Published on May 28th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein0
Attachment Wounds: Writer Frances Badalmenti on the Legacy of Mental Illness and the Appeal of a White Duvet
We say this now and then, but probably not enough: Birth feels miraculous and breathtaking because it is a bookend to death, as linked as the little girl in Us is to her red-jumpsuited doppelganger. Frances Badalmenti’s novel, I Don’t Blame You, out this month from Unsolicited Press, is based on her experience of losing her mother two months before becoming a mother herself. The narrator, Ana, spends her pregnancy traversing between her home in Portland and her mother’s base in New Jersey, where she is struggling with cancer.
The story jumps back in time to Ana’s parents’ childhood as Italian immigrants in the New York boroughs, and eventually finds Ana’s mother raising her alone and mentally unwell. (Read an excerpt here.)
Frances spoke with MUTHA about parenting and writing as acts of self-discovery.
MUTHA: You describe new motherhood—in this case, new motherhood entwined with the death of your protagonist’s own mother—as “the kind of tired when all you want is to be left alone to sleep in a big soft bed with crisp white sheets and a stark white duvet.” All my escape fantasies involve white linens as well. This is a somewhat serious question: What is it about the sensory overload of parenthood that makes us crave clean, stark landscapes?
FRANCES BADALMENTI: That time in my parenting trajectory was a complete sensory overload and a total emotional overload. So the idea of stripping away sounds and color and people was my escapism dream. I was so exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and when I would think about the kind of rest I would want to get if I could, it would be a very clean, womb-like place where nobody could get to me. As many mothers of newborns could relate to, there are points where you can only really fantasize about true deep sleep, because even if you are granted a window of time to rest, your nervous system is so turned in to the baby and your breasts are swollen with milk and maybe you are overly-fueled up on coffee. I didn’t get proper sleep for at least two years.
MUTHA: Why did you choose “autofiction” as your form for telling this story? What did it allow you to do that a straight memoir would not?
FB: The book where this piece was excerpted from began as a memoir. I was reading so many memoirs at the time of writing and so I was immersed in that genre. But when it came down to it—my personal writing style is simply not in line with straight memoir. And I don’t mean in terms of language, I mean in terms of psychology. As much as I can be quite transparent on the page, I can be very guarded as a person. I seldom disclose personal things and (like many writers) am way more interested in other people than sharing things about myself. So writing autofiction has allowed me to be both vulnerable and contained. I feel safe in this genre and I just really love it to be honest.
MUTHA: You write so well about the complicated knots of emotion that are part of any intimate relationship: the way anger can be misdirected, the way grief over a death is also about grieving what that person (Ana’s mother, in this case) couldn’t give you in life. What was it like to write this book? I have to imagine—based in part on my own experiences working on a memoir—that it was healing at times and horrific at others. All that sorting through of things.
FB: This book had been through many drafts and iterations over the past five years. It was my teacher and a vessel for healing through so much childhood and adolescent trauma. And so there was a lot of struggle that came with the process. There were times that I would get physically ill writing through the repressed memories and emotions. I struggled with chronic pain for a few years. But then, maybe after a hard writing session where my stomach would be clenched and my neck and back would be tightened—I would be biking home from a neighborhood café and would be suddenly overcome with this feeling of pure freedom and joyfulness. Blissfulness. That’s the healing part. That’s the power of narrative—how you can work through something, to almost live through it again and then how you can come to the realization that you are okay now. You had that lived experience, but it doesn’t have to define you anymore. It’s not an easy process, but it’s crucial if you want to be a better person.
MUTHA: How do you hang onto/reclaim a mother-daughter bond when you’re both going through such intense, personal, bodily experiences? (This is something I’ve been working through in my writing/life, too.) Or maybe the more realistic question is: What can be salvaged when the mother-daughter bond is stretched by very separate experiences?
FB: It seems like you also had complex, multi-layered yet loving relationship with your mother. And like me, you probably continue to work on that relationship even though she is gone and most especially, in regards to how you mother your child. When my own mother was sick and dying and while I was pregnant, my mother and I didn’t talk about anything too heavy or emotional. We never did. I think there was this tremendous fear of intimacy, which was rooted in the fear of loss. And so we didn’t get into anything too heavy during this transition of her motherhood ending and mine beginning. I have a strong intuitive sense that we both knew that this was going to be our story and that our story would be very powerful. It made so much sense that I lost my mother right before I became a mother. And of course I could only properly heal from the difficult parts of her mothering once she was gone. So really, our mother-daughter bond could only be solidified once she was gone and once I became a mother.
MUTHA: Ana’s mother had a baby who stillborn before she had Ana and “she always knew that a child could be taken from her.” How do you see the acts of love and loss, planning vs. staying present, as being entwined?
FB: Ana’s mother was a very anxious, fearful person as the result of the loss of that baby. She was also a very loving mother and had fierce (sometimes unhealthy) attachments with her children. I believe that her love for Ana had a lot to do with the fear of losing her because she had lost that other baby. And then during the year of her mother’s terminal illness, it was all about staying present really because with when someone is super sick like that and then dying (as I am sure you know), it’s as if there isn’t a future to plan for. You are in such a fight or flight type of existence. Ana could only really plan for the birth and the baby once her mother was gone.
MUTHA: You write, “In all of the grief and the pain and loss and the eventual joy, I finally started to become an actual person for the first time in my life.” So frequently people talk about motherhood as an act of selflessness, or a submersion of self. In what ways do you see it as a claiming of self?
FB: When I became a mother and had this live person who I was responsible for—for safety, for nourishment, for love—I instantly woke up and became alert and aware in a way that I had never been before. Maybe it was a form of hypervigilance. It was definitely fear. Nonetheless, I began to see myself more clearly and my past began to unravel. I had been a pretty high-functioning person, holding down good jobs, having decent relationships, but there was also this thick layer of dysfunction in my life. I might blow off plans with someone last minute or get into a weird friend fight, maybe skip paying bills to buy a leather jacket. And then there were bigger things like getting married to my first husband and then divorcing nine months later. These were all remnants of growing up with a mentally unwell mother (and stepmother)—attachment wounds. When I had my son, I realized for that I couldn’t be half and asshole anymore. I realized that I needed to be a complete person so he could have healthy attachment. I knew that I needed to be there for him in a solid way. I knew that I needed to break that generational cycle.
MUTHA: What do you hope to do as a parent that is different from how your mother parented you? In what ways do you hope to be like her?
FB: I ended up studying psychology at the graduate level after my son was born and for a few years, before turning to writing full-time, I practiced as a psychotherapist. One thing that I learned and ended up seeing in other people that I worked with, is that if you are loved by at least one parent or caregiver—and I mean unconditionally loved and with consistency—if you knew as a child that someone deeply cared for you, that you can thrive as a person. Now, I didn’t have my basic needs met all of the time as a kid, but I was loved dearly. My mother was irresponsible and could not take care of herself, so she couldn’t take care of me. But she loved her children fiercely. So my job as a parent is to provide my son with all the basic needs that I didn’t get and to love the shit out of him like my mother loved me. The love is the gold.