If it is true that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”, then what are we to make of the books about having babies and becoming a mother?

While people have, obviously, been squeezing babies out since the dawn of time, they haven’t, on the whole, been writing about it. There are few representations of birth in literature, for a whole range of reasons:

* historically, most writers were men, which meant they didn’t give birth or watch women giving birth

* the women who did write were often, although not always, childless (there were various women writers, of course, who had to support large families of children and did so by writing)

* it’s all a bit yucky really, so why would you put it in a book?

All of which means that if you are a bookish girl and you’d like to find out from books what pregnancy, birth and motherhood is like, there hasn’t been a great deal out there for you to read. But I’ve noticed a growing trend amongst contemporary writers to try and capture some of these experiences: what it’s like to be pregnant, to give birth, and to adjust to the enormous changes that this makes to your life afterwards.

As someone who has two small children, I’m interested to see what other women have said about it, and intrigued by how difficult it is to turn into fiction. Because I think it is difficult. I know I struggle as a novelist to give a narrative shape to my experiences, and when I read writing by other women on the subject, it’s interesting to see what they do to try and manage this same shapelessness.

I was prompted to think about this by Maggie O’Farrell’s Costa Prize-winning book, The Hand That First Held Mine. I’m just guessing here, but to me it feels quite strongly like one of those portmanteaux fictions you come up with to try and make a satisfying narrative package out of an extremely intense but also quite amorphous set of feelings. I recognised the strangeness of having a newborn infant in your home, the derangement that the early whirl of hormones and sleeplessness brings, the white-knuckle terror that an ordinary excursion out the door can bring when you have a small baby. There is a completely hilarious baby poo explosion scene. The novel is told in interlocking chapters set in two time-frames which eventually – don’t worry, no spoilers – cross over. But for me, this novel felt like it was two largely unrelated stories – both interesting, but both curiously unresolved – welded together by this interest in the experience of being the mother of a small child.

Maggie O’Farrell wrote about her anxieties over motherhood and art in the  Guardian back in 2003:

I’ve always known about the school of thought that says writing plus babies does not go. I’ve heard Cyril Connolly’s famous and loathsome assertion – “She [the artist’s wife] will know that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway” – and always detested the twisted misogyny of it. But since I got pregnant, several people have clutched my arm and said, in a confiding yet gleeful tone: “Every baby costs you a book, you know!”

So how are we to make this experience, which is so commonplace yet so transformative, into fiction? There are books which end with a birth, as if this was the new happy ever after moment: Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector has a grand climactic birth, and I’ve read another book by an Australian woman author of my own generation – alas, both author and title temporarily escape me – which also ends in a grand solo birth in, I think, a storm; and there is a similar moment in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. All these births are carried out solo, unattended by any kind of medical professional, although there is sometimes a vaguely threatening man present. Turning the birth into the climax of a novel says something about the end of one kind of life, a life we’re all familiar with from fiction – the life of the individual, unencumbered, moving through the world making her own decisions – to a different kind of life, the life that you have when you have small dependent children. Bildungsroman comes to a close. I don’t know what you call the thing that comes next.

Two things interest me about this approach. The first is that, from a novelist’s point of view, ending with the birth is the easy part. The other is that it reflects a tendency in the current pregnancy-and-birth literature to focus on the pregnancy and the quality of the birth, rather than the more lengthy and complicated bit – ie, family life – that comes after it. On one level, it’s unsurprising: pregnancy is a strange state, giving birth is intense and still very dangerous, and many women are rightly very concerned about it. But focusing on your birth experience seems to be missing the point: unless you die, or your baby dies, or one or other of you is harmed, you’ve had a good birth. And really, the part that is more difficult, and more important, is the part that follows, as you adjust yourself to the demands of another, the rhythms of life with a baby, and begin to live that life as best you can. Naomi Wolf’s book on pregnancy, birth and motherhood, Misconceptions,  while containing some useful and bracing observations on things like, for example, the striking way even the most unconventional relationships seem to relapse very quickly into the most traditional gender roles once a baby comes along, is to my mind overly focused on the birth experience.

The more difficult question, for women readers and women writers, is the question of how you put yourself back together after the birth of a child, and for me, the best accounts I’ve read of this are in non-fiction. Rachel Cusk has written about her struggles and her ambivalence about motherhood – funny, I just mistyped that word, and it become otherhood, which is rather how it feels –  in her book-length essay A Life’s Work. I found it bracing, clear-eyed, and oddly reassuring, but upon its publication it released a storm of vituperation and hatred. Ambivalence in a mother is not something that can be tolerated.

There are still not very many books about what it feels like to be a mother, particularly how you feel about your children. The storm of accusation that descends on the head of any mother who dares to suggest she is not always the angel in the house (all kind, all loving, self-sacrificing, devoted to her children, dispensing nothing but love, of the tiger, grizzly, unconditional, or helicopter kind) should alert us to one of the reasons why. There are writers out there who are tackling the subject. Carol Shields wrote about mothers; and here, writers such as my friend Georgia Blain have nuanced and subtle things to say about the experience of being a mother.

When you think about the most high-profile novels that have come along recently about modern parenting – for example, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, or Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin – one of the things that stands out for me is the fact that both books are written by non-parents. This is not to suggest in any way that you have to be one to write about it, but merely to observe that the people on the inside are not doing such a good job of getting the message out.

And what is that message? I don’t have an answer yet.

 

 

 

 

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