Judith Hannan of Motherhood Exaggerated
I fell totally in love with the picture you presented of a very real girl and her devoted, but equally real mother. I don’t think Chicken Soup for the Soul could do what this book has done for my soul. I especially loved your answer to Nadia’s questions about cancer: When Nadia asked why she got cancer, I could only answer, “Why not?” Nothing about “divine plans” or “everything happens for a reason” or “karma.”
What a breath of fresh air! But is it difficult to be that honest?
I remember writing about that conversation with Nadia and I couldn’t believe that that’s what I actually said. Looking back, I see it as bordering on cruel and lacking in compassion. I’m sure I was stroking her hair when I spoke. I’m sure my voice tried to soothe even as I withheld the sugarcoating. But this is exactly one of the major themes of the book: how do you talk to your child about the most difficult things, to have the conversations you thought you’d never have to have or that you thought would come later. Sometimes I was very good at it; sometimes I stumbled and sometimes I outright failed. But I never shirked. And indeed, tackling all kinds of difficult and hard to resolve topics has become a foundation upon which my current relationship with Nadia is built.
In the beginning of the book, I talk about the topsy-turvy nature of my relationship with Nadia and how it isn’t always clear who’s the mother and who’s the child. When she was two, she told me, “When I was your mommy I used to give you your pacifiers.” I responded, “You were a very good mommy.” Because I was so enchanted by this notion that Nadia had some deep wisdom, I relinquished my role as the older, wiser one. I didn’t have this freedom once Nadia was diagnosed. There were many times when she didn’t want to listen to me, but if your child has cancer, you have to find a way to make her believe you. If she is going to lose her hair, she has to know whether she wants to or not. And if she thinks she can deny the post-traumatic stress that came a year after treatment and that is disrupting her life and that of the household, my job was to make her confront what was going on. Needless to say, she wasn’t always happy to see me coming.
When did you decide to write this book? How did it evolve? What role did CavanKerry play in its evolution?
I always thought I would write something about Nadia’s experience with cancer; by the time of her diagnosis I considered myself a writer and wrote often about motherhood. I kept a diary which I eventually drew on for the book’s chapter headings. But I never specifically said, “I’m going to write a book about this.” It was an evolutionary process and was spurred on by the need Nadia and I both felt to read about similar experiences and the dearth of literature out there.
I did grapple with feelings of guilt. I worried that I was using this experience as a “career move.” But I decided to write anyway with the hope that, if the book told an important story and I told it well, then it would mean I was doing the right thing. Finding a publisher made me question often whether I had met these criteria. I had two separate agents, both very supportive of the book, who were unable to find a home for Motherhood Exaggerated. I was unfamiliar with CavanKerry Press at the time, and was either naïve or egotistical enough to focus my efforts on the larger publishers. If one of those houses had accepted my manuscript, I would have ended up with a very different book, one that still had many of the elements you refer to but would have lacked the deeper sense of compassion and love of my own self that Joan brought out in me.
After Joan finished her hour-long critique of the book, I admit to being stung by some of what she had to say, the hardest being that it was hard to like me, the writer, because my tone could be cynical at times or dismissive or just leave out chunks of explanation so the reader was left not knowing why it was so hard for me to include John or why I felt as if my mother had let me down in certain ways. I admit to being influenced by some of the current crop of memoirs that use a biting tone, cynical humor, or self-deprecation in the belief that this is called being honest. Joan showed me the difference between writing a memoir and writing my true self onto the page.
In many ways, this book is like a mythic voyage in which the heroine goes to the underworld to save her loved one, and in doing so, experienced a kind of death in her own right. I am thinking of Greek myths of Orpheus, Hercules, Persephone, and I know there are others. In the myths, the heroes never return in the same shape that they left. They come back changed. You talk about this in your memoir. But I still want to know, how does one come back from Hades? And how has your life changed?
I have always been fascinated by the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It is the quintessential mother-daughter story. I often think that separation is overrated, and have so much sympathy for Demeter’s grief after Persephone is forced to marry Hades. But since you asked this question, I thought some more about the story and what I realize is that Demeter didn’t actually descend to Hades to retrieve Persephone. She lived in a separate hell. I tried to follow Nadia into her Hades. Not only did I think she should never be asked to go there alone, I thought it was only fair that I go there as well. But my chamber of darkness only overlapped with Nadia’s; it was never exactly the same.
I came back from Hades by living, as did Nadia. When confronted with living, it’s the only option to choose. One of the reasons I wrote the Epilogue was to demonstrate that I have returned and Nadia has, as well. That doesn’t mean we (and I should include my whole family) haven’t returned with some souvenirs. I had to relearn how to be a mother to a healthy child. “I would study other mothers the way I used to keep my eyes on flight attendants for any sign that the plane was in trouble. Now, when Nadia sneezed or sniffled or if she got a fever, I studied the mothers at school whose children were also sick and tried to mimic their calm while on alert for any sign that there was reason for panic.” At night, when it was just me and John being confronted with Nadia’s emotional distress or a physical malady we knew was routine, we would lay in bed repeating “it’s not cancer, it’s not cancer” because it certainly felt like we were back in that world. I am surprised by how very little it still takes to bring me back there.
But there is a difference now. In Motherhood Exaggerated I am a woman with blinders on, focused only on Nadia and returning her to health. I nurtured no other relationships, including my own with myself. I thought this was the only right way for a mother to be. When Nadia is unhappy now—sometimes because of lingering cancer-related issues, both emotional and physical—she could easily drain me. But I won’t allow it. I feel as if I am being propelled into the future and that my experience with Nadia is contributing to that momentum; it was the drawing back of the arrow in a bow, seemingly taking me far away from anything good. But ultimately the arrow was released, and that is the trajectory I am on now. The arrow’s path is my life, the one I am building as a writer, a teacher, a leader of not-for-profit organizations, and as a woman who can have fun with friends even while she knows her daughter is perhaps crying for her in her dorm room at school. Directly in my path is my relationship with my husband—the faults within which were amplified, but not caused by, Nadia’s illness—and to which I feel a more energized commitment to repairing and building upon. And hopefully I laugh more!
How does your family feel about your memoir?
My family feels enormous pride in me. They have been supportive all along but in different ways. John has the kind of unconditional love for me I had come to expect only a mother could provide. But his support of me doesn’t mean he understands how I do what I do, or his desire to talk, read, or write about Nadia’s cancer. He read Motherhood Exaggerated once because an agent I had at the time said she wouldn’t represent the book unless he had. It was very painful for him and he won’t read it again, even though in this version I like to think he comes off a little better than in the one he read. This is good enough for me, though. He came to my first reading and I know will be at as many events as possible.
Nadia’s response to the book has also always been positive. She has “liked” Motherhood Exaggerated on her Facebook page, she has told her friends about the book’s publication, she wants to know where I’m reading and who will be there. But she won’t read the book. She tried to once a few years ago and stopped after the first 75 pages. While Nadia probably understands the need I had to write the book more than anyone else in the family (she has often used writing herself to work through her history), she has to go her own way in revisiting her experience and her identification with it. I ask her permission every time I think a decision might affect her—like whether a reading at Brown, where she is in school, would be difficult or if she would mind if I participated in the book fair at the school she went to for 13 years. She has been unselfishly gracious and generous.
Frannie is also a writer so not only is she proud of me because I am her mother but because she understands what it means to create a piece of written art. And Max, who used to play the cello for me when I would come home from the hospital for dinner, supports me now with his praise and his willingness to sit in the audience with his friends as I read about his less-than-perfect behavior in the past.
Are you planning to write another book?
Yes, I have an idea for a book that came to me while I was working on Motherhood Exaggerated that would be a deeper exploration of the “nervous breakdown” my mother suffered in her 30s. It would combine memoir with creative non-fiction, placing my mother’s emotional darkness within the context of women’s mental suffering during the 1950s-70s. At least that’s the thought now. My father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Thinking about lessons learned, the Motherhood Exaggerated talks about the distance I felt, or was kept at, during my mother’s treatment and death from breast cancer. It is very important to me that this distance not be repeated during my father’s decline. So my plans for a book about my mother are a little derailed now, but I hope not for long.