Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children

by Terri Casey

Published by Beyond Words

201 pages, 1998


Paradise, Piece by Piece

by Molly Peacock

Published by Putnam

337 pages, 1998


Gone to an Aunt's: Remembering Canada's Homes for Unwed Mothers

by Anne Petrie

Published by McClelland and Stewart

248 pages, 1998

Aunties: Our Older, Cooler, Wiser Friends

by Tamara Traeder and Julienne Bennett

Published by Wildcat Canyon Press

227 pages, 1998


 

In the not-so-distant past, a young woman's future was clear. She would grow up chaste, marry as well as she could and -- ultimately -- she'd do her part for the reproduction of the species. Motherhood was not only the main goal and her raison dé etre, it was also the only thinkable course.

Times have changed -- though sometimes less than we think they have. At this part of the millennium, women have more options than they used to. Even if, quite often, we still have to dig for them. And while many women continue to opt for roles that include wife and mother, it's not quite the matter of course that it used to be.

With mothers in mind, we look at four books from last year that explore some aspects of motherhood and some of the ways it fits into the new scheme of things.

Pride and Joy by Terri Casey looks frankly at some of the issues faced by women who decide not to have children. Casey is a strong writer whose research skills make this a valuable addition to a women's studies library. Casey writes frankly about what deciding to remain "childfree" has meant for her and how the people around her have responded to it.

Over the years various neighbors, co-workers, well-intentioned acquaintances and even strangers have commented on my maturity, sexuality, and relationships with observations such as "When you finally settle down, you'll want to start having kids," "When a woman has a baby, she feels like a real woman," and " The holidays must be such a sad time of year for you, without a family."

Casey is not an academic, but the introduction to Pride and Joy is as well-organized and conclusive as books done by the best of that type of writer. She's brought smatterings of women's stories together with slatherings of statistical information and analysis that does much to validate the work; should it need validation. But it is the stories of the women themselves that demand the bulk of the attention, and of the book itself. It makes for fascinating reading. These are the personal stories of 25 women from the ages of 25 to 84 with one common bond; all have decided they never want to be mothers. And -- for the most part -- they're joyous stories, intended to bring comfort to women who are childless, though not by choice. And to give a feeling of solidarity and understanding to women who have opted to be childless in a culture that doesn't always smile on that particular option.

Covering some of the same ground, but in a startlingly different way, is Molly Peacock's Paradise Piece by Piece. The award-winning poet decided to be childless many years ago. In the time since she's found herself addressing many of the questions that Casey brought herself to in Pride and Joy. Is it possible to be a complete woman without having children? How does a woman talk about her life if it doesn't involve motherhood?

As it turns out, my choice not to have children has defined my adult life. It's been like hacking through undergrowth while walking down a hardly used, perfectly paved way. The seeds they planted yielded a terrifying wilderness, but what they said also constructed a kind of brick path that gave the wilderness a vista, and defined a number of flora. In fact, on that path my choice not to be a mother became more of a discovery of decision. My refusal came through love, terror, shame, enchantment, and a kind of paradoxically fulfilled emptying.

 

Paradise Piece by Piece is Peacock's first book-length work of prose or, as Peacock herself writes in the book, it's "a hybrid memoir, both true and untruer, in the sense that fiction trues ideas against the blurred realities of life." So, where Pride and Joy takes us on a journey that includes many women, Paradise Piece by Piece focuses on the trip the author herself has taken. It's an engrossing read: quite worthy of the author's earlier work. But don't expect a gentle trip: Peacock's writing is consistently luminous, often gritty and always very real.

Anne Petrie brings an entirely different perspective to motherhood in Gone to an Aunt's. A familiar face to Canadian television viewers, Petrie is a respected journalist who remembers her own experiences in a home for unwed mothers when she was a university student in the 1960s. But, here again, it is the resonance of many women's voices collectively telling their stories that makes this work sing.

Petrie asks questions that she has too many answers for: answers that have, in many ways, shaped her own life.

What was it like inside those many homes for unwed mothers? Were they places of punishment? Rehabilitation? Did some girls find refuge there, a sanctuary from society all too eager to judge? What did they do all day? Whom did they see? How did they feel about their babies? Was it a time of shame and sorrow, or was there sometimes laughter from girls who had found a way to have a bit of fun? How did they plan for the future?

In all, seven women talk about their experiences -- many in some ways traumatic -- about first being sent to the homes and later of how they coped in a society determined to erase what had been, to them, a life-changing experience. It's not a conclusive look at the culture that surrounded the topic, but the book -- and its author -- invite one.

Gone to an Aunt's is not intended to be a definitive or even thorough history of homes for unwed mothers in Canada in the years 1950-1970, although I hope some graduate student in history or sociology looking for a thesis topic will take this subject on. I have found no academic studies about the homes in the decades after the war. The bits and pieces I have unearthed are all primary sources, and, like the homes, they were largely hidden, not necessarily intentionally, deep in the archives of churches and social-service agencies. I am sure there is more to find.

Another book looks at aunts in a more traditional way: those women who are the sisters or very close friends of mothers. Aunthood is special say Tamara Traeder and Julienne Bennet in Aunties: Our Older, Cooler, Wiser Friends.

Aunts help us know who we are. They give us a sense of identity and strength that we will take with us wherever we go.

Essentially Aunties explores the relationships and importance of the aunt's role in society.

We have an enormous resource in raising our children -- each other. And among those who are chosen, or who offer themselves for the good of the children in their lives are aunties, women who, blood-related or not, step in and fill the need of children to be listened to, played with, comforted and loved.

More than an in-depth look, Aunties is a celebration of aunthood and what it can mean in the life of both the child adult: from both sides of the relationship. And -- in the spirit of celebration -- that look is lighthearted, not horribly conclusive and would lend itself more to heartwarming gift giving than serious study. | May 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.