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Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood, by Joanne Frye.

April 9, 2012

Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood, by Joanne Frye. Syracuse University Press, 2012.
Review copy from netgalley read on my nook.

An insightful memoir of a woman’s struggle to combine motherhood with a professional and personal life of her own.

Like other contemporary writers, Frye uses her autobiography as a way of examining and coming to terms with her past. She continually questions her own memories and images of who she has been and why she acted as she did. Teasing out darker meanings behind her decisions, she accesses her former self critically. She takes us through the process of writing this book, a process drawn out for years because competing commitments to her own academic career and the share difficulty of dealing with her life. Frye focuses on the psychological dimensions of her life, unlike Leila Ahmed, whose autobiographical reassessment is more cultural.

As a young grad student, Frye had married an attractive, somewhat older professor. She found him witty and charming and he expanded her horizons, but he also dominated her. When the couple moved onto a farm, her life became filled with drudgery and isolation. Two daughters were born, and Frye found closeness and joy mothering them. Her husband’s aggressive demands and unending criticism of her resulted in her leaving him after seven and a half years of marriage.

Much of the first half of the book focuses on Frye’s relations with her husband and with her guilt at leaving him. She worried about the pain she was causing him and about the impact on their daughters of taking them away. Even after she and her daughters leave Bloomington, her ex-husband remains an important figure in her life. The girls spent long vacations with him when they were exposed to his aggression and volatility. When he committed suicide seventeen years later, Frye’s guilt intensifies.

At the time of her divorce, Frye had finished her Ph.D. and in 1976 she took a position teaching at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Her daughters were one and five. She would raise them alone until remarrying as they finished high school and left home. Her descriptions of the closeness she and her daughters knew are vivid, although she fretted over questions of freedom and responsibility for both herself and for them. She describes her attempts to raise them into strong women, capable of caring for themselves. At the same time she enjoyed them, she also felt her life was split between the competing demands of motherhood and career as an academic. In addition she sought and sometimes found outlets for sexuality which also seemed to be cut off from the rest of her identity. The prevailing question of this section is whether or not she was a good enough mother for her daughters. Although they became adults of whom she is proud, her doubt remains. Am I good enough? Was I a good enough mother?

When I first heard of Joanne Frye’s memoir, I was excited because I thought she had written about my own story of motherhood and feminism. As I read, however, I was amazed at just how different her narrative was from mine, despite all its surface similarities. Unlike Frye, marriage and young motherhood had been rewarding for me. Their father was not domineering and uncaring, but we had little to hold us together when he faced career disappointments. He left us, saving me from the some of the guilt Frye felt, and he rarely entered our lives again. I was a single mother for five years, remarrying when my girls were in grade school. Ignited by feminism, I had returned to grad school as a single mother. I had worried about living through my daughters in unhealthy ways, as my mother had done with me, and I delighted in the balance which academia and family gave me. While the girls and I remained close, remarriage gave me adult pleasures and shared responsibility through their adolescent years. Looking back, I have regrets here and there over how I might have been a better mother, but I simply never knew the guilt and competing demands that harassed Frye. I am struck by Adrienne Rich’s insistence that women’s experiences of motherhood differ and that we need to collect many of our stories rather than claim one path as definitive.

Frye says little explicitly about feminism.  Instead she shows us what it is like to live her life being a feminist insuring that her own and those of her daughters needs are met.  I liked Frye, her book, and the values with which she raised her daughters. Minus some of her guilt, I think she offers good guidance on raising daughters—or sons—in changing times. I am simply surprised how the shape of our lives have differed given our shared sense of feminism and motherhood.

Thanks to Melissa @ feministteican, for telling me about this book.

I recommend Biting the Moon to those wanting a good read, and especially for women are working out new patterns for mothering their children.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2012 4:00 pm

    I would very much like to read this. I have only one son, and my husband is still here, but when our marriage was in its infancy, as were my career and our child, I carried the entire burden of responsiblity for parenting and ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome. The whole situation nearly finished off my marriage too, but we did hang in there, and made a go of it in the end. Academia and childcare were such opposing occupations, both demanding as many hours as it was possible to give them, both exacting and exhausting, but one requiring all my mental skills, the other needing a sort of solid unexciting dependability. When they worked together, they were good, but so often they pulled me in radically different directions. I am always interested to hear how other women coped in similar situations. I completely relate to your desire not to overinvest in your daughters and have huge admiration and respect for the fact that you brought them up yourself. I’m not sure I could have found the courage to do that myself.

    • April 10, 2012 10:03 am

      Thanks for sharing litlove. I didn’t mean to trivialize how hard things were at times. Of course I had to choose, but I never felt the conflicts you and Frye did. I ran on caffine and adrenaline and frequent crashes in between. And I too came down with CFS. These days I feel like I used up all the energy I would ever have being mother/grad student. But it was good and i am not sorry.

      I doubt I could have handled grad school without my girls to keep me grounded. They were 5 and 7 when I went back to school, and I’d been working full time at a dull library job for a couple of years after their father left. I admire you for tackling school with an infant which would have been harder. If you are interested, I’d be glad to share the section of my never-to-be-finished autobiography for those years.

      • April 11, 2012 4:23 am

        Yes, I’d be interested to see that, particularly since you had cfs too (and I hope you are doing better these days – I know exactly what you mean about feeling like you’ve used up all your energy!). My email is litlove1 at yahoo dot co dot uk.

      • April 11, 2012 9:59 am

        Thanks. I’ll need a few days to sort through what to send.

  2. May 23, 2012 11:58 pm

    This books sounds really interesting. I’ll look forward to reading it. Can you recommend any other memoirs about mothers/writers? (and thanks for following my blog too!)

  3. May 25, 2012 6:41 pm

    And thank you for following my blog. I share your interest in women who mother and write or engage in other creative work. Your interview series is great. Collect those into a book, and you’d have lots of readers.

    I don’t know of any other recent memoirs by writer/mothers, but there are several older ones. Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born was the first, as you may know, and Alice Walker includes several essays to being both in In Our Mother’s Garden. I will try to send you a brief piece by Susan Griffin by email in case you haven’t seen it.

    The latest Nation—available online–had a review of four books on motherhood, several of which were memoirs. I don’t think they were by writers or that they were any good. I have Elisabeth Badinter’s new Conflict to read and review in the next few weeks. Kathy Pollitt also discusses it in the same Nation.


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