I must first disclose that I am a colleague and friend of Barbara Jaffe’s, and have been for many years. I know the aspects of her that are labeled teacher and humanist. I’m also a writer, so I share with Barbara the call to write and the work of setting down words. I also think I share with her an urgency for honest and direct critical thinking, especially now, today, when honesty has achieved social (if not political) critical mass.
Enter Barbara’s book, When Will I be Good Enough?. I was aware of the phrase “replacement child,” but knew it in the more popular sense of a child born to provide an organ for another ailing child. I remember the movie My Sister’s Keeper, based on the novel written by Jodi Picoult, about a child born for the explicit reason of saving her sibling. I didn’t see the movie, nor read that book. I was afraid of being manipulated to tears, as I always am. Crying is a big thing for me, and manipulating tears makes me angry. Then I’d be crying and angry, never a strong position. So the subtitle of Barbara’s book made sense to me through the lens of popular culture, and what I’d like to do here is provide a reflection on Barbara’s own reflections—using a wider social lens.
Barbara means the term “replacement child” at its gritty and devastating bottom line: a child born to take the place of a child who has died. That’s the crux of Barbara’s book, and, as she tells us, her life. It is a book that jabs needles at the most painful parts of a mother-daughter relationship. Yet, it’s more than that. Barbara and her mother played out their relationship in the years following World War II, those fifties fantasy family years, into the beginning of the Women’s Movement. Barbara’s mother stayed at home, nurturing beliefs that would soon become laughable to everyone but the women of her generation. Girls are bad at math, and that’s okay. Girls obey their mothers, and the father-daughter relationship is a reason for jealousy, not celebration. Girls must work toward careers that don’t take away from family life, like teachers, who have summers off that can be put to good use with their own children. Young women don’t go to college, but if they do, they sure as heck better be married to future doctors by the time they leave. If no husband is found during college years, the chances of finding a good man drop disastrously upon graduation.
In a situation like this, siblings can feel like each has a completely different childhood. Barbara’s brother was raised differently, because of his gender, and because his relationship with his parents was not fraught with the guilt and anger of being born to take the place of Jeffrey, the toddler who died.
Barbara and her mother lived out the tangled relationship of many women in those years. My relationship with my own mother was similar. Yet, Barbara had the added complication of being born because her mother received social pressure to have another baby immediately, before recovering from the grief of her toddler’s death. No grieving allowed. The doctor even slapped Barbara’s crying mother across the face, maybe the moment that is at the heart of her mother’s chronic depression. If my doctor slapped me out of a genuine moment of grief, I’d sue—and write a scathing blog post. In the 1950s, Barbara’s mother did what was expected. She stuffed the grief, and got pregnant again. Her grief escaped in bits and pieces throughout Barbara’s life, and always toward Barbara. Why couldn’t Barbara be good enough? There’s no simple answer, but I do want to try. She couldn’t be good enough because she couldn’t transform the simmering grief of her mother. She couldn’t do what she’d been born to do.
I didn’t cry when I read Barbara’s book. What I did do, and what you might do, if you are a woman and in your fifties or sixties, is pause every few pages and say “Hey!” Barbara’s mother shared experiences and reactions with others of her generation. For me, this is the true “lost” generation of women, born too early and entrenched in family life, little education if any beyond high school, and perhaps holding onto secretarial skills like Pittman shorthand, which was already going out of style. When the Women’s Movement transformed the next generation’s expectations for themselves, the same social reckoning revealed to women like our mothers that they were not fit to take their place in the world. They’d been slapped back into childrearing, and perhaps the rise of feminism provided another hard slap.
You may be jolted out of the narrative, not by anything Barbara has done, but because her story may sound familiar. Barbara’s mother used to say to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.” I read that passage, and I set the book down. I didn’t pick it up again for two weeks. My own mother, after downing a few, would hit me against the wall and say “What did I do to you to deserve this?” I’d pull apart this for hours, in my bedroom alone, in class, while bingeing or starving. It turns out that I wasn’t alone. Barbara describes her own eating disorder as the one handful of control she could wield over her mother.
I don’t want to veer off into eating disorders, only to mention them in the context of control. This is what’s important here. Barbara reflects on this, which is a tricky thing. I’ve tried, and the problem is that this changed. Whenever my mother said it to me, she changed the meaning of this without letting me in on the secret. It’s hard to get a handle on this, and whatever a mom has done to deserve this, when actually people and relationships, down to tiny, seemingly ridiculous everyday details, like whether or not Barbara should wear jeans, are dynamic. This is dynamic, but to a girl in Barbara’s situation, it’s static and needs to be analyzed. What is this? If I could only understand this, I could change what’s happening. I could change things. Whereas Barbara’s mother belonged to the generation left in the dust by a rising social movement, we are the generation who analyze what was left in the dust. We analyze this, and Barbara does, trying to trace the shifting this over the course of her life and her interactions with Mom.
While I was reading When Will I be Good Enough?, I thought of Adrienne Rich’s examination of motherhood in Of Women Born. Perhaps the book is now out of date. I don’t know. Rich is gone, and can’t update it for us. But I love that book, because Rich herself was of Barbara’s mother’s generation with one caveat: She went to college. She did what Barbara’s mother could not do. I’m simplifying a life that took on extraordinary goals, so please bear with me. Two days ago my sister and I read out loud the short speech Adrienne Rich gave in 1974, when accepting the National Book Award in the name of all women. She prepared the speech with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, and she read aloud these words:
We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teenager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.
Read the entire speech here.
Few could say that with this speech Rich deliberately meant to manipulate tears in her reader, but both my sister and I cried. We sat in an upscale hot dog place where vegan corn dogs compete with handmade Florentine chicken sausage, and we cried. Barbara’s mother may not have been aware of Rich’s speech, but she is included. So is the girl who actually excels at math. What was Barbara’s mom doing in 1974? Barbara says she was chronically bedridden with depression, telling Barbara that a girl’s feelings didn’t count, they meant nothing, they weren’t even real. We know the opposite was true, and what’s more, her mother’s feelings also were real, and they were as bedridden as she was.
And now I arrive at what it means to be a replacement child. Not the showy, made-to-save-others child who gets her own novel and movie, but the girl born to a mother who really never wanted children, who questioned her ability to parent, who was forced by social role to get pregnant immediately after one beloved child had died. The mother who was slapped into pregnancy by her doctor. I can’t speak for Barbara, but for me, her story is one of compassion—first and ultimately for herself, and also for her mother. It turns out that the replacement child may not have been born to replace, but to forgive.