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Reading My Way Through Motherhood (by Heather Birrell)

"There is a particular existential hell that manifests with new parenthood. It is the knowledge that another’s wellbeing is intimately bound to your unique brand of caregiving pretty much forever – and it is terrifying."

Birth of an Era

Great Expectations: One of the annoying things that happened to me when I had a baby is that I wanted to tell pretty much everybody how I had the baby. The experience was so oversized; it occupied such a huge part of my psyche, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it hurt like hell and went nowhere near according to plan, I felt compelled to keep remembering and shaping it into story. Plus, the aftermath of having a baby involves taking care of said baby, which is bound to make a person look towards the baby’s beginnings – the fanfare, the well-wishers, the bright lights and balloons! – with some measure of nostalgia. Enter Great Expectations, a truly wonderful compilation of birth stories from some of Canada’s finest writers, among them Christine Pountney, Lynn Coady, Afua Cooper, and Michael Redhill. I tore through these personal essays when I first bought the anthology – mere months after the birth of my first child – and felt a real sense of solidarity and companionship with its storytellers, despite the diversity of our experiences. Since then, I have re-read pieces in the book several times and always find something new and resonant.

Book Cover Pathologies

Pathologies: In this clear-eyed collection of essays, Susan Olding illuminates the ways in which family shapes and shifts our perception of ourselves. Here are frank self-reckonings and gentle rants on the nature of the familial ties we choose and the ones that are foisted upon us. Everyone finds their way into motherhood differently, but Olding understands intimately that adopting a child offers unique joys and challenges not always acknowledged by the rest of the world. But one of my favourite essays here, ‘Push-Me-Pull-You’(mostly because I have already had my share of ‘mean witch with mustard teeth’ moments) is a recounting (and accounting) of parenting a difficult child -- and the ways in which these parenting challenges can test the limits of a person’s endurance and sense of capability (164):

Because consider this: in the picture, the child is sweet and innocent and all good. But who or what is the mother? Is she the competent, playful and smiling one who holds the child and contains the child? Or is she really the mean witch with mustard teeth?
Breastfeeding Blues

Two poems about breastfeeding, from two fantastic collections have been touchstones of sorts for me during those first beautiful – and, let’s face it, often marathon and mind-numbingly boring – breastfeeding sessions.

Book Cover A Fortress of Chairs

A Fortress of Chairs : Elisabeth Harvor’s poems are notable for their moody sense of the physical; I love how she finds sensuality in the everyday and explores the female body in a way that is both wanton and careful. The poem ‘Madame Abundance’ is a gorgeous, unsettling, sleepy meditation on what it means to nourish a baby – and how closely this action hews to the baby’s beginnings.

Book Cover Joy is So Exhausting

Joy is so Exhausting: This collection was a revelation to me. It’s a book whose tongue is out waggling at the world when not firmly planted in cheek. I adore its intelligent play and the way it worships words and excavates essential truths through mischievous humour. But in the context of this list, it is the prose poem ‘Nursery’ that shines. Structured around the back-and-forthing of a feed, and addressed to the narrator’s baby, the poem is an unpretentious meditation on what it means to be so essential, so connected, so literally and figuratively drained that your story becomes inextricably twined (and twinned) with your baby’s rhythms. And it’s funny!

Here’s a taste (81): Right: I’m no athlete but I could pitch for the La Leche League. Left: All soft skin similes would have nowhere to go but right back to you. Right: Imprint of my sweatshirt zipper across your chin, Frankenstein’s baby. Left: You thrash around in your sleep until one leg flaps flat and the other is packed with knees.

Mother-Love, Art, and Ambivalence

The Love of a Good Woman: One of my favourite short stories of all time is ‘My Mother’s Dream’ by Alice Munro, from her excellent 1998 story collection The Love of a Good Woman. Munro is, of course, expert at plumbing the dark depths of a woman’s sense of duty. I admired the story for its complexity and nuance before I became a mother, but I love it even more now that I understand the all-consuming nature of raising children. It’s a long, gripping, multi-layered story that explores the tensions between caring for a child and nurturing artistic ambitions. There’s a reason reviewers always remark on the compression and density of Munro’s stories -- this feels like the best of novels. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now! And if you’ve already read it, read it again! It is a mark of Munro’s particular, subtle genius that every time I re-read one of her stories I find something surprising and smart. See for yourself:

When she got outside she remembered. She remembered that she had left a baby out there somewhere, before the snow had fallen. Quite a while before the snow had fallen. This memory, this certainty, came over her with horror. It was as if she was awakening from a dream. Within her dream she awakened from a dream, to a knowledge of her responsibility and mistake. She had left her baby out overnight, she had forgotten about it. (294)

Book Cover Double Lives

Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood: As a companion to ‘My Mother’s Dream’ (see above), I’d recommend this rich, diverse anthology. These illuminating, complex, at times difficult essays describe and dissect the ongoing frustrations and deep satisfactions that accompany the mother/writer. And, not surprisingly, they are exquisitely written. They made me feel less alone, but also shocked me and challenged my notions about what it means to mother and write in tandem. From Rachel Rose’s ‘Letters to a Young Mother who Writes’ (232): Never has there been a greater rupture in my life than that which came with becoming a mother. I thought I would never write again. I thought I would never look the same again, or be alone. My body had been turned inside out, my uterus sitting on my hips like a Christmas ham. I thought, and to some extent it’s true, that I’d never feel free of worry again. I wanted the whole damn world to mourn and celebrate with me. I wanted everyone to be where I was, on this new planet.


Open: This fantastic collection of stories is so redolent with the particulars of life with family and friends -- there are real crowds here, but also hazy twilight moments of introspection. Moore’s writing is so shiny and smelly and spiky and I love that it dares to address the tensions that arise when a kid (or kids) arrive to horn in on a couple’s intimacy. Here is one of my favourite passages, from the story ‘Natural Parents’, which nimbly moves between a mother’s and a father’s perspective (70-71):

Last night, at two-thirty, Pete started to cry and Lyle threw off the blankets and just sat on the edge of the bed, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands covering his face. Anna waited for Lyle to move but he didn’t.
    I wanted to be doing other things at this stage of my life, he said.
    What other things?
    Sleeping, for one.

Book Cover Bed Timing

Bed Timing: I am, in principle, anti- sleep books. This, however, has not stopped me from ordering them via the internet at 3 am, convinced there is a secret strategy or solution to ending my little one’s maddening (and extremely inconvenient) wakefulness. In general, I believe sleep books – along with various purportedly uber-safe or educational (and astronomically expensive) toys and gadgets – to be mostly fraudulent, part of a racket designed to prey on new parents’ fragile, sleep-deprived and overprotective sensibilities. However! This here is a pretty darn good sleep book. Written by two developmental psychologists and parents to twins, the book’s premise is that sleep training (for want of a better term) is less a matter of how than when. In clearly laid out sections and charts (perfect when time and logic are at a premium), the writers list the various sleep training methods available to parents and explain when, developmentally, it might be a good idea to start showing baby who’s boss, and when it’s a better idea to bow to baby’s whims. The writing is clear, non-judgmental, and backed up by science and experience. It’s one of the few of its kind that didn’t make me question myself as a mother.

Releasing Your Child Into the Wild

There is a particular existential hell that manifests with new parenthood. It is the knowledge that another’s wellbeing is intimately bound to your unique brand of caregiving pretty much forever – and it is terrifying.

Unless: It is impossible, as a new, or new-ish, mother, not to project your fears for your children into the future, not to acknowledge the precarious nature of parenting increasingly autonomous beings. In Unless, Shields explores what happens when a child -- by all accounts, happy and well-adjusted -- grows into a young, overly porous adult, a woman with the weight of the messed-up world on her shoulders. Unless is a deeply feminist book, but never reads like a screed, likely because the voice of narrator Reta Winters is so intelligent and self-aware, although never cloyingly so. This is another book that settles differently in my consciousness every time I read it, and I’m sure it will continue doing so as I grow into and move through motherhood.

Book Cover Can you wave Bye Bye Baby

Can You Wave Bye Bye Baby?: I read this story collection years ago, when I’d recently wed my husband, and had yet to note the glimmers in his eyes (or mine) that were to become our kids. I’ve been re-reading it lately, and am newly appreciative of the writer’s grasp of the overwhelming emotional commitment required of a mother and the broad palette of feelings mothering evokes. I’m also struck again by the originality of the tone and prose; Gasco uses a second person narration for many of the stories, a narrative technique that can easily grate but strikes exactly the right knowing, discomfiting note here. Mothers give up their babies or leave their grown children in these stories, but mothers and children also endure and find happiness:

The thing about children, the absolute worst thing about children is that they are not at all like friends. Instead, thinks Elle, they are like awful acquaintances who pull you into their little karaoke clubs and force you to sing these hokey songs about hope. (115-116)


Heather Birrell's latest book is Mad Hope. She also works as a high school teacher and a creative writing instructor. She does all of this – barely – in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, Charles Checketts, and their two daughters.

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