Monday, May 12, 2008

When baby takes mother's 'room of one's own'

Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood
Edited by Shannon Cowan, Fiona Tinwei Lam and Cathy Stonehouse
McGill-Queen's University Press, 256 pages, $23

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

MOST non-fiction books about mothering are textual versions of Anne Geddes photos: babies as scrumptious flowers.

In these texts, it goes unquestioned that mothers would cheerfully sacrifice all for the opportunity to tend their fat-cheeked blooms.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, mostly notably in American novelists Anne Lamott and Louise Erdrich's accounts of the first year of their children's lives.

But what about after the first year? How do women who make art as well as babies cope?

A new anthology from McGill-Queen's University Press delves into what it means when a woman writer's "room of one's own' is converted into the baby's room.

Including some 25 respected Canadian literary writers, among them Robyn Sarah, Anne Simpson and Janice Kulyk Keefer, as well as Manitobans Di Brandt and Sally Ito, Double Lives is probably best defined by what it is not.

It is not a book of writing exercises for women looking to make "good use" of their mat leave (ha!).

Neither is Double Lives a collection of pregnancy and mothering-themed poetry and fiction, though given the contributors, such an anthology would probably have been worth picking up.

Finally, it is not a how-to book, as there are as many ways of being a writer/mother as there are of being a mother.

What the anthology proves, however, is that each writer found a way, however fraught with compromise, however beleaguered, to write.

For a few of the contributors, their careers, their first books, are still becoming. For others, the account of first books and first babies is just another story in a long bibliography.

And that's immensely reassuring and worthwhile in and of itself.

The process of making art - and parenting - is often, as Montreal poet Robyn Sarah put it, "a season of crashing around in the woods, stumbling and bumbling through days without any shape to them."

While no book will "give shape" - the best one can usually hope for is commiseration or proof that writing and mothering are possible - Double Lives reaches further in attempting to create a community for writers through writing, which is the best way to reach bookish girls anyways.

The goal of the 2007 anthology Between Interruptions was essays about motherhood, which sometimes included discussions about writing and mothering but sometimes not.

The modus operandi of the three Dropped Threads books, edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson, was to examine aspects of women's lives that weren't being discussed in the mainstream.

Double Lives, on the other hand, sets up on camp directly on the teeming anthill that is writing with children.

The only catch? The target audience for this book, budding artist/mothers, will have to use precious me-time in order to feel better about not having any me-time.

Ariel Gordon's chapbook of pregnancy poems, The Navel Gaze, is due from Palimpsest Press this summer. Her daughter, Anna, is nearly two.

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