Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Linda Blachman

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Linda Blachman, MPH, MA, is the author of Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer (Seal Press, 2006). A combination of narrative nonfiction, oral history and interview, Another Morning draws from Blachman's decade of work as founder and director of the Mothers' Living Stories Project (MLS), a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit which trains volunteer listeners to record the life stories and legacies of mothers living with cancer while raising children.

Freelance writer Alle C. Hall spoke with Linda about how struggling with a cancer diagnosis can help mothers see themselves as whole human beings, about how death, especially that of a mother, is almost unthinkable in our culture, and about the interesting approach Linda took to structuring her book.

Alle C. Hall: When I first contacted you for this interview, you wrote that you were excited to talk about the mothering aspect of the book. I'm surprised the media hasn't latched onto that angle.

LB: I think that the word "cancer" obliterates everything else. They [the media] don't make the leap, or they start talking about the kids and how valuable the Mothers' Living Stories Project will be to the children. Take Dana Reeve, for example. She was a wonderful woman, named Mother of the Year by the American Cancer Society, but her death was all about her poor son Will; and of course, poor Will. The media just can't go near her death.

ACH: Maybe they can't approach it emotionally.

LB:. Developmentally, most of us don't see our parents -- especially our mothers -- as separate, complex human beings until later in life. Children tend to hold onto idealized or demonized versions, which must be reconciled over many years. We tend not to be very interested in our mothers, really. They're there to be "used." Of course, the child's view is shared by the larger culture, which either idealizes/sentimentalizes mothers or devalues/denigrates them. I recall an article written back in the 70s that described the rather disturbed way in which Americans view mothers as "tin angels of mercy." We still lack a larger cultural story of motherhood that portrays mothers or motherhood as whole -- with both powerful and vulnerable aspects.

ACH: It makes me wonder: If a comparable project were conducted on men with cancer, how many of them would say that their children were their primary concern? I suspect that many would feel their primary duty was to rack up as much money as possible. For many men, that may be how they view taking care of their kids..

LB: Fathers are equally irreplaceable in children's lives. When either parent is absent or negligent, children tend to fill the empty sky with the desired image and to hold onto it long past reason. The MLS Project did pilot a few stories with fathers living with cancer, but we didn't learn enough for me to address your question. Having known gay fathers who are devoted primary caregivers, and some very nurturing single and married dads, I am not prepared to make assumptions.

I will admit that, in my experience recording men's stories, I've noted a tendency to spend much more time talking about their work lives rather than their relationships. It's not surprising, considering what we know about identity development. Whatever the career paths or lack thereof, women tend to know themselves and judge themselves through relationships. Men do so through work and success. However, when very ill or facing death, both men and women have to let go of the roles by which they've known themselves. What remains for most of us is the love that is or isn't there and the value of relationships -- to self, to partners, to children, sometimes to God. Perhaps that's when men and women are most similar.

ACH: I completely trust my husband with my son. In fact, I feel our son is physically safer with Cliff than with me because I tend to not track when I last gave the medicine and if it was Ibuprohen or Tylenol. But just after tucking into Another Morning, I had my annual exam and my doctor found a mass in my vagina. The mass is absolutely not cancer and is shrinking on its own, but waiting for my results that weekend was horrible. If I let myself think of my son growing up without me there to protect him, I'd dissolve. Thinking about it even now, I can barely breathe.

LB: I'm so sorry you had to go through that. Almost all the mothers with cancer I have met say that they can bear the idea of dying. What they can't bear is the idea of leaving their children. It's extremely difficult to find peace around that even when a father or loving guardian is present. The pain and the fear of threatened separation lead many to undergo arduous treatments, even when they aren't medically indicated, in order to "cover the bases," to bargain for more time until certain milestones have been reached -- high school graduation, bar mitzvah, a special birthday. Mothers want to finish their job. Mothers also want to protect their children from suffering. To not be able to do so is one of the most primal pains.

ACH: How do mothers with cancer find peace?

LB: I learned that some of it has to do with taking care of themselves in new ways: learning to meditate, finding a spiritual path, discovering a different perspective on life and on mothering. Some record their life stories and leave messages of love and advice for their children. Doing so insures being remembered, which is important to every mother and allows them to carry on parenting after they're gone. One mother called recording her story a form of "emotional insurance." It's something all of us should do long before we're in a medical crisis or too old to remember our own stories.

ACH: I'd be interested in hearing your views of spirituality, religion, and God as someone who observes women come to terms with death or the idea of death, and also, personally.

LB: Regarding my own spirituality, on my website is an essay called A Living Story which describes it pretty well. Regarding the women I have met who are coming to terms with the idea of death and, in some cases, their actual deaths, I can say a few things although these were not systematically studied issues. Every mother had a different relationship to religion and the spiritual life, both before and after cancer. Some belonged to churches and synagogues and identified as traditionally religious. Some considered themselves spiritual but not religious; spirituality consisting, for example, of a belief in the powers of nature or the connectedness of all life. Some had no religious affiliation and did not think of their lives in spiritual terms.

ACH: It's difficult for me to relate to that last sentiment because I can't imagine approaching cancer without a trust in God.

LB: Well, some mothers had a crisis of faith due to cancer or had already had one following other traumatic life events. Some found their faith strengthened during the medical challenge and experienced their beliefs in God and religious practice as a comfort, especially their belief in an afterlife. There were those who were bitter and angry at times, but I rarely found anyone frozen there. And even when angry and distraught, some women still discovered a spiritual side of themselves that they hadn't had before -- in meditation or making art or in prayer.

But for each one of them, the diagnosis raised the specter of death even though many of them will not die of the disease. Cancer opened up profound questions of meaning and faith and drove them to make sense of the situation for themselves and for their children, to create or discover a story or perspective that could hold this much suffering and unfairness. Still, not all felt that need. Not all even felt that cancer was the worst thing that had happened to them either.

ACH: Tina, from the middle section of the book, said that if the disease didn't come with the specter of death, and therefore separation, she would not give up the experience of having cancer because of the lessons.

LB: What did you think of that?

ACH: I think Tina's more spiritually evolved than I am, or completely bananas. I like to believe we don't have to learn solely from pain. After reading the first sentence of your book, I put it down for a week -- and that was before my scare.

LB: What did you think as you continued to read the book?

ACH: I felt a lot more . . . what's the word? Not respect, but something like it. Awe? Awe, especially reading the stories from the last two sections, dealing with recurring then terminal diagnoses. Those women went deep.

LB: There is a lot we can all learn from thinking and talking about death. It's better to begin those conversations while we're in good health. We're all going to face the hard stuff. So are our children. One of my goals with Another Morning, as well as in my private practice, is to get people -- especially parents -- to think about their lives, to ask the hard questions that most of us don't ask until we're in crisis or have suffered terrible loss. What are we doing with our time here? Are we living the values we say are important to us? What are our children learning, not only from what we say, but from what we do?

ACH: Another Morning unfolds in three parts -- living with primary, recurring, then terminal diagnosis -- blending narrative nonfiction with oral history and interview. Your participants often narrate, then you step in from time to time. How did you come up with the structure?

LB: I struggled for a long time with both the overall structure as well as with combining forms. In terms of the three sections, while there are commonalities that may transcend differences, I found that mothers face different challenges and discover different solutions based on where they are in the illness continuum. Also, while my hope is that people will read the entire book, I know there are different states of readiness around facing stories of advanced disease or dying. I wanted readers to easily locate the stories that might speak to them and avoid the ones they aren't yet ready to read, with the hope that one day they will be -- not because of illness, but because they realize that we all have to face these issues and can learn from these women.

I chose to use interview monologues and dialogues in order to maintain the integrity of the mothers' voices, the emotional immediacy of the material, and the intimacy of the meetings with the listener/interviewer. Since these stories were recorded as oral histories, I felt it important to use writing methods that would maintain the integrity of the words. At the same time, I wanted to do something quite different than an anthology. These stories are lengthy -- originally 100 single-spaced pages each -- layered, psychologically complex, intense. I believed, and early readers concurred, that readers would need guidance. My observations and reactions help readers understand the material.

It was also important for me to weave in the cultural context about motherhood and illness, and death and dying. I wanted to raise important questions about the silence and lack of support for ill mothers, about how we must simultaneously protect children and initiate them into real life.

ACH: All parents struggle with that balance. We have to keep our kids safe, but keeping them safe is different from . . .

LB: . . . planning the best college for them while they're in utero. That's extreme. It's all fear-based. It helped me as a parent to learn that my daughter has her path. She'll take her knocks and learn how to get up from them. All parents need to realize that managing your kids' lives to the point that they can't have their own pain, their own suffering, means, to an extent, that they can't grow. The women in Another Morning discovered that faith in their children's separate journeys sometimes eased the pain of potentially leaving them.

ACH: How did writing Another Morning differ from working on the MLS project?

LB: In working directly with the mothers on the MLS project, there was a lot of grief because I was close with some of them. It was also extremely enlivening. People always ask, "Isn't that depressing?" No. Depression is a kind of stasis. These women are profoundly alive. People who are at the edge of life -- seeing what matters, how precious life is -- have an urgency. It is very attractive to be around that energy. And because I knew how much the project meant to them and their children, I felt my life work had meaning. Aside from the grief -- and grief is not depression, either -- I felt nourished.

In some ways, the writing was harder. There was the repeated grief, and any writer will tell you that writing is lonely and laborious. I had to edit stories from 100 pages down to 80 down to 60. It was like sculpting, trying to maintain the sacred center. To be intimate with each story, to parse it in a certain way, it was like studying Torah.

ACH: You did a wonderful job bonding me to the women. I remember Julie, who got pregnant while sailing around the world then was diagnosed a year after her baby's birth. My notes read, "Please don't tell me she died."

LB: I won't. Not because she's alive or not. I'm not telling. I struggled with that decision. Ultimately, I resolved not to focus on who lived or died because these women were very alive and their stories were alive and readers were identifying. I didn't want a reader with a diagnosis to feel, "If she dies, it will blow it apart for me." Some of those with metastasized cancer have lived for 11 years. Kids went to high school or graduated. This is scary stuff. I am grateful to you for tackling it. The culture we live in has made the topic so intolerably scary, we can't even talk about it. That causes a lot of unnecessary suffering.

ACH: When I received this assignment, I assumed my biggest emotional hurdle -- and the likely reason I was drawn to your book -- would be my mother's death from cancer when she was in her forties and I was a teen. I am 41 now, the age my mother was as her cancer was emerging. The thought has governed my subconscious my entire adult life: what will happen when I reach the age her death began? Wouldn't you know it, in my fortieth year I had a brush with similar mortality, as I mentioned earlier.

LB: Most children need to know what is happening in age-appropriate terms and most mothers need to unburden their hearts and tell. Although I was writing in response to the silence surrounding a mother's illness, the same could be said of children's need to know their mothers' stories and of mothers' needs to be known and understood by their children. Perhaps you were drawn to Another Morning out of your desire to understand what your mother went through, to hear through the voices of other mothers with cancer what she might have said to you, who she might have become had you the opportunity to know her as a whole human being from an adult perspective.

ACH: You know, it never occurred to me that I would look to your book for some of the mothering that cancer took from me. While I feel I now understand my mother, there are acres of her I will never know. In addition to cancer, she lived with mental illness, so it is doubtful that she knew herself. I never realized the same about my mother. It makes sense I would try . . . not replace my mother, but to find her, also, somehow, as I find myself.

LB: I hope that the stories in Another Morning will give motherless daughters like yourself insights and solace.

ACH (to self): I am a motherless daughter.

LB (continued): Another Morning is intentionally written from the point of view of mothers who have become ill, a point of view that is, with rare exception, lacking in the literature of motherhood, illness, or death and dying. Mothers are not supposed to get sick! Mothers must not die! Certainly not before children are "launched."

ACH: Tell me about it. Last night, a friend mentioned that a good friend of hers, a mom of two children under the age of 4, had been diagnosed with cancer and given two years to live, tops. My friend, who delivered her second child in January, said learning of the diagnosis made her evaluate what she absolutely had to accomplish before she died. We agreed instantly: making sure our kids would survive was the most important goal we needed to achieve. We even used the word "launch."

LB: As I write in Another Morning, when we put mothers and mortality together, we are forced to see mothers -- and mothers are forced to see themselves -- as whole human beings who can prevail, fail, suffer, thrive, become ill, die. For some women, it took cancer to value themselves as mothers. They didn't really get how important they were to their children until they saw how devastating it would be for their children to lose them. One mother said that before cancer, she thought her value as a mother depended on what she did. She realized her value had to do with her just being alive.

ACH: What a concept!

LB: But puncturing what one of my colleagues calls "the healthy delusion of the permanency of the mother" is shattering to both mother and child, altering the story of protection and safety that both need.

ACH: After such an emotional project, can you possibly think of what's next? What are you working now?

LB: I am "in transition" following the loss of funding for the Mothers' Living Stories Project, the publication of Another Morning, and my daughter's wedding. The meaning of transition is not knowing what the future path holds! However, I am growing my private practice as a personal historian and life coach and continue to find value and meaning in recording life stories and guiding people through transitions, including those who are facing serious illness or loss.

I also remain committed to getting Another Morning out to the people who will benefit from it. I hope to keep stimulating discussion about the plight of ill mothers, the intersection of motherhood and mortality, and the need for more humane cultural stories.

Alle C. Hall’s work has appeared in or on Creative Nonfiction, BUST, Swivel, Literary CafĂ© Radio/KMUN Portland, The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and several anthologies. She was a contributing writer at The Stranger, for whom she interviewed (and pissed off) Leonard Nimoy. She edits a free, monthly e-mail newsletter with publishing tips for writers.

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