Jennifer Lauck's name is inextricably bound to the school of hard knocks by her first two memoirs, international best sellers Blackbird and Still Waters.
Now comes Show Me the Way, recently released in paperback, Lauck's clear-eyed, no-nonsense look at making sense of life as a mother, from the specific point of view of someone whose own rearing left much to be desired.
In Blackbird, Lauck chronicled the six years of her childhood during which both her mother and father died and she and brother Bryan ended up with an exploitive, cruel stepmother. At the end of the book, Lauck is to be adopted by an aunt and uncle, a tremendous relief readers enjoyed until the publication of the sequel, Still Waters, in which we learned of her separation from her brother, the loveless household in which her rearing was completed, her brother's ultimate suicide and her escape into an adulthood with a promise of stability and love.
Lauck says she began writing memoirs as preparation for motherhood, knowing that her childhood issues had to be worked out if she was to be a healthy, honest, capable mother. That notion of self-examination rings throughout Show Me the Way.
"It really does come down to what our formative experiences were," said Lauck in a recent interview. "It's so important to recognize that your children become a mirror, mirroring yourself right back to you."
In the chapter on the experience of being hospitalized and medicated before giving birth, Lauck dovetails the story of her son's birth with the story of losing her mother, questioning the decisions of the professionals surrounding her while simultaneously questioning her own instincts.
"Psychologically, that comes from having a mother in the system who was badly mismanaged," said Lauck. "Schizophrenia was still relatively new on the diagnosis barometer, there was rampant use of untested drugs, and they didn't know then how various drugs interacted. [My mother] became a guinea pig for the use of drugs.
"This happened to me before my ego formed. I was watching my mother, who wasn't questioning anything and who was so horribly ill she wasn't able to advocate for herself after a while. She was declared mentally incompetent, and they just put her away. You could say I developed a hyperawareness of mainstream medical approaches."
Lauck reaches a rational compromise based on respect for both the "brilliance of the medical field" and the wisdom of ancient healing techniques, naturopathy and herbology.
Show Me the Way is told in lively narrative and includes many moments of maternal doubt, such as when Lauck's son Spencer, now 8, is accused of being the only kid in the neighborhood who's fascinated with gunplay. She found few, if any, other mothers who were willing to talk with her openly about that and the other mothering issues she found most compelling.
On a recent book tour with Andrea Buchanan, managing editor of the Web site Literary Mama (www.literarymama.com) and author of Mother Shock, a collection of essays on the delights and disturbances of first-time mothering, Lauck says she has found young mothers are eager to discuss the difficulties of mothering, balancing career and parenting, and the insecurities associated with "forming these delicate lives while balancing it with finding our own authentic selves."
"The biggest issue we've come up with is judgment," said Lauck, "self-judgment and judgment of other women by mothers.
"If we could teach ourselves to be nonjudgmental, still critical and open but without the judgment, we could approach these difficult issues much more constructively."
Show Me the Way
by Jennifer Lauck
(Washington Square Press: New York)