I got to a poem about us, about how quickly our children become themselves, and as I blithely read the poem over the air, my five-year-old daughter suddenly, breathlessly, began to sob. She was inconsolable. When my husband could finally calm her down enough to speak, she blurted out, “Mommy wrote a book of all my secrets.”
It seems appropriate to be posting about The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood on my son’s 18th birthday. Milestones like this inevitably provoke reflections: memories good and bad, nostalgic and bitter, celebratory but always (in my experience, anyway) more complicated than you anticipate — or might be willing to admit, at least in public.
That’s what makes The M Word so surprising, and also moving, gripping, funny, and, occasionally, really uncomfortable to read: the writers put it all on the table, all the confusion, ambivalence, difficulty, suffering, hope, despair, and insight that swirl around people’s different experiences with motherhood, whether they are or aren’t mothers, however motherhood is defined, and whether their situation arose from choice or accident, gift or tragedy. As many of the writers observe, there’s a popular public story about motherhood that is all bliss, smiles, and cuddles. For many of them, there is plenty of bliss, but that’s rarely the whole story and often not the story at all. The M Word doesn’t try to tell one story: it allows, even insists, on the coexistence of many different ones.
All of the stories are interesting, though I expect that for most readers, as for me, the intensity of interest will vary. Paradoxically perhaps, since I’m a mother myself, one of the essays I found most compelling was Patricia Uppal’s “Footnote to the Poem ‘Now That All My Friends Are Having Babies: A Thirties Lament,'” a mildly abrasive commentary on pregnancy and motherhood from the perspective of a woman convinced she does not want children. “Perhaps it is my workaholism that keeps me childless,” she speculates. “I know I would resent the time spent away from my computer and notebooks. I already do. I think our three cats are demanding, and I frequently have to shoo them away as they bat my hands while I type.” Although my decision about parenting was not hers, I understand her resistance to it, and I know she’s not wrong about the threat of resentment. Other essays, though, bring out parenting’s rich and varied rewards (which it is hard sometimes not to think of as compensations). Still others emphasize loss — Christa Couture’s heartbreaking “These Are My Children,” for instance:
Sometimes I feel my mothering is finite, or plays on a loop. I can replay both of my children’s lives to their conclusions in my mind, rewind, and play them again. There is no wondering what they will become.
And still others take up abortion, adoption, and infertility with the same frankness, offering the same unsparing emotional revelations.
The M Word is a very personal book. Is there a point at which writing about our own experiences as parents becomes an invasion of our children’s privacy? Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” is the only essay that directly confronts this question. I found it very thought-provoking because I have chosen to be fairly reticent about my children — and indeed all my family and friends — here. For one thing, Novel Readings is not meant as a confessional space: its focus is just different. I do write the occasional personal post, and I don’t try to keep the rest of the writing strictly impersonal. One of the things I cherish most about blogging is the freedom to be more openly myself while writing,whether about Christmas or about books. But my private life remains private (or, you might say, my public presentation of my private life is carefully curated!). Crucially, I choose what to say about myself in this public space, and I don’t think I have the right to make that choice for other people by sharing their stories (or my perspective on their stories) — by turning them into subjects or characters in my story. Clearly, a lot of writers feel otherwise, including everyone who has ever written a memoir and many (such as Miriam Toews) who have written conspicuously autobiographical fiction. I’m not saying they are wrong to do so (and I have read and admired plenty of life writing of one kind or another), but I can sympathize with Tsiang’s daughter (quoted above), with her sense of injury at the unexpected exposure. I’m not sure I agree with Tsiang that this was her daughter’s “first lesson in the fact that you cannot love without exposing yourself”: maybe so, but it’s one thing to expose yourself to your loved ones and another to find your secrets broadcast on the radio. At least Tsiang learns a lesson too: “that it is both a responsibility and a privilege to write about the ones you love.”
There’s lots in The M Word that made me think — often about my own experience of motherhood, as a mother and as a daughter, but also about what I know my family and friends to have gone through, hoped for, lost, or celebrated in this context, and about experiences and attitudes entirely different from mine or theirs. When I picked the book up (motivated by knowing Kerry Clare as a Twitter friend and author of the splendid blog Pickle Me This) I was a tad skeptical: I didn’t think I was actually that interested in motherhood as a topic. I realize now that’s because I hadn’t given it as broad a scope as Kerry and her contributors do. The result is a collection that confounds expectations.