Motherhood, Jean-Kerr style

Jean Kerr, author of the classic Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, died in January.

Here is a tribute to her.

I haven’t thought about Kerr’s writing in years. God bless Jean Kerr, and all that she gave us, her contributions to the literature of motherhood. In particular, the literature of how to balance motherhood and work. And she was way ahead of her time, writing about these issues in the 50s. This article made me miss Jean Kerr’s voice … forgotten now in the “Oh my God, how am I going to balance it all and be the perfect everything?” tone which has hijacked the genre. Jean Kerr, an enormously successful playwright and essayist, who had 6 children, never believed she could do it all. And never ever thought that she was perfect. Which is why her books are so damn FUNNY.


I highly recommend Jean Kerr’s work to all of the mothers that I know. Here is an example of her tone. This excerpt is taken from the book Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, her memoir, written in the 1950s, about what it was like to be a writer (extremely successful, remember … we are not talking about trying to get poems into teeny literary journals … we are talking about the author of some of the biggest Broadway hits of the day) and the mother of 6 children. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies was made into a cheese-ball Doris Day movie, which I saw, but if you’ve seen it, and thought it was a big load of CRAP, then just go out and read the book. Do yourself a favor. It will make you laugh.

The following quote is Kerr describing how the book got its name:

My real problem with children is that I haven’t any imagination. I’m always warning them against the common-place defections while they are planning the bizarre and unusual. Christopher gets up ahead of the rest of us on Sunday mornings and he has long since been given a list of clear directives: ‘Don’t wake the baby,’ ‘Don’t go outside in your pajamas,’ ‘Don’t eat cookies before breakfast.’ But I never told him, ‘Don’t make flour paste and glue together all the pages of the magazine section of the Sunday Times.’ Now I tell him, of course.

And then last week I had a dinner party and told the twins and Christopher not to go in the living room, not to use the guest towels in the bathroom, and not to leave the bicycles on the front step. However, I neglected to tell them not to eat the daisies on the dining-room table. This was a serious omission, as I discovered when I came upon my centerpiece–a charming three-point arrangement of green stems.

A couple of years ago, I found a beat-up old copy of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies at the Strand and pounced on it like a starving woman. Kerr is a bit of a treasure. She really is.

Elizabeth Austin, author of this tribute, articulates exactly her appeal. Which, perhaps, is a bit sugar-coated. Or not even sugar-coated … just not the whole truth. As in: Jean Kerr left out the more unpleasant and worrisome aspects of being a mother and a working woman. But Austin says:

Once I’d gobbled my way through Kerr’s slim oeuvre, I went looking eagerly for another writer just as good. Decades later, I’m still looking. No one since has managed to write about the domestic scene with Mrs. Kerr’s pitch-perfect balance of wit, warmth, and intelligence. Instead, the mother/writers of the half-century have focused on the anxieties and stresses of parenting. Personally, I don’t need anybody to tell me how hard it is to bring up a child; trust me, I already know.

Austin compares Jean Kerr, a writer from the 1950s, with Erma Bombeck, a writer who tackles the same issues, only in the 1970s. Erma Bombeck is, of course, hysterical … but it’s a question of attitude, the attitude one takes towards the chaos of family life. And about yourself, trying to juggle all of these different roles.

Read:

Although Erma Bombeck was just five years younger than Kerr, her career peaked in the ’70s with such dismally titled bestsellers as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank; If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. Her wisecracking, oy-vey approach to life guaranteed her a huge audience, although it didn’t do much for the psyche of the American mother. It’s downright dispiriting to read much Bombeck. Her world is one of unappreciated, unfulfilled wives and mothers drudging away year after year, hoping to receive that one glimmer of recognition that will make it all worthwhile …

Kerr never lets us that far inside. She writes mirthfully about raising a bumper crop of children spaced erratically over a couple of decades; there’s never the tiniest hint that a 40-ish woman who has spent half a lifetime in the maternal trenches might entertain some mixed feelings about starting over with an infant. When she writes about her lastborn baby daughter, all we hear is bemused delight: “She smiled the kind of smile that would give you hope in February. Then she held up her arms and said, very distinctly, ‘Hi, little fella.'” We’ll never know whether Kerr was guilty of a little retrospective sugar-coating. But I do know which book I’d recommend to an overwhelmed friend facing an unexpected pregnancy post-40.

I loved the following section of the tribute to Kerr:

Austin takes on Salon’s series of essays called “Mothers who Think” (a title which always bothered me for some reason … and now I know why.) Here is what she says:

I sometime wonder what Kerr would have made of Salon’s long-running feature, “Mothers Who Think.” Did that title refer only to the authors? Or was it a device allowing homebound, cranky readers to feel intellectually superior to those morons on the kindergarten fun fair committee? Sure, MWT offered a good number of interesting and well-written pieces. But the title–like many of the essays in the series–had a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by the flap copy of the collected MWT essays, which calls them a “testament to the notion that motherhood gives women more to think about, not less.” Of course it does; you just have less time to write it all down.

Jean Kerr completely lacks the sense of self-important grievance which so dominates the dialogue about balancing motherhood and work these days. She acknowledges the problems, yes. But she treats the entire topic with humor. And WIT. A fresh breeze of wit. Jesus, I don’t have kids yet, but all of the books out there seem designed to scare me, warn me off, tell me how BAD it is, how HARD it is, how IMPOSSIBLE it is to have it all. But Kerr does not go that route. She takes a bemused attitude to the entire thing. It is not the end of the world that your children ate the daisies, it doesn’t mean you have failed as a mother and a homemaker, it doesn’t mean you are not living up to all of the expectations you heaped on your head … It means that now you have to remind yourself to say to your kids, “Please don’t eat the daisies.”

Perhaps it is an over-simplification of all the stresses women face. I am sure it is. But I believe we can make things worse by over-thinking things, over-worrying things, and completely taking on the idea that society expects you to be perfect. If somebody expects you to be perfect, then that is THEIR problem, not yours.

This is an idea I have struggled with my entire life. There have been years in my life when my struggle to be perfect, to live up to the imagined expectations of others, has completely RUN my entire existence. It is a terrible thing. I still do not have a handle on it. I am still a Nervous Nellie. If I “fail”, I still am apt to take it on in some sort of global way. ie: I burnt the toast = I am a terrible person, and barely a woman at all. I am not fit for relationships and no man will ever love me. I will not be able to raise children effectively, I will ruin their lives.

STUPID, but very human. Everybody has this to some degree.

Jean Kerr, as well. But she laughs it off.

Here’s what Austin has to say about that:

The thing I most love about Kerr, and the generation of women who were her most loyal readers, is that they seemed to be taking motherhood on a pass-fail basis. They weren’t competing desperately for straight A’s on the homefront–nor were they “surrendered” wives and mothers, submerging their identities into the giant gaping maw of family life. They were active and energetic but never “busier-than-thou,” and they seemed to be having more fun than any grown-up woman I see around me today–myself included.

It reminds me of some of my earliest memories of childhood.

Early memories come through the senses. We add meaning to them later.

So for me: here is what comes up from those long-ago days:

Bright sunshine. Hot flagstones. Fisher Price people all set up. Hilarious fun being had with siblings and cousins. (This is a memory from our summers at Lake Sunapee.) Sun on the birch trees. Blue lake through the trees. Cap’n Crunch cereal. The world of childhood. Fun, fun, fun.

But on the outskirts of all of this, were my aunts and uncles (many of them younger than I am now), and my parents. This is the early 70s. So I remember my mom’s fabulous white pants … her Dr. Scholls shoes (we called them “clackers”) … the sound of adult voices and laughter on the edge of our childhood world. We were separate. Adults over there, children over here. We did not need to be occupied, or have activities planned for us. The grownups did not bend over backwards to entertain us, to keep us happy.

They stood over on the side, smoking cigarettes, wearing bikinis, drinking gin and tonics, talking, laughing, and, I am sure, having a blast on an adult level.

Then something would happen in the child-world which would demand notice from the adults. A fight breaking out. A child skinning his knee. Tears of pain. And the mothers, gin and tonics in hand, would click-clack over to us, and soothe the wounds, kiss it better, make us make up, etc.

I remember one moment vividly from these Sunapee summers, I must have been … 4? I was in the water, beside the dock, flopping around on a piece of styrofoam. I had no life-preserver on. I don’t think I could swim. But all the adults were right there, up on the dock, sitting in deck chairs … again, with little cups in hand, the clinking of ice. Summer vacation. And I fell off the piece of styrofoam and began to sink. I remember all of the bubbles. The light coming through the bubbles. Sinking down. (Remember, the water was only 3 feet deep or something like that.)

And suddenly, there was a crash from above … a mighty roar of blinding white … a tsunami of water, and within a moment, I was up on the dock, heaving for breath. Heart pounding. My mother, dressed in the white bell bottom-y pants (which she probably made), and her clackers, turned, saw me sinking, and leapt into the lake, fully clothed, to save me.

I have tears in my eyes. Mothers!!

What does all this have to do with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies? I’m not sure.

But I do know I grew up with a mother who had that Jean Kerr thing going on. It was not easy for her, I am sure. There were four of us. My mother is an incredible woman, with a lot of gifts, a lot to contribute to the world. Her only accomplishment is not her children. She has a lot going on. But she never seemed to get caught up in the stressed-out perfectionist brand of mothering. She was much more matter-of-fact. At least in my memory. She cared about the RIGHT things, and let all the other stuff go. She, to quote somebody else, did not “sweat the small stuff”.

I also got the sense that my parents were friends … their only bond was not US. They talked to each other about grown-up stuff, and we had to fend for ourselves. WHICH IS NOT A BAD THING. I loved knowing my parents had a relationship … where they talked to each other. I didn’t know it was rare and weird until I encountered other families. My mom did not sigh like a martyr, or huff and puff, fuming in silence about things. I don’t think my mother has an “Oh, poor me” bone in her body. She may have had her darker moments, when she was by herself, but I did not pick up on that sort of anxiety and anger from her as a child, and for that I am very grateful.

My memory of my mother from those early early years is of a benevolent freckled watching woman on the sidelines, talking with her friends, or her sisters, wearing clackers, looking fabulous, enjoying her life for the most part. And also completely ready to throw herself into the lake at a moment’s notice to save my drowning ass!

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5 Responses to Motherhood, Jean-Kerr style

  1. Tom McMahon says:

    This is really terrific. Thank you for a great post!

  2. Dean's World says:

    Best of Sheila

    You’ll find a compendium of Sheila “Astray” O’Malley’s best work here. I especially liked her Battlefield Earth compendium and her tribute to Jean Kerr. Indeed,…

  3. Shirley Jackson.

    She’s in the same league. She wrote horror novels (The Haunting of Hill House), a short story that will live forever (The Lottery), and two autobiographical novels and many short pieces about her children, recently reprinted. The two books are “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons,” and they are the funniest domestic life novels I’ve ever read.

    And I read Jean Kerr’s books in high school. Loved ‘em, but not nearly as much as I loved Jackson’s.

    There’s also “The Egg and I,” and one more that I can’t think of right now.

  4. Jett says:

    “We Have Always Lived In This Castle”. That’s my favorite Jackson book. And she is one VERY unsung American author.

    This post gets a hearty “Bravo.” My mother, too, was too busy living to let us see her dark moments.

  5. Alpha mom

    Once a 100-hour-a-week senior vice president of Saloman Smith Barney, now she’s turned that intensity into raising a child. What’s a mother to do? Become an “alpha mom.” New York Metro reports on Isabel Kallman’s plans to become the Martha…