If you’ve ever looked into the small earnest face of a young child and felt that it was sucking the life out of you, your guilt exceeded only by months of exhaustion, you probably didn’t tell anyone. We don’t have casual conversational starters for those moments: “My child is a wrecking ball come through the fortress of my marriage. I can tuck my breasts into my jeans and I haven’t gone to the bathroom alone in two years. Please pass the salt.”
In The M-Word: Conversations About Motherhood, Kerry Clare, Toronto-based writer and mother of two, has gathered the stories of 25 women writers, hers included, about their experiences of motherhood. While it should come as no surprise that life in the ‘hood isn’t all snug-fitting onesies and bath time bubbles, this anthology lays waste to any remaining doubt. Writers, after all, like specifics.
“Regardless of the fact that I’ve been at it for sixteen years now, it still feels like I’m not ready for motherhood.”
~ Nancy Jo Cullen
The M Word is organized alphabetically, by writers’ surnames. Clare said she tried to organize it by theme but found “it just didn’t seem to work that way, there were no ‘themes’ that made more sense than the women’s individual stories.” So, unless you are a stepmother, who will easily recognize the chapter title “Wicked” (Susan Olding), you will just need to put your feet up (on your kids, if you have any) and go for the ride:
pregnant the old fashioned way, as planned; not planned; home birth; home made; successful infertility treatments; unsuccessful treatments; accidental pregnancy continued; abortion; giving baby up; family adoption; foreign adoption; no kids; never kids; only one, thanks; four, please; oh crap, twins; miscarriage; death of baby; stepmom; person not wanted to be called “stepmom”; parenting toddlers; teens; hanging on; letting go; grandmothering; and every possible bodily fluid, in many improbable ways.
Given the A-to-Z order of the anthology, it is incredibly fortuitous that the first chapter, “Truth, Dare, Double Dare,” by Heather Birrell, is one of the strongest and would have made an excellent first choice had the book been organized any other way. She writes plainly and eloquently about the difficult birth of her first child, the subsequent strain on her self, her husband and her marriage, an unexpected second pregnancy, the contemplation of an abortion, the everyday grind of it all, and she manages to make a clear political statement about women’s reproductive rights. She also has the funniest one-liner about breastfeeding but it absolutely cannot be told out of context.
“… it’s hard to put your finger on the glint of joy in the dirty dishwater of drudgery. It slips away, seems a trick of light…”
~ Heather Birrell
Like Kerry Clare, I tried to map out these stories so I could write about them within the boundaries of a review. And, like her, I could not make anything fit neatly. I cannot even tell you how many of these women have children, without further explanation. In fact, having just taken a few minutes to do some counting and considering, I cannot even tell you how many of them are mothers. Surely an adoptive mother is a mother, a stepmother is a mother (“adoptive” and “step” being but adjectives) – but what is an aunt who raised two nephews and a dog, almost full-time? Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s description of their relationship reads as though she is in fact the boys’ mother, although she is respectful of the fact that she is not, actually.
Because women are still defined by whether or not they are mothers (and, as mothers know, there is another pecking order inherent in that one), it was a wise editorial choice to include the stories of women who have decided not to have children. I don’t think, however, that a book about motherhood needs to devote (almost) a third of the space to these stories. But it does need some of them, for here, too, is complexity. Some of these women made a very clear decision; others left it until the decision was taken out of their hands for medical reasons and one woman is still decidedly undecided. I can’t help but wonder if reading the other 24 stories in The M Word will sway her, either way.
“… the irony is that we harm our planet by having babies. The hope we put into our own children can and does eliminate the hope of other children around the world.”
~ Nicole Dixon
Instead of themes and categories bumping alongside each other, these stories of motherhood speak to each other. Myrl Coulter’s compelling account of giving her baby up for adoption in the late 1960s (a memoir excerpt that makes me want to buy the book), is echoed in Kerry Clare’s chapter about her own abortion. Thirty five years after Coulter feels forced to give up the son she was forbidden to even hold, Clare uses the same language of stigma, shame and being “in trouble” to describe her own unwanted pregnancy at the beginning of the 21st century. Our bodies are still very political grounds. More than one of the contributors to The M Word reminds us we need to remain vigilant.
Three of the women, Ariel Gordon, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang and Fiona Tinwei Lam, each decided to have only one child (in Lam’s case, as a single parent) in order that they could better manage their writing lives. Award-winning writer Carrie Snyder has four children and yes, your shock, horror and sort-of-envy secretly motivates and delights her.
“A bomb had exploded in the centre of my identity.”
~ Heidi Reimer
All the women delight in their children, or the children in their lives, some of the time. I think that’s the only fair statement I can say after reading all 25 stories. You might be put off if you start with Heidi Reimer’s story. She writes unabashedly about her love for her newborn, her powerful mothering instinct and all the things that make our knees buckle when it comes to that stage of our (and their) lives, but doesn’t, years later. But then she talks about her other daughter, their complicated relationship and ongoing struggles. I found this chapter to be one of the most intimate portraits of motherhood, in its range of feeling and Reimer’s candid expression of agony.
And there is a lot of agony and loss in The M Word. Alison Pick realizes she first came to see herself as a mother not after the birth of her first child but during her first pregnancy, which resulted in a miscarriage. Christa Couture is a mother of two sons and she wears a locket with their photographs, even though, unimaginably, they are now both dead. While most women complain about the long term physical effects of pregnancy, Couture likes to rub her hand along the stretch marks on her belly, her closest physical connection to her sons, the place wherein there is “this feeling that I’m a lighthouse that searches and beckons.”
“I worry my heart isn’t big enough to give them what they need, what they deserve, that my love for them doesn’t have the room to be at peace with the possibility of letting go, doesn’t have the room to face their deaths. You need a whole hell of a lot of love to be open to that, and I simply don’t have enough of it.”
~ Marita Dachsel
There is another kind of loss, the one we associate with our lives “before” children. Julie Booker’s pre-twins life was enviable. Her life now, with toddler twins in her mid-40s? Shining moments in a sea of smelly diapers and pawing needs. (But better her than Ariel Gordon, who writes, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.”) Deanna McFadden’s pregnancy almost killed her and a few years into her son’s life she is still recovering, physically and emotionally. Does she adore him and is she glad he’s here? Well of course. Most of the time.
“But where is the space where I can resent him a little bit for plowing me over just by coming into this world? It’s not practical; I don’t resent him, I don’t even dislike him, I revel in him, but it’s not enough – it’s not enough, this being a mother.”
Perhaps the only thing that ties these stories together is an echo. Whether conspicuously absent, mentioned in passing with disdain, regret or remorse, it is the mothers of these women writers who lurk between the lines and beyond the pages. In her (uncategorizable) story, I am left with the sense that it is Maria Meindl’s own mother that is laid into her waiting arms. It is a nice touch that the book ends with a chapter by Michelle Landsberg, written from her point of view as a mother and now a very involved grandmother, though she, too, is wary of the role and the often impossibly awkward dance between a mother and her grown children.
“It is a cliché to say that I came to understand my own mother better when I became a mother myself, but it is very true.”
~ Fiona Tinwei Lam
The strength of an anthology — that it gathers different perspectives, written in different voices — is also its Achilles’ heel. The range of mothering experiences in The M Word is wide, but the range of mothers is not. The vast majority (trans: not all!) of its contributors are straight, white, and/or middle-class women. They live in houses and can afford to stay at home, or they have professional day jobs; they have cars (or can afford the choice not to), helpful partners and daycare. This won’t be a problem for most readers because, let’s face it, that’s who will buy this book. But I couldn’t help think of all the women whose struggles are magnified many times over because of limited financial resources, as well as the infuriating and heartbreaking complications of negotiating racism — among other systems of social disenfranchisement — for themselves, and their children. I’m sure none of the women who contributed to The M Word would disagree with this (that so many mothers have these added burdens) and a couple do speak to their privilege directly. I also know that one person’s story does not and cannot represent one particular group of people. My point is that there was room for some of these stories in The M Word and their absence feels like a significant omission. Perhaps it is a part of the motherhood conversation we are still not ready to have.
When a friend tells you she is pregnant and “I’m thrilled!” what you say is, “Congratulations! You will make such a wonderful mother!” This cultural imperative to somehow morph into Wonderful Mother in nine months plus one instant, is the stuff of little girls’ dreams and grown women’s nightmares. The stories in The M Word are the often searingly candid tales of the reality behind the pressure to be a wonderful mother, or even a mother at all. If I was a publicist for Goose Lane, I’d get this book into high schools (optional reading for girls, compulsory for boys?!), university courses, midwives’ and doctors’ offices, community centres and political offices of all stripes (okay, maybe not all). I’d also cancel the “Are you Mom Enough?” PR posters. Just sayin’.
I did not find my own motherhood story in the chapters I thought I might. Instead, I found it woven throughout the stories in The M Word, throughout the lives of the women who, like me, find that there are no easy answers and that the promise of love is not all-sustaining. Our many, many ways of mothering – each other and each other’s children, included — are as indignant as they are forbearing: as intricate as the rivers of our stretch marks, unfathomable as the oceans of our loss.