I’ve just spent a couple of days with a collection of essays about motherhood. About life with a uterus, as Kerry Clare puts it. It was like slipping into this wonderful story circle, 25 articulate women speaking honestly of being–or not being–a mother. Choices or surprises. Twins. Abortion. Miscarriage. Child death. Step-parenting. Single mothering. Infertility. Delightful children. Difficult children. Now and then, when the children were especially demanding and the writer felt herself turning into someone, as Deanna McFadden puts it, “crammed into the corners of her own life,” I longed to put my hand through the page with a pat and say, It gets better. Usually it does, I think. But such a typically maternal gesture, isn’t it? Coming from the stage I’m in now, which is post-Mother in a way, easier on every level but with some terrific adults in my life who happen to be my children. Me still, and again, in Heidi Reimer’s words, “gobsmacked and humbled”by their existence.
The book is The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (Goose Lane, 2014), edited by Kerry Clare. I went first to fine pieces by two writers I know better than the others: “Primapara” by Ariel Gordon, who has opted for one child, and “How to Fall” by Carrie Synder, who has four. Myrl Coulter’s “Unwed, Not Dead,” about the scandal of pregnancy as a young unmarried woman in the 60s — yes, as recently as that! — stood out to me, maybe because I’ve written about this phenomenon, though in an earlier time-period. “I put my head down,” she concludes, “and did what my social environment conditioned me to do: buried my feelings and carried on with my life.” Saleema Nawaz’s and Susan Olding’s essays on stepmothering were standouts as well. And Alison Pick’s “Robin” on her miscarriage. And I loved and resonated with Michele Landsberg’s enthusiastic Afterword on grandmothering: “an astonishment of love” and “all this rich and complicated happiness.”
The extremes of sentimentality, defensiveness, or despair so easily attached to motherhood are mostly avoided here. I applaud the mutual respect implicit in the pieces’ co-existence. In spite of considerable variation in the women’s experiences, however, a sense of sameness misted up from the collection as a whole. I offer this more as observation than critique. Perhaps it’s because these women are writers–writer, in fact, being a consistent identity or foil through the pieces–and good writers too, so stylistically on a plane. Maybe it’s simply the nature of a thematically focussed collection. Or maybe it’s motherhood itself, a storyline ubiquitous, familiar, and essentially this: in it or not, the implications are profound.