Friday, April 4, 2014

The Love Howl of the Wolf Mother

photo by Duff of
"Don't say 'big, bad,'" my three-year-old daughter Nux Gallica tells me when I read her bedtime stories. "Just say 'the wolf.'" When groups of wolves appear on the page (usually in a sinister context), she makes up individual characteristics for them. "This is the mama wolf, this is the sister, and this is the auntie. And this one is thirsty for a drink of water."

I am proud of Nux's wisdom and grateful that she doesn't buy into stereotypes so easily. Because I, myself, am a Wolf Mother. We Wolf Mothers are deeply fulfilled by parenting and strongly engaged with our children, but our passionate immersion in motherhood has the tendency to isolate us from many people who filled our lives in the years BC (Before Child). So I want to send out a howl of love to all those I treasure from a distance while I lie low in the den of early-years motherhood. 

We Wolf Mothers are deeply instinctual. We are dependent on our mates and packs, but we are not as gregarious as dogs or people. We trust our own senses more than the persuasions of other creatures. We are cautious of our own kind, and yet we can make friends outside our own species (say, with Raven People) when the opportunity arises. We are plotters, planners, thinkers, and masterminds. We can be fierce and imposing, but we love with abandon.

Wolves howl for love above all else, as Austrian scientists have recently confirmed. Wolf Mothers' maternal instincts are powerful, perhaps more so than those of domestic dogs, whose personalities have been bred so that they resemble lifelong puppies. In legend, the adoptive mother of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, was a wolf. In the wild, when wolf pups are born, many members of the pack work together to feed, protect, and raise the pups. Aunts and cousins of the pups sometimes lactate without having been pregnant and help to nurse the pups. Wolf fathers are attentive and engaged, bringing meat to the mother and babies in their den. The pups who do not survive are mourned by all and buried in the ground.

Wolf Mothers like me have a deep, raging, almost maddening bond with our babies. When Nux Gallica was born, I was flooded with a shocking, powerful, obsessive drive to protect and nurture her. I could hardly take my hands and eyes off of her long enough for the nurses to clean and attend to her. When she was a newborn, I couldn't bear to be separated from her, even for a few minutes. My hormones have calmed down since then, but I still feel a sort of phantom child syndrome when we have to be apart for more than a few hours. This intense, primal bond with my daughter has been a wonderful thing in some ways, but it's also made me a little bit snappy with people who have tried to get involved. Nursing consultants, baby wearing teachers, relatives, friends, and strangers have all seen my fangs come out when they've gotten too pushy about telling me what's best for my child.

To all those people who have tried to give support with genuinely good intentions, let me howl out to you from a safe distance. I appreciate your efforts. Thanks for reaching out--just don't get between me and my pup, okay?

I once said to my kind and gentle mother, "You're a nicer person than I am." She thought about that and then nodded. "Yes," she said, "but you're smarter than I am." Wolf Mothers are less trusting of advice from the peanut gallery, choosing instead to rely upon instinct, evidence, and logic. Wolves, unlike dogs and most human babies, do not let social cues override factual evidence. Being super-logical isn't always the greatest, though; sometimes it's more rational to act irrationally. Socially, it's more advantageous to be part of a big, strong group of wrong people than to be the lone dissenter. But Wolf Mothers are picky about who gets close to our dens. We hunker down with our small, tight packs and edit them ruthlessly when we need to.

I have a strong, though small circle of close family and friends. I don't entirely fit in with any of those middle class parenting tribes that have formed around "life choices." On the surface, I look a lot like a crunchy mama. I'm breastfeeding and co-sleeping with a three-year-old. I use saltwater antiperspirant, and I've gone no-'poo when I couldn't afford Aveda. I clean house with essential oils, vinegar, and baking soda. I buy and grow organic produce, and I make homemade granola. I like to do yoga, tribal belly dance, and Zen meditation. I think dreadlocks are cute. I'm into recycling, composting, bike commuting, kale chips, hemp, Manu Chao, San Francisco, and all my friends who have moved to Portland.

But don't call me crunchy. I've figured out why my father-in-law, a dope-smoking, tie-dye-clad revolutionary from the '60s and '70s, hated being called a hippie (much as cool and creative people today hate being called hipsters). "Hippies" were rich kids who played at being poor or being activists, only for as long as it was trendy and fun. I feel like "crunchy" culture is today's version of the same, filled with "ancient wisdom" made up by some half-baked trustafarian in 1970. Or worse yet, some trends originate from scam artists capitalizing on modern middle-class parental paranoia and conspiracy theories about science and medicine.

I have fraud fatigue. As someone who loves to read and learn, it has taken me too long to figure out that "Get informed" is often code for "Listen to my commercial/conspiracy theory/personal anecdote about the powers of the woo magic." If I read one more hyperbolic report on a parenting study along the lines of "What you don't know could kill your baby," I will go f***ing ape sh*t. And if that hyperbolic report isn't even about a real scientific study but is yet another hoax published by Tea Party Mike Adams of Natural News hocking magic crystals, carcinogenic mouth oils, or alarmist conspiracies, I will eat someone's backyard chicken alive. That guy really brings out my alpha bitch.

I'm a nature-loving, justice-minded, data-driven mama concerned about REAL problems facing children, like poverty, violence, and environmental pollution. It drives me nuts when people drum up business by harassing middle class parents with unnecessary fears while distracting them from working on real social change.

While I am intensely critical of scam artists and yellow cyber-journalists who suck the life out of loving parents, I am NOT critical of those loving parents whose lifestyles differ from mine. I would never recommend co-sleeping or extended nursing to someone whose kid was happy not doing those things. And in fact, before this blog post, I almost never admitted to doing those things myself lest I come off all "Are You Mom Enough." The truth is that I don't do these things because I think they are the best and most righteous. Honestly, I've taken the path of least resistance. I lucked out in the nursing department with a double-whammy of extra-abundant milk and a champion boob-gobbling baby who has hardly slowed down in three years. And it's easier for me to sleep with my daughter than my husband, simply because he gets up at 4:00 a.m. for work. That and he has way more muscle for stealing the covers. This is one example of how my "choices" are often driven by the shape of my life's path of least resistance--and that path looks different for all of us.

Motherhood has become distressingly politicized; all our "choices" have become bumper stickers for corporate brands, political parties, or fads that are mainly of concern only to those moms who enjoy the privilege of sifting through heaps of so-called choices and judging everyone else's. My patterns of feeding, sleeping, loving, playing, and speaking with my child are personal and tied to our unique relationship and family dynamic. Some of my parent friends who I admire most, and who have remarkably healthy and bright children, do things very differently. What is best for baby is a journey only a mother and child can discover together.

To all those other Wolf Mothers out there, hiding in the shadows from both judgment and defensiveness from other moms, here is a love howl for you. I know how hard it is. I know what it feels like to not fit in with a big, sloppy, licky, happy dogpile. I understand the tension between getting tired of people and feeling lonely. Many of us are out here in the woods, isolated from each other but in solidarity. I respect your instincts, your intelligence, and your devotion to your child. I respect your distance from the world, even from me and my own bitchy rants.

And to all my friends of different kinds, those neither Mothers nor Wolves, who remind me that I am more than just a Wolf or a Mother and that I always have something new to learn, thank you for having patience with me through this time in my life. I don't have to agree with you about everything to love you. I treasure your presence in my life, your existence, the light you bring to the world, and the lessons you teach me. Don't forget me. During my child's early years, I can't hang out as much (and it's not you, it's my boobs/sleep needs/budget restrictions), but I hope that you will still be there, as Billie Joe crooned, "when I come around." I will emerge from my den someday, and I'll need the friendship and perspective of those who have taken divergent paths.

I'm not big. I'm not bad. But I am a Wolf Mother. So let this howl remind you that even when I need to retreat for a while, I still love you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Help Me Solve the Mystery of the Foundling-Bird, the Toe Bone, and the Tooth!

Folklorists, legend lovers, and hoarders of fairy tales, help me solve a mythological mystery! This is something I've been curious about for the past decade, but I feel an urgent need to find out all I can about the origins of the Grimms' tale Fundevogel. I have taken a pause in my writing of Briars and Black Hellebore so that I can do some research and rewriting of the first 1/3 of my book. And I've uncovered an exciting mystery.

 As I research, I've been brewing ideas for a sequel that will spin off from a minor character subplot. Of course, I'll need to do a little planting of seeds in the first book to set up the sequel, which I would like to begin with a retelling of the Grimm story Fundevogel (Foundling-Bird). But before I start on a retelling, I like to do as much research as I can about a tale's origins (murky as they may be) and evolution through time and across nations and cultures. I like to collect as many variants of the tale as I can, trace them back as far as I can, and feel out how broadly the tale has mixed with other folk tales around the world. (Many of the tales recorded by the Grimms have relatives in France, Russia, India, China, Africa, ancient Rome and Greece, etc.) If possible, I also like to analyze some of the reasons a tale has changed through time and space--language translation and mistranslation, cultural revision, natural variation due to the openness of oral tradition, censorship or governmental/religious propaganda, commercialization, etc.

I like to dig into the basic soul of a story, the kernel of sameness within the dynamic flow of living narrative, and also increase my awareness of the big picture surrounding the many roots and offshoots of the tale--the metamyth, the story of the story.

So the big mystery I am trying to solve with Fundevogel is to find out whether this tale's native roots are from tribal, pre-Christian "Old World" cultures or whether they have been plucked from the ancient oral traditions of the Maya peoples of Central America. 

About 10 years ago, I fell in love at first sight with the book Stealing Benefacio's Roses by Martin Prechtel. I am a sucker for what Prechtel calls "beautiful speech" and for a well-executed marriage of visual illustrations with poetic prose. Prechtel is a deeply creative artist who has made his life with people of Mayan ancestry and written and illustrated several books dealing with Mayan oral tradition and folk art.

On pages 59 - 70 of this book, Prechtel recounts part of a story presented to him as an ancient Mayan legend, The Toe Bone and the Tooth. A family (Singing Boy, his goddess wife Water-Skirted Woman, and their unborn twins) undergo a series of magical transformations into elements of the forest as they flee the pregnant goddess' parents, who want to destroy the half-god children before they are born. The transformations incorporate each member of the family into a whole system--for example, the husband becomes a tree, the wife a spring at its base, and the children two fish in the pool. The pursuing force is finally defeated by a body of water, and the goddess pleads with her husband repeatedly, "please do not forget me. Don't forget me." He replies, "Of course I will never forget you."

In Fundevogel, a sister and her little adopted brother (named Fundevogel because he was found in a tree) flee a murderous witch by undergoing very similar magical transformations. (For example, the brother becomes a rose-tree and his sister a rose upon it.) They ultimately defeat the witch by taking the form of a body of water (with a duck swimming on it) and drowning her. Throughout the story, the sister pleads with her brother, "Never leave me," and the brother replies, "Neither now, nor ever."

These sequences are too similar for me to believe that they developed independently (though I can't rule out that possibility entirely). Frustratingly, there are no written documents, to my knowledge, concerning either tale that were written before contact between Europeans and Mayans in the early 16th century. I know that immediately upon contact, the conquistadors and the people of Central America began exchanging stories, myths, and legends and influencing each other's oral traditions. I've found lots of evidence that the Spanish conquistadors promptly and forcefully changed American myths upon their arrival, but I haven't found any explorations online, at the library, or in my cross-cultural studies in college about how American oral traditions may have influenced European tales during the European Renaissance. Of course, they must have done so. But the colonizing cultures of Europe wrote the history books and tended to downplay or paper over the ways in which they borrowed, adapted, stole, or corrupted the social, artistic, and storytelling traditions of the people they colonized. So I doubt that a document exists that can answer my question with certainty, but I want to know...

Friends, do you know of any tales, from any part of the world, that can be verified as having existed there before the nineteenth century, that are similar to the tale Fundevogel? Does anyone have special knowledge of pre-Columbian Central American mythology who might have a clue? 

I have sent a message to Martin Prechtel asking his opinion, and if I receive an interesting response, I'll post an update! In the meantime, I've got Sara McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" looping in my head. Please help.

Friday, March 7, 2014

There's No Such Thing as a Broken Familia

Some things are better smashed up and reconstituted with new parts: fairy tales, upcycled mosaic art, music videos that make good mashups, DNA strands, and bad marriages, to name a few. Most people feel proud of putting together a great eclectic playlist, breaking an outfit routine, or discovering a ferociously edgy lip and nail combo. Kintsugi (a Japanese pottery technique in which cracks are filled with gold) is trending right now. But there's so much shame attached to "broken" families that are not headed by two married people. Why is that?

Right now in the gloriously Frozen-esque landscape of Michigan, a battle over the "traditional" family is heating up in Detroit. The issues are same-sex marriage and second parent adoption, which indeed have no formal precedent of which I am aware in our culture's old-timey and ancient roots. Yet the idea of "traditional marriage" and an idealized and "traditional family," consisting of one father married to one mother and several of their shared biological children, has never been the norm for humans--and not even for those of us with European ancestry.

Science tells us that this is just fine. Resilience in children has little to do with family structure itself. One mother and one father are neither necessary for a child's well being nor enough for a child's well being. More important is the quality of the child's bonds with her or his caregivers--parents, grandparents, cousins, adoptive parents, older siblings, or whomever--and community bonds with non-relatives such as neighbors, friends, and teachers. Families move, split, embrace new members, and evolve, much of the time for the better. Children of single moms sometimes become the President or one of our favorite celebrities.

There is no ancient Greek or Roman word for a nuclear family; the Latin word familia referred to a household, which in ancient and medieval times included many extended relatives and non-relatives living under a shared roof. It was not fixed or narrowly defined; members could come and go, and the whole party could hop from building to building.

Medieval Europe did not acquire the notion of a nuclear family living privately within a fixed household until around the time of the Renaissance. This made sense considering that two living, married parents were a rare luxury; marriage in medieval Europe only lasted a dozen years or so, because so many people died young of disease, starvation, or injury. If we do the math, that means that the majority of children (the half that survived childhood illnesses) would have been orphaned well before their teens. In a home filled with adult relatives and friends, this unfortunate fact would protect many children from being cast into the streets or overcrowded orphanages.

Quick remarriage after the death of a spouse was common, for practical reasons. While this certainly would have caused tensions and snags just as it does today, the villainy of step-parents (actually, just stepmothers) in German folklore was greatly exaggerated by the Brothers Grimm in the editing of their collection of tales. Many of the old country folktales dealt with incest and child abuse by fathers. Abusive and neglectful mothers also appeared. But abuse by natural parents was too distasteful for the middle class and wealthy men who had book-buying power in 19th century Germany, so many of those bad parents were recast as Evil Stepmothers as a marketing tactic.

Only a few centuries before the Grimms wrote down their tales, privacy in a nuclear family home was not considered desirable, healthy, or normal--if it was even considered at all. Living was much more communal and social than it is today. Children formed bonds with many people of various ages and relations; none of them ever hid behind iPhones or laptop screens for hours on end.

This is not to say that those were "the good old days." If divorce rates have gone up, maybe that's partly because life expectancy and personal expectations have gone up. Even a couple generations ago, marriages lasted about 40 years. Now they can double that figure. On the whole, children--of married, single, straight, or gay parents--are strikingly better off in all kinds of ways than they were in the Dark Ages. There are obvious comforts and benefits of living in a low-chaos, single family, basic nuclear home. But sometimes we forget that there are also benefits to living in multi-generational or multi-family households as well.

Stability matters. Love matters. The basic structure of the family doesn't matter so much. It's silly to stay in an unhealthy marriage "for the sake of the kids." It's ridiculous to pull apart siblings raised together and throw them into foster care upon the death of a parent rather than let them stay together with their legal parent's same-sex partner who has been parenting them all along. Families as we sometimes think of them, with a sperm donor and an egg donor and their offspring, usually don't stick together until the bitter end. They tend to break, one way or another. But sometimes, just sometimes, healthier families can be put together from different parts.

Mixing things up can be great for a lot of things--fusion cooking, fashion, music collaborations, fractured fairy tales, classroom activities, feng shui furniture arrangements... So there's no shame in having a mixed or mosaic-ed family. We all do, really, in some way or another.

So far, my husband and I have a very simple family structure--just him, me, and our bio-offspring, living together in one house. But sometimes we live with other people. Since moving into our home, we've had a total of six roommates, some repeating, and at one time, three simultaneously. Yes, it's been crazy. Yes, we've had disagreements and annoyances. Yes, we've been looked down upon for behaving like impoverished hippies. But all in all, it has been a positive experience. It's kept our lives interesting and rich, saved us from having to sell the furniture or lose the house in tough times, and we'll probably do it again and again.

bonus points if your roommates are migratory and bring imported gifts

Just for fun, here are some fairy tales smashed up with other things for a fresher taste:

At London Fashion Week, AnOther Magazine held a Wonderland themed party (click here for a photo gallery. Alice came from a nuclear family... and did that stop her from tripping down the rabbit hole by age 10? Did it?

Meanwhile, Vivienne Westwood started her fashion show with an interpretive dance version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" (click here for video). The main character of that story suffered a brutal fate--not because she was adopted but because her adoptive mother spoiled her with too much wealth!

Musician and comedian Todrick Hall reinterpreted Belle in Beauty and the Beat. Daughters of single fathers can become princesses, yo. And have good credit too.

My daughter Nux Gallica's favorite movie is The Secret of Kells, a beautiful film combining Irish Christian history with pre-Christian myth and folklore. The star, a boy named Brendan, lives at an abbey under the care of his uncle and other monks. He enlists the help of a fellow orphan to save the day. An orphan who commands the wolves of the forest.

There are many kinds of good families, and diversity makes for new ideas and possibilities.

Come and visit the first Friday of each month for more Middle Path Mother at the Magic Nutshell.