Q&A with Katherine Trueblood
Author of Take Daily as Needed: A Novel in Stories
1. Why do we need stories that take a humorous approach to struggles like Maeve’s?
Keeping your sense of humor is an indication that you will survive life’s travails, at least spiritually. This is a book about needing to laugh so you don’t cry. In “The No-Tell Hotel,” the character Tamara, who has multiple sclerosis, was based on a friend of mine who constantly found humor in the absurdity of her situation. When she fell on the beach, she said, “I had a lovely close-up view of the colored stones.” In the title story, Maeve and the handyman helping her fix up her house laugh at the warnings on household products because she is taking so many medications with side effects. What’s one more?
2. You wrote Take Daily as Needed partly to explore a concern many parents may relate to: worrying that our children are over-diagnosed and overmedicated. How does Maeve navigate that doubt and worry?
Maeve is firmly on the side of her son, not because she is unaware of some of his more peculiar traits, but because she likes unconventional people, and she questions whether the problem might be the school system that wants to manage the originality right out of Norman. Her son is an experiential learner, who “hates homework the way you hate someone who has betrayed you.” There isn’t much room at school for his way of learning.
Maeve is also a researcher, so she knows that the diagnosis of ADHD has increased significantly in the last twenty years in the US. ADHD is not as prevalent elsewhere in the world nor treated with medication as readily. Maeve wants to look at the social and cultural factors, but she feels pretty alone in taking this position. The form she fills out in “The Medicated Marriage” lists her as “The Parent Informant,” and she feels that way.
3. Maeve’s best friend, Regina, supports and consoles Maeve but also questions her. What does their friendship say about shifting attitudes towards men? About how a mother should prepare her daughter to cope with male aggression?
Regina is Jewish/Italian from an immigrant family. Her childrearing models are about survival, not about shielding children. Where Maeve is uncertain, Regina is pragmatic. In “Shot to the Head,” Maeve is upset after a hike with her daughter that spooked her when they met a couple of fisherman on the trail. She asks Regina, “Where is the child-rearing chapter on rape when you need it?” This is not a question our culture wants to address. She and Regina both came of age in the 1970s, when, as Regina puts it, “Men expected women to fuck. It showed how liberated and independent we were.” The language for sexual assault and date rape didn’t exist then.
At the other end of the spectrum, their daughters have been raised with liberal campus values—Take Back the Night, The Vagina Monologues—and the idea that rape can be eradicated if men just become sufficiently enlightened. Regina and Maeve aren’t so sure men can over-ride the more primitive & predatory parts of the brain with higher consciousness. Regina is definitely more old world than Maeve about it, which is why she accepts Maeve’s rash response to Noelle as the right one.
4. Are there specific things that Maeve is trying to teach Noelle about how to protect herself?
Very much so. In “Self-Defense,” Maeve and her daughter attend a workshop together, and Maeve realizes how ill-equipped she was to enter the world when she was Noelle’s age. She wants Noelle to be a woman who has situational awareness, to use a military term, not just the desire to please, and who is ready to fight for her own survival, if need be.
It turns out that Noelle is by temperament very clearly not a pleaser, and Maeve has this surreal moment of not recognizing her. I think for most parents, if we are honest, there is a moment when you realize you don’t know who your child is—because you have been looking through the lens of who you want them to be. That morning, Maeve reads a threatening message on her daughter’s phone and realizes she doesn’t understand the rules of Noelle’s world where a digital mob is on the loose.
5. How do Maeve’s children respond to her diagnosis of Crohn’s disease? Do their coping strategies change throughout the book?
Because of their mother’s illness, Maeve’s children distrust the world early on. At four and a half, Noelle says, “Mama, poison apples look like any other apple.” It is complicated for Noelle, who has her own trauma to contend with and a history of ER visits because of food allergies. As a teenager, she affords her mother no room to feel sick because it is too threatening to her. She appears to lack empathy but really her response is fear-based.
The advice on parenting with illness that Maeve finds is not very helpful; it doesn’t discuss anger as possible reaction in children. When she tells her son, “Norman, I’m sick, I need your help,” he answers “Wah Wah Wah.” They find her need for rest alarming. As Maeve says, “My children want to incite the wolverine in me…they’re not reassured that I’m okay unless there’s a daily show of force.” Norman is obsessed with fighting microbe-like monsters on his X-Box screen; the only way he can wish his mother well is by leaving a peaceful screen-saver on her computer. But as Maeve figures out the tools to live with chronic illness, her children become less frightened and more supportive. Still, it is a steep learning curve for everyone.
6. Your protagonist is a working mom trying to improve her career who finds herself with an unequal share of the caregiving. This situation has alternately been called the mom crunch, the sandwich situation, and the meltdown years. What particular challenges does it present?
I think this is a largely unexamined area of sexism in our culture. In his book, On Being Mortal, Atul Gawande points out that a parent is statistically less likely to end up in a nursing home if that parent has a daughter. That’s really outrageous when you stop and think about it. Does it mean that women are more likely to make sacrifices or that women are the designated sufferers in the family by default
Books and articles about work-life balance abound for women but the solutions they propose are apolitical. Instead it’s implied that there’s some tinkering each individual woman can do to get it right. I think we are being sold a bill of goods. Take Daily as Needed opens after Maeve’s health has broken down, when she can no longer over-ride her body’s messages with her will-power. She is going to have to find a whole new set of instructions for living. She is going to have to understand how her own ambition has been used against her, how the idealization of the mother figure has trapped her, and how her husband didn’t want to take up the work of feminism though he professed it. She knows that the rat race is not a sustainable model, maybe not for anybody, but certainly not for women.