When Your Daughter Refuses to Be in Your Essay
Beth Alvarado on the Boundaries of Memoir
A week ago, my daughter had opened to a random spot in my new essay collection and read a passage where she and I were having a conversation. Although she’d been angry, she’d said nothing for days, finally taking me out to lunch to tell me that I was no longer allowed to quote her without her permission.
In this particular instance, she was right. I shouldn’t have quoted her. She had told me something in confidence and I’d betrayed her. She was worried that what she’d said would hurt someone else. There was no way, since the book is out, to undo what I’d done.
She said, “I’ll bet it didn’t even occur to you.” She was right. I was just trying to get the scene down as accurately as possible. “The essay didn’t even need that quote.” She was right about that, too.
But, often, she has these pithy sayings about motherhood—while on the phone with me,for instance, she might say, I’ve got to get back to crushing my children’s souls, or when she’s exasperated by her twin boys, she’ll say, will everything with a penis please behave?
“It’s just that you’re so quotable,” I’d told her, “And I’m writing about writing about motherhood.”
“Tame your impulses!” is another thing she says to her toddlers. She could be speaking to me.
She wants me to tame my impulse to write about her life. But my life is so bound up with hers right now as I help, daily, to care for her boys. My impulse is to write about those toddlers, about her mothering, and about the memories that rise up.
Why is it so hard to write about children? For the same reason, I think, that it’s so hard to write about being a mother. One: it just hasn’t been done that often, not realistically, not honestly, and not by mothers—until recently. Rivka Galchen, who calls her infant daughter “the puma” in her book Little Labors, notes, “Literature has more dogs than babies.”
So many personal essays are about parents or partners, but there’s a lot to say about trying to write about children and grandchildren. About the balance between difficult subjects and personal relationships and protecting privacy. About the dance of anxiety in truth-telling and not making caricatures of our own grown children and their children.
Also, consider this: both babies and mothers are idealized in popular culture. Mothers are self-sacrificing, nurturing, wise, honored for putting others’ needs before their own. If they have conflicts, they swallow them. Or, there’s the other extreme: tomes have been written in which mothers are over-bearing, devouring, all-powerful beings who deform their children and are responsible for their every short-coming. My mother’s generation was that of the “refrigerator mother” and my daughter’s, the “helicopter.” These two extremes are myths that we, as mothers, have to somehow counter before even getting to the story.
And babies? They are round and sweet, cherubs all. Innocent, yet precocious. Of course, these are only our own babies. Other people’s babies are hungry, pooping blobs of flesh. If we’re honest, they barely interest us at all. Our government, especially lately, seems to want fetuses to be born, but is not interested in legislating a living wage for their parents, parental leave, child care, medical care, good public schools, or protection from gun violence. Our indifference to the children of others reveals itself most dramatically in our willingness to separate immigrant children, even infants, from their parents. The pictures of two-year-olds in court? Empty strollers outside of detention centers? Children housed in dog kennels? They seem emblematic to me.
All of this to say: writing about motherhood and about children is a radical act.
It is also one that has caused me extreme conflict.
I was conflicted when I was young, of course, because children take so much time, time I often wanted to spend on my work, which made me feel selfish. Then, in graduate workshops, it was apparent that no one was interested in stories about women and children. Even the few feminists in my class asked questions like, “Why can’t you write about independent women, women who don’t have children?”
Because, I wanted to say, I am not nearly as interested in dysfunctional heterosexual relationships—which is what they were writing about—as I am in mothers and children. Later, when I finally was brave enough to write about my own life, I was asked, “How can a woman who used to be a heroin addict be a good mother? This just isn’t believable.”
Believable or not, it was what I needed to write—and yet that brought up another conflict.I wasn’t worried about my parents or siblings or students (etc) reading about my past; I wasn’t even worried about my own children, since I’d always been honest with them, but I was worried about my nieces and nephews. I was worried about white perceptions of Mexican Americans, since my husband was Mexican American. I felt responsible, not only to my own children, but to their cousins, and to the family I loved and had adopted me. Was I perpetuating stereotypes?
And now, 30 years later, with the latest book, I worried about my grandchildren. The oldest child, the twelve-year-old, I figured my son could explain my past drug abuse to him, but the nine-year-old? I asked my son. He said, “Oh, he knows that his tata”—my husband—“died from liver cancer because he did drugs. He’s sad about it.”
So the family tradition of truth-telling lives on. This is good. After all, if we present ourselves as infallible, then what happens when our children fail? To whom can they turn?
Still, to present ourselves as flawed, is one thing, but to write about our children’s flaws? Or our grandchildren’s? That seems a betrayal. I had to scrap a whole essay on anger because to talk about the anger I’ve felt toward my son’s sons was too complicated. Yes, my grandsons were misbehaving. Yes, I tackled one on the stairs so he wouldn’t hurt his brother. Yes, I did threaten to break the older one’s fingers when we were lost, and he wouldn’t give me my cell phone.
And, yes, that night, when I apologized to them and asked if my anger had scared them, the older one said, “No, but it was a little surprising,” and the younger one asked me if I needed to hear “the patience meditation.” As if my anger had been completely unwarranted! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I felt guilty for months.
I remembered going into the bathroom when my children were little and holding a hand mirror parallel to the floor so I could see my face as they saw it when I said the things I said in anger. Was there something wrong with me? I didn’t remember my mother ever getting that angry. When I’d called her to confess, she’d said, “Oh, you know what your Auntie Sue always said. It’s damn hard to kill a kid.” Of course, she was joking. It was a bad joke. Still, even though I’d worked with children whose parents had harmed them, it somehow made me feel better.
Now, when I hold the little boys, I feel such tenderness for them and such horrible regret for my impatience with my own children and my older grandchildren.
I wonder why those we love most can light a match in our hearts. So easily. So quickly. Sometimes several times a day.
“Motherhood,” my daughter said to me, “is humbling.” And here she let me quote her.
Beth Alvarado’s Anxious Attachments is out now via Autumn House Press.