Musings From the Middle of Motherhood:
An Interview With Writer Michelle Herman
by Amy Anderson
In her motherhood memoir,The Middle of Everything, Michelle Herman examines her relationship with her mother, who suffered from debilitating depression when Michelle was a child, and her grandmother, as well as her evolving role as a mother to her daughter Grace. Michelle and and I emailed each other back in October about her book, her daughter, marriage, and her continuing journey as a mother.
mamazine.com: The way you choose to care for Grace—on-demand breastfeeding, babywearing, and a heavy emphasis on mother-baby togetherness, is often called attachment parenting, as I'm sure you know. How aware were you of that parenting style as you made your choices? What books, people, and organizations informed your decisions about mothering when Grace was a baby?
Michelle Herman: I was aware of the parenting 'style' of 'attachment parenting' (because I read EVERYTHING during my pregnancy, trying to prepare myself as much as possible, and this was the 'style' of parenting that most naturally reflected my own instincts and interests). I think I used that philosophy, in a way, to support my own instincts (even though I think my wiring was wrong. This is an interesting question, because I have in fact gotten some hate mail (or, let's call it "angry mail") from women telling me I am giving attachment parenting a bad name in this book, and that the last thing the culture needs is yet another voice telling women NOT to put their children's needs first. I hoped—and I think I may have failed—to get across the message that the trouble is, it's often hard to tell your baby's needs from your own.
That's the trouble with attachment parenting as a "style": it fails to completely take into account what the baby might need. It sounds as IF it's all about the baby's needs—and it really appealed to me, because of that—but although I am totally behind the idea of letting the baby wean herself, and co-sleeping, and tandem-nursing (etc.), I realize now what I didn't understand then: that if you have a "plan" but fail to pay attention every second to what your child is telling you she actually needs, as opposed to what you think she needs, you are going to end up in trouble. I think there are a lot of mothers out there in the situation I was in, and I don't think anyone is talking about this. It's so hard to tell the difference between attending to your child's every need...and attending to your own need to ATTEND to the child's needs (and because sometimes the baby thinks she needs something that in fact she doesn't really need—what she needs is to learn how to take care of herself—this is a killer). Even now, with my daughter 12 years old and very independent in many ways, this is an ongoing issue for me. I always want to rush in and FIX things for her (and at 12 there are a lot of things that seem to need fixing!). I am still learning how to parse this: when do I need to step back and let her work things out for herself? (and I think even when she was three months old there were probably things she could have worked out for herself!).
Just recently I was reading a book I was totally absorbed in. And I read a bit of it out loud to Grace, because it fascinated me and I thought it would fascinate her. The book was Adam Phillips' Terrors and Experts, and there was a line in it about how if, for example, a parent interprets the baby's cries as ALWAYS meaning she's hungry, the baby is going to associate feelings of discomfort with hunger—and will grow up to be a child (and then an adult) who, whenever she feels unhappy or uneasy about anything, will imagine that she must be hungry. Because no one ever thought to comfort her when she needed comfort; every time she cried, they just fed her, right away. This is a common enough problem—and I was reading it out loud to Grace because, first, she's interested in these psychoanalytic "takes" on life, and second, because she knows I struggle with using food for comfort—and because she knows her grandfather has this problem, and we'd been talking about it (why is Papa always "hungry"? Well, when he was a little boy nobody ever paid him ANY attention. The only thing they ever did for him is feed him, and sometimes they must have fed him just to shut him up). Anyway, Grace listened, and we talked about it a little, and then she smiled. "You know what my problem is? Whenever I feel uneasy about anything—anything at all, even if it's that I'm hungry, or tired—I assume I must be unhappy and in need of comfort! Because that's what you always gave me, instead of waiting to find out if I needed something ELSE."
mamazine.com: There's a passage near the end of the book which is devastating to read, when the psychiatrist who has been treating Grace (who has been exhibiting signs of severe anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive behaviors like hoarding trash, among other things) tells you that you've been, in effect, too good of a mother, and that not letting Grace experience loneliness, frustration, or other difficulties is actually hurting her. You write, "Meet every need. I didn't know that sometimes it might not be so clear whose needs were whose. That the instinct to meet a need might be an instinct to meet the need of someone other than the one you're taking such good care of. The one you think you're taking such good care of." There's so much pain and guilt in that passage and the pages following it that I found it almost unbearable to read (in part because I identify pretty strongly with your experiences because of similar events in my own life as a parent). Grace is almost twelve now, not the six-year-old she was when you first realized the part you played in her difficulties. How do you deal with the daily decisions about how much to help and protect her, and how much to let her go it on her own?
Michelle Herman: Well, I've spoken to this a little bit above. It really IS still a daily struggle. I'm better at it now than I used to be—and now I have Grace herself pointing out when I'm overstepping the boundaries or overdoing things. I try to pause, always, and ask myself: Whose needs? But sometimes I just rush in—and sometimes even after asking myself I find myself thinking, Jeez, it doesn't matter, the kid is SUFFERING, got to step in and fix it! It gets easier every day, thank goodness, because she gets more and more competent. But—for example—when she complains about kids in her class treating her dismissively (because she just isn't in step with them) I want to wring those kids' necks; I want to rush in and have a talk with her language arts and reading teacher, who scolds her for "not reading" (because Grace finds it hard to find anything on her teacher's shelf that's of interest to her, and she is only allowed to "count" the books that her teacher owns—and is not allowed to count "adult books") or penalizes her for giving synonyms of vocabulary words that aren't the same synonyms the teacher has supplied, to be memorized—that kind of thing. I don't ever give in to these impulses (especially not to wring kids' necks). But I do rush to comfort her, still, and it pisses her off. She says I am too quick to assume something is wrong, and too quick to sympathize with her. At the same time, every night—it happens ONLY at night—she looks to me for comfort. I find myself very relieved to be allowed to give it, then (and then I feel guilty, as if I'm taking advantage of her!). But I want, always, to comfort her, to help her, to sympathize with and support her, and she really doesn't want me to (except at bedtime!). The good news is, now she can tell me: back off, Mama. And that's all it takes to snap me back to reality. And really, I am so proud of her for being able to cope with things on her own—even proud of her for "rejecting" me (I'm not allowed to kiss her, or touch her at all in fact, in front of her friends or classmates; in the mall, I have to stay at a safe distance—all that normal preteen stuff! And I get so proud of her, because it's such a huge step forward for her. Proud, even as it breaks my heart!)
mamazine.com: You write, as you struggle to come to terms with your guilt about the ways that you feel you've failed Grace, about how your own loneliness as a child led to you becoming a writer. "If I became a writer even in part because of my troubled childhood, then I must be grateful for the trouble. Every unhappiness has some happiness buried inside it; every wrong has some rightness." What "rightness" can you see coming out of your early experiences as a mother, in your life and in Grace's?
Michelle Herman: Well, that's easy. Even though I screwed up royally in so many ways, I see this—and I believe this is totally the result of my throwing myself into motherhood in the crazy way I did: my daughter is amazingly confident, and centered and poised. Even though (for example) the kids in her class dislike her—she is such an oddball! No TV, no interest in pop singers, totally focused on the career she has already picked—no interest in computer games or any other "down time" at all: she spends all her time in lessons, practices, rehearsals, etc.—and she does well in school, too, which is also suspect—she decided to run for student body vice-president! It was nuts. Of course she didn't win. But not only did she RUN, despite knowing that she isn't popular, but when she lost she wasn't upset about it—she said, "Well, of course I lost. But it was worth a try, right?" Ditto last summer when she entered the local "Teen Idol" singing contest. She worked very hard at it—practiced her song daily for HOURS. Took it very seriously. And when she lost—and I was upset, and her father was upset (even her godmother was upset: She got robbed! Kathy said) —Grace shrugged (when I asked her if she was very disappointed) and said, "I didn't enter it to WIN. I knew I might not win—you can never tell who's going to win this sort of thing. I entered it for the experience of preparing for it, working hard on a new song, learning it, singing in front of hundreds of strangers—it was a great experience." And she honestly seemed to move on quickly, without any bad feelings at all (unlike the adults). I think I did this: I think by letting her know, early on, that for me she was the most important being in the universe—by letting her feel absolutely and unconditionally loved, and knowing that she could trust that love and depend on it, always—she has grown up to be a young woman who feels loved, feels worthy, feels that she doesn't need this kind of approval from others—that she did, as I hoped, internalize that love. That's no small thing. Most of us grow up not feeling loved ENOUGH. That will never, ever be Grace's problem. She feels very lovable, very valued—treasured. I'm glad of that, even as I'm sorrowful about not finding a way to let her feel THAT without my also preventing her from learning, when it was time for her to learn, how to look after herself....
mamazine.com: What role did your husband play in these experiences? It seems like these must have been difficult times for you both; I guess I'm asking really nosy questions about how your marriage survived this period, as it's something I've struggled with and I've seen many friends deal with as they become what you term "the mother of all parents."
Michelle Herman: This is the tricky one. My husband...whom I hardly spoke of in the book! He is so reserved, so private, he didn't want to be a part of this "telling." But it's also true that he failed to step in and help us. Or, rather, that he TRIED to step in, but did it in the worst possible way: he would complain, he would criticize, but since he also left me to do everything—and, I admit, since I pushed him away and was determined to DO everything (at the beginning I would hardly even let him hold her! And I begrudged him every moment he had her, and that she was away from me), it would have been hard for him to DO much—I felt he was being a sort of "foreman": trying to dictate how things should be done, without actually doing them himself. So it may just be that he was between a rock and a hard place: what was he supposed to do? I think for a lot of husbands this is a problem. He certainly was left out—and he STILL feels left out. My marriage survived this period, but it is still an ongoing struggle to figure out where the marriage belongs; it still isn't at the center of things—my relationship with Grace is. Is this unhealthy? I don't know. I suppose so. But I don't feel that marriage means as much to me as motherhood does—which certainly isn't fair to my husband. And perhaps isn't a good example for Grace (actually, I'm sure it isn't a good example for her!). I'd like to believe that marriage is a meeting of minds and hearts, THE relationship of one's life (and I know there are women who feel this way about their marriages). For me, my relationship with my daughter has been much more meaningful (to answer the nosy question!) than my relationship with my husband. I admire him a lot, and I care enormously about him, and he IS my family—but my daughter? She is my flesh and my blood, and now that she is a young woman, she is the most interesting person I know, to talk to (it doesn't help matters that my husband is not a talker—that he believes conversation is over-rated). And Grace and I are SO alike in so many ways, it's no wonder he feels left out. And he does—that much he WILL say. So I guess the short answer is: damned if I know how a marriage works post-child! My marriage has survived—and I think it WILL survive—but if you were to ask my husband how he feels overall, I think he'd say that he feels neglected (and I would say: Then TALK to me!). I'm sure some of this sounds familiar.
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