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My grandmother, the quiet radical

How has motherhood evolved over the past 60 years? My gran’s experience – as recorded in her witty book on pregnancy – makes the perfect case study.

By Sophie McBain

I can’t remember how I learned my grandmother had published several books under a pseudonym. Audrey, my father’s mother, never volunteered this information, but it was mentioned occasionally in her absence. I knew she had written a play, Cast Off Five, about shipwrecked bridge players, which was performed in London and elsewhere, and there were rumours – improbable but delicious – that she had written a romance novel.

A few months ago, I did what any self-respecting journalist (or indeed, granddaughter) would do and asked her about her writing. She laughed in surprise. “It might amuse you that I once wrote a humorous – actually, I hate that world – light-hearted guide to pregnancy that sold rather well,” she said. I couldn’t find sales figures for the slim hardback she gave me soon after, but Gran has never overstated anything. 

A few weeks earlier, I had told her I was pregnant. The book, published in 1970 when Gran was 42, is titled Nine, Ten… A Big Fat Hen: A Light Hearted Guide to Pregnancy, with a cover that shows a smug-looking chicken knitting booties. She wrote it when she was pregnant with my youngest aunt, Sarah, frustrated by what she saw as insufferable 1960s Earth-mother stuff.  

In person, Gran is modest and soft-spoken, with a sly, subtle wit. She is white-haired and tiny, with old-fashioned good manners and an immaculate dress sense. But on the page, Gran rebels. She writes that she is pleased pregnancy is no longer regarded as a condition so indelicate it can only be mentioned euphemistically, if at all, but that she fears the pendulum has swung too far the other way. “To be sure, it’s nice to know you are still regarded as a human being, even though you are pregnant. On the other hand, it can be distinctly irritating to be looked upon as though you were in a state of continual blessedness,” she writes. “For the majority, in fact, pregnancy remains basically the same: nine months’ penal service terminated by a short period of hard labour.” 

[See also: US formula shortages: shaming mothers for not breastfeeding isn’t the solution]

I am expecting my third child, her ninth great-grandchild. To have three is unusual among my peers, and it was an emotional rather than a practical decision: three is an awkward number – soon we’ll have too many small children to fit into a normal-sized car. “Beyond two, the merits of producing another baby take a sharp decline,” Gran (who has four children) writes in the book. “You are obliged to introduce yourself to such ideas as: Big Families are Fun, the Nicest Children come from Big Families – and so on.” 

Gran jokes about pompous doctors, internal examinations, indigestion and unflattering maternity wear. She has a section titled “Ante-Natal Rebellion”, which covers the sense of panic that grips many expectant mothers as they confront the reality of another seven or eight months of pregnancy that will be rewarded with a wailing newborn and buckets of soiled nappies. “Even in these days of pills and enlightenment, pregnancy, like chicken pox, is inclined to turn up at the most inconvenient moment,” she observes. 

When Gran started writing she hadn’t come across anything similar – pregnancy was rarely something women wrote about, much less joked about. (Gran told me her publisher had tried to sell the book in French, but was informed that French women did not wish to poke fun at such things.) The bestselling childbirth and parenting guides of her era were by male obstetricians; the work of Sheila Kitzinger, Penelope Leach and others was not published until the 1970s.

But it was a time of great change. In Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History, the historian Sarah Knott identifies the 1970s as the decade when, thanks to the women’s liberation movement, there was an explosion of women’s writing about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. In 1970 the feminists of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published a pamphlet, Women and Their Bodies, and followed it up with the bestselling book Our Bodies, Ourselves. An effort to educate women about their own health, it aimed to help them reclaim their sexuality and redress the patriarchal healthcare system. 

These women also discuss what Gran calls “Ante-Natal Rebellion”, although in more political terms. “Women grow up in a society that subtly leads us to believe that we will find our ultimate fulfilment in living out our reproductive function and at the same time discourages us from trying to express ourselves in the world of work,” they write. They note that women expect that on becoming pregnant they will finally feel secure in their maternal role, but often instead struggle to come to terms with their new identity and feel guilty for their “unmotherly, unnatural” feelings. What’s important, the pamphlet continues, is that women understand they are not alone in feeling this way. 

[See also: In Sexual Revolution, Laurie Penny wages war against bad sex]

When my first daughter was born and I was wracked with anxiety, loneliness and a terrible sense of guilt that I was finding motherhood hard, I craved the reassurance of other women: friends who had similar feelings, or who could at least laugh with me about the night-sweats and leaking milk and tiredness – as well as writers such as Rachel Cusk, Jacqueline Rose and Anne Enright. Much modern writing about motherhood grapples with a fundamental problem: the need to express maternal ambivalence safely, in a culture where no figure is more despised than the bad mother, and where no fantasy is harder to resist than the achievement of maternal perfection. 

Gran wrote to provide a correction to the “bright-eyed and rosy” mothers she found in the “colour supplements”. Today, confessional writing about motherhood confronts the huge, moneyed and expertly curated world of online “momfluencers” – the women with stylish homes and handsome children in coordinated outfits, who share parenting tips and recipes. In her podcast, Under the Influence, the journalist Jo Piazza observes that the influencer industry as a whole – which in 2021 was estimated to be worth $13.8bn worldwide – has produced more self-made female millionaires than any other, with the exception, perhaps, of Hollywood. On the one hand, it’s impressive that these women have managed to make motherhood pay. On the other, it has turbo-charged mothers’ insecurity.

If a scientist wanted to measure how white, middle-class motherhood has evolved over the past six decades, Gran and I could make a good case study. Our lives have overlapped in uncanny ways. In 1951, at the age of 24, Gran married my granddad, Malcolm, a British diplomat, and joined him on his first posting, in Tripoli, Libya. I didn’t know this when, at 22, I moved to Tripoli for a UN internship, where I began dating a junior British diplomat. We married five years later. 

When Gran moved to Libya, most of the former Italian colony was under temporary British administration – it was granted independence only at the end of 1951. Italian was still widely spoken, and my grandparents remember eating pasta and drinking local wine in Tripoli harbour, overlooking the Mediterranean. The city had a large European population and a Western-oriented elite that had all but disappeared by the time I arrived in 2008, only a few years after the lifting of international sanctions and after four decades of brutal totalitarian rule by Muammar Gaddafi. My grandparents and I remember the same landmarks, though we know them by different names. Tripoli’s main square, where the Ottoman old city brushes up against the Italianate downtown, was Piazza Italia to them. I knew it as Green Square, a reference to the colour of Gaddafi’s al-Fateh Revolution. Today it is Martyrs’ Square.

I had always taken for granted that life gets better, that once won freedoms are hard to lose, that the world I grew up in would be more progressive and more prosperous than that of my grandparents, who came of age during the Second World War. My Libyan friends were not so naive. Those from wealthy families knew that their grandparents had enjoyed personal and political freedoms almost unimaginable to them.

Gran wrote her books under pen names because the Foreign Office would not have approved of her pursuing an independent writing career. It was expected that a diplomat’s wife would do all in her power to support her husband’s work: she should be a skilled and tactful hostess, well-dressed and politically astute, knowing exactly who to butter up at the dinner table. Gran worked as a secretary until my father, her eldest, was born – and then devoted any spare time to passion projects wherever the family moved, learning new languages and developing deep expertise in the local culture or wildlife.

Audrey and Malcolm McBain, pictured in Bangkok, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of Sophie McBain

When I was midway through writing this piece, my grandfather died. He had been ill for months and though it wasn’t a shock, his death still feels too big to fully comprehend. Gran dug up an album I hadn’t seen before, with photos from the 1970s, when they were posted in Thailand. Granddad wears crisp button-ups and groovy sunglasses; Gran, thin and tanned, in a paisley floor-length gown, a cigarette dangling from her slim fingers, resembles Joan Didion.

In the back of the album there was a yellowed newspaper clipping, about an exhibition of Gran’s batik paintings. “Of the 30 works available, 22 were sold before the cocktail party was over. A success unheard of in Chiang Mai,” the reporter gushes. More surprising than the exhibition itself (I didn’t know about her batik painting) was the description of her as a “regular contributor to Punch and the Daily Telegraph”, who also wrote a weekly column for an East African daily. “Oh, it was only a few pieces,” Gran said when I asked – except for the column, which she wrote from Nairobi, on current affairs.

Mercifully, the Foreign Office no longer judges its diplomats in terms of their spouse’s hosting skills – and does its best to support partners who want to pursue their own careers, despite the frequent international moves. It would struggle to retain staff if it didn’t. Nonetheless, it’s a challenge to keep two careers afloat when one person moves countries every three or four years. 

[See also: “I’m the patron saint of the dumped”: Florence Williams on the science of heartbreak]

In her studies of the successful, highly educated career women who drop out of the workforce after having children, Shani Orgad, the author of Heading Home (2019), observed that motherhood has ousted wifehood as a social ideal, but that both reinforce the same traditional gender norms. No woman I know aspires to be a good “wife” – but many beat themselves up trying to be a good mother. In many ways, the bar for good motherhood is higher now than it was 50 years ago. Today even women with full-time jobs devote more time to childcare each week than the mothers of the 1960s. The new ideal of intensive, hands-on mothering ascended in tandem with the decline of the traditional housewife, but both involve many of the same jobs. The “good” mother – the Instagram ideal – isn’t only loving, supportive and patient with her children, she also keeps a clean and tidy home, cooks fresh, nutritious meals and takes pride in her own appearance. 

I haven’t given up my job, and my husband and I have managed a relatively even split of domestic work. But our attitudes differ. He is unburdened by guilt: it matters to him that our children are happy and healthy, and he accepts that we cannot do everything perfectly. Sometimes (almost always) our house is a mess. Sometimes (almost always) the girls are rushed out the door with grubby shoes or chalky toothpaste smears down their jumpers. He has accepted this reality. I, though I know it is irrational, cannot help but feel a deep sense of failure whenever we fall short. 

I was four months pregnant when I read Gran’s book, finishing it in a single evening. It felt like time travel, her words offering a more vivid portrait than any fading photograph of what she was like as a much younger woman. Even so, it is hard to reconcile the various women in my mind – the new wife in a nipped-waist tea dress, out for dinner in Tripoli; the young mother of four, scribbling away at her secret book between school runs and mealtimes and diplomatic engagements; the glamorous ambassador’s wife. It is difficult to see her as anyone other than Gran, as though she has always been old. 

And maybe there’s a certain personal erasure that is an inevitable part of motherhood. My children will find it hard to imagine the person I once was, before they were born, before I could be defined in relation to them. They are young enough still to find it hard to conceive of the person I am now, still uncertain and insecure in my role.

Gran closes Nine, Ten… A Big Fat Hen with a brief account of childbirth. She describes the moment the midwife hands over your new baby, red-faced and wrapped up in a blanket. “Obviously – from the look on the nurse’s face – some significant gesture is expected of you. But what? In a more eloquent age, you might have composed an ode of welcome to it. Merely to say ‘Hello’, scarcely seems adequate. But it looks too wet to kiss, too fragile to cuddle. The most appropriate gesture you can make is to raise yourself to a sitting position and bow from the waist. For this small scrap of humanity, which the nurse is holding out to you, is your new master. You might just as well acknowledge the fact from the start.” 

How true this feels, and yet how disorienting it is to read these words, more than 50 years after they were written, knowing something of how this story continues, knowing that the writer now has four middle-aged children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. We are a close family, and we are bound together by her.  

My son is due in July, and I have a vague, blurry image of what it might be like to see him for the first time. To picture more than that, to imagine my young children growing old, and maybe having children or grandchildren themselves, is close to impossible – and yet I realise, on reflection, that there’s nothing I want to see more.

As for the rumoured romance novel, it does exist – somewhere, under a different name. Gran described the book as a “potboiler”. She hasn’t lent me a copy. Yet.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special