The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood
edited by Kerry Clare, published by Goose Lane
- Reviewed by Angie Abdou for The Fernie Fix’s May 2014 Issue
May is the perfect time to recommend a book on motherhood, right?
Oh god. I can hear the boredom. I can feel reader interest sliding away from me. Another book about parenthood? No thanks!
Stop everything. Withhold judgement for a minute. I promise you The M Word is not like any book you’ve read about motherhood. It is unexpected at every turn. Imagine your smartest and most articulate friend. Now fill the room with women as amazing as her, then spend as long as you like having honest conversations about your darkest, most secret thoughts around becoming (or not becoming) a parent. Say things you’re not really allowed to say. Say them well. Say them without judgement. That’s how immersion in The M Word feels. As soon as I began reading the first essay, I realized how badly I needed this book.
The list of authors who have contributed to this collection of essays reads like a Can Lit dream team: Heather Birrell, Nancy Jo Cullen, Alison Pick, Julie Booker, Saleema Nawaz, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, Carrier Snyder, Priscila Uppal. And that’s not even one third of the brilliant female writers filling these pages with profundity.
The M Word exceeds my expectations partly because it’s not just about the difficulty of raising children. It’s also about choosing not to have children, choosing to give children up for adoption, and choosing to have abortions. It’s about dealing with the secret tragedy of early miscarriage, about helping to raise other people’s children in a pseudo-mother role, about the ethics of writing about children who are too young to give their permission, and about meeting future stepchildren. It’s about having to live through the death of children (and, therefore, being a mother even though you have no children). The range of this collection is startling and helps to make editor Kerry Clare’s point that the M word “means something to every woman. Exactly what it means is rarely simple.”
The talented Heather Birrell’s “Truth, Dare, Double Dare” presents a clear-sighted account of the toll young children take on a marriage. My margins are filled with a simple exclamation: YES! “The skewed biological reality of it all; I had the boobs. I wanted him to do more work but I wouldn’t let him do anything. He became angry, withdrawn. We forgot how to be kind to each other.” YES! She writes of a fatigue so intense that she fantasized about being diagnosed with some horrible illness so she could have some quiet time in a hospital. YES! This difficult but honest essay compelled me to write to the author and express my gratitude.
Julie Booker’s “Twin Selves” opens with two contrasting paragraphs. The first describes her as a free and single woman hiking in Tibet under a crisp blue sky. The second describes her exhausted in her forties with twin toddlers, one of whom has a habit of smearing the inside of the stroller with excrement. “I am truly grateful,” she writes, “but I go in and out of full-blown grief.” Similarly, Deanna McFadden writes “Even though I have always wanted him, I wasn’t at all prepared for how he, that sweet, sweet boy, would blow my life up like a bomb.” This shape-shifting quality of motherhood is a recurring theme of the collection.
In the essays, women confess that they didn’t realize how much children would change their lives. “Our Before selves have evaporated like water left in a glass – the particles of our previous life floating around above us, disappearing where they may never be retrieved,” writes Deanna McFadden as she reconciles herself to a redefinition of self. “Maybe I don’t need to be that me that I was,” she concludes.
Not surprisingly given the quality of the writing, I am equally moved by the essays that fall completely outside my experience. Nancy Jo Cullen writes a hilarious, emotionally-charged essay about living with teenage children. Myrl Coulter’s heartbreakingly beautiful essay about her parents hiding her away in a 1960s’ “maternity home,” where she delivered a baby destined for adoption, is one of my favourites in the collection. Priscila Uppal, who is committed to not having children, entertains readers with comedic stories about her and her reluctant husband hosting baby showers for gigantic, horny pregnant women.
I fluctuated between devouring and savouring the poignant stories in The M Word. Simply, they are so well-written, well-paced and deliciously revealing that my impulse was to race through them as fast as I could, but I enjoyed each essay so much that I forced myself to go slow. As I suspected, the moment I finished the book, I missed the strong voices, the clear articulation of complicated emotions, the honesty, the sharing.
Motherhood: there is no role that evokes more sentimentality or more judgment. It’s a combination that leads to secrecy and feelings of failure. Thank you, brave women, for this wonderful book. It feels like the start of a beautiful conversation.