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.

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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.

No Little Person

January 19, 2016 § 13 Comments

Our editor-in-chief

Our editor-in-chief

In graduate school, my biological clock went off. I had never previously considered children–in fact, I actively disliked them–but the imperative to have them suddenly surfaced. I welled up at the sight of babies in strollers, cooed over fragrant little beings in onesies.

Fortunately, it passed.

I’m still slightly conflicted, although now at the age where childlessness is nearly inevitable. Every now and then my husband pats my tummy in a meaningful way, and I focus hard on the words that finally swung me, my life coach saying, “Of all the dreams you’ve ever expressed to me, none of them had a little person running around in there.”

I do wonder what might have been. During the MFA, I’d asked a guest writer and mother, “Doesn’t parenting take away all your time to write?”

She said, “Well, I used to wake up, read the paper, get to writing around eleven, drift through a few pages. Now, it’s like a mission, ‘He’s down for his nap I have twenty minutes GO!’ So I’m actually more productive.”

(I’ll pause for a moment while half the parents now reading laugh hysterically and the other half nod grimly.)

Christina Lupton writes about the to-parent-or-not-to-parent-while-making-art dilemma, in a brief and beautiful essay at Avidly.

What I’d like to write about, instead, are all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish.  I mean here the writing and inventing and the politics and the activism; the reading and the public speaking and the protesting and the teaching and the filmmaking.  These things are done by definition either by those don’t have kids at home, or by those whose kids are being looked after by other people – by states, grand-parents, friends…

Such communal caretaking, though we don’t acknowledge it very openly, is necessary:  there are a few things you can do with a kid in tow, but not many.  Most of the things I value most, and from which I trust any improvements in the human condition will come, are violently incompatible with the actual and imaginative work of childcare.

Lupton eloquently defends both parenting and non-parenting, while avoiding the easy trap of seeing them as rival states. As a non-parent, I breathed a sigh of relief; as a parent, you may well see some things you value reflected in Lupton’s journey.

“After Mother’s Day” is both a brilliant political assessment and a deeply moving personal essay. Go read the whole thing.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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