Tag : Sarah Seltzer

September 27, 2018 by

Writing Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.44.41 AMWhat I found most remarkable about pregnancy and early motherhood was the contrast; here I was, experiencing a profound physical and emotional alteration, growing new life inside me—and here were dozens of my Facebook acquaintances, going through exactly the same tectonic shifts, documenting them with hashtags, to boot.

So I was both special and banal.

What compares to this duality? Maybe the only similar experience is adolescence: moments like the first kiss, or that initial disillusionment with the adult world, the kind of awakenings that feel like one’s universe is exploding even as a thousand other combustions take place in the same hallway.

Like “coming of age,” each experience of becoming a mother has both universally recognizable features and a unique story. My Facebook feed is always filled with happy, pro-forma birth announcements, but behind the baby in telltale swaddle and pink-blue cap I always search for the other story, a half-bared shoulder, an IV pole next to the bed, maybe a bruise or bloated face. I wonder about the passage: was there suffering? Joy? Fear? Power, or powerlessness? Alongside the baby, after all, a mother is born, crossing a permanent threshold. (“Welcome to worry,” my grandpa told my mother shortly after my twin brother and I arrived.)

There’s a term for this phenomenon: psychologist Dr. Alexandra Sacks’ viral New York Times essay, “The Birth of a Mother,” recently revived interest in the anthropological category “matrescence”—the counterpart to adolescence or senescence—for motherhood. In a follow-up article Sacks writes: “Matrescence, like adolescence, is an awkward phase for most women, leaving you feeling out of control and disoriented.”

Among the challenges of matrescence that Sacks lays out are learning to live with ambivalence (what psychologists call the push-pull of motherhood); the dream of motherhood being supplanted by its reality; societal stereotypes of the perfect mother—all on top of physical and hormonal stress. In an interview with Lilith, Sacks noted that American women have a particularly rocky minefield to navigate because of our family-unfriendly policies, the worst among developed nations, but she said the new mother’s fraught identity shift can be found worldwide, across cultures.

Sacks’s work certainly struck a nerve. Take a look at recent books, films and comedy routines. We are living at a moment that I’ll call “peak demystified motherhood,” especially, it must be said, for mothers who have the time and money to be invested in demystifying. But this is not merely a trend among the privileged. Groundbreaking journalism throughout 2017 and 2018—a series in ProPublica and NPR, a New York Times Magazine cover story, a VICE episode—all laid bare the dismal state of maternal health in the U.S., especially for black women. This muckraking, mostly by women journalists, feels animated by a sister energy to the growing number of celebrities copping to postpartum depression, the memoirists, the comics. It’s a concerted desire to show the world how bad motherhood can get, how ignored mothers can be, a wave of pressure that’s enabled and amplified by the internet forums where stories about birth, postpartum depression, miscarriages and breastfeeding struggles are shared with strangers, then dissected and analyzed.

Whether they are reporters, memoirists or comedians, contemporary women seem determined to batter old taboos and injustices around motherhood by sharing the truth with each other. But it’s not just about consciousness-raising: behind all of it, there is a drumbeat, a demand that men and the powerful witness the labor, the suffering, of early motherhood. Alexandra Sacks compares it to the #MeToo movement, with this same dual purpose of solidarity and activism that is often nimble across lines of race, class and profession. Today, she says, there’s a new impetus to “talk about things we’ve always known but haven’t always had the right places and permission to share.”

This year alone a hefty stack of books on the subject of motherhood landed on my desk, many by Jewish writers, from Jacqueline Rose’s cultural commentary, Mothers, to memoirs, novels and essays. In the past few years, nonfiction books have specifically addressed topics like IVF, infertility and stillbirth, alongside revealing novels like Elisa Albert’s After Birth and Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation, both of which probed the conflict between motherhood and meaningful work, between motherhood and meaning itself. The Perfect Nanny, the bestselling French thriller by Leila Slimani about a caregiver who murders her charges, interrogates the primal terror of the working mom who tries to replace herself with hired help, while Elena Ferrante’s unflinching description of unhappy mothers on the brink propelled her to bestseller lists (she’s the subject of an entire section of Jacqueline Rose’s book). The New Yorker has published short stories that add to the canon, like Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” and Karen Russell’s “Orange World,” both of which address the fears that emerge in early motherhood—and both of which felt so deeply rooted in the maternal and domestic that one was surprised to encounter them in the pages of any rarefied high-culture magazine. (“From Hunt’s story: “I realize that what I’ve learned about being a middle-class, hetero mother who went to college could actually be boiled down to one or two fortune cookies. I write, HORMONES ARE LIFE. HORMONES ARE MENTAL ILLNESS. I write, EQUALITY BETWEEN THE SEXES DOES NOT EXIST. And then my job is done.”)

I became interested in this new wave of motherhood lit a few years ago, when a spate of sparse, compressed nonfiction hit bookshelves, including Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, which memorably describes her baby as a “puma” who comes to stay, as well as Maggie Nelson’s queer family masterpiece, The Argonauts, among their ranks. I read many of these lilting, polished books while pregnant myself and they gave me comfort: I could be a true intellectual and a new mom too, if I just kept my paragraphs short and my sentences dagger-sharp. But what differentiates the more recent crop of books from that elegant 2015 batch are the viscera: both the graphic details of birth and its postpartum wounds, but more crucially the visceral anger that pulses through their pages, anger that at times overmasters the writer’s attempts to be poetic or controlled.

In her 2018 book of cultural exploration, Mothers, Jacqueline Rose writes that “today, in public, the bodily necessities of mothering are brushed under the carpet and/or consigned to another hidden, intimate world,” because “the shameful debris of the human body, familiar to any mother, must not enter the domain of public life….” Tell that to Rose’s fellow mother-authors: to Body Full of Stars author Molly Caro May, suffering from postpartum incontinence, who tried to hang her urine-soaked pads up on the wall to remind her husband of her ordeal, or to Jessica Friedmann, who writes in her postpartum depression memoir, Things That Helped, of what mothers call being “touched out.” “When you have been stroked and suckled and grabbed so much that you cannot bear a second more of physical contact, like a cat that turns vicious out of the blue.” And in her memoir And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell describes a group of non-mother friends coming over. She defiantly lifts up her shirt, showing them giant purple stretch marks, and notes their revulsion.

These truths are coming to us not only in books. The feature film Tully creates a horror story out of a magical night nurse who helps a new mom on the brink. And a new group of mom comedians, led by Ali Wong, insists on detailing the ick. In her recent “Hard Knock Wife” special, Wong describes the reality of afterbirth in language so obscene I gasped before I laughed. She tackles breastfeeding thus: “When they’re hungry and they’re crying it makes your hormones spray milk all over their face and their neck, which then becomes very slippery and hard to grip, and then you gotta slam them on at just the right time.” And she polishes o a C-section with this joke: “they put up this curtain so that your husband can only see your human side, and not your cadaver side.“ This is the project of most of these writers and artists: to rip open the curtain, to make their viewers look at the cadaver side, make their fellow mothers sigh with recognition, and spur the non-mothers to gasp with a mix of horror and sympathy. The cadaver side is something many of these books and films deal with: the proximity of birth to death, both in that the mother’s life is endangered (and far too often in America, lost) in the process and that in giving birth, she has created a future death. This is what Jacqueline Rose thinks causes society to scapegoat mothers: motherhood’s reminder of our animal, violent, vulnerable nature. (One can debate whether that’s the precise distillation or not—one critic in The Nation thinks this explanation fails to account for capitalism’s exploitation of the free labor of motherhood).

Regardless of how all-encompassing her theory is, Rose has hit on something: if the world scapegoats mothers, mothers are hitting back. The books, the comedy routines, all seethe with retributive anger: mostly at husbands (O’Connell realizes she’s probably had postpartum depression—PPD— for a year, and immediately gets angry at her husband for not noticing), at doctors and midwives—and often, just free-floating anger with no object. This is important. Popular psychology reminds us depression is anger that has no outlet, and turns inward; many of these motherhood writers believe there’s a social element to PPD along with the obvious medical one, and Dr. Sacks agrees. “Postpartum depression is a real illness, which needs more advocacy, awareness and treatment,” she told me. “But social isolation and shame adds fuel to the fire.” For Jewish women, many of whom still face communal and family pressure to be both joyful stewards of the home and outwardly successful in the work realm, that pressure and isolation may be compounded.

For this reason alone, the project of augmenting the “motherhood canon” with an outpouring of new art and writing feels crucial. But are all these books actually breaking new ground, or did my generation just start naming this “canon” when motherhood was on our brains? To put it another way, are previous generations’ motherhood books hard to find, or have they just been made invisible? Jacqueline Rose is particularly reverent towards Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking Of Woman Born, which came out 42 years ago, declaring that motherhood, the institution, “has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them” and detailing Rich’s own push-pull between love and rage at her condition—an ambivalence I saw described as a revelation on a popular women’s blog just this week. Yes, a friend snarkily said to me, every generation of writers thinks it’s discovering motherhood as fodder for literature, and perhaps discovering the indignity of “middle-class, hetero” mothering in the modern age. But couldn’t the same be said of adolescence, that perennial subject of art? Or growing old? Or male writers delving into middle-aged boredom and desire? Isn’t it good that each new generation of writers would tackle such a major subject as the creation of life?

Two years into my own motherhood journey, I still struggle to be honest about its darker side. When I think about my particular hardships—a traumatic birth, a miserable experience going back to work, fatigue that made me feel like I had morning sickness for over a year after birth—I am embarrassed. It feels so self-indulgent to complain about these deprivations, when I am not being torn from my child by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or killed by neglect due to racism. When mother-writers on the internet kvetch about being “touched out” or having no time to write, I feel an initial wave of identification followed by an undertow of shame, thinking of the working nanny who wants not to find fulfillment through work, but to snuggle her own kid instead of someone else’s. I wonder of my sister privileged moms: shouldn’t we stop yapping endlessly about our birth stories and try to end maternal mortality disparities? Where are the trendy memoirs by queer moms, single moms, moms of color and working-class moms that challenge the deeper underpinnings of Rich’s “institution” (maybe some are too busy surviving to ruminate on their lot and get book deals for doing so)?

But I also know this: the guilt that would push my own pain into hiding would end up paralyzing me, preventing me from doing the work in the world that I so desperately want to do, especially as motherhood has increased my sense of affinity for families everywhere. Because mothers—even privileged ones— wandering around looking for a place to pump, with gaping wounds ignored by doctors, with absurd expectations to “have it all” and no maternity leave, constitute an oppressed class in America. If we at least felt less isolated and ashamed, we could more easily access solidarity.

I hope that’s what the “matrescence canon” is being born for. To teach us that with every birth, no matter how joyful, there is a loss—the loss of a life unlived, the loss of a former, undivided self, the loss of a degree of physical wholeness. To read these accounts of women’s rocky roads into motherhood is to see them process their losses. And to catch myself judging them is to understand the ways I judge myself. This is why, despite my skepticism, I have derived strength from reading so many honest accounts, why they have even sent me to find mirrors of myself in generations past. I found something I will carry with me forever just a few pages into Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich. She admits that she avoided writing about herself as a mother for months, burying herself in complex historical research as a shield against her own painful truth-telling. Yet she eventually surrenders her story, because, “I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world that will be truly ours.”

Sarah M. Seltzer is Lilith’s digital editor.

ART BY RACHEL LEVIT, RACHELLEVIT.COM.

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April 17, 2018 by

Ditching “Boys Will Be Boys”

The stories in the media have left me wondering about all the men in my life. “Am I safe with you—not just physically, but existentially? Do you see me as fully human, created in the image of God, like you?”

The fact that teenage girls are sitting in class wondering the same thing breaks my heart.

Here are some further excerpts from the student newspaper article by Abby Fischer that Sarah Seltzer mentions:

  • “Other highlights of the conversation include multiple statements that began, ‘Rape is bad, but’ and ‘you can overcome abuse, but you can’t overcome having your reputation squashed.’ Now, before you jump to conclusions about the boys who made the aforementioned comments—before you call them insensitive or sexist—let me say something in their defense.
  • Our culture fosters a world in which women are afraid to come  forward when attacked, and men are afraid to believe the few who  do. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t expect all boys and men to empathize with victims of sexual assault because they aren’t taught from the get-go that women are their equals.”

Abby goes on to describe how futile she and her female friends thought the discussion had been—“They’ll never believe us and they’ll never  understand”— while the boys, talking among themselves, described the class discussion as “ridiculous.”

What experiences and messages do young boys need so that they can grow into 16-year olds who think the experience of being raped is worse than the reputational consequences of being accurately accused of rape?

Girls and women are instructed protect ourselves from assault by “making smart choices”—about clothing, drinking, walking. But boys’ behavior is not girls’ responsibility. What will it take to put the onus on boys and men to stop assaulting?

Here are some challenges to the language we use:

Boys Will Be Boys.” Parents, educators and caregivers need to stop giving boys a pass. Don’t accept behavior from little boys that you would not accept from little girls.

Stop Crying. Man Up.” With this instruction, we confiscate an important part of a boy’s humanity and give him clear messages about masculinity.  Boys —and men— need full access to tender emotions.

Boys Won’t Read Books about Girls.” One way that we learn empathy is by hearing stories of “the other”–people different from ourselves. Books with girl protagonists give boys a chance to see girls in their full humanity, particularly important in a culture where media images all around us portray women as objects.

Julie Sissman is an organization and leadership consultant.

 

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January 20, 2015 by

Sarah Seltzer Examines Elisa Albert’s “After Birth”

Women in my family and life passed down the warning: the months a parent, traditionally but not always a woman, is home with a newborn are actually a terribly lonely time. Sure it’s as joyous as everyone claims, but actually, not entirely. Thrilling, but simultaneously so terrifying. And when, inevitably, the relatives and well-wishers and perhaps the husband leave — because who has paternity leave in this day and age — it’s achingly solitary lonely.

We don’t live in a society that has made any moves to take this intense burden off the person who bears it on her shoulders. We don’t care. And our lack of caring hurts women.

“Why so numb, so incapable, so enraged, so broken?” asks Ari, the protagonist of After Birth by Elisa Albert, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23). Ari loves her baby son, Walker. She loves him so much, is so caught up in him, that she wants to walk out into the park, leaving him safe, and quietly die of exposure.

So when Ari, going through a mix of genuine postpartum depression triggered by a C-section she feels was forced on her, mixed with garden-variety angst about her life in upstate New York and her stalled career, finds new mom Mona, it’s no wonder that she gravitates directly towards her. This girl crush does not arise solely because Mona is a member of a famous riot grrl band from the 90s, a poet who gave birth at home with a midwife, a cool girl who possesses the qualities Ari lacks. It’s also because Ari begins to think maybe, once upon a time, there was a way that new mothers could gather in some hut somewhere, and support each other and teach each other how to mother and be less alone. Together, she and Mona begin to create something like that hut.

The climax of their friendship, and the novel’s meandering, time-traversing plot, arrives when Ari and Mona commit to a way of mothering each others’ kids that could be interpreted as either weird boundary transgression or an evolution in communal existence. Ari leaves it for us to judge. But don’t judge too harshly, the narrative warns its readers. Because new motherhood is so much harder than you think.

Albert’s previous novel, The Book of Dahlia, provided a merciless dissection of the darkest part of human life, its final chapters — and in the case of that novel’s doomed Dahlia, a premature, sad final chapter it was. While Albert’s blunt, profanity-laced inquiry into the ways human beings and families fail each other and contemporary life fails us all, is consistently sharp and funny, in that book the combination of her dark style and the dark subject matter felt almost too unrelenting.

In After Birth, Albert turns her now-trademark dark humor and merciless lens on the first chapters of life from the perspective of a new mother, and the result is a perfect balance of light and dark. “Swell little guy,” she says of her son. “Sunny super lovely love of a guy. If I kill myself, maybe he’ll grow up to be a poet.”

There’s a dirty secret about female friendships that Albert excavates over and over again while tracing her narrators’ histories with other women, which are clearly so much more interesting to her (and, to be honest, to me) than another novel about romance. She lays out longing, the fear and the desperation, the dozens of betrayals that constitute a woman’s history with women, gay or straight. She shows us the way we seek in other women for the things we don’t have ourselves, the way we love and hate them for it. And in the case of After Birth, that means looking at other mothers for the things you don’t have yourself. Sisterhood. Your own mother. A partner who understands. Albert’s writing excels in simultaneously showing us the allure and limits of this kind of intense, needy female bonding. The saying goes that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Yet I keep thinking that if men could get pregnant, and Elisa Albert were Eli Albert, critical consensus would already be singing a chorus of praise for a novel that’s both great and, unfortunately, uniquely American.


 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction and nonfiction in New York City. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.

 

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April 9, 2014 by

In the Desert

By the time Ilana arrived in the Berns’ lobby for their Passover seder, she had at least three blisters and counting. The bouquet of daffodils she’d picked up looked as thirsty as she felt; she failed to plump the droopy leaves with her fingers. Another night of remembering the Jews’ escape from slavery, another Passover at her boyfriend’s apartment, her third in a row doing it the Berns’ way.

Each step towards the elevator bank caused a wince. Why had she chosen today to break in her flats? She sat down on the bench beside the elevator and slipped out of the shoes for a blissful moment, a period she used to cautiously press her fingers against the raised circles of fluid that had appeared so quickly. But then she hastily got up, lest she seem too idle, a New York faux pas. Mike and his friends always told stories about “stooping it,” whiling away hours on the steps of brownstones with sodas and cigarettes in their halcyon youth. But all Ilana saw now was the way they jogged up the subway steps and stepped out of elevators with phones open, scheduling each other in for lunches and dinners — and for spiritual matters, too, like seders, as if holy days were just holidays, diverting items to tick off on the social calendar.

Even her non-Jewish colleagues had bordered on aggression today as they anticipated seders. They were planning on drinking all four glasses of wine, eating matzah piled with pungent horseradish, they warned. Manischewitz hangovers, am I right?

Ilana felt her phone buzz through her purse. She guessed the message came from Mike, tardiness its contents, encouraging her to bond once more with his family.

Routine, but with stakes: last night they’d had, at his initiation, the DTR talk. Define the relationship. She needed to make up her mind soon, in his words, about “what path she was on.” Was she going to stay in town, buckle down on the music thing? She should consider, he said, whether her plans would make room for her to stand with him under the chuppah. Was his family aware of this ultimatum? She hadn’t dared ask.

At last year’s seder, such choices didn’t loom. But that had been before Mike lost a classmate to an unspeakable tragedy, before he decided that living life to the fullest meant “getting serious,” programming a trajectory into his metaphorical iPhone instead.

So now Ilana was like the Jews in the desert. Free, yes, but wandering, thirsty, blistered. Worse, she had no clue where the promised land lay, if it existed. Mike knew she could return to Iowa, take up where she’d left off. She had a spot waiting for her teaching music at her old Hebrew school; the university’s orchestra would surely find room for the daughter of her parents, the humble professors.

Doris Berns greeted her with a hearty kiss on the cheek and the usual once over, and whisked the daffodils off to get “perked up.” Pour some water on me, Doris.

“Mike’s late, poor baby,” Doris said. Of course he’d contacted mommy. No need to check her own phone.

Ilana hobbled into the living room. Mike’s uncle and a partner of Doris’s suspended their debate about health care to greet her.

“Great to see you. We were arguing about whether the individual mandate and Obama’s…” she stopped listening, kept nodding. The chopped liver on the coffee table looked like dog food, but it was the Jewish foie gras, Mike swore, usually before he shoveled down an overwhelming pile of it.

Politics and chopped liver were always on the menu at the Berns apartment. If something controversial hadn’t been brought up by the main course, Mike’s father Ed would say, “so what do we think of the Senate’s take on” a given foreign war, a verbal melee would ensue and they’d love it. At the end of the meal when they said “next year in Jerusalem” they didn’t mean it, because their Jerusalem was here, on West End Avenue. And they wanted Ilana’s to be, too.

At her own family seders, no appetizers were served.

“What do you think?” Ed asked Ilana, and she gulped. “Do you think Obama’s ruined things with his plan?”

“Oh,” said Ilana.. “Well there have been so many times Mike and me” — shit, shouldn’t it be Mike and I?–“kept thinking Obama had messed up, but then he’d end up being savvy, pulling out a victory.” She cleared her throat, hoping she’d acquitted herself. The truth was, with Mike, she could talk about healthcare: single payer, public option, individual mandate, but the Berns living room felt like a tribunal, as she’d told a colleague at happy hour last night, the happy hour she had to go to because it was rude not to.

New York was a series of oral examinations.

At her parents’ house they read the Haggadah, intoned the prayers, quoted the diary of Anne Frank. Ilana’s heart twisted. She saw her mother’s wrinkled face and the housedresses she still wore when she cooked, her mother the prestigious professor making brisket in a schmatte. She imagined the Berns’ seders piling up behind her, and her mother growing further away, closer to the dark end of the tunnel of years.

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” said Doris, arriving in the doorway with a tray of water glasses.

“Oh — I should have been helping!” Ilana jumped up; pain surged through her heel.

Mike always declared that the key to Doris’s heart was kitchen duty.

“Are you limping?” asked Doris, as Ilana stoically distributed water.

“Blisters,” said Ilana.

“Oy,” said Doris. “But you wear such sensible shoes, never clomping around in stilettos. That’s why we love you, dear. Me, I wear old lady orthotics. They’re expensive, they scream ‘middle age’ but do they last. Oh, I remember our heels — back in the 70s, sturdy platforms, not so wobbly.” She reminisced with obvious longing.

Doris’ stout but compact figure was impeccably clad in one of her trademark silk blouses tucked into sharp trousers. “That’s why we love you;” how easily Doris applied the phrase. Was it possible? Ilana could barely squeak out “I love you” to Mike, whom she’d followed out here, who used the “l-word” routinely. Maybe Doris, Mike and their family were programmed to love with ease. Maybe it was fake.

Ilana’s earlier image of her mother came back to her, scolded her: “They’re so nice to you. How can we repay them?” She must be gracious and cease the internal kvetch session.

“In New York, everyone looks at your shoes before they look at your face,” she confided in Doris.

Doris clucked. “When they do look, they’ll see a gorgeous punim without makeup smeared all over it.”

The Yiddish intoxicated her, Ilana had to admit, as did Doris’s premature motherly pride, but she wondered if Doris would say this to any nice Jewish girl her son brought home, or sent to his home without him. Sometimes when she hadn’t seen her in a while, Ilana couldn’t even picture Doris in her mind — she just imagined what-was-her-name, that beautifully plump actress perennially cast as the New York Jewish mother. If Doris said “punim” one more time, she’d be too much of a cliché to be true.

Mike had arrived unheard; he slipped into the chair beside Ilana’s as they sat down at the table, muttering an apology. “Ilana, I’m sorry,” he kissed her just above her ear and whispered. “They’re working overtime to woo you I see.”

They blessed the candles and the wine. Doris grew misty-eyed and spoke about absent family members, the grandparents and Mike’s sister Erica studying in Florence.

“And one person in particular, Mike’s beloved classmate Rina, we lost in such a tragic accident this year.”

Silence descended on the table — a rarity.

Ilana glanced at her partner’s suddenly-still face. Mike felt he had to sprint to the Promised Land; he was scared of being mowed down before he got there. She squeezed his hand. Poor baby, Doris had said.

Doris’s voice took on a lilt; she added “and of course, dear Ilana’s family. May we celebrate Pesach together someday.”

Mindful of Mike and her mom’s imaginary exhortation, Ilana said, “That sounds lovely!” She pictured her straight-backed parents beaming as Ilana and her sister sounded out the Haggadah’s Hebrew. Back home, the kids hid the last piece of matzah and made it into a contest for the adults instead of vice versa as they did here. Her parents set out an empty chair for those they had lost, a wordless tribute.

Ilana closed her eyes and thought about the seder’s four questions, really one: why was this night different from all others? She leaned on Mike. They were in the desert.

They listed ritual foods: Matzah, the bread of affliction. “It afflicts my digestive system,” shared Doris. Ilana rolled her eyes. Mike elbowed her.

Ilana yawned. Early that morning, she had woken to a bird’s noisy reveille outside their bedroom, the remnants of happy hour — or the remnants of her talk with Mike — pushing at her skull. She’d thought, I should go for a run, but instead curled up into a giant fist, clenched for some unknown fight.

In his sleep this year, Mike had whimpered and yelped, he had fretted “where are you?” In the mornings, he never remembered his dreams.

Now Mike gesticulated and Good Lord, spittle was forming in the corner of his mouth. “That’s why I’m thinking that the Zionist project is misguided,” Mike said.

“You’re thinking that?” asked Ilana, wide-eyed, prompting laughter. Mike turned the color of the beet-dyed horseradish on the table.

She slid her blistered feet back into her shoes, again, and recalled an evening when she was a small girl. She had said, “Oh, so and so from my class is stupid.” And her mother, in that floral-print house dress she put on after a day training medical students, had sat her down: Sweetie. We respect people, even when we don’t like their actions. Ilana saw the peas on her fork, the touch of her mother’s hand, her own shame. Mike would have said, your mom’s wrong. Some people are stupid. She would have laughed.

“What if Exodus reinforces Zionism, though?” asked Ed, professorially. “A parable about how the Jews aren’t safe on strange land, maybe?”

“It’s an allegory, not an imperialist directive,” said Mike.

“Okay, back to the Haggadah!” said Doris, casting a wary look at Ilana. She was worried her son would push Ilana away. Well, she should be. But could it be that Doris had once suffered misgivings before she became a Berns? Perhaps she was just remembering.

Later in the kitchen with the matzah balls, Doris asked how Mike “seemed.” Ilana said “better” as if the two women had previously agreed he was ailing. Ilana mentioned neither his dreams nor his ultimatum.

They bore soup bowls into the dining room. Doris asked “And you, Ilana?” over Mike’s head, wondered how Ilana’s cello auditions were coming — which smarted because they weren’t at all.

“She’s so talented,” said Mike, as they slid back into their chairs. “I wanted her to bring the cello to the seder, but she wouldn’t.”

Ilana pinched him.

Then it came, from one of the cousins clustered around the parsley: “So when are you going to pop the question already?”

A few long milliseconds of collective held breath ended when Mike, ever ready, snorted, “When you get a girlfriend — oh, that would be never.”

Ilana forced a chuckle and gulped more wine. She had been here for three years and the Berns clan possessed zero ability to keep their mouths shut. It must be genetic.

“Hush,” said Doris. “Poor Ilana!” They moved on to singing “Dayenu,” Ilana’s favorite part, the only part when her own family loosened. She sang with gusto, even a grin.

She surprised herself by giggling and declaring, “Doris, you’ve outdone yourself with the brisket,” as they reached the main course. Mike lit up at her words. His desires were so uncomplicated on the surface — act happy to eat Doris’ food. Join in.

“I spent too much time sampling it during the cooking,” said Doris. “My diet starts tomorrow, I always say.”

Ilana laughed freely. Doris’ plumpness in the midst of reedy female lawyers: that, at least, reminded her of home.

She had downed two full glasses of Manischewitz, and felt soggy, not unpleasantly so. The pain from her feet, and her irritation were both buried beneath brisket and bitter herbs. Maybe it would be fine to come to seder here every year, walking click-clack down West End Avenue, blisters be damned. To schedule things in: happy hours, lunches, ritual observances, the future.

Maybe she could let the words “love you” trip past her lips the way Mike and Doris did (but not her family, who saved those words), and rant about the election and like Doris, produce a passel of children who argued for sport.

She reached around Mike’s shoulder, glass in hand, and gave him a kiss. “Let’s help your mom clear up,” she said. He looked at her as if she’d parted the Red Sea all by herself.

After dessert thick with matzah meal flour, Ilana shook herself awake to finish the Haggadah. She declined the third cup of wine and said to Doris, her voice loose, “I think we’d better consider mine symbolically refilled.”

“I think Ilana’s getting into the Berns seder swing,” said Doris.

“We’ve converted her. From Judaism to Bernsianism,” said Ed. “No pressure.”

The truth of it — their own religion — struck Ilana. The one time Mike visited her he’d been bewildered: “Do your parents ever, you know, talk about politics or their feelings? You sure they’re Jewish?” and she’d retorted “Christ, Mike, Upper West Siders aren’t the only Jews.” They’d flown back in silence.

Ilana rifled through her bag to check her phone. The message she assumed came from Mike had been from her mom, like a parody of a parent trying to text: “Happy holiday dear Ilana. Be good. We miss you. From, Mom.” The word “love” was absent, the sentiment present in abundance.

The final songs had layers of repetition. Even at home, Ilana found this warbling wearying. The cousins banged their spoons. Someone yodeled. Ilana tapped her foot until she felt a sharp squeeze as her biggest blister popped. It was raw where the skin had been, where the fluid had gushed out. Suddenly she wanted to cry. She was going to cry.

She felt this was her last Berns seder. Her last seder in New York.

So as everyone shouted “Next year in Jerusalem,” she dashed from the table, telling Mike her foot was bleeding, and ran through his childhood room to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid, peeled off her shoe and saw the mess — torn skin, a smear of blood. She dabbed at it with a paper towel and sobbed.

A gentle tap came on the door. Ilana swallowed, wiped her eyes and said, “Come in.”

Doris stood in the entrance to the bathroom with a box of cotton and a familiar-looking bottle of hydrogen peroxide and she said, “Your feet are all cut up. You should have said.”

Ilana sniffed. If Doris had been played by that actress, Ilana would have said, “I am lost,” and Doris would have said, “you’re a long way from home, bubbeleh” and made a remark about the seder, or the Exodus, or her own life, that told Ilana where the path lay to the Promised Land.

But Doris seemed tired, exhausted even, and she said nothing of the sort. She simply propped Ilana’s foot over the bathtub and curtly — but not unkindly — said, “this will sting.”


Sarah Seltzer is a fiction writer and journalist in New York City. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.

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The Lilith Blog

March 18, 2014 by

Busting Open the Good Mother Myth

Good Mother Myth - image of bird and cracked eggThe good mother. She bakes her own challah and breastfeeds, is impeccably groomed while holding down a career or volunteer job, nurtures her family 24-7–and in today’s world, she is also spiritually attuned and a strong, independent woman.

Of course, she doesn’t exist. Avital Norman Nathman, a writer and mom living in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, has edited a collection of essays tackling this new spin on an old myth from many perspectives, introducing readers to a passel of moms who do not fit the mommy mold, and are confronting their own Good Mother Myth myth by writing their truth. Whether they struggle with mental illness, gender roles, or community expectations, the dozens of voices collected in “The Good Mother Myth” create a mosaic that is so much richer and interesting than any perfect mom could be. Nathman spoke with Lilith on one of this winter’s many snow days about media myths, policy changes, and hearing from a panoply of moms.

Sarah Seltzer: Tell me about the genesis for this collection.

Avital Norman Nathman: I’ve been writing about parenting and motherhood for a while now, in addition to my other areas of interest. And being immersed in that topic, I was hyper-aware of how the mainstream media framed their stories and discussion surrounding motherhood. Motherhood would either been seen as this sanitized ideal that we’d all supposedly aspire to or various stories would be co-opted and used as cautionary tales. i.e. “You don’t want to end up as this BAD MOM,” working the fear and judgment. 

SS: So why did you decided to do it as anthology of multiple voices instead of just yours!

ANN: It all kind of came to a head for me when Time Magazine came out with their now infamous “Are you MOM ENOUGH?” cover featuring the mother nursing her toddler (while he stood up on a chair. Yay shock value!). It felt superficial, especially when there are so many legitimate and pressing issues facing mothers and families. But those aren’t controversial or sexy enough to merit the big headlines, I guess.

So, I started thinking about a book where I would write about motherhood, not necessarily without a filter, but without intentional framing. Allow stories that just “were” so to speak. The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that if I used only my voice, I wasn’t doing much to change the current dynamic. Hence the idea to make it an anthology.

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