When you think about memory, do you think of the distant past? In CanLit, many classics are written from the perspective of a character at the end of life, remembering. The Stone Angel comes to mind. It’s a popular frame for contemporary authors too. Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner, for example, or Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table.
These days, I’m more interested in the beginnings of memory. My boys are three and five. What can you remember of these ages? At three, maybe nothing. Maybe a still image or someone’s voice. At five, you start to make sense of things. You remember chains of events. It’s pretty heavy, this sudden ability to remember and integrate and communicate your own life story. And as parents we wonder, how will my kids remember me?
With babies and toddlers, we’re afraid that we’ll do something to put our children in danger. We’re sleep deprived and don’t know what we’re doing. A couple years in and you realize: they survived. It’s okay. You think it’s about to get easier, now that they’re in school and potty trained (almost.) But it’s not easier. I was recently in a parenting class. Triple P, if you’re interested, and yes, I’d recommend it. The participants ranged from people like my husband and me, who’re basically okay, but run ragged and looking for some help, to people who are really floundering and some who were probably compelled by the court to be there. The thing that struck me is that we all had similar issues, and we all, with perhaps one exception, had at least one child in the three to five range. I think (part of) the reason these ages are so hard and so fraught is that we are starting to feel a whole new kind of fear: the fear of being remembered as something less than a perfect parent.
Maybe it’s coincidence that I’ve read a couple books lately that teeter on this edge of memory, but each of these helped me understand my kids and my fears.
I thought I was afraid to read Claire Cameron’s The Bear because it’s a kids-in-danger story. I was tempted to flip ahead several times, to make sure Anna and Stick were alright (couldn’t indulge as it was an ebook,) but what really got me was five-year-old Anna’s memories of their parents.
Parenting media (ugh) tells us how to be afraid that something will happen to our children. They’ll be stolen from you if you turn your back for an instant. They won’t make it in life if you don’t interfere in their education. The Bear makes you confront the fear of something happening to you. We assume our kids need us – not just any adult, but specifically us – to survive, even though it’s clearly not true. We want our kids to remember us and carry on our legacies.
The Bear reminded me that, even at three and five, my kids are not just extensions of me. They can survive without me. And, that even if they don’t remember me the way I wish to be remembered, if their perception of me doesn’t match my own, it’s okay. It’s more than okay, it’s a necessary part of growing up. Kids can’t just be a mirror of their parents.
The Bear wouldn’t have worked if Anna hadn’t been old enough – just old enough – to remember her mom’s instructions, and her dad’s stories about the tail of the moon, and her brother’s tendency to run away and hide. Without any of that, she and Stick wouldn’t have made it off the island. But they also wouldn’t have got very far without Anna’s misinterpretations or her flights of fancy which reminded me so much of my five year old’s. Anna relies on memories of her parents’ but she relies on herself an awful lot too.
If you’re scared of this book too, well, you should be. There’s some hope for us parents, though. Without her parent’s quick thinking when the attack happened, and without the foundation of trust Anna obviously had, she wouldn’t have survived. Her parents mattered. They are remembered.
Detachment (my review)
Sometimes being too young to remember is a blessing. In Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, Mierau and his wife adopt two boys from the Ukraine – ages three and five. In The Bear, I wept for Stick because I knew he wouldn’t remember his parents. For Peter, the five year old in this story, his memories of an unstable home life and then an orphanage are a burden, and might have triggered his detachment disorder. Three year old Bohdan doesn’t remember anything before the orphanage. The difference between the boys and their ability to settle into life in Canada highlights the power of memory, and vulnerability kids have at these particular ages.
Unlike The Bear, we hear from the adoptive parent in this case, which doesn’t mean it’s 100% reliable narration. I was often wondering, “what would your wife say about this” of “what do Peter and Bohdan think about this now, ten years later?” This being non-fiction, people have asked – Miereau wrote about the strong connection readers have with this book in The National Post and I admit I felt like writing him an email too!
There’s a subplot about Miereau finding his own family history in the Ukraine which means we get memories flowing from all directions – none of those memories being his, exactly, but I recognize the urge to gather it all together and make it make sense. This book taught me about patience and listening and that we never have the full story, at age three or five or thirty five.
Yell Less, Love More
This blogger-turned-author, known online as The Orange Rhino, shares an “a-ha” moment that forced her to admit that she was a yeller, and it was not okay. Thinking she was alone in the house, she unleashed on her four kids one day. Nothing I wouldn’t have done in the same circumstances (and half as many children.) The momentary relief turned to shame when she realized her handyman was in the house and heard the whole thing. Her epiphany was based on wondering why it was acceptable to yell at children when you’re at home alone but not in front of an audience. What struck me is that her kids were all under the age of five – that is, approaching the onset of enduring memories. Do you want your children to remember you yelling and screaming? Suddenly everything is higher stakes when your audience can remember and communicate.
I do hope to write a full review of this book, but in the meantime, yes, Yell Less Love More worked. Since January 6 I’ve had two slip ups. Not yelling hasn’t magically fixed all my other problems, and actually illuminated some new ones, but it feels good. And I hope it goes a little ways toward being remembered by my boys, if not exactly as a perfect mother (whatever that means,) then as someone who was quiet enough to listen and calm enough to go to for comfort.
Brilliant post title 🙂
Been sitting on this for three weeks because I couldn’t think of one. It is, of course, a reference to Christopher Pike’s book of the same name 🙂
Dude, that was one of my favourite books as a teen. I still have my old copy with me 🙂 -Tania
Great post. I read The Bear last year and now will be putting The Detachment on my TBR list.
I’m a 60-year-old grandmother wondering how her grandchildren will remember her. But beyond that, I lost my own mother last year and spent 5 months going through her “things” which included years of personal papers, with lots of insight into her as a person that I never really understood.
Believe me, “we never have the full story, at age three or five or thirty five.” – or fifty-five or far beyond.
I almost wrote “or 55” but thought it made the sentence too long 🙂
Now that my kids are older (my youngest is about to turn 10), I forget sometimes how it used to feel when I thought, “if I die now, my kids won’t remember me”. That used to make me feel so sad and panicky. There was even the thought that I was the only one who could care for them, that no one one else could do it, even though, of course, I didn’t really want this to be true. But, now, I don’t worry about that anymore. I didn’t even realize I don’t worry about it anymore until I read this. It’s a relief to know that I will be remembered. How I will be remembered is a whole other story. That is something I work on everyday, some days being more successful than others. 🙂
I loved The Bear, but I had never really thought about it that way before. That Anna is just the right age to be able to remember and follow instructions. She is also more affected later than her brother, as is the older boy in Detachment. What did you think of the ending of The Bear?
I love the title and concept of Yell Less Love More – it makes so much sense.
I loved the very end. When Anna has insight into her mother’s perspective… oh god, I was devastated. In the best way. The mid-ending… like, the aftermath… I thought there should have been a lot less, or a lot more. I would have read another 100 pages on their new life, but the glimpse we got was too short. I would have rather just jump right to present day.
Me too! Great ending! The mid-ending would have been hard to do, with accuracy/authenticity, I think.
I forgot to mention before how much I love the structure of this post! Well thought out!
I think memory is such a fascinating subject. My first memories all seem pretty random but I had a happy childhood and really can’t remember any distressing family moments.
Great post … I read “Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother” – dreading it, wondering how much I would identify with (being daughter in an Asian family) and how much I wouldn’t. It was very insightful though – but, like “The Detachment” – one perspective. I still enjoyed hearing why she did what she did as a parent. Speaking of “The Detachment”, (disclaimer: read reviews and excerpts but chose not to read actual book) I’ve read loads of book on attachment, and it’s given me a *lot* of insight on some of the interactions/choices/perspectives provided in that book. … Finally – I did an evaluation of Triple P (intense version) for work one year … and it was the only program I’ve ever evaluated where the outcomes from parents’ descriptions and changes in their life were so uniformally positive, I went ahead and bought the books – even though I’m not a parent yet! LOL. Great program!!!
Yeah, Triple P is great. I didn’t know what to expect. I want to keep going to sessions. Helps that they provide child care and dinner 🙂
Hmmm now I’m curious about the Tiger Mother! It was too hyped when it first came out so I didn’t read it… plus I’m usually not interested in parenting books, though lately I’m more open minded. I’m interested in attachment theory too. I did a lot of the attachment theory things with my kids but I hesitate to call myself an “attachment parent” because there’s a lot of baggage associated with that label 🙂 A lot of it I did out of laziness more than anything.
I love everything about this post. So nice to hear how books are integrated into our individual experiences.
Thank you Lindy. The book club was really helpful in collecting my thoughts. It was so interesting how people responded. Even the woman who didn’t like it read it three times – that’s saying something!
Great post, as usual. Just thought I’d add, though I’m totally not an expert on this, much of today’s research indicates that most brain and trauma issues are done between ages 0-2 years (research done by Gabor Mate and Bruce Perry). So, perhaps you wouldn’t be remembered in the usual visual memory kind of way, but the care and safety you would have provided would remain as the basis for their main development for their whole lives. Not sure what kind of memory that is, subconscious I guess. Anyway, again, not an expert on this complicated subject, just wanted to add that. – Tania
Yeah, I’ve heard that too. What I was getting at here, is the fear of “not being there” or “not being remembered” is totally ego on the parent’s part. We know the important work, the foundation, is set when the kid is too young to remember – and too young to appreciate it. Damn it, we want some recognition 🙂
I was scared of reading The Bear too, but it was okay because Anna and Stick proved to be resilient just like I know somewhere deep inside my kids are resilient too. I live in constant terror for my kids and really could relate to the mother in If I Fall, If I Die who kept her son inside for years because she didn’t want him to get hurt.
Lovely connections between these books. And I love the line “I recognize the urge to gather it all together and make it make sense.”