I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to review and giveaway the book Motherhood Exaggerated (LaurelBooks). The book details her journey as she experiences life as a mother whose daughter is diagnosed with cancer, and becomes a survivor. I also had an opportunity to email the author, and I wanted to share her answers here.
1. Why did you write this book?
The shortest answer to that question is that I am a writer and when an event burrows its way so deeply into my life, I have no choice but to tell the story. We are limned by the stories we tell; they allow others to see us, particularly in those moments which are invisible to the outside world. But memoir, by providing such an intimate view of someone else, also invites readers to find themselves. When Nadia finished her treatment, both she and I craved stories like our own, specifically ones that dealt with survival. Finding few, I decided to write the book that I wanted to read. But Motherhood Exaggerated turned into a much larger story. It is not just about Nadia’s survival but my evolution as a mother. While I knew there was a need for a book such as mine, I am still surprised by the responses I have gotten from readers who saw Motherhood Exaggerated as a doorway for the telling of their lives. Some have coped with illness—their own, a child’s, a parent’s, a friend’s. Some are simply mothers so relieved to see my less-than-perfect self struggling, just like them.
2. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
Surprisingly, the pieces of the book that came most easily (easy being a relative term) were the hardest to live through—the medical scenes, Nadia’s pain, my sorrow at that moment. The reason, in part, is that I wrote so much of those episodes while I was still within my own pain so that I wasn’t reliving it so much as pouring it into a vessel. When it came time to edit these sections, my task was much harder because it mean returning to a place and time I was starting to place in the larger context of my life. More difficult were the aspects of the book that give it its depth: my relationship with my husband, my mother’s story and how I was raised, the interaction between Nadia and her twin brother and older sister, my history of anxiety disorders, my fumblings and imperfections. All of these elements influenced how I cared for Nadia and were needed to show my evolution, but it required that I confront myself rather than a situation. I flinched a lot—literally—turning my head away from the page when I got too close to something that made me uncomfortable, or when I was clinging so much to anger or resentment that I refused to find compassion. My vision, which had narrowed while I cared for Nadia, had to become more panoramic if I was going to tell an honest story.
3. What did the rest of the family think about the idea of you writing the story?
I have an amazingly generous family. I asked each one’s permission to write Motherhood Exaggerated. My husband was the first one to read the book, which was beyond difficult for him, and he has come to many of my readings. He read an earlier manuscript and I know he will never read the final version. That is unfortunate because he had been a focus of my anger and, while that anger is still there, so is understanding. Nadia swore she would never read the book but was thrilled when it was released and wanted one of the first copies. I brought it to her at college and she repeated that she would never read it; she called me two days later to say she had finished it. While I’m sure her resistance was partly a reluctance to return to that time, she also felt badly, as if she were the cause of difficulty or strain. I hadn’t anticipated that but it opened up an interesting conversation about what we are and aren’t responsible for. Nadia’s twin brother, Max, was just very proud. Frannie, her older sister, is also a writer and supported me almost as a younger colleague. Now almost 24, she was 12 at the time of Nadia’s illness.
The book awakened dormant emotions for her and she is stepping back so that she can process them.
4. What tips do you have for parents dealing with a major illness of a child?
The tips really aren’t so very different from what parents already know. The most important work of a parent is to understand who your child is. I saw kids responding to their illness and treatment in so many different ways. One of the ways I had to evolve as a mother was in response to Nadia’s need for humor and levity, qualities I didn’t think I possessed until I made myself try it out. Don’t be afraid if you make a mistake or aren’t perfect and don’t expect your child to be like the brave-faced children you see in hospital promos or read about in Chicken Soup for the Soul who seem to weather their pain with an inhuman stoicism or mystical wisdom. I had succumbed to this image and went through times when I judged Nadia because I thought she should be braver. Continue to raise your child; you still have a lot to teach.
The hospital playroom was Nadia’s haven and she was there every moment possible. She lost herself in her creations but also in the human connections she made. I was slower to attach myself to the life of the hospital but, while I never joined a support group, I grew to depend on the friendship of a community of other families.
One last point. If your child has been cured, don’t confuse that with being healed. Healing takes a long time and is not a straight path. There is no such thing as getting over what has happened to your child, only moving with it.
5. What tips do you have for friend of families going through a tough time health-wise?
Finding a way to communicate with family and friends outside the hospital was something I didn’t give enough thought to. I found myself telling the same story many times over when people called and that was draining. The reality is that the questions and the answers—How’s Nadia? How are you?, etc.—never change, but I felt obligated to give each person some kind of tidbit. I understand now that there are websites/blogs that help parents not just keep a journal of what is happening but to share this with selected people. Other friends have set up a phone or email chain so the family has to speak with only one person.
I think friends have a hard task. They want to be helpful, to let the family know they are thinking of them. But they don’t want to be intrusive. It’s hard to know when to call or visit. Friends have to put their egos aside. There were times when I was glad when a friend came, but I knew she wouldn’t care if I just wanted her presence without conversation. When I was in the mood for conversation, I wanted my friends to keep me connected to the outside world. I’m not usually a gossip but I welcomed news about people or Nadia’s school. Friends need to accept that your phone call may never be returned or your well-meaning note never answered even though these gestures are deeply appreciated. Friends have a tremendous role to play in supporting the whole family. We used to take an annual ski trip with another family. When we couldn’t go, they took Frannie with them. Bring food, take other children out, arrange for a car service, do holiday shopping, etc. And, as mentioned above, remember that healing is an on-going process without a time limit.