Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Not In Her Footsteps: A Review of Mothering Without A Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within

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By Kathryn Black (Viking, 2004; $17.47)

In her new book, Mothering Without A Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within (January, 2004), Kathryn Black shows how emotionally wounded daughters can travel down a different path from their own mothers to transcend their troubled pasts and become the good mothers they aspire to be.

Readers who devoured detailed and thought-provoking books such as Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith F. Small (who is quoted often by Black) will also consume this book eagerly. Black adequately supports her claim that, "In mothering our children well, we find healing for ourselves," with numerous references to her own background (her mother died of polio when she was six years old) and to the lives of ordinary women of all ages and backgrounds. She also quotes various experts in the fields of psychiatry, therapy, science, and anthropology whose works back up her thesis.

In short, Black claims that by facing your childhood pain -- whether your mother was absent, distracted, emotionally distant, depressed, or fell short in some way -- you can learn from these experiences to be a better, more conscious mother. Having grown up mother-less, and with a manipulative and cold grandmother, Black had to learn on her own how to mother her own children joyfully, deliberately, and lovingly.

Because my own mother had parenting challenges, I dove wholeheartedly into this book. Black's story alongside the studies of top parenting experts left me feeling optimistic about raising my three-year-old daughter in my own, radically different way, on a day-to-day basis. For example, I never slept with my mother, but my daughter finds comfort and safety at my side every night in our family bed. My mother has often commented that I am very receptive to my daughter's cues -- something she noticed even before my daughter could talk -- when she is hungry, tired, and so on.

Still, my mother and I do share many similarities. I wholeheartedly agree with Black when she writes, "Most difficult of all is seeing our mothers' worst traits in us." (Ay, those moments when my patience has snapped and I've screamed, sounding just like my own stressed out mother!) Yet Black is always hopeful: "If we can face those traits of our mothers that are in us, especially the ones we most dislike, we move toward knowing ourselves more fully." So, if we live less in denial, we can become free of the past.

By facing our own fears, we are helping our children face theirs. Black sums up this issue by mentioning a New Yorker cartoon in which one mother is depicted saying to another as they sit on a park bench with their babies, "I like to think that each generation will need a little less therapy than the generation before."

One mother interviewed by Black -- Cathy Patterson, an interior designer from Seattle -- remembered how cranky and moody her mother got in her late 40s. "Then when my kids were teenagers I hit menopause and lost all emotional balance myself. Suddenly I found myself behaving the same way."

But after recognizing her own mother in herself, Patterson sat her kids down to talk. Although her own mother had refused to discuss menopause, Patterson realized that her kids "have a right to say what they think and a right to be treated politely." Today, she seems proud of the fact that motherhood has made her more sympathetic and patient. Her children are not afraid to approach her.

As a single mother with a network of mother friends, I related to quotes such as those by Elizabeth Bing, who was an early pioneer of natural childbirth: "Just as the fetus cannot get a nutrient the mother does not consume, so an infant cannot receive emotional nutrition that the caregiver does not receive. To be able to feed your baby the emotional calories of love, you must consume 'nutritious' love yourself." This past holiday weekend, for example, when the thunderstorms had stopped for a few hours, I called another single-mom friend to go kite-flying with our girls. I knew that I needed a long hug and some thoughtful adult conversation. It relieved my crankiness, and I was kinder to my daughter as a result.

While the mothers interviewed in the book added to Black's points, I did want more detail. Her case studies -- which read like excerpts from transcripts -- are cut and dry, and quite unemotional. I wanted to connect to these women on a deeper level; narrative nonfiction storytelling would have helped them come to life a little more on the page.

Yet Mothering Without A Map is a very thorough and affirming book. It left me feeling that although I might have been under-mothered, I can become a healing mother for my own daughter. In our society, mothers often fear that if we make one wrong move, our children will be scarred for life. Black presents the whole picture: that mothering is really a learning process for moms and children alike.

Rachel Sarah lives and writes in the Bay Area. Her first book, Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World (Avalon/Seal Press) was published in 2007. She is also the author of the Literary Mama column, Single Mom Seeking. Rachel has written for Family Circle, Parenting, Tango, Bay Area Parent, Ms., Hip Mama, and American Baby. A journalist for the past decade, Rachel is also the single mom columnist for For more information, please contact Rachel through her website.

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