The Mama Monologues: The Lie About Mothers and Daughters

I am skeptical of memoir, not so much because I am uninterested in other people's life stories but because I am leery of the sense that simply because an author says something happened in this way or that, it is then imbued with a sense that this is the Absolute Truth. Memory is always colored by subject position, and the truth--as we learned from James Frey, if no one else--is a slippery fish. For the same reasons, I tend to steer clear of daughter's stories about their mothers, fearing that I will either find myself rereading Mommy Dearest or perusing the story of Saint Mommy, neither of which hold much interest for me.

Catherine Lloyd Burns clearly understands this dilemma. She opens It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks with her mother's insistence that Burns "should write a disclaimer . . . which clearly states there are three truths: mine, yours, and the truth." Burns' book, which she has subtitled A Memoir of a Mother and Daughter, examines this space between her truth and her mother's truth in order to illustrate that the truth about mothers and daughters is more than just the sum of these other truths.

Burns writes in spare, lean prose; her book is honest and unsentimental, even in moments where she might benefit from our sympathy. She opens her memoir with a tiny chapter called "Something Nice About My Mother," which both explicates the book's title and disabuses the reader of any notion that this will be another paean to perfect motherhood. A phone call from her mother sends the nineteen-year-old Burns scurrying home, expecting her mother to apologize for what she sees as a lifetime of neglectful parenting. Instead, her mother shares what is clearly a profound revelation, the "ton of bricks" of the title: "If you kill yourself, it is simply not my fault. I am off the hook. None of this is my fault. I am not responsible . . . And I couldn't wait to tell you."

This is, in many ways, a horrific way to start the story of a mother-daughter relationship, but Burns has an excellent sense of timing and pacing. The first half of her book is all about Burns' life as a daughter. She grew up wealthy and spoiled and basically unsupervised; she is, quite frankly, not the most likeable child. When she is nine, her father dies suddenly, leaving her mother a widow for the second time. As a child--and, remarkably, as an adult looking back at her child self--Burns is baffled by her mother's insistence that they carry on, that they not continue mourning her father. Her childhood self is grounded in the fact that her mother will only love her if she is somehow different. And so she bumbles through childhood and adolescence and adulthood struggling to be what her mother will love. It is a tribute to Burns' honesty that despite the fact that she is able to garner a reader's interest at the same time that she is clearly not courting our sympathy.

Burns spends the first half of her book writing about her own growing up, about her constant perception of herself as a daughter, reliant on her mother for help and support. The turning point, both in the book and in Burns' life, comes with the birth of her daughter, Olive. Now that she is a mother, Burns begins to rethink her own mother's position and responses to the various crises of their life together. She chooses to parent her daughter in the extreme opposite of her mother's parenting; she is obsessively hands-on and involved, where her own mother was detached and distant. Her daughter is the center of her life, and she is convinced that this is the way it should be, even in moments where she is also certain that this type of parenting will drive her to an early grave. Again, one of the book's great successes is Burns' ability to convey how much she loves her daughter in the same moment that she is asking us to question her very sanity.

In one incredibly simple and incredibly telling moment, Burns recounts a day when she cannot get her daughter out of her stroller. She is pulling and pulling at Olive, who is saying, "Uh-oh" over and over. "I can feel the other mothers looking in our direction," Burns writes. "I try to pretend like I know what I'm doing. . . It appears that I forgot to undo the safety strap and her safety strap is holding her nice and safe like a well-designed safety strap should. She's not coming out until I undo that strap. I am in a hurry and not paying attention. I do everything too fast. I am my mother." Of course, part of being her mother is making sure that Olive is safe, that she is protected from the world, even when she isn't consciously thinking about it. The book--like our lives as mothers--is full of moments like this.

Burns begins her life as a mother smugly assuming that unlike her OWN mother, SHE will do this better. She will do it RIGHT. What she finds, of course, is that there is no one right way to love a child, no one truth about how to mother. Instead, like all of us, she finds that the ideal picture of motherhood that we all carry with us has nothing to do with the day-to-day of loving a real child: "My daughter, who was supposed to spend her childhood basking in the warm glow of my idyllic maternal love, is having a time-out in the next room. And I am in a foul fucking mood about shit that has nothing to do with her." The revelation that motherhood is hard, that children are trying, that perfection is a lie, isn't new or startling; what is new and startling is Burns' ability to talk about how a mother can seemingly fail her child and be a good mother all at once.

column added on 2006-10-01 :: ::

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Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner has a masters degree in English, with a focus on 18th-century British literature, which makes her your go-to girl for all things Jane Austen. Before becoming a mama, she spent ten years teaching literature, writing, and rhetoric. Susan lives in Oklahoma with her husband and their sons, Henry and Charlie; she is constantly on the lookout for the perfect pair of pointy-toed flats. Susan writes about fashion at BlogHer and Friday Style, about parenting at Blogging Baby, and about everything else at Friday Playdate.

Read more of Susan's The Mama Monologues column.

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