Many years ago, I went to a wedding, and at dinner, sat next to a woman with a toddler on her lap. The child did some kind of toddler-thing, and an object from the table – a salt-shaker, I think – went flying. I caught it in mid-air and placed it out of harm’s way, while the conversation continued.
Later, the woman asked me where my kids were. Twenty-five years old, and with no plans to procreate, I was stunned. This appeared to surprise her.
“Well then, you’ll make a very good mother,” she concluded, beaming.
The question of having kids was never not fraught, for me, but for some reason, I felt quite sanguine about that conversation. I took the remark as a compliment even as I recognized that a salt shaker was not the only potentially dangerous projectile in the room. Assumptions were flying around, too.
She didn’t say, for instance, “Wow, with a quick reflex like that, you really should run for mayor.” Or more to the point, “Thanks.”
The conversation was okay because I knew she meant well. And looking back, I wonder if including me in the category of mothers was the best way she could find to express, and strengthen, a sense of kinship with me. For a split second we had shared something important.
In the years that followed, assumptions about motherhood were to make my choices very fraught indeed, yet I went on connecting with mothers in ways that were as reflexive as catching that salt-shaker. Getting along with children has been an acquired skill, but I’ve always been hungry for books, films, conversations about mothering, even though I never had a child of my own. It was all fine, as long as I didn’t think about it too much. But I think about everything too much.
And this is one of the many reasons I was thrilled to have an essay in The M Word, Conversations about Motherhood edited by Kerry Clare. I’m in good company: among thoughtful women, thinking about motherhood. And not just women who are – in the physical sense – mothers.
Clare writes in her introduction of the “presumed gulf between women with children and women without them, one that is usually presented as unbridgeable.” Yet she also points out that there’s a perceived “central zone” of maternity to which none of us really belong. The book includes stories of abortion, adoption, step-parenting, ambivalent parenting (and non-parenting), infertility, miscarriage, the tragic death of children as well as the choice not to have children … and being more-than-okay with that. There are also families of all shapes and sizes.
It’s impossible to be objective, so I won’t be. My first reaction when reading the stories all together was to feel the physical gulf reinforced. I have never given birth, and never will. For better or for worse. The book reminded me of what I had accepted long ago: I will spend my life in constant mourning for that loss, though the feelings wax and wane. Yet it also made me realize how grappling with that grief brings its own rewards.
Having a child is different from not having one. The trick is not to value one life path more highly than the other. This, I think, is strength of The M Word. The book is presented in a balanced way, in alphabetical order, by its very form asserting that all have equal weight. Of course, this book does exist in a neutral climate. Assumptions are what do the damage. My hope is that the intimacy of the stories will create windows for women into each other’s worlds. This certainly happened, for me.
Heidi Reimer’s gorgeous description of birth and bonding invokes an experience that even “natural” mothers can’t always rely on, and an important gift of the book is the way essays such as Heather Birrell’s “Truth, Dare, Doubledare” express this. Indeed, Reimer’s own essay goes on to show that giving birth is only a small part of what mothering really means.
In “A Natural Woman” Amy Lavender Harris takes on the concept of The Natural. (‘Natural’ is a word I use in my essay, “Junior,” as well.) Natural and Mothering go together, we all know this, but the connection needs to be constantly, vigorously interrogated. Assumptions, expectations, habits can become so entrenched that they seem to come from within, or from some divine source, or from some combination of the two. We can’t reliably tell the difference.
But while motherhood may not be inherently natural, or nature inherently motherly, I do believe it’s natural for women to step outside our silos and participate in the big conversation. There was something — I daresay — natural, in the way I caught that salt-shaker, years ago. The way we all continued talking.
The M Word is also striking for the amount of deep, inner pain and conflict it expresses around motherhood, even though the families depicted are mostly resilient, and children are always a gift. Reproductive choice – understanding it, using it responsibly, coping gracefully when it is taken away, is the dramatic fulcrum for the essays in this book as it is in women’s lives. Choice is of course still being undermined. But even generations from now, even in the scenario I hope for, where choice is both universal and well understood, we will only just have begun to sense how its lack has affected us. We are still paying the price of having been defined by motherhood, for so long.
Union Street by Pat Barker invokes a world not so very far behind us, and a situation that still obtains in many parts of the world. When I read The M Word, I thought of the at-times agonizing intimacy of Barker’s book. She portrays the women in a working class neighbourhood in northern England. At first read, I pegged it as taking place just after World War Two, a grittier version of Call the Midwife; then it became disturbingly clear that this was the 1970s. The women’s choices are severely limited, and not surprisingly, the key moments, the defining dramas of their lives are played out on the stage of motherhood.
In “Iris King,” Barker creates a character who gives constantly: to her husband, her children, her neighbours, her extended family … and shows just how far she’s ready to go when the time finally comes to say “no.” A mother’s struggle to bond with her girl-child provides the dynamic in “Lisa Goddard.” Barker relentlessly lays out the horrors of Lisa’s domestic situation, the conditions under which the child is conceived and gestated, culminating in an alienating experience of hospital birth. At the end, we can begin to appreciate the courage it takes this woman to feel a sense of hope, as new life is brought into the world.
These are stories of rape and abuse, at work and in the home, all of it endured from pure economic need. The stories have the same epic – and brutal — quality as Barker’s later portrayals of the First World War. The author mercilessly, yet respectfully, lets the traumas play out, leaving each story only when her characters have reached moments of transcendence and grace. In this way, she lets them define themselves. Yet she never normalizes the conditions under which they live. Union Street is something to be left behind.
Union Street — and its modern-day counterparts around the world — are the reasons the very struggles in The M Word are to be celebrated. But the world of The M Word, too, must evolve into something new and better.
This is why I found it so encouraging to read another anthology called A Family by any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships, edited by Bruce Gillespie. There’s an exquisite hopefulness to this book, despite the difficulties many of its contributors have endured. Marriage, parenting, family-building, are presented as fresh and filled with sweetness. There are sad experiences: adoption is interrupted by an intolerant system in “Piecing my Family Together” by Jason Dale. In Jean Copeland’s “The Gay Divorcee,” a woman falls prey to age-old illusions about marriage.
Yet there is also “What She Taught Me” by Ellen Russell, a story of partner-loss, which is sad for sure, but it is also a celebration of a life shared. In “Hiddur Mitzvah” S. Bear Bergman describes the rich weave of old and new traditions that he and his husband are passing on to their son. A couple in Sarah Griffe’s “Rare Species” navigate the unfamiliar social terrain of raising a son with two moms. They proceed tentatively, but find they can sometimes dance.
Jeffrey Ricker in “Operation: Baby” concludes:
… when things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped, we make do. It’s what queer people have always done, take a shitty situation and sift through it for what is worth salvaging. … Give us something broken and we’ll fix it. We’ll make it better than it was to begin with, even. We do it with houses, we do it with neighbourhoods, and when we need to, we do it with families.
That’s a lot of responsibility to take on, but he’s right; the family is seriously in need of renovation. And conversations are part of the repair.