Mottled Motherhood

Reviewed by Micheline Besner

In “The Other F-Word: The Disappearance of Feminism from Our Fiction,” Nicole Dixon states that “nothing else a woman does is as universally applauded as having a baby.” Dixon laments what she terms the culture of compulsory motherhood in Canadian literature, and it is this culture, and the multifarious variations and disparities within this maternal genre, that Sue Sorensen, Claire Tacon, and Rosemary Nixon each treat in their fictions as they follow brief periods in the lives of three women who navigate the fragile balance between personal desires and societal expectations.

In Sue Sorensen’s novel A Large Harmonium, the reader is privy to a year of Janey Erlickson’s life as an English literature professor, wife, and mother. Janey must plot a route through her anxieties about the advancement of her academic career, her relationship with her husband Hector (and her jealously of the advanced state of his own academic career as well as his relationship with his teaching assistant Chantal), and her connection to her son Max (as she deals with feelings of culpability for not spending enough time with him and as she questions her role as a mother). Sorensen decidedly depicts Janey’s struggles as culminating in moments where she feels most inadequate as a mother. Such a moment is exemplified when Janey is forced to leave a performance by her husband’s university choir because Max has begun to scratch her face and kick her, and she bitterly recalls the hours spent “singing to a child who . . . was not worthy of any of the sweet sentiments [she] expended upon him.” Although Hector is at times a less-than-serious father, particularly in the company of his longtime friend Jam, the focus of Sorensen’s novel is not on the Erlickson’s family life, but on Janey’s intimate perceptions of what an academic, a wife, and a mother should be. The culmination of these societal expectations is best illustrated in a scene where Janey attends a Tupperware party at a neighbour’s house. Comparing herself to the other neighbourhood mothers makes Janey view her degree as a useless and tacky display hung around her neck. “I took a course in Latin once,” she muses, “but can I do origami or organize a successful party for sixteen rugrats?”

As with Sorensen’s novel, although somewhat less satisfactorily, Claire Tacon’s In the Field deals with the pressures of an academic career and the expectations of motherhood. Ellie Lucan, a professor of soil science at the University of Guelph who has just lost her position due to budget cuts, begins to weigh the benefits of her academic career against the reality of her family life. The action in Tacon’s narrative centres on a homecoming as Ellie travels with her two sons back to her hometown of Canning, Nova Scotia. However, it seems that for Ellie, the anxiety lies not in the knowledge of the mother that she should be, but in a lack of knowledge about the woman that she could have been had she decided to remain a “town” rather than perusing her “gown.” Tacon’s representation of Ellie’s journey is nonetheless a didactic one, as the protagonist’s attempt to re-locate a selfhood prior to her role as wife and mother becomes empty and ridiculous by the novel’s culmination. In the end, Ellie is left equating her supposed position in her family to the position of a sandpiper in the synchronized flight patterns of its flock.

Rosemary Nixon’s Kalila alternatively diverges from the trope of inadequate or confused motherhood in order to represent the space of the “unmother.” Written in a carefully complex poetic prose, Nixon’s work follows the voices of Maggie and Brodie, the parents of a very ill newly born daughter in neonatal ICU. While Maggie’s pain regarding the extremely poor state of Kalila’s health can be described as being quite technical in its linguistic delivery, there are key moments in the prose where we get a clear glimpse of the helplessness and lack of purpose associated with the impossibility of Maggie caring for her daughter at home. These moments are most evident when she refers to herself as “unmother” and “aberrant,” and feels the profound need to assure Brodie’s coworker that she has the afterbirth to prove that she has in fact had a baby.

Multifarious in their approaches, each of these novels works to complicate what might often be simplified as the Canadian motherhood narrative. These narratives conduct a type of ideological work that is worlds apart from any simple correlation between womanhood and motherhood.

This review “Mottled Motherhood” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 180-81.

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