Upon discovering I was pregnant this time last year, my ponder of the forthcoming journey dwelled on two things: 1) ‘Wow I’m up the duff and gonna be a muvver!’ Who signed that off?’ etc and 2) ‘Finally, some time to deal with Bertie aka my TBR book case, so monstrous it inspired a rap, being shameful in both its magnitude and inclusion of volumes bought in the decades before I contemplated anti-ageing skincare. Maternity leave is after all an endless expanse of days gloriously unshackled by the cruel 9-5. I will need some kind of challenge.’ I give permission to the more experienced parents among you to chuckle at the fact I actually calculated – YES I SAT DOWN AND DID THE MATHS – that I could empty Bertie’s shelves by Rufus’ first birthday if I read 2.5 books a week, and even spent one heavily-pregnant afternoon (in what may have been my version of ‘nesting’) ordering my unread books by purchase date to support this endeavour. This is a Public Service Announcement for child-free bibliophiles: MATERNITY LEAVE IS NOT JUST TIME OFF WORK TO READ BOOKS. YOU HAVE TO ACTUALLY KEEP A SMALL PERSON ALIVE. #DON’TGETBURNEDLIKETURNERGOTBURNED.
But I persist in finding time to read – mostly by ‘recklessly’ breaking the rule of ‘sleep when they sleep’ – as I believe it is keeping me sane through this massive life change. Here are the highlights.
If I could gift one book to expectant mums, it would be Enid Bagnold’s The Squire. I would warn them that extensive domestic support rescues this 1938 ‘yummy mummy’ from the less glamorous daily trials of motherhood (the highlight for me being the flying poos. Yep. Sometimes they fly!); that, despite the descriptions of an early form of hypno-birthing, you can’t always breathe out a 10+-pounder like Rufus by gazing at calming cat pictures (my actual birthing plan, due to a very convincing antenatal class – see the Meow book); and that her smug comparison of the depth of her maternal love compared to the frivolities of her singleton friend may grate as you crave the freedom of soul that Zambucca and a late night kebab bring. However, The Squire remains a good introduction to the wonders of motherhood, as Bagnold writes beautifully about the marvel of babies in those early days, the emergence of their individual characters, and her eventual happiness in a life radically different from before. In particular, The Squire is at its most moving when its talk of death and the circle of life puts the life you have produced in the context of all that has gone before and is yet to come, and reminds us of the hope that is born with each baby:
In every family there is the seed of a new start, something transcending the family mixture…a Phoenix is born.
If I could warn new parents about anything, it would be to steel oneself for the emotional postnatal lens through which you will view all stories involving kiddiwinks. Twenty-odd years ago my mum told me she could not finish John Fowles’ The Collector as the kidnapped girl was about the age I was at the time she was reading it. I didn’t understand this until I became a mum myself: I struggled with the passages in James Baldwin’s Another Country where a despairing young man named Rufus wanders the streets of 1970s Harlem looking for a way to earn a buck to fill his stomach; I wanted to (melodramatically) sweep the lost children of Oliver Twist, the Stephen Crane stories, and Thomas Hardy’s Unborn Pauper Child into my arms and give them a good meal and a bloody big cuddle; and I cried for Ben Okri’s Nigerian spirit boy in The Famished Road when he realizes he is just a child and cannot defend his father from ridicule. I haven’t (yet) reached Peak Mother Smughood and decided that only mothers can have true empathy for these characters, but would simply say that every time I read about these children in need, I imagine it is my Rufus and feel their trauma to my core. The same goes for mothers in distress, judging by my reaction to Sebastian Barry’s almost-Booker-prize-winning The Secret Scripture, an engrossing tale of stolen motherhood and lunacy. I would love to know if parents other than my ma and I feel this or if we are just subconsciously searching for a justification to read Jilly Cooper for the rest of our days.
I would also advise new parents against my mistake of reading about difficult parental relationships: the doomed efforts of a religious father seeking to create a child in his image in Father and Son by Edmund Gosse; a daughter becoming embroiled in a major arms deal, dodgy US foreign policy and espionage just to please her father in Joan Didion’s thriller The Last Thing He Wanted; and wicked stepmothers (and a great insight into Chinese history) in Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves. And definitely avoid anything about nuclear holocaust (Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut), sexual perversion (JG Ballard’s Crash), and such like. In my defence I was sleep deprived and recovering from major surgery.
So, my advice to all expectant and new parents is to delve deeply into the world of biographies and autobiographies. I’ve never been overly interested in reading about other people’s lives as I struggle enough to navigate my own, but I realize now that that is the point: others’ navigation of life’s rich tapestry reminded me that Rufus’ life will be a labyrinthine journey of highs and lows but – hopefully – full of possibilities. As my dad said when he met his grandson: ‘I wonder what he will do with these little hands?’ I hope that he can express any creative spark, like Chaucer (biography by the always-excellent Peter Ackroyd), Delarivier Manley (biography by Fidelis Morgan) or the late-sixties New York artists in Patti Smith’s Just Kids; that he feels able to take a stand for what he believes in, like Lady Constance Lytton (biography by Lyndsey Jenkins) who disguised her aristocratic self as a working-class suffragette to expose the class-based punishment of imprisoned suffragettes; and that he has some great adventures – although not quite as extreme as sixteenth-century artist Benvenuto Cellini, who sounds like a Renaissance Bear Grylls when he escapes from prison with a broken leg and pees on his own hands – and can also appreciate the quotidian pleasures Flora Thompson describes in her semi-autobiographical Lark Rise. Most of all I hope he has courage – not necessarily that required by the women responsible for WW2 enemy sabotage in Beryl E. Escott’s The Heroines of Special Operations Executive, but enough to be able to grasp every opportunity to get the most out of life.
Finally, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood – a fantastic collection of previously written autobiographical stories which McCarthy reassesses in later life for accuracy – uncovers the extent to which children can mis-remember life events and made me sweat (slightly) less about these early days anyway: judging by what McCarthy admits she cannot accurately recall, 4-month-old Rufus is not going to remember that time his dad and I accidentally made him cry by singing Stayin’ Alive to him because he was wearing white trousers a la John Travolta.
Good luck to all the parents out there. I feel ya.