-By Kerry Clare-
May 2017 will mark eight years since my first daughter’s birth, an experience that both broke me and made me. Made me a mother, but that’s only one facet of what I’m talking about. Becoming a mother made me into lots of things, including someone who is all too aware of her limits, someone who has (mostly) learned that you can’t control it all, someone who reads deeply and widely and asks questions inspired by the stake I now have in humanity’s future. It made me into someone with a deformed abdomen too, but that’s another story.
Of course, there are many experiences by which a person can access the understanding of the world that motherhood permitted me, but for me—with a comfortable, privileged and happy life for the most part—motherhood would be it. Those early days with a baby were the hardest thing I’d ever done, when everything I thought was wrong, and life as I knew it seemed shattered. Which was why, lost as I was, I hung on to binaries, which seemed like the only sure things. Home birth or hospital birth, bottle or breast, co-sleeping or cry-it-out. The world seemed made up of well-ordered camps of this-or-that, which was at least some order at all, and I needed all the order I could get in that haze of new motherhood when the dead of night kept bleeding into early morning and the baby always cried and was nothing like the babies in any of the books I’d read.
I like to joke about it now, observing the excellent and hilarious children galloping around the playground at my youngest daughter’s pre-school. “You can tell,” I will comment to whoever happens to be standing beside me, “which ones were sleep trained, the ways it damaged them.”
The person I’m talking to will look at me a bit confused or horrified. “Really?” they’ll ask, if they don’t get the joke. (“Joke” might be a debatable word here. I acknowledge that I have a weird sense of humour.)
And then I assure them, “Of course not!” It’s the blessing of having older children, second children. You learn that none of it really matters. That all those either/or’s exist to give parents the illusion that they aren’t floating thoroughly unmoored through outer space. That in fact usually everything works out, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the either/or’s have very little to do with any of that.
In the years since I’ve found my bearings as a mother, I’ve tried in my writing to complicate those binaries many of us clung to in the early days. I wrote an essay, “Love is a Let-Down,” about maternal ambivalence, which is an idea that still interests me, not because it’s particularly “brave” or edgy, but because ambivalence by definition is about having simultaneously conflicting ideas, and I think we need to learn to make more room for those areas of uncertainty and disagreement in our own feelings and our relations to each other.
My first book, the essay anthology The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, was a project toward that end, collecting 25 essays about experiences of maternity—traumatic births, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, adoption, only children, multiples, and the choice to not have children at all. The essays had many uncanny connections, but also rubbed up against each other in uncomfortable ways. But what a thing: to put together a group of women’s voices, and they’re not all saying the same thing, and that’s okay.
My new book, the novel Mitzi Bytes, is about a woman whose ideas and proclamations rub many people in uncomfortable ways, about a woman who is a decent human being but who is not particularly fussed about placating other people or getting along to keep the peace. She insists on not yielding, on standing fast in who she is and what she believes in. She sees the possibility for conflicting ideas to simultaneously exist and for the whole world not to explode as a result of that.
It’s funny, really, the simultaneously conflicting ideas about motherhood and womanhood that we do manage to hold onto—that mothers are exceptional and revered, even as they’re derided, annoying and as unfashionable as a bad pair of jeans. Or that women are catty and awful and fated never to really get along, even as many of us know the incredible power of sisterhood, the enduring strength of our friendships.
In her new book, Autumn, Ali Smith writes that, “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and I believe that fervently. Which is why I’ll keep writing stories about ambivalence, uncertainty, in-betweeness, and about the grey areas that are necessary for any of us to ever understand each other.