The Milk of Female Kindness is an anthology from predominately Australian and British women of stories, poetry, artwork, interviews, and articles about motherhood. As such it addresses issues that everyone will recognize. This book resonated with me on many levels. As a mother and daughter, as a writer and teacher, the entries spoke to me, made me catch my breath, surprised me, forced me to think, brought up memories, and invited me to laugh. I read several stories and all the poems more than once; the art encouraged me to linger. I found myself reflected on many pages.
An anthology can be a tricky mix to scoop into one book. Authors are bound to have different strengths and individual ideas about the intent of the production. What I liked about this book is the sincerity evident in each entry. Every author spoke with the authority and wisdom that comes from empathy and experience, some of it in hindsight. They explore a gamut of tragic, humorous, and realistic situations, from the challenges of being a mother to those of being a child.
The Welsh Shawl by Ceridwen Masiulanis describes a cradle shawl that her mother carried eight babies in as she moved throughout the day managing a household on a meager budget. The woolen shawl was handed down through the family from the writer’s grandmother eventually to her own daughter. Masiulanis recalls her early life in the Welsh mountains with strong black coffee vision, the affection of a cultural inheritance uncluttered by sentimental musings about granny or mum. You will recognize the Welsh shawl in modern slings and infant carriers meant to keep a baby close to her mother’s heart, but Ceridwen Masiulanis’ story is a sometimes unsettling take on motherhood. Masiulanis also provided several of the pencil drawings for some of the stories.
Sandra Danby’s The Biscuit Tin is another story of rituals passed from mother to daughter, this one about three containers filled each year with Christmas cookies. An aging mother, Lorna, lays dying and alone because she’s neglected to tell her artist daughter, Justine, about her illness. Lorna regretfully remembers the ache of a stillborn son, and of working years later in the kitchen with young Justine to fill each tin with the specified biscuits. In the fog of Lorna’s last hours, she tries to tell an absent Justine about the older brother she never knew. It’s a wistful story about the things that didn’t work out as expected, a child that turned out well, and a tradition that bridges generations.
Judith Dickerman-Nelson tells the story of her adoption in My Real Mother, an homage to her birth mother, a woman she never knew, and to the woman who raised and loved her along with two other adopted siblings. The writer bridges the two fractured parts of her life, as an infant given away by one mother and adopted by another, into one of thoughtful insights about how much strength it takes to give birth and how much endurance to engage in a full life with a child. Dickerman-Nelson puts herself in the place of the mother who gave her away and imagines the pain that must have lingered all her life. The connection between parent and child may be tenuous, even manufactured, but, as she states at the end, “love is the true miracle.” (It’s really not a spoiler; the story grants a rich reward for reading.)
The two poems by Marie Marshall, Reading my son and A teenage pregnancy, (the lower case her choice) emanate palpable poignancy. Brief in words but rich with imagery and emotion, the speakers yearn for attachment, the elusive condition of being present in another person’s life.
Kasia James, the anthology’s editor, submitted five entries, three of which are interviews with professionals in fields related to motherhood. Her discussions with a midwife who delivers infants in the war zones of third world countries, with a professor of Women’s Studies, and with a psychiatrist who treats women’s conditions, reveal the societal expectations of giving birth and raising children. My favorites of James’ work are her poem, Fresh eyes, which I won’t ruin by telling you anything about it except that you should read it, and her short story, Time thief. Whether the story is intended to be taken literally (unlikely) or to be read as an allegory for the changes imposed on a new mother by the infant stranger in her midst, has little impact on how charming a tale it is to read.
Maureen Bowden calls Hiding the Knives “My Grandmother’s Story,” though it’s told in first person. Pretty Sissy is the youngest child of a Liverpool family in the early 1900’s. She tempts her sister’s husband and engages in a long and messy relationship that results in several pregnancies. Sissy can’t resist the advances of the charming Ritchie until her adult son suffers a medical crisis, and she makes a bargain with God to save his life. The title refers to a mother doing what needs to be done to protect her children.
Laura Evans’ super short story, The Changling, is a stunner. Her one hundred words can be read in less than a minute but the story haunted me for hours until I finally started grinning. I’ll leave you with this as the final story that I’ll mention, not because the others are less worthy, but because you should do yourself the kindness of making your own discoveries. With Mother’s Day approaching, The Milk of Female Kindness is an appropriate gift and will provide hours of contemplative enjoyment.
The Milk of Female Kindness, an Anthology of Honest Motherhood, edited by Kasia James, © 2014, is available in paperback from Amazon, ISBN: 978-0-9923891-1-6.
Thank you to Kasia James, the book’s editor and contributor, for providing me a copy in exchange for a fair review. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading it.