It takes a few books to identify that themes that we keep circling back to as writers. And it sometimes takes a reader to point them out to you too! It turns out that motherhood is something that my stories revisit, time and again. I’ve come to realise that, as a writer of contemporary fiction, motherhood, in all its many forms, is one of the richest and most complex subjects to explore. As I set about raising my three children – two girls, 5 and 2 and a 3 month old little boy – it’s a subject which preoccupies me off the page too.
That said, even before I became a mother, I explored motherhood in my debut novel, What Milo Saw. Amongst other things, Milo is about a single mom struggling to raise a child on a low income, a child who has a significant disability. The mother is grieving for the husband who walked out on her whilst managing that same husband’s mother, who is living with them and suffering from dementia. She finds it hard to find the emotional resources to be the mother she wants to be and so dear, 9 year old Milo, spends most of his time looking after himself and the grandmother he loves.
With this story I introduced the aspects to motherhood that really interest me: child carers who have to grow up too fast as they look after themselves and those around them; women who struggle to live up to what it takes to be a mother because they are suffering and alone; and how we sometimes find our non biological ‘mothers’ (which sometimes includes men) in the most unexpected places.
My second novel, The Return of Norah Wells, is the one in which I wrote most passionately and directly about motherhood. At the heart of the story are two mothers: one who walked out on her young family six years ago and now turns up again, hoping to pick up where she left off, and a non-biological mother who stays to care for the abandoned family. My editor at the time coined the tag line: ‘The mother who left and the mother who stayed.’
Through this story, I wanted to explore the huge taboo of women who walk out on their families: it seems that even now, in the twenty first century, it is considered unforgivable.
Men, of course, do it all the time and though it might be frowned upon, it is somehow seen as normal and just part of the way of things.
The inception of the novel was inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth century play, A Doll’s House, at the end of which the protagonist, Nora, walks out on her young family, claiming that she needs to grow up and find herself before she can be true mother. In my novel, Norah (with an ‘h’), is an artist, a musician, who unsupported by her husband and overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, leaves. My challenge, here was to see whether I could generate a little understanding and empathy for a character who did something that many regard as profoundly selfish. The characters in the novel must do the same: over the course of an intense bank holiday weekend, the two abandoned daughters, the husband and the ‘mother who stayed’ must make up their minds about how they are going to respond to the prodigal mother. The youngest daughter doesn’t even know that the woman who has been looking after her this whole time isn’t her true mother. It’s a potent mix.
My first Young Adult novel, Wishbones, looks at a mother who is broken by a tragic loss and who has given up caring, not only for those she loves, but also herself. She hasn’t left the house in years and is so chronically obese that she’s been given six months to live. Her daughter, Feather, cares for her and sets out on a mission to help her get better – and as she does so, she uncovers her mother’s past and the reason she is the way she is today. This raises another important idea linked to motherhood: how much or how little we know about our mothers before they had us. Like Milo, this story explores the idea of a child carer, where the roles are reversed and the mother becomes the child and the child a mother. I also wanted to look at the particular dynamic between mothers and daughters, which are so often deeply complex and challenging.
My third novel for adults, Before I Was Yours, looks at one of the great sadnesses in many women’s lives: the inability to have a biological child. Having come face to face with adoption through my extended family I wanted to do justice to all the complicated feelings involved for those who adopt and those who are adopted.
Is it possible to love a child who isn’t yours – as though he were yours? Is it possible to love a non-biological mother like your own mother? Why is it that, when you can’t have children, you feel like such a failure and so excluded from the social order of things? And what is the role of the mother who gives up her child for adoption?
Rosie, a white British woman, ends up adopting a little boy from Kenya and this too throws up an important question: what if you don’t look like each other – what if you come from completely different cultures and continents? Can transracial adoption be successful?
You Found Me, my fourth novel, out in the UK and out in the US in spring 2020, circles back to the single mum phenomenon of What Milo Saw, but this time the mother wasn’t abandoned or betrayed: she fell pregnant as a teenager and the father never knew that he had a son. She is raising her daughter with her best friend, who is a second mother in the daughter’s life: an other example of a non-biological mother figure. There is another plot line which explores the loss of a child, which is the single greatest tragedy a mother can face.
As Far As The Stars, my second Young Adult novel, which is about to come out in the US, tells the story of two teenagers thrown together in the aftermath of a tragedy which will change their lives forever. The boy, Christopher, has been raised by his father and has never met his biological mother: something he is going to have to face by the end of the novel. To make things worse, he never felt close to the father he raised him. In this sense, he was more or less an orphan: although his father was physically present, neither of his parents were truly there for him. Through him I explore the notion of having been left by the person who, ironically, you are most like, whilst being raised by someone with you have nothing in common.
Finally, the book that I’m working on at the moment, The Children’s Secret, which comes out November 2020, explores a whole group of mothers – and a single dad who has to be both mother and father to his three children – who live in a small knit New Hampshire community which is torn apart when one of the children is critically injured in a shooting. Here, I look at that primal instinct in mothers to protect their children and their determination to bring down those who threaten them.
At its heart is the question of whether you can ever forgive someone who has hurt your child.
Each of my seven novels are about much more than motherhood but it is a vein with runs through them all and is clearly something that goes deep with me. I am usually keen to point out that fiction is not biography: I don’t write directly about myself, people that I know or situations I’ve been in. But looking back at these stories, I do have to admit that I have, albeit indirectly, drawn on issues that are close to my life and to my heart.
I was raised by all kinds of women to whom I was not related through biology: I had a communal group of mothers.
My own mother, who loved me fiercely and as best she could, was damaged by her own childhood and by a husband who abused her emotionally and physically and then abandoned her. It was difficult for her to be the mother she wanted to be. There are times when I had to care for her like Feather had to care for her mother in Wishbones.
Most of all, the issues of motherhood have become alive to me as I’ve had children of my own.
How can I be an artist, a writer – as well as mother – when both things require everything from me and demand to be put first?
This is something I explored in The Return of Norah Wells. I’m confident in saying that I would never walk out on my children (though, after particularly challenging days, I do sometimes joke to my husband that, ‘I felt like doing a Norah Wells today’). Nevertheless, motherhood often defeats me and leaves me craving for my old, simple life where I could be creative without distraction. Though, as this post shows, it’s becoming a mother that has inspired many of the ideas in my fiction. Rachel Cusk put it best in her book on motherhood, A Life’s Work:
I’m not complete when I’m with them and I’m not complete when I’m without them.
Motherhood is living within that tension, every moment of every day.
Even more challenging than the question of how I can be a mother and an artist, is whether, in the end, I’ll have been a good enough mother to my children. Part of me believes in Philip Larkin’s philosophy: ‘They fuck you up, your mom and dad, they don’t mean to, but they do.’ I know that there are things I am doing and saying or not doing and saying as I mother, day by day, that my children will feel aggrieved by when they are old enough to reflect on such things. We are such flawed human beings – an such flawed parents – that it’s impossible to get it all right. I just hope that I got some of right – or enough of it right for my kids to know that I loved them and my best; I hope that, above all, they feel the security of having had a mother who believes in them; who loves them unconditionally and who wanted nothing more than for them to flourish. And more than anything, that they had a mother who showed up. Who was present. And who loved being with them.
I am haunted, every day, by the fear that I’m not doing a good enough job, but I try to use that fear as an inspiration to push myself to dig deep as a mother and to be the best I can for my three little ones.
So, there we have it: a writer obsessed with motherhood, in all its beautiful complexity. I hope that you enjoy my novels and I’d love to have your thoughts on my presentation of motherhood in my various stories and your own views on this complex and difficult subject.