In Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and other Explosives, Mary Laura Philpott takes us by the hand and leads us through a tour of the maladies of her middle-class life. By most standards, Philpott has a good life. But that’s why she worries so much. And in this memoir-in-essays on the emotional pitfalls of motherhood, Mary Laura Philpott asserts that to love something is to worry. Some may experience a special category of panic that only comes with having a successful life – filled with children and pets and careers and summer vacations – yet now fear the catastrophic vaporization of all things held dear.
In the book’s first essay, “Hello from Upside Down,” readers join Philpott lying flat on her back on her living room floor. It’s the holiday season. A Christmas tree decorates the corner of the room. Her sweet family is in bed. From the floor, she attempts to compensate for a working lifetime of hunched shoulders, laptops, and her failure to perform the prescribed stretches and relaxation. Philpott also contemplates her daughter’s allergies, squabbles with her son over homework, and the memories of Christmases past and present. Philpott narrates, “I felt the universe had entrusted me with so much more than I could possibly keep safe. Every job, every loved one, every little thing I got attached to, every purpose I held dear – each one was another stick of dynamite, strapped to the rest.”
In the second essay, “Hurry, Hurry” we catch up with Philpott later that same night, after she pried herself from the floor and fell into bed. She’s awakened by the thumping noises of her son having his first epileptic seizure. And with that trip in the ambulance and the doctor visits that follow, Philpott is thrust into a whole new world of worry: medications and their effectiveness; should she put a gate at the top of the stairs at night to prevent falls; what will happen when he goes away to college? But that’s the thing about being prone to worry – life will always deliver, providing infinite variations of nail-biting scenarios. But, according to Philpott, when you love someone or something, “that’s the job.” “We take care of who we can and what we can, near and far…That is life.”
This is a book about loving so much it hurts. It’s about the anguish of a mother’s realization that she can’t keep her charges safe in the world, no matter how much she organizes, prepares, and controls. It’s an account of middle-age anxiety that many readers will recognize we share. But should we? While the essays are a celebration of love and family, in today’s social climate of war, pandemic, and a never-more-divided nation, it feels uncomfortable normalizing trudging through our privileged lives, nearly paralyzed by worry. By the book’s end, I yearned either for intervention or Philpott’s spontaneous transformation, perhaps selfishly to serve as inspiration to put down my own worries and enjoy a beautiful life before it’s too late.
But maybe, therein lies the lesson. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, love gets the best of us and we behave badly. We nag. We worry. We try to control. We scream. In the essay, “To the Woman Screaming on the Quad,” Philpott pens an open letter to a woman whose college campus tour with her daughter devolved into a public screaming match. The experience recounted by the campus tour guide served as a warning to other parents: Beware of Becoming the Mom Unhinged. While it’s tempting to laugh while judging the low moments of others, Philpott finds empathy:
“What if you’ve seen a good person in a bad moment, when they are exhausted by the work of becoming who they will be?… Even when I am doing the best I can, I still come awfully close to yelling fuck in public every now and then… Sometimes you just have to scream.”
The way we love won’t ever be perfect. And if you’re guilty of loving someone so much you’ve been moved to scream fuck in the grocery store or airport, you’re in good, very human, company. The woman on the quad, Philpott, and I have all been there.
Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives
By Mary Laura Philpott
Published April 12, 2022