‘Tell me about your book?’
‘It’s a memoir,’ I say, making a face that says ick, how embarrassing. Then, usually — in fact, always — I continue, ‘Actually, I was asked if I wanted to write it.’
Back in 2020, I was approached by an editor. Not just an editor, but the editor, someone whose work I had long admired. For several weeks, I did nothing. (Well, it was lockdown and I had two small children, so I did plenty, but you take my point.) Then, eventually, I sent a tentative reply.
This is the story I tell, of my book as a sort of happy accident, something I never quite meant to write. The facts are correct, but also, it’s bollocks. No one hammers out sixty thousand words without wanting to do so.
So what the hell is going on, I ask myself, later, playing back an internal recording in which I fail to take any kind of ownership of my working life for the last two years.
It is because I’ve written about motherhood.
My book is about shit and blood and wonder and heartbreak. It is about tiny hands pressing buttons, and dying goldfish, about having a baby come out of your body and what happens to your body, and your mind, after. It’s about the process by which all of us came to be here.
It is, in literary terms, pretty niche.
Normal, everyday, maternal experience is not usually the stuff that sits on the front table at Waterstones. It’s not up there with grief, or love, despite so often encompassing both. It is banished to its own section, babies’ faces peering from the pastel covers, maybe jacketed in a jolly cartoon. Maternal experience is a subset of the female experience, which is in turn, a subset of the universal human experience, ie that of being a man.
Is this true? Certainly it’s what keeps mothers sidelined, economically, socially and in art. Sure, we venerate them, set standards so impossibly high that they can only ever fall short. But are we, as a society, interested in their experiences? No, because we’ve been told, we tell ourselves, that unless we too are pushing a buggy, motherhood is not relevant.
I recall Will Gompertz reviewing Fleishman Is In Trouble, that difficult and devastating book about how motherhood trashed a woman’s sense of self (among other things) for the BBC homepage. ‘Maybe I’m missing something,’ Gompertz said. ‘I’ll give it to my wife and see what she thinks.’ Lest we be in any doubt of how Gompertz holds his wife’s opinion, from a potential five stars, he gave the book two.
Who among us is immune to this kind of thinking? Certainly not me. Until I received that editor’s e mail, I had spent six years determinedly keeping my motherhood and my work apart. In fact, scratch that. I have been avoiding it my whole life.
Back in my twenties, profoundly curious as to what motherhood might be like, I bought the two greatest books I could find on the subject, both by women whose writing was, generally, revered. They were A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk and Making Babies by Anne Enright, and I read them alone, late at night. Then, when I had finished, I literally hid them, sliding them behind other, more ‘acceptable’ books, leaving them to lurk at the back of the shelf. Heaven forfend that a boyfriend might see and think me broody, ready to trap him with baby lust. In fact, heaven forfend that anyone might think me interested in something so anti-intellectual, so profoundly uncool.
Now, aged forty three, with two children and with a motherhood book of my own, I am aware that I am doing precisely the same thing.
I shouldn’t need permission. I know it now, and I knew it when I returned from the hospital after a birth so long and complex, it could have had its own series on Netflix.
‘How are you?’ they would ask, the relatives and the colleagues and the friends, but when I told them, or tried to, people nodded, then excused themselves, literally walked away. Or, if they stayed, I was told that what I had undergone was worth it. Or that I had got it wrong. Or that everyone had done their best. Or that things were fine, really. In becoming a mother, I found that my language had lost its meaning. ‘I was frightened,’ ‘I can’t cope,’ ‘It hurts,’ words and phrases that once might have garnered embraces and offers of help were now met with bafflement, indifference, and a kind of awkward disgust.
Maybe I could have tried harder, shouted louder. That I did not, I realise now, was because I was afraid of losing the listeners from my pre-mother existence; frightened that in forcing them hear me, I would lose them, and in turn, I would lose the pre-mother parts of myself.
So I stopped talking, and realised instead that I had to pretend. To walk in the world of men, and women with no children, and women with children who have, understandably, chosen to turn their faces away from its complexities and banal brutality (and I hardly blame them for that).
Is it just me, I wonder? When I return to those books I hid in my twenties, I find that it is not. Anne Enright — Booker winning Enright — opens Making Babies with a chapter titled ‘Apologies All Round’ and while it’s funny, a caustic riposte to everyone who said she shouldn’t write about bearing children, she does seem to mean it, too. Then there’s Cusk, pellucid and brilliant, whose book’s introduction finishes with the line, ‘I retain hope that for those who want to hear it, it is at least preferable to silence.’
If that’s how these two writers feel, writers whose stature and acclaim surely allow them to write about whatever they damn well please, then I can look back on my faltering explanations of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years and think, yeah, fair enough.
So I say that I was approached, because it is the only way I can think of to get people’s attention, to tell them in as loud a voice as I know how that my ordinary experience of having children deserves to be heard. I am telling them, and of course, really, I am telling myself.
Yes, my book is about motherhood. And — not but, not yet, not also — it is certainly the best thing I have ever written. And while I am grateful to my editor, gratitude beyond measure, my hope now (foolish though it may be) is that this is the last time any woman has to wait to be given permission to write, and speak, about her mother self. That that my book will act as permission for anyone who wants it.
And that, in the weeks and months and years to come, such permission is entirely unnecessary.
Don’t Forget To Scream will be published by Phoenix on July 21st 2022.
To pre order a copy, click here https://geni.us/DontForgetToScream
To find out more and to read my other pieces, go to www.mariannelevy.co.uk