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Pickle Me This

May 10, 2019

Alice At Naptime, by Shea Proulx

Sometimes I think that the story of motherhood is too big to fit onto a page, or into a book. Because having a baby is this way, and it’s that way, and it’s never one way, ever changing, impossible to properly articulate. Heather Birrell writes about this in her essay “Truth, Dare, Double Dare” in The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She writes:

“The trend..is toward a certain gross-out honesty—a “come join me here in the trenches” mordancy (“I just let her chew on the stroller tire!”) which, although funny and often a welcome release, leaves out the deeper resonances and rewards of being a mother and co-parent. Why is this? Because it’s hard to put your finger on the glint of joy in the dirty dishwater of drudgery. It slips away, seems a trick of the light, impossible to photograph, let alone articulate.”

But maybe you can draw it?

I am under the spell of Alice at Naptime, by Shea Proulx, who wrote in a post for 49th Shelf:

Drawings not only make clear the path of the body, but also the path of the mind, as text does, but differently from text. The world “psychedelic” is most associated with mind-altering substances, but the word breaks down from the Greek to mean “the mind…made clear.” Works of art that show clearly the mental processes involved in thinking through a subject might also be described as psychedelic, especially when the subject is inexpressible in words…

Alice at Naptime is a series of illustrations that Proulx drew of her daughter when she was a baby. “I used to draw all the time..” the book begins, “but now just at naptime.” And when Alice is napping, she draws Alice, her sleeping face set into kaleidoscopic scenes, a wonderland of strangeness, symmetry and doubleness that grows to fill the entire spread: “a symphony of Alices.” A kind of dreamland. And fittingly, for a child named Alice with illustrations that are definitely trippy, there is wonder: “Alice is strapped down so often when she naps. It looks like we’re worried she might float away.” What does Alice dream about? Proulx asks the reader, “Am I boring you?” And I remember the fascination of my sleeping child’s face, the smallness of my world then—I remember the day my child discovered causality while kicking an arch on a baby gym, and both our minds were blown, but nobody else cared. “It’s just that I’m so in love,” Proulx writes, “lost in a sea of Alice.”

What I love about this book is how Proulx shows the way that motherhood can inspire art and thought and creativity, rather than be its antithesis. That there is such profound love in the minutiae of parenting. It is like a dream, like a storm, rolling waves—and she started thinking about Alice growing, wondering who this sleeping baby will grow to be. (“What would it be like to wake up in different places all the time?”—but motherhood is a little bit like that as the years go on. My daughter turns ten this year. She’s known about causality for awhile now. Every day, we’re somewhere new.)

“I take Alice with me everywhere, even when I leave her at home.”

“Love can seem like a trap,” writes Proulx, confined to the place her baby is napping, to her baby’s needs and whims, “but I have roots now.” And it becomes clear that this book about a baby growing into a person is fundamentally the story of a woman growing into a mother—and also how she acknowledges that these sleeping napping days with Alice were only just a blink of an eye. (A dream?)

In a gorgeous afterword, Proulx writes about how it’s been years since she made these drawings. “I’m not the person I was then. You don’t become a mother all at once. You have to grow into that new self. I recognize the fragility of the tenuous identity I was sorting out as I relaxed into a new rhythm… It isn’t without sacrifice that women become mothers, or men fathers. But the gains are heady and by their nature, indescribable, as are many natural desires. I only hope I’ve done the process some small justice. I owe that to a former self, that new mom, adrift in a wonderland, wondering who she would become.”

May 10, 2019

On Mother’s Day, I’m Grateful for My Abortion

I posted this two years ago, but I feel it even more profoundly now. While people who want to restrict abortion enrage me, I also manage to feel pity for the smallness and lack of complexity of their world view, to have the limitations of their understanding on display so flagrantly.

I also had the chance to answer some questions about the essay anthology The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, five years on from publication. You can read it over here.

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 [Redacted; a person not worth thinking about specifically]’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. [Redacted] 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 [Redacted] 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 [Redacted]’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 24, 2019

The Myriad Nature of Maternal Grief

Everything I know about infertility, I’ve come to understand through the analogy of abortion, which is not the opposite of infertility—though some people might have you imagine so. For your information, adoption and miscarriage are not the opposite of abortion either, as the many people who’ve had both abortions and miscarriages can definitely attest, and those women who’ve experienced adoption too. (And pay attention here, to the challenge of going beyond a single story in women’s experiences—a theme. To an insistence in our rhetoric on either/or, and maybe neither if you’re lucky, but never both.)

While I’ve not experienced infertility, I have had an abortion, which means that I’ve spent a lot of the last seventeen years thinking about reproductive choice (which delivered me the rest of my life, after all, so I spend a lot of time saying thank you). And in this thinking it occurred to me that such notions of choice must necessarily include women who want to be pregnant but aren’t, women I feel solidarity with because both experiences (wanting to be pregnant when you’re not and not wanting to be pregnant when you are) have feelings of grief and such abject despair at their core. And similarly do abortion and infertility attract the wrath of patriarchal forces, because there is nothing our society likes less than a woman who exercises agency over her destiny, who refuses to be a passive vessel.

(An additional commonality I’d never considered until reading Alexandra Kimball’s book is that abhorring abortion and dismissing the trauma of infertility both require diminishing the physical labour required to be pregnant and also that to become pregnant through reproductive technology. Abortion and infertility treatments are both considered, by those who don’t know any better, as a matter of simple “convenience,” equivocating women’s labour with, just say, a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks.)

And so Alexandra Kimball’s The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue was always going to one of the books I’ve most been looking forward to this spring. (The first time I read Kimball’s work was a 2015 essay on miscarriage, which was also about her abortion, and I am always interested when abortion/miscarriage/infertility are part of the same conversation; and note: they were also all part of the conversation in the anthology I edited in 2014, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood).

But I will admit that while I was looking forward to The Seed, its thesis (that feminism has failed infertile women) made me uncomfortable—and certainly it’s even supposed to, and it’s provocative. But what I mean is that I didn’t start reading the book completely on board, and I felt its central premise would possibly be a bit overstated. (This is kind of like when you’re white, and a racialized person tells you about their experience of racism, and you suppose they’re just being a bit sensitive.)

But it was by about page 50 and her analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale and infertility in pop culture (after the chapter on infertile women as monstrous in myth and folklore, beginning with a Babylonian epic from 18th century BC, right up to witchcraft trials just a couple of hundred years ago) that Kimball had me convinced that she was not just being sensitive. After discussing pop culture infertility in films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (infertile women literally destroying the everywoman’s life) she turns to The Handmaid’s Tale, and concludes that while it is “unequivocally, a feminist text…in its world, female barrenness is not only…threatening…disgusting… it is outright oppressive, a necessary engine for patriarchy itself.”

Kimball’s analysis from here is about the tension within feminism toward motherhood in general: “an idea of motherhood as conscription into patriarchy remained central to feminist theory and action.” And how feminism’s emphasis on CONTROL in terms of reproduction left little space for those women whose experiences were beyond their control—she quotes Linda Layne on the monumental Our Bodies, Ourselves, which included miscarriage and infertility in a separate (and unillustrated) chapter at end of the book.

And who exactly gets to be in control of their reproductive lives was quite specific from the start in feminist circles—racism and classism have always played a role in this. So that even now, the experiences of racialized, queer and poor people are alienated from conversations about fertility, which itself is alienated from conversations within feminism anyway. Kimball shows numerous examples of people in general and feminists in particular being much more concerned with and disturbed by ideas about people resolving their infertility than the problem of infertility itself.

And why is it so easy for our rhetoric to remain so unconcerned about the experience of the infertile woman? “They ignore the grief,” writes Kimball, who notes that she has never felt as objectified as she did when she was infertile. “It’s difficult to see [an infertile woman] as anything other than a curiosity of capitalism, akin to people who undergo cosmetic surgery.” She writes about “the existential clusterfuck of this trauma,” how the tragedy of infertility is that resolution always seems just close enough at hand to be worth pursuing. “It’s less of a biological impulse than a narrative one, a need for coherence and sense.”

And here, Kimball begins to see the possibilities of sisterhood, of solidarity, for she finds it with a friend who a trans woman whose own experiences have been very different but who understands the extent of Kimball’s grief in a way that few other people do. (Kimball also points out that Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists find women pursuing fertility as challenging to their politics as they do trans women.) She further identifies with the the artworks of Catherine Opie and Frieda Kahlo, how they portray bodily labour and grief. “I looked at Opie’s portrait series and Kahlo’s miscarriage works frequently when I was struggling, not so much because they mirrored my own experience or made me feel less lonely, but because I was heartened by what I felt was the complexity of their stories… They demonstrate the myriad nature of maternal grief.”

That myriad nature is explored in the essay anthology Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, edited by Allison McDonald Ace, Ariel Ng Bourbonnais and Caroline Starr, a work that challenges “the single narrative” that Kimball complicates and writes against in her cultural analysis. In Through, Not Around, the political is made personal again with 22 stories of infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, mostly by women, but with a handful by men. Each writer is telling a story that is far from uncommon, but which was until recently taboo (and even remains so in many cultures). As Kimball writes, society is made uncomfortable by evidence of the effort and labour of motherhood, would prefer it to remain hidden so we can continue to believe it is natural, essential.

My only critique of this collection is the lack of contributor bios, because it would be interesting to see what a range of backgrounds these writers are coming from. (Although I try to think of reasons why contributor bios might be avoided here, and I can think of some answers. What happens when we let the stories speak for themselves?) My sense is that these writers come from a fairly broad spectrum of experience (although, for reasons Kimball has illuminated, racialized, queer and poor women are in the minority here, as they are in conversations about fertility in general) and that most of them are not professional writers. (The anthology was born of the online community The 16 Percent.) And so I was impressed by how excellently written most of these essays were, how they made stories out of experiences that defy the conventions of narrative at every turn. (There is a reason you rarely read a novel where someone ends up having five miscarriages.)

The grief that Kimball writes about is evident in these essays, which are stories of strength and resilience under sometimes unrelenting pressure. The point indeed is getting through, which requires action instead of passiveness. But also questions of when to try a different path forward, when to stop, and all the surprising diversions that happen along the way. Women’s lives, we read in these essays, are fraught and brutal and hard and knit with tragedy, but are also unfailingly interesting.

There are so many ways to be a woman, and to become a mother, or to be infertile, even. I’m grateful to both these books for complicating the narrative in the very best way.

February 27, 2019

Happy Parents, Happy Kids, by Ann Douglas

Early on in my career in motherhood, friends would recommend Ann Douglas’s parenting books to me on the basis that she wasn’t an ideologue. “She recognizes that there’s not just one way to do things,” I remember people explaining, because she recognized that there was not just one kind of child, or one one of family, or just one simple way to make a baby fall asleep at night. It’s a kind of pragmatism that can be rare in the parental guidance industry, and which has endeared her to a generation of readers looking for advice applicable for the world we live in as opposed to an ideal one. (Douglas’s most recent book before her latest was Parenting Through the Storm, advice for parents whose children are living with mental illness.)

Her new release is Happy Parents, Happy Kids, built on the premise that in order to make positive change in family life and the life of a child, a parent should start with herself, with her own wellbeing. A suggestion that is more important than it has ever been, perhaps, because parenthood itself has never been harder. Fashioned into a verb, made into a competitive sport on display with social media, complicated by differing philosophies and an insistence that the stakes are high for everything. Because what does the future hold? Douglas’s first chapter is called “Parenting in an Age of Anxiety,” and she goes on to illuminate how parents are challenged by questions of work/life balance, why it’s easy to always feel distracted, and how it’s too easy to lose focus on the parts of having children that are wonderful and rewarding.

Her advice on avoiding distracted parenting is really terrific (the only social media I have on my phone is Instagram, but since reading Happy Parents… I have removed the app from my phone’s main screen and turned off notifications, and my life is better for it), and she has similar suggestions, backed up with research, for connecting with your children, with your partner, for figuring out what is important to you and what your priorities are in your family life, for living with stress and hardship, overcoming past trauma, choosing calm over “stressed,” the benefits of being your authentic self as a parent, and how to resist a goal-oriented approach to being a parent: “Parenting is endlessly inefficient—and that’s okay.” Implicit in every part of this book is an understanding that families come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of challenges and every kind of normal. There is a lot to work with here, and not all of it is applicable to my life at the moment, but I can foresee moments where all of it might be. This is the kind of book that would be good to keep close at hand, to dip in and out of, because you know (as the book knows) that the only sure thing have having children is that everything is changing all the time.

While “Be the change you want to see in the world” (or “Be the happy you want to see in your family”) is worthwhile and really practical advice, however, it’s only the beginning of the story, and what I love about Happy Parents, Happy Kids is that Douglas knows that. “Recognize that many of the problems that we are grappling with as parents are too big to solve on our own,” she writes in the book’s first chapter. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions, after all. So look for opportunities to join forces with other people who share your desire to create a world that’s kinder and friendlier to parents and kids.” She couples her individual-based approach to self-improvement with an awareness that society itself also needs to change, and that part of the reason that having children can be so overwhelming is because the system is stacked against us. And it’s only when we join forces and work together that things can begin to change.

The book’s final section is all about the necessity of building a village—we featured an excerpt on 49thShelf last month about the challenges and opportunities of online community. And this chapter sums up what underlines the entire book—that we can only do this all together. (I’ve also been signed up for Douglas’s newsletter, The Villager, for the last few months, with her thoughts and ideas about creating community and finding common group in an ever-shifting world, and I love every instalment.)

She writes, “The issues we’re grasping with are so much bigger than any of us, which makes them all the more challenging to resolve. The fact, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to make the situation significantly better by making changes at the personal, political, and cultural level. It may start with you, but it can’t end with you…” It’s about building a better world for the people we’re raising, and raising the kind of people that world needs.

February 22, 2019

Why I Put My Children Online

Once in a while, some thoughtful person will ask my permission before posting a picture online—a Facebook page, a community website, their Instagram feed. And in response I always start laughing. “You go right ahead,” I assure this person. “After all, I’ve plastered both of them all over the entire internet already.”

For 18 years, I’ve been telling my life stories via blogging, and when I became a mother, I didn’t see a reason for things to be different. In fact, when my eldest daughter was born, I needed the communities of blogs and social media more than ever. It was through my blog that I puzzled my way through early motherhood, and found friendships and connections that made me feel so much less alone at a difficult time. 

Of course, things became more complicated as my children grew, developing into individuals in their own right. I knew that they would be implicated in the stories I told, and so I exercised caution, asking myself, “Will this keep my child’s dignity in tact?” before posting a photo or an anecdote. Only once I ever fudged this, and this was when I posted a photo of my naked child’s bare bum as she played in a paddling pool on a rooftop. The backdrop was a cityscape—it was quite dramatic—and I figured that as you couldn’t see her face, she would come off from this fairly innocently.  

But what about the pedophiles???, some worried parents will inevitably respond to this (and they did, in fact). To which I reply that while I do keep such nefarious individuals in the back of my mind, letting these people guide the way I operate myself online would be misguided. Regarding the internet as a place wholly apart from the world would be similarly wrong, and so instead I proceed with a spirit of openness with a sensible amount of caution. 

Letting my children exist on the internet at their young ages is also a useful way to acquaint them with social media, which will presumably be a huge part of their lives in general when they are older, just as it is a huge part of mine. They are currently invested in how they appear on social media and on my blog, and are developing an understanding of how it all works, which will make them more savvy online operators when they’re ready to venture into the world without parental accompaniment. 

For my older daughter in particular, I do ask her permission when I post images of her or write about her. (There are many photos I never posted, and stories that I’ve never told.) Although I also understand that the permission granted by a nine-year-old is dubious at best. But this is where the fact of me being her parent who is looking out for her interests comes in handy—it’s actually my job. And she trusts, and I trust, and her father trusts too, that I will make smart decisions that will also keep her safe—and preserve her dignity as well. 

Of course, there will be mistakes and misinterpretations. Things will go wrong. Posts will be deleted. I hereby reserve the right to mess up, but to keep on learning too, rather than just simply forgo my children appearing in my online life altogether. (There are also indeed weirdo parents who blatantly exploit their children for YouTube notoriety, but maybe let’s not make this base-level parenting be the standard from which all our ideas and discussions about parenting begin.)

My biggest reservation with the expectation that women not share their images and stories of their children is that it implies that certain parts of a woman’s experience no longer belong to her once she becomes a mother. It reminds me of those 19th-century images of “ghostmothers” shrouded in black holding their babies in portraits. It’s not so far along the spectrum from a line of thinking that once a woman becomes pregnant, she doesn’t even properly belong to her body anymore and therefore someone else can be charged with her reproductive choices. 

There is also a gendered element to this discussion, in which mothers often refrain from posting photos of their children and explain that it’s because of their male partner’s discomfort with social media. I find it strange and troubling that a man whose partner is active and literate in social media could not trust her to make smart choices in this space (often a feminized one) which he is less savvy about, and instead has the power to decide what she posts online. 

While I acknowledge that a woman’s life is no longer just her own once she has children, I assert her right to maintain an existence on the internet (which these days is where a lot of life happens) that acknowledges her entire personhood—and motherhood is a part of that, if she desires it to be. The stories I tell about my children are their stories, but they’re also my stories too. 

 In my novel, Mitzi Bytes, my protagonist learns that while compartmentalizing one’s experience and maintaining a rigorous divide between online and actual selves seemslike a smart approach, ultimately it’s not sustainable. Living in the world is more complicated than that, both online and off it. 

December 11, 2018

Ode to a Parkette

That the park is being bulldozed doesn’t affect my daily life in the slightest, because we don’t even go to the park anymore, and it’s mid-December so we wouldn’t even if we did. But it’s at the symbolic level where it gets me, this park where I spent some of the best years of my career in motherhood, where I came of age as a mother, so to speak. This park where certainly things have changed over the years—the mysterious disappearance of the bumblebee bouncy toy, leaving the ladybug all alone; the tree in the north end was cut at some point; the tree in the south end that was planted to honour somebody’s grandmother, where the leaves were always changing, and falling, and the ground would turn from ice to mud to summer. Where my children changed—they don’t eat the sand anymore, for example—and certainly I did, but the fundamentals stayed the same. The bench on the east side that was missing a slat, and the boarded-up house behind the baby swings that made all of Harriet’s baby photos look like she was swinging out front a crack den, and the little hill on the south side which was perfect for tobogganing on days when you just don’t feel like climbing big hills. 

The people were always changing too, and in the beginning there were none of them, just Harriet and me, and we went to the park since I couldn’t think of anything else to do with a baby, because there are only so many hours a day you can spend at the library. Even though parks aren’t really ideal for babies, other than the swings, and pushing one of those for hours is boring, although less so when you do it while reading a book. I remember Harriet falling face-first in the sand there once, and how she got up licking her lips. Our baby days at the park were as aimless as life in general then, but then she got a bit bigger and things got a bit better, and one of the all time greatest afternoons of my life was spent at that park when Harriet was two and she was content to pretend to be driving the jeep toy for hours, and I sat sprawled across the backseat and read an entire book cover to cover. (It was The 27th Kingdom, by Alice Thomas Ellis.) 

It was around this time that I’d met my friend Nathalie, whose children were older than mine and who was blazer of many paths I would follow, chief among them Huron Playschool. When Harriet was two, she urged me to register, but I didn’t make enough money at that time to justify it. Still, when Harriet and I were in the park, I’d seen Nathalie’s son in the park with his play school class, and consider the impossibility of Harriet ever being as old as that. And by the time she was three, she would join him there, skipping off down the sidewalk. Every day at playschool, the children played in the park, and it was where I’d pick her up at the end of the morning. I remember sitting around the sandbox with Harriet during her first week of school, and also I was pregnant, but nobody else knew it yet, and the women I was hanging out with there would eventually become my friends. All those hours we spent in the park, on playschool co-op shifts, and also after, because Harriet had stopped napping and we had no reason to hurry home, and it was spring, so early, but we took our shoes off, and buried our feet in warm sand. 

All the children were there. Among the trees, in the arms of statues, toes in the grass, they hopped in and our of dog shit and dug tunnels into mole holes. Wherever the children, their mothers stopped to talk.” –Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree”

I wrote a blog post about that spring we spent at the park, about the woman who were so kind to me during my second pregnancy, and supported our family in incredible ways, and comforted me through difficult times and promised it would all be okay. Most of these women I see rarely now, if ever, and our children would not know each other if they met, but they were there for me at such a pivotal moment, and in my memory of them all, the sun is shining always. Although I’d read Grace Paley wrong, I’d discover a couple of years later. What a thing—the most shocking revelation of my literary life. “I really thought that they’d been it, those mothers in the park. I really had thought she meant that this, the mothers stopping to talk, was the most important conversation. But it wasn’t, her revelation. Faith needs more than that, chatting women lounging in trees. The world needs more than that, at least if we ever expect to do anything about it.”

The first time I took both my children to the park alone, Harriet got stung by a wasp while I was breastfeeding on a  park bench, which was not the most auspicious start, but we found our groove, and as a mother I really found my stride.

There’d be one evening in the years to follow when a friend and I would have pizza delivered to the park, and we’d all eat dinner there, in lieu of home and tables, which meant I was a long way from being that woman aimlessly pushing her baby in a swing, and I didn’t even get to read anymore, because there was usually somebody I wanted to talk to. 

Eventually, the park became more special occasion than every day, because daily life became more structured. We’d meet up at the park on weekends and holidays, and during the summer of 2016, there were picnics and potlucks and always pie. I’d see mothers who were there with their babies, and I was a million miles away from them, without a clear idea exactly of how I’d arrived here, although the place was the same. I had two kids who could conquer the big climbers, and they’d fly down the steep slide, and I wouldn’t even have to watch them. I had officially retired from pushing swings.

Last summer, our good friends moved out of the neighbourhood, so we haven’t had pies in the park for awhile, and that the city decided to bulldoze it now doesn’t seem so incongruous. (We did enjoy walking through the park in the autumn, however, on our way home from school, when the park was being excavated as part of a project by the university’s archeology department. Old maps had indicated there had been dwellings on the site, and significant finds included bricks and teacups.)

The park is going to be redeveloped along with the expansion of the University of Toronto Schools next door, who are going to be building a facility underneath it, some of the playground equipment being temporarily located to the vacant lot across the street in the meantime. And by the time it’s all finished, my children will likely be too old for parks at all—who’d ever have thought it? And the derelict house on the other side of Huron is finally being developed, after more than a decade, at least, so maybe we can definitively say that absolutely nothing stays the same, which is the point of cities, and parenthood, and everything. 

July 5, 2018

Writing With Children

So it seems that I am writing a novel this summer, and we’ve been here before. I wrote my first draft of Mitzi Bytes during the summer of 2014, when Iris was one and Harriet was five and would sit beside me on the couch watching Annie while her sister napped. Two years later I wrote Asking for a Friend in the same way, except that no one napped anymore, but what I did do was close the baby gate on our door and sit out on the porch with my laptop while the children were barricaded indoors with a bin full of snacks. They were allowed to watch movies, but only after they’d earned it with an hour of imaginative play—and then in the afternoon we’d head out into the world and do something fun or interesting.

I don’t know what it is about summer—when I have limited childcare and the world is calling with its sunshine—that imbues me with inspiration. It’s really quite impractical and inconvenient to decide to spend a summer writing a book, but it’s also exhilarating. For me, summer is about stretching anyway, about pushing limits. How far can we go, is a thing I wonder in summer, as the days go long and the children get filthy, and there’s sand in everything, and we’re so tired, but we keep going, because summer only lasts so long, and a terrible thing would be to give up before it did (and it always does eventually…).

So what follows is a list of what works for me with writing and being home with my children. And naturally, I recognize that I am privileged that I get to be home with my children in the summer, but before you assume it’s all too cozy, remember that I make my living from work that I must fit in around fiction writing and my children (and dentist appointments, and laundry, and shaking sand out of things) in the summer, and it’s all very busy and a juggle, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Write first. In the summer I have to work in the evenings after my children are in bed to make it all happen—but I never ever save my writing for that time. Because the writing is the work I’m accountable to no one else for but myself, and it would be so easy to just decide to wait until tomorrow. So I make it my first priority.
  2. Set a word count. This is why I like first drafts, because it’s quantifiable and finite. 1000 words a day works for me, and I’m experienced enough by now to know that those words don’t even have to be good—that’s what subsequent drafts are for. But this one is just to show me where there the story is going.
  3. Make my children part of the process. I make my writing a family affair, and my children know that by giving me the time and space to get my 1000 words done, they’re helping to make my story happen. When Mitzi Bytes came out, it was a big deal for both of them, because they knew they’d played a part in the book’s creation.
  4. Don’t talk about it until it’s done: I love Instagram, and take my #todaysteacup photo every day—see photo above. But I don’t post the photo until my writing session is finished—it’s a reward to myself. Don’t be #AmWriting unless you’ve written.
  5. Keep going: I’ve talked before about how I took up jogging the same summer I wrote Mitzi Bytes, but that I quit jogging because I hated it, right after I burst into tears in Queen’s Park because I hated it so much. Except for the hating part, for me jogging and writing a novel are pretty much the same. JUST KEEP GOING. One foot/one word in front of the other—it’s as simple as that. It’s such a little, manageable thing when you break it down like that. Don’t stop. You can do one more word, and then another and then another. (Although if you find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of a sentence because you hate it so much, remember that you’re also allowed to quit. To do otherwise would be stupid.)
  6. Read: I had nostalgia last weekend because I remember reading Emma Strab’s The Vacationers on the July long weekend just as I’d started writing Mitzi Bytes—I loved that book, and it inspired me. And then I went back to my blog to see what were the books I’d read just before it, and they were Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti, and Mating For Life, by Marissa Stapley, neither of whom were my friends at the time, although now they are, which isn’t the point, but instead that I wrote a better book because I was inspired by books that were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do.
  7. Shut the door. As I’ve written before, I don’t actually have a door, but there is a metaphoric one that my children have learned to observe and respect. I also continue to make sure the snack bin is full so that their needs are taken care of. But in the meantime, I’m busy, and they know that, and they’re cool with that…
  8. …Because they’re really happy watching Teen Titans Go on Netflix!
  9. Day camp! They’re doing a week of full-day camp and two weeks of half-day camp this summer, and I’ll be motivated to use that time like nobody’s business.
  10. Keep it low key. We do fun and local (and often free!) free things in the afternoons once I’ve met my word count. Truth be told, we are a bit boring, but summer is about boring, in addition to Netflix, and as long as the freezer is stocked with popsicles, nobody seems to mind.

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.

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