Award winning writers, Jen Sookfong Lee and Stacey May Fowles talk to AW’s Shelly Kawaja about thier new essay collection.

Shelly Kawaja: Good Mom on Paper is not about having it all,” or being a boss mom,” as you point out in the introduction to this collection of essays. Instead, it offers very real examples of what it’s like to be a mother and a writer. Why do you think this is important? Why now?

Jen Sookfong Lee: I think it’s always important and that mothers have always carried the bulk of domestic labour but also guilt over how well they’re tackling that domestic labour. But I think now, after the pandemic has shown us just how unequal the workload is divided between mothers and fathers, it’s particularly relevant.

Stacey May Fowles: This pervasive idea of having and doing it all feels like a trick because it puts the onus on moms to tough it out and “achieve,” but not on communities and culture to support them. I think that’s the conversation we wanted to spark—here’s the unvarnished reality, so what can we do to make things easier, to create access, to foster balance?

SK: How did you go about choosing the essays in this collection? Did you know what you were looking for in terms of themes and ideas and stories, or did the book build itself in some way?

JSL: I think we always knew we wanted a range of voices, from age to race to income level to sexuality, but I also think that the book built itself too. Once we saw the submissions we were receiving, we could see that the diversity of the essays was in fact far more varied than we could have ever imagined. What a gift!

SMF: I definitely agree—although we had an idea of the range and some of the writers we wanted to include, we came into the project with a genuine sense of openness and the book did in many ways build itself. It was incredible how many mothers wanted to share their stories—more than we had ever dreamed of. Because of that the process was less about finding “good” submissions (there were so many!) and more about bringing together a whole.

SK: You divided the book into four sections, Time, Body, Space, and Self. What was your inspiration, and intention, for formatting the collection this way?

JSL: I think that when mothers are in the thick of parenting, those things—time, body, space, and self—are in short supply, or are things they used to have in the before times but no longer do. How many mothers have felt that their bodies were no longer their own? Or that there is no space for them to be alone?

SMF: The idea for the section titles was Jen’s (very brilliant) idea, and when we implemented them, it really elevated the book. These stories are all so different, so beautifully unique, but they do share that commonality of “short supply”—I think it’s a feeling so many mothers can identify with, regardless of how personal any given essay is.

SK: There are many recurring themes in this book: responsibility, guilt, sacrifice, but there’s also so much gratitude and joy. Was it your intention to strike a balance between what motherhood and writing demands of you, and what it also gives?

JSL: Yes, it was always our hope that the contributors would also write about how much children can give us creatively. I think both Stacey May and I have seen many writing projects open up because of our children, while other opportunities—like in person events and residencies—are inaccessible. There is always a push and pull.

SMF: I think it’s easy (and lazy) to cast children as “career ruiners,” when the reality is that there are systems and structures to blame for why it can be so hard to parent and flourish as a writer. Children—the way they think and feel, the joy and struggles they bring—add a great deal to our creative work, even if our devotion to them makes it hard to get things on the page. Our hope was that this collection would be really transparent about how hard it can be, without simply casting children as an easy way to suffocate a writing life.

SK: Another recurring theme in this book is the pressure, or expectation, on mothers to make both writing and motherhood look easy. I’ve felt this pressure myself as a mother and a writer, but I wasn’t always sure if the feeling was real or imaginary. This book let me know it is most definitely real. Thank you for that! Why do you think we feel this way?

JSL: Women, and non-masc people in general, never want to make a fuss or seem like we’re troublesome. Some of the most misogynistic ways of describing women speak to this: high-maintenance, pain in the ass, hysterical. It’s not that we feel this way, it’s that the world has installed these thoughts into our heads. If you’re a mother, then you’re taking on the responsibility of being easy or professional for a whole other person. Because when you have a child, it’s your job to make sure that child doesn’t interrupt your work, which is especially difficult with creative work, which is often done at home and done at odd times.

SMF: I definitely feel like we are encouraged to constantly compare ourselves to others, to be in competition instead of fostering community, to make things look effortless, whether that’s in terms of building a writing career or being a mother. I also think a lot about how we can escape that trap, and know that telling true stories about how messy and imperfect and hard and beautiful things can be is a genuine start.

SK: The first essay, Carrie Snyder’s, The Dog Was Fine,” really stuck with me, especially this line I might not be okay. Okay?” I read that and thought, Yeah, okay.” If we were all okay would any of us bother writing? I’m curious what you think; would you write if everything was fine?

JSL: Maybe! I actually don’t know how to answer that because I don’t think any of us are fine, at the end of the day. We all carry our traumas with us, the little hurts that accumulate into bigger ones. I say to my kid all the time, “Everyone has their shit to deal with and you never know what that is, so be kind.” Everyone could write a book because everyone is hurting.

SMF: I’m tempted to ask if everything is ever really going to be fine? There are big hurts, and small hurts, and writing about them is so vital for both writers and readers. But I do think Good Mom on Paper makes the argument that “fine,” if it exists, is worth writing about. I’ve had moments with my daughter where I’ve actually been shocked at how fine everything feels.

SK: Nothing demands as much creativity and resourcefulness as motherhood, and yet, as Rachel Giese points out in her essay, A Book is Not a Baby,” motherhood has been seen as an impediment to creative work.” She offers a counter argument to this, that motherhood is its own form of artistry. How has motherhood impacted your own approach to creativity and writing?

JSL: I think the biggest gift of being a mother is that I am able to see the world from a different perspective. There is no myopia or tunnel vision with parenting. We are constantly being asked to consider our children’s points of view in order to understand them, and they can be just like us, or they can be wildly opposite. As a writer, this is a fabulous gift, one that prevents me from writing from my own navel, and allows me to always look outward, to connect what I write with the world outside my window.

SMF: Motherhood has necessitated I develop a great deal of patience, and the ability to use my time more efficiently, both of which benefit my writing enormously. Not everything has to be done right now, but when the moment presents itself it has to get done. I also see the bigger picture and take more trivial things (and myself!) far less seriously than I used to, which comes in pretty handy during the ups and downs of a writing life.

SK: If you could go back and offer some advice, or words of encouragement, to yourselves when you were brand new moms, what would it be?

JSL: Stop trying to clean the house! Also, set boundaries with all the people who only sap your energy at a time when you really need rest. Like, all those people who just want stuff from you when your baby is six weeks old? Block their numbers!

SMF: When I look back on that time, I think I held on far too tightly to my old life, my old work, my old self. I wish I had known it was okay to loosen my grip a bit, to open myself up to new possibilities. I was so terrified of losing my sense of self, the things I thought defined me, that I didn’t allow myself to accept that I was becoming something new, and maybe even something better.

SK: Final question, how did you find the process of working on this book together, as two mother writers?

JSL: Stacey May and I are so respectful of each other and our time. Literally we said to each other all the time, “There are no emergencies in book publishing.” We gave the authors the time they needed, we gave each other the time we needed, and the book still published on time!

SMF: I initially met Jen in a professional context but she became such a vital personal support when I became a mother, specifically a mother who was also a writer. When things were new and I was vulnerable, she gave me permission to go easy on myself, to not beat myself up because I wasn’t being “productive.” That’s why I wanted so much to work on a project like this with her. If this book gives writing mothers even a small fraction of what Jen gave to me, it’s more than successful.

Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning journalist, essayist and the author of four books. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, The National Post, Elle Canada, The Walrus and elsewhere. Fowles lives in Toronto, where she is working on a children’s book and her fourth novel.

Jen Sookfong Lee is a writer from Vancouver. Her books include The Conjoined, which was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, which was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of EastThe Shadow List and Finding Home.