The first time I encountered motherhood in popular culture was in 2001, when I was as far from wanting to be a mother as it was possible to be. I was a 23-year-old literature graduate and temp, on the pill, drifting along with my sweet, sideburned boyfriend, with whom I was living in a grotty flat. Then Rachel Cusk’s book, A Life’s Work, caught my attention because it was always being discussed in the papers. (We read the papers back then. We hadn’t got home internet yet, providing clunky dial-up connections with the wider world. Unfettered access to strangers’ lives on an hourly basis was an impossible idea, a JG Ballard novel subplot.)
A Life’s Work put forward a provocative idea of motherhood, one that stood apart from earlier dissections of the subject by second-wave feminists such as Germaine Greer and Kate Millett. Cusk’s approach was different: it was intensely personal for a start, as well as polemical, laying out how dreadful motherhood could be. It divided opinions wildly. “What in God’s name is Rachel Cusk, a witty young English novelist, thinking?” began Elissa Schapell in the New York Times (albeit ironically – she went on to give Cusk a rave review). “Writing a memoir of motherhood seems like career suicide.”
The Observer’s Ian Sansom, one of many men asked to grapple with the book, felt confused. “She is articulate,” he conceded, “but she appears often to be talking to herself.” There were no open ears, no grounds for understanding, for such confessional honesty, ran the implication. Then Sansom made his objections clear, using an adjective that conveniently begins with a “sh”: “Such shameless self-revelation is hard to bear.”
Nearly two decades later, such shameless self-revelation is now pop culture’s bread and butter. Motherhood, outwardly expressed, is also a persistent and flourishing publishing trend. A Life’s Work was republished last year in a beautiful, authoritat-ive new Faber & Faber edition. It sits near forests of paperbacks on the same subject in bookshops, although many of these come packaged in bright, glowing colours. The titles bounce off the shelves: Sarah Turner’s The Unmumsy Mum series; Gill Sims’s Why Mummy Drinks and Why Mummy Swears; Jo Middleton’s Playgroups and Prosecco. The spirit behind most of the books is thrown-together, gin-assisted, gentle in their rebelliousness. It’s also welcoming, and very un-Cusk.
One thing that has changed in the conversation about motherhood is technology. Many of these new books began life as blogs, podcasts or Instagram feeds: self-publishing channels that didn’t exist, or did but only in zygotic form, when A Life’s Work first rattled cages. In theory, they’re less about the baring of the individual soul and more about the sharing of experience, and online culture helps create supportive communities. Some of the women behind them are great, such as the winningly unpolished Scummy Mummies, podcasters and comedians whose rough-and-ready patter arrives in baggy gold lamé catsuits, without concessions to “loving my kids”. Others, like the Parenting the Shit Out of Life series by Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka, feel a little too glossy at times, too brand aware – but, in fairness, it’s hard not to be.
Social media offers the attraction of common experiences, but motherhood’s downsides don’t sit easily in a phone screen, where we go for some escapist glare. When women’s representations of themselves are at the mercy of likes, followers and algorithms, relatability tends to go slightly astray. Take what happened to Clemmie Hooper, aka Mother of Daughters, a noted Instagram “mumfluencer”. She was discovered to have set up a ghost account on the gossip website Tattle Life to defend herself against criticism. So far, so understandable – whatever the ethics. But she then used this anonymous account to troll other bloggers and even her husband, Simon Hooper, whose Instagram account, Father of Daughters, remains online.
He has nearly 990,000 followers, and trips he has been given for free as an influencer pepper his feed. Earlier this month, he posted an advert for an insurance company supposedly in celebration of International Women’s Day; it was pilloried. And images of his children looking cute help the brand tick along.
Three years ago, I defended the public posting of pictures of my son in an article: acknowledging the fullness of family life online, rather than pretending it didn’t exist, felt very refreshing. I had also written lots about being a mother, including a piece about my miscarriage for Grazia and an investigation of post-natal depression for Vice, when I was not long out of it. Creating something out of the chaos of parenthood could feel addictive, even restorative: I understood that. But the line has become blurred. To some, it is now something to monetise, to media-manage.
These days I have a private Instagram account. I’ve also discovered that uploading our whole lives for approval can become lonely. Those virtual likes, so easily and sometimes thoughtlessly delivered, don’t always make us feel less alone, however much we want to share our stories.
Nevertheless, the need to connect has been stoked, and the many stories of motherhood remain addictive to publishers in 2020. Books allow longer meditations on their subjects, and encouragingly, they seem to be getting more varied. This year’s titles cover bland angles such as mindfulness (Sarah Ivens’ The Zen Mama, Anna Mathur’s Mind Over Mother), but they also span single, unplanned parenthood (Sophie Heawood’s The Hungover Games), post-birth incontinence (Luce Brett’s PMSL), post-partum psychosis (Laura Dockrill’s What Have I Done?) and the tyranny of choice and fertility (Nell Frizzell’s The Panic Years, which was bought after a 13-way auction). Their content feels like it’s all getting less bouncy, more complicated, more gnarly again, too, even in its most mainstream incarnations.
Take journalist Clover Stroud’s My Wild and Sleepless Nights published recently by Doubleday. It looks giddy: a bright pink and orange cover and a handwritten title with a cheeky double-meaning. Stroud is from posh, bohemian stock. At the start of the book, she has four children already, and a nanny; she lives in the countryside. It begins with her having a scan for a fifth, unexpected but much-desired pregnancy, when her teenage son Jimmy’s schoolteacher calls her urgently (he will soon be expelled for bringing cannabis to school). “[I] do this to myself because I want messy,” Stroud writes, about her need to fill her life with children. “And I’m greedy. And I want another one because four makes me feel neat. Neat is so unfamiliar it makes me feel homesick, but creating messiness is like making it right.” She wants “to touch the actual brink of death as I know I will do in childbirth”, she continues. “Also… motherhood hurts, and I like being hurt.” My Wild and Sleepless Nights continues in this bloody vein, skidding between extreme pain and extreme joy.
At many points, I’m reminded of Rachel Cusk; at others, I think of the unnecessary spite of Ian Sansom. Here is another woman pouring everything out – not that she should be ashamed of it, although I worry about her. Stroud talks about something I recognise, when she’s out on a freelance job: “I miss myself when I’m with [the children] and I miss myself when I’m away from them… it never stops.”
She talks about her dead mother, who spent her last years profoundly brain-damaged after an accident, and I wonder about her grief and where it’s being placed. She talks about feeling empty, and imagining running the blade of a knife across a palm when she is slicing peppers for her kids’ tea.
I think about how she will be repeating these stories to publicise her book; then I see a feature in the Daily Mail doing just that; in the accompanying picture she is surrounded by her children, and it goes on her Instagram. (Do note, though, that Stroud details how her children have been briefed about the book in its acknowledgements, and how her son Jimmy has approved sections about him.) It doesn’t stop this book being simultaneously disturbing and moving, especially in the sections when Stroud feels Jimmy disap-pearing from her, as he finishes school. “Is this what being a mother really feels like, in the end?” she writes. “This sense that your child will walk further and further away from you?”
Social media offers a means of pinning down moments, turning them into beautiful, immovable butterflies. Here are a family’s perfect smiles in a freeze-frame, never changing, always there in the world.
The ripple effect of the personal blog has not only fed explorations of womanhood in recent years but has also revived the popularity of the essay. (Rebecca Solnit has touched upon the meeting point between the two in her brilliant collections in recent years, including 2017’s The Mother of all Questions, which explores, among other things, the role of motherhood in feminine identity.) A new collection, The Best, Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly About Motherhood (edited by Katherine May, whose 2018 book The Electricity of Every Living Thing covered the challenges of being a mother with autism), takes this baton and runs with it. Absorbing stories from different women in bite-sized chunks is easier to ingest, it turns out. Multiracial and non-binary perspectives are among the welcomingly diverse inclusions here.
I learn much. Leah Hazard informs me that the slice across my lower abdomen, from which my son was born, is called a “pfannenstiel” incision. I discover from Peggy Riley the female body’s ability to absorb a ten-week foetus (mine, three weeks younger, arrived in the toilet at home). I nod enthusiastically at Saima Mir’s essay about maternal rage and where it comes from, including that many women still worry about telling employers they are pregnant, then struggle to get by on maternity pay. Read that again, if you would. In 2020, no less.
Clover Stroud’s book feels tougher than May’s collection because it is one woman’s expression, lengthily extended, of motherhood. It’s a state we’ve been told to get on with as women, and we know, for our sanity, that in many ways we should, as we realise we are more than the sum of other people’s dependence on us. But the need to broadcast to the world how encumbering these dependencies can be, when so many people don’t realise their effects and their costs, still feels overwhelming. This is the battle we fight in our minds, and in our expressions of ourselves, in a fast-changing world, while managing our ever-changing bodies and our ever-changing babies. Rachel Cusk would understand. It’s our life’s work, indeed.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning