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In Praise of “Domestic Writing” by Brenda Leifso

March 29, 2011

Brenda Leifso’s first collection of poetry, Daughters of Men, was published by Brick Books in 2008. She is at work on her third manuscript of “domestic writing,” Arsenic Hour. She has won the Bliss Carman Award for Poetry and her work has been published in magazines and anthologies throughout Canada. She also writes and edits through her communications and creative business and teaches communications at Algonquin College in Ottawa, ON.

Visit her website at www.brendaleifso.com

[Update: I just discovered that today is Brenda's birthday; please join me in wishing her a very happy day!]

“I have a confession to make: I have begun writing about the much maligned or ignored “domestic sphere”– even worse, about motherhood. Worse still, I am going on a campus radio show tonight to talk about my new manuscript. I’m nervous because I anticipate the audience may tune out once my subject matter is introduced; domestic writing and motherhood are not the sexiest topics and have the rep (or even rap) of being solipsistic. Muriel Gray, who judged the 2007 Orange Prize, for instance, wrote in the Guardian that women needed to stop writing “thinly veiled autobiographies on motherhood and boyfriend troubles” – that we needed to use our imaginations more if we wanted to achieve literary heights. Such a view is discouragingly narrow, and the work of many women writers (Carol Shields, Alice Munro) outright refutes it. Writing about mothers and domesticity matters.

In my undergraduate days, I never considered myself a feminist, most likely because I had not experienced enough of the world to grasp the subtle forms gender imbalance takes. Motherhood yanked me out of this ignorance. I was overwhelmed and sometimes appalled by the endless tasks of being wholly responsible for another life (as I write this, I am trying to pump breast milk for babe #2). Many readers and reviewers may come to a full stop at “overwhelm,” “endless tasks,” or “breast milk” (the horror!). How much weight will the literary, critical and broader cultural world give, then, to the actual implications of being wholly responsible for another life? Of the vulnerable positions this places mothers in? Of the lifetime of impossible choices the birth of a child presents?

In full disclosure, I am a white, middle-class and very educated woman who does not directly face the daily challenges of survival and protection that a mother in Haiti, Pakistan, Uganda, and even now Japan, must struggle for. Yet, I would argue that instead of limiting imagination, motherhood can expand its reach through the simultaneous birth of child and empathy. When my first child, a daughter, was born, I could not watch global horrors unfold without thinking what if that was my child? What if I lived with my children in a refugee camp? What if my child died of wholly preventable diarrhea or malaria? Was raped by soldiers? The prospect of any child or mother facing these situations suddenly became much less tolerable. Because women and children are the most vulnerable in the face of war or catastrophe, I also became acutely aware it would take just one event to put my children and me into an equally powerless and impossible position. Consider the story of one mother who survived the 2007 tsunami in Thailand. Holding the hands of both of her children when the waves hit, she had to let the older child go because he had the most chance of survival on his own. Does this story matter less because it is about mothers and children, or more?

People may ask if a middle-class motherhood in North America can really be equated to the struggles poor mothers face the world over. Perhaps not in scale and immediacy, but certainly in potential for violence and tragedy. A quick Google search for “writing and the domestic” brings up hit after hit about report writing concerning domestic assault, a topic which hit uncomfortably close to home just as my family was driving east in a move from Calgary (a city whose mid-2010 domestic assault incidents totalled close to 3,000 – a 14% increase from the previous year). In my old neighbourhood, the news reported, a father had suffered a psychotic break and murdered his tenant, wife and two children. Another child, just one year old, survived alone for twenty four hours before being found. Clearly, the domestic is not a sphere solely concerned with when a child is potty trained or sleeps through the night (though I desperately wish my own baby would). To dismiss writing about the domestic and motherhood is to dismiss their complexities, to dismiss or ignore the position of women and children in society, and, most importantly, to dismiss mothers and children as subjects worth writing and – by extension – caring about.

So what about the every day – the getting the kids ready for school, the toilet cleaning, the grocery shopping and the Sisyphean laundry mountain? Do I, as a mother most times drowning in these tasks myself, want to read about them? Yes, because I know my own thought life does not shut off the minute I pick up a pen to write a grocery list. Because as I fold laundry (again), I am, more often than not, thinking about the evolution of feminism, how I will inspire my daughter and son to be good, strong people who will make change in the world, and how my own writing can do the same. Because in these tasks and the Benedictine work of caring for others, wisdom must be, can be, and is found despite – or even because of – the drudgery. Wise women think all the time, and I want to hear what they have to say.

Tonight, I’m going to go into that interview confident in the value of my hard-won wisdom with, I hope, the wisdom of many other writing mothers behind me.”

From → Poets

10 Comments
  1. I hope the interview goes well. I agree with you completely and I’m glad that you disregarded Muriel Grey’s opinion.

    • Hi Katrina,

      The interview went *ok* – I had to close my eyes for most of it and pretend the interviewer was someone I was talking to over coffee :)

  2. Great piece, Brenda! Strong and eloquent.

  3. Beautiful essay Brenda – it spoke so much to me, particularly how the plight of worldwide mothers and children resonates once you are a mother yourself. That and of course your comments on the “Sisyphean” mountain of laundry! Lovely! (here’s an essay I posted before here but that resonates with your thoughts on laundry and *horror* breastmilk!) http://www.literarymama.com/litreflections/archives/2009/10/on-being-a-woman-writer.html

    • Hi Sanyantani,

      As yet another thing in common – my husband is a peds resident. My hats off to you for writing while in medicine. I love, love, love your essay, and so glad you pointed me towards Literary Mama!

      Brenda

      • Thanks so much Brenda – hats off to you and your husband for being in the midst of residency! It feels so long ago at this point I sometimes wonder if it all happened to someone else! Thank you so much for your georgeous images and powerful words…

  4. Amen, Brenda! A friend forwarded this link to me, and I’m so glad she did. I’m thrilled to know about your wonderful, important work. I look forward to reading!

    Warmly,
    Kate

  5. I loved this essay; it mirrors my own feelings and thoughts about motherhood, global empathy through childrearing, and the judgments placed on the domestic sphere of writing. I blog to shape that conversation (in the hopes that through regular braiding of literary musings and motherhood, I would gain some relief from the intensities of nursing and also find kindred, some connection). Happily, I’ve found those gifts by writing in public.

    Congratulations on your poetry publications; hope to read some of your work in the future. Thank you for your essay here.

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