At first glance, Francesca Lia Block, an author best known for her portrayals of Los Angeles hipster life in a series of young adult novels and, more recently, for erotica, hardly seems likely to write an unabashedly joyous memoir of motherhood. Longtime fans of Block's writing, though, may remember that motherhood emerged as a theme right from the start in Block's first young adult novel, the critically-acclaimed Weetzie Bat.
Protagonist Weetzie overflows with affection for her baby: "Weetzie held Cherokee against her breast. Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons."
This same affection shines through virtually every word of Block's recent memoir, Guarding the Moon: A Mother's First Year. Written in the same lyrical style as her fiction, Block's memoir evokes a dreamlike quality familiar to anyone who's survived the first year of motherhood. So dreamy is the feel of this memoir, in fact, that the occasional intrusion of matter-of-fact details, from bouts of mastitis to finding a good babysitter, seem almost jarring. The memoir is broken up into short sections of a paragraph or two. The structure resembles the shape of a new mother's life--those all-too-brief snippets of time in which to sit down, catch your breath, and maybe even think a little bit about what it all means.
One of the most distinctive themes of Block's memoir is the concept of naming. The responsibility inherent in naming a new being, in creating a label that will last a lifetime, can be daunting. Even after deciding on the perfect name, however, silly, love-laden pet names usually abound, and Block evidently delights in creating such names for her new daughter. Miss Pink, Milk Maiden, Baby Girl, Sugar Plum Fairy, Bunny, Love Dove, Bambina . . . the names are playful reminders of Block's growing and changing love for her child. The author reflects on the joy of naming as she looks at her own daughter: "I can see her desire to name. She extends one finger to daintily touch the very center of the object of her affection, her eyes full of the shimmer of recognition, as she tries to find the sound for it. I think of Creation when I see babies do this. God's pointer still marks my daughter's upper lip, her pudgy elbows, and the soft plump flesh beneath each finger." The full, legal name of Block's "Baby Bear" is not given until the very last page of the book--instead, the reader is awash in the endless, creative variety of names bestowed on this baby girl.
Block does not merely catalogue the joy and beauty of her daughter; she also describes how as mother and protector, she must confront her old demons. The fact that her baby is a girl is evidently of great concern to her. Hints of Block's own history of eating disorders, self-abuse, and general self-hatred, particularly directed toward her own body, are scattered throughout the text. Despite the fact that she had secretly wished for a girl baby, Block's thoughts are nevertheless suffused with fear that her daughter will develop these same obsessions, and with hope that things will be better for her than they were for her mother. As the book's title suggests, Block views herself as the guardian of her new daughter's treasured perfection, so she vows to preserve her baby's delight in her own body: "All I know is that neither my husband nor I will ever let our child be blind to her own beauty. We will encourage her joy in her reflection, that now causes her to beam, her whole body wriggling with delight." Likewise, Block promises always to encourage her daughter to find her own voice and to speak and sing without fear of criticism.
Block herself is bitter about her own parents' past failures to safeguard her self-esteem. Part of what rescues this memoir from over-the-top sentimentality is the rawness of Block's own past emotional and physical traumas, which constantly resurface to temper her joy in motherhood. The process of finally becoming a mother after two heart-rending miscarriages allows her finally to affirm her own physical capabilities. In the end, if she does not exactly delight in her body, at least she comes to an uneasy understanding with it. From the bodily sacrifices of breastfeeding come rewards, too, particularly the feeling that her body can't be all bad if it can manage to nurture such a perfect being: "And yet, cuddled with the most beautiful moon girl in the world, I do love my body now. Look what it has survived. Look who it has brought to us."
Guarding the Moon is an account of a first year of babyhood--first foods, first steps, first yoga classes--but more importantly, it's the story of how the author grows into her motherhood during that same year. There are many firsts for new mothers, too--the first latching on, the first baby steps toward letting go--and for Block in particular, becoming a mother offers her the first, best chance to finally love herself and her life: "She has shown me my best self. It is as if she chose me in spite of everything, in spite of my jealousies and eating disorders and skin reactions and my multiply fractured heart. Somehow, in spite of all that, she saw someone to carry her here." In her daughter's perfection, Block sees her own best qualities mirrored back to her. Self-doubt still haunts her at the book's end, but that's OK. For Block, and for other new mothers who will see themselves reflected, too, in this slim volume's pages, the first year of motherhood is just the beginning of the journey.