‘The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood’ edited by Kerry Clare

Book Reviews

The M Word coverReviewed by Angeline Schellenberg

Some moms decorate Barbie cakes in their sleep. The M Word is a kind of What to Expect When You’re the Rest of Us: those who wonder if we’re “mom enough,” who inhabit a place where “Do you have children?” and “Is this your first?” have no easy answers.

As its cuss-inspired title suggests, The M Word goes where our polite grannies didn’t dare (but probably wanted to); where mothers admit to resenting their children for “plowing [them] over just by coming into this world”; and where they can imagine what it would be like without them. If you’re sick of guilt—and who isn’t—you’ll find nothing but spaciousness here.

Meeting the “gross-out honesty” of birth stories and the wickedness of stepmother fables head-on, The M Word lays out a new way to talk mothering – with frankness and generosity.

On a topic that divides – the bottle-washers from breast-feeders, the stay-at-home from the daycare-hunters, the “breeders” from the “childfree,” The M Word is a literary coffee shop with chairs for all. Women who’ve lost children to adoption or abortion sit next to women raising step- or grandchildren. Women who’ve tried everything to conceive converse with those who never wanted a child at all.

A book about motherhood that includes those who never gave birth? Those who’ve been pregnant but never held a child? Halleluiah! Finally: a conversation with no “us versus them.” Here is only “us,” those who desire to “be connected by this understanding of what it is to love and celebrate your children.” The M Word offers what mothers (new and old) need most: to know we’re not alone.

The authors in The M Word speak their vulnerabilities into a culture that criticizes women both for grieving miscarriage and feeling relief after abortion; for choosing too many children or having only one; as “unfit” for mothering single and “unfeminist” for marrying; for bonding too fiercely with a nephew or too slowly after adopting. This anthology spills the beans, while thumbing its nose at nosy aunts everywhere.

Motherhood can feel like a loss of control, but this empowering collection is all about choice: for fertility treatment, adoption, single parenthood, or reducing the carbon footprint by not having more children at all. Winnipeg contributor Kerry Ryan, lacking gut instinct but not guts, laments just how difficult the choice to reproduce is – in contrast to novelist Carrie Synder, who found choosing a life of “milky, sleepy, intense boredom” the most natural thing to do.

The one experience I missed seeing was that of mothering children with special needs. With one in 68 children diagnosed with autism alone, this experience, with its own politically incorrect emotions and unexpected discoveries, warrants inclusion.

Truth is revealed through poetic metaphor: “We are all cyborgs,” writes Amy Lavender Harris concerning reproductive technology, “made of mitochondria and bits of metal, elements absorbed from the atmosphere and the cells of every child we have ever carried.” The M Word’s mothers are also subway riders “caught between stops,” “large and vital organs,” “lighthouses that search and beckon,” and sometimes, “the most irritating of cults.”

The tone is tender, but avoids sticky sweetness. Sometimes “love” looks like deciding “I wanted to be the person she could bite and still be unshakeably loved,” writes adoptive mother Heidi Reimer. Sometimes, writes Winnipeg poet Ariel Gordon in “Primipara,” it’s “the burnt caramel of loving and hating a sibling,” and the legacy of poems for her daughter to lean on when there isn’t one.

The breadth of perspectives, combined with the poetic writing, allowed me to enter another’s experience in a way I hadn’t before. As someone whose view of abortion was shaped by a miscarriage (i.e., my fetus was valuable, so every fetus is), it was fascinating to read editor Kerry Clare’s story of continuing gratefulness for the freedom to abort her first pregnancy even as she was bonding with her second. Quoting Stevenson’s character Catriona, Clare says, “if they are aborted or miscarried or simply fail to materialize at all, [children] become hosts within our lives.” The M Word treats ghosts on all sides of the fence with reverence.

The stories of loss were particularly resonant. Alison Picks’ miscarriage reveals “the thin membrane between death and life.” Christa Couture holds onto her stretch marks, her inside-out belly button, as reminders of her two sons, who died of separate illnesses: they were here.

Sleep-deprived new mothers will dip in and out of these short, stand-alone stories with ease. Couples, mommy groups, and drool-haters will laugh together. Anyone who’s had a mother, or an opinion about motherhood, will find themselves here. Out of these stories, new ones will come.

“When it doesn’t suck, it’s bloody brilliant,” writes Nancy Jo Cullen of parenting teenagers. Even in motherhood’s yuckiest moments, The M Word’s discourse – free from perfectionism and filled with humour – is nothing short of marvelous.

Goose Lane | 310 pages |  $22.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0864924872


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Angeline Schellenberg

Angeline Schellenberg’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, CV2, Geez, and The Society. She works as a copy editor for the MB Herald in Winnipeg.