Praise of Motherhood, Phil Jourdan

Nov 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

For a decade my mother said she wanted nothing but to retire early and open a tiny ice cream shop with a chocolate fountain.

It wasn't an absurdly ambitious goal. She lived in Portugal, so she could count on the summer heat to drive ice cream sales. And the chocolate fountain idea was, I think, more a symptom of her own delight in chocolate than anything to do with business. In other words, this really was an ideal retirement plan.

I believe she would have gone through with the dream if she hadn't died too young even for an "early" retirement. Above all, the ice cream shop fantasy was her way of justifying the constant stress of her life: if she could just put up with divorce and difficult colleagues and my own psychiatric ups and downs, the world would surely reward her patience. She could eat chocolate with one hand and scoop up an order of ice cream with the other for the rest of her days.

Knowing my mother wanted only a few years of relaxation and chocolate brings me a subtle but persistent sadness. In May I released a book about my relationship with my mother, and thinking back to the two years I spent writing it, I realize I must have been a serious part of her desire to sit back and stop worrying. She was a woman in her early forties when I, a teenager who had asked to be sent to boarding school in another country, found out life wasn't always easy, and reacted poorly to the fact. First, a general depression, of the sort some teenagers feel even on their best days. Then a full-blown psychotic outbreak, hallucinations, a few stays at the hospital — precisely the sort of a thing a young mother doesn't want her child to go through, especially in another country.

Of course she wanted ice cream and chocolate. She dropped out of a PhD around the time she and my father divorced. She raised her two children with devotion and patience, but saw her eldest son lose his grip on reality, a reality she felt she had failed to help him grasp in the first place. She tried to keep her baby daughter happy and healthy without pretending everything was just fine. The family had money, but it wasn't close-knit and cozy. From the finest student in her graduating class with a great future ahead, she'd ended up living every day with the fear that her son might not make it the next time the medication wasn't handled properly.

Writing a book about these things was, in the end, a way of making myself accountable for the stress I caused my mother. She died from an aneurysm only a week before I was meant to fly over to see her. I planned to tell her I was feeling good; in fact, I was actually doing very well at university, at last. Everything was okay.

Her sudden death threw the nature of that "okay" into brutal relief. Why was I okay? What had allowed me to go from a hallucinating, paranoid teenager to a 21-year-old English Lit student with friends, self-esteem and productive hobbies?

It was her. She had been the best mother she knew how to be, had sat by my bed every day while I slept in hospital. And now I had to accept that she had death before she could hear me tell her I was actually doing okay.

Whatever we might think of the universe and its manner of dealing with us, we all find ways to be outraged. We forget our principles, our fortunes; we forget that we can be everything and very little at the same time. The death of a parent makes us lose our focus. We become children again, we rage at the injustice of everything. Yet we do this at the very moment when, parentless, we have little choice but to become adults.

Part of the difficulty in thinking of our parents objectively lies in the way we latch on to particular images of them. Freud thought of the "primal scene" — the witnessing of parental lovemaking — as something of terrible emotional and psychological significance to children and the adults they will become. But you don't need to go into your parents' bedroom to realize how much of their lives you don't know. All it takes is, for instance, meeting an old friend of theirs for the first time and not understanding how the friendship could possibly have been formed back then. The friend just seems so different, so unlike all their other friends. Any fragment of their past, their separate lives before you came along, must be partly concealed. What was your mother like with her teachers as a child? How hard did your father try to impress his friends? What was each of them thinking the day they decided to marry, or to buy a house? What was temptation like for them when the honeymoon magic faded into the past?

I know my parents met on the way to a party to which they were both invited. They told me this story so it could give me a sense of the world before I was in it. It gives me little access to their lives before they had to think about children, or divorce, or anything else. In the end, I can't pretend to know anything more than what I've been told. That's one of the reasons I chose to experiment with form and content in my book. By taking what I knew about my mother and imagining my way into it, I had a chance to turn my patchy knowledge of her as a unique human being into something more. If I didn't have an answer to a weighty question, I created and recreated. As long as I could keep her "inside" the book somehow.

If your parents, who are usually those who raise and shape you, have to remain a partial mystery, then you make do with what's there. Some questions you can certainly ask; others you can't, or you just wouldn't dare. You have your memories, some photographs, family legends, and your own search for clarity to guide you after a certain point. When the family changes, the older generation dies out, begins anew in other people — that is when you are left to ponder your parents, their parents, and all those forgotten trials.

I have been asked by various readers, and reprimanded by a couple of critics, on my choice to experiment with form in a book I ended up calling Praise of Motherhood. Why such odd punctuation? Why so many shifts in register, from the academic to the poetic to the utterly simple? Wouldn't it have been better to tell the story as I know it, instead of trying to imagine my way into my mother's personal life, her psychology as an individual woman?But that's the point of paying tribute to a parent who raised you on her own. There is no objectivity. She was my carer, then my friend, then my hero — and finally a memory. I was never able to see her quite as she was. If the title Praise of Motherhood implies a general celebration of all mothers everywhere, then I believe it is accurate. I believe that even if the book itself is the extremely personal story of my relationship with the woman who became my mother. Just as there is no one way to raise a child, there can't be a single method of celebrating the life and the death of that child's mommy. I chose to present her as a puzzle, because that is what she has become. The pieces don't quite fit, but I know the image they form is beautiful anyway.

The oddest thing about my mother's personality was its very slow transformation over the years. She had always been naive, optimistic, and soft-spoken, but instead of being hardened by time, she grew more idealistic with every blow the universe condescended to deal. That was the woman who gave me life and kept me in it long enough to believe in the value of being around, seeing the sun, learning to speak, falling in and out of love at inopportune moments. She stayed alive through an almost incredible optimism. That is motherhood worth praising.

ISBN: 978-1-78099-264-8, $16.95 / £9.99, paperback, 136pp
EISBN: 978-1-78099-263-1, £2.99 /$2.99, ebook
Early on in the book, Jourdan writes, ‘Everyone, even in his profoundest hatred, loves his mother’. So whatever his stated reasons for writing Praise of Motherhood, the end result still feels like an incredible act of generosity on his part, affording the reader the privilege of briefly encountering Sofia, this woman who ‘was Love manifest’.
— Ian Chung at The Cadaverine
Phil Jourdan is the founder of the cult lit-rock band, Paris and the Hiltons, best known for merging modernist literature with a wide range of musical styles — dubstep, jazz, hard rock and IDM.
He is a PhD researcher and one of the founders of LitReactor, one of the internet's biggest independent writing workshops.
If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
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