by Callie Feyen
Women finding themselves with child this year will walk out of their OB/GYN offices with a bag full of parenting magazines, samples of things like formula and diaper cream, and oodles of coupons for Earth’s Best Organic peas and baby wipes. But what hospitals should really be giving women are stacks of young adult literature and an assignment: Keep a journal of observations you make when you read about the mother in the story. What is she doing? What do you note about her character? What does the dialogue reveal?
Because it is the YA novel that might just be the best source for women who are entering into or are even in the thick of motherhood. Juxtaposed with a young person going through adolescence, YA literature sheds light on the impossibility of motherhood as well as the grace that is found as women fumble their way through it.
The Ruby Oliver novels are a great place to start. Shortly after E. Lockhart’s The Treasure Map of Boys begins, Ruby, the main character, and her mother Elaine are shopping at Nordstrom’s. A mall is a great place to observe mothers, and Lockhart gives us a lot to look at in this short but hilarious scene.
Elaine wants Ruby to stop wearing “bowling shirts that used to belong to some old plumber,” so she encourages her daughter to try on things like an aqua turtleneck with a poodle on it. Ruby, smugly (and understandably) dismisses the poodle attire, and doesn’t understand why she can’t wear all black like her mother, and Elaine says Ruby’s not at an age where all black is appropriate. Besides, she tells Ruby, “you buy old [black] dresses that have practically no shape and the buttons falling off them, when you could spend the same money on this poodle sweater that shows off your breasts so nicely.” All Ruby takes away from this statement is that her mom just said breasts. This is a humorous, realistic scene showing a mother enthusiastically trying to shape her daughter into the beauty she believes she is, while the daughter is trying to figure out this beauty thing for herself.
Doing this in a dressing room seems symbolic; there’s a lot one can try on in a small amount of space. As the sweater Ruby tries on gets tossed to the side and more discussion ensues, the scene is hilarious, sad, uncomfortable, and sweet and it takes place in about five minutes – all these emotions crammed into a dressing room.
This is exactly how motherhood happens.
Lockhart’s books are filled with humor, but she uses it to explore more serious subjects, like the fact that Elaine and Ruby have trouble communicating with one another. What Lockhart is doing here is exploring the idea that motherhood is carried out with flawed people, just like us. Elaine Oliver is complicated. She has quirks and dreams, and she messes up. The grace then is working out the gift of daughterhood and motherhood daily among the small and large scenes that make up their lives together. We can support and love our children, but those lives that we held in our wombs are not our own.
Another great story is Esme Raji Codell’s Sahara Special. Sahara is a writer who leaves her stories in a binder in the 940 section of her public library. When we meet her, she is also a 5th grader who’s been labeled, “Special Needs.” Recently, Sahara’s father left her and her mother, and in this slim, heart-tugging story, readers will watch the trials of a mother and daughter navigating life and blooming with broken hearts.
The two don’t always see eye to eye, and while Sahara Special is Sahara’s story (readers watch Sahara change the most), it is heartening to watch another mama struggle to find the right words to say to her child. As a mother of two children myself, reading how Sahara’s mother communicates with her daughter helps me feel less alone.
Toward the end of the story, Sahara and her mom are eating dinner together and Sahara is talking to her about her writing. Sahara’s mom doesn’t see the value in writing as she does in, say, calculus. However, she understands it’s important to Sahara. She admits this in a sad scene over meatloaf and potatoes, and later, Sahara climbs into bed with her mama, and her mama holds onto her shoulder, “like she didn’t want [her] to go anywhere.” Sahara wallows in the embrace of her mother, and also knows she “was destined to end up Somewhere Else anyway, no matter how she held me.” Here, readers watch a mother hang on to her daughter while letting her go, perhaps the most difficult part of being a mother. There is no instructional manual and perhaps a story is the best we can do.
In a third book, Walk Two Moons, author Sharon Creech tells the story of a grandmother coming to terms with her past and how that affects her family, and of a mother who had to leave her home for a while, and sadly, was unable to return. It also tells the story of Sal, who travels from Ohio to South Dakota to say goodbye to her mother, and who learns on the trip that her story is intertwined in her mother’s and grandmother’s stories. It is even wrapped up in her friend Phoebe’s mother’s story.
Creech’s story is one of adventure and sadness, humor and fear, and mothers who are reading it learn that not only are our stories intertwined with our mothers’ stories, but they make more sense the more we learn about who our mothers are.
Mothers need to see fallible, clumsy, loving, and powerful women struggle and succeed, laugh and fail, try without hope that any of it will work out. E. Lockhart, Esme Raji Codell, and Sharon Creech offer us great examples. Because there are no answers for what we’re trying to do, we may as well look to fictional characters for guidance.