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Reading New Motherhood (by Heather Birrell)
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Reading New Motherhood (by Heather Birrell)

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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. www.heatherbirrell.com
Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Twenty-Four True Stories about Childbirth
translated by Lisa Moore & Dede Crane
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
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.
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Pathologies

Pathologies

A Life in Essays
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
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
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Fortress of Chairs, A
Why it's on the list ...
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.
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Joy Is So Exhausting
Why it's on the list ...
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!
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Modern Classics the Love of a Good Woman
Why it's on the list ...
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:
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Double Lives

Double Lives

Writing and Motherhood
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
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.
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Bed Timing

Bed Timing

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
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. 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.
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Unless

Unless

edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook (CD) Paperback
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Excerpt

Here’s

It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

In my new life -- the summer of the year 2000 -- I am attempting to “count my blessings.” Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well, tallish, thin, and losing his hair nicely. We live in a house with a paid-up mortgage, and our house is set in the prosperous rolling hills of Ontario, only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Two of our three daughters, Natalie, fifteen, and Christine, sixteen, live at home. They are intelligent and lively and attractive and loving, though they too have shared in the loss, as has Tom.

And I have my writing.

“You have your writing!” friends say. A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta. No one is crude enough to suggest that my sorrow will eventually become material for my writing, but probably they think it.

And it’s true. There is a curious and faintly distasteful comfort, at the age of forty-three, forty-four in September, in contemplating what I have managed to write and publish during those impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief. “My Writing”: this is a very small poultice to hold up against my damaged self, but better, I have been persuaded, than no comfort at all.

It’s June, the first year of the new century, and here’s what I’ve written so far in my life. I’m not including my old schoolgirl sonnets from the seventies -- Satin-slippered April, you glide through time / And lubricate spring days, de dum, de dum -- and my dozen or so fawning book reviews from the early eighties. I am posting this list not on the screen but on my consciousness, a far safer computer tool and easier to access:

1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981, one month before our daughter Norah was born, a home birth naturally; a midwife; you could almost hear the guitars plinking in the background, except we did not feast on the placenta as some of our friends were doing at the time. My French came from my Québécoise mother, and my acquaintance with Danielle from the University of Toronto, where she taught French civilization in my student days. She was a poor teacher, hesitant and in awe, I think, of the tanned, healthy students sitting in her classroom, taking notes worshipfully and stretching their small suburban notion of what the word civilization might mean. She was already a recognized writer of kinetic, tough-corded prose, both beguiling and dangerous. Her manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage.

I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about.

I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the “merely frangible,” and poetry’s attempt to “repair the gap between ought and naught” -- what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.

2. After that came “The Brightness of a Star,” a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It’s hard to believe that I qualified as “a young voice” in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie -- in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. “How did you find the time?” people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local “writers’ workshop” for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other’s company, and that led to:

3. “Icon,” a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names – not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the “austerity” of my short story -- which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art “embracing/repudiating art,” as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don’t. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters -- pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would “step” along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.

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Why it's on the list ...
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.
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