Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Divergent portraits of meaning of motherhood

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FOR a two-syllable word, "mother" shoulders an outsized burden of evocation and expectation.

From June Cleaver to today's mommy blogs, mothers are urged to strive for perfection, though the notion itself is hotly debated. In their memoirs The Heavy and With or Without You, Americans Dara-Lynn Weiss and Domenica Ruta paint divergent portraits of motherhood, though both are concerned with the concept of the good mother.

New Yorker Weiss first made a stir when her article about "helping" her young daughter Bea lose weight appeared in Vogue last spring. As Weiss notes, critics "used one or more of the following adjectives to describe me: 'tone-deaf,' 'obsessive,' 'strict,' 'abrasive.' And to those critics, I say: guilty as charged."

Yet she claims that people "who had struggled with their weight all their lives commended me for getting involved with Bea's problem early."

Mothers, she adds, "told me their grown-up children blame them for letting them grow up fat and not doing anything about it."

In The Heavy, which expands upon her Vogue piece, Weiss details exactly what she did about Bea's weight. At age seven, Bea stood 4-foot-4 and weighed 93 pounds when her doctor deemed her obese, a diagnosis Weiss welcomed because "it gave [Bea] a disease that it was my responsibility to treat. What might have been construed as overzealous micromanagement could now be chalked up to good parenting."

That opportunistic reframing is at the heart of this memoir: is Weiss a good mother or a monomaniac oblivious to the toll her approach may take on her daughter?

Weiss forces Bea to confess everything she's eaten, shouts when she reaches for seconds in public, and tosses out her hot chocolate.

Emphasizing neither exercise nor nutrition, Weiss reveals that apples are new to her shopping list and palate and asserts that Bea's "health priority is eating less, not eating healthier."

The Heavy is fascinating but also poignant given that Bea, a vulnerable young person who looks to her flawed mother for approval, is at the heart of the story. While Weiss asserts that she believes Bea, nine as the memoir ends, will be "incredibly proud" of her, one can't help wondering if Bea's own take would be quite so generous.

A daughter's perspective on life with mother is what Massachusetts native Ruta offers in the darkly humorous page-turner that is With or Without You.

Histrionic, volatile, and vain, Kathi Ruta is a dealer-addict and single mom on welfare who asks Domenica, "Did I tell you about the time you were brand-new ... reaching for me, and you were so cute I wanted to hit you? Do you remember the time I pulled over to the side of the highway and contemplated leaving you there?"

Yet Kathi also tells Domenica about the time she tried to grab a shaft of light through the window. "You kept reaching for it and making little baby fists with your hands," Kathi recalls. "You were trying to hold on to the light. And I said to my mother, 'This kid is going to be brilliant.'"

In this space between resentment and pride, Kathi raises Domenica, finding the money to pay for Catholic school and pushing her to get into exclusive Phillips Academy Andover. Yet she fails to protect Domenica from a known pedophile and becomes her daughter's first drug dealer.

Depression and addiction follow, and Ruta's account of moving toward sobriety, clarity and purpose is riveting. As she observes, "Memory ... becomes shrapnel. Shards of experience still hot with life singe the brain... There are times when these memories ... sound so strange to me ... that I begin to doubt everything from the laws of gravity to the spelling of my own name."

Such is the power of mother.

Jess Woolford reads and writes memoir in Winnipeg.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J8

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