Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good Night, My Adoptee Godmother

Tonight, I was shocked to learn that the bold, brilliant and elegant Betty Jean Lifton -- writer, humanitarian and open-adoption activist -- died one week ago in Boston of complications from pneumonia.

Margalit Fox's obit in today's NY Times appears here.

I spoke with BJ over the summer and hoped to see her this winter. I had a book idea that was knocking around in my head for the past two years and she was the one to discuss it with. Nearly 27 years ago, she saved my life by inviting me to join her Adoptee Rap Group, which met monthly in her Central Park West apartment.

At the time, I was 23, newly married and pregnant with my first child.

Just prior to getting pregnant, I met my birthmother in an encounter that was so bizarre and violent that it barely seems plausible. The thing that I did -- barging into my past, demanding to know the truth about my origins, defying conventions, breaking rules, knocking over obstacles -- seemed a criminal act of sorts, therefore, being held up at gunpoint hadn't really surprised me for it seemed a reasonable punishment for my deed.

Someone, a New York State judge, I believe, directed me to BJ. She was warm and funny and unafraid and iconoclastic and sharp. She had a cozy, almost plummy voice. She was cool and stylish and maternal -- exactly the kind of grown-up woman I wanted to be. She wrote books about the very thing I was engaged in -- the search for personal truth. She was famous yet completely accessible, unimpressed with her renown.

When I showed up on her doorstep I was a terrified girl with a growing belly who had almost gotten killed on the way to meeting the woman who gave birth to her -- a drug-addled welfare recipient living in a stinking, garbage-strewn hovel in Bed-Stuy.

I had been having recurring nightmares about giving birth to a red-headed baby girl in the bathroom of the house I grew up in...and then watching helplessly while my mother and birthmother fought over the child.

During waking hours, I was besieged by feelings of doom. My pregnancy evoked an almost existential terror, exacerbating my lifelong sense of alienation. More than ever, I saw myself as a visitor from another planet, a foreigner, a fake.

There were rational reasons for at least part of my distress, of course. I had never met a woman who was a great writer and had kids; I was fairly convinced it had never been done before. I felt like my life was over. I woke up every morning crying. I wanted to run away.

All kinds of people came to BJ's rap group. Some were extraordinarily interesting, others were incredibly weird; many were in terrible pain. One of the men -- an adoptee and adoptive father -- fell in love with me in the most awkward way. His attraction was born, I believe, of his double loss and the archetypical power of my pregnancy. I was lush and glowing, literally bursting with life. I was also young, the youngest pregnant person in Manhattan it seemed. With a college degree, that is. And I was distraught. The whole thing must have made him want to steal me, save me, be me.

BJ served cake and coffee at our evening meetings, asking for no compensation. She moderated our discussion and interjected, providing insight, humor, context. Sometimes she sat back and simply listened. From time to time, a story shocked. People often cried. I do remember laughing quite a lot, as well. Though the group had the quaint designation of a rap group, there was no crunchy granola, hippie-dippie vibe to our gatherings.

Instead, BJ's adoptee rap groups were gritty and real and valuable. They were part of a long-ago era, my young adulthood in Manhattan, a time before cellphones and BlackBerrys and email and computers and sky-high real estate and super-busy lives and insincere conversation conducted while doing 10 other things and all the trappings of the 21st century.

BJ's obit rests on the table next to my laptop. I keep glancing at the headline through blurry eyes. Damn it. I wanted to see her again, after two long decades. I wanted to talk to her about my book idea. I wanted to reconnect. I wanted to hear about her life, listen to her laugh, hear her latest insights about this way of being -- perpetually on the search for authenticity.

Last Sunday, at a brunch on the Upper West Side -- completely out of the blue -- I found myself talking about BJ's rap groups. I spoke incessantly -- perhaps obnoxiously -- about being adopted, about needing to find out why I had been given away. I spoke about the paradoxical nature of adoption -- the tragedy and joy contained therein, the dance of two families who might never meet, conjoined through one child.

As I spoke, I noted, as always, the rapt attention of my audience. Adept storyteller though I might be, I know that it is the subject of being adopted that gains me the spotlight.

Weird how I talked about BJ last week. Just like that. Out of the blue.

And then, a couple of days later, I learned that I was admitted to a course in book writing at Columbia on the strength of my book proposal -- the one I wished to talk to BJ about, the one I assumed I would interview her for.

The black ink of the newspaper makes BJ's obit unambiguous. I'm glad I'm seeing it this way first rather than online, where colors distract. The NY Times newsprint reminds me of when I first met BJ. I wish to linger in recollection of that time.

Tonight, I remember BJ Lifton and cry. Through my tears I see her smiling from the newspaper, giving me the thumbs-up for my project, laughing in her honeyed way, reminding me that, of course, I already interviewed her, many years ago, when we sat in a circle in her Central Park West living room and she was smart and cool and caring and I was on the cusp of growing up and discovering the truth about my life.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Fear of Mothering

Two first-person articles ran in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, providing a both-sides-now view of Erica Jong's philosophy of motherhood.

One was by the world-famous author herself of Fear of Flying, the seventies roman a clef that forever changed chick-lit and the public discourse on women's sexuality. The other was by Jong's daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, the sole fruit of her glass-bottomed womb.

Mommy Jong writes an overly-long, often-rambling meditation on a current trend in parenting (not just mothering, actually) that consists of micromanaging all aspects of the child's life to insure maximum enrichment, fearful hovering, a commitment to providing healthful food in the greenest way possible, a premium placed on breast-feeding and general overwhelming devotion to the child one has just brought into the world.

The chronicler of the Zipless F*$% describes an "orgy of motherphilia" that stands in stark contrast to, say, Betty Draper's goyishly hostile style of parenting. She cites the freewheeling, multi-culti families of Madonna and Angelina Jolie as nothing more than media creations where an image of seamless, easy domesticity is falsely conveyed. She slams so-called "Attachment Parenting," a view that advocates complete non-separation between mother and baby. She finds it shocking that 21st century women would want to revert to cloth diapers. She accuses modern moms of treating their offspring like fashionable accessories. She chastises childrearing experts for promoting an ethic of childrearing that only the very rich can enjoy.

In her essay Erica Jong sounds less like a social critic and more like one of those cranky old ladies who ride the M104 bus midday. One gets the sense that, surrounded by attractive, bright and fit former CEOs, lawyers and doctors who halted their professional success to become full-time mothers, she is tearing out her famously tousled hair. Or is rent with guilt over what a crappy mother she was.

Tragically, the kicker of the story reveals her own desire to be exonerated:

We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.

Um, Erica? There actually are rules governing childrearing. Such as: Thou Shalt Not Neglect Thy Child While Pursuing One's Own Fame. Or, try this one on: Thou Shalt Engage in at Least Some of the Pedestrian Aspects of Parenting That Bind You to Your Child, No Matter How Unglamorous or Boring. Or Thou Shalt Not Be Fooled Into Imagining that Art is More Important that Life. In other words, Writing About Thy Skanky Pursuits is Not a More Noble Activity Than Reading Bedtime Stories to Thy Lonely Child.

The fact that you broke or disregarded the rules of childrearing doesn't negate the fact that there is a contract between parent and child built on the expectation of basic care and devotion. Having evidently disregarded this contract, it does sound kinda bogus when you start ranting about how it "takes a village" to raise a child.

The accompanying essay by Molly Jong-Fast pretty much illuminates the reality, which is that Ms. Fear of Flying sucked as a mom though her adult daughter confusedly half-claims to negate this assessment:

This is not where I dramatically declare "my mother is a bad mother." There is where I say what's true: that my mother was as good a mother as she could possibly be.
At once filled with praiseworthy prose about her mom having done the best she could and being a heroine for going out there to earn money, the voice of a sad little girl comes out every now and then. Admitting that her mother harbored "ambivalence" towards her, the essay paints a woman who traveled incessantly, left her daughter in the care of her "nanny Margaret and Sugo the houseman" and avoided anything resembling nurturing because of her own mother's thwarted ambitions.

Probably the best indication of what Jong-Fast endured is the fact that she became the very kind of mother that her mother is railing about in her article:

Full disclosure: I spend a ton of time with my children, never travel barely work and am a helicopter parent like you can't believe...

You don't need an advanced degree in psychology to note that Jong-Fast might just be reacting to the manner in which she was raised, utilizing her own super-devoted method of mothering as a personal tikkun to the laissez faire love she received.

As illustrated by the following passage:

Famous people, who are often intensely-driven workaholics, are typically not focused on their children. We saw each other, but my mother was filled with the fear of slipping into domestic life and sabotaging her own career.

If one of my kids ever characterized our relationship as "we saw each other but..." I would want to cry for a million years.

Motherhood or fatherhood or any kind of hood necessitates at least a modicum of devotion. Molly Jong-Fast's "but" reveals that her mother's devotion lay -- and I mean lay -- elsewhere.

Getting back to the mothership...while I agree with many of the points Erica Jong makes in her essay, the takeaway is ultimately tragic because it is impossible to ignore her personal investment in slamming today's "motherphilia."

Clearly, she suffers from the exact opposite syndrome: "motherphobia."

Far better critiques of contemporary trends in childrearing can be found in the work of two of my pals -- Lenore Skenazy's book and blog: Free Range Kids and the comedian Jackie Hoffman's biting song, "Woman on the Upper West Side."

The column inches devoted by the Wall Street Journal to Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast amounts to little more than a poignant and pathetic public family therapy session.