Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The M Word

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood
Edited by Kerry Clare
Goose Lane Editions, 2014

My step-daughter (10) saw me reading this.

"The M Word," she said. "Michael."

Last May, she gave me a Mother's Day gift. I can't be the only man who's ever received one, but none of the essays written in these "conversations" is written by a male.

A year before I got a Mother's Day gift, my wife mother died, following 21 months with breast cancer.

The temptation to write "following a 21 month battle ..." is immense, as you might understand.

The real battle, however, was in the final three or four months. The disease had gone to her liver and her bones, her T1 vertebrae specifically.

Breast cancer can put you in a wheelchair. I didn't know that until it happened. It also typically progresses, as it did for Kate: breast, liver, bone, brain. Once it leaves the breast, cure is impossible, and you get the special benefit of learning to live with the fact that your days are numbered.

But then they are for all of us, right? We just typically forget that part. We let other anxieties grip and define us.

Goose Lane sent me this book in the mail, a review copy for this site, even though I haven't reviewed anything here in six months. Turns out there's something worse than living with someone who's dying of cancer. It's living without the person who was dying of cancer.

Reviewing books used to give me pleasure; now I have a hard time thinking three sentences in a row.

Ah, but I exaggerate. Some of my Tigger bounce is returning.

I don't like "Conversations about Motherhood," the sub-title. What's wrong with calling essays essays?

A quibble.

Confession: I'm only halfway through this book, but I've been itching to capture my thoughts, so here goes.

Persistently these essays (the one's I've read) reinforce the idea that motherhood is a choice (even if the conception is accidental, because abortion an option and a second level of choice). Alternately, not becoming a mother is also a choice, except for those times when it isn't because conception (and carrying to term) is biologically impossible.

That is, there is anxiety about control. Control to make the choice, one way or the other, and the strong assertion that the choice is valid, whatever the choice is.

Now I support choice, and I accept the validity of any choice anyone makes. It's your body, it's your choice, this is all fine.

What I find oddly missing is, um, well ... awe. Mystery. The miraculous. What also might be called, fate. What will be will be. The revelation that comes with the encounter with the void, the other, the greater power that drives away all expectations and replaces it with that indescribable whatever that shakes you to the core and makes you realize that you've never been so alive. And so lost.

So changed.

I mean ...

In 2007, I became an instant part-time parent of a three-year-old and a seven-year-old. I chose to tie myself to this ship. I love being a parent almost more than I loved being married. I will be eternally grateful that Kate allowed me this experience. It caused rapid growth in my psyche and emotions that could not have happened any other way.

The best days of my life were spent talking to Kate about how we were going to grow these munchkins. The most important thing I've ever done is clean up puke at three o'clock in the morning, while Kate slept, undisturbed. (I know!) She didn't believe that it had happened, until I showed her the sheets in the washing machine. (But there were other times I let her do it. Fair is fair.)

Then in May 2012 I sat with Kate as she told the children that she was going to die, which she did eight days later, in the back room of our house, in front of them.

I wonder how the lost mother becomes part of this conversation.

Anyhoo ...

I'm enjoying reading this book. I enjoy the diversity of the stories, the variations of circumstance.

I wonder why, though, in 2014 we can't have a book about parenting. The P Word. How many generations until these marketing categories get broken down?

But it's not just that, I know. The entire parent council of the school across the street from my house is made up of women. Women are the do-ers, overwhelmingly. They make the household spending decisions, overwhelmingly. They organize the birthday parties, overwhelmingly. They care for the boo-boos and late night puking, overwhelmingly. They are the caregivers, emotionally and otherwise, overwhelmingly. And each new generation of young women is raised to be independent and self-actualized. Crash, boom, bang. The center cannot hold. Conflict is inevitable, and also interesting. The source of narrative.

I'm starting to get the "conversations" bit now. It's sort of like Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," each story strand is okay. It gives us a different angle on an impossibly angled object.

I should likely highlight some examples to give you some idea of the content of the book, and not just my own muddling meanderings. (I warned you, though; my mind is griefstriken.)

My heart went out to Heather Birrell. Her piece was super lovely.

Julie Booker's late-arriving twins sound like a handful, yet their arrival gave me sweet joy.

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's story about her nephews and their dog was fantastic. Rich complex layers of super goodness.

Kerry Clare's tale of her abortion and subsequent pregnancy was well argued and poignant.

Myrl Coulter's reflections on giving up a baby for adoption show well-earned wisdom. Very effective integration of her own story with researched facts.

Christa Couture lost two small children. Separately. One after the other. Her essay is heartbreaking and, frankly, it contradicts my earlier claim above about the lack of fatalism in the collection. This is a brave and remarkable piece, one of the best here.

Nancy Jo Cullen sounds like a nifty drinking companion. She has two teenagers she will be happy to see out the door. She is a true den mother and zen mistress with a zingy comedic touch.

Marita Dachsel captures the anxiety of parenthood with gut stabbing precision.

Nicole Dixon doesn't have a kid and doesn't want one.

Ariel Gordon is a mother and a poet and she seems pretty good at balancing both roles.

Amy Lavender Harris reminds us that conception, even in modern advanced societies, is not a given. Her essay is another excellent example how effective it can be to mix the personal with well chosen researched facts. This is a very compelling piece that addresses how to become a mother in a lab. It looks at the personal pressures and costs, the social narratives that define and deny "naturalness", and the scientific details about how it all works, when it does.

Fiona Tinwei Lam is a third-generation single mother, and it seems to be working out well for her. As I step-parent, I appreciated her analysis of the changing social ideals of "attachment." Once unwed mothers were thought to be too unstable to care for their children (best for the children to go elsewhere); now the biological connection is privileged above nearly all else.

Deanna McFadden tells the ugly truth. Your children will make you angrier than you ever thought possible, and you will wonder why they aren't like other kids, specifically the quiet one that you saw on the way home on the subway.

And that's as far as I've gotten so far. I'm hoping that there's more craziness to come. Starker confrontations with the abyss. I want to hear from a mother who would be at home in a book like this. Or maybe from Jennifer Lawrence's character in "American Hustle." Or from an incarcerated mother. Or a drunk one. Or by a mother who spends her time looking after other people's kids so she can support her family in another country, typically the Philippines.

The narrative tension between the expectation and the real is okay, you know. It is what it is. It's motherhood in our current moment, though perhaps most prominently in an educated, middle-class type mode.

Motherhood is a role like every other role, in that it is complicated by a variety of pressures: race, class, family background, mental and physical health, level of education, geography, and pure random luck or lack thereof. (Wealth and power might be more common recent additions to this list. I imagine Allison Redford has an interesting tale to tell now. Kathleen Wynne, too.)

The truth is, that life is wild and unpredictable and out along the high wire we go. There is no net. No amount of desiring control and demanding validity is going to change that, though you may get strapped into a safety harness or two.

Yesterday I saw Michèle Taïna Audette speak. She is the president of the Canadian Native Women's Association, and she is currently leading the call for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

She started her talk saying she is a mother of five. And single.

One of the stories she told went like this. She was giving a talk in Sault Ste. Marie to about 300 people. There were about 30 Aboriginal people. She asked them to stand up and raise their hand if one of their direct relatives (grandmother, mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter) was counted among the missing and murdered. Twenty-nine raised their hand. Then she asked the 270 non-Aboriginal people to stand and answer the same question. One person put up their hand.

Someone asked her about the sex slave trade on the Great Lakes. Did she know about that?

Oh, yes.

Life is really a great disaster and the ability to bare and look after children a great gift. Unless you don't want to, then that's okay, too.

It would be a shame if conversations about motherhood skirted that chaos too tightly.

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