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March 15, 2010

We aren't born alone

Honestly, don’t google “We’re born alone, we die alone” to find out the various things 686,000 hits think we should do in between. And not just because the suggestions are more than a little saccherine, but because the adage itself is patently untrue. Though some of us may indeed die alone, I’m pretty sure that the second part is wrong: there were at least twelve people in that electric yellow room when Harriet was born, and though I don’t have the stats on my own birth, it’s fair to say that my mother must made it out for the event. So you’d think it would be fair to also say that no one has ever been born alone, ever, ever, ever. Which is why I find it very strange that motherhood is such a niche market.

In her beautiful book A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk writes “with the gloomy suspicion that a book about motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers.” Exactly why this is is a depressing tale for another day, but it’s also worth considering why that book on motherhood is of interest to the other mothers in the first place. How come, ever since I had a baby, I’ve been gravitating to books on maternal themes, in poetry, fiction and non-fiction? What is up with my insistance on seeing my own experience reflected in the books I read? Particularly an experience so incredibly banal– everybody has a mother, a lot of people end up being one. What is the big deal?

It has been a mysterious thing, though, becoming a mother. A year ago, I posted this excerpt from A Life’s Work, but I hadn’t understood it at all, and now I see that, and now I do: “Like someone visiting old haunts after an absence I read books that I have read before, books that I love, and when I do I find them changed: they give the impression of having contained all along everything that I have gone away to learn.”

Motherhood has changed my relationship with reading in two absolutely shocking ways: it’s had me running toward the self-help shelf, and actually it’s made me start reading for clues. I only realize the latter point now, that I am attracted to the literature of motherhood to make some sense of the mess I’m in. To find an expression of the feelings and experiences that are  soconfusing, awful, lovely and strange that I cannot begin to articulate them. To see this experience as rendered by art– to celebrate it, to put my finger on it, to understand.

(It is also worth noting that I’ve been attracted to stories of motherhood for a long time, that my reading tastes have always leaned toward the domestic. That when Lisa Moore wrote a book one reviewer panned, describing how “The narrative doesn’t progress so much as gestate, roiling around through a series of flashbacks until the hatching and matching at the end”, I’d called it “a rare thing– a perfect book… one of the best books from anywhere.”

It is also worth noting that I might one day write an essay about the unfortunate proliferation of books in Canadian Literature about lonely people walking up and down city sidewalks, numbing their pain with illegal substances, and living in bachelor apartments with cats, all the while Canadian writers could be writing about leaking nipples, umbilical stumps, and croup.)

Now, I’m not sure how to bring all this around to my new favourite blog which is STFU Parents, in which people send in screenshots of parents’ really obnoxious and/or inane Facebook status updates. (STEPHANIE: Why must we loose an hour of sleep?? When your a parent, those hours matter!! TINA: Amen!!) I cannot get enough of this blog. They’ve introduced the notion of “mommyjacking” status updates, which is when someone posts about any arduous experience, and then a mother chimes in with, “Just try [arduous experience] with a two year old” and then Tina adds, “Amen!!” again. It totally kills me.

I must mention mommyblogs again, and how it’s dawned upon me that I do actually like them. Or rather, that some of my favourite bloggers are mothers and write about their mothering experiences, among many other passions: Crooked House, Meli-Mello, All Things Said & Done, Carrie Snyder, and Sam Lamb, for example. Even the ever-erudite Inklings. What unites the blogger/mothers that I do read and enjoy, for the most part, is how they engage with motherhood and with the wider world at the same time, creating a relationship between the two that is not such a binary at all.

This is what I’m looking for in books about motherhood as well, to understand how my experiences fit into a wider context. How I fit into the world now, while I’m toting around twenty pounds of screeching daughter. How motherhood can be addressed in literature so as not to alienate anyone who isn’t a mom. And to understand why mothers are so reviled, in real life, on the internet, in general. Because they are a bit, and that’s a funny thing. How many people might have found being born alone preferable.

4 thoughts on “We aren't born alone”

  1. “How motherhood can be addressed in literature so as not to alienate anyone who isn’t a mom.”

    I had this horrible thought while I was following the Canada Reads debates that motherhood might be seen as becoming the new disenfranchised experience in literature. We’re sick to death of The Woman who is lost in life until The Man comes and gives her purpose; but is it better to present these women (as Good To a Fault and How Happy To Be do) who are lost until Motherhood comes and gives them purpose? Were I child-free I might find the implication that caring for others is a woman’s lot in life a little offensive. Why should motherhood be a more noble calling than wifehood?

    Of course, being a mother and finding it perfectly empowering, instead I find myself re-examining wifehood as a legitimate desire. We are not, as you say, born alone, nor do we die alone, so desiring loving company need not be an act of submission!

    (I’ve been absorbed in Janice Radway’s _Reading the Romance_ this morning – does it show? ;))

  2. Nathalie says:

    Oooooh. I love A Life’s Work. My copy is so marked up, there’s as much of me in it now as there is of Cusk. Her description of her time alone, away from kids, as being like time on a taxi meter, is piercing: “When I leave her the world bears the taint of my leaving, so that abandonment must now be subtracted from the sum of whatever I choose to do…. My presence appears almost overnight to have accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter, to which the price of experience is inseparably indexed. When I am out I am distracted by its ticking. … Working … was hard enough; pleasure, or at least rest, was unthinkable. I couldn’t fit my world into a space carved, as it seemed to me, from my daughter’s own flesh.”

    The essay collection Between Interruptions has been on the remainder tables lately. I recommend it highly, especially the essay by Denise Ryan. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions is also excellent, as is her essay “Mother Anger: Theory and Practice.” There is an image of her as a mother tarantula that is burned into me.

  3. Susan Telfer says:

    I love Anne Lamott’s essays on motherhood, too. I don’t think motherhood is banal; I think it is a profoundly life changing experience, and of course it is normal to look for clues on how to do it consciously. Keep writing, Kerry!

  4. Kerry says:

    Oh, yes– I read Operating Instructions in December and found it extremely powerful. Though it made me wish I could write about my daughter as beautiful as she wrote about her son.

    As far as I am concerned, Rachel Cusk can do no wrong. (She has a new novel out or nearly out!)

    And Charlotte, loving company we’re only lucky to find. Some kinds of wifehood is liberation too.

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