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January 1, 2012

Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women's Literatures by Elizabeth Podnieks and Andrea O'Reilly (eds)

That Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts has been sitting on my shelf at all is because it marries two subjects that fascinate me: contemporary literature and ideas about motherhood. That it’s been sitting on my shelf for a year or so is because I was intimidated by its academic approach, and had opened it up one day a while ago when the time was not right. The time being righter, I returned to it shortly before Christmas, and was glad I did. Though my enjoyment of the book and success with it is due to me abandoning my usual rule of reading cover-to-cover, and employing that old cliche about some books existing to be dipped in and out of. But I suspect if there’s any such book, this is one of them. Some of the essays were immediately accessible due to my familiarity with the works involved, but I became unabashed about skipping those rendered impenetrable by jargon, theory and/or books I’d never heard of.

Which is not to say that I had to know the books under discussion in order to appreciate these essays in this collection. Quite the contrary, I was surprised to have so many essays pique my interest in literature that is new to me. In “That Was Her Punishment,” Ruth Panoksky’s examination of prostitute mothers in Jewish communities left me wanting to read Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot; my friend Nathalie Foy’s essay on Eden Robinson’s story “Dogs in Winter” was evocative and gorgeously written; I’ve never read the poems of Minnie Bruce Pratt, but Susan Driver’s “I had to make a future willful, voluble, lascivious” brought the poems (and the poet) to life on the page; and I really enjoyed Rita Jones’ “But She’s a Mom! Sex, Motherhood, and the Poetry of Sharon Olds.”

So the book broadened my understanding of how motherhood is represented in contemporary literature, but also deepened my understanding of the works I was familiar with, whose discussions attracted me to this book in the first place. Nancy Peled draws connections between several of Margaret Atwood’s novels to show how each is informed by the roles of absent or powerless mothers. Emily Jeremiah’s “We Need to Talk About Gender: Mothering and Masculinity in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin” managed to bring something new to a novel that has been discussed over and over again, but also preserves the ambiguity and complexity of Shriver’s novel in its arguments. I also appreciated Joanne S. Frye’s and Andrea O’Reilly’s essays on motherhood memoirs (and in particular, the way that these essays spoke to and contradicted one another). And then into another over-studied book is breathed new life with Di Brandt’s “(Grand)mothering Children of the Apocalypse”: A Post post-modern Ecopoetic Reading of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners” (and it may not show from the essay’s title, but oh, how wonderful prose stands out in an academic text).

Even with the skipped essays, however, others would prove challenging in different ways. It was due to my own experience that I was exasperated by the simplistic reduction of Denys Landry’s “Maternal Blitz: Harriet Lovett as Postpartum Sufferer in Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.” Similarly, I resisted the conclusions of Andrea O’Reilly’s essays on motherhood memoirs, and found what is termed “new-momism” (see The Mommy Myth by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels) to be a too-simplified version of most women’s reality. And of course, I would think that, and this is the same argument I have with second-wave feminists every time I identify as a housewife. Anyway, perhaps “new-momism” is over-represented in literature (though I’m convinced much nuance is being overlooked here), but the experiences of most women I know are much closer to what Rita Jones presents as so revelatory in the poetry of Sharon Olds:

This woman determined her own sense of proper womanhood and mothering, but, importantly, she does not do so in some kind of isolation. Instead, she responds to and sometimes imitates contemporary notions of intensive mothering and the new momism. Certainly, she cannot possibly attempt to live her life “off the grid” of mothering. Like the bees, she too tries different arcs of narratives of womanhood and mothering, and we see how tempting she finds the narrative of intensive mothering as she alternates between subsuming her identity beneath that of her children’s and remaking her identity on her own terms… The woman… finds pleasure in her roles as both mother and lover, and she experiences no conflicts in performing both roles.”

But then responding to these essays based on my own experiences would prove to be a very narrow way to read them (or to read anything, for that matter). It’s as necessary as it is difficult to have one’s ideas and sense of relational self properly challenged, and in her essay, Susan Driver provides a wonderful quote from Minnie Bruce Pratt to frame how to rise to this challenge: “I try to say: To acknowledge the complexity of another’s existence is not to deny my own.”

Acknowledging the complexity of existence is what these essays do so well, the complex existence of living, breathing women, and also of the characters in our literature. And the power of this book is found in its acknowledgement of the symbiotic connection between the two, how each one can inform and be empowered by the other.

3 thoughts on “Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women's Literatures by Elizabeth Podnieks and Andrea O'Reilly (eds)”

  1. Heidi says:

    Oh, I’m glad you read and reviewed this! I’ve looked at this book too and been a bit daunted by its academic nature, or what I perceived as its academic nature. It’s on my (enormous) list to be read, and I’m glad to have your perspective.

  2. Linn says:

    Great review, kerry! Shared it on my facebook page. U/s your initial reluctance with what appears to be strictly academic t

  3. Linn says:

    My Continued comment:
    U/s your initial reluctance with what appears to be strictly academic text…however, as I see you felt…it is a great accompanying textual commentary and from a strong feminist perspective on so many amazing works that discuss motherhood.

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