When I first saw a Tweet announcing the impending publication of The M Word I Tweeted in response that if the book makes me laugh more than sigh, I would love it. The Tweet was half provocation, half earnest, but as I waded into the text I realized the Tweet was more serious than I thought. As a professor, writer, editor, and mother of two-and-a-half-year-old twins, I’m probably the target market for such a book, or at least, “a target.” And in truth it’s a good bet: I am hungry for such publications. I am hungry to hear how other people—though perhaps not only other women—are coping with parenting.
Still, I approached this text with trepidation. I have quickly learned to be wary of discussions about parenting, and of discussions with mothers. This is loaded terrain. It’s incredibly easy to offend or piss someone off, including myself apparently. The cover itself, with the M setting itself off in a sea of white (a comment on the list of contributors?) with a small round baby head set to mute sends a strong message about the kind of reader interested and I don’t feel it at all represents me. And right away one has to ask, does the style of motherhood really matter that much? What do I want from such a book that the way in which the information is offered can so easily offend? What am I expecting? And how am I expecting it?
The book tells me, “Here some of Canada’s best writers face down motherhood from the other side of the picket fence,” which is another dated sort of insult. I get that we don’t have these anymore, but I feel unnecessarily excluded by that line. Thankfully the promise of good writing generally bears out. There are strong, clear voices that slow the world down to mom-speed (yes, I hear the irony there) and ask a few difficult questions. Marita Daschel, for example, tries to trace the end of the free reign childhood in a moving piece about the difficulty of attempting to provide a healthy childhood while traversing a world increasingly unsafe for children. Alison Pick gives an account of a miscarriage and, in what for me was the strongest part of the piece, acknowledges that it was this first miscarriage—or the act of being pregnant really—that made her a mother, though she has gone on to have another. There were a few other stories that I was happy to hear, Myrl Coulter’s essay on what it was like to be a pregnant teen in 1968, for instance, rang true, and Fiona Tinwei Lam on being a single mother who offers a rare glimpse of a diverse population outside the margins of this book. Kerry Clare’s description of her abortion as she pushes forth into a new, wanted and well-timed pregnancy is also both chilling and powerful (you can read it here).
A few of the essays get at some of the more difficult psychological aspects of motherhood and for this I was grateful. The persistent stresses of being a non-reproducing female human in a world that assumes if you are female you are a mother, for example. The strange, deadpanned, tale of Maria Meindel’s “Junior,” a fibroid the size of a fetus and a less straining, but nonetheless uncomfortable essay from Christa Couture about the two children she lost and how she carries them and her sorrow in her life were very much appreciated. Couture’s was certainly one of the strongest in the collection, offering up some of the less pristine feelings in response to the constant, and prying questions strangers feel compelled to inflict on women about children:
Sometimes I have reveled in the other’s discomfort — yes, feel terrible that you asked, feel terrible that my children have died, I certainly do. Bitter. Angry. Hurt. I’ll reply bluntly, indelicately, ‘Yes, but they’re dead,’ and then watch them fumble.
Deanna McFadden’s account of losing her health to her child and the bracing feelings of regret that she lives with as she mourns her past life also rang true. Definitely not a good mom moment, and I think we all need to accept the fact that there are many of those. This essay dared to get at some of the less acceptable feelings I am sure every one of us shares, and it’s an uncomfortable but also confusing read. And while I appreciated the risk taken in the lack of positive resolution and depiction of an angry woman (always risky!), I wanted some clear directives from the start: what disease? And I wanted the discomfort to lead me somewhere more than the realization that life after children is different than it is before. I was frustrated by having to start over.
One thing that seems very clear is that as a style, creative non-fiction has become a series of small morsels set like bits of crumb along a trail and very predictable. There is a sameness to many of these essay structures, and that wasn’t enjoyable. That and the “lightness,” the “correctness,” of even those who veer out of the norm. Perhaps a visceral depiction of the many times a day a mother’s stomach plunges toward Hades is asking too much, but our lives, even before we have children, are visceral. To be called into the folds of motherhood one imagines nuggets akin to Anne Carson:
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving
an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
It’s perhaps not fair to evoke Carson, a poet (though possibly not according to the New Yorker), and not a mother, except that she gets at something about the embodiedness, of mothering, of desire, in “The Glass Essay” that is liberating in its brave and precise depiction of bodily gendered shame.
Lines in this book that came close to giving me that kind of wallop? Ariel Gordon’s “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one” (122).
I realize that even though I am a mother, etc., I may not be the perfect audience for this book. I live with another mother for starters. There is some queer content in the book—Nancy Jo Cullen has a co-mother and traces the impact of her leaving—but not a lot, or not as directly as the times might expect. In fact there isn’t a lot of diversity not only in terms of racial, but economic, geographic, or, dare I say it, a diversity of perspective. I’m not sure how fair it is to point that out given how difficult it probably is to get women to write about motherhood at all—and the book is clearly about “writing moms,” but I would love to have had an essay from a mother in Cambridge Bay, or Kitimat, or Chicoutimi, or Finch and Keele.
I was often left wanting more. Kerry Ryan and Julie Booker, for example offer frustratingly brief essays. Good essays, but not enough. I wanted more from Ryan because her thoughts about being undecided didn’t take me far enough into the complicated relationship between choosing art over “babies.” I know many women who are facing this question for a variety of reasons. It resonates powerfully and felt under represented. Booker’s “Twin Selves” came closest to getting at the suddenly walled-off feeling one gets at becoming a mother outside of one’s peer group as well as being an older mother with twins—surely God’s revenge, as much as blessing, on the aging and non-traditional couple, but I felt it didn’t scratch the surface.
One reviewer of this book said, “Had I read The M Word before I became a mother I may well have been angry that the lauded fantasy of family and procreation was being so savagely crushed.” I am still wondering what this reviewer saw that seemed so radical.
Just stopping to let you chew on that.
I gleaned this from promotional material about the book:
There isn’t a mother who hasn’t thought of herself as stationed far outside maternity’s central zone—that imaginary place where all the babies are cooing, bananas are never bruised, and every woman is comfortable enough in her own skin to disregard a magazine’s blaring provocation: Are You Mom Enough?
But in fact, its lack of radicalism, its apparent exclusivity, is the most provocative thing about the book: I get the feeling that there are a lot of women who are “not” mom enough.
What about my desire to have some laughs? Isn’t “not” being mom enough worth a few laughs? I come back to the question of what women want from this kind of book. To stories they’ve never shared before? Fine, but why are those stories always so sincere? So humourless? Susan Olding adds some lightness in “Wicked,” her essay about being a “step-mother” for which I was extremely grateful, as does Saleema Nawaz, but really, if the target audience is mothers everyone involved should know what it takes to read a book—any book—and make those morsels offered along the path a whole lot more palatable.
Although, to be fair, the two essays I thought were strongest in the book, the essays that spoke most clearly about the author’s relationship to motherhood, didn’t garner a lot of laughs, but they had a light masterfulness to them, a sense of telling me something deeply personal, with quite a bit of emotional risk for the author, while maintaining a kind of stylistic distance that was effective, not to mention the fact that the stories themselves are unique. Toronto writers Priscilla Uppal and Diana Fitzgerald Bryden have both chosen not to have children. Uppal’s story catches the wave of hysteria she and her partner feel at the sudden procreation of friends in their social group, that they nonetheless host and celebrate, never wavering from the author’s complicated non-maternal position. Bryden recounts the years of raising her sister’s children while choosing a life without children for herself and the impact of that on her own work and relationship. They both honor the seriousness of their positions without the swelling sound track.
Am I being unfair? In an interview with Sheila Heti recently, Lena Dunham says, “Women are set up to turn on each other…” In my research for this review I found a posting by the editor titled “On Passing Judgement,” that suggests it’s hard truths that women need, not “cooing and supportiveness.” I struggle daily to find a shape as a mother to keep writing in, to keep my relationship on a healthy track, to maintain a level of self-care, not to mention to maintain a writer’s life. I agree with Dunham, and Clare, and I don’t want to be unsupportive of this book, or the women writing their stories in it, but I guess I was hoping for some more hard truths here and less a sense of this cooing supportiveness. It’s the bruises after all that make the road map.
In terms of the style of essay-writing these days I can’t say I don’t love the habit—which I now think of as the Los Angeles Review of Books style—of slicing and dicing an essay so it has elaborate and seemingly ever expanding layers of inquiry, but if you’re going to use this choppy style you had best
take us somewhere worthwhile for all of our take us somewhere worthwhile for all of our
Would I recommend this book? I think so, but with a caveat. I turned to this to find communion, and a road map. To find other mothers facing things my partner and I are facing. In facing so many possible stresses, dangers, and unknowns, what the world needs is more complicated and probably “uncomfortable” representations of motherhood—books such as Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mum, A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch or Ariel Levy’s jaw dropping “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” essay that appeared in the New Yorker last fall. Things are complicated, and getting more so. “You can’t write the truth about others until you write the truth about yourself,” Virginia Woolf said, but the matter isn’t a truth, it’s truths. And truths are rarely cozy things. So yes, I would recommend the book. I would say, it’s a start. But what we really need to talk about is what we can’t, or won’t talk about. That’s what I need to read.
–Sina Queyras, Montreal
“I’m not sure you were entirely fair,” said my partner in the car on the way to the bank. She had initially shown interest in reviewing this book, and possibly reviewing it with me. I sent her a copy of this review a few days ago to read it over but she did not get back to me. We’re in the middle of moving (we sign for our new place tomorrow, move the following day) and we have twin toddlers so I assumed she had decided to give what little time she might eke out of her day to her own work. Fair enough.
“Yes,” I said, “you’re probably right.”
“I mean you don’t ever say what the hard truths might be. And you don’t adequately praise those aspects of the book that are strong–the Christa Couture essay and others, you mention, but you don’t clearly praise it with back up, and the fact that the editor chose to include a range of relationships to motherhood including being childless. That’s really great. You don’t say that.”
“Yes, it’s true. I wish you would have read it last week so we could have talked about it before I posted. I knew it wasn’t perfect…”
“Well, it’s still a good read….”
“I need to tell you that I posted the review this morning because I understood that I no longer had the time to do what it would take for me to be entirely happy with this review, and it was either going to sit in my draft files until I eventually deleted it, or I was going to have to post as is. I chose the latter. I think you have to move forward sometimes and take the consequences.”
But she’s right, my partner is right, I should have provided more examples of the things done well. I know that, and I had to eat it or forgo posting the essay altogether. Also, what does it mean that the essays I feel are strongest are written by women who don’t have children?? I don’t really investigate that.
“You should have said that. You should have framed the essay around that.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea though.”
“No, you’re probably right, but maybe that’s a hard truth: we don’t have time to do everything to perfection.”
“And also, not accurate.”
“I also didn’t agree with your point about essay style. Or rather, I didn’t get it…what were you trying to do with that?”
“I was trying to prove a point about not breaking up chronology in a random way, that if you’re going to mess with time make sure you do it for a reason, and if you make the reader leap, make sure it’s worth while, but yes, I would have had to go a lot further to get it right.”
“I should do a review of your review–”
“I think you just did–”
“Or maybe I’ll just write it in the comments.”