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!)