Settling into my friend’s place in Paris right now. The sky is soft and grey and I’m drinking a strong coffee and staring out the window at the last of the fall foliage and thinking about a remarkable book I devoured front to back on the plane- Elif Shafak’s memoir, Black Milk: On The Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity and Motherhood. Of course, this very conflict is at the forefront of my mind, as I embark on a week away from my little guy. Once again, the synchronicitous universe drops exactly what I need to hear right into my lap.
In the book, Shafak talks about two dominant images of motherhood, from which we are expected to choose:
1. The traditional mother- a paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice. We give up every trace of individual desire so that our families might thrive.
2. The quintessential superwoman- effortlessly juggling husband, career, kids, and home, all without breaking a nail or skipping a Pilates class. You can have it all. If you don’t, you must be doing it wrong.
As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: They both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood, and the way in which it transforms a woman and her crystal heart.
Throughout the book, Shafak regularly converses with six, finger-sized women she calls “Thumbelinas,” or her “inner harem.” These colorful and divergent little gals represent some of the distinct, persuasive and often conflicting voices inside of her.
I found the idea so intriguing and resonant that it inspired me to conjure my own Thumbelinas. I didn’t intend to write this for anyone’s eyes but mine and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed by how naked it is, but I found the exercise so thought provoking and useful that I thought I’d share it.
My Thumbelinas (inspired by Elif Shafak):
Ms. Dignified Artist
Weathering a life of both hardship and triumph, she ages gracefully. Famous photographers take black and white photos of the dignified lines on her face. Capable hands, clay under her nails. Her emotional life is intensely feminine but her assertion of voice is masculine. Clothes like a Maoist. Could forget to eat. Could live alone in the desert and kill rattlesnakes with her walking stick, its tip sharpened to a point for just this purpose. Secretly tossed in turbulent waters of insecurity and doubt. A lifetime of painful and storied relationships that never quite worked, but instead were transformed to art by alchemy.
Mrs. Trophy Wife
Eternally coiffed, nails done, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a luxury SUV, no tattoos, expensive clothes and lots of ‘em, feet never see a flat shoe, waist never sees a size beyond 2. She is smart enough not to care about being smart- would far rather be powerful. Uncontrolled by sentiment, she’s my funniest Thumbelina. And my meanest. Lives on juice cleanses and laxatives and Chardonnay.
Miss Boozy Good Time
Fat fingers, sun damaged, inked to the gills, everything been pierced at one time or another, needs love more than money but never quite gets enough of either. Muffin tops and eyes sinking into face bloat and cleavage spilling out of the top of her shirt. 20 years and 20 lbs ago, she was so punk rock. She knew everything. She was unafraid of consequences. She was bold and ready to join the carnival and unaware that any of the other Thumbelinas existed or ever would exist. She can take it on the chin. She can laugh at herself.
Ms. Busy Busy Bookworm, Phd
She has always been most comfortable hiding behind a pair of thick-framed glasses. Her happy place is the library. Her treasure is her Grandmother’s first edition of The Magic Mountain in German. She keeps it where a picture of a boyfriend would be on her desk. She favors clothes that make her look like Sylvia Plath at Smith in the 50s, like cashmere twin sets (bought vintage of course, her adjunct professor job doesn’t allow for new cashmere). She’s a little bit chubby because she eats while she reads and she reads a lot, the pages of her books stained with peanut butter and mocha lattes. She doesn’t think about her body much at all- she feels like a head on a stick. She plans every year to go to temple for the High Holidays, to make her parents happy, to stay connected to something, but she never does. She is happiest in a world of ideas.
She would like to think that she wears her hospital gown like Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted but more likely she looks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is sick. People take care of her, until they don’t. No makeup, big eyed, at odds with her body and her nervous system and always, always in pain. She watches hours and hours of television. She doesn’t eat regular meals; her days have no shape. She eats comfort food- grilled cheese, macaroni- exactly when she wants to. She likes the shades drawn. She is always planning to get better. There is always another illness.
Mrs. Mommy Martha Stewart
Tying little shoelaces (little shoes! adorable!) and cheerfully cleaning up pee accidents on the kitchen floors (everyone has accidents sometimes, honey!) making snacks and helping with homework and blowing kisses at school drop-off and texting the other moms about soccer drama. Dressed in workout wear or nouveau-hippie silverlake garb. A pretty mom. A nice mom. A mom who gets a little snarky on the wine at back-to-school night but what the hell. Full of advice. Goes to church on Sunday. Good at solving problems. Good at making quiche.
This is just a beginning.
If you feel inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to meet some of your Thumbelinas!