Thursday, March 25, 2010

The heroic Hausfrau

The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated

Years ago, when my six-year-old was not quite two, my husband stubbed his toe. Being a mild-mannered bloke, he shouted "ouch" and hopped around a little. And my angelic-looking daughter hopped beside him yelling, "Fuckit! Fuckit! Fuckit!". "That's an interesting word," he said, deadpan. "Who says that?". My disloyal daughter beamed at him and drawled, "Mama!".

Naturally, I was in disgrace – and since then, I have drastically cleaned up my act. But it's one of those stories that live on, told over dessert when the kids have gone to bed. It's also one of those stories that, even as it makes me laugh, embarrasses me somewhat, along with the time I stepped in a turd deposited by one of my children; the time I realised the baby had head lice nesting under the cradle cap; the time we all had worms, and so on.

So it was with enormous pleasure that I recently read Nicole Chaison's The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated. It's an autobiographical work recounting her experience as mother, shaped around the classic hero's tale. Chapters address A.D. (After Dilation), the LabOrinth, The Fourteen Labors of the Hausfrau, Tales, Atonement, Resurrection and so on. My favourite labour was 'Home Renovation, or How It Came to Be that I Sat in Cat Diarrhoea' – I laughed so hard I cried.

Chaison's labours feel all too familiar: cleaning maggots out of a car seat, dealing with head lice, accidentally letting kids see an R-rated movie and wincing as they practice the expletives, and realising one is tragically and forever unhip. She describes her self-medication regime – coffee all day, wine all evening – and writes openly about things many of us keep under wraps: she drinks too much, she had head lice, she screams at her husband when he suggests they get a cleaner, her libido has been MIA for years, PMS turns her into a psychotic bitch from hell, and her pelvic floor has never recovered from childbirth: whenever she coughs she wets herself. Chortling away, I read out great chunks to my husband, no doubt terribly annoying as he was reading the very sombre In Cold Blood at the time.

Yet it's not all fun and games. Chaison also reflects on the frustrations and humiliations of motherhood. She is humble enough to let her children teach her, such as whether an eight year old needs a note in his lunchbox saying I Love You!, and she writes achingly about the small crucifixions she experiences as she endures the cutting pain of self-knowledge. Small children, after all, are the masters of slicing through illusions and leaving us laid bare.

Like a true hero's journey, moving through the labours and stages reflects her journey to self-knowledge. Chaison comes to realise not only that she is a writer, but that she has already written a book: her journal, which forms the foundation of The Passion. And like any true hero, she has a guide: her beloved grandmother, Grammy Mil, who gives her three gifts: the journal, a quote, and a destination.

Each page of the book has a cartoon panel down the side. I am not a great fan of the current cartoon fad, and these are pretty rough. Despite this, I have to say that they add to the book; they embellish and extend the text. If you skip the cartoons, you miss the punch lines – and her husband's suggestions for a male parenting magazine which really made my partner laugh.

It's not often that a book makes me guffaw with laughter, or wipe away a heartfelt tear. But this one did. It's a book for people in the thick of it; adults without children would be appalled. Witty and confessional and outrageous and wry, it reminds me that I am not alone. Others live this messy life with kids, and also find it good.

> Nicole Chaison The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated (New York: Villard, 2009).

No comments:

Post a Comment