Friday, August 10, 2007

THE OTHER MOTHER: A REVIEW





Gwendolen Gross wrote and successfully published two novels about women's adventures and self-discoveries in the wilderness, Field Guide and Getting Out, before marriage and motherhood. In each of these books, the female protagonists immerse themselves in the natural world and find strength and solace there. Gross had a wealth of personal experience living this rugged lifestyle herself, as her biography explains, "She spent a semester in Australia with a field studies program, studying spectacled fruit bats in the rainforest remnants of Northern Queensland." The poetic opening of Getting Out reveals how significant the setting was for these two prior novels, "I didn't expect to love it so much to come to need it, going out, the trees lit with green or bare fingers, the open palm of the sky from a peak...I never imagined...that I would long for the smells of cedar and old oak leaves and the woody tang of sassafras twigs against my tongue. I didn't realize I would have to keep going, staying out longer and longer until I could see myself clearly enough to come back inside." In her newest novel, The Other Mother, the setting is a suburb on the outskirts of New York City--an emotional wilderness no less profound in its impact for the women who live there.

Gross conceived this book when she was a brand new mother, "rocking (her) colicky son under the ecstatic blossoms of the plum tree (raining pink petal rain when the wind blew)" and when asked, "So, what are you writing next?" she answered, "Fiction about the mommy wars. I want a character taking each side." The Other Mother is the result of that post-partum burst of inspiration, following the stories and perspectives of Thea, a stay-at-home mother-of-three, and Amanda, a children's book editor for a prestigious New York publishing house and a first-time mother who moves in next door. The tension between these two characters is almost instantaneous, and when an unexpected series of events compels Amanda and her husband and new baby to stay in Thea's house--the sparks ignite and the neighborly relationship buckles beneath the pressure of their mutually-judgmental recriminations.

The Other Mother is a highly engaging book--a perfect read for a late-summer evening, sitting by the pool, glass of iced-tea in hand. Shifting back and forth between the perspectives of the two women, this novel gives a glimpse into the private backgrounds influencing them to make the choices they do about life, family, and career. This empathetic point-of-view allows the reader to "walk on both sides of the fence" of this societal debate about women's roles and validations. For me, the inner struggles of the characters and their personal relationships and hidden conflicts were the most profound--even more so than the outside situations Gross repeatedly threw at the characters to mix it up. There was no need for the dramatizing of the external, as most women know--this deeply private issue is complex enough on its own. Still, Gross manages to make two fully-realized characters, both flawed in their own ways--both conflicted and curious about the choices the other has made.

In my own life, as a feminist and a mother, I have watched "the mommy wars" with curiosity and caution--having always been an "other mother" myself. First, I was a "young" mother--pregnant in college before I was married and had a career or a degree or a plan or a 401k. None of my peers could relate to my tenuous balancing act of cramming for finals, maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. to keep my scholarships going, attending mandatory student orientation sessions, while dropping my daughter off at daycare, making sure she ate from the food groups, and puzzling with her father over how we were going to cover rent for our apartment, groceries, and childcare on just our meager income. The mommies we met on the playground couldn't relate to me either--my nose buried in a textbook as I pushed my girl on the swing, a beat-up old car I'd had since high school a year or two earlier, with no tidy house in the burbs to drive home to. Even after I graduated and had more children and settled into motherhood and grew older, this "other" label still hung from my back. I have been a veritable patchwork quilt of mothering and career--full time teaching to part time and back again. I can relate to the women who drop their children off at daycare in the morning and how the mother-guilt cuts against personal-satisfaction and trails her all day long. I also understand the ache of women who are with their children full time--completely sure that they are doing the most important work of their lives and yet...completely lonely and sometimes bored and frustrated.

Now, I am teaching a course of my own design and freelance writing--still straddling the divide. My novel work has become all-encompassing as well, another ball to throw up in the air and keep juggling with mixed success. I am not the mommy who will be whipping up fantastical cupcake-creations for the neighborhood or heading up the PTA--but I deeply respect and appreciate the ones who do because they are contributing to the welfare of children. I am not the mommy who will be getting into her high-powered business suit and catching the train into the city to head up a corporation after safely ensconcing her children with the nanny for the day--but, I am so grateful that she is out there, working to hold a place for women in the broader society. As The Other Mother draws to its conclusion, the characters seem to make peace with their own choices. Books like this one continue this very important conversation and show how clearly each person needs to look at herself before critiquing others. In the end, this is what women everywhere need to do...let go of the judgment and self-doubt and stand comfortably in our own terrain--no matter which side of the fence it is on.




Want to win a free copy of The Other Mother? All commenters on this post will be entered into a giveaway drawing and one will win of a copy of the book, which I will mail to you next week. What are your thoughts on motherhood and paid versus unpaid work...the various ways women seek to compose their lives and make meaning from it? If you have children, have you ever experienced the "mommy wars" yourself? If you don't have children, what do you make of society's focus on women's choices? Or, just feel free to comment and tell me what you think! (Comments will be closed after Wednesday, August 15th and I will announce who has a free copy of this book headed to their front door courtesy of the publisher and MotherTalk!)

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10 Comments:

Blogger The Whole Self said...

ooooooh, a contest! and to think i've been bloggie-absent for a while, and just stopped in to see what was going on in your world...

well, i've been thinking a ton about this lately and haven't got much to say about it except 1. yes, it exists in my world and 2. i try my best not to judge and to not-engage when others are doing the bad-mommy thing. it's here and there and everywhere. maybe i should read this book and then i'll more eloquent things to say on the topic? :)

11:57 AM  
Blogger Lacithecat said...

As I - alas - have no children, even though I would love to have at leat just one, I am not immune to the mommy wars. It happens even to single women whose friends (all my straight, female friends that is) have babies.

You see I am deemed 'neutral' territory in the baby wars and I am constantly having to mediate between the various perspectives and I am supposed to have an opinion on everything (what type of nanny, whether the woman over the street with twins is a better mother than my friend because she seems more organized, etc),

Its exhausting and slightly amusing. Sounds like an intriguing book (and one i want to give to all these friends)

12:35 PM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

I will look for this book in England. I was a single mom for a long time and didn't have a choice about working full time. So I don't judge women for what they do or do not contribute to school activities, etc. - almost everyone is doing the best they can, juggling priorities and trying to do the best for their child. Will catch up w/ you at the end of the month. xo

12:55 PM  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

Thank you for the interesting thoughts so far! I wanted to add that Tammy of The Daily Warrior (http://mylifeasawarrior.blogspot.com) emailed her comment to this question as follows earlier this week...

"I never was given the choice to be a full time mom. Watching my daughter raise her son I have come to realize how many wonderful moments I had missed.
I am a people person and could never have been a full time mommy. I'm embarassed to admit I would have needed time for me. I would have taken a part time job and joined a book club. I admire the imagination and patience of full time moms. I'm a neat, organized person who loves quiet time alone. That would drive a kid nuts.
I loved being a mommy but being a gramy is FANTASTIC. ;)"

I just wanted to be sure she got her name in too. Your thoughts have been fascinating to me!
Love,
D.

3:56 PM  
Blogger angela said...

i was the just out of high school mother.
outside, it seems, is where i have been ever since.
i never imagined motherhood would be the time i grew the most.
you've opened up lots of thoughts on this for me.
great review of the bok - i want to read it!

10:13 PM  
Blogger Amber said...

Great post. I want to read it.

I am a stay home mom right now, but I am not sure I won't one day work part time. For me, I am not sure I would be able to juggle work and what I need to give to my kids. I don't think I would be that good at it! I feel like I am only just keeping up now. I have a lot of respect for women who do it, and for those who do it without a dad. I can't imagine how they do it.

I feel really lucky to have this time with my kids, even though I really miss a lot of things about a life lived more for me, with adult conversations and interest.

Mostly, I just wish as women, we could support other women more. In the long run, doing so means supporting children as well. Lets face it-- children are where the women are, working or not.

:)

12:24 AM  
Blogger Becoming Amethyst said...

You have comments again! I have a voice! ;)

For me, I think the key phrase in your review is to "make peace with their own choices". Envy or disapproval so often springs up from a place of dissatisfaction in ourselves, and "making peace" with ourselves is another way of having more compassion for others.

Thanks for introducing me to a book that sounds like it might have plenty inside its covers for me to empathise with...

9:28 AM  
Blogger Melba said...

The term "mommy wars" makes me cringe. The media (and ourselves) perpetuating something that is just a matter of choice. and I do believe there is always a choice. That is the part that gets me a liitle riled sometimes...when I am talking with a mom and she feels like she has no choice. Because I think we always have a choice in every moment of every hour of every day. that is the most beautiful part about our existance...our freedom to choose!

Thank you for this post!!!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

I like the idea of a contest. :) And this is an issue that currently consumes me--the ways to balance motherhood and writing and marriage and everything else. It feels so daunting sometimes. Like I am constantly pulling at a skirt which is too short, and trying to make it cover my knees. *sigh*

I love the fact that I have the choice to be a SAHM at the moment with my daughter, but I also feel guilty a lot of the time that I am not "living up to my potential" or that I am putting an undue burden on TEG.

So, no answers here. Just trying, as Rilke suggested, to live the questions.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

AND THE WINNER IS...

ANGELA

We put the names into a hat (okay, it was a bowl) and Rosie picked this one out. Thankfully, I'd made it a "blind" draw because I never could have chosen based on the comments themselves--all too wonderful!

the whole self: so glad you stopped by...and, yes, I do think it has to be a conscious choice not to "engage" when the judging goes on. This can be a true challenge, though...so I admire your ability to be so aware.

lacithecat: How much I appreciated you commenting as a "neutral party"! It completely fascinated me that even the middle ground is expected to participate in this strangely competitive territory...thank you.

paris parfait: what I completely agreed with and loved--"everyone is doing the best we can". How right you are!

Tammy: my mom agrees that the grandmotherhood-gig is incredibly sweet...watching her with my wildies, I can see why!

Angela: congrats on the win...your quote, "I never imagined motherhood would be the time I grew the most," hung with me long after I read it.

Amber: YES--YES--YES! Supporting other women more is an incredibly important piece of this. The world is a big enough place for all of us...

BB: you ALWAYS have a voice--quite a powerful and beautiful one, in fact! ;)

Melba: thank you for your thoughtful comment--the media absolutely has something to do with all of this "narrowing" of the issue. Paying attention to choice is an incredibly significant factor in life, isn't it?

Mardougrrl: LOVED your metaphor--sometimes feeling a little scantily clad around here too, when it comes to covering all of the bases! Ah, Rilke...what a perfect way to sum this discussion up...

THANK YOU ALL for giving me such interesting comments on this one--Angela, I'll be in touch for you mailing address to send the copy your way!
Love,
D.

9:32 AM  

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