Dear Mrs. Herman,
As a mother, and a writer, I’d like to thank you for writing The Middle of Everything: Essays on Motherhood. I’m deeply grateful for the insights you’ve shared as a Jewish-American woman, a writer, a mother, a wife, and daughter. I was so moved to read about your experiences with love, friendship, and parenting—moved to tears in fact, in many places. So much so that I believe your book will be one of the handful that I am certain to return to time and again.
We are alike in many ways. I am a Jewish-American woman from Eastern Europe, a writer, a mother, a wife, and a daughter. I felt like your words were the very ones I needed in this exact phase of my life—the early motherhood phase—which compels me to question everything right down to the very breaths I take in the presence of my children. My mother, like yours, had married too early, had become a mother before coming of age herself, and found that she was coming into her own only after she had raised her three children. I was the oldest, and, like your mom, mine made all her mistakes on me. With me, she was too green to really be up for the job.
I think this is why I am always searching for companionship from other Moms, especially Moms with older children. I must be looking for wisdom that I should have received while growing up. That’s how I feel about your collection—like it’s a companion to Mothering. Forget the parenting manuals—this is the real stuff of mothering, what we should all be reading.
I’ll admit resenting (a little) at first how hard you made me work for those precious pearls of wisdom. As a writer, I am all too familiar with both the challenge and the necessity of creating a tapestry for one’s readers—of knitting dozens of vivid scenes and images together that might at first appear completely unrelated but eventually culminate in one primary thread of meaning. I attempt it all the time in my writing, so I’m not sure why I expected that you would answer all of my questions about mothering right away—that you would somehow make motherhood easier and more comprehensible before the first section break.
In “Superstar” when your daughter asks if French kissing is real, I thought for a moment that you would finally demystify for me how to talk to my daughter about sex. But then I remembered how disingenuous it is when any writer claims to have all the answers, even in those misguided moments when we believe that we really do. You take an interesting turn here—after your daughter’s question—charting into the new territory of your own past romantic relationships. It is in this section that I feel you describe so intimately and accurately what it feels like to be the female half of a romantic relationship. “I was—I imagined, the world’s greatest girlfriend. What could be more appealing than not asking for anything ever?”
You put into words so succinctly the way I have felt in romantic relationships all my life—that I could only keep a man if I wasn’t too needy, “high-maintenance.” Of course needing anything at all from a man was considered being too needy, a lesson too many girls learn from an early age. Give everything, expect nothing in return. Then you admit to realizing too late that it was this “willingness to stand there and be ignored” that made you seem desperate—“the antithesis of self-sufficiency.” It feels like such a relief to have this described so well—like you gave me words to unveil feelings that I have been holding inside for too long. Suddenly, I see the connection between the “French Kiss” moment with your daughter and your fear of setting boundaries in your past romantic relationships. I know that when you answer your daughter’s questions about love, sex, and intimacy, those answers will arm her with tools for life that only a mother who has done some serious self-reflection can offer.
This fills me with hope, but it also leaves me angry. I’m angry that my parents—and arguably most parents—continue to perpetuate the notion that girls should remain docile. I’m angry at men for continuing to allow it. I’m angry that I didn’t have the wisdom to know better in my previous relationships, or even in my current one. I’m just about to be ok with staying angry, when you take another turn: “Even when love comes to nothing, it makes you more than you were…Even when it comes to sorrow in the end. Love exercises you. Your heart expands to make room for someone else…It makes your life sing. And afterwards, and forever, you have that song. It’s yours.”
And now I’m crying right where I sit reading this in the coffee shop. I’m embarrassed, because no one there knows that I’m crying because you’ve just given me permission to fail at love, and you’ve reassured me that no love, however painful, is ever wasted.
The best part is that I know your daughter will also have this permission—earlier than we both did. It fills me with hope again. The thread is complete.
Just as I am about to be convinced that you are the perfect mother—“the mother of all mothers,” as your mother mantra goes, you disabuse me of that assumption. In “Bookends” you reveal that so much of motherhood for you has been about being pulled in two directions at once. While I agree with your description of the emotional chaos and upheaval this causes, as a mother I am almost sure that you meant “a hundred directions at once.” Just as we overcome an obstacle and settle in to finally enjoy motherhood, another change comes our way. And the change doesn’t just approach us from the distant horizon as we watch and prepare. It barrels through us without warning. Change is a fact of life for women. We bleed, we grow breasts, we cycle physically and hormonally every month, we conceive, bare, and feed children with our bodies, and then we go through menopause, after which we might experience the stillness and peace we have been yearning for our entire adult lives.
Change is a fact of life for women much more than for men. That’s a generalization I’m sticking to. So I needed and appreciated your advice to ride it like a wave even when it’s “too big to handle.” To trust that even the ones that are too big to handle won’t do us any harm. And to know that it is in the riding of these waves that we develop trust and confidence in ourselves.
All four essays in your collection have to do with somehow being “in the middle of things”—of motherhood, of writing, of marriage, of menopause, of middle-age. The middle feels like neither here nor there. We have done the hard work of getting here, but have not reaped the rewards yet. I love the essay you chose to end your collection with, “Hope Against Hope,” because it sets straight the part of me that wants black and white answers to things, especially as a mother.
Recently I revealed my age to a twenty-five year old acquaintance. “I can only imagine how much wisdom I will have gained by then,” she said.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but the older I get, the more confused about life I become,” I answered, genuinely sad to burst her romantic image of aging.
As mothers, we are especially looking for definitive answers because we are not only dealing with our own lives. We are “living” for two, or three, or more. We’re raising human beings—not pushing papers, counting money. or checking stock ticker symbols on a board all day. Not that other jobs aren’t important or meaningful. They are—but they’re not motherhood. They’ll never even share space with motherhood, or breath the same air. We are helping actual humans grow into actual adults for at least eighteen years, and likely for much longer than that. Sure, “Any idiot can raise a child,” like that idiot doctor said to your Mom all of those years ago. Any idiot can raise a child, if the bar for raising them is set so low that it only means keeping them alive. It’s easy to see why we are desperate for the answers, the definitive solutions, the fixes.
I love when you simply offer that “Nothing makes everything right…Nothing makes everything anything. And if absolute clarity isn’t to be had, then it isn’t to be sought.” I love that your answer to the unanswerable questions of motherhood is the reliving of your own motherhood, and your mother’s, and your grandmothers too. I love that in this collection you have sifted through all that was right in your life, and through all of the “wrongs that had some rightness” to arrive at wisdom—if not answers—for your daughter.
After all, for the questions of motherhood, answers are not real or true. Wisdom, on the other hand, is a gift.