Childhood memories play such a large role in how individuals approach parenthood, for better or worse. For Priscilla Gilman, who’s spent much of her life enmeshed in poetry from the Romantic era, her perspective was fully in line with a "romantic" image of childhood. Days filled with endless wonder and exploration, marked by imaginative and emotional play pursuits—these were the marks of her ideal childhood experience. So, when Gilman had her first child, she had these images dancing in her head as she visualized the years to come. Her memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper, April) chronicles her experiences as she embraces parenthood even as it brings about an unanticipated journey.
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After Benjamin is born, Gilman notices an intensity to his personality. As an infant, he struggles against being held, and his zealous breastfeeding seems to be strictly about consumption of food, without any of the anticipated emotional bonding. His seriousness begins to be accompanied by a natural disdain for crowds and loud environments as a young toddler. After an English department faculty event when Benj becomes more distraught and inconsolable than they’ve ever experienced, the author and her husband find that they stay closer to home.
Gilman describes their family life in loving, playful tones, in which they provide a literacy-rich environment for Benj, whose precocity in this area is soon evident—identifying individual letters at an extremely early age is soon trumped by his ability to read entire books shortly after his second birthday. For two literary academic parents, his innate interest and talent in this area is embraced and celebrated, even as Gilman admits to experiencing uncertainty about his overall development. When she raises concerns about his uncoordinated physical development, difficulty with stairs and chewing food, she’s reassured by family and pediatrician alike that he'll eventually catch up. But all of Gilman's descriptions of these early childhood years—of Benj's interests, behaviors and development, along with her concerns and observations—lead to the discovery that he has hyperlexia, turning each of her previous notions about her son, his abilities and his future on its head.
Parenting memoirs tend to attract readers for the individual connections that might apply, but The Anti-Romantic Child should not be pigeonholed for parents of special-needs children only. While her son's experiences will be the initial draw for some (and from a child-development perspective it is quite fascinating, especially for those who see a parent’s lack of control over a misbehaving child as a parental flaw), her view of parenthood—a journey filled with surprises—is certainly something with which all parents can relate.
In addition to the straightforward story of providing the best environment for her son's needs, Gilman's memoir possesses a beautiful lyrical quality that weighs with human emotion. She avoids both the maudlin and clinical extremes when telling her son's story, and true to her personal and academic interest in Romantic poetry, the memoir is sprinkled throughout with connections to several poems by William Wordsworth, the subject of her dissertation while at Yale. Each reference poignantly accents her observations, and even for the most challenged among us when it comes to poetry appreciation, the parallels are crystal clear. Take this passage:
"Two lines of ‘She Dwelt’—‘Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky’—had been used on our rehearsal dinner invitation to celebrate Richard's and my shining devotion to each other, but now, many years later, they took on an entirely new meaning. They exemplified what I had thought Benj was. It's what all parents believe their children to be: fair, bright, irreplaceable, the only one. And now my Benj appeared no longer unique but instead a type."
Gilman primarily addresses marriage, parenthood and career, and readers will be invested in learning her fate on all three fronts. One does not need to have experienced parenting a child with atypical development to appreciate this memoir, just as an established love for poetry is not a prerequisite either. The Anti-Romantic Child is a wonderful fit for readers attracted to beautifully written personal narratives on the joys—both expected and surprising—of parenting.
When she's not reviewing books on 5 Minutes for Books, Dawn (and her online alter ego, morninglight mama) can be found blogging at my thoughts exactly, pondering parenthood on her local Patch, and being a twit @mteblogmama.