These four books add unique insights to this essential question, with subjects including an irrepressible immigrant mother, birth mothers and adoptive mothers, and a crusading mom who wants to liberate others from their guilt.
One can only imagine what Elaine Lui’s mother wants for Mother’s Day.
Lui, creator of the popular blog LaineyGossip.com, details her relationship with her uniquely irrepressible mother in a sparkling new memoir, Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter To Do?
Lui explains that her mother loves to be honored on any occasion, even when it’s her daughter’s birthday: “There is no better way to demonstrate gratitude for Ma giving birth to me than to give her money. If it’s not the first thing she says when she sees me, it’s definitely the second thing out of my ma’s mouth when she sees me: ‘Where’s my money?’”
In this hilarious account, readers learn that Lui’s mother grew up in Hong Kong, loves rhinestone-studded clothes that her daughter describes as “China Woman Elvis,” and, most notably, has a grating voice that has earned her the nickname “the Squawking Chicken.” Despite a trauma-filled, poverty-stricken childhood, her mom persevered, remaining strong, even in later life when faced with a rare blood disorder. And she is certainly a woman who continues to be heard.
The Squawking Chicken has always been an in-your-face, controlling mom, and Lui describes numerous incidents when her and her mother’s wills have clashed. The details are fascinating, and the many cultural differences between China and the West are particularly intriguing.
Her mom usually ends up being right, Lui says. She’s also gotten used to the texts her mom sends after Lui appears on TV, such as “STOP MAKE UGLY FACE WHEN YOU TALKS.” Lui has made her peace with her mother’s intrusions; in fact, she would almost certainly be lost without them.
As she explains: “I am the Squawking Chicken’s only daughter and her only true friend. It can be a burden, sure. But mostly, it is my life’s honor.”
ADOPTIONS AND REUNIONS
When Caroline Clarke, an award-winning journalist, faced some health issues, she contacted the agency that had handled her adoption in 1964. She ended up discovering that her birth mother was Caroline “Cookie” Cole, the adopted daughter of Nat King Cole.
Clarke writes beautifully about this unexpected discovery in Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail.
Cookie had led a life of privilege, but when she became pregnant, she was sent away to a home in New York for unwed mothers. She wanted to keep her baby and, after her birth, delayed signing adoption papers. However, when she heard on the radio that her beloved father was hospitalized with end-stage lung cancer, she felt that she had no choice but to obey her domineering mother, sign the papers and head back to California to his deathbed.
When Clarke contacts her newly discovered birth mother decades later, their lives are forever changed. “This means everything to me,” Cookie says.
As a psychotherapist tells Clarke, “In every way, you got the fantasy.” Not only does she suddenly belong to a well-known, highly accomplished birth family, she has a wonderful, supportive adoptive family who nurtured her every step of the way. Still, the connection becomes at times overwhelming for both mother and daughter, and there are problems as everyone gets used to this new reality.
In a parallel but very different story, at age 18, Diane Burke got pregnant during a summer fling with a co-worker, a Muslim on a work visa from Jordan. Burke writes about how this event transformed her life in One Perfect Day: A Mother and Son’s Story of Adoption and Reunion. The young lovers quickly decided not to marry, and Burke’s horrified parents sent her off to secretly give birth in a home for unwed mothers. Burke wanted to keep her baby, but with no immediate way to support herself and the child, she gave him up for adoption.
Burke continued to mourn the loss of her son as she later married, had two more sons, divorced, remarried and became a writer of romantic mysteries. During turbulent times, she turned to religion for strength.
Years later, a stranger on the telephone asks, “Mrs. Burke, did you give up a child for adoption in 1971?” It was a question that would lead to Burke’s reunion with her son, Steve Orlandi. This riveting account describes the multitude of conflicting emotions that both mother and son share as they meet and get to know each other. (Steve also wrote parts of the book, explaining the emotional impact of reuniting with his birth family).
As Burke explains: “All reunions are intense, emotional, and complicated. It is the past colliding with the present and being faced with an uncertain future. It is joy and pain and hope and disappointment. But it can become a relationship founded on love and blessed with commitment and happiness.”
GUILT BE GONE
Daisy Waugh is a busy, accomplished mother of three. She’s also a British novelist and journalist, and the granddaughter of literary lion Evelyn Waugh. In The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women, Waugh makes it clear that she loves being a mother, but adds that “there have been many moments when I felt bewildered and alienated by society’s inflexible expectations of me as a mother.” As a result, she offers “some potentially liberating observations for mothers” who’ve been led to believe they should focus solely on their child’s every need.
Her blunt and amusing advice is divided into sections on Pregnancy and Birth, Baby Care, Child Care, School, and Charm School. After three kids, Waugh has learned which battles aren’t worth fighting, such as the harangues parents make about kids wearing coats in cold weather. She advises a live-and-learn policy: “As often as not, the children are only taking eight short but breezy steps from hallway to the back of a heated car. . . . It shouldn’t matter much, even in a snowstorm, if they made the journey in their underpants.”
Waugh’s views on parenting without guilt are bound to be controversial, such as her thoughts on organic food, which she describes as “a waste of money.” I myself disagree with a number of her notions, such as her dislike of having children write thank-you notes.
Whatever your thoughts on motherhood, Waugh’s eye-opening approach offers a new perspective on what makes a “good” mother.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.