January 5, 2011
A mother’s revenge and then reunion
Most parents tend to wait at least until their child is born to start screwing them up.
Not Teresa Strasser. The writer/radio personality/television host was so terrified she would turn out to be Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” she decided to confront her demons while still pregnant.
At eight weeks, she bought the domain name exploitingmybaby.com and quickly parlayed her pregnancy-era blog posts into a book deal. The resulting work, “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” is a hilarious, honest, often raunchy account of Strasser’s pregnancy and delivery in which no subject is too sacred to broach: Porn, STDs, the fetal benefits of oral sex and a particularly disastrous clogged toilet scene all get their day. This is the stuff “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” elegantly omits.
Not many Jewish mothers would admit they conceived their child while watching a documentary about Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda, but it was New Year’s Eve, and, “There’s nothing more Jewish than wanting to stay in when everyone’s out drunk driving,” the Los Angeles-based Strasser said during a recent phone interview. And apparently, nothing like mass Jewish extinction to get in the mood: “It was not during [the movie], but it was the same night,” she said. “I think, you know, my baby got a head start on despair for life.”
Strasser’s terror about becoming a mother, at age 38 (which she refers to in the book as “old as f—-”), stems in equal measure from the physical and psychological tumult of pregnancy. The combination of those awkward and uncomfortable bodily changes — the raging hormones, constant nausea, backaches, bleeding gums and oily skin — with the requisite dose of Jewish anxiety that her child would end up dead, disabled or deformed, was enough to drive Strasser out of her mind.
“I basically just spent four straight months Googling various ways to have a miscarriage and Googling various genetic disorders my baby could have,” she said. “But on a deeper level, I was scared about what kind of mother I was going to be — because my mom didn’t exactly approach motherhood with a sense of ease and glee.”
For Strasser — who is also an occasional Jewish Journal columnist — that’s a generous understatement. Tales of her dissatisfaction with her own mother’s parenting style are legion. In one chapter, a version of which appeared in this newspaper in June 2009, she writes of her mother: “While most people say having children gives them new compassion for their parents, I’m not having that experience so far. Instead, I’m filled with a renewed, fuming and bottomless disquietude about the mom hand I was dealt, which consisted of one truly evil, now fortunately dead stepmother, and a wildly superior though still problematic biological mom who raised me with a combination of ambivalence and benign neglect.”
Her brutal honesty about that disquietude provoked irate reactions from her readers. Motherhood, she says, is one of those sacred cows in most cultures — especially the Jewish community, which treats the idea of mothering as worthy of reverence, never rebuke. But Strasser doesn’t feel encumbered by social or religious mores on the topic — or any topic, for that matter.
“I literally have no personal boundaries, and as a writer that’s really all I’ve got going for me,” she said. “I will never turn the fanciest phrase, but I’m willing to tell the truth. I’ve been really rough on my mom, [but] the people who get angry that I trash her don’t have a nuanced understanding of writing, because I’m essentially writing about my own struggle. I’m just telling the truth about her. And some of that is kind of ugly.”
Though she spends most of the book focused on topics pertaining to her pregnancy — “Are Breast-Feeding Classes for Boobs?”; “Sitting Stretch Mark Shiva” — they belie the real narrative arc of Strasser’s odyssey to motherhood, which is about reconciling herself to the reality of her own troubled relationship with her mother and how powerfully it wounded her. How can she be a good mother when she never experienced what having a good mother felt like?
As it is known to be, parenthood proved transformative. Strasser’s anxieties over her own shortcomings were eclipsed by the fact of becoming a mother. By that point, choosing the right diaper cream was paramount. Once her child was born, Strasser said she no longer had the luxury of worrying about herself.
“That part of my life is over, and I don’t miss it,” she said. “I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s trying to make people like me and wondering whether or not I was talented, who I was going to be or what my purpose was, and the second that baby was cut out of my stomach, that was over.”
So far, she has taken to one Jewish mother stereotype and obsessively, compulsively worries about her son instead: “It’s pretty terrifying to love a creature so much and not always be in control,” she said. “I secretly prayed that having a baby would relieve me of all those worries, because when you actually have real worries you stop cooking up stupid ones.”
Even though Strasser’s husband was raised Catholic, they have decided to raise their son — Nathaniel James, whom they nicknamed “Buster” — as a Jew.
“I did offer to have the baby baptized,” Strasser confessed. Even though her husband didn’t care for Catholicism, she thought his mother might. “What do I care if the kid gets dunked in some water?”
Her mother-in-law declined, which was probably for the best, since Strasser’s world changed the day of her son’s bris. That’s when her biological mother, whom she had not spoken to in over a year, showed up to become a grandmother.
“This is how profound becoming a mother is: I didn’t talk to my mother the entire time I was pregnant, and now my mother lives around the corner from me, and I pay her rent to live here,” Strasser said, revealing a postscript that does not appear in the book. “And when she went on vacation for four days, I couldn’t wait for her to get back.”
Strasser, a working mother, was overwhelmed by the demands of her new baby and, frankly, needed help. “I was so desperate for help, and my mom was pretty desperate for redemption, and those two things were a perfect match,” she said. “Everything my mom was not as a mother, she is as a grandmother. There’s nothing better she could do on earth for me than help me with the baby.
“I think the book is actually in some ways kind of a beautiful story about redemption and the way the mother-daughter bond can be healed,” Strasser said. “And it’s not totally healed. It’s like you crack a mug and put it back together; it doesn’t look perfect, but it probably holds coffee.”