Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon






AustinMama's Robin Bradford talks with author Andi Buchanan about surrendering, pre-K Redd Foxxes and her new book, Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It  (Seal Press)


"Imagine you have just moved to a foreign country. You have the worst jet lag ever..." begins Andrea J. Buchananís memoir of the highs and lows of that trip called motherhood. Applying anthro- pologist Kalvero Obergís theory of "culture shock" to the state of being a first-time mom, Buchanan makes sense out of an experience that for many women is disappointing, isolating, exhausting, and even shameful.

Culture shock, the anxiety one exper- iences in a new environment, comes in four phases: the "honeymoon stage" when the foreign is exciting; the "crisis" stage, in which everything seems just plain strange; "recovery" or getting used to it, and finally, "adjustment," when one can eat, wash and find love all in a foreign language. Buchananís sug- gestion that new motherhood is like senior year abroad in Tegucigalpa is nothing short of genius. In fact, quite a few days (and nights) of my sonís babyhood I would have preferred spending in a humid, snake-infested jungle with spiders the size of my face.

We caught up with Buchanan in the distant clime of Philadelphia where she is seven months into her second expedition into motherhood.

RB: How in the world did you come up with the insight that the shock of first-time motherhood is like culture shock? Or maybe Iím really wondering how did you manage to achieve a moment of such clarity during your own Mothershock experience?

AB: I remember reading The Mask of Motherhood sometime during my daughter's first or second year and coming across a reference the author made to new mothers being in "baby shock" the first few months after they give birth. I liked the term, but I thought it wasn't exactly accurate. To me, it wasn't having a baby that seemed so shocking, it was having become a mother.

I loved the sound of "mother shock," but I admit that at first it didn't mean anything all that concrete to me, though it seemed like an excellent title for something. But I had a hunch that there might really be something there, a connection to culture shock that might be interesting to explore. Once I started doing some research, I realized my hunch was right -- it's actually quite amazing how the adjustment process of culture shock parallels the transition to motherhood.

RB: Some women seem to sail through the first few months of motherhood. I hope when these moms have teenagers theyíre the kind that keep sex, drugs and rock and roll alive, but why do you suppose some of us are so knocked for a loop by the arrival of our little bundle of joy?

AB: Because we're not prepared for it. Oh, I *thought* I was prepared before my baby was born -- I could have told you more about prenatal development and obscure obstetric facts than my med-student husband. But I didn't realize that being pregnant was the easy part. I did no investigation at all about what life would be like as a new mother, and it's surprising to me now that it never even dawned on me to do so. I mean, if I were going to climb Mount Everest, I'd probably train and buy equipment and have a guide to help me tackle the mountain; I'd try and prepare myself for what I had ahead of me. Motherhood is just as physically and psychologically daunting an endeavor, and yet I set out more or less alone on my adventure in the wilderness.

RB: I love the essay, "Birth of a Mother," when you describe your mother and her friends recounting their childbirth stories. I enjoyed reading yours. Why do you think women are compelled to share these stories? No one would dream of swapping appendectomy stories!

AB: I had a boss once who told me he had a great idea for a radio show on NPR: "Labor Talk." It would be like "Car Talk," except it would be a bunch of women calling in and telling their birth stories. He thought it would be a huge hit. And he's probably right! I think we're compelled to talk about our experience because it is so -- literally -- transformational. When you have an appendectomy, you come away with a scar, but life pretty much goes on as before. When you give birth, not only does your body change, your whole life changes. Fundamentally. Giving birth is so physical and so primal, a true rite of passage, and such a contrast to the world of the mind we normally exist in. And also, as someone pointed out to me recently, the birthing process has all the hallmarks of one of the great themes of literature, the hero's journey. So it's no wonder women love to tell these stories. (You know if it happened to men, no one would ever shut up about it.)

RB: You write about an older woman, one of your piano students, whose wisdom as a mother you drew on when your daughter was born. In fact, the two of you exchanged life lessons and she went on to play piano and go to college. What wisdom or practical advice can you give first-time pregnant women to help them prepare for the big changes ahead?

AB: First of all, I'd say *make a plan* -- not a birth plan, a post-partum plan. Talk to friends who have young kids and ask them about their experiences. If you're planning to go back to work after the baby's born, talk to a friend who has done that and find out what it was like for her. If you're planning to stay home after having had a career, talk to someone you know who made a similar choice and find out what that transition was like. Investigate where you're going. Research it the way you would if you were planning a trip: talk to the locals and get the real scoop. You'll pack much better if you know what kind of weather to expect when you get there.

Also, new mothers should know that nothing -- no stage, no matter how tough -- lasts longer than three months, tops. Just knowing there's an end in sight can be reassuring on a bad day. In fact, that's been my mantra many times: this will pass, this will pass, this will pass... And it will. Now that I have a second child, who seems to be growing and changing so much quicker than my first ever did, I see all too well how quickly it does.

But most of all, my advice is: SURRENDER. And by that I mean, give yourself over to motherhood. Surrender the guilt, the doubt, the second guessing, the idea that things won't be complicated. Embrace it all and know that things might not always go the way you plan and dream that they're going to go, but they're going to go, and you all are going to survive and thrive and come out changed for the better on the other side.

RB: Letís go to the Dark Side for a moment. (Since your first child is a girl you may not have endured umpteen viewings of all those Star Wars movies. Just wait!) "Mothers are placed in an emotional straitjacket," you write, "unconditional love or unspeakable abandonment." So why is it that motherhood is one of the few arenas in life about which one canít have ambivalence? Why do women have to scuttle about in the shadows about the often harrowing details of being a mom?

AB: I don't really know. I think most people's opinions of their parents and their parents' parenting abilities change once they have children themselves, and before then, parents are convenient scapegoats. We blame our smothering mothers, our absent fathers; we think to ourselves "how could they?" and "if only they had..." To listen to mothers requires the ability to imagine parents as multi-dimensional people, and often that's not possible until you're a parent yourself.

Also, it's the kind of thing that's so basic and unglamorous -- people have been having children since the dawn of time, so how complicated could it be? -- and it's the work of women, who are less visible than men anyway. So people don't want to hear it. It's also scary: if it's really that big a deal, why do people keep doing it? If it's really difficult, how could my own mother have done it? If it's really that hard, will I be able to do it? I think it's just easier for people to ignore it. It's less messy, less complicated. If they don't think about it, it will go away.

RB: "Mother Tongue," the essay about how your 2-1/2 year-old daughter cussed like a sailor, is a brilliant soliloquy on language and audience and is also absolutely hysterical. As a writer and musician, what about observing your childís acquisition of language (potty-talk or not) fascinated you? And what are you guys saying around the house nowadays when you stub your toe? Certainly not, "shimmy-shammy!" Oh, and how many times does "fuck" occur in that essay? Itís a world record, right?

AB: Well, to answer your last question first, seventeen. I'm wincing just thinking about it.

I think I was most fascinated by the fact that Emi was able to make sense of things *without* words. Even though I spent so many years making wordless meaning out of music, I still thought it was language that defined things. And yet to see her as a little baby understanding things and places and routines without the words to identify them -- it reminded me that meaning comes before words, that language is secondary to understanding. Now that she's older, I delight in the creativity of her little-kid words -- how she'll say "I'm drinky" when she means "I'm thirsty," things like that, that remind me of the endless possibilities of language.

As for what we say when we stub our toes around the house, well, we're trying to keep it clean. :)

RB: In the last section of the book, called "Mother Land," you liken motherhood to a "practice," bringing in your study of yoga and your previous career as a concert pianist. How is your motherhood practice going? What does the practice of motherhood offer its followers?

AB: My motherhood practice is evolving as I am evolving as a mother. Now that I'm a mother of two, it's about handling logistics and trying to balance meeting two quite different sets of needs. I am trying to be more flexible, more compassionate, more accepting of my life as it is, even when "life as it is" means that someone's been writing on the freshly-painted walls with soap crayons.

As for what the practice of motherhood offers, I think the biggest thing is insight about our own development. When I'm suggesting to Emi that not everything has to be perfect and that maybe she can turn an inadvertent scribble on her otherwise wonderful drawing into a flower, I'm reminding myself to be compassionate, to not be so demanding of myself, to turn my mistakes into artistic opportunities I might not have otherwise explored.

RB: How is motherhood the second time around? Whatís different and whatís the same? (I have to live vicariously, because weíre stopping at one!)

AB: Well, I could write a book on that one. "Mother Shock" ends with me kind of surrendering myself to the unknown as I make the journey into motherland for the second time, and now that I'm here, the rest of the story is that it's *so* much better than I ever dared imagine it might be. This time I'm one of those women I thought were in deep, deep denial when I was a first-time mother: I really love it. I suppose it helps that I somehow landed a mellow, adorable, good-sleeping, good- eating baby, but I'm really loving mothering -- not just having kids, but all the stuff that's involved in being a mother -- in a way I didn't think was possible for me before.

I'm not as conflicted about motherhood as I was the first time. I feel grounded in it, rooted in motherhood. My "Fear of the Double Stroller" was all about resisting being a mom -- my thinking was that with one child, I could kid myself into believing I was still a regular person, but with two, well, that would be it: I would be a mother, and there would be no escape. Now that I'm a mother of two, of course I see that there was no escaping motherhood with just one child, either. I was a mother then and I'm a mother now. I've just welcomed it this time. (But I still don't own a double stroller!)

The biggest difference, though, is that I took my own advice and prepared myself. I hung out with moms who have two kids, I talked with them about what the transition from one to two was like. I told my husband about what early motherhood was like for me the first time around, and how I wanted to avoid the difficulties I experienced then. I made a plan -- *we* made a plan, as a family --  and that made all the difference. I do feel a little sad for Emi that I wasn't as ready for motherhood when she was first born, but I suppose I needed the experience she and I had together -- I needed that experience of mothershock -- to be where I am now.
While Robin Bradford was interviewing Andi Buchanan, she was also transcribing letters her mother, Bethany, wrote from Japan forty years ago when Robin was born. The fact that Robinís mother experienced Mother Shock and culture shock simultaneously is further evidence of Bethanyís efficiency and fearless- ness. Bradford writes the column Motherload for AustinMama.com