There’s a line of thinking that goes like this: “Westerners (Americans in particular?) are spoiled. Mothers obsess over sugar, self-esteem, and screen time. Meanwhile, there are mothers across the globe (and in America too) who are physically scrambling day in and day out to feed their children and give them an opportunity to actually survive.” In other words, “Hey, privileged people: Get a real problem.”
As I was collecting my thoughts on Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, I picked up the Sunday New York Times after being away for the weekend. Can I recommend that you take the time to read one of the lead stories – “A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness” – about a talented woman who ultimately succumbs to mental illness and homelessness?
I was struck by Nakesha Williams – now deceased – and her life. Simultaneously blessed with intellect, talent, a supportive network and burdened by mental illness and a history of abuse, this woman floundered. Despite tangible help, something didn’t “work.” Nakesha’s life was very much symbolic of the interplay between the physical and the mental – in her case physical abuse most likely led to or exacerbated emotional struggles which, in turn, led to more physical struggles. (A former dancer, she ultimately died of an embolism due to obesity.) Could a mother’s love overturn all of that?
Her story provided an apt illustration for what I want to say about Erdrich’s latest book and my thoughts about how mothers cultivate their children.
In Future Home of the Living God, Erdrich creates a protagonist who is hard to caricature because she doesn’t neatly fall into a comfortable category. Cedar Songmaker is a Native American woman adopted by a traditionally crunchy, NPR-listening Minneapolis couple. Cedar is pregnant, and although it’s easy for the reader to forget, the novel is actually a letter written to her unborn child. The novel takes place in the near future and seems to want to ride on the dystopian coattails of Margaret Atwood. (Fair warning here: Future Home is a bit far-fetched with its over-reaching symbolism. It won’t stand the test of time like The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that makes people go, “But is it so far-fetched?!”)
The Earth is experiencing “reverse evolution,” and pregnant women are taken away for “safekeeping.” Before she goes into hiding, Cedar feels compelled to finally meet her biological mother, a Native American woman named Mary Potts (but who goes by Sweetie because her mother is Mary Almost Senior and her other daughter is Little Mary) who lives on a Reservation. What Future Home of the Living God does well is use “motherhood” as a way to explore the commingling of the physical and the emotional.
Cedar’s adoptive parents, Sera and Glen Songmaker, are “truly beautiful people, there is no doubt, no question…They are forgiving people, Buddhists, green in their very souls. Although Sera is annoyingly phobic about food additives, and many years ago Glen had an affair with a Retro Vinyl record shop clerk that nearly tore the family apart, they are happily married vegans.” The Songmakers’ concern for their adopted daughter is mostly esoteric, heady, and of the emotional sort. The Songmakers are most definitely “woke” and embody all of the good parts about being emotionally supportive and present.
According to Cedar, “…I denied and disregarded the knowledge of my biological family for a short time, but perhaps you’ll understand if I explain how my ethnicity was celebrated in the sheltered enclave of my adoptive Songmaker family. Native girl! Indian Princess! An Ojibwe, Chippewa, Anishinaabe, but whatever. I was rare, maybe part wild, I was the star of my Waldorf grade school. Sera kept my hair in braids, though I famously chopped one off. But even one-braided, even as a theoretical Native, really, I always felt special, like royalty…”
In contrast, Cedar’s biological mother owns a Superpumper gas station and has another daughter – Little Mary, who is 16 and, well, a mess by conventional standards. “…Sweetie believes that, although she isn’t doing very well in school, Little Mary has no drug habit, she does not abuse alcohol nor does she smoke. Sweetie actually shakes her head, marveling.” (Needless to say, the evidence is clear to Cedar that her newfound little sister partakes in all.) Cedar says sarcastically, “Just looking at Little Mary I can tell what a good mom you would have been.”
Sweetie is not dumb: “I know you meant your comment as sarcastic, you know, ironic, what have you. Good mom. I know I’m not the best mom. I know that.” Is she aware that a lot of America wouldn’t consider her a good mom because she smokes, lives on a Reservation, and hasn’t gone to college? (The answer is “yes”: She’s aware.)
So we’ve got a bit of a judgement battle going on: What is “good motherhood”? And who wins the Hardship Olympics? The mother who says all the right things and is all about “emotion”? Or the mother who may not have time or resources to address a child’s every emotional whim because she’s working her tail off? When all is said and done, who would have provided Cedar with the “best” childhood? Is the genetic pull of motherhood “enough”?
No brainer: Parenting requires a mix of emotional and physical attention. But if children don’t receive equal supply of both, are they fated to a life like Nakesha? Of course not; it’s an impossible privilege to be 100% attuned to both. But perhaps if we free ourselves from half-baked solutions stemming from fenced-in expectations about which way we sway that percentage (and when), we’re better equipped to tackle a problem.
“Motherly Love,” a post about mommy bloggers and Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music
“The ABCs of Changing the Topic,” a post about two-sided, black-and-white discussion and Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
“The Sting of the Tiger Mother,” by Margery Egan. (The article mentions Amy Chua’s new book, which I’ll admit to putting on my to-read list: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.)
Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. What is a parent’s responsibility when it comes to education and what happens when a child bristles against a parent’s (extreme and/or abusive) views?