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Book Reviews

Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood

by Shannon Cowan, Fiona Tinwei Lam, and Cathy Stonehouse, eds.

Double Lives, an anthology of essays about the occasionally warring roles of writer and mother, is not for everyone. Though much of the book will appeal to busy mothers of all kinds, on the whole it is intended for mothers who are writers, or who want to be.

These essays cover a broad terrain. The authors included here – some well-known, many little-known – are diverse in their backgrounds and experiences. Some are currently juggling motherhood and writing; others raised children in an earlier era, and built writing careers despite the popular belief that they couldn’t do both; some have set aside their aspirations to focus on family. There are teenage moms, middle-aged moms, lesbian moms, and adoptive moms. The editors have thoughtfully gathered and ordered their stories. With each one, this moving anthology opens up and out, managing to be philosophical, pragmatic, nurturing, and intensely personal.

There are some stellar pieces. In “Only a Day to Visit,” Linda Spalding remembers her grandmother, who loved to sew, and reflects on the connection between sewing and writing, that words are like stitches, and can be undone and redone. Equally lovely is Sharron Proulx-Turner’s “& in our languages, mother is the land,” which portrays a family poisoned by abuse and ultimately brought together by stories.

Despite the emotional content, these essays are not sentimental musings, or easy descriptions of a mother’s love. Susan Olding’s “Mama’s Voices” chronicles the challenges of raising a difficult child, and the moral dilemma of writing publicly about that experience. How far should we go in writing about our children, or even ourselves, when we are so intricately linked to them? What will our children make of our words?

Many of the essays refer to what Janice Kulyk Keefer, in “Motherlodes, Muses, Mapmakers,” describes as that “clamped state of mind,” which offers so little space for creativity. With motherhood, writing time shrivels, as do uninterrupted hours of contemplation. This courageous and revealing book – prefaced by Marni Jackson, author of The Mother Zone – lays out that reality in ways as varied as its writers’ voices. It belongs in every mother-writer’s library, to be read not in one gulp, but piece by piece, as the situation demands – and, of course, as time permits.