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Funny, human and complicated

A bold new book on motherhood, feminism and the survival of the self raises the bar for popular Mother Lit

Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life,
or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child

By Faulkner Fox
Harmony Books, January 2004

My therapist (who I think is brilliant), likes to say that we all carry around snapshots in our heads about what our ideal lives are supposed to look like, and that a lot of unhappiness is caused by our failure to respect the emotional significance of our envisioned lives. In Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, Faulkner Fox does a remarkable and daring thing: she opens up the psychic photo album and invites readers to measure the distance between her real life as a writer, wife and mother in Austin, Texas and her idyllic dream of living in a house by the sea with “a man and a child.”

As a feminist, Fox questions why her experience of motherhood strays so far from her youthful fantasy of a woman joyfully immersed in her own life’s work while the man and the child hover quietly in the background. Using her own examined life as a springboard, Fox methodically tears away at the cultural behemoth we call “motherhood” to expose her personal truth -- a truth that will resonate with any woman who's felt that being a mother is much more complicated -- and much less satisfying -- than she had ever imagined.

Although Dispatches tracks the author’s personal course through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, it’s not actually a book about motherhood. It’s a deliberate and thoughtful record of the growth and development of a woman who is also a mother -- a woman who refuses to allow her selfhood to wither like a neglected houseplant just because she’s completely in love with her husband and children. Fox is wise to the nature and origins of the cultural mindset on middle-class motherhood and resents the toll that intensive ideology takes on women’s individuality. She’s self-possessed enough to want something that looks and feels completely different -- an egalitarian marriage based on feminist values with fully-shared parenting -- and human enough to succumb to elements of the cultural pressures she so stridently resists.

Fox slavishly follows the impossibly rigid dietary guidelines set forth in What to Expect While You’re Expecting during her first pregnancy, although she later describes What to Expect and books of its ilk as “bordering on evil”. She dutifully escorts her young sons to countless sessions of Gymboree, Kindermusk, arts & crafts and story time, even though she finds such mommy-and-me programs demoralizing and of questionable value to her children’s development. She bristles at the judgments other mothers aim at her parenting behavior, but also discovers her own dark reservoir of maternal judgment. “The good mothers, in particular, scared me …the women I perceived as meeting new millennial expectations for good motherhood: long-term breast-feeding, no work during the children’s preschool years, ferrying children to several enriching activities per week, infrequent use of baby-sitters. The women who did these things projected a kind of selflessness I found frightening. Where had their selves gone? If I hung around with them, would my self disappear as well?”

In perhaps the most unsettling section of Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, Fox reveals the discord shared parenting -- or more precisely, the lack of it -- caused in her marriage. After raging at her husband over the imbalance of social power and domestic labor in their couple, Fox fleetingly considers having an affair with an admirer she meets at a writer’s retreat. “It was difficult to feel sexual toward someone I was furious at. How much easier to turn my gaze to someone else I didn’t have to negotiate childcare or housework with.” When Fox come to terms with the fact there will be no fairy-tale ending to her dilemma, she and her husband work things through to a mutual accord. Still, frank talk about the relational consequences of inequality in marriage is uncommon in the emerging “momoir” genre, although perhaps it shouldn’t be. The specter of infidelity, separation and divorce can be harrowing -- especially for mothers of young children who’ve downsized their commitment to paid employment -- but of all the failures and tragedies mothers fear, the dissolution of marriage is by far the most common.

All this undiluted honesty could be rough going for readers -- as Fox writes, honesty, “perhaps especially about motherhood”, can be experienced as a hostile act -- but she clearly enjoys the play of language and her prose is intelligent, animated and irreverent (hint: if you are offended by the use of the word f-u-c-k, don’t pick up this book). Although Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life stands out as a serious work about motherhood and feminism, it’s never dry or dogmatic. On the other hand, Fox resists framing her intimate account of marriage, work and mother love as a spry retelling of the exasperating ups and downs of family life. Dispatches is a highly original, genuinely funny, sometimes outrageous and sometimes profoundly moving book, but there’s an agenda. Fox wields her sharply-pointed wit so artfully the reader is not always aware her objective is to poke enough holes in the one-dimensional caricature of the selfless, stressed-out mom to free the warm-blooded woman who lives inside.

If Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life has a literary precedent, it has to be Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot (1976). Both books confront the conflict between the power of maternal love and the need for separate time and space to authenticate the self, and are, at turns, angry and aching. Both writers examine the incomplete fusion of feminist ideology with the cultural configuration of motherhood, and both render courageous self-portraits which intersperse uncompromising candor about the iniquities of real-life marriage and mothering with caustic humor. Not to mention, both Dispatches and The Mother Knot are pure pleasure to read. Fox’s style is more off-beat than Lazarre’s, but her story sinks in just as deeply. What sets Dispatches apart from other recent writing on motherhood is Fox’s ability to bind her personal experience to the larger social context in a way that's entertaining, relevant and compelling.

I hope Faulkner Fox will keep writing books and essays about motherhood, and I hope we will soon see more motherhood memoirs that are as provocative, as ideologically clear, and as timely as Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life. Until then, upstart mothers who yearn to tip over the sacred cow of motherhood -- and every other mother, for that matter -- owe it to themselves to read this book, and then begin a woman-to-woman conversation about the socially and self-imposed boundaries of motherhood, and the importance of sustaining a rich and full life for one’s own sake.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
December 2003

Also of interest:

The author’s web site, FaulknerFox.com

On the MMO:

Dispatches from a not-so-perfect life:
MMO interviews Faulkner Fox

A short excerpt from Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life

Get A Wife: Confessions of A Slob an essay by Faulkner Fox

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