THE M WORD—book review


My reflection/reaction/response/review of The M Word, a collection of writings on motherhood, edited by Kerry Clare. Published by Goose Lane Editions.

My maternal grandmother was “with child” 19 times—delivering 13 children. She lost one child to sudden infant death syndrome, and her youngest son, the one she conceived when she was 47, was killed in a traffic accident when he was 18. My strong Acadian grand-mère died shortly after my first son was born, (I was seventeen) yet she was, and is, one of the women I draw strength from during the darkest nights of my motherhood soul.

I used to tell my mother I felt guilty for complaining whenever I thought of the lives mothers had had in the past. My mother told me her mother had an expression: I’m not complain’, I’m just explainin’.

There aren’t any whiners in Kerry Clare’s The M Word. The conversations are many and varied in this stunning new anthology, which explores the ambiguity of motherhood and offers more than just predictable small talk. You can, and will need to, dip in and out of the collection and breathe deeply.

The M Word felt like a kind of emotional labour for the three days I was reading. This is a motherlode of deeply personal truths, generous and courageous souls, bearing witness to lives shaped, if not defined, by, well, “life with a uterus,” as the foreword suggests. The contributors are writers, artists, teachers of one kind or another, and mothers. Or not.  A book about motherhood that also allows room for women who are not mothers? Yes!  Groundbreaking, fertile territory indeed.  

In author Nicole Dixon’s essay, one of 25, she muses: “To breed or not to breed is not simply one question a woman asks herself at some point in her life—it’s the question.” I laughed out loud when I read that first line, but what follows is an example of how very unfunny it is to be a woman who has decided not to have children in our society.

What about trying to mother a child who compares you, the step -mother, to her own biological mother? Saleema Nawaz waltzes us though a dance of emotions until a lump-in-your-throat goosebump finale. Alison Pick, in a powerful sharing of the details of her miscarriage in the second trimester, (an event I experienced between my two sons) writes:

And sometimes, on a rainy afternoon, when there’s Van Morrison on the stereo and something sweet baking in the oven, when the living room is a cozy clutter of toys and books and crayons, I feel a quiet gaze on my back. When I turn, no one’s there. But I know she’s hovering in the shadows behind me, eyes wide with awe, watching the life we almost had.

By contrast, Carrie Snyder offers an exuberant celebration of life as a stay at home mother of four young children but does not minimize the challenges. We are offered stories about being childless by choice (Patricia Storm’s hysterically funny comic strip story), about mothers who’ve aborted (Kerry Clare); reflections of adoptive mothers and the opposite (Myra Coulter’s essay about giving her baby up for adoption had me sniffling the whole time and marvelling at her courage in the decision-making and the telling).

There are the voices of single mothers, lesbian mothers, grandmothers, divorced mothers, married mothers, stepmothers, mothers of twins and, yes, grief-stricken mothers. Christa Couture’s essay is (for me) the most beautiful and terrible essay, as she tells of the unimaginable: the loss of not one but two children. She talks of how strange, awkward; lonely it can to be in the company of parents whose children are healthy and thriving.

I want to tell them: but I am like you, a parent too. My relationship with either of my children did not end with their deaths... Children who are no longer here still take up time and space in a parent’s life. I am not unlike you , I think as I close the locket and hold it close to my chest.

There is a happy surprise at book’s end. Michele Landsberg, a trailblazing mother/writer/ feminist, icon to many of us, ends the book with a delicious joyful reflection on life after motherhood and otherhood, the G word, Grandmotherhood. This too will be different for everyone. I'd like to be part of that book. I just discovered after two sons and being an Oma to two grandsons, I will have a grandaughter. Emma. I keep saying her name outloud like a mantra. Emma. Oma & Emma. Then I breathe. Deeply.

Kerry Clare is the mother, writer and editor of the 49th shelf as well as mid-wife to THE M WORD. In the foreword to the book, she explains why, in a culture obsessed with motherhood, with bookshelves overpopulated with books on the topic, this book needed to be born.

Mothers also continue to be maligned (check out the comments on any online article about big strollers or public breast-feeding to see what I mean), even as they’re being sanctified in theory by our mother-obsessed society, and the contradiction is confusing, bolstering mothers’ defences. And this is where the exclusivity comes in, enhancing the motherhood conversation not a bit, creating a sense of apartness that leaves so many other women feeling their experiences are outside of the ordinary and, for some, that they are, perhaps impossibly, alone.

I know Kerry Clare as writer and editor of the 49th shelf, and as a mother. I adore and admire her on all counts and I eagerly anticipated this book’s arrival. I expected a lot from this book and Clare has delivered.

This is not a sociology textbook where mothers' experiences from differnt soci-economic backgrounds are examined or a discussion paper on motherhood. I would have liked one essay talking more about the effect of income or lack of it on motherhood or one on how social media and motherhood interfaces  with the experience of motherhood, but the book could not explore everything. Clare wanted to enhance the motherhood conversation, to stop women from feeling, “their experiences are outside of the ordinary and, for some, that they are, perhaps impossibly, alone.”

She has done that. In The M Word, we are in the company of accomplished, eloquent women who share their stories in exquisite writing—with excruciating honesty. So. Think of your Grandmother. Think some day you might be one. Or not.

Think of reading this book as experiencing the difference between moderate and severe contractions in the muscles around your heart. Uncomfortable, yes, but also necessary if we ever want more than the icing on a Mother’s Day cake that too glibly frosts over the realities of our lives connected to the M-word.