Day 174: good-enough mothering

The children are perched up in the top bunk hitting each other rhythmically on the head with empty plastic mineral water bottles. As you do.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they chant euphorically in time to the beat, as if this is a ritual gathering of Perrier guzzling cave-man-babies.

I am in the next room lying on my bed reading Playing and Reality by Donald Winnicott.

“Mom! Come hear our song!” they summon me.

“In a minute.”

I try, not particularly successfully, to tune out the chanting and continue reading.

“Mo-om! Come on!”

I sigh and dutifully shuffle next door.

The elder starts up the beat.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they begin in unison.

“Is this it?” I ask.

The elder continues with the “goo-goo, ga-ga,” while the younger chants, “Suck on a frozen nipple, with a dead bird on the side.”

They both break into hysterical laughter and then re-commence chanting “goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga …”

“Cool,” I say. “Carry on.”

I go back to my room, pull the door almost closed, flop on the bed, and get back to Winnicott, whose works I’ve been devouring with a strange urgency in recent weeks. Although I’m nominally reading Winnicott “for work”—for a seminar on attachment theory and literature—his writing’s pull on me feels oddly primal. I also feel vaguely uneasy that my desire to read about raising children takes me away from the day-to-day business of … raising my children.

The concept in Winnicott’s work that especially compels me is that of the transitional object—that beloved object such as a stuffed animal or blanket that Winnicott says shepherds the infant’s initiation into the world of others. The object is “transitional” because the infant experiences it, Winnicott argues, as at once external and self-created.

Winnicott writes of the transitional object that “it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: ‘Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?’ The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated” (From “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, in Playing and Reality, 12, italics in original).

What Winnicott means is that there is a tacit agreement between parent and infant not to ask the infant whether the object belongs to the world of imagination or the external world—in other words, not to ask the infant whether she found the object or whether she created it. For Winnicott, what the infant experiences is a marvelous convergence between their hallucination of the object and their experience of it as belonging to the external world.

As I flop back on the bed, I attempt to I pick up where I left off and to tune out the relentless chanting and drumming emanating from the next room.

“Responsible persons must be available when children play,” I read.

 Uh-oh, I think. Must they?

Winnicott continues: “but this does not mean that the responsible person need enter into the children’s playing. When the organizer must be involved in a managerial position then the implication is that the child or children are unable to play in the creative sense … (“Playing: A Theoretical Statement,” in Playing and Reality, 1971, p.50).

Did I find this moment of marvelous convergence or I did I create it?

As a warm glow washes over me to the strains of “goo-goo, ga-ga,” and the rhythm of plastic-bottle-meeting-head, I decide, with Winnicott, not to ask the question.


Day 173: the rewards of middle age

The younger pinches the skin on the back of my hand.

“Awwwww,” she exclaims, marveling at the way my skin wrinkles in little creases like crepe paper. “It’s so soft and … flexible ……”

“Uh huh,” I acknowledge dourly.

“But why will yours do that? Look at mine—” she pinches the skin on the back of her own hand, skin so taut as to be barely pinchable.

I sigh.

“Why won’t mine do that???” she asks.

“Because you’re young,” I say glumly.

“So it’s tight?”



Now she looks glum but then her eyes widen as a thought strikes her.

“Man, I can’t wait to be your age, I’m just gonna pinch myself all day long!” she declares gleefully.

I smile grimly.


Day 172: Eggs of Death

“You know how in zombie movies, zombies sometimes have chainsaws?” the younger asked me as we were walking to school.

“Er, I suppose so,” I said, wondering vaguely what movies my just-turned-seven-year old has seen featuring chainsaw-wielding zombies.

“Well, I have an idea for a movie called ‘Eggs of Death,’” she continued.

“Oh yes?” I said, feeling that I was missing something.

“Yes. The zombie disguises himself as a baker and instead of a chainsaw he has one of those egg-beaters, you know, the kind like this?” She motioned turning a rotary whisk with her hands.

“Right,” I said.

“And then he beats people with it.”

“Gosh!” I said.

I couldn’t help adding, “but why is it called “Eggs of Death”? I mean, it’s not the eggs that are causing death. Shouldn’t it really be “Egg-beaters of Death”?

She considered.

“No,” she said slowly, “because he also throws eggs at people. And the eggs are ACTUALLY BOMBS.”

“Ahh,” I said. “Well, in that case, the title makes perfect sense. And, in any case,” I added, feeling slightly rueful for questioning her title, “in any case, ‘Eggs of Death’ IS a really good title for a movie!”

She gave the slight shrug of someone who was not in the least concerned to receive external validation of what was so self-evidently true.


Day 171: marmalade

I spend a lot time thinking about fiction’s effects on its consumer. It is literally what I do for a living. Sometimes this happens in a scholarly fashion, and I read and think and talk with my students about how readers and critics now and in generations past have judged fiction’s effects: from Samuel Johnson’s worry in 1750 that fictions “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will,” to Charles Carrollton, who writes to his daughter in 1796 warning her about the “languor and listlessness” that is sure to result from reading romances.

Other times, I find myself reflecting on my own responses to fiction: how when I recently read a contemporary novel for the first time in ages, I felt it calling to me when I was doing other things; how I read it greedily, like devouring a really good sandwich, or a taco, or something else that you can’t help eating as long as you’re holding it in your hands; and how I thought about (but did not follow through upon) researching cruises to Antarctica after finishing it, so vivid was its rendering of the characters’ South Polar expedition. Or I think about how after recently reading Candide while I had a high fever I found myself plunged into an abyss of despair that lasted for several days. Or I recall how watching Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in the theater was deeply pleasurable in a way I can’t really explain but has, I think, something to do with the way it reproduces the feel and tropes of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Goonies that I loved when I was a child. Or I observe my children immersed in their games and videos and, yes, even sometimes books, and note, mostly with frustration, how difficult it is to pull them out of their trance.

In all of these instances, fiction’s effects on human beings seem mysterious, at once visceral and ineffable.

But then, other times, it feels so straightforward.

Case in point:

Wednesday January 24th: we go to see Paddington 2 in the theater.

Thursday January 25th: I start researching marmalade recipes online.

Saturday January 27th: I settle on Delia Smith’s Dark Chunky Marmalade recipe.

Sunday January 28th: I boil oranges and lemons for hours. Late at night, after the children are in bed, I scoop out the pulp and seeds, gather them in a tea towel, and squeeze out the juices. I roughly cut the tender, fragrant orange peels into broad strips and leave them to steep in the juices overnight.

Monday January 29th: I add all of the sugar in the house to the juice and peel and boil it, on and off, for several hours. It soon turns gloriously dark, somewhere between the color of dark maple syrup and treacle, and the pieces of peel turn translucent. It’s oddly suspenseful because, even when the heat is kept steady, the mixture has its own rhythm, surging up and threatening to overflow the pot’s rim ever so often, and actually boiling over once in a sea of orange foam when I have the effrontery to leave it unwatched for a mere minute.

Then comes the testing to see if it has set, which has been my downfall in previous marmalade-making trials. But to my surprise and delight, even from the first test there is already the hint of a wrinkle on the surface of the tiny pool of marmalade I put in the fridge to cool. And by the fourth test there is an unmistakable crinkle when I give it the merest nudge with my finger. Then I begin filling the jam jars I have dutifully sterilized per Delia’s instructions. La Bonavita kindly goes out to buy more jars when it turns out I have vastly underestimated how many jars my vat of marmalade will fill. The process of filling the jars is extremely messy because I don’t have the funnel that Delia recommends I use. Splotches of dark orange syrup gild every surface in the kitchen. But then, oh, the magic of seeing the dark ooze decanted into jars that line my kitchen shelves in neat rows, all that foam subsided into glassy stillness.

Tuesday January 30th: I make myself a piece of toast with butter and marmalade. The marmalade’s consistency is amazing, more like golden syrup or Greek honey than jam. This is no pale amber jelly. This is great raggedy pieces of peel bathed in glossy mahogany syrup.

When I was a child, my Mum would make marmalade every January. Though I’m sure she would protest now that she was never much of a marmalade maker, to me her marmalade was and is the Platonic ideal of marmalades: dark and sticky with thickly cut peel. She would make twenty or so jars, enough to keep us going throughout the year—although it was really only my Dad and I who ate the marmalade. The jars were stored on a long shelf in a dark hallway in the part of the ground floor of our house that was separated off from the rest by two sets of doors, like a bank vault, and was where my Dad saw his patients.

There was a tiny bathroom, a small waiting area, and the long narrow hallway. The door to my Dad’s consulting room opened from this hallway. If you kept walking along the hallway past the door to his consulting room, you would reach the door to a small dark cellar, the existence of which I did not like to even acknowledge, because on the rare occasions I’d seen the door opened, it appeared to be a portal into darkness itself, terrifyingly thick and musty. On the right of the cellar door was the ground floor entrance to the house, where my Dad’s patients would enter.

It was my job to go and fetch a new jar of marmalade when we had run out. To be honest, we hadn’t usually actually run out; it was that I disdained the bottom third of the jar. By that point, there would usually be a few odd crumbs or traces of butter tainting the marmalade, and so I would wrinkle my nose and agitate for a pristine jar to be opened. I would generally be allowed to open one if I went to retrieve it myself from “the passage,” which was how we referred to the dark narrow hallway that bordered my Dad’s consulting room, which now seems too Freudian to be true, but there you have it.

Visiting the passage to retrieve the marmalade was thrilling and terrifying in equal parts. There was the prospect of the abyss-like cellar at the end; and then there was just the fact that the passage was always very dark, even during the say, and felt cut off in its coolness and quiet from the chaos and noise of the regular domestic sphere. The only other time I would venture into the passage was to sneak in and listen at the door when my father was seeing a patient. At some point I confessed this transgression to my Dad; he wasn’t angry but talked seriously with me about why a therapist could not divulge what his patients revealed in their sessions. I argued with him, making my case as to why he should trust me with whatever secrets his patients disclosed to him. I would not tell a soul, I swore. I actually thought I would be able to talk him into telling me what his patients told him (and, no, I wasn’t satisfied with answers like, “their problems,” or “their childhood”; I wanted particulars) and was nonplussed when he proved unmoved by my pleas. I continued to sneak in and try, always unsuccessfully, to listen, whenever I dared.

Retrieving the marmalade was also a feat of daring. I would enter the passage very gingerly. It took some time to muster the courage to open first the outer and then the inner door that separated the bright stair hall from the dark passage. Once I had opened both doors I moved fast, grabbing a jar from the shelf and then bolting back to the stair hall and through to the warmth and light of the kitchen, as if the darkness would pounce on me given half a chance.


Thursday, February 1st: on a whim, I text Dr. F., “do you like marmalade?”

“Yes!!!” she texts back.

So I brought a jar to my session to give her. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, but it felt like a cosmic reparation of sorts to hand it over: darkness captured and bottled.





Day 170: another year ruined.

I fully intended to start 2018 on a note of mindful serenity by rising at 6, listening to a short meditation podcast–short because, don’t aim too high, just focus on making a small change that you can realistically achieve, so you won’t self-sabotage, see, I’d thought this through–and then turning off my phone and sitting in my yard watching the sun rise. Maybe raking a few pebbles. Doing some light weeding. Instead I pushed my snooze button, like, 37 times, got up at 9, listened to “My Dad Wrote a Porno,” and compulsively composed this post.


Even the bloody podcasts app is judging me.


Happy New Year, everyone!


Day 169: using her words

“On the one hand, yes, I agree, writing a note is better than hitting or yelling at me.

On the other hand, I don’t like being called a s-h-i-t-head, so maybe next time you are really angry with me you could write a note saying, ‘Mom, I am really angry with you’ instead of ‘Mom is a s-h-i-t-head.’”

“I don’t know how to spell ‘angry,’” she says.



Day 168: therapy

I am sitting on the sofa looking over my PowerPoint presentation on the second half of Robinson Crusoe. 

I hang my head and, although it’s a mock-sob I let out, the feeling of deep reluctance it expresses is quite real.

“Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-I really don’t want to give this lecture today!”

The younger looks up from The Guinness Book of World Records, which she has been perusing as she sits next to me on the sofa, and fixes me with a hard stare.

“Do you need therapy again?” she enquires incredulously. “Already?

It’s a rhetorical question. She gives a long-suffering sigh. “Fine,” she says, “I’ll get the sloth book.”

“I need to print out my notes,” I mutter to myself and walk into the bedroom to coax and soothe the testy printer.

I sit cross-legged on the carpet as the printer grudgingly spits out my notes. She sits on the bed and holds up the “sloth book,” (which is actually a sloth calendar, and also  possibly the best present any human has ever given another, from SJ) like a kindergarten teacher reading to the class. She slowly turns the pages and shows me the sloths.

“Look at this one!” she exclaims, pausing on May. “He looks human!”

“Awww!” I say, “I love his nose!”

She keeps turning. “This one is talented!” she exclaims, of August.

“Is he?” I ask doubtfully (this sloth is holding a flower).

“Yes!” she says. “He knows what to do with a flower! He’s smelling it!”

“I suppose that’s true …. I’m not sure smelling is a talent, exactly, but … ” I trail off.

I grab the papers from the printer.

“Did you see this one holding a carrot?” she asks, of the December sloth.

“No, let me see.” She shows me. He is indeed holding a carrot.

“That’s the last one,” she says. “Do you feel better?”

“Yes,” I say.

And I really do.


the sloth whose nose I like.


the talented sloth


the sloth holding a carrot.