s admitting that the majority of mothers feel this way. Rather, she’s illustrating how enormous and life-changing this role is. It is a safe place because the character that Donoghue has developed is not real. Blanche may have started out at the very bottom of the love-o-meter for her son, but her love seems to grow an awful lot like that of Anne Lamott, quoted above.
Show me a blog that features a destructive and wounded person who slowly but dramatically transforms into the best mother she can be while chronicling it all, and I may change my mind about mommy blogs. (Actually, don’t. This kind of love is the type of emotion that shouldn’t be sullied by voyeurism.)
* I’m writing with a general stereotype of “mommy blogs” in mind. Please note the use of “often,” “many,” and “sometimes”! I don’t know a single person in real life who has a blog as described above, so please know I’m talking about the “famous” ones—and in cases such as those, I think a critical analysis is a-ok.