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Pickle Me This

May 10, 2018

My Door is Always Open

“A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.” —Alexandra Schwartz

  1. The only two doors in my apartment are the bathroom door, whose lock is broken, and my children’s bedroom door, which does not actually shut because the door frame is warped.
  2. When we moved into our apartment, I made an office in our garret, which is a strange narrow room adjoining my bedroom, but it was very cold and lonely there and I never wrote a thing.
  3. I have a tea towel upon which is printed the cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and it hangs in our living room (which has three windows, but no door).
  4. Before I had children, I worked 9-5 at a job that wasn’t very interesting and had no time to write.
  5. I am not saying a woman needs to have a A Room of One’s Own tea-towel hanging on her living room wall in order to live a rich and fulfilling life. There are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But this is what works for me.
  6. When my first child was born, I was desperately unhappy. I thought that motherhood would be the thing that saved me from monotony and humdrum days, but it was worse. And so there was nothing left but writing, which I had no choice but to do with all my might.
  7. I never had anything to write about before I had children. I remember talking about this with a friend over sushi about ten years ago, about how I didn’t think I’d be a good writer until I’d experienced motherhood, the way it raises the stakes. I didn’t have a big enough investment in the world before that. I was living on a limited plane.
  8. That limit was my limit. My friend with whom I was eating sushi is not a parent and did not need to become one in order to be a brilliant writer. There are lots of ways to do this thing.
  9. Sometimes I think that people mix up “having a newborn” with “motherhood”. It is true that having a newborn is a bit like being sent to prison/being tortured/transformed into a piece of human furniture, but it doesn’t last, and the only problem is that the first time it happens you don’t know it doesn’t last.
  10. My children are nearly nine and five. I don’t have a door and so my door is always open, but my children are usually doing other things in other rooms.
  11. My first major success as a writer—a published essay wins second place in a contest, is runner-up for a National Magazine Award, appears in Best Canadian Essays, is noted by the UTNE Reader—is about motherhood, and therefore if I’d never become a mother I never would have written it.
  12. Admittedly, all this is more complicated for women who find literary success before they have children—they have something to lose, I suppose. They need to learn to work in a different way. The decision is more perilous. And yet, to think in terms of peril is possibly overdramatic. It will be fine. It will be fine.
  13. My first book was an anthology of essays I edited about motherhood. It would be unlikely that I’d have taken on this project had I not become a mother. I edited this book while lying on my couch, my laptop propped on my legs while my baby slept on my chest. It was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes she napped for ages, and I got a lot of work done.
  14. My other child was at kindergarten. My children are four years apart. I am lucky to have been able to plan this all very carefully, to have my plans work out, for the time and balance I needed in order to be a mother, let alone a mother of two.
  15. My baby no longer sleeps on my chest. Now she goes in kindergarten too. When my first daughter was born and my world was torn asunder, I used to hear other mothers say, “And now I can’t imagine my life without her.” And I thought this was lunacy. I kept thinking instead about my baby, “Where on earth did you come from and what are we going to do?” But nine years later, I firmly can’t imagine my life without either of them. And there’s also this dawning awareness that one day I’m going to have to, because it won’t be too long before they’re living lives that have very little to do with me at all.
  16. I wrote my first novel during the summer of 2014 while my one-year-old napped and her big sister watched Annie on the sofa beside me every single day and I wrote 1000 words at a time. Everybody was doing her job.
  17. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written at the kitchen table, and there’s no one else home, and I’ve grown accustomed the quiet.
  18. I don’t have another job. This is an important part of the story. Working full time, and being a mother, and being a writer is really really hard. That said, a lot of people do it. But that’s a different kind of story than the story I’m telling here.
  19. I don’t have another job, but I’ve been able to build a freelance writing career where I earn a respectable living. I am very proud of this. I’ve also been able to fit that a career around taking my children to and from school every day, other appointments, cleaning my house, grocery shopping etc. etc. There is a misconception being a writer and being a mother without another job means one spends her days, well, staring out the window and dreaming, but I can’t afford such luxuries. I’ve got a business to run. And I have to vacuum.
  20. I’ve been really lucky. I have a partner who works full-time, but who has the flexibility to share the load and support my work. I have children whose needs so far have been fairly undemanding. For other parents, it’s much more complicated and much more work.
  21. I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard.
  22. The stories of women who choose not to have children (or who don’t even get the privilege of making that choice) are as interesting and worthwhile as the stories of women who do have children. That said, when those women’s stories are defined in opposition to those of women who are mothers (i.e. they are sometimes made to feel that they, unlike mothers, are doing womanhood wrong) it sometimes misses the point that even women who do  go with convention and have children are made to feel that they too are doing it wrong, everything, all the time. Motherhood is no escape from this.
  23. The choice not to have children is complicated though, this is true. Once the children arrive, they’re kind of undeniable. Whereas choosing not to have children, as a friend once told me, is a choice you have to make over and over, and that’s not easy.
  24. There is this push to universalize everything that happens to a woman. But sometimes our stories are just stories, instead of facts or even destinies. 
  25. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker. I think about this quote a lot, because sooner or later when they’re talking about those female writers, someone is going to be talking about you.

April 30, 2018

What Goes Around: Remembering Bill 160

I was a special kind of stupid in 1997, the kind you can really only be when you’re 18-years-old and you think things are simple. I think that was the year in which a more worldly classmate drew me a diagram to explain the political spectrum, because the only thing I knew was that once there were Nazis and that there hadn’t been communists since history ended a few years before. None of it seemed relevant. We weren’t political people. I knew that my grandparents voted NDP, because they always had a lawn sign, but we regarded that as an eccentric quirk, like a hat with cherries on a little old lady. I didn’t know the stakes of anything. I was in my final year of high school, and then our teachers went on strike, and for two weeks we had sleepovers every night, and it was also the first time I got drunk.

When the strike was over, I recall a couple of teachers expressing vague disappointment that more students hadn’t joined them on the picket lines, and I found this comment outrageous. We were students, I remember thinking, and we had no business choosing a side. A side in a conflict that, from where I stood, seemed abstract and complicated. I didn’t read the fine print. I don’t think I read any print. It was easier to be neutral. Politics is not my problem, I remember thinking. What’s my problem is that my school year is being disrupted, and all I care about is that the grown-ups work it out so that everything could get back to normal.

Somewhere out there exists a photo of a group of protesters in my town and I’m in the group holding up the placard that says, “We Are The Future: Listen to Us!”  I don’t remember why I went to this event when I was so firmly committed to my neutrality (and also sleepovers and getting drunk) but I think it was some sort of student-organized thing at a union office and it was very exciting and romantic to be part of it. I’d never held a placard before. And now when I think about what was written on my placard, I definitely want to die, because for all my imploring of “Listen to Me/Us” I had absolutely nothing to say. A day in the life of a human vacuum.

The protests in 1997 were against the government’s Bill 160, which was to redefine how education was funded in Ontario. And while it’s doubtful I would have been swayed from my determined, “Don’t put me in the middle of this, bros!” stance, I wonder if something might have been different if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and respectfully told, “In twenty years, your children will be going to schools where the bathrooms are falling apart, where there aren’t custodians to sweep the floors, or education assistants to support a growing segment of the population with complex needs, the office is partly staffed by parent volunteers, and there will be a $15 billion backlog in school repairs.”

I joined the School Council at my children’s school in September, which has given me a window into what teachers and administrators are dealing with right now, and even just being in the school more often (like every day two weeks ago when I was doing admin work for a fundraising program) has informed my perspective. I’m thinking about John Snobelen, who was Minister of Education in 1997, and his comments about “manufacturing a crisis in education.” And, well, here we are, two decades later. As our Parent Council works harder and harder to fundraise and fill in gaps, as teachers exercise amazing feats of ingenuity to keep children learning in buildings that are crumbling and where resources are spare. The education funding formula does not serve anybody. The system, as it is, is not sustainable. And that Ontarians at this moment in time would be considering electing another Conservative government parading promises of spending cuts is such an absolute nightmare. It would be a disaster.

I’ve been thinking a lot about public schooling since September, about how it’s not a sexy cause, about how all the philanthropists who seem to be the only ones able to fund anything these days send their children to private school anyway so it’s not on their radar. How it’s abhorrent that the state of our education system is such a low priority for so many Ontarians. Just imagine the repercussions of the province not having made a serious investment in education for decades—or maybe we don’t have to imagine. I wonder about the cuts to educational assistants and how history might have been different if the perpetrator of the van attack in Toronto had received exemplary support during his school years. I’m thinking about the children who are growing up now and who will become our nurses, computer programmers, lawyers, surgeons, police officers, foresters, novelists, social workers, and engineers. I’m wondering about the effects of our children growing up in an inferior system where they’re made to understand that nobody with power thinks they deserve any better.

We were warned—that’s the worst part. There I was with my stupid neutral placard, and I wasn’t listening to anybody. Did I really think the teachers enjoyed their labour action? Full disclosure: there are always people who are never happier than when they’re taking labour action because it’s exciting and romantic, the way I felt when I was holding a placard, and those are the people who put a bad taste in my mouth regarding politics anyway, those who see politics themselves as an end rather than a means to the end…but I digress. It’s a preoccupation with these people that made me think that neutrality was a noble stance, when our teachers were so clearly right. They saw it coming.

I am absolutely ashamed now when I look back and realize I did nothing, and now my children (and your children!) are paying the price.

April 12, 2018

The Soup My Children Eat

Having children is a challenge to any notion of living in the moment, not just because children rarely sit still, but also because a moment in the life of a child is as changing as a garden in May. And so the closest I’ve come to really being present is looking back on five minutes previous and saying, “Well, thank goodness that’s over, and isn’t it amazing to be here right now.” Which is basically what I’ve been saying for my children’s entire lives, the first six weeks of their existences notwithstanding.

Of course, it helps that I am an insufferable diviner of silver linings. I also know that it’s not always going to keep getting better and better, this experience of raising children. Life is complicated. Although I am so insistent when it comes to those silver linings that I might possibly end up deluding myself into thinking this is the case—I’m an unreliable narrator. But still, here we are, with my children on the cusp of being five and nine, and we’ve never had it so good. Sometimes we go out for dinner, and I don’t even need to be bring crayons. All those terrains that were unnavigable by stroller are now ours for the taking—I look forward to a summer of walks in ravines. And when we wet our pants, it’s a special occasion instead of a regular occurrence. We’re capable of having interesting conversations that 35% of the time don’t descend into an in-depth analysis of farts. We can all go to the same movie and enjoy it, and even Iris has been following along with our reading of A Wrinkle in Time. But what makes me happier than anything else is that finally everybody likes soup.

It has taken years to get here. I don’t know why. You’d think that soup would be child-friendly, as it doesn’t even require teeth to eat it, but my children were soup-intolerant from the get-go. And in some ways, I understood—small children like food to be straightforward and not touching, and soup was everything mixed up in a bowl. I would puree it, but they always claimed it tasted terrible. Chicken noodle they would tolerate, but only because they’d just pick out the noodles. And all of this was very hard on me, because soup is one of the things I love best in the world. Warm and comforting, full of nutritious goodness, handy for leftovers, and how it warms the house and steams everything up so you can draw hearts on the windows. I really love soup, and I never gave up serving it to my children in the hopes that one I’d finally succeed at making them love it too.

The tide finally turned about a year ago. I remember the night it happened—I served the soup thinking, “Will tonight be the night?” As I’d done numerous nights before, but this one did the trick. Everybody ate the soup. The blandest soup, it was true, but I was not going to quibble about details. Soup was soup and we were eating it together, and I kept serving it, gradually adding flavour. Originally it was sweet potato and I started using butternut squash instead, but not telling them. They kept eating it. I added a bit of curry—nobody complained. And now I serve it weekly, and everybody’s the teeniest bit sick of it, but they indulge me and also they don’t get a say because I’m the one cooking. We like to have our soup with a loaf of oatmeal quick bread and hummus and cheese on the side, as well as a drained can of chickpeas roasted in the oven with salt and olive oil as the bread is cooking.

The Soup My Children Eat (Adapted from here)

Ingredients: 

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon chilli powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 butternut squash, peeled and diced (or 4 sweet potatoes)

6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

1 can of coconut milk

Instructions: 

Melt olive oil in a stock pot. Add onion and garlic and let them soften, then stir in spices. Add diced squash, and then stock. Bring to boil and simmer for 20 minutes (or longer?) and then add coconut milk. Puree with an immersion blender.

March 22, 2018

“But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”

I wrote about abortion again. Boring, I know, but every time I write about abortion, it seems to more and more politically imperative to do so. And this piece is one of the best essays I’ve ever written, I think. I’m really proud of it and feel good having those words, this story, out in the world. It’s such a common story, but for so many reasons, it’s not one we read about or hear about very often. Though I’m writing it not just for myself and so many women like me whose uncomplicated, ordinary, straightforward stories of abortion are that it was a good thing, a blessing, and simultaneously not a big deal but also such an important part of our lives. I’m writing it also with the hope of reaching someone who sees abortion as killing a baby, and cannot fathom how it could ever be ordinary, let alone a blessing. Not even to change their mind, but to have them entertain the notion of considering a different point of view. “I understand where you’re coming from,” I want to tell them, because I do, “but for a moment just consider my story.”

Which makes me think of a idea that keeps recurring in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I’m reading aloud to my family at the moment. Uttered first in a line by Meg Murry’s mother, who tells her, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.” Just because someone doesn’t understand my story doesn’t mean my story isn’t true. My story is, no matter how much that complicates your worldview. I’ve written before about being grateful for my abortion, for what it’s taught me about in-betweenness and grey areas, and about the value of listening to people and believing them when they tell you about their experiences. Even if you can’t identify, even if you can’t understand. Because it’s possible that the limits of your understanding are also the limits of your point of view, and I want my ideas to be able to travel further than that. And I hope that other people might see the benefits of such open-mindedness as well.

June 9, 2017

The Thing That Lou Couldn’t Do, by Ashley Spires

If life were a movie, all persistence would lead to triumph. Adversity only would exist in order to be overcome. We would all be Rocky, champions, eye of the tiger. If you just try hard enough, success will inevitably result. And it’s not just movies—it’s books too, memoir and fiction, books for all ages. Stella gets her groove back. It leads you to believe that this actually happens, all the time. And for some people, maybe this is true.

Sometimes I feel like there should be a different kind of genetic testing before two people are allowed to procreate. Oh, wait a minute. You can map your entire childhood from the scars on your face from your struggles with gravity, and you played softball for four years and never ever once managed to catch the ball? Do you really think this is such a good idea? Maybe you both should adopt a ferret instead? 

There will be a time when my child’s inability to do a cartwheel won’t really matter. (There might also one day be a time when she can do a cartwheel, but I am not holding my breath.) She couldn’t jump until she was four years old, and hopping remains a challenge. Jump Rope For Heart is coming up next week and she can’t do it. Mostly for lack of trying, it’s true, and if I could go back in time I would have enrolled her in gymnastics when she was two and given her a foundation in physical literacy, but I figured it was the kind of thing she’d pick up on her own. Like riding a bike. Which she still can’t do.

It’s not all failure, of course. I write here all the time about the magnificence of my children, their incredible imaginations and intelligence and how they are funny, kind of empathetic. They love exploring, can walk for miles, can make a game out of anything, read boatloads of books, are up for adventures, do well in school, get along with their friends, and are already very good members of their community. I admire them both immensely. But the whole story includes the struggles, and we’ve got plenty of those. Motor skills are not our forte. If I wanted to, I was told, I could pursue therapies with a aplomb and really nip this problem in the bud…or I could write my child off as a person a bit lacking in physical prowess. Something we both actually have in common. She’s kind of fine with that.

While bike riding remains elusive, she has mastered her two wheeled scooter, which isn’t easy to do. She still can’t skip (three consecutive jumps are a challenge) but we’ve finagled a slow-motion step thing with the skipping rope which might turn into actual skipping with practice. With a lot of determination, she learned to ice skate, and while she’s cautious and slower than her fearless friends, she can skate enough to have an acceptable Canadian childhood. And our latest and greatest triumph is swimming, even though she’s likely to repeat Swim Kids 2 again, but this is probably the last time, and she can actually swim now, which is a long long way for someone who has the buoyancy of a anchor. She’s had a good teacher this term who has pushed her, which she said she resented in the beginning, but she gets it now. On the chalkboard in our hallway, we’ve written, WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.

At their last physical exam, or maybe the one before it, I mentioned the challenge with physical things, and our doctor (who is the mother of four children and knows a few things) told me two things that struck me as quite profound. First, that when our brains have to work harder in order to respond to challenges, our brains get smarter. Struggle is good for us. And second, struggle can make us better people, people with more empathy towards those with their own struggles, a healthy awareness that everybody is fighting their own battle.

I love The Thing That Lou Couldn’t Do, by Ashley Spires, because (SPOILERS) she never learns to do it. This is not a story about triumph over adversity, but about adversity. About how adversity can be its own story, worthwhile in its own right. That learning and trying and trying again, regardless of what happens next, is its own kind of adventure. And that all of us are doing this in some part of our lives, and if we’re not, it’s only because we’re not brave enough to bother.

May 14, 2017

On Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my abortion.

On Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my abortion. Which might sound intentionally provocative, but it isn’t. If you think very hard you might be able to fathom the banality of being grateful for this one thing upon which my adult life has hinged, from which everything since has come from, every single ordinary wonderful thing. Although I wasn’t always grateful—at the time such a thing as gratitude never occurred to me. To have the freedom to make a decision about my own body and my own destiny—that sounds kind of banal as well. It was 2002 and things were politically different, or at least I was isolated enough to think they were. At the time it wouldn’t have occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale was prescient.

But none of that is actually what I’m thinking about today, in 2017, amidst the conversations about cultural appropriation I’ve been listening to all for the last few days—except for yesterday when I took a blessed internet sabbatical. Instead, I am grateful for my abortion for another reason, for the ability my experiences of abortion and motherhood have given me to grasp nuance, hold uncertainty and hold two ideas in my head at once. “A single thing can have two realities.” My abortion enabled me to articulate this idea, to come to know the necessity of in-betweeness. It’s a point of view that many people a great deal smarter than I am have still not been able to grasp.

I was thinking about this this morning as I read Barbara Kay’s remarkable twitter timeline which must have originated in defence of her son who has been called out for supporting a “cultural appropriation prize” in defence of another editor who has (seemingly) been set-upon by the twitter mobs. I’ve never seen such an example of one misguided offensive thing spiralling into a whirlwind of absolutely abhorrent behaviour, the kind of behaviour that would embarrass a daycare room of toddlers, with apologies to toddlers. Barbara Kay daring to make a terrible thing even worse by for some reason claiming that positive experiences of Indigenous people in Canadian residential schools had been censored from the official report, which Kay hasn’t even read. (“Is there no subject matter you don’t know about that you feel qualified to opine on?” asks Maggie Wente on Twitter.)

It was all so preposterous that I did the thing that no one should ever do, which is click over to Barbara Kay’s timeline where she was retweeting some guy who’d tweeted, ‘Nothing says “I love you, mom” like a child you didn’t abort.’ And here, I thought, was exactly the problem. A person who’d think that was the reality of abortion and motherhood would be the person limited enough not to understand how one could support free speech and respecting Indigenous cultures. Not to see that Black Lives Matter means that all lives matter. The kind of person who doesn’t seem to get that you can find female genital mutilation appalling and still not be a raging racist, or even be a feminist who supports the right of other women to do what they like with their bodies—adorn it with a headscarf, even. That women who have abortions might be the same women who’ve mourned miscarriages, or who celebrate life-saving techniques that make it possible for babies born as early as 23 weeks to go on to thrive. These are also, I must point out, the same people who REFUSE to understand that most late-term abortions are performed on babies that were desperately wanted but nonviable due to fetal abnormalities. People who don’t get that a person like me who was so grateful for her abortion at six weeks can understand that for many women “choice” can be the lesser of two tragedies.

I am grateful for my abortion, because my experience as a pro-choice woman has informed so much of my understanding of power structures and oppression . It’s why I’m not sure “debate” is the answer, because I’ve had to stand on the street corner “debating” my bodily autonomy with a twenty year old Catholic boy, and I’m not sure it really got me anywhere. It’s why I know that “Yes, but…” is usually a better answer, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge that people really are the experts on their own lives and experiences. That listening is usually the best course. That we all have a lot to learn from each other. That sometimes the things that make us uncomfortable are the real things, and that grey areas exist for a reason and we have a lot of discover where they do.

If not for my abortion, I might think that questions have easy answers, that the world has easy answers, that life is uncomplicated, tidy and straightforward. I might not even understand that this can be true: if not for my abortion, I wouldn’t have my children. So on Mother’s Day, I’m more grateful than ever.

April 4, 2017

A Handy Guide to Explaining Graphic Anti-Choice Public Transit Ads to Your Children

“How am I supposed to explain this to my children?” is a question many people are grappling with in my hometown right now, where the city failed to fight a campaign by a group of fetus enthusiasts to display graphic anti-choice images on the sides of busses. Images that, I will remind you, are enlarged hundreds of times beyond their actual size, because (as a young man campaigning “for life” in the street once affirmed for me) if you showed images of abortions at their actual size (also known as REALITY)  “they wouldn’t have any impact.” Which should give anyone pause…

But apparently not, because the ads are due to start running this week. As someone who has already talked about these ads with my children, however, I have wisdom to impart here which might be relevant to other parents. This is how I gave them the lay of the anti-choice land.

  1. A lot of things happen to women in their lives, I tell them. A lot of women have babies. And many women who want to have babies end up having their babies die before they are born, often for no reason that anyone can discern. And other women who want babies find out far into their pregnancies that their babies are not growing properly and they make the decisions to end their pregnancies—which is a painful, agonizing choice to have to make and leave families sad for a very long time. Other women find out they are pregnant when they don’t want to be, and these women can also make the choice to end their pregnancies, and sometimes this is sad and sometimes it isn’t.
  2. And then I remind them that the fact that women get to make choices about their own bodies makes a lot of people really angry. Sometimes those people are men and sometimes they are women. Sometimes they are people who themselves have lost babies they desperately wanted, which has left them unable to understand that their situation does not apply to everyone, that restricting someone else’s choice isn’t going to make their own loss any less. (And some of these people are pro-life dude-bro’s who are in their early 20s and as ridiculously empowered as they are ignorant about women’s lives and experiences. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pro-life dude-bro’s.)
  3. “A lot of people are huge assholes,” I remind my children. We see evidence of this everywhere. We try to love the world and humanity anyway, however. It is an ongoing project.
  4. And these huge assholes, I tell my children, have no problem with taking these intimate, personal, complicated experiences of women’s lives and driving them around town on the side of a bus via wholly misleading images. They have either not paused to reflect on or do not care in the slightest about how these images are as violent and cruel as they are misleading. On what it might mean to be coming home from the ER after realizing you are miscarrying and seeing that bus drive by you. Or even worse, when you’re waiting at the bus stop as you are miscarrying, and that’s the bus that pulls up. Public transit is not frequent enough in my hometown that you could just sit down and wait for the next one. I tell my children that the people who’ve placed these ads have not bothered to put themselves in that woman’s place, or the place of her partner, her children, all those people who know how complicated women’s health and women’s lives can be. I tell my children, Don’t be these people. I tell them there is such a thing as empathy. I tell my children: “In your lives, be better than that.”
  5. I tell them, “You know the problem, the reason these ads have happened at all and the reason people are able to rest afloat on the seas of their own ignorance, is that we don’t talk about abortion enough. A person lacking in curiosity might think that these aren’t issues that have affected nearly everyone. So in a way, even though the images are gross and fake, they give us cause to be grateful. Here we are talking about it. A good moment to remind you, my daughter, that your body—and the choice of what to do with it—is your own.”

March 29, 2017

I love love love Workin’ Moms

Much like a certain recent US presidential candidate you may recall, the CBC television series Workin’ Moms is not a perfect candidate. There are some obligatory awkward Canadian production moments (Dan Ackroyd notwithstanding; his casting was brilliant); mild implausibility (how do the workin’ moms manage to fit a mommy’s group into their workdays?); and wardrobe decisions I didn’t blink at but that drove my actual workin’ mom friends berserk—apparently sleeves in the office are pretty much de riguere? Who knew. But over the first season of the show it’s become clear to me that perfection was never what the shows creators were striving for. They put a wandering kodiak bear in the pilot, for heaven’s sake. And it was that bear, or rather character Kate’s response to it, that had me hooked, her serious, furious primal scream. In that powerful moment we were witnessing a mother being born.

The show’s frequent comparisons to HBO’s Girls are not amiss in that neither is a series about women in general, which keeps tripping viewers up “because we’re still more comfortable seeing women as universal types rather than distinct individuals.” If women in general get this treatment, then mothers get it doubly, and the creators of Workin’ Moms are actively working against those expectations of who mothers are and what they should be. In fact, they’re working against all expectations, hence the kodiak bear.

From the start, here is what I loved about the series: first, that the characters aren’t foils. They’re people. That they aren’t having existential crises about matters most people really do manage to work out in reality if not on TV—like, “Oh my god, can I be a mom AND a person?” “Is it okay that I really like my job more than I like taking care of my baby?” “Is it simply inexcusable to admit that I find devoting my entire self to motherhood is more than a bit unfulfilling?” I mean, these are questions the characters in the show are working through, but it’s the process that matters—it’s not as though entire plot points hang upon them. I also like that the workin’ moms’ partners (who are dads, but for one exception) are generally decent human beings. Making dads look dumb is really stupid comedy, and this show is much too smart for that.

I knew I loved the show in the first episode when Frankie started fantasizing about being hit by a bus. She doesn’t want to die, she explains, but how she’d love to go into a coma for eight weeks or so. Later we see her with her head stuck under water in the house she’s showing for a sale. Soon after, she kinda sorta slips under water in the bathtub with her baby daughter—only just caught by her partner. She’s fallen asleep, she claims. A tiny slip. Enough to make the viewer very uncomfortable, which the series never fears to do.

Another character whose trajectory messed me up was Jenny, who headed back to her IT job reluctantly while her husband embraced his time as a stay-at-home dad, and thereby became completely unappealing to her, sexually and otherwise. She starts having weird fantasies about her nerdy manager, and leaving provocative messages on his Facebook page. Alienated from her roles as mother and wife, she starts acting out in outlandish ways, most memorably on the girls’ night out when she demands someone pierce her nipple, which squirts milk at the moment of laceration. Predictably, the nipple gets infected.

I loved Anne, who’s struggling with her older daughter (oh my gosh, when she starts wondering if there’s a slut gene and she’s passed it onto her) and a young baby when she realizes she’s pregnant again. This accidental pregnancy does not come as good news, and she struggles with facing it in her characteristically blunt style—”You’re angrier than usual, Anne,” the leader of the mommies group remarks to her. The group in general in general is a bit put off by the fact that Anne keeps bringing up that she’s considering an abortion. Which is kind of sacrilege in a room full of babies.

And then yes, the abortion. It’s long been a complaint of mine not just that abortions aren’t shown on TV very often, but particularly that nobody ever gets to make jokes about them. (I actually have a long term aspiration to become an abortion humorist.)  Workin’ Moms going against the grain again as Anne’s friend Kate (who’s played by show creator Catherine Reitman) cracks this one as she’s driving Anne to a clinic and they’re considering whether you’d Yelp an abortion clinic based on ratings or proximity. Ratings, definitely, Kate figures, and then she takes it further: “I wonder what kinds of complaints an abortion clinic gets? One star. Still pregnant.”

And Kate, my favourite. All life in the city—she’s glorying in the beauty of the day in the park with her son as a vagrants’ pissing against a tree. Sardonic, bad-assed and unapologetic—particularly about her lack of sleeves. Her story throughout the series involves her return to work at a PR firm where she’s firmly established as successful, but she finds she has to redefine her professional role at work now that she’s a mother. Further, she’s a candidate for a prestigious position in Montreal, which would involve leaving her husband and son for three months. Is this something she’s willing to partake in for professional success? (Spoiler: in Tuesday’s episode we see her glorying in her clean white bed, alone, a full night’s sleep, and not a single soul to breastfeed. As any mother knows, there’s not drug in the world as incredible as solitude—but it’s also possible to get too much of a good thing.)

At the beginning of the show in January, Workin’ Moms received a terrible review from John Doyle in the Globe and Mail who chastised the show for its characters’ entitlement. “Oddly, to me, Workin’ Moms celebrates what was mocked with deft scorn by the Baroness Von Sketch series and the Canadian comedy Sunnyside. So, whose side are we supposed to be on? If it’s these appallingly smug people, heaven help us all.” But what the review only proves is that John Doyle doesn’t get it—it’s never been about sides. And what’s remarkable about Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms alike is that nobody is pitted against no one. Not unless, of course, there’s a very good reason…

In her celebration of Baroness Von Sketch, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes of how the show “celebrates and spoofs the mundane realities in which modern, urban women find themselves depicted. And oh, how the Baronesses know the contours of the boxes in which we live. They have it mapped out like diligent and transgressive draughtswomen who, instead of yielding to the airtight edges of their inherited designs, work to erase them.” And I would argue that Workin’ Moms is a similar kind of project. More subtly though—this isn’t sketch comedy after all. And because it isn’t, the show has to develop in-depth female characters with sustained narratives, and some people hate that. Remember that flawed candidate I started this post with?

Workin’ Moms isn’t perfect, but it never wanted to be—which is the reason it manages to be transgressive, hilarious and discomforting all at once. And it doesn’t fucking care if you don’t like it, which is why I loved it.

The series finale airs next week, but you can watch the whole thing online.

January 19, 2017

I don’t want to tell them, “Nothing.”

“One day my daughters will ask what I did to save the world for them, and I don’t want to tell them, ‘Nothing.’” I wrote a piece for Today’s Parent about why I’m taking my daughters to the Women’s March here in Toronto on Saturday.

See you there, or in solidarity?

December 13, 2016

Awkward Conversations

As a parent, having uncomfortable conversations with my daughter is one of my favourite things. The other day after listening to the news on the radio, she asked me, “What’s sexual assault?” And I was so grateful to be able to answer that. To be able to give her the context for these awful, disturbing ideas, rather than her getting her context from elsewhere, from less reliable sources. From the cruel world even, when she’s utterly unprepared for it. It’s the same reason I read her the Grimms with the violent endings, the nasty stepmother destined to dance eternally in shoes made of burning iron. Even though these deliverances of justice aren’t in keeping with reality, I think the fact that the world can be brutal and hard. I don’t want these things to ever come as a surprise to her. I willingly brought my daughter into the world, and along with that, I see myself as required to take responsibility for all of it, the good and the bad.

They aren’t opposing, also, the good and the bad. This is what I want to teach my daughter about the world, about its complexity  “A single thing can have two realities,” is a line I wrote in my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies,” about motherhood and abortion. It’s always been a lesson I wanted her to learn. “And so one day I will tell her about what happened to me a long time ago,” I wrote about my daughter and my abortion, in this essay I wrote when my daughter was three. I was always grateful for that essay, because it meant I’d never be able to not tell her what happened to me. It would force me to take responsibility too for this part of my own story.

Last week I shared the above photo of protesters from the 1970 Abortion Caravan in Ottawa on Instagram. I spend a lot of time on Twitter raging about abortion access and perception, while my Instagram feed is all teacups in soft sunshine. I wanted to be more well-rounded in my Insta-life, so I shared the image. And later that night, Harriet was scrolling through my feed and saw the photo. “Who are they?” she asked, and so I told her about abortion.

I told her about the brave women (and men) who fought hard so that she and I could have control over our reproductive lives. I told her about how people are trying themselves in knots trying to restrict women from aborting lentil-sized fetuses. “But it’s not their lentil,” she said. “I KNOW!” I answered. And I told that when she was a lentil, she was everything. We read her stories even though she didn’t even have ears. But she was everything because we loved her already and we wanted her. In physical terms, she was almost nothing. Pregnancy is perilous at 6 weeks.

I told her about my friends who’ve had abortions later on, when everything is so much harder. About how these were heartbreaking choices, the losses of children who were desperately wanted. About how nobody has an abortion for fun. It’s always a careful choice, and sometimes not an easy one. And it’s hard to understand because one person’s lentil is someone else’s baby. But Harriet is seven and already she understands that a single thing can have two realities.

I haven’t told her yet that I had an abortion. She didn’t ask. These conversations have to be organic, I think. But I’m sure I’ll tell her soon, and when I do I’ll tell her this: “If not for my abortion, I wouldn’t have YOU, and I’m grateful everyday.”

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