Book Review: Parachutes & Kisses by Erica Jong (MMm)

Title: Parachutes & Kisses

Author: Erica Jong

Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (reprint 2006)

Intended Audience: Women, people excited by Erica Jong

Genre: Fiction

One sentence that summarizes the author's take on babies/parenting: "Life is risk, she thought. Motherhood is risk too." Also, "children are the periscope of the dead."

What I loved: The narrator's willingness to bare all. Her self-indulgence validates mine.

What made me want to cry into my burpee cloth: Instead of searching for her late grandfather's masterpiece painting, at the end of the book Isadora decides that she is his greatest masterpiece.

How many M's?: MMm (2.5/5)

Erica Jong was one of the premier sex symbols of the 1970s, the Linda Lovelace of the literary world. She wrote Fear of Flying, a brutally honest account of her own -- sorry, her semi-fictional doppelgänger Isadora Wing's -- adventures in sex, marriage, love, and the seeming mutual exclusivity of the three. I enjoy Jong's work because it's so damn honest. Like, describing-the-urge-to-suckle-her-dog damn honest. Her writing is almost plotless, conversational in tone, and often repetitive. It is the mind of all the interesting, impulsive, artistic, ADHD women I know. 

Woman (not Erica Jong) suckling dog

So I was delighted to find Parachutes & Kisses at a used book store in Vancouver. What luck! Not only do I providentially come across a third Isadora Wing novel, but it is about new motherhood. I'd read Fear of Flying while I myself was flitting around Europe in a depressed fugue not unlike her heroine's, and here Erica Jong came crawling back, ready to share the vicissitudes of motherhood by my side. 

Parachutes & Kisses chronicles Isadora Wing/Erica Jong's first year out of a divorce from "Josh," a man she deeply loved and is the father of their three year-old child. Josh is several years younger than Isadora, and much is made of her supposed middle-aged status. In 1984 it was unusual to have a child in your late 30s (just ask my mother, she had me at the ripe old age of 38 in 1984) but 20 (okay, almost 30) years later it seems quaint to worry about such a thing. Over the course of just one generation the average age of childbirth has climbed almost four years. 

About two thirds of the way through the novel, Wing meets another charming young man -- younger, even, than her ex-husband -- and commences an affair of epic proportions. There's a great sex scene, there's a hilarious moment where he swallows one of her diamond-stud earrings (" have a life in which brilliant studs did not get nibbled off by brilliant studs."), and there is the classic unearthing of Isadora's insecurities as she throws herself into the abyss of loving someone who can never be her life partner. It's all very fun and interesting but... won't somebody think of the children?

Diamond studs:
$1,199 at Walmart.
That's one expensive, corporate crap, Ms. Jong.

At so many points throughout the book -- which I read while nursing Sweet Baby James -- I paused and thought, but where is her baby? How does she have time for multi-orgasmic sex, working out, fellating her ex-husband, dealing with mucked up finances, shopping for designer dresses, traveling to California, Russia and Venice, and even sitting down to try to write a book? She does it with the help of a series of nannies and occasional visits from the ex. And not without a good dose of mother-guilt. 
"Raising a child and making a living were no easy feats. One always felt divided. One always felt that one's vital organs were being torn apart." (p. 364)
But for the most part, Isadora isn't focused on 'making a living' in this novel. In fact, she finds herself unable to write. She's blocked and -- surprise, surprise -- she needs an exciting sexual relationship with a man to unblock herself. A classic trope. But in all that time Isadora spends discovering herself in the supine position, Isadora's child is suffering from mommy's inability to locate steady, consistent, loving childcare.
"She'd no sooner build an attachment than some catastrophe would intervene... The hot-and-cold-running nannies had been bad enough when Josh was there, but now that he wasn't, poor Amanda was making do as best she could. She held on to her rituals: the bath, the Muppets, the bedtime recital of the day's activities." (p. 163-164)
Pretty Woman:
to find herself, our heroine needs a man

From an outsider's perspective, and even from Isadora's own, it's obvious that her daughter needs more of her mother. This also applies to the book as a whole: its centre shifts from Isadora's commentary on new motherhood in the first half to disjointed escapades with her lover in the second. This plot twist is never really resolved, their relationship left hanging at book's end, their coupling's imminent doom spelled out in the Venetian clouds. 

It's a shame because Isadora is a loving mother and there is true plot-driving frisson in her desire to connect with her daughter. She sees her daughter as an individual and loves her fiercely. I want to be inspired by this bond, not regaled with another episode with the so-called "boy-toy" (as she describes her novel in the book's afterward, written in 2006). I know about romance. I know about sex. That's how I got to have a baby in the first place.

When she does, her comments on motherhood are honest and so apt, even thirty years later. Take for example, 
"When the baby cried, Isadora's breasts leaked. When the baby was brought into the room by the nurse, Isadora roused herself out of a dead sleep and sat up in the waterbed to take the little bundle into her arms. The little rosebud lips latched onto her nipple with a prodigious force -- the primal force of the universe, it seemed. And Isadora would look down on the suckling baby, feeling her womb contract and her eyes fill with tears -- but tears for what, she did not know. Tears for Mandy's future, or her own? Tears for the unknowability of any baby's destiny? Tears for her own changed state? For never again would she go anywhere without thinking of her child; it was almost as if that cut umbilicus, now useless and dried, had ceased to be a physical object and had become a powerful moral one, a matrix in which her whole life was bound -- so that never again would she make any decision just for herself." (p. 153)

Perhaps all this lost opportunity is just a reflection of the times: women educated in the 1970s were soldiering into the workforce in the 1980s. The assumption was that you could do either, but not both, career and motherhood. Maybe, just as the sexual exploits of liberated woman were not seen fit to print before Jong did so, the pain and ecstasy of motherhood was an invisible, untouchable subject. Not so nowadays (cf. um, this blog, and our first book review, Let The Baby Drive).

But every movement has its pioneers and Jong's honesty is such that even her brief forays into the essence of motherhood might still seem shocking now. She writes about the intimate, wordless connection between motherhood and death; about ambivalence toward pregnancy and her "bourgeois ovaries"; about the double-edged sword of having "help" from other people after birth (we need less of it, but we also need more). Who among us doesn't feel a little kinship with the following?

"No longer were Josh and Isadora ever alone. There was a baby nurse. There was a cook. There were all these people supposedly to help, but every one of them was as much a hindrance as a help. The baby nurse ate and ate and ate. She resented Isadora for breast-feeding and she retaliated in the classic baby-nurse manner: "Mrs. Ace," she would say nasally whenever the baby cried, "your milk's not rich enough -- your baby is starving to death." "

Bourgeois ovaries

Jong's work is readable because she terrorizes herself with the same steady hand with which she dissects others. She describes her own shameless infidelities, shameful vulnerabilities, and raw insecurities without stopping to remember that, hey, she's the author and she's in charge of this book. Parachutes & Kisses is like that time you wrote a drunken email to your ex and then decided to cc eighteen million other people, for profit. The Wing/Jong persona is crazy, funny, literary, and very much embodied; in short, I see myself in her. I only hope that I can channel my own version of Jong-craziness into attentive, full-time parenthood.

First Class, Baby (Part IV: Ten Tips for Traveling Alone with Infants and Other Dangerous Cargo)

On Christmas day I crossed the border and got my Green Card. Yes! We're home now (the new home, in San Francisco, where I live with my husband and son) and I've had a few days to look back and reflect on my six-week window into life as the single, itinerant mother of a ten month-old named after a Mojave desert plant.

Ocotillo, Mojave desert false cactus

What did I learn?

Oh, lots of things. Like how old unmarried men are drawn to young (presumably) unwed mothers like old unmarried moths to an insta-family flame. And how tough it is to be a single mom -- to be the only person who could possibly take the baby for his night-time walk and rush him to the toilet at six am and then boil some organic prunes without forgetting about them on the stove for two hours. I value my family and friends in a whole new way.

But the really important thing I learned was how to travel with a baby. Sweet Baby James has taken eight flights in his short life; he's also taken one VIA train ride, two commuter trains and countless buses, subways, a boat, cars... he even climbed a motorcycle for the purposes of taking a picture.

Here's how I do it.

Ten Tips for Traveling Alone with Infants and Other Dangerous Cargo

  1. Ditch the stroller. It is not easier to push your baby in front of you when you're also dragging a piece of luggage behind you and the diaper bag is falling off your shoulder. Plus, you have to take the baby out of the stroller when you're going through security, and again when you fold it up to store it when you get to the plane/train. Babywearing, on the other hand, rocks. You can leave the baby in the carrier when you walk through security, though the guard will stop you to wipe your hands for explosives (not the pooping kind, unfortunately). Babywearing will also save you when baby's fussing and you need to walk up and down the aisles. Plus, bored strangers are less likely to assault (read: try to pick up and cuddle) your baby up if he/she's in a carrier. I like my ring-sling because it also doubles as a blanket when baby goes to sleep (that's a lie, he never goes to sleep). Mine are home-made but they look like the Maya Wrap:

    ***Airports are also great places to check out the hottest in babywearing fashion. See the airport posts on Too Hot For Stroller!
  2. Pack light. Lighter than you ever thought you could. They probably have diapers, wipes, burpee cloths, nursing pads and other necessities where you are going. Just bring what you need for your travel time plus 24 hours (in case of delays) and find a pharmacy first thing when you wake up the next day.
  3. That said, having a portable changing pad/diaper kit really comes in handy. Public restrooms should have clean and safe baby changing facilities, but they don't. It drives me crazy (see photos: This is what my Skip Hop portable changing station looks like:
  4. Pack even lighter. Yes, babies love to play with stuff but it doesn't have to be the locally-made, ethically produced organic toys they're familiar with. Your host's measuring cups, colander, coffee tin, old comb, recycling, etc. are all great options and you can leave them behind guilt-free. If someone decides to laden you with gifts (and they will), ship them home.
  5. Don't waste time trying to get baby to keep his hands to himself. OK so airplanes are nastydirty and the windows on the bus are grimygross. But the constant vigilance it will require and the fight that might ensue between you and the baby just isn't worth it. Pack some diaper wipes. Keep them at hand so you can wipe his. Think about all the immunities he's building.
  6. Accept Help. Your host wants to help you to the station? The airline allows you to board early? That withered old man is going to attempt to haul your suitcase up the stairs? Let people help because it makes them feel good. If help isn't forthcoming, politely ask for assistance. You are transporting the future of the world in your arms and they are rushing home to catch a Friends re-run.
  7. Make friends with the flight attendants. These are people who can make or break your journey and -- what luck -- they've made a career out of being helpful and cooing at infants! (they also watch out for thousands of people's safety -- and Alec "not a very unselfish man" Baldwin -- but that's another matter). When you're boarding the plane, pause and say hello, ask them how their day's going; show them your adorable little bundle. Then show them your boarding pass so they direct you to your seat. This way they know how to find you and shower you with attention: I had flight attendants offer to hold and carry the baby when I had to go pee; give me free meals, blankets and bottles of water; invite me to their gourmet first nations restaurant, stow my luggage at the front of the plane, let me change the baby in the first class toilet, and take pictures of us. Win!
    Our First VIA Train: taken by the ever-lovely attendant, Rachel
  8. Wear slip-on shoes. You have to take off your footwear at security these days. Boots with laces mean sitting down (as if there's a chair available) and bending over to get them off. Babies in carriers don't like it when you sit down and they hate it when you bend over. I know because I made the mistake of wearing my new boots because I was too lazy to carry them. It sucked.
  9. Carry written and notarized permission from the baby's other parent if you're crossing an international border. I forgot this and just barely squeaked into Canada. "Um, my husband knows I'm taking the baby to Montreal, I promise..." doesn't always cut it. You might also need a copy of the baby's birth certificate to prove that the person who gave permission is in fact the baby's other mama/papa.
  10. Don't worry about sticking to a routine. Traditional parenting philosophy predicts disaster (danger, danger, high voltage!) when a routine gets thrown off. But flight attendants were asking me, "Is your baby always this good?" and I don't think they were just being nice. Baby needs to know that although everything else is changing, you're there and not going anywhere (without her). I tried to focus on reading Sweet Baby James' cues and providing for them. It was more important to me that he feel content and comfortable than that he finish his breakfast (even if I had been burning cooking those damn prunes for two hours). He napped when he wanted to, nursed when he wanted to, alternately charmed or rebuffed strangers when he wanted to.
    Aside from the non-negotiable enactment of regular diaper changes, I let SBJ be the boss of SBJ. Even when he was a jerk and refused to engage in the best dual-baby-wearing-mama photo op ever.
    The long and the short of it is that traveling with a baby can be fun. I felt like Sweet Baby James and I bonded in a whole new way when he managed to intimidate his sweet two-year-old cousin and not to poop in the middle of my visa interview. It felt exciting, liberating... Sometimes when we were roaming the streets late at night, whether attempting to find our next destination or just a moment's calm respite, I imagined we were following the steps of our nomadic ancestors. I am mama, hear me roar.