Fothermather – Gail McConnell


Shortlisted for the 2020 Michael Marks Awards.

Fothermather is an exploration of parenthood beyond the categories of ‘mother’ and ‘father’, and a celebration of new life in new language.

‘What am I to you? Mother? Father? Neither?

Like cells, names split & double, unified.’

– from ‘Untitled / Villanelle’

With a playfully genderqueer title containing both ‘father’ and ‘mother’, Fothermather explores love, language and forms of attachment beyond biology. Bobbing in its sea, we find the seahorse: the curious queer creature who patterns the pages. Playful, political and inquisitive, these poems chart the experience of IVF, pregnancy and parenthood for a family taking shape in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is illegal and NHS fertility treatment is withheld from same-sex couples.

Mixing prose poem, calligram, sonnet, erasure and anagram, Fothermather is a strikingly original book of sensitive and vulnerable exploration in conversation with Sigmund Freud, D.W. Winnicott, Virginia Woolf and other fothermathers. Vahni Capildeo calls it ‘a book of thoughtful welcome and letting-go, where language gives way to newness and wonder’. Donika Kelly writes that the poems ‘startle and astound with wit and the fulsomeness of love’.


SKU: ISAT_Fothermather Category:



Shortlisted for the 2020 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.

Judges’ Comments: Michael Marks Awards

What is astonishing here is how perfect form and subject meet. Formation is in fact the subject of these poems – the literal formation of children, and the formation of parents in their gendered roles. As an exploration of queer parenthood, this pamphlet feels timely, but never contrived. Rather, it pulses with lived experience, with what matters deeply, and as the poems form and unform, construct and deconstruct in our reading of them, we sense the even more important and sometimes magical composition happening behind the poems – that of fothermather, of parent.




Through a series of epiphanies resulting from Finn’s gestation and birth rendered into concretism via the metaphor of a seahorse, what started out as a comparatively straightforward ambition to interrogate gender-non-conforming parenthood, is refracted into a more layered and often gnomic contemplation of how things come to be named, how language cleaves into meaning, “how forms are improvised and adapted in creaturely communication”.

Dzifa Benson, The Poetry Review: 111:1, Spring 2021


‘An astonishing series of nineteen poems, where the traditional literary equation between stanza and room, or the biologistic equivalence of room and womb, yield to pages of undersea fluidity and pre-linguistic play… Fothermather is a vision of queer parenthood [whose] many formal pleasures… are accompanied by a needling vulnerability. This is a book of thoughtful welcome and letting-go, where language gives way to newness and wonder.’

Vahni Capildeo, PN Review 249: Volume 46 Number 1, September – October 2019.


‘In Fothermather, Gail McConnell’s deft use of concrete forms and erasure shows us that the locus of parenting rests not at the fixed and gendered poles of mother and father but rather surfaces in an open sea that we must chart with intentionality. The connections McConnell’s speaker finds in these waters startle and astound with wit and the fulsomeness of love.’

Donika Kelly


‘Just to thank you for sending me a copy of Gail’s Fothermather which I have so much enjoyed. I really admire her work and loved the pamphlet. It is endlessly inventive, joyful, and I particularly love the play with language and the bright intelligence that sparks everywhere. Many congratulations on producing such a distinctive and heartlifting pamphlet, and of course to Gail too.’

Mimi Khalvati via email (Nov. 2019)


‘This pamphlet contains some arresting use of concrete forms and erasure as well as a more general, highly inventive wordplay, but particularly noticeable is the way these techniques are harnessed to express the power of the poet’s parental love, which is what in turn unifies and strengthens the work as a whole…’

Tim Murphy, OPOI Reviews, Sphinx


Mapping parenting through marine imagery

I found these poems a complex, fascinating and enlightening insight into a gay woman’s experience of becoming a non-biological parent.

The poems explore the journey towards a relationship with the prospective offspring through the IVF process, pregnancy and birth. His name, Finn, extends the marine theme.

Marine animal imagery generated by the biological reproductive systems of the seahorse, cuttlefish and octopus is put to effective use by the narrator to navigate the concept of non-gendered parenthood…’

Maggie Mackay, OPOI Reviews, Sphinx


The title is just a glorious word in the mouth. I spent a bit of happy alone time muttering ‘fothermather’ over and over, which funnily enough is something Gail does in the poem of the same name. There’s a lot of fun, experimental sound-babble baby-prattle wordplay in this pamphlet, and a lot of passages that are just fantastic read aloud.

Kirsten Luckins, Blog


‘A sequence of experimental verse forms engaging with the matter of queer parentage in Northern Ireland, Fothermather is a playful and intriguing venture into understanding identity when one parent is separated from traditional biological parenthood. Enter the role of “fothermather” – that which is not entirely father or mother, but something of both, something different. With this neologism McConnell literally scores out tired Freudian assertions: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

Poetry Book Society, Spring Bulletin 2020