Edited by Katherine May
Elliot & Thompson, 2020; 196 pp.; $21.11 (Hardcover)Buy Book
As the title of this anthology suggests, The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly About Motherhood seeks to represent a wide and nuanced range of perspectives on motherhood. In these essays, that also touch on race, we hear from an adoptive mom, a single mom, a divorced mom, a stepmom, a disabled mom, an autistic mom, a queer mom, and a mother who never managed to carry a baby to term, among others.
The collection is edited by Katherine May, whose memoir Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times was published in February 2020. Given the timing, just as large swaths of the world were going into lockdown, the book clearly resonated with many and it was a New York Times bestseller. Wintering is both literally about winter, covering the season from September to March, and a period of almost-hibernation in which both May and her husband experience health issues. Wintering is also a metaphor for exploring the difficult times in our lives, or what May refers to as “fallow times.” While Wintering isn’t explicitly about motherhood, May does explore her pregnancy, a kind of wintering period for her, and her son’s struggles at school.
In her introduction to The Best Most Awful Job, May acknowledges that the anthology doesn’t even come close to representing the entire spectrum of motherhood: “That’s partly because a fully representative collection of essays would sprawl across your bookshelf like the Encyclopedia Britannica; maybe it would never end.” May also highlights the fact that there are many voices we don’t hear from because there are many mothers “who already find themselves under an uncomfortable level of scrutiny, who don’t feel entitled to express dissent” and that the essayists featured have been able to break into the world of professional writing: a world that is still very difficult for many writers to access.
May sets out the approach she took when commissioning the essays: “[W]e asked contributors to write as though it was a given that their mothering was good enough. . . . You don’t need to qualify what you say. You don’t need to apologise.” With that radical permission in hand, many of the writers in this anthology explore topics that still border on the taboo.
Hollie McNish exposes the harsh realities of “being a parent in a society where most public spaces are designed for able-bodied car-driving business people with no caring responsibilities.” She describes having to pee “in the dark, squatting behind my car door in motorway service stations because I could not risk waking my child up to go to the faraway toilets” and the countless train journeys in which she had to sit on the floor with her daughter, constantly apologising to the people stepping over her and around the stroller because there is no “pram seat.” But while motherhood and parenting are seen as “private domestic issues,” many of these challenges in fact stem from “practical, political, cultural and urban design issues.”
In her essay “Maternal Rage,” Saima Mir also addresses the systemic problems that make parenting so difficult. She writes about the simmering anger that builds throughout her day as she navigates the demands and challenges of caring for three young boys. At times it boils over into her screaming “like a banshee” and howling “like a wild animal” at seemingly small things: stepping barefoot on a piece of Lego or her husband putting sweet corn on their pizza. But her animalistic fury is about more than just the difficulties of raising young children, it is about the fact that:
“[W]e are expected to slot ourselves into a work system created for 1950s men; that, despite legislation, women still have to worry about telling employers they are pregnant, still struggle to get by on maternity pay, and then still have to pay extortionate childcare costs in order to go back to work. . . . [T]he reality is still that working mothers’ careers stall or go backwards while their male partners’ prospects might even improve.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Jodi Bartle writes about being high on motherhood. No stranger to chaos, Bartle has six children—all boys—and lives in a two-bedroom flat. This, despite her initial reluctance to become a mother: “Motherhood looked like a boring club to belong to.” But she finds an infectious sense of joy and awe in the chaos of her life. She even describes delighting in her postpartum body (a “ruined landscape of a body” and a bladder that leaks “sometimes quite ferociously”) and sleep deprivation (“a kind of lucid dream state”). Ultimately, Bartle finds motherhood to be “the most grounding, deeply satisfying thing.”
The essays in this collection are short, perfect for reading in quick bursts, and I often found myself wanting to dive deeper into these women’s stories. Luckily, many of them have written books on the topics they explore. Josie George writes about her life as a single mother living with a chronic illness in her memoir A Still Life. In her essay for this anthology, “On Working Out What It All Means,” George explores the idea of significance: both what it means to be her child’s mother and also about having the freedom to “choose what things mean.” George worries that they are not a real family, a fear made worse by social media images of “grinning families on day trips,” but in her writing, she comes to the realization that “all those people are stumbling over their own meanings too.” When she asks her son, tentatively, if he is lonely, he replies that of course he isn’t lonely, his mother is right there.
Despite her fears, ultimately, her son gets to decide what weight he attaches to her illness and she has little control over his “meaning-making.” As a writer, George does find a level of mastery over her own meaning-making, and she ends the essay with a snapshot of a weekend trip to the seaside with her parents, brother, and son. She sits on the causeway in her wheelchair, taking photos of her child. She starts to cry, but raises her camera to her eye again and gets “back on with the business of enduring.”
Dani McClain explores how to raise a daughter as a Black woman in an unjust and hostile society in her book We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. In her essay, “On Stigma and Stoicism,” McClain writes about her efforts to dispel the stigma around single motherhood, particularly for Black single mothers, while also allowing that many single parents are struggling, particularly under the weight of their efforts to appear strong and uncomplaining. She calls for more stories that explore the nuances of being the only adult in a family who carries out the tasks and takes on the responsibilities of parenting. McClain acknowledges that these stories are often hard to tell, especially for Black mothers, because of the concern that by being honest about the challenges of parenting alone, they might play into the hands of “marriage fundamentalists” and support “the narratives that call our families broken, our children doomed.” However, she believes these accounts are too important not to share and that Black unpartnered mothers should instead write “to and for each other,” not because their stories are having a “moment.”
As a bookworm, when I found out I was pregnant, I immediately headed to my local library and browsed the parenting section. But I wasn’t interested in well-thumbed old copies of What To Expect or baby name books. I was seeking out the narratives, the stories from other mothers who had been through this journey before me. At every stage of parenting, I have continued to seek out those stories. When I experienced postpartum depression, I read books such as Down Came The Rain by Brooke Shields, My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud, and After the Storm by Emma Jane Unsworth. Raising a child during a pandemic, far from my family in the UK, has been a doubly isolating experience, and these books have become like the close friends I miss. By sharing their stories, these fellow parents have helped pave, if not smooth path, one that feels a little less lonely.
As May writes in the introduction to The Best Most Awful Job, there are many different ways to be a mother and everyone’s experience will be unique. Reading these twenty different stories together in one anthology was an uplifting and reassuring experience. Though none exactly mirrored my own experience, they all seemed to say: it is a given that your mothering is good enough.