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A Tsunami of Truths

I was leaning against the refrigerator watching my six-month-old do tummy-time when I asked the other women in the room (with kids older than mine), "At what stage in your kids’ lives do you think you were, or will be, your best mom-self?" One mom answered, "When my oldest was still in the womb." Another laughed and admitted, "When they're adults." I laughed too, in that holy-shit-I-was-not-expecting-that sort of way.

The desire to become a parent is like reaching for your surfboard, despite the approaching tsunami. It looks small and manageable from a distance, like pickleball or observing a nude beach, but once you’ve paddled into parenthood, tits-deep in applesauce telling yourself that smudge on the bathroom light-switch is just brown smoothie, the challenges of parenthood expand.

When my daughter was born the magnitude of what I’d undertaken was felt as soon as I tried juggling both a Zoom call and her supposed nap. As I apologized for the baby cries, gently bouncing her in the carrier I’d wrapped around the two of us like infant origami, we entered our fourth week of lockdown and into the water I went, tossed and tangled in the weight of the wave, my mom-bun bobbing up and down on the surface, 30lbs overweight, and suddenly crying, depressed, laughing, or grateful, and all in a span of 20 minutes. When my daughter turned two, the tantrums mounted, and I knew that without air, without some form of release, I would drown in the white water of her tears, and mine.

​ I'm a writer and have been since the days of watching my father deface his books with a black pen and coffee stains, underlining and calling attention to words he responded to on a yellow legal pad. I have no idea what he wrote, and only a child’s-eye view of what he might have been making sense of, but since then, the lure of empty notebooks and scribbled words have been a way of talking to myself, a way of organizing the messiness of my reality into a cohesive narrative I can digest.

Writing my first installment of Memoirs of a Mom released a part of me I thought I needed to keep buttoned up, a part of me I thought was broken, a part I believed would one day just arrive, like my period or Cirque du Soleil. I assumed that because I was a woman, I should have innately known how to juggle the feedings and sleep regressions, the tears and screams, the head-butts and face-kicks, the “I don’t’ want you Mama’s” and the “Carry me Mama’s.” But as my friend so accurately recited, “We weren’t raised in a village.”

I’m an only child with divorced parents. My village, at any given time, was two people. Much of what I learned growing up was how to eves-drop, pack a duffle, “entertain myself” (parents love to say this), and respond to full-grown adults whose emotional management, while very much human, still surpassed the flailing devastation of toddlerdom when milk is requested and poured into a dinosaur cup, “But not that dino cup!”

I wasn’t raised around other kids. I didn’t have siblings, I had pets, horses, dogs, cats. I knew how to scoop poop, clean hooves, and given the opportunity, I’d use an entire roll of film on my tabby lounging in the grass. I assumed one day it would just click. I’d be an adult, I’d have a child, and bingo-bango, I’d know exactly how to be a mom.

Last weekend I taught a writer’s workshop. Five writers spent four hours with me in what I call Intro to Memoir, aka – group therapy. I say this, knowing the experience of our lives, particularly when written, rewritten, and quietly recited audibly to our cat, is nothing less than a form of deep healing from which we will arrive wet, exhausted, and with one-half of our two-piece swimsuit floating nearby. We studied narrative arc, character development, voice, point of view, and walked away with an outline for our larger manuscript, aka – our ticket to pain.

Talking about the past is difficult, making sense of it linguistically is like tuning your brain with bunny ears - it’s mostly static until the moment you get a clear enough picture to back away slowly from the tv, holding your breathe and praying the antenna remain in their awkward shape long enough for you to watch I Dream of Genie, or in this case, finish your book.

Sometimes I ask myself, when will I be my best writer-self? When I sell my book? When I’m writing for a national magazine? When my blog hits 20,000 subscribers? And…how am I defining “best”?

In 2022 I graduated with my MFA in Creative Non-Fiction. Throughout grad school our professors were quick to remind us, “the best-seller list is not an indication of quality. There are plenty of amazing writers who never end up on this list, this should not, and cannot, be the end-all be-all goal of becoming a writer.” But the competitor in me didn’t want to believe it. I hadn’t just spent four years studying my craft and submitting thousands of words to end up invisible and crying into my diary. I wanted the big finish, the book deal, the movie rights, the screenplay adaptation. I wanted the validation… of being the best.

My daughter recently emerged from a “Mada” phase. Which is what I call it whenever she goes through a bought of preferring my wife over me. I’m told things like, “No, Mada stays, Mama can leave.” Or “No, Mada holds me.” Or “No, I don’t want you I want Mada!” A “Mada” phase is also marked heavily by an uptick in my own depression, in which I selectively forget my daughter and I have ever had any good times at all and dive heavily into self-damaging fiction. I don’t matter. I’m nothing but the maid, washing clothes, making food, mopping floors. I’m failing as a mother, I’m doing something wrong, etc. This, and many other “woe-is-me” self-pitying stories, are truthfully among some of my more cohesive narratives, capable of convincing even the most present and applied parent, they’re actually a pile of shit.

Memoir is many things, an essay, a book, a song, a poem but no matter what form it takes, memoir is always delivered as a first-person account of an experience lived. I asked my students a question at the start of our workshop, “Is Memoir fact or fiction?” If you’re not a writer, your first reaction is likely to say, “Memoir is fact, of course, it’s a true story of someone’s life, nothing is made up.” I then ask, “Is memoir true or truth?” This one is harder to answer, after all, is there a difference? Then we hit the third slide which reads “Memoir is Memory. Welcome to Creative Non-Fiction.”

Memoir is neither fact nor fiction. This may stun some of you fans of memoir who read them as gospel. Very sorry to burst your itty-bitty book-light but there is not a memoir on the market that is entirely factual. Is Memoir true or truth? This one might be easier to answer now. Memoir is true. Truth is absolute, it’s known and agreed upon. True is what’s true for me, and as we can all attest, what’s true for me is not always true for you. Moreover what’s true in one sister’s, brother’s, mother’s, memoir….is not true in another cousin’s, aunt’s, father’s, memoir. We are all entitled to what’s true, the hard part is reminding that little voice in our head, the one searching for perfection, for success, for the best-seller list, for that moment when we can claim with absolute certainty we were “our best mom-self,” that every story we tell ourselves is not truth, they are merely biography masquerading as memoir or (and what’s worse), motherhood masquerading as failure.

Being a new mom felt a lot like paddling out to that tsunami. The thrill was evident, I was on the cusp of something incredible, but just below the surface, I began to believe the stories I was telling myself, stories about failure, about my daughter preferring my wife, about being nothing more than a human diaper bag. I started to "believe my own bullshit," as my father says, taking whatever fears or insecurities were driving these narratives and turning them into truths and unquestionable absolutes, rather than momentary true’s based on my exhaustion, inexperience, and perfectionism. I started to score my “best” based on how much positive attention my daughter wanted from me, handing my self-confidence over to a two-year old.

At the end of my four-hour workshop a student asked me, “Why do you write your blog? What do you get from it?” I have a theory that writing Memoir requires using the Fource, or as I spell it, the Four- S (stay with me). There are four “S’s” to success in Memoir. Without going one by one, I’ll start with the first “S” which stands for Service. What service does your story provide humanity? Are they inspired? Transformed? Educated? Entertained? Warned? How does your story improve the lives of its readers?

When I started Memoirs of a Mom I simply wanted a new conversation around motherhood, womanhood, marriage, LGBT parenting, and how they converge in society. I’d also recently finished an interview with a woman who said, “My marriage was struggling, I wasn’t a good parent, I felt like I had all these things to do every day and I was drowning in the weight of it all. I was seeing a therapist at the time who asked me what I loved to do, and I said, 'Write. I love to write." And she said, ‘Make time every week to write.’ It seemed crazy, to add another thing to my plate, but it worked, I wrote every Sunday. How silly right? If we make time for the thing we truly love to do, everything else seems manageable. Writing saved my life.”

I looked at my student who’d asked the question and answered, “I get to be seen. I think we are all motivated by something - money, success, goals - for me, I’m motivated by being seen. And writing, organizing my life, strengthening my voice on the page in a way that parallels my voice in real life, has allowed me to be seen by those who read my work.”

And then I had a thought I didn't share that afternoon. Writing also allows me to see myself, my messy un-best self, in ways that are merely true instead of truth. By the time I reach the end of a piece I’ve tamed the tsunami, and I emerge from my laptop to realize I was never drowning in an ocean, but merely swimming in a bathtub, beneath a white-water of bubbles.

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