*BEST of mamazine.com* Lessons in Creative, Activist Mothering:
An Interview With Author/Editor/Publisher/Activist Bee Lavender
by Sheri Reed
Bee Lavender is the author of the memoir Lessons in Taxidermy, the editor of the anthologies Breeder and Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, the publisher of the online edition of Hip Mama, and the creator and publisher of Girl-Mom, an advocacy website for teen parents, and Yo Mama Says, a news and commentary website for activists. I talked to Bee in November about her recent move to England, her activism, and about the joys of raising autonomous children. We also talked about the importance of community building and of picking the right partner in mamahood.
mamazine: Your memoir Lessons in Taxidermy, although steeped in your remarkable and heart-wrenching medical history, really encouraged me in terms of community building. I so related to your realization: "I had in fact achieved adulthood with all the trappings, including a family and a real job and a few good friends. But community was something I gave other people through my work; I never thought I would find it for myself." Many people and parents find it hard to get out there and connect. Others, like me, are comfortable online but can't cope with face-to-face networking. As a parent and activist, what have you since learned about the importance of community and what advice can you give the 'community fearful' like myself?
Bee Lavender: One of the most fascinating and problematic aspects of building communities is the fact that, no matter how intelligent or evolved we imagine ourselves to be, most of us act like thirteen year olds. In saying this I definitely include myself; I'm still the watchful, defiant kid who grew up on the edge of a forest. I'm still most comfortable in groups defined by outsider status, and still very aware of the fact that I'm a working class person in a middle class world. I'm also still waiting for my invitation to a fancy dress party that is mostly mythical. When I was in my teens I used to act as a sort of punk version of Julie from the Love Boat, organizing expeditions and adventures, contests and protests, harassing my friends and enemies into at least pretending that they were having fun. This is approximately how I still operate, except now I serve wine at my parties.
Recognizing that my goals and limitations have never changed much allows me to maintain a consistent social agenda. I value community, but I'm not interested in drama. Life is far too difficult and fleeting to get mired down in scandal, gossip, or fear. When I get depressed, I put on a costume and throw a party. This might not work for everyone, but the core advice should: when you were a kid, what did you wish for? What made you happy? If you can figure that out, and act on your youthful desires, you will automatically be a happier person. This will in turn make it easier to create substantial and rewarding friendships, which are the core of any community.
mamazine: You have done amazing work for the online mama community with the online edition of Hip Mama, Girl-Mom, and Yo Mama Says. With the Internet, you have been able to reach and connect mamas and activists globally. Since making your geographic move to England, has your activism focus or scope changed? Do you see things differently now that your physical vantage point has changed? What specific activism projects are you focused on now?
Bee Lavender: I left the United States in protest over domestic policies—specifically the devastating cuts to veterans services, and the erosion of public infrastructures that should be in place to address a natural or man-made disaster. I predicted that the nation as embodied by our elected officials would not be able to adequately address an emergency on the scale of what happened in New Orleans. I'm a bureaucrat by training and inclination, but it didn't take sophisticated policy analysis to notice that our public agencies were suffering under budget cuts and cronyism. By the middle of the first Bush term, I had a hunch that the arrogance and cynical self-interest of various people in positions of power would in fact lead directly to a major tragedy. I do not take any satisfaction out of the fact that I was right.
Of course my family exercised a privilege by leaving—there are not that many people who have the opportunity. We took our two-career household to a country where everyone is entitled to free basic health care, where freedom of the press is respected, where it is not considered unpatriotic to criticize an elected government. I feel that it is important for me as a citizen expatriate and writer to continue to tell the story of why I left, and this has become central to my activism.
mamazine: I know cancer survivors who, after their battle with cancer, believe in God and those who shun God. I know survivors who live life terrified and those who have somehow come to terms with "riding life's waves." In Lessons in Taxidermy, you candidly discuss cancer, illness, and the terrifying prospects of your own life and death. How do you perceive life and death now that you've endured so much? How do you talk to your children about these inescapable realities?
Bee Lavender: I was raised in a working class, atheist family with a strong inclination toward criminal behavior and a murky provenance as (probably) illegal aliens from Finland. I don't recall any discussions about spiritual matters as I grew up. Certainly there was no reflexive retreat toward religion when I was diagnosed with terminal cancer; there was no solace of any kind on offer. It was my job to be tenacious and fight—comfort and sympathy were considered frivolous and possibly damaging as I might relax my vigilance. During one of my hospitalizations a friend of the family visited to tell me that her church would pray for me at the weekend, and I remember feeling angry. I didn't even have the context to understand that her gesture was meant to be supportive; instead, I saw it as an invasion of my privacy. I didn't want a congregation of strangers to know about my illness.
I respect and admire the people who raised me; they saved my life and gave me strength. But now that I'm an adult with children of my own I have created a different family culture. I am strict and tough about some things, like honesty and honor, but I am not raising kids who need to fight their way through life.
When my kids were smaller and asked the inevitable questions about life and death I told them what I believe, but also what other people believe. They know that I died and was resuscitated, that I did not have a religious epiphany, and that I am more interested in everyday reality than promises of heaven or rebirth. They know that other people have had different experiences, and that the major world religions hold various doctrines of faith. They have friends and relatives who are religious; my father-in-law is a Christian minister and pastoral psychotherapist. I am an atheist, but my children have the right to believe whatever they like. My son attends a Church of England primary school, and my daughter is pursuing an advanced course in Religious Education.
People who only know me through my written work might be surprised to learn that I am not a somber person. I am fairly decadent and always interested in having fun. I like to tell and hear amusing stories, and I didn't even know that many of my anecdotes were depressing. It was only when my daughter was about twelve that she pointed out that a few of the stories were frightening; this revelation influenced me to think about my past differently, and the result is Lessons in Taxidermy.
mamazine: I adore the way you seem to have raised very autonomous children and at the same time reject the idea that you had anything to do with it. Although you don't write about them in great detail, the bits we get of them illustrate them to be so clearly their own flourishing entities. I read a quote from you in Marrit Ingman's piece in It's a Boy that said: "My son wears suits and ties, plays chess, and prefers to listen to books on tape instead of go outside. He is a studious and serious gentleman. This has been surprising and interesting, and I don't take credit for his choices." Then in your recent Literary Mama interview with Stacey Greenburg, you said, "…we are rather chaotic and rarely have matching clean socks, but all four of us have substantial and rewarding projects to work on." I have to say I am enamored by your ability to encourage your children as true individuals, to take them seriously in a way that society does not necessarily support. In many ways, I see this as the perfect way to keep mama autonomous too. What are your thoughts about this?
Bee Lavender: I didn't choose to become a parent; when I found myself over five months pregnant at age eighteen, it was quite a shock, for all the standard reasons and also because a pregnancy could have been lethal. I doubt that anyone expected either of us to live through the experience, and once you've resigned yourself to death there isn't that much left to lose. I knew how to be a sick person, how to navigate my way through a medical system, how to fight with vicious determination to get the services that I needed to survive.
What I didn't know was, essentially, everything else. I walked out of the hospital with a fascinating little scrap of a person clutched in my arms and absolutely no expectations of what that would mean. Of course I had the good role models of my mother and grandmother; they had both been teen parents and their kids were raised with fierce love. I grasped the necessity of devotion, but the rest of it—the schedules and accoutrements and formalities—was a bit of a mystery. I just shrugged and proceeded according to my own idiosyncratic ideas. This included regarding my daughter, and later my son, as an individual I am privileged to live with.
I believe that people should earn titles; I am a mother because I am good at that job, not because I gave birth. My kids respect me because I have worked hard to protect and nurture them, not because they happen to live in my house. Both of my children have been wholly themselves their entire lives, and I have merely acted as a steward in helping them grow into their full potential.
Children are not chattel, nor social experiments. They are small people with their own aspirations and personalities and problems. My children are deeply eccentric and trenchantly individualistic. The same could be said of the two adults in the family. I've never found parenting to be easy, but it has been a lot of fun.
mamazine: Also in the Literary Mama interview, you mention that insomnia afforded you the time to complete creative projects when your kids were small. You also say, "You have to do what is right for your family, and for you as a person, which involves compromise but does not require sacrifice." Many of my mama friends with older children would say their lives have gotten even busier. How do you make time now for your own creative projects and keep your children's growing lives and activities in balance as well as your own without feeling the squeeze of sacrifice?
Bee Lavender: I suppose that the primary difference between my household and many others I know is the fact that I have a strictly egalitarian relationship. Byron and I divide all the chores and responsibilities, and never take more than our fare share, even if that means that some things just never get done. Before you decide this sounds pretentious and precious, I would like to say that we didn't arrive at the arrangement for noble reasons. We're both selfish only children. If I'm doing the dishes, then he will be taking out the trash—and if either of us slide, the other goes on strike. Of course, he couldn't breastfeed, but he did other chores to share the burden of caring for infants. Our master plan works pretty well most of the time, particularly when it comes to schedules. We both travel for work extensively, and we are careful to make sure that we get an equal amount of time on the road – we even keep a yearly calendar and mark off the days of our trips. We divvy up taking kids to school or appointments in a similar way. When you have a partner committed to truly sharing the responsibility of running a household and raising kids, the whole endeavor is manageable. I know that I'm lucky, but it is also true that I chose well. I would not accept less.
My daughter is fifteen now and my son is nine. As they grow up there are definitely different challenges than during the nursery years, but also greater autonomy and freedom for each of us separately and as a group. One of the great joys of having older kids is the fact that we can travel together and they enjoy many of the things that give me pleasure, like museums and ancient churches and assorted cultural oddities. Over the past year I've taken them to Estonia, Finland, France, and on a stateside book tour. Each trip was tremendously interesting, not least because they have unique perspectives on what they see. I like my kids; they are good people.
mamazine: What new writing projects are you working on?
Bee Lavender: I always have a dozen projects in the works, but this week I'm working on an essay about moving to England.
mamazine: What are you reading now?
Bee Lavender: I just finished Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment and would recommend that everyone get a copy. The book covers so much—fully a century of a life lived on a grand scale. I don't think I've ever felt so inspired by a book in my life, and it is funny too!
Now I'm reading Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters From the Forgotten Man and Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest. I guess that I'm feeling nostalgic—I tend to read a lot about the history of the Northwest.
yellow lamp on blue book
beach blanket mamas