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I am the mom

January 24, 2012

So, in my secret, dark heart of hearts I want to be a children’s and young adult librarian.

Not that I don’t love being an academic librarian, and, importantly, academic librarians tend to 1) make more money, 2) have better health insurance, and 3) get more/better leave options than public librarians.

But, if money and job security weren’t as necessary as they currently are, I’d run away to help kids find stories (and non-fiction books!) that speak to them. And I read quite a lot of literature written for an audience that is much younger than I am, and I keep track of quite a lot of the literature being written. I usually feel, when I read these books, like a kid myself – I toss my brain into that world with a certain amount of abandon and become a teenager again, though a much smarter, more together teen than I actually ever was.

This isn’t because I don’t like being middle-aged. My thirties have so far been happy and fulfilling, with the great exception of Teddy’s death, which doesn’t feel to me as though it had much to do with my age, really. My teens and twenties were difficult because I was figuring out not just who I was, but who I wanted to be. I like knowing who I am. Even though I am a bit jealous of people who get to know who they are without wondering who they might have been if their kid hadn’t died. Even though some days I feel old and sad and creaky.

So, when I’m reading books written for adolescents I get the best of both worlds – a kind of youth in retrospect. My reading brain gets to be young, but grounded and toughened by experience. It has pithy comebacks and a cool, non-committal shoulder shrug. And, perhaps because I was the opposite of cool when I was, you know, actually a teenager, this is a lot of fun.

One of the most talked about YA novels to come out in the new year is The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, about whom I’ve written before. I read it, even though I knew its protagonist was a girl with cancer and even though I knew that there would be death in the book. I read it, knowing that I wouldn’t have been able to read it in 2008, or 2009, or even 2010 when my grief was more raw.

There’s a lot to love about the book. The humor and courage and humanness of the main character, Hazel Grace, and her friend Augustus Waters, the insight into family relationships, the descriptions of Amsterdam, the reflections on love and the meaning of life in the face of the imminent dissolution of human accomplishment and memory. It’s funny and sad and thoughtful and memorable. If you are in a place where you can read a novel about kids with cancer, I recommend it. And it’s full of lines I love, like the following:

“Easy comfort isn’t comforting.”

And, “But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.”

And at the end of reading it, the character I felt closest to, most wanted to talk with?

Hazel’s mom. Hazel’s mom, who has to live with the knowledge and uncertainty of her child’s diagnosis, who is strong because she has to be, who hovers and nudges, who isn’t named in the book because, while we get glimpses of who she might be outside of Hazel’s story, inside this story she is primarily (and staunchly, and fiercely) the mom.

One of my favorite things about reading is that you go into a story with your own set of experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, and when you emerge from that story, you are someone else. Books affect who you are, sometimes profoundly, and sometimes only in very small ways. And I don’t know if this is profound or not, but reading this book made me realize a truth about myself: I am the mom. I have been the mom since Teddy was born. It is sweet and bitter, and while I am many other things at the same time, I will be the mom until I die.

It feels strange, to pick up a book written primarily for young adult readers and discover your middle-aged, mom self in it. This may be the first book I’ve read where I’ve felt like a mom the whole time I was reading. It’s different, and a little strange – I kind of miss my young reading self with the pithy comebacks – but I think I know myself a little better now, and I like that.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I enjoy John Green a lot. Need to get my teen daughter to read one of his books.


  2. I think this is so fascinating, because I read books so similarly, and I’ve always related to the spunky girl-character, who was just like me except, you know, spunkier and cuter and with more adventures. I remember reading The Happy Hollisters as a kid and having that moment when I realized that now that I was 9, I was really closer to Pam’s age than Holly’s, but Pam seemed so much OLDER, and I really felt much more like 6 year old Holly than 10 year old Pam (she and Pete were practically grown-ups in those books!). I think this is a really fascinating idea, of relating more to than mom than to the main character in a young adult book, because I certainly haven’t had that experience yet.

    I also want to say that it is so interesting and encouraging to me to hear that you like your 30s in spite of Teddy’s death, because I still have this fear that this decade will be entirely overshadowed by Eliza’s loss, and up until she died I had truly and wholeheartedly believed that my 30s would be the best years of my life so far, for all the reasons you mentioned. Is it possible that the best years of my life can come after my daughter’s death? I haven’t quite been able to wrap my head around that. But I like to think that there’s still a lot of good to come, even if I can’t quite see it yet.

    And I’m putting this book on my list right now.



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