What We Abandon in Memoir
November 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jody Gerbig
On a warm, pandemic day, my five-year-old triplets flee from the house in search of escape. “Let them run wild,” my mother tells me over the phone. I have been complaining to her that my life feels loud and uncontrolled, that I have no time to write the parenting memoir I’ve started as though chronicling past chaos will sort out the current one. “You kids ran around the neighborhood, and you’re fine.”
The triplets return. They demand snacks and run off again, leaving crumbs in their wake. I brush these up in a dustpan like a bird erasing their trail home.
Later, I hear them playing together, without fighting, yelling, or demanding, and I see an opportunity. Hurrah! It’s writing time. I retreat to my office. One daughter follows and begs for yet another snack. She is not only hungry for food, I remind myself, but also for mom time.
I, too, am hungry, to write, to ponder, to be myself. “Please, honey, give Mommy a few minutes,” I say with gritted teeth, and then wince at its irony. Go away, child, so Mommy can write about how much she loves you. I might as well have pushed her into the wilderness and locked the door after her.
In her absence, I struggle to produce anything. I worry about where my children are and what they are into. I recognize yet another conundrum: my subjects must be-and-not-be present to write about them. I must think-and-not-think about them to type words on the page. I struggle with the many contradictions of drafting a parenting memoir: how to unearth the past when I’m too exhausted to absorb the present; how to tap into all that archived data in the mere minutes before children interrupt again.
I make myself write, at first only images (the snow falling in sheets the day doctors pulled babies from my womb), then scenes (my children being wheeled away before I could touch them). Somehow, more memories break through, and I am writing thousands of words, some even relevant. I feel giddy. I am both mother and writer! I can do it all!
And then a child—the one begging earlier—vomits the sugary treat she snuck while I was absorbed in work, and the words fall away again.
Over the next six months, I draft in frantic spurts on my phone—while standing at the stove waiting for water to boil or in an empty field watching kids run circles. I jot down thoughts on the calendar as though needing to record their occurrence in time: I knew their differences before they were born, I write on April 11. Last Christmas, they wanted to know about death, I note on May 21. But even these minute-long diversions feel like betrayals, my children chanting Mom, Mom as I thumb the phone’s keypad. Later, as the kids watch cartoons or drift off to sleep, I open my laptop to flesh out the calendar notes, but I can only feel the bones of them.
I know I must cull and shape these thoughts into a coherent draft, the details of our lives whittled away like shavings on a wood cutter’s floor. But I don’t know what moments to ignore (the moment the first stood and walked?) and which details to add (the time a woman said she’d kill herself if she got pregnant with triplets?). I worry the story will seem too tidy when finished. Perhaps only a body as ravished as mine can be honest.
In this way, the process of revising—shaping the arc of my parenting story from beginning to end—feels reckless, as though finishing the manuscript will end some part of our lives together. If I write a memoir about raising three babies, does that mean those babies are grown? I worry I haven’t done enough in this process. I worry I’ve done too much. Perhaps, my children don’t need me anymore. Maybe I’ve shaped our story irresponsibly.
And yet perhaps another possibility exists, one both scarier and more freeing, the truth we must all face while committing our stories to ink: the only ones abandoned on this journey are our own egos—to the process and the letting go. Our role as memoirists and parents requires us to do what we can with our progenies while we have them, then urge them into the world, smile, and trust they will thrive because we once held them.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere. She is also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words.