I immersed myself in The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood over the course of a couple days, simultaneously gobbling and savouring, and here is what I have to say: I am so excited to be part of something so damn excellent. This book is excellent.
In fact, excited isn’t the word—the book is so excellent that I’ve been unable to pinpoint an accurate adjective for how I feel about my inclusion in it. Thrilled, delighted, proud, honoured—these don't do justice, though they're all true. Lucky. Full. Something. I am something to be part of a project that is so excellent. The essays, individually and collectively, capture the complexity, and that is what is stunning and gratifying. At last, the complexity of motherhood has been captured. It feels like an achievement, a feat, a milestone. Like landing on the moon, or summiting Everest. The complexity of motherhood has been captured! Let's plant a flag! Let's throw a party!
The party is April 15 at 6pm at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. If you are a woman, or a man, or interested in mothering, or in not-mothering, and in hearing this topic engaged with all its nuance, please do come. I will be reading, alongside some stellar writers in whose company I am thrilled, delighted, proud, honoured, lucky to be.
This company of writers (in the book, that is--not all will be at the launch) comprises Heather Birrell, Julie Booker, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Kerry Clare, Myrl Coulter, Christa Couture, Nancy Jo Cullen, Marita Dachsel, Nicole Dixon, Ariel Gordon, Amy Lavender Harris, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Deanna McFadden, Maria Meindl, Saleema Nawaz, Susan Olding, Alison Pick, Kerry Ryan, Carrie Snyder, Patricia Storms, Sarah Yi-mei Tsiang, Priscila Uppal, Julia Zarankin, and Michele Landsberg.
I was frustrated from the beginning of my experience of motherhood (which began long before I was actually a mother) by the one-noted-ness around discussions of it. It was to essay anthologies that I turned, desperate for some nuanced and in-depth exploration of what exactly being a mother means, and also what choosing not to be a mother means, because I was on the fence and could see myself on either road. It was an essay anthology, in fact, that was instrumental in my ultimate decision to take that forbidding fork in the road--an essay by Susan Olding, who also has an essay in The M Word, just a few pages from mine. I love the full circle of this.
And the truly great thing is that this book isn't only capturing the complexity of motherhood as it relates to giving birth and raising children. It's the complexity of being a female person, ie. a person who must, even if she isn't a mother, make a decision about this topic, think deeply about it, deal with the situations and repercussions that arise from it. It's a book for us all.
My Grandma died one week ago at the age of 85. I stayed up late the night before her funeral with a notebook and pen, trying to articulate what I was feeling about her and about the devastating loss of her. The funeral was a beautiful, celebratory, all-day affair. The service itself was two hours long, standing-room-only. We sang, and sang, and sang, as Mennonites in general and my family in particular do. My uncle built her casket, a beautiful unfinished pine--a bit of sawdust still lingered on an edge--and my cousin Darlene and sister Marja sewed the lining and the pillow. My mother, Grandma's only daughter, and my sister Becky and cousin Darlene dressed her for burial and did her hair. I love these elemental, grounded connections to the fact of the loss, and I love that to the very end, it was the hands of those who loved and knew her--those to whom she gave life--that touched her body and laid it to rest.
This is what I wrote the night before, and read at her funeral:
My first thought when I learned that Grandma had died was: I’m not prepared for this. It felt shocking in a way that objectively the death of an 85-year-old should not. But I wasn’t prepared—I was shocked and overcome and heartbroken. Because you’re never ready to lose a person who has been a fixture of your life from birth.
It’s a luxury and a blessing to have such a thing as fixtures in your life, such a thing as a person who will always be there. To have had, in my case, almost 37 years with her.
I’ve been thinking about heritage. Legacy, about what’s passed down, about the thread from woman to woman, from one generation to the next.
My daughter Aphra is a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which Grandma is the eldest. I am a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which my mother looks quite a lot as I do now. In a recent photo of myself, I am smiling a smile identical to the one Grandma’s wearing in her wedding photo at age 19.
There’s a grimace Grandma would make when she was opening a tight jar of peaches or jam. I catch myself making the same face in the same situations. She told me once, in her kitchen, not to bother filling a dirty pot with water for soaking—just set it in the sink and it will soon be filled through the normal course of kitchen activity, as the tap runs for hand-washing and cup-filling and purposes unrelated to soaking the pot. I think of this in my own kitchen nearly every time I set a dirty dish in the sink. Her water-saving tip always bears out.
We moved into a new house at the same time that Grandma and Grandpa were moving out of their home of 53 years on Moxam Drive, and we inherited many items they no longer had use for. I make soup in Grandma’s stockpot. We have two threadbare quilts that hold a lot of history. Our living room lamps are so old they’re cool—a friend told me she was sure she’d seen the exact set selling for a lot of money on Queen West. I cherish these small tangible connections to my past and to the people I come from. I think of Grandma regularly, when I’m making soup, and when I’m opening jars.
I make soup in Grandma’s pot. Afterward, I do not fill the pot with wasted water.
The thing I treasured most about the year and a bit my grandparents lived with my parents was that my children got to develop a genuine ongoing relationship of their own with their Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa. I love that they loved her, that they’ll remember her at least a little bit. That they knew her--certainly with less energy and ability than I did--but with the same puzzles and cookies and delight in seeing their faces. They knew from her the same love—a love that was so unforced and ever-present that it felt normal and unremarkable, that I now know was in fact extraordinary.
On Sunday, March 23 I'll be reading in the Draft Reading Series, upstairs at the Black Swan Tavern in Toronto. After some internal debate over whether I'd feel less vulnerable up there hiding behind some fiction, I'm going with a personal essay, an unpublished creative non-fiction piece called A Real Woman. I'd be delighted to see you there. A limited-edition publication called Draft will also be available. I'm reading alongside Laure Baudot, Anne Elizabeth Carson, Jann Everard, Daniel Karasik, and Koom Kankesan.
Sunday, March 23, 3 p.m.
The Black Swan Tavern (upstairs)
154 Danforth (at Broadview)
The blog is on its way. In the meantime, check out the archives here.
My rant begins as I circle the No Frills parking lot for the second time.
All day long I have been patient. I have been patient through games of dinosaur and games of watch-the-baby-chick-hatch(-18-times). I have been patient through I don’t want to go to the grocery store today even though we have no food left in the house but maybe I’ll want to later. Though I prefer to shop earlier in the day, I have no trouble finding work to do and I have done other work while waiting for them to feel like going to the grocery store.
I have been patient through multiple pairs of socks chosen and discarded for precise and important reasons (colour, pattern, feeling inside the shoe, a dearth of castles on them). I have been patient through meltdowns over the need to wear this exact very-long shirt even though it conflicts with the need to display the skirt that is covered by the very-long shirt and there is no resolution to this contradiction and thus many tears. I have been patient through the abandonment of this finally-resolved contradictory outfit when it becomes suddenly necessary to wear an outfit that matches the sister’s outfit instead.
I have sought consensual solutions for the day’s requirements. I have endeavoured to arrange the day so that all of our needs are met, no matter how trivial the need might seem to my adult perspective. I have been patient beyond the point most adult humans would consider it efficient or prudent or desirable to continue in the vein of patience.
Now, as we arrive at last at the grocery store and it is evident that we have failed to hit the magic hour before crowds will fill the aisles and complicate the already-wearying task that is grocery shopping with an almost-5 and almost-3-year-old, I am not patient.
“You [blank] [blank] girls! Do you see how full the parking lot is? Do you see that there is nowhere even remotely near the door for us to park? Do you realize this means the store will be crowded, and the lines will be long? Do you remember how all day I have been saying we need to go to the grocery store and the earlier we go the easier it will be? Can you please put it into your heads right now that Mama knows what she is talking about when she tells you things, and she tells you things for a reason, and you should just freaking listen to her?”
Silence. I park. Not even really all that far from the door.
“Mama,” says Aphra placidly, “who were you talking to?”
“I was talking to you girls!”
“But—” she is perplexed but unruffled—“you were being mean!”
I laugh. I laugh with delight at my almost-3-year-old’s confidence in her right to be treated with respect. I laugh because she is in harmony with reality and I am not. I laugh because she has called me on my negativity and reminded me of the mother I want to be. I laugh because sometimes I am patient and respectful and consensual and gentle beyond the point of most adult humans’ comprehension, but sometimes I am totally, completely, very much mean. I laugh because it really does feel like the mean me elbows her way in ahead of the patient me more often than not, but evidently Aphra does not think so. I laugh because I feel absolved by my almost-3-year-old. I laugh because if Aphra thinks I can’t be talking to her because I’m being mean, maybe I’m doing something right after all.
We go into the store. It's really not that crowded.
Sometimes we go to a concert, a festival, a Christmas fair, because I forget. Because I hope that this time will be different. Because I want, despite the anxiety and sensitivity of our eldest child, to be able to do some things that most people in the world consider to be fun.
The music is too loud. There are too many people. Too many voices, too many bodies in quarters too close. Too much going on at once, sight and sound and smell conflicting and over-powering.
Immediately she is reaching for me, crying to be held, her forty-pound, almost five-year-old body climbing me like I am a fortress that will save her. Her anxiety is high-pitched. The children are frenetic. The carolers are grating. The people press too close. It's too loud, too hot, too cold, too much. She wants to leave. Sometimes, there is one point of stimulation that goes too far--a kindly stranger saying hello, a drumbeat too close--and she shrieks.
Sometimes I remember and understand. I prepare. I hold. I put in the time--sometimes it's all the time we have--and I hold and soothe and bestow my nurturing presence until, as though a switch has flipped, she acclimates and is at ease. I can identify this point; it is a night and day point, and if we're lucky, it comes.
Sometimes we leave the concert, the puppet show, the craft room--her younger sister pulled away from her dancing, her singing, her enjoyment--because she is in tears or, sometimes, hysterics.
Sometimes the operator has to stop the ride so I can claim my screaming, panicking child.
Sometimes I am fuming because I want, just once, to go out as a family and enjoy a thing that is supposed to be enjoyable.
And sometimes, she sees the carousel, and even though it moves quickly, and the horses go up and down while the carousel moves round and round, and there are a lot of people, she thinks that if she chooses the smallest horse, and I stand beside her, she can do it. She wants to do it.
And more than I would love any other supposed-to-be-fun thing with any other always-has-fun child, I love this carousel ride. I grin wildly through this carousel ride, tears in my eyes, because this carousel ride is a triumph, a milestone, a wonder. I love this carousel ride, because my beautiful sensitive child is holding on tight, and she is loving it too.