This Mary Kay is outspoken, funny, acerbic, merciful

May 28, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

When Mary Kay Blakely chose the title for her witty, acerbic and touching book on motherhood, the title she chose was not "American Mom."

In honor of her two grown sons, Ryan and Darren, she wanted to call the book "Raising Outlaws." Her second choice was "The Good Mother -- Not."

But when her editors got hold of the manuscript, it became "American Mom: Motherhood, Politics and Humble Pie" (Algonquin Books, 1994, $19.95).

Blakely came to UC Davis earlier this month to talk about her book and read an essay that might have been the final chapter in "American Mom" had she been able to continue writing past her deadline.

But first she described how she came to grips with the book's title.

"I didn't bond with it until I was stopped by an Indiana state trooper," she said. He wanted to know where she was going in such a hurry. She said she was going to a book-signing. He wanted to know the name of her book.

"I was able to tell him the book was about motherhood, not raising outlaws," she said.

The book describes Blakely's marriage, the births of her two children, her divorce after 10 years of marriage, and he adventures making the best of a postnuclear family while working to support that family in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Connecticut.

Along the way, Blakely describes what it's like to try and fail at the Supermom game. It's not that women try to do too much, she says. It's that women have too much to do. She, for instance, collapsed one day in 1984 and was in a coma for nine days.

"It took a cataclysmic event before all the men in my life paid attention to my trivial issues," she wrote. "Moms who don't bread down and go into comas are still expected, alas, to Do It All... but this much was abundantly clear at home: Mom was no Supermom."

Later, Blakely also had to deal with the desires of her teen-age sons to live for yearlong periods of time with their father in Ann Arbor, Mich.

She, like every other parent in this generation, had to worry about her kids and AIDS, suicide, homicide, teen-age pregnancy, drug addiction, gang violence, anorexia and bulimia.

And finally, she had to let her boys -- who sound like remarkably sane, well-adjusted kids -- grow up and move out of her home.

"Mother hood is not a job I ever wanted to outgrow," she wrote. "But here I am, 20 years later: I have become unnecessary."

At Davis she read an essay picking up where "American Mom" left off. This time, the action again involves Ryan and Darren but they are joined by Howard, the ex-husband, and the three men are moving Blakely from Connecticut to an apartment in New York City.

For the first time in 27 years, Blakely observed, she was going to live on her own. Solo. The years softened her attitude toward her ex. She is grateful for the adult support she receives from the three men in her life.

"We have awarded each other endless opportunities for mercy," she writes about her ex-husband. As she awards Howard mercy, she wishes the concept would catch hold. Neighbor to neighbor. Employer to employee. Government to citizen.

"This is a perilous time for those living outside traditional family units," she muses. What she calls "the conservative white guys movement" in the U.S. is labeling whole sections of the country as alien, "the other," with no room for mercy for the gay son, the divorced sister, the single mother.

She is shocked by the poverty and wealth that exists side by side in her city neighborhood. she revises her attitude toward panhandling on a daily basis and eventually gives to anyone who asks.

"Running a merciless government requires a little finesse and the cooperation of millions willing to go hungry and homeless," she says. "This is the triumph of capitalism? Without mercy it looks like Calcutta."

She recommends running the government like a family headed by experienced parents. Three rules would be followed: Share, take turns, grow up.

"The hope for my sons?" she asks. "Don't lose compassion. Dear God, let us be merciful fools."

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