Her Bad Mother

Friday, September 7, 2007

Fashion Victim

I've always loved clothes. When I was very small, and for a very long time after, when I was no longer quite so small, I would spend hours in an attic room in my grandparents' house, a room that used to be my mother's, but which came to serve as a repository of all my grandmother's more glittery treasures: endless boxes of costume jewellry and hats and old dresses and robes and the occasional stray piece of hard candy, invariably scooped up by my little sister for exploratory sucking. My grandmother herself was, to my mind, dazzlingly fashionable, in her red lipstick and her turbans and her wide-cut trousers. She looked like every heroine on every old black-and-white movie that we watched on her ancient television on Sunday afternoons, right down to the scotch-on-the-rocks rattling in the glass in her hand. She loved glamour, my grandmother, and I loved it with her.

When I became to old to play around in her attic of treasures - when, indeed, she died and my grandfather sold the house and got rid of her things, to my eternal dismay - I began assembling my own collection. Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village - these became my attics, to be rummaged through for treasure, and rummage I did. By the time I was in my early twenties I had a vast collection of vintage clothing and accessories - snakeskin stilettos from the fifties, an Yves Saint Laurent pea coat from the sixties, ultrasuede Halston from the seventies, polka-dotted Versace from the eighties, and all variety of treasures from across the decades (the perfect faded Flintstones pajama top featuring Pebbles and Bam-Bam: timeless) - that I delighted in and which I dedicated, in secret, to my grandmother.

Treasures from that collection have come and gone, but I still have most of those clothes, tucked away in storage, preserved for...? What? My daughter, perhaps, if such things become of interest to her. Or perhaps just for the sake of collection. I'm a magpie when it comes to clothes - I collect and keep - both because I love clothes for their beauty and because I fear (a hangover from the loss of my grandmother's treasures, no doubt) missing out on or losing something that should be treasured. I collect and I keep and I never, ever regret. Not for me, in other words, the ministrations of the What Not To Wear fairies - I would love somebody to provide me with a new wardrobe, but not at the cost of the old. Unless by 'old wardrobe' we are not referring to my literally old clothes - the ancient Dior, the faded von Furstenberg - but to my new old wardrobe. My mommy wardrobe. And not even the tatty yoga pants and tank tops that are its mainstay - I love my yoga pants. No - what I would happily get rid of is the shoes.

I say that I never regret clothing and footwear choices - not even the Azzedine Alaia knock-offs that I wore in Europe in the early nineties, scandalous bits of fabric that they were, nor the purple Minnie Mouse-style stacked heels that I wore at the same time - but that is not, strictly speaking, true. I sort of regret this:

That, my friends, is a Birkenstock. Just one, because the other has been spirited away by a cat, or by the angry ghost of my grandmother, who would have recoiled at such hideousness. But it is, still, my Birkenstock. A Papillon Birkenstock (oh, the irony, such a cloddish shoe named for a butterfly!), and one with a sort of Pucci-esque print, but still. A Birkenstock.

It was, in my defense, purchased in the later stages of my pregnancy, when my back was aching and my knees buckling and my feet swelling beyond recognition. It was hot, I was heavy, and ballerina flats were no longer keeping me aloft. I needed serious orthopedic mojo, and the Birkenstock sandal came highly recommended. And it certainly lived up to its reputation: once my feet were comfortably established in the smooth curves of its sole, the Birk carried me gently, firmly, through the hours and hours of walking that were keeping me sane in the last, interminable, months of pregnancy.

But: they were nevertheless Birkenstocks, and they were ugly, and I knew to be grateful for not being able to see past the vast expanse of my belly to my feet below, which I knew were splayed out beneath me like great flat hippie pancakes garnished with a slash of raspberry jam.

I don't know that I would do it differently, if I had it to do over again. Those hideous foot-swaddlers saved my back. But for a wannabe-Holly-Golightly girl who had grown up - on the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by fleece and hemp-shirts and Birks, Birks, as far as the eye could see - swearing to never, ever let so much as her manicured pinky-toe touch the edge of such a monstrosity, the fact of having succumbed to the siren-call of comfort and crashed upon the rocks of orthopedic footwear is difficult to bear. I have worn Birkenstocks. I have worn Birkenstocks more than once. I may well - if another pregnancy is in the offing - wear Birkenstocks again.

God - or Nina Garcia - help me. And, Grandma? Forgive me.

(This is part of PBN's 'Little Black Book Of Style' Blog Blast. You have until midnight tonight to join in, too.)

(Also, for those of you following the Soovy discussion - to Binky or not to Binky? - there's been a vote for 'only bad mothers give non-infants binkies' in the comments here. Maybe Wonderbaby is going to fulfill the promise of her BillyBob Binky...)

Thursday, September 6, 2007


One of the many, many things that I foreswore ever doing as a parent, before becoming a parent, was giving my child a pacifier. I didn't really have any good reason, other than disliking the look of them, but still, I'd decided: my child would not have some silicone dummy stuck to her face.

That noble intention was revised about 24 hours after Wonderbaby arrived. I wish that I could say that it was because the lactation consultant told us that it would help with her sucking reflex or because the nurse said that soothers were understood to reduce the risk of SIDS - and they did indeed say these things, which I later dutifully repeated to anyone who looked at me twice when I popped a soother in Wonderbaby's mouth - but that wouldn't, strictly speaking, be true. Those statements provided good justifications for the soother, but really? I padded down the hallway of the maternity ward to the tuck shop on the second day of Wonderbaby's life and bought six soothers to stop the screaming that was becoming the hallmark of any efforts to get her to sleep. To put a cork in it, as it were.

And it worked, brilliantly. For months thereafter Her Bad Father and I would, when rallying our resources to get Wonderbaby to nap or settle down for the night, casually remind each other to cork her. And, thus corked (and soothed and swaddled), she would settle down, and even if she wasn't so reliable with staying down for those daytime naps, she would always happily suck away for at least six hours of sleep at night. (I, of course, would lay awake all night, reassured by the happy sucking noises, but nonetheless on alert for the moment that a) the sucking stopped, or b) the sucking was replaced by a hungry cry.)

That she loved what came to be called her Soovy was clear early on. Once she was able to crawl, and later walk, she would advance upon unsuspecting children and snatch their pacifiers for herself (she usually imposed a swap - I would say negotiate, but Wonderbaby doesn't negotiate - grabbing theirs and offering hers in return. Occasionally, if she was lacking a Soovy, she would simply appropriate one from another child, which was cause for much embarassment, but she would always return it when asked and when offered another in its stead. I did, needless to say, keep a stock of soovies with me at all times.) So it was that we were vigilant against the development of too extreme an attachment. We tried to reserve the Soovy for bedtime and naptime (such as it was) and emergencies, and at earliest opportunity we began suggesting to Wonderbaby that Soovy (along with Toadstool, nee Phallic Lovey) be left in bed in the morning and after naps and for a time she was entirely co-operative.

Then she started part-time daycare, and all was lost. It's a long story, and one that I'm not up to writing about, but Wonderbaby didn't immediately take to daycare. We went through gut-wrenching morning after gut-wrenching morning of child abandonment as we waited for her to adapt and, as we struggled through that process, it seemed to me too cruel to demand that she - abandoned by her sorry excuse for a mother - should be bereft of her loveys. So she was permitted to keep Soovy and Toadstool with her every morning.

And she has not let go of them since.

They're like crack to her now, in a way that they never were before. Deprived of them for any amount of time, she will demand to know where they are (Where Toadstool? Where Soovy? SOOVYTOADSTOOL!!!) If we leave them at home, to, say, venture into public without our child clutching an oversized stuffed phallus and chomping on a soother, she will invariably cry and demand that we return home to fetch them (Home. HOME. SOOVYTOADSTOOLHOME!) (we do not, as a matter of course, give in to her demands. But grocery shopping has suddenly become very, very difficult.)

I'm not sure whether to be concerned about this or not. She's not yet 22 months old, and is, I think, entitled to childish attachments. I don't want to impose my prejudices and aesthetic judgments on her - I don't like the look of the Soovy, I don't like that she's so attached to it, and I would prefer that she not drag a giant stuffed phallus around with her, but aren't those my problems? (Problems, not incidentally, that I created myself. I didn't disdain the Soovy when it helped her suckling reflex and facilitated sleep. And I thought that the phallus - sorry, Toadstool - was funny at first.) There's plenty of time in our shared future for me to insist that she lose this or that offensive accessory, that she not dare walk our front door with whatever thing attached to her face, that she follow my rules under my roof, etc, etc. She's not even two years old. Shouldn't I cut her some slack?

So it is that I've decided (unilaterally; Her Bad Father still wants to fight the good fight against all things Soovy) to let it go. She can have her Soovy, for now.

But goddamn if I'm not going to have fun with it:

Portrait of Wonderbaby with upside-down custom hillbilly Soovy. Preshus.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In The Outside

I've always liked fall. I've always associated fall - even more than spring - with newness: the smell of new erasers, new pencils, new books, the deliciously crisp whiteness of the pages of a brand new notebook. So I've never minded when summer draws to its inevitable close. More than that - I usually feel a prickly impatience throughout the last days of August, an urge to get on with it, to move forward into the crisp, clear days of September, to pull on sweaters and crack the spines of new books and start a whole new year.

Except for this year. This year, we did something new, something summer-new, in the month that I most associate with the passage of time. This year, we took a holiday in late August. A camping holiday. We went outdoors - sort of outdoors, anyway, in our rented RV - and set Wonderbaby loose in the wilderness that is the network of provincial and state campgrounds of Southern Ontario and upper New York State. And it was just so wonderfully disruptive of what I've come to understand, in my adulthood, as summer fun - so wonderfully disruptive of August, a month that is usually spent sipping cold drinks on hot patios and plotting for September - that any and all notion of calendrical time was, for me, utterly destroyed.

It was disruptive, in part, because it was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable because - for all the declarations of my husband's extended family, from the mouths of their rain-soaked tents, that our accomodations seemed the height of luxury - it was spent in a rolling tin shack that had been decorated in 1991 and so bore all the hallmarks of suburban recreational luxury as defined in the late eighties. It was cramped, and the seating and bedding were uncomfortable, and we were surrounded by navy blue and burgundy and taupe and the occasional accent of wood panelling or gold-look plastic trim. It was ugly, and once a few days worth of sand and one thunderstorm's share of mud had been tracked in and the shower stall had been filled with wet towels and dirty laundry and a few flies had taken up residence, it bore more than a passing resemblance to somebody's grandma's dank suburban basement.

What was more disruptive, however, was the entirely discomfiting experience of loving the discomfort. And not just loving the experience for its novelty - the appeal of the camping trip is, after all, the novelty of casting aside immediate home comforts and attempting to fashion something approximating a home in a hostile environment, to mediate ordinary comforts with the extraordinary materials at hand by wood or stream, to make cushions of pine needles and dining tables of fallen trees - but loving it for its familiarity. Her Bad Father and I have camped in tents and portaged canoes and kept warm by campfires many a time, in our shared past, but we have never sallied forth into the wild in a motorhome, never faced the elements from a padded bourgeois bunker, protected from severe discomforts by a thick layer of upholstery and wood panelling and the security of a Porta-Potty.

I, however, spent nearly every summer of my childhood travelling the western provinces of Canada and the Pacific Northwest and - one year - the California coast all the way to Disneyland, in campers and camper-vans and tent-trailers and mini-motorhomes. There was, occasionally, some tenting, but on the whole my parents preferred the relative comforts - the padded seating, the propane stove, the Porta-Potty, the roof over our heads - afforded by recreational vehicles. And so it was that my sister and I spent a significant portion of our childhoods in the outdoors, albeit an 'outdoors' mediated by certain middle-class rituals and comforts that our homes-on-wheels allowed us to carry with us into the wild.

As a child, I loved these holidays, these summers spent exploring, our comfort allowing us to venture forth securely and imagine ourselves to be adventurers, pioneers. But as an adult, I regarded the memory of these trips with a mildly affectionate disdain - ah, such innocent fun, but such bourgeois misunderstanding of what constitutes NATURE and WILDERNESS. So middle-class, so limited, so inauthentic. Why - I would demand, rhetorically, of my young and sympathetic husband - do people even bother pretending to venture out of doors, if they insist upon dragging civilization with them? So typical of we westerners, we coddled inhabitants of the developed world, I thought, to play at exploring "nature," to pretend to cross the boundaries of civilized life and experience the "outdoors." Bah, I thought. I would never do that. My children would camp in tents in the backcountry, making fires from flint and foraging for berries.

I thought about this on the last night of our adventure, as my husband and I sat outside in the dark dark night, listening to crickets and watching the last flickers of a dying campfire. Earlier that evening, I had walked with Wonderbaby, down the road, toward the lake, out from under the canopy of trees, to watch the moon rise. There, I had said, pointing at the rising moon. There is the moon. Wonderbaby regarded it critically, and then said, button. Moon. Button! I laughed in the moment, at her comparison. But later, thinking about it, it saddened me, just a little: for her, the round, glowing moon was very much like the luminescent circles that are spread across the stereo control panel, or on the touchpad of the cordless phone, or vertically stacked in the elevator. Those buttons do not, for her, glow like so many tiny moons - the moon glows like those buttons. And so, I imagine, would stars glimmer like streetlights and thunder rumble like an approaching subway train and geese honk like so many Hondas stuck in traffic. She is just 21 months old, and the markers of civilization are already her point of reference for understanding nature.

So it was that, after tucking her in, in a proper bed, and shutting a proper door against the cool, mosquito-ridden night, I could see what my parents were up to. Our (more or less) comfortable excursions into the wilderness of provincial and state campgrounds (and sometimes beyond these, into the true wild of forestry campsites) in our camper-van or tent-trailer allowed us to travel outside the conventional boundaries of our civilized lives for meaningful stretches of time. We couldn't have spent weeks at a time living in tents - we wouldn't have wanted to. But limiting our adventures to a night here and a night there - the amount of time manageable with small children in a tent - would have kept our adventures in the realm of novelty. Our protracted excursions away from home, in these portable cottages, on the other hand, allowed us something of the experience of living outside the boundaries of our civilized lives. Of living outside, in a manner accessible to a civilization-dependent family with small children. Of demonstrating to ourselves that 'the outside' (as Wonderbaby now refers to it - we in OUTSIDE. Be in OUTSIDE. WE IN OUTSIDE!) is something that we can be in, that can surround us, that we can be part of, even as we cleave to civilization at the same time.

Wood panelling and burgundy upholstery don't dim the moon or dull the crickets, when you are, really and truly, outside. And the cool of fresh air and the smell of pine fall upon the senses in exactly the same way whether you are standing outside a tent or a tent-trailer. In any case, Wonderbaby would not have spent nearly two weeks 'in the outside' if we'd only had a tent to sustain us.

I'm sorry that it's over. I wish that we could have prolonged this trip, this August, this summer, interminably. We'll be doing it again.


More in the category of things that I swore I'd never enjoy as an adult - virtual disco karaoke. Yeah, you heard me. Never say never.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Two days ago, I wrote this:

It's too easy to forget that most of things that cause us stress and anxiety are actually quite ridiculous, when considered against the vast, inscrutable complexity of nature and the universe and life and everything. That being human is a condition of being relentlessly silly, insofar as being human means struggling against disorder and chaos and mess and thunderstorms. We can't fight thunderstorms. They just happen.

I was wrong. There is so much that hurts us that is not ridiculous. I did say, most of the things - but to add such a proviso of proportional quantity glosses over the fact that when really bad life-storms hit, they hit with all the force of a thousand hurricanes, and shatter our boats upon upon the rocks, and cause no end of hurt. No matter how much tequila is on hand, no matter how warm the bodies pressed against us - the force of rain, of hail, of buffeting wind hurts. Bodies shatter, hearts break. Storms just happen, we can't fight them - but neither can we always shield ourselves adequately against them.

My dear friend Sandra is struggling against a storm. Please, go and stand by her. Umbrellas will break - a thousand umbrellas will break - in a storming wind, but still... the seconds of respite from hail and rain and gust they provide is worth the effort. Sometimes, they're all we have.

Wishing you calmer skies, sweet friend. Wishing them hard.