My son is almost two. When he reads Dr. Seuss to me, he reads with great expression. When he says "Lopp! Lopp! Ooo-ducka Lopp! Ooo-ducka Lopp ducka CHAY TOP!" he really means it. It thrills him. He is a literary critic of exacting tastes. He cares nothing for Goodnight Moon and frankly, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom leaves him cold. He's found the author of his heart. His little soul's playground is Fox in Socks, and Marvin K. Mooney, and The Cat in the Hat. He is an avid devotee. If he had a sign, he'd wave it. If he had a flag, he'd fly it. On a train, in the rain, through the pain, it's Dr. Seuss again and again. And really, I should have seen it coming.
I figured out I was pregnant when I was standing on the porch of a man whose fine book had been used in congressional hearings as an example of the kind of filthy trash the NEA was fond of funding. He was hosting a party for the speakers at a conference he had organized called "Postmodern Pirates" which was at Kent State University. Everyone drinking, everyone smoking, except me. I remember saying to someone, "If you see me smoking, that means I'm not pregnant. If you don't see me smoking, that means I am."
I said it in a cool, nonchalant, irritated sort of way, because I was at the time cool, nonchalant, and irritated. So were all my friends. We were bored, we wore obscenely expensive makeup, we did risky things in taxis, and we were too utterly fabulous to care. But I knew standing there, as I looked around me at postmodernists, Acker-devotees, transsexuals, indy press icons and publishers, grant-getters, boot-wearers, artists, brainiacs, and other desirables, that I was experiencing my last moments of membership in this club. I didn't know the specifics, I didn't know the exact moment when I would be axed, but I could hear the whoosh of the blade descending, and I knew my days were numbered, because I was about to become a Mommy.
I'm not saying this was rational. I was already pregnant, you see. My husband and I had initiated the process two weeks earlier, and two days later a pregnancy test confirmed it.
At my reading for that conference, I read a story about a girl who shows her husband as a jumper on the horse-show circuit. She had injured herself and couldn't ride an actual horse. There is a scene, after he has lost yet another class by crashing through the first jump, where she beats him enthusiastically with a crop, screaming at him that he is inadequate. Illogical premises, unnecessary shouting, surrealism, mayhem. In case you are wondering, these are inappropriate themes for children's literature. Children's literature should be about love and happiness and flowers. You are special, you are unique, and so is everyone else. Be sweet, hold hands, love everyone, bunnies are nice. Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, kittens have soft fur, the alphabet goes this way. Here's a little song about trees. I figured the next book I wrote would have to be about a little airplane who helps all the other airplanes fly just as high as he can, or possibly about a rabbit with polka-dot fur who discovers that it's okay to be polka-dotted in a mottled brown world. Something chipper. Something gay.
I could also see that I was going to have to revise my entire personality. Allow my hair to revert to its natural color, learn to make meatloaf, stop swearing, and figure out what cleaning product goes with what surface. Giving up nicotine, alcohol, codeine, and caffeine was just the beginning. I would have to get some friends who wore cardigans with jeans that fit, who answered their phones by saying "Johnson residence" instead of "Heartless Bitch Hotline! How may I wound you?" I didn't want to be the neurotic freak Mommy who wears holey caftans and forgets soccer practice because she is in the attic with sticks in her hair. I wanted my kid to leave school every day saying, "Let's go over to my house!" with full confidence that the kitchen would be cheery, the cookies would be warm, and the Mommy there would be so normal that she was invisible. Put down the crack pipe and pick up the spatula, so to speak. Get a life, in other words. Grow up.
Then my baby was born. I spent the first year of his life staring at him and examining his toes and kissing his round head and I didn't much think about anything else. We read the happy schmappy kiddy books and I liked them. Either they weren't really that sappy or I was just in a mood to think beautiful thoughts. We're talking about a period of time during which I cried over "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," because he said nice things to my baby and said he really liked spending time with us because we were wonderful people. If you want really great books in the "Make You Cry Like A Fool" category, try You Are My I Love You by Maryann K. Cusimano and Satomi Ichikawa (illustrator). Publisher's Weekly said it was awful -- I cried until I had the hiccups. Also get I Love You As Much by Laura Krauss Melmed and Henri Sorensen (illustrator). For maximum crying, make up little tunes and try to sing them to your baby as he nurses. I guarantee uncontrollable weeping.
During this time I changed in other ways as well. I vacuumed a lot and marinated London Broil. I ran the dishwasher every night and joined a playgroup where everyone drove a minivan. I started making quilts. I observed laundry day and I bought sensible shoes. Babies do this to you. You don't even need a conscious plan. Just have a baby and before long you'll be making London Broil by the quarter ton. Nothing can stop you. You get up at seven and go to bed at 10. Life finds a rhythm that meets the baby's needs, which are all you care about, and all you want to do. To me, it felt good.
After my baby turned one and started to nurse less, my brain began to reorganize itself from a comfortable paste into a functional organ. Neurons began to fire, synapses shortened, and gradually I found myself having an intellect once again. My first novel, which had been completed about two days before I got pregnant, was coming out in print and I would have to do readings, make plans for a next novel, answer interview questions. How in the name of all that's diapered and powdered would I be able to reconcile my old writer self with my new mama self, to create a coherent identity from which to write, speak, think as one person?
This last weekend, my struggle came to a critical point, as I had to fly to San Francisco to read from my book at Small Press Traffic, leaving my baby for more than an hour for the very first time. I said to my husband, "What can this mean? I'm all about naptime and bubbles and construction paper and Big Bird! How can I read my fiction aloud to a room full of people? I can't do it!"
Just before I left, I was reading with my son, and I figured it out. As he joyfully scampered through Ten Apples Up On Top for the 652nd time that day, I realized just what I was reading. Dr. Seuss is experimental fiction for children! Dr. Seuss is the gap between my drab little mama existence and my life as a writer of indie books! These are the books that truly changed my life, more than Moby Dick, more than Ulysses, more than Geek Love, more than Blood and Guts in High School. Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Wordplay, silliness, apparent nonsense with its own internal logic, even unnecessary yelling. The Cat in the Hat. Where is your plot arc? Where are your characters that grow and change and learn? Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? It's all about process. Oh the Thinks You Can Think! Talk about a surreal and invented landscape! It's silliness with substance, from Horton to the Zizzerzazzerzuzz. There was no gap, really, at all. The goofy funky writer chick that I was and the goofy funky mama that I became were the same person, one with a clean kitchen floor. I wouldn't have to ease my child slowly into my secret life as a writer -- I was already giving him the best of experimental fiction, in the primer books we read every day.
On my trip to San Francisco, I made a vow that I was not going to be one of those tiresome parents that can't stop talking about their wonderful children who do amazing things, even though my child is wonderful and does amazing things. I tried to speak writer instead of mama, but women my age kept bringing it up, asking me if having a baby had ruined my life. Had I changed? Had I given up, sold out, sunken in? Had I been ruined or redeemed? I told them all that it's hard but it's worth it, that you lose yourself and find yourself, that you give up a lot and get a lot in return. It's hard to explain without clichés. But when I think to myself about my baby trumpeting out his rendition of "Schlopp! Schlopp! Beautiful Schlopp! Beautiful Schlopp with a cherry on top!" I know I haven't given up anything important, and that in all the best ways I'm right back where I started, reading good books in the company of a smart and interesting person. Even if that person drinks from a sippy cup and thinks that Elmo is better than Joyce.
Recommendations From the Am-I-Pregnant-Or-Not Conference:
Blood of Mugwump by Doug Rice
Former Virgin by Cris Mazza
Leonardo's Horse by R.M. Berry
Aunt Rachel's Fur by Raymond Federman
The Savage Girl by Alex Shakar -- an October Daily Pick
Must-Reads for Writers Who Reproduce:
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Blue Jay's Dance by Louise Erdrich (interview)
The Original Avant-Garde for the Diaper Set:
Oh the Thinks You Can Think! by Dr. Seuss
Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss
Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? by Dr. Seuss
There's a Wocket in my Pocket by Dr. Seuss
Lily James was born in Detroit, schooled in Ohio, married in Chicago, gave birth in Virginia, and now lives in Norfolk with her husband and child. Her short story collection, The Great Taste of Straight People, was published by in 1997, and her first novel, High Drama in Fabulous Toledo was published this year.