As a mother…

My two August reads ( yes, only two. A week at the Edinburgh Festival followed by an essential recovery period displaced reading in the best possible way this month ) were both about mothering. Holly McNish’s Nobody Told Me, a mix of diary and poems, addresses the issue head on while Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon approaches it more tangentially. I’d recommend both books which have each attracted critical acclaim: McNish won the prestigious Ted Hughes award while de Waal, known for her short fiction, was short listed for the Costa with this, her debut novel. Nobody Told Me doesn’t sit comfortably in any existing category: the performance type poetry and diary entries come across as raw, unpolished writing ( though of course this might well be an artifice itself!) My Name is Leon, on the other hand, is a conventional prose narrative set in the 1980s.

McNish’s book is a memoir of the author’s pregnancy and her first three years of motherhood. I saw an interview with her at Ullapool Lit Fest earlier this year and her brutal honesty combined with a warm and funny personality are very appealing. She details the emotional and physical changes that she underwent, describing giving birth as ‘ pushing a bowling ball though my arse.’ She also explores the gender bias inherent in others’ attitudes towards her changed status. As a new mother she gets used to hearing the term ‘mushy mummy baby brain’ whereas men simply say they’re ‘bloody knackered.

My only niggle is about the fundamental premise on which the book is based, namely what a big deal is made of it all, in particular breast feeding. It goes without saying that becoming a parent must be one of the most significant events of an adult’s life. The trouble is it tends not to go without saying! Why do so many, having sprogged, behave (a) as if they have experienced something unique and (b) thereby have been elevated to some semi mystical state. ‘As a parent… or… as a mother/ father’ ( often used by politicians to prove how they’re in touch with humanity ) are guaranteed to get my hackles rising ( note to self – must check out meaning of hackles- dog related? ) and I’m a mum of four. How much worse must it be for those who are childless, by choice or not.

The eponymous Leon in de Waal’s novel is taken into care with his baby brother Jake, after having been neglected by their mother. His foster mum, Maureen, is in many ways the epitome of a ‘good’ mother: she takes good care of the boys, feeding them well, giving physical affection and imposing boundaries for Leon who for the first time experiences stability in his life. But it doesn’t last long. As a white baby ( Leon is mixed race ) there’s no shortage of would be adopters and social workers decide the two boys will be better apart. Then Maureen falls ill, necessitating a long stay in hospital, and Leon has to stay with Sylvia, her distinctly unmotherly sister. Leon starts getting into trouble and a downward spiral seems inevitable. Yet ( minor spoiler alert ), while Leon’s story was never going to be happy ever after, at least he does end up being loved. De Waal’s skill lies in the way that the reader ( or at least this one ) can feel sympathy for Leon’s mum, despite her serious inadequacies. At least she knows that she’s let her children down while some, though not all, of the professionals seem oblivious to the damage they’ve inflicted on Leon.

My brilliant week in Edinburgh was down to a bit of effective planning and management but mostly luck: reasonable weather, some outstanding shows chosen at random etc. (It’s also worth remembering that, unlike some, I have the resources to go there in the first place) I can’t help thinking that’s not a bad parallel to the whole parenting thing!

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