Defining Motherhood

One Mom's Attempt to Find Meaning in the Madness

August Reads

READ: to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.

I read interesting, moving, frustrating, innovative, and impressive books in August.  I can’t recommend any of them as “must reads” but I hope the descriptions below will turn you on to one or two that sound like a good fit for you.  If you have any September recommendations, I am in desperate need of a book or two that will knock my socks off. 

Impossible knife

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

I read this book because someone who read my July essay on Brain, Child responded with a recommendation for this title.  Summarizing this young adult book – boy/girl relationship, troubled parent, timely topic, female sidekick with issues – won’t do the book justice.  In this book, Anderson tackles PTSD and its impact on a father and daughter.  Anderson’s writing style is jumpy, but it worked for me.  In fact, the jumps and the disjointed feel of the prose fit the subject matter and kept me turning pages.   

thirty girls

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

This book has no quotation marks!  Is that a thing?  If so, how do we stop it?  Now, on to the substance…

This book promises to weave the stories of Esther (a Ugandan teenager abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army) and Jane (an American journalist traveling to Africa to give voice to children like Esther) together and give the reader “razor-sharp portraits of two extraordinary young women confronting displacement, heartbreak, and the struggle to wrest meaning from events that test them.”  Let’s be clear.  Esther is abducted, raped, and forced to kill.  Jane survived a divorce and is having casual sex with a younger man.  These two women are not equals.  Their struggles are not equivalent.  And, presenting them as such didn’t work for me. 

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

I was excited about the premise of this book – detectives struggling with the pointlessness of solving murders in a pre-apocalyptic United States with approximately six months until the world is obliterated by an asteroid.  I’m a sucker for fiction that uses dystopian settings to shine a light on human behavior.  This was a book with tons of potential, but I finished this book disappointed about what could have been but wasn’t.  

woman upstairs

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This is a tough review for me.  I was impressed by this book but can’t say I liked it.  Perhaps liking isn’t a necessary part of thinking a book is great.  The writing is solid throughout and masterful in parts.  Messud shines a light on our ability to lie to others and ourselves with great skill.  If someone told me they loved this book, I would totally understand.  I appreciated this book.  I admired this book.  I just didn’t love this book. 

dept of speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This is a short book densely packed with snippets of truth and insight about marriage and motherhood.  The writing style is haiku-like in its deceptive brevity – short sections that pack a punch when you take time to unpack them.  Alas, this reader’s need to follow the narrative arc at a steady pace made me cheat some sections of their due.  I would recommend this book to readers attracted to different literary formats.

Wordy Wednesday


WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I see Wordless Wednesday blog posts and often think, “I should do that.”  But then I remember that I’m terrible at taking pictures.  So, I embrace Wednesdays in my own way.  In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.  I acknowledge that I am offering you less than the going exchange rate of 1,000 words per picture.  Forgive me. 

Other People’s Words

I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation this week.  Here are a few passages that made me laugh or ponder: 

…The Buddhists shy there are 121 states of consciousness.  Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.

…People keep telling me to do yoga. I tried it once at the place down the street.  The only part I liked was the part at the end when the teacher covered you with a blanket and you got to pretend you were dead for ten minutes. 

…There is still such crookedness in my heart.  I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

…Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business.  Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid.  But it was just a cowlick.  Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness.

…It is important if someone asks you to remember one of your happiest times to consider not only the question but also the questioner.  If the question is asked by someone you love, it is fair to assume that this person hopes to feature in this recollection he has called forth.  But you could, if you were wrong and if you had a crooked heart, forget this most obvious and endearing thing and instead speak of a time you were all alone, in the country, with no one wanting a thing from you, not even love.  You could say that was your happiest tie.  And if you did this then telling about this happiest of times would cause the person you most want to be happy to be unhappy.

…How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people…But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

 Words I Had to Ask Webster About 


  • Estivate: to spend the summer, as at a specific place or in a certain activity
  • Geminate: to couple or arrange in pairs
  • Nepenthe: something that induces a pleasurable sensation of forgetfulness
  • Squamulous: covered with tiny scales
  • Voluptuary: characterized by preoccupation with luxury and sensual pleasure

Friday Favorites


FAVORITE: a thing that is liked more than others

Anne Lamott says, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again…”

I love to write my own words, but I also love to read the words of others – especially words that restore my buoyancy and feed my soul.  Such writing deserves to be shared and celebrated.  This week, my buoyancy-restoring/soul-feeding internet reads included: 

Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt (by Glennon Doyle Melton on Momastery)

Sometimes it seems that our entire economy is based on distracting women from their blessings…

The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short (by Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan on Brain, Child)

…Parenthood reconstructs our identity. From that first startling moment we utter the words “my son” or “my daughter,” we are forever transformed. As my youngest child prepares to leave, I know that my sons will change me once again. Although there is no word I have cherished hearing more than “Mom,” I accept that who I am will be altered and that being a parent will have a new meaning…

The Best Mom In The World (by Lisa Sadikman on Scary Mommy)

“If I could pick my mom, I would pick you,” says my 9-year-old…

A Memoir is Not a Status Update (Dani Shapiro on The New Yorker)

…our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters…

Wordy Wednesday


WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I see Wordless Wednesday blog posts and often think, “I should do that.”  But, then, I remember that I’m terrible at taking pictures.  If not for the CDs of images that appear from my in-laws a few times of year, there would be little visual documentation that I have two children.

I’ve decided to embrace Wednesday in my own way.  In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.  I acknowledge that I am offering you less than the going exchange rate of 1,000 words per picture.  Forgive me.

Other People’s Words

I’ve been reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  Early in the book, she writes this passage about the perspective you absorb from the place you live:

“It makes sense that if you stand almost daily in the middle of a perfect crescent of shore, with a vista open to eternity, you’ll conceive of possibility differently from someone raised in a wooded valley or among the canyons of a big city.”

A few days after reading that passage, I was listening to The Writer’s Almanac when Garrison Keeler shared this quote from the poet Heather McHugh about the impact of surroundings on our sense of self:

“I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it’s harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually.”

A few more great passages and strings of words from Messud:

“…the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world.  Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate the outline that people understand me to have…”

“…do you know this idea of the imaginary homeland? Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again.  What you’ve left behind exists only in your memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.”

“Doubt, that fatal butterly, hovered always in my breast.”

In preparation for a presentation I’m giving in the fall, I’ve been re-reading some classic environmental texts, including Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  What was astounding to me, page after page, was how valid and timely her observations remain after fifty years:

“The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.”

“This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits.  It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.  When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.  We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks…The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when it full possession of the facts.  In the words of Jean Rostand, ‘The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.’”

Words I Wanted to Make My Own (but wasn’t sure what they meant)

  • Bonhomous: good-natured easy friendliness
  • Deliquescent: tending to melt or dissolve
  • Diaspora: a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived
  • Frisson: a sudden strong feeling or emotion
  • Glaucous: of a pale yellow-green color; of a light bluish-gray or bluish-white color; having a powdery or waxy coating that gives a frosted appearance and tends to rub off
  • Rive: to split with force or violence

actions > words

ACTION: a thing done; deed; the accomplishment of a thing usually over a period of time, in stages, or with the possibility of repetition

If actions do indeed speak louder than words, Son should hear a very loud


when he climbs into the top bunk to sleep on clean sheets tonight.

I hope the volume of the talking sheets doesn’t startle him so much that he wets the bed. 

I can’t handle changing the sheets on the top bunk again so soon.

Parting: Sweetness and Sorrow

PARTING: a time or occurrence when people leave each other

I agree with Juliet.  Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Yesterday’s parting was no exception. It was extremely sweet and extremely sorrowful. 

Yesterday was my last day in the office before beginning my transition to fuller-time writer.  It was a parting from a firm that took a chance on me when I was young and inexperienced and trained me with grace and patience.  It was a parting from co-workers I’ve known for more than a decade – folks who long ago crossed the invisible line between colleagues and friends.  After drafting my farewell email and a handful of personalized thank you notes yesterday morning, I had to take a break to hike to the nearest drugstore for mascara to reapply.  There was sorrow that came from knowing my colleagues will not disappear from my life but will have a much smaller role. 

Yesterday wasn’t just a parting from people.  It was also a parting from less tangible things like security and status. Yesterday was a goodbye to regular paychecks, nicely furnished office space, business cards, letters after my name, billable hour reports that provide an objective reporting of my productiveness, and so much more.  There is sorrow in the realization that I have spent so much time and energy climbing a ladder that didn’t get me where I wanted to go. 

So, there was sorrow.  But, there was also sweetness.

Yesterday was a day full of tender words, kind gifts, and a happy hour celebration full of laughter.  I spent my evening reading and re-reading the sentiments, compliments and well wishes in the card that accompanied the beautiful journals and pens the firm gave me.  It is rare to get to see yourself as others see you. And when others take the time to let you know – with love, kindness, and a great deal of gracious overlooking – what they admire about you it is a sweet, sweet treasure. 

There is also sweetness in the intangibles that this transition offers.  I’m giving up some security and status, but I’m gaining freedom, passion, inspiration and possibility.  

Letters still matter – just not the ones after my name on my business card.  Now it’s the letters I put on paper that matter.   And, thanks to my beloved colleagues, I have beautiful paper to put those letters on and a seven-year pen with which to write them.

I wake this morning comfortable with the conflicting sweetness and sorrow of yesterday’s parting and ready to embrace the possibility in this new beginning.

July Reads

READ: to understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols

The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This month’s BEST OF pick is Graeme Simsion’s charming book The Rosie Project.  Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially inept professor of genetics.  He is ready to find a wife and believes a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey is just the way to do it. That way, he doesn’t waste time with smokers and the perpetually late.  Rosie Jarman is clearly not wife material according to the questionnaire.  And yet…

This book is delightful in every way.  It is joyful and poignant and insightful.  This book showcases all the beauty and charm of a mind that is wired in a non-neuro-typical manner.  You can’t help but fall in love with Don and the way he sees the world.

Language of Flowers The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I really liked this book.   As I was devouring page after page, I would try to convince myself to slow down and savor it – knowing I would be disappointed when I finished.  But, I couldn’t help myself and in the end reached the final page too quickly.  So many books bounce between past and present, but this one uses that format with great artistry.  Diffenbaugh portrays a range of human emotions and experiences with such ease that this book feels at once life-changing and light-hearted.

sweet tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My expectations for McEwan are high.  This book didn’t meet them.  A story of Serena – a beautiful lover of books who is recruited to England’s legendary intelligence agency – who goes undercover to help manipulate a writer in the name of advancing the government’s objectives.  Along the way (gasp) she falls in love with the writer.  There are plenty of passages where McEwan’s writing shines, but there are plenty more that are average.  In the end, this book suffered most from a lack of action.

year of the gadfly

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Miller uses three narrators talking from different perspectives and different times to tell this melancholy story of Iris – a budding highschool journalist whose confidant is her conjured version of Edward R. Murrow – and her uncovering of a blackmail scheme at her elite prep school. This book is full of plot twists, revealed secrets, and the repercussions of grief.  I was impressed by Miller’s creativity and ability to create wonderfully eccentric characters.  It was an interesting read, but ultimately this novel was more clever than convincing.

Mountains echoed

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

This is the first book I’ve read by Hosseini.  I will read more.  Clearly, he is a gifted story teller.  This book – which spans many decades and many lives – was beautiful and touching, though the pacing was a bit uneven and the last portion of the book took some determination to push through.
Everybody sees the antsEverybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

I picked this book up from the bargain shelf at Powell’s months ago.  It deals with important issues: abuse, bullying, sexual harassment, etc.  But the issues and insights weren’t put together in a story I found compelling.  In the end, the book was just weird…not in a good way.

Long Shadows (The Whole Truth)

father and child

SHADOW: pervasive and dominant influence

My latest essay is up on Brain, Child magazine’s blog today. Here is an excerpt:

“How often do you see your dad?” she asks casually.

The question is one of many questions we’ve volleyed back and forth this particular afternoon as we sit in the sun and let our children play on the playground.

How should I answer this question I’m sure she perceives as benign?

I could simply say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

That’s true. Or, at least, true enough.

Or, I could say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.” That’s also true but it takes some explaining.

To read the rest, head on over to Brain, Child magazine’s blog or Facebook page.

July Rain

rain in seattle

RAIN: water falling in drops condensed from vapor in the atmosphere; the descent of this water

It’s a rainy day and, I confess, I was delighted to see the dark shadows of a nighttime rain shower on the sidewalk this morning. Partly because it checks water garden off my list, but mostly because of the way it feels.

The air is cool and clean. I breathed deep on my morning walk to the bus, trying to soak it in. I’ll be excited when the sun returns (it is summer after all) but today I’m going to relish the rain and enjoy the uneven tapping of the drops on my office window.

Loving rain is handy for Seattleites. Rain and long stretches of cloud cover are the tradeoff for avoiding things like scorpions, tornadoes, earthquakes and fancy dress codes that folks in other parts of the country tolerate. It’s a trade I’m more than willing to make.

Rain is linked with purification in some primal part of my being. Wet concrete is my blank slate. Drips from tree branches and gutters sound like forgiveness and possibility to me.

I like a good rain shower. Heck, I like any shower. I collect memories of showers the way some folks collect memories of great meals:

There were the childhood camp trips where we bathed as best we could in the campground water spigots, trying to walk the fine line between invigorating and painful exposure to the freezing water.

There were the service projects in Mexico where each day ended with judicious use of a single bag of sun-warmed water to wash away the stucco and sweat.

There were the frigid Alaskan waterfalls and streams that I plunged my head under to restore my sanity after miles of kayaking.

There were the European hostel showers that required body contortions to shave my legs.

There were the shared showers of young love.

There were the all-I-have-to-show-for-today showers of early motherhood.

Indoors or out, water from above is like magic. Water transforms people and things.  Dry to wet.  Dirty to clean.  Weary to renewed.

When a city energy audit revealed that my beloved shower had a flow rate higher than any other home in the city, I felt guilty. Almost guilty enough to install the free low-flow shower head offered by the auditor. Almost. But, not quite. Take my car. Take my Ziploc bags. Leave my shower alone.

Recently, I’ve been shopping for a shower head to install in the bathroom planned as part of our basement remodel.  Sure, I care about the appearance of the shower head, but what I really care about is the function.

Which one will make my morning shower feel like a walk in the rain?

The Backpack Hall of Fame

robot backpack

BACKPACK: a bag for carrying things that has two shoulder straps and is carried on the back

It’s looking like Son will need a new backpack for school this year. My essay about all the backpacks I’ve loved is on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog today. Please check it out.

What do you do with old backpacks?


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