(Multiple) Guest Post: Mothers in Children’s Books

Oh, the glories of book shops!  Where you can go along of a summer evening and listen to a group of interesting and funny women talk about books, and mothers in kids’ books to boot.

Kerry Clare and some of the other contributors to The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood gathered at Parentbooks on Harbord Street to discuss the representation of mothers in children’s books.  They brought books and food and insights and laughter to share and it was a wonderfully intimate discussion about  finding or not finding mothers on the pages of our kids’ books.

Kerry began by telling us that one inspiration for the topic was a blog post by Liz Harmer about how, at one point in her parenting life, the picture books she was reading to her children were more helpful to her as a struggling mother than parenting books:

in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.

At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become.

And so, we began to talk about mothers and parenting and how they unfold on the pages of children’s books.  What do we find there and how does it speak to or about us?

imgres-3Heather Birrell read from her own childhood copy of Pippi Longstocking and talked about how, while her own daughter is rather indifferent to the book, as a writer and a mother, she loves the fact that Pippi is motherless.  She is successfully independent as an orphan of nine, and a lot more likeable than the kids up the street with intact families .  The absent mother in kids books, a remarkably frequent thing, allows kids independence, freedom from rules and from cloying love or authority.  Pippi’s mother, so Pippi imagines, watches her from her perch in the sky through a little hole in the clouds, and Pippi is always able to assure her that she is doing perfectly well.  As a writer herself, Birrell said she is always killing off mothers in her short stories.  It’s just so much more convenient to the engine of the plot and character development to have them out of the way.

We agreed that it was wonderful to find yourself, as a mother, celebrating books that did away with mothers so that kids can bloom, because isn’t that what we want for our kids, after all?

imgres-8Amy Lavender Harris talked about how grandmothers often fill the maternal role in the Eastern European tradition, and she read from Rosie’s Dream Cape by Zelda Freeman to illustrate the multiple roles that the grandmother fulfills; she is the figure of authority, conscience, forgiveness, generosity and connection to the old world and to the missing mother.

Heidi Reimer read from one of Sarah Garland’s Eddie books, Eddie’s Kitchen, and made the wondenderful observation that the illustrations enable a kind of covert and underground conversation, mother-to-mother.  The illustrations are wonderfully lush, and the house is packed and cluttered.  The mother in these books exemplifies grace in the chaos of family life, though the illustrator is also careful to portray her outside of her role as mother.  At one point, she is huddled on the stairs, alone, speaking on the phone to a friend who is having a rough day. imgres-5

Patricia Storms chose Tomi Ungerer’s No Kiss for Mother from which to read and reveled in the illustrations that would never pass muster today: a depiction of kids smoking stolen cigars and parents punishing their kids (with canes no less!).  Originally published in the 1970s, the book has been reissued by Phaidon, and perhaps the fact that the family in the book is a family of anthropomorphic cats makes it possible to publish it again today.  She admired that the conclusion of the book does actually provide a conclusion to the tension between an adoring mother and a son who does not like to be coddled and kissed.  They compromise; each gives ground.  The ground has shifted for both of them by story’s end, and the rebellious child is not simply drawn back into the normative family fold.  That family has had to change, just a bit, to accommodate him.

imgres-6Kerry finished off the night with a discussion of one of Shirley Hughes’s Alfie books, Alfie Gets in First.  Kerry remarked on how wonderful it was to read about another mother struggling with the mind-numbingly boring but immensely difficult negotiations of motherhood: how to get the stroller through the door and up the stairs, ditto with baby.  Predictably, Alfie gets into the house before mother and stroller and baby and locks himself in and them out.  Panic ensues.  Kerry was grateful for the feeling of solidarity she felt with the mother in the illustrations and how she felt a lot less alone reading those books to her children.  Again, the illustrations are lush and chaotic and depict the clutter and detritus of the busy family home.

Kerry finished up with a reading of Stephany Aulenback’s lovely  If I Wrote a Book About You and talked about how motherhood enables creativity and productivity and how finding solutions to the stupid problem of the stroller on the sidewalk and through the narrow door could be worthwhile in and of itself as well as leading to all manner of other kinds of creativity. imgres-7

Motherhood is Like a See-Saw

10267762_10154070721210014_6298337845483811914_nI met Nathalie more than 4 years ago. At our first meeting sitting across from each other at the Momoir writing class, she described her feelings of ambivalence about motherhood to the circle of six women.

I remember the woman sitting across from me had a shocked look on her face and while there were no words, her message was clear: how can you feel so-so about being a mom!?

Nathalie went on to explain that ambivalence doesn’t mean, “take it or leave it”. It means having contradictory feelings about something or someone.

That evening, sitting on a plush couch in a darkened Forest Hill basement, I found my way. Nathalie gave a name to the feelings that had taunted me for the past three years. I was finally moored.

For me, motherhood is a constant state of contradiction. My opposing feelings struggle to take center-stage, demanding to be heard. Parenting isn’t about attachment or a helicopter, a tiger or a presence of mind; it’s a harrowing see-saw ride with such soaring highs that it can shock the breath right out of you and thud-to-the-ground lows that will diminish you, gut you, scare-the-shit-out-of -you.

The essayists featured in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, narrate ambivalence thoughtfully – with reflection, humility and honesty. Heather Birrell’s Truth, Dare, Double Dare, starts off the compilation and immediately I felt the same sense of kinship that I did years ago when I first met Nathalie.

I have re-read Heidi Reimer’s The Post-Maia World several times, each time gleaning more from her intimate narrative. Like Reimer, I am baffled, completely flummoxed by the contradictions that make up motherhood.

My emotions alone, and the intensity in which I feel them and express them, are like two sides of a coin. Reimer writes about emotion after becoming a mother:

“I yelled more, cursed more, became gripped with stronger rage . . .I smashed objects against of the floor and pounded my fists into walls.”The Post-Maia World

It’s what keeps me awake at night. Are my children going to grow up and their dominant childhood memories include me screeching at them, an ugly snarl on my face, to hurry-up, get dressed, stop fighting and get to school. Are they going to remember the time I smashed the truck plate in two jagged melamine pieces because I could not bear to listen to yet another squabble over whose turn it was to eat a grilled cheese off of it? Is the time, when in a rage of impatience I regrettably zipped-up a winter coat and a lip in one angry jerk, going to be what they remember of me?

I hope not.

I want them to think back on their childhood and recall all the times that I tried to kiss them a million times in a row, when I traced letters on their back, and squeezed our hands together in a cryptic code.

Of course they will never know how intensely I love them, how I have never loved anything with every fiber of my being, the way that I love them. The connection that I feel to them is visceral, so powerful that words could never suffice but Reimer is able to describe the initial feelings that overwhelmed me those early days with such uncanny accuracy.

“ . . .our connection to each other was primeval, animal, beyond rationality; it grew through nine months’ gestation, an umbilical cord between us, a birth canal, a mouth on my breast, hormones clamouring, “You are mine and I have never loved anyone before you!”The Post-Maia World

The emotional extremes that I experience are just one of the contrasting aspects that, for me, define motherhood.

Motherhood is just hard. As Julie Booker writes, “It’s really fucking hard.” Twin Selves.

Other Mothers

10267762_10154070721210014_6298337845483811914_nThere’s something I’ve noticed about the way I occasionally think about and judge myself as a parent.  I love structure and order and discipline, and for the most part, I stand by the parenting decisions that fall under that category of order and predictability.  Sometimes, though, sometimes the further outside of my comfort zone I stray, the more unlike my usual self I am, the more I feel that I deserve some kind of a parenting gold star.  It’s as if by not being myself, I am being a better self.  The hard work of keeping life on schedule and enforcing rules of civility actually feels pretty effortless to me.  It’s allowing the rules and the schedule to relax that feels like hard work.  To be honest, sometimes fun feels like hard work, and that’s when I most doubt the parenting path I have chosen.

I let the kids splash in rain puddles, I give myself a pat on the back for not freaking out about the mess (while secretly freaking out about the mess).

I say “yes” to letting the kids dog-sit, professing a kind of generosity of spirit while feeling anything but generous.

I let them stay up late to watch the hockey game, and for most of every minute past bedtime, I’m on edge, but I congratulate myself for being able to let fandom prevail over clock-watching.

More troubling, I herd my children home from the park for bath and bed and watch other parents letting their little ones stay up later and get dirtier than my kids (ie. letting them have more fun) and I wonder if they are doing it better.  Do those Other Mothers have more gold stars?  Are the mothers who say “no” less often better in some essential, incontrovertible way?

Fruitless feeding of the mommy guilt machine.  It’s the dark side of empathy: moving so much outside of yourself that you begin to question that self and all it holds dear.

The really refreshing thing about reading many of the essays in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, was that I could really immerse myself in other ways, in others’ ways of being and simply enjoy that otherness without thinking, “I have to be more like that.”  It was glorious to look into that kaleidoscope and feel as much myself as ever; it was wonderful to look at difference without feeling the need to be different.

Carrie Snyder’s wonderful essay about reveling in being a mother of four did not make me feel like I had to have a fourth in order to keep up.  I simply enjoyed her telling of her tale of motherhood.

Heidi Reimer’s essay about adopting her infant niece made my heart fill with joy that there are such generous and daring people in the world, people who can let love into their lives, and make it multiply, in spite of the enormous emotional risk.

But I was most affected by the essays by women who are not mothers, by choice.  It’s dangerous territory, walking with the happily child-free.  It’s not like I, a mother of three, could ever go there.  Would they make it sound too appealing?  Would their profession of their child-free bliss, their certainty, open some part of me to gnawing jealousy or doubt?  Would my hard-earned share of parental satisfaction be diminished by opening myself to their stories?

Not in the least.  As certain as they are about being childless, I am certain that motherhood, and the way I am practicing it, is exactly the right choice for me.  It was the best kind of exercise in empathy.  It was a chance to have a privileged perspective on another way of being without feeling in the least bit diminished by it.  On the contrary, I felt enlarged by reading these essays, I felt certain about my own choices without the least trace of smugness or self-righteousness.

Sometimes what defines us is what we are not.  Sometimes that’s a tricky thing to negotiate.  In this collection of essays about motherhood, in all its manifestations, nothing felt tricky.  None of the stories about what I am not made me think less of myself.  Some of the essays were difficult to read because they tackled difficult topics, but they did what good art does: it moves you, it purifies and purges the emotions and offers renewal and restoration.

The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood

Nathalie, Beth-Anne, and I treated our minds and hearts last month when we attended the launch of The M Word:  Conversations About Motherhood at beautiful Ben McNally Books in Toronto.  Kerry Clare, editor of the collection of 25 essays and author of Pickle Me This, introduced the book, after which several if its contributors read excerpts of their pieces.

I think it’s fair to say that we were captivated.  The essays span a wide spectrum of motherhood experience, including the reality of being defined by motherhood whether or not one is actually a mother.   They were textured and raw in and of themselves, but being read aloud by their authors only infused the words with more richness than they already possessed.

We’ve all read The M Word, and this week we want to write about it.  And we have outdone ourselves, if I do say so myself, in scoring Kerry Clare to write with us on Friday to close the week.  There is so much packed into this book, and we are thrilled to  have the curator of its stories share some of her thoughts with us at 4Mothers.

Please tune in – we are in for a great week!