Bring Down the Little Birds

By Carmen Giménez Smith

The University of Arizona Press
August 2010, Paperback
112 pages


Reviewed by Jena Salon


There is a war in Mommy-world, a conflict arising from the tendency of many new mothers to assume that their own choices are the best, assume that their choices are the best for everyone, and judge other mothers—often to their faces—when they make different choices. I try not to engage. I didn’t breastfeed my children. They slept in their own cribs, in their own rooms, upon returning from the hospital. They have early, consistent bedtimes. They eat very little sugar. They do not watch TV. I try not to judge other moms. I try not to rub it in their faces that I get time alone because my children are asleep from 7pm to 7am. I try not to tell them how much crying it took to train my children to do that. I try not to defend myself and say, Listen, all the neurological studies say… But I am a fighter and easily called to arms, so mostly I try not to engage in discussions that might lead me to scream that it’s just as easy to teach your children letters (should you feel two year olds need to know them) by reading to them as by letting them watch Sesame Street

I should want to destroy the enemy: Carmen Giménez Smith and her co-sleeping, breast-feeding-till-they’re-two, mommy-memoir-writing kind. But I don’t. I don’t wish anything ill on Giménez Smith because her new book, Bring Down the Little Birds, is full of so much emotional confusion that she can’t manage to judge anyone but herself. And also: there’s pee in her bed.

That’s right, urine.

At first, when she says, "Our bed is stained with breast milk and urine," I read it uncomfortably, wondering where the urine came from and why she hasn’t changed the sheets. Then I deduced that it was from the dog, and that she would have to change the sheets every day—or draw a boundary she’s not willing to draw—to not have pee on her sheets. She can’t change the sheets every day because she’s bone tired. Changing sheets never seemed so tiring to me before motherhood, but now I can picture the tensing of muscles as she pulls at the corners, flipping first the quilt, then the two sheets, then the pillows off the bed. An instant extra load of laundry.  Every day.  So instead she does what mothers do: she becomes comfortable with pee and puke and poop.   

After that, I can’t help but trust her. I know she holds nothing back. This thin wisp of a memoir—all of 112 pages—is a kind of poetic litany of thoughts, roaming from writing, to working, to motherhood, to wifehood, to daughterhood, to linguistics, and then circling around again and again.  Everything is imbued with complication, positives and negatives, confusion.  "This semester the department assigned me a children’s literature class. Is this the motherhood ghetto of academia? / I plan to subvert it. And not just the curriculum—my motherhood as well."  But she doesn’t, can’t. She loves her son, loves being a mom, and soon, she is pregnant again. Not for one second does she think she might not want the second child. But she doesn’t want to be taken over by motherhood again. Except she loves it. You see the problem. 

Bringing Down the Little Birds presents moments of anguish and joy so that they twine together, jerking the reader as she feels jerked, by whimsy, resolve, and love. The paragraphs pile on top of each other, interrupting her trains of thought with structural representations of her brain on Motherhood:

Our family means something new in this bed. We are four./ A child is a blessing. Blessing once meant consecration in blood. A baby crowned in her mother’s blood. The mother blessed twice./ My uterus is shrinking inside my body. Old, wet shoe contracting in the sun./ My son gets whisked away by a series of relatives and friends. He’s with us long enough to hit the baby.

 She resolves to give herself more personal time, resolves to work more, but then she writes for only "two and a half hours….Then [she] extreme-guilt mother[s ]" her son. 

It turns out that despite our completely opposite parenting choices (feeding, bedtimes, etc) Giménez Smith and I have a lot in common deep down. We want to work and worry about working, we love our children and become rageful at them, we hate ourselves for wanting to be without them and we hate ourselves for the guilt. Mostly we think, think, think until we have become our own worst enemies. One day after her son "slaps [her] across the face. A straight up bitch slap," she slaps him back. Then she retreats to the bathroom where she "tabulates the long-term effects as [she] weep[s]." She is confused, regretful, self-condemning. She thinks of her own mother, the cycle of hitting that is beginning.  Instead of feeling sorry, she feels like a monster. 

Preparing for the births of her children, Giménez Smith decides to use midwives instead of obstetricians—she doesn’t want to "treat pregnancy as a disease, but it’s certainly shaped like one: symptoms, sign, sickness…the way it alters my sense of the body." And motherhood—having the baby—does not erase this. It only forces her to give over her life, her body, in a different way. Giménez Smith and I have made different choices, but our bodies take the same beating. I understand her worry. I am with her. That is, until she is at Disneyland with her two children and husband and mother, and she falls ill. Instead of staying in bed for the day she realizes "[t]he sick thing can only be for a little while.  I have to let it go because of everyone in the room. My mother’s worry, my husband’s exhaustion, my children need me.  I shake it off."  My blood rages.

Her husband would lay sick in bed if he needed to!

And yet, really, I’m not appalled by her inability to let herself heal when she needs it. I’m appalled by how easy it is, looking in from the outside, to see the ridiculousness of the feeling that your family would not survive without you for a few hours; I am appalled because I know I’ve suffered the same delusion.  

This is what is most difficult about motherhood, what Giménez Smith is really getting at. Talking about the small moments and the individual feelings make them "become ordinary" to  anyone else, and yet the rage and sadness and love and confusion and insanity swarm, consuming every moment of every day. Those moments in Bring Down the Little Birds feel real and important. Those moments speak of love. Rationality be damned.