09 May 2009

Review: Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl


If you are a even a little bit of a foodie, then the name Ruth Reichl will be familiar. Perhaps you subscribe to Gourmet magazine or have read one of Reichl's wonderful memoirs. Not Becoming My Mother is a different kind of book, and it is difficult to review.

In 110 pages Reichl tells us not only the story of her mother but also the story of all women born between 1890 and 1930. Girls being raised under the weight of fairy tales and the lure of Prince Charming could not afford to waste energy on the idea of a life of independence.

Before the war, women who were lucky enough to get a college education were generally not expected to be any different from women who didn't finish high school. You were to marry, support your husband, raise your children, and keep your house clean and neat. Reichl's mother, Mim, who earned her Ph.D. in Paris at the age of 19, was no exception. Her only job was to return home, marry, and have babies. Once Mim gave birth to her first child, a boy, her father wrote: "Now you are a real woman!"

What about women who did not care about doing housework, who were not particularly maternal, or who did not find satisfaction in being a support system for their husband? Mim struggled with this her whole life. What happens to a person who tries to live up to the expectations of society and her parents when those goals are not her own? Mim would have probably made an excellent psychiatrist—she may have not coped very well herself but she knew how to break the cycle. By not pretending to be something she wasn't, she was able to give her daughter the gift of freedom and independence. Reichl grew up knowing that she did not what to become her mother.

As Reichl put it, "Instead of holding herself up as a model to be emulated, she led by negative example, repeating 'I am a failure' over and over, as if it were a mantra. 'I am ridiculous. Don't be like me.' " Only years later did Reichl understand what her mother gave up when she "deliberately sabotaged my respect and emphasized her failings." I can't imagine the frustration that would lead a mother to do this. Mim was strong woman.

Especially striking was Mim's transition after her husband died. After an initial surrender to depression, she finally realized that she was on her own and was able to lead her own life—parentless, husbandless, and childless. She traveled, she took in college students, she cared for her friends, and she did just what she wanted. She blossomed.

Although Reichl is, almost to the day, only 7 years older than I am, it's the difference in our mother's ages that is significant. My mother is 81, but Reichl's mother would have been 101. Our mothers shared some experiences, however: Both grew up in Ohio and both wanted to be a doctor. In the late 1940s, my mother's college adviser talked her out of becoming a psychiatrist. My mother was already married, and my father was in optometric school. The adviser told my mother that her marriage would fall apart if she got her M.D. So my mom majored in child psychology and then taught kindergarten until she had children.

The 20-year age gap gave my mom the advantage over Mim. My mother was able to reinvent herself two times over. First, she organized and ran the library at our temple, all on her own, working every Saturday and Sunday morning for more than 20 years. Although she made only minimum wage and worked only 10 hours a week, that money was hers. She was pretty much the only mother in my 1950s-style neighborhood who didn't have to use her husband's money to buy herself a treat. In her 40s, my mother basically fell into a career as a journalist, becoming one of the first women to have a column on the sports page of our local newspaper. She retired only at the age of 79, a year or so after my dad retired (when he was 80).

Despite the differences in our mothers (and mine is a fabulous cook!), they both taught us the same lessons: the importance of having a meaningful career, that beauty comes from self-awareness and self-assurance, that women do not need a man to be complete (and my mom has had 60+ years of happy marriage), that being resourceful and independent were worthy goals, and that "in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy."

Thank you, Ruth, for sharing Mim's story. I can't wait to share it with my own mother, who is one of my closest friends. And to those of you who are mothers yourselves, happy Mother's Day.

Ruth Reichl has a website.
Be sure to listen to Bethanne's interview with Reichl at The Book Studio.


Published by Penguin (USA), 2009
ISBN-13: 9781594202162
Challenges: A-Z title, What's in a Name, 999, 100+
YTD: 36
Rating: B+

16 comments:

bermudaonion 5/9/09, 12:50 PM  

This was a great book to review right before Mother's Day. I enjoyed reading about your mother since she is my mother's contemporary. My mother went to college and worked until she had children. She is a fantastic mother, but at times, I think she was frustrated by society's expectations.

Meghan 5/9/09, 12:54 PM  

For a book that is difficult to review, I think you did a very nice job! It's amazing how so much has changed for women in a fairly short number of years. Still strides left to be made, though.

Red lady-Bonnie 5/9/09, 1:12 PM  

I have read all of Ruth Reichl's Books and look forward to reading this one. It sounds like this is less about food and more about the relationship she has with her mother. I enjoyed reading about your own mother and how you related to this book. A perfect book to review close to Mother's Day!

shelburns 5/9/09, 1:51 PM  

Wow! Nice job! Don't you just love it when you can connect to a book and be moved by it to reveal personal stories. Thanks for sharing about your mom.

Sandy Nawrot 5/9/09, 2:10 PM  

That really was a fabulous review Beth. And it explains a little more about you! I love Ruth, as I have a big honking Gourmet cookbook AND subscribe to the mag. My mom started out as a typical "have babies and cook" lady, but after my sister and I moved out, she went on to get a life! She reinvents herself year after year. As a stay-at-home mom, I refuse to be pigeon-holed!

mjmbecky 5/9/09, 2:39 PM  

Thanks for sharing this review, and for contrasting Reichl's mother with your own. I recently taught The Awakening to my students at school and discussed the POSSIBLITY that women wanted more than to be wives and mothers. It was interesting to me how hard that was to REALLY grasp that was for my students. They could "kind of" see it, but only on a real surface level. Your post here was beautiful and so well said! Thanks for your review!

Amy 5/9/09, 2:48 PM  

Great review! and it does sound like a very interesting book.

Molly 5/9/09, 5:11 PM  

What a marvelous review! Seeing how I had never heard of the book prior to reading your post - and now I can hardly wait to get my hands on it, illustrates what an impact your recommendation has had on me.

Julie P. 5/9/09, 6:55 PM  

Great Mother's Day post!

Book Psmith 5/9/09, 11:51 PM  

What a wonderful post...thank you. I have enjoyed Reichl's books, so I will probably read this one as well. Your mother sounds like someone I would like to know:)

Margot 5/10/09, 10:29 AM  

I've just loved all of Ruth Reichl's writings. She needed to write this one to complete the picture of her mother. She alluded to her mother's character many times, especially in Garlic and Sapphires and now it seems we get the rest of the story.

Thanks for sharing how this book compared with your own experience. Excellent review.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books 5/10/09, 10:27 PM  

What a lovely post! Not only for the book review (which read very clearly, despite you saying it was a difficult book to review), but also for the story of your mother and the choices she has made.

Shame on the advisor for discouraging your mother! Although it sounds like she has always been very determined and happily paved her own path - has she ever expressed regrets about not going to med school?

I just picked up GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES for a future book club read, but I haven't read any of Ruth Reichl's books. Maybe the insight I gleaned from your review will give me a different insight when I read GARLIC.

Beth F 5/11/09, 7:50 AM  

Dawn: Nope. My mother never expressed regrets. I don't think she has ever really seen the point in worrying too much about what can't be changed. It's better to face life as it is and go from there. She's had a great life and is looking forward to much more. (Knock on wood) my parents are still very active and very positive about the next 15 years or so.

One Swede Read 5/11/09, 12:32 PM  

her father wrote: "Now you are a real woman!"Wow. How happy am I times have changed?! My mum stayed home while my brothers and I were kids, but once we were big enough to take care of ourselves, she went back to school and became a librarian. (I'm very proud of her, btw!) :)

Olga 5/11/09, 1:48 PM  

A great review for Mother's Day. I need to find this book now!

Belle 6/2/09, 1:39 AM  

What a great review. I think I loved most of all the bits about your mother - she sounds fabulous.

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