Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Author Faulkner Fox talks with
AustinMama's Robin Bradford about life in
mamadom and her new book:
Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life
or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child

"This is the hardest thing Iíve ever done... and my last job, director of a pro-choice organization, involved death threats."

From www.faulknerfox.com:
From the age of 23, Faulkner Fox was captured by a fantasy that was her version of the American dream: a house by the sea; a devoted, egalitarian, and epicurean husband; an engaging and creative work life; and a beautiful child to complete the picture. A decade later, she actually possessed several of her fantasy elements--but found herself surprisingly depressed, lonely, and guilt-ridden.

In this provocative, brutally honest, and often hilarious memoir of motherhood, Faulkner explores the causes of her unhappiness, as well as the societal and cultural forces that American mothers have to contend with.

From the time of her first pregnancy, Faulkner found herself--and her body--scrutinized by doctors, friends, books, strangers, and, perhaps most of all, herself. In addition to the significant social pressures of raising the perfect child and being the perfect mom, Faulkner also found herself increasingly incensed by the unequal distribution of household labor, and infuriated by the gender inequity in both her home and others'. And though she loves her children and her husband passionately, is thankful for her bountiful middle-class life, and is wracked with guilt for being unhappy, she just can't seem to experience the sense of satisfaction that she thought would come with the package. She's finally got it all--the husband, the house, the kids, an interesting part-time job, even a few hours a week to write--so why does she feel so conflicted?

In Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life, Faulkner sheds light on and provides a context for the fear, confusion, and isolation experienced by many new mothers. She maps the terrain of contemporary domesticity, marriage, and motherhood in a voice that is candid, irreverent, and deeply personal. She also chronicles the unparalleled joy she and other mothers take in their children.

AustinMama's Robin Bradford recently caught up with Faulkner for a quick cyber chat. Here's what she had to say: 

After three-and-a-half years of sleep deprivation, daily housework, on-call nursing, and putting her own ambition on hold, Faulkner Fox called it quits. A committed feminist with degrees from Harvard and Yale, Faulkner found her twenty-something dream of having a house, man and child had morphed into a nightmare of exhaustion, depression, anxiety, anger and isolation. She turned to books, religion, psychotherapy, and friendship as well as her own unique guides such as Frequent Parenting Miles and the trusty "friend-o-meter." Two years later, Fox re-emerges at a Druid ritual at Stonehenge, a woman dressed in white who finally has it allóand most importantly knows how to deal with it. Lucky for us, along the way she wrote it all downóout back in her garage office (complete with a bucket for plumbing). Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child is the tale of one motherís struggle to re-imagine womenís oldest role in a world of pregnancy diets, Gymboree, attachment parenting and judgmental playground moms. I first met Faulkner at a postpartum yoga class right after her second son was born. Now a published poet and author, Faulkner has two sons, ages six and nine, and teaches creative writing at Duke University. I visited with Faulkner, a former Austinite, via email.

Austinmama: In Dispatches you are confounded by your feminist belief in equality of the sexes and the reality that nursing and taking a lead role in caring for a baby renders equality impossible. Is there a way to be a feminist and a mother of a small child at the same time?

Fox: Wow, the answer has to be "yes."  Otherwise, itís just too painful to face! I do think the answer can be yes.  For me, what made everything so much more anxiety-provoking in the early years of motherhood was not being 100% sure that my particular domestic situation would change. It has changed; it changed enormously when I weaned my children. With breastfeeding out of the way, there is no physical reason men and women canít share everything equitably, if thatís what they mutually decide to do. I was afraid, as a new mother, that my husband and I would unwittingly (we were too tired to have much wit about us) fall into traditional gender roles despite both of our intentions otherwise. And that weíd just get used to the pattern, and stick with it until we died.  Thatís not what happened, thank goodness. It didnít happen because I continued to voice my unhappiness whenever things felt unfair to me, and we both deeply believed in equity.

That said, I think I was a bit too much of a "bean-counter" as a new mother. Everything does not have to be exactly 50/50 at every instant of every day in order for a woman -- or a man -- to be a feminist. If I had been more confident that breastfeeding, for example, wouldnít last forever, then I could have known that the particular imbalances it caused were temporary. If I had a baby now, I think I might know that.

Austinmama: In an effort to regain a sense of power and equality during your time as a stay-at-home mom, you devised Frequent Parenting Miles. I wonder if you would recommend this system for other moms and if so explain how it works.

Fox: I would not!  Frequent Parenting Miles -- a system in which my husband and I (okay, mainly me) wrote down how many hours each of us single-handedly cared for the children while the other person worked, played, slept, or exercised -- started as a terribly serious joke. My husband was facing a ton of pressure at work, and he really couldnít do what we both thought he should do in terms of domestic labor for a period of time. I recorded my Frequent Parenting Miles as a way of saying "what I am doing now has to be visible. Otherwise, I donít know how good-natured I can be about doing it."  (Even with Frequent Parenting Miles, I wasnít all that good-natured.) But the idea was that when he finished his intense period at work, he would pay me back. And we would know how much he needed to pay me because I would have written everything down. Then, I would cash in my miles and go on a Frequent Parenting trip. I actually did this -- I went to a writerís retreat. The reason I wouldnít recommend Frequent Parenting Miles is because it was a plan built out of desperation. Still, if a woman feels that her work is invisible to her partner, keeping a log of what she does might just get him to see it.

Austinmama: Do you think motherhood should be a paying gig? If so, I wonder how much youíre owed at this point?

Fox: Absolutely!  It is real work, and it is -- as all of you know -- incredibly important work.  The figure Iíve heard bandied about, which is supposed to be actual market value for all the skills mothers use every day -- chauffeuring, cooking, negotiating, helping with homework, bathing, assessing minor illness and giving cures, breastfeeding, and many more -- is $75,000 per year. My oldest son is nine so that means Iím entitled to $675,000.  Oh, and thatís only for one child.  Iím not sure if the $75,000 is per child or per year of mothering service.  Letís just assume big, while weíre dreaming.  I also have a six-year-old, so if itís per child, Iím owed $1,125,000.  Woo-hoo!!  Can you imagine how different the world would be if mothers had this kind of money, got paid this kind of money -- by the government, for example -- to do the important work that we do?

Austinmama: One challenge you found to becoming a mother was feeling that you could not do it and still be yourself. What enabled you to regain your sense of self?

Fox: This was actually a lesson my children taught me. As soon as they could talk, I began to realize that they didnít want me to act like someone I wasnít. That acting like someone else -- even my version of Perfect Mom -- was unnerving to them. "What do you want to do, Mommy?" they would often ask me if I seemed either vacant or falsely energetic.  They had a right to know who their mother was, I began to realize; it was important for them to know this. Who was I to keep this knowledge from them just because Iíd read a bunch of anxiety-provoking magazines and parenting books that made me feel I should be someone else?

Austinmama: You pinpoint a great many truths about mothering in the book -- one of them is that it is often very hard for women to retain "a sense of entitlement in the presence of a man and child." Right now that is playing out for me while I sit here and write and my husband is getting clothes out of the dryer in the same room and my son is playing very loudly outside -- I want to be with them or feel like I should -- yet I know this is my time. How can women embrace their entitlement?

Fox: What a great question! Itís hard enough if you only think you should, but itís really hard if you actually do want to be with them, and also want to be working on something else alone that you care about.  This idea -- women embracing their entitlement -- is one of the most important issues in my book, I think. One that I would most like to see enacted in the world.  I wrote a book that raises a lot of questions partially because I didnít have the answers! What I felt I could contribute was asking hard questions that strike me as vital for women and men to ask themselves if they are going to have rich, full, and meaningful lives.  And this is definitely what I would like to see all men, all women, and all children having.

I deliberately wrote an anti-advice book because I felt like part of what was causing me so much anxiety as a mother was how surrounded I felt by advice. But since you are asking me directly here, Iíll give it a shot, and answer the best I can. The first thing that has got to go -- or at least take an enormous chill pill -- is womenís guilt. We are not bad mothers if we also want to be selves! Having a child does not mean that we agree to give up literally every enjoyable thing we have ever done for ourselves, as selves. Men are much better at entitlement than women. (Yeah, and many of them are selfish jerks, I bet some of you are thinking.)  Okay, so maybe some are. But every mother I know has a very long way to go before becoming a selfish jerk.  And if we stuff down our individual needs, itís not like theyíre going to go away. I believe theyíll come out anyway, possibly in distorted forms such as extreme ambitions for our children because weíve tried to cut off any ambitions of our own.  Isnít it healthier for everyone in the family if we just try as hard as we can to figure out, voice, and then act on, what we need to do for ourselves, as selves?

Austinmama: I think hearing other womenís birth stories is very empowering and I loved reading yours. What did you learn about yourself -- and giving birth -- by accomplishing very difficult labors both at home and the hospital?

Fox: Well, I learned that everything is different in theory than it is in practice.  I learned that I can withstand significant pain, if thereís no other choice, and if itís time-limited.  I learned that you make the best advance decision you can, given all the information you can gather, and then youíd better be fully prepared to improvise or even throw all your plans out entirely, if need be.

Austinmama: When your first child was born, you had just moved to Austin. You paint a depressing picture of trying to find meaningful female friendships with a baby in tow. What worked and what didnít? Whereís a new mom supposed to find her sisters?

Fox: What worked best for me was stating directly, "Iíd really like to get to know you better."  Rather than:  "Do you want to get our babies together for a playdate?" Since I was embarrassed about being lonely, I tended to use my childís need for socialization as an excuse.  It worked a lot better when I took a risk and told a mother, directly, that I liked her, as a person, rather than implying that it would be convenient for us to get together since our children were the same age. I also tended to do better one-on-one (or two-on-two, including babies) than in larger playgroups. That could just be me, but the setup seemed better for intimacy, which I was definitely looking for.  Also, I looked for women who had some of the same interests I did. The odds were better for me to meet someone I connected strongly with at postpartum baby-and-me yoga, for example, than at the playground. Finally, I donít think mothers should berate ourselves for not connecting with every other mother. Did I connect with every person who also worked at UT?  Every person who grew up in Virginia?  Every person who drove a Subaru?  Of course not. Once I let myself feel that it was okay not to be friends with every mother I met, this kind of cleared the way for me to see which women (who also happened to be mothers) I really did want to pursue as friends.

Austinmama: In the book, youíre a little rough on Austin and its earthy-crunchy militancy. Granted, you moved here entirely because of your husbandís job, and Texas is far from old friends and family. But we all know absence makes the heart grow fonder. What do you miss about Austin?

Fox: Good Mexican food!  Seriously, there are dozens of things I miss about Austin: Barton Springs, Central Market, the weather in February, Halloween, the Christmas decorations on 34th Street, the music, the Texas Book Festival -- the list goes on and on.  Mostly, though, I miss my Austin friends. How ironic, in a way, that I didnít like Austin initially because it was far from old friends, and now -- after living in Austin for seven years and being gone two-and-a-half years -- many of the people nearest and dearest to my heart are Austinites.  If someone said "Iíll give you a plane ticket anywhere in the U.S.  Where do you want to go?"  Iíd say "Austin."  Lucky for me, someone did say something like that (my publisher said they would pay for my plane ticket to Austin), and Iíll be there in February.  I canít wait!