Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness.
Jeremy P. Tarchen, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
Adult memoir, 302 pages.
One mother’s journey to reconcile her own upbringing with modern parenting article advice.
As mentioned, I’ve been on a major nonfiction slump. Although reading required for classes and work has gotten done, I havn’t read any adult nonfiction for personal enjoyment in over a year. That’s longer than the break I took after graduating! A lot of that was Covid, blogging and other non-essential activities falling by the wayside, and since I strongly prefer fiction, what freedom I had went towards what was most fun.
I tried joining a challenge and buying new books but I still was just reading a chapter here and there, so looked back to my interests. Diverse of course. Biography/memoir. Parenting. Other areas I like to read about normally, like history, but lately just… couldn’t. Luckily, Caviness’ Child, Please was just right to remind me of the joys of a well-crafted true story.
Like most memoirs, it is roughly but not exactly chronological, focusing more on the narrative arc between Caviness and her own mother. Some chapters are topical – in one she focuses on depression and anxiety without specifically naming them as such, and the unique pregnancy and birth of each child also have their time of focused attention.
Caviness does go back and forth in time, but as I would expect from a seasoned editor, her writing is always grounded in a setting and I was never confused about when or where any particular anecdote was set. She’s funny, but not particularly comedic – more the laugh of relief when you are with your friends who all turn out to have a similar problem and understand it the same way as you. A reoccurring bit where she takes a moment to real talk and explain basic cultural norms to white readers has aged particularly well into the current day.
Throughout the whole book there is this brutally real but loving back and forth between her and her mother, as Caviness struggles to establish herself as a young mother, is frustrated by how laid back her mom is as a grandmother, and gradually feels a greater understanding of her mother’s experiences even as both admit that navigating this new tech-filled world is an entirely different parenting experience.
Content warning that she does experience miscarriage, and the text doesn’t really prepare the reader. Descriptions of the now-questionable parenting practices of past generations also abound, including smoking, physical punishment, swearing, threats, and other language. There is unflinching mention of suicide, child abuse, theft, and other serious topics. For those to whom it matters, there is very slight religious content in this book.
Caviness’s husband doesn’t show up well, other than at sports and generally being around. I wasn’t sure how much of it was because he made a more obvious comedic foil to the more serious relationship between Caviness and her mother, but I could have used a little more about the positives their relationship added to the family life. In particular, I wasn’t sure if Caviness drew lines between her own fun, but ultimately irresponsible, father and her physically present but often comically clueless partner to emphasize the connection between her and her mother, or if she truly feels that her father and her partner are equivalent.
While glancing askew at the men in her life story, Caviness is definitely aware of the many women who have showed up for her, her mother, and her daughters and she does an excellent job of acknowledging the community around her. In particular, Caviness does a superb job of parsing useful truths from both her mother’s old school wisdom and the latest modern parenting articles. Many people can acknowledge a few positives to both, but Caviness lays out each, how she felt about them, what she did, and how it went – usually without coming across as too judging of either, and while keeping an entertaining, cohesive narrative.
I would especially suggest this to any parent or anyone with a particular interest in the mother daughter dynamic. More general memoir readers might find this a little too kid-centered, but honestly, it was exactly what I needed. Now I just have to decide if I’m going to keep or gift my copy. Highly recommended.