“But of all passing notions, that of a human being for a child is perhaps the purest in the abstract, and the most complicated in reality. Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life.”
Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year
I knew from the moment I saw the book’s cover that I would lose my heart to it.
Drawn from the back, a dark-haired woman nuzzles a dark-haired baby in the curve of her neck, both gazing together at a blue jay outside the window. A newer edition has replaced the duo with the lone bird’s unflinching stare. But at the beginning of my own birth year with baby #2, it was this quiet, anonymous madonna-and-child that drew me in.
Erdrich describes her book as “a set of thoughts from one self to the other – writer to parent, artist to mother.” (So of course I tore through it cover to cover.)
And her treatment of a well-worn feminist theme – the dilemma of mother torn between child and work – is tender and tough at all once.
But what I love above all is that her treatment of maternal love is the most true and least sugary-sentimental I’ve yet read:
We live and work with a divided consciousness. It is a beautiful enough shock to fall in love with another adult, to feel the possibility of unbearable sorrow at the loss of that other, essential personality, expressed just so, that particular touch. But love of an infant is of a different order. It is twinned love, all absorbing, a blur of boundaries and messages. It is uncomfortably close to self-erasure, and in the face of it one’s fat ambitions, desperations, private icons, and urges fall away into a dreamlike before that haunts and forces itself into the present with tough persistence. The self will not be forced under, nor will the baby’s needs gracefully retreat. The world tips away when we look into our children’s faces.
You have to love nature to truly love this book, or at least be willing to stay the course through Erdrich’s wanderings through the wild that eventually wind back to mothering.
(You also have to forgive her several sections of randomly-placed recipes and homages to her husband’s cooking. Though pregnant and nursing mothers can’t help but fall in love with food as they nourish themselves and their babies at a staggering pace. Writes the woman who just helped herself to second dinner.)
But anyone who has lived through the seasons of a child’s early years will find themselves in her changing landscapes, both of the natural world and the interior life.
She weaves the stories of three of her babies into one narrative of a nameless daughter, reminiscent of the way any mother of multiple children looks back and wonders, “Was that with the first baby? Or the second? Or was it the third?”
A blur of babyhoods, but the powerful love and the raw frustrations and the deep conflicts meld into one story of woman becoming mother over time.
I love this memoir of early motherhood because it is poetic in its imagery and powerful in its honesty.
She writes of walking in winter at the end of a pregnancy and letting her swollen body sink to rest in a deep snowbank, wishing she could just birth the baby right then and there.
She describes her fraying nerves while rocking a colicky newborn for the umpteenth night in a row that finally resort to whispering (amidst the baby’s screams) words that parents never admit in the light of day: I love you, but you’re driving me completely nuts. You’re such a g****** crank.
I still laugh out loud when I think about that scene.
So if you long to write in the middle of life with littles, or if you gaze out windows to mark seasons passing through the maddening monotony, or if you simply love to dig in the dirt with children, your mothering spirit can find yourself in Erdrich’s words.
Perhaps we all can:
Mothering is a subtle art whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as by instinct. Taking shape, we shape each other, with subtle pressures and sudden knocks. The challenges shape us, approvals refine, the wear and tear of small abrasions transform until we’re slowly made up of one another and yet wholly ourselves.