Book Talk: Motherhood Exaggerated

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Heartwarming, heartbreaking. Joyful, challenging. Rewarding, thankless. Motherhood can be all of these things at once. It’s also the way some writers might describe their process. So it was good to chat with mother and writer Judith Hannan about her memoir Motherhood Exaggerated  a book about her daughter’s battle with cancer and how the ordeal tested and strengthened her own resilience.

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How difficult was it to relive this emotional and harrowing experience in order to write the book?

Judith Hannan: The experience was indeed harrowing, but with a lower case “h” — a more intimate form of fright.  The reader will not be taken to a place of despair.

In the past I have described the writing process as being in a room where the temperature is poorly regulated, see-seesawing between chills and sweats, or like the swing of the pendulum when it was hard for me to get the tone just right. There were times when the words I needed seemed to be all around me and I just had to sweep them up.  Other times they were scarcer.  Sometimes I didn’t even have an idea to wrap them around.

The parts that came the most easily were often those that described some of the most painful events. I wrote many of those sections very soon after Nadia’s treatment so it wasn’t so much that I was returning to events as pouring into the page what I was still feeling at the moment. Those passages were too raw, though.

I ended up being grateful for the time it takes to write a book, try to get it accepted by a publisher, and then wait for the actual book to be produced.  If it had been accepted when I first started sending it out, it wouldn’t have become the better book I think it eventually became.

Perhaps more emotionally draining than writing the book was the rewriting and editing process, when I resisted being brought back to a time I had already dispensed with in my writing.  There is a passage in the middle section which is devoted to Nadia’s surgery, which is described as a form of rebirth.  She is still tethered to a variety of lifelines. I write:  “Alone in her web of tubes, Nadia looks out on the rest of us—unencumbered, scarless, full heads of hair—through the scrim of self-consciousness . . .”  I have never been able to get through that passage without my heart breaking, without returning to that very moment.

What do you hope other parents—those with children battling illness or not—will come away with after reading the book?

JH: I got a call yesterday from a woman who is the mother of healthy children who behave as children do — funny, fussy, belligerent, spoiled, generous, cranky, joyful, cooperative, stubborn; they get colds and stomach aches and have fights with friends and need soothing and care.  This mother said to me, thank you for drawing a picture of what my life is like, for embracing motherhood but not romanticizing it. She was giving Motherhood Exaggerated to her husband who, like my husband in the book, doesn’t understand or see the nitty-gritty of what it takes to raise a child.

I also received a letter from a woman whose son was diagnosed with the same cancer Nadia had when he was 20 years old.  A friend had given her a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated.  She shared with me her own story and her gratitude that someone wrote a book that reflected so much of her life in recent years.  What is extraordinary, though, is that I had actually known this woman and she had known about Nadia, but it was the book that reached out to her and connected us, because when we are in the midst of these crises we are often isolated, either intentionally or just because our lives have temporarily become separate from others.

How did the cancer fight influence the way you parent?

JH: Nadia baffled me from the day she was born.  Independent and stubborn, it appeared all Nadia needed from me was to watch her master one skill after another.  My other two children, Nadia’s older sister Frannie and her twin brother Max, were more like leprechauns.  They embodied the sparkle of their Irish grandmother while Nadia seemed to have absorbed my soberness and moodiness.

At the time of Nadia’s diagnosis, I was still trying to figure her out. The basis of my parenting philosophy came from a limited distillation of my mother’s approach which was, when we were sick, we were entitled to a morning in bed, but then had to be downstairs by lunchtime. Obviously, this lesson could not be applied to a child with cancer, but, more importantly, it wasn’t an accurate reflection of my mother. A more complete contemplation of my mother’s life through the writing of the book had the effect of softening me.

At the beginning of the book my fear makes me stingy with my affection. I won’t let Nadia get an ice cream cone on the way to the hospital for a test; I think she should happily saunter off to play Monopoly with a hospital volunteer so I can meet her doctor and, when she insists I go with her and let my husband meet with the doctor, I keep nagging her let me go to point that she overturns the Monopoly board.  I even tackle her at one point when she refuses to get a flu shot.  By the end of the book, I have to work to keep from crying with Nadia who is so upset by every little thing, like when she returns home from a store and discovers that the sales person had forgotten to put a bathing suit in the bag.

I have also tended to like my solitude.  Since learning to speak, “Nadia has voiced her thoughts as they arise.  Her flow of ideas runs underground only to surface in a pool of conversation that, to those of us on land, might appear to have no source or destination.” Although I knew enough not to silence Nadia, I used to see these eruptions as intrusions into my own thoughts. But, in fact, conversation has been the key that has opened the door to my understanding of Nadia.

Perhaps the lesson I struggled with most is the place of humor in parenting.  I was very conflicted on this subject.  My husband and his family are great teasers; I was raised to see teasing as an act of aggression.  And except for my father’s puns, humor wasn’t a priority in my childhood home.  When I woke up the morning that Nadia’s hair had started to fall out, though, I saw this as time when making light of the situation might be a good strategy.  Nadia ended up having a wild hair pulling session that culminated in a demonstration for her brother and sister and the placement at my seat at dinner of a bowl of “angel hair pasta.”  It was a raucous moment. I imagined my mother would have said in her perfect social worker voice: “… by wanting to turn losing hair into fun, you are expressing your own denial of Nadia’s experience.  You are not allowing Nadia to examine her feelings …”   I still feel as if I did the right thing.  Most of my lessons in how to use humor would come from Frannie and Max and, while I wasn’t always comfortable with it, its power to heal was obvious.

Finally, there is an evolution in the way my husband and I parent together.  Despite considering myself modern, we had traditional family roles. John went to work and I quit working once I had three children to stay home and raise them. I was not very good at keeping John abreast of their lives and he wasn’t very curious about asking. Over the years, maybe only partly because of Nadia’s experience but certainly prompted by it, we have worked on deepening our partnership.  While I am still the primary recipient of their secrets, particularly the girls’, I hope I have become better at involving John.

How has this ordeal changed or affected your relationship with your daughter Nadia?  How does she feel about the book, your telling of her—and your—story?

JH: I feel as if the standard stages of childhood development became disordered and moveable during Nadia’s treatment and the years after. I had to do a lot of pre-meditated parenting depending upon whether Nadia was feeling rebellious, in denial, unable to separate, self-conscious, etc. This was hard for me because I have never been the sort of person to plan and develop strategies.

The hardest phase I think for both me and Nadia was during the years when her inability to separate from me caused her to think there was something wrong with her. In my desire to help her go on sleepovers or to camp, I had to measure my hugs, not squeeze her too tightly, to hide from her the depth of my own sadness at being separated from her. I felt her absence like a homesickness. As much as I found it hard to be Nadia’s mother before her cancer when her independence seemed to push me away, my job was to help return her to that state. We had become too attached to our attachment.

This year has been a major turning point for Nadia. She is a sophomore in college, easily making the transition between home and school. She can ask for a hug or curl up in my lap and we both can let go.  She is thriving as a dancer. Our connection is as deep as ever but, appropriately, I don’t know every detail of her life.  Paradoxically, I can see more of the whole Nadia than I have ever been able to see.  She is no longer obscured by her independence and pride or by cancer or by post-traumatic stress. This has been a long time in coming for both of us and I love being a mother to the adult Nadia.

Nadia is very proud of me, as is my whole family and I made sure I had everyone’s blessing before I proceeded. For the longest time, though, Nadia said she would never read the book. Then, when I got my copies, she clamored to receive the first one, still insisting she wasn’t going to read it.  Then she read it in two days.

The big change is that Nadia has gone from trying to act as if she could return to her old life as if nothing ever happened, to internalizing and accepting as part of her this life-altering event. As supportive as she is, though, it is unlikely she will ever attend a reading.  I am grateful to her and to John, Frannie, and Max for being so generous with their lives.

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