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When We Remember To Breathe by Renee Liang and Michele Powles


When We Remember To Breathe was a pledge made by two New Zealand mothers and writers. Renee Liang (the 2018 NEXT Women of the Year winner, Member of the NZ Order of Merit in the arts, and paediatrician) and Michele Powles (Robert Burns Fellow 2010, Sir Julius Vogel Fan Writing Award 2011 nominee) decided to write a paragraph a week to each other during their second pregnancies.


The book was proposed as a sort of ‘cheerleading’ exercise, with each woman writing a paragraph and sending it to the other. She would then write one in return. While it didn’t quite happen as they imagined, the resulting exchange is an utterly magical and stunning record of their foray into motherhood.


The book is the first to be released by Magpie Pulp. It is the first in the Magpie’s Sister, We Got This collection, that will celebrate and support strong women of action. The publishing house has got off to an impressive start with this book.


The pair cover everything – births, deaths, stumbles, first steps. Nothing is really off limits. Liang’s experience as a paediatrician makes for some really interesting reading. She doesn’t shy away from discussing bodily functions and breastfeeding and it makes for a refreshing, real read. There’s no judgement either – both women have obvious differences in their parenting styles. But instead of preaching or belittlement, there’s an understanding that they’re in it together, a ‘village’ connected by letters.

I loved the way they both laid things bare in all different facets and emotions. There’s anger and hopelessness, mourning and despair. But there’s also a deep understanding and over-riding message of the things that really matter in life. People, love, life.

Each story riffs off each other, sometimes in obvious ways, other times more subtly. While the pair didn’t know each other well before beginning the journey, their stories work magically together.


Powles’s Down The River was a standout for me. She broaches the topic of the sometimes overwhelming sense of motherhood guilt. The neediness and vulnerability of our children, coupled with the desire for ‘me’ time, all wrapped up in a big does of guilt that we experience for feeling that way. But there’s no judgement or grand pearl of wisdom. Instead Powles, by articulating her own thoughts, gives other mothers (and caregivers) a gentle nod of acknowledgement and permission that it is ok to feel this way too.


The entire book is littered with relatable and heart warming pieces that hit you with a bolt of recognition. Surrender is about a seemingly simple task – but one that any parent knows can almost break you. In the short piece she describes the act of sorting her child’s clothes to “nourish the magical hand-me-down machine”. While her friends simply see beautiful clothes, for her they are portals to another time. With every new size of clothing, comes an understanding that the world for her children is getting bigger too.


Liang writes in Memory about how mothers fret about forgetting the small moments of motherhood. “Poetry and prose are so much more accurate than digital sensors”, she muses. The pair have certainly captured motherhood perfectly. It is a wonderful reflection of Powles’s own definition of motherhood: “it is hope, and trust, and fear and sweat and swearing and messing it up and doubt”. It is a simply stunning collection from two brilliant and amazing writers.


When We Remember To Breath is a breathtakingly beautiful book that captures those seemingly small moments of motherhood for what they really are.


Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser

Magpie Pulp, RRP $25.


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