Being a parent, and specifically being a new mother, is in itself hard enough. Mothering a special needs child with significant and chronic disabilities is epic. My Own Blood, Ashley Bristowe’s memoir of parenting her son Alexander and his older sibling Sloane, offers an intimate portrayal of that epic experience. Her book is an unflinchingly honest, emotionally engaging, dark, heartbreaking and inspiring narrative of the depths of pain and joy involved in parenting Alexander, diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Kleefstra syndrome, which involves a chromosomal deletion.
Bristowe, as she writes, knows how to do irreverence. She is a master of it. She begins, in her preface, by writing, “Anyone who claims that our society cares about people with special needs, and families in crisis, mothers in general, or the exigencies of working parents, can suck my strap on.” Well, anyone who begins a motherhood memoir by talking like that about prosthetic fellatio can sit right next to me. In fact, with that opening, I wished I knew her. This sentence was a first hint, on page one, that I was going to hear a clear, authentic, fearless and strong authorial voice—and love this book.
In an exchange with an annoying pediatrician in Calgary, Bristowe says she speaks with what she calls her “I’m-the-actual-mother-of-this-kid-you-can’t-bully-me” voice. This is a much-needed voice. It is an authorial voice that speaks back to the overwhelmingly powerful expert discourses of the various establishments and institutions that dictate how we should mother. This voice speaks in a way I did not even know I needed to hear, even I who am a feminist writer about motherhood, but yet I did. This memoir presents an urgently necessary and heart-wrenching refutation of layer upon layer of what we are being told we should think and feel. In her personal narrative, Bristowe’s voice wryly asserts the political legitimacy of maternal agency. Aided no doubt by the privilege of being the daughter of a specialist physician, she transforms this middle-class privilege into empowerment for all of us, as readers, who get to share in her validation of the truest, most painful parts of maternal experience. “Why does,” she writes later, “delivering the placenta hurt like a fucking fucker?” Why does it indeed? And why, after delivering four children myself, all over a decade ago, have I had to wait this long to read that sentence? I can feel how much it hurt, still. Reading these words gave me permission to say it hurt, permission I hadn’t known I needed, but did.
Throughout this book, Bristowe gives voice to her own experience in a way that speaks broadly to the experiences of other mothers. In an aside she writes, “The pediatrician is being a shithead about Al’s weight,” articulating an assertive retort back to the medical establishment I wish I’d had the wherewithal to say. My Own Blood is a timely encouragement to any of us who have to navigate systems and discourses of health and education, which is, ultimately, all of us.
The memoir strongly connects to the academic writing of Andrea O’Reilly and Sara Ruddick and the concept of “outlaw mothering.” In a book that will resonate with other parents of special needs children, Bristowe offers an example of resistance to the patriarchal ideology of intensive mothering, retaining her self and her voice, even in the social media panopticon. As she writes about a family photo she took, after narrating the impossibly difficult experience of taking it, “the photoshopped version of the photo is perfect.” For all of us, she cuts beneath the Instagram “golden hour” curation of what motherhood is supposed to be, and gives us a raw, moving window into the vastly more joyous and painful depths of the totalizing experience that motherhood actually offers. Read this book.
—Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich is a lawyer, an author, a legal scholar and an adjunct professor at Carleton University.