Online Edition: Fall 2005

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The Middle of Everything

Memoirs of Motherhood

Michelle Herman

University of Nebraska Press ($25)

by Clifford Garstang

Mistakes were made: that’s the gist of The Middle of Everything, Michelle Herman’s “memoirs of motherhood.” Herman, a novelist and writing teacher, has come late to marriage and parenting, but is so love-struck upon the arrival of her daughter, Grace, that she bursts with child-raising confidence. Having grown up with a distant, depressed mother, she determines to create a healthier environment for Grace. Rare among first-time mothers, she thinks she knows exactly what to do.

Before the reader understands that anything is seriously wrong with Grace, which happens only three-quarters of the way through the book, Herman fills the pages—as if hesitant to reveal her daughter’s problems—with recollections of young loves, then the joys of best-friendship, and the perils of aging—not only her own, but also Grace’s. At the age of eight Grace doesn’t mind so much anymore, but there was a time when a birthday was traumatic. She was perfectly happy being two, she insisted. Why should she go along with turning three?

Although Herman relates Grace’s experience to her own, it isn’t always clear what the stories have to do with motherhood. Finally, though, she gets to the point. In middle age (Herman imagines herself younger than she is), in the middle of nowhere (she can’t seem to get over the feeling that New York is home and generally superior to the Midwest), Herman feels that she has been thrust into the middle of a crisis, what she calls Grace’s “breakdown.” The title of the book comes from her grandmother’s Yiddish expression, in mitn derinnen. However, it isn’t as though Grace’s problems come “out of the blue” (another translation of the phrase) or are even terribly surprising, given Herman’s approach to parenting.

She smothers Grace with attention. Her “mantra” is “Meet every need,” which she expands into her commandments of motherhood: “Be available. Be attentive. Watch and listen. Keep your child from hunger, want, grief, loneliness, frustration.” Mother and daughter are together constantly and Grace’s every wish is granted. Is it any surprise that the result is an over-indulged little girl? Grace exhibits severe separation anxiety, never having developed a sense of herself as a being independent of her mother. And the cure, arrived at after countless consultations with psychiatrists, turns out to be no surprise either: say no, and let go.

Even if the reader is occasionally exasperated with Herman’s cluelessness, The Middle of Everything is nonetheless an entertaining glimpse into the shared lives of a modern mother and daughter.

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