This week I did something I haven’t done in the eight months since giving birth to my son. I finished a book.
This might not seem like a momentous occasion, certainly not something worth writing about, but it feels like an achievement to me given I’ve been living in a bubble ruled by the ruthless overlords of nap times and milk feeds and nappy changes.
There’s a reason I devoured this particular book: it was about motherhood, in all its complex, beautiful, ugly reality. It felt like seeing myself reflected on the page for the first time in the better part of a year. Like shouting out and finally hearing an echo in the darkness.
The book was Marianne Levy’s Don’t Forget to Scream and I gobbled it up like something delicious and forbidden, something selfishly and exclusively mine.
In order to seek out writing on motherhood it can often feel like you have to whisper to the person behind the till in the bookshop and be led to some dark, hidden corner that nobody else ever enters.
Here, they will say, is the corner of the stretch marks (the non-Insta-worthy type) and the sick-stained clothes; here is the abode of nappy explosions and bleeding nipples; this is where you’ll find intrusive thoughts and baby blues that feel more like a black abyss than anything named after the colour of the ocean.
It often feels to me that society can only handle motherhood when it’s packaged, pristine, palatable. Nobody wants the messy, the hard, the draining and the noisy. They don’t want to see it and they don’t want to read it.
When I’m in public, my baby sleeping silently in their pram in a café will earn coos and grins; but when that same baby wakes and dares to wail while people are trying to enjoy their cappuccinos, then those smiles turn to pursed lips and raised brows.
I’ve had people ask me whether I’ve fed him (as if that hadn’t occurred to me!) and whether he was cold… during a heatwave.
Mothers who dare to be our imperfect selves in public are often punished for it
I’ve had people suggest that the environment of a café full of mostly pensioners on a workday morning was ‘too stimulating’ and whether I’d thought of leaving (presumably, so they can get back to their cappuccinos).
I’ve struggled to get my pram through heavy doors and up flights of stairs while people walk past.
We place a burden on women to become mothers, we celebrate their pregnant bodies, the glow of their skin and the size of their bump, and then shoo them away to get on with it in private once we actually give birth.
In fact, mothers who dare to be our imperfect, often exhausted, often struggling selves in public – women who dare to hint that we are fallible creatures and not the tidy, silent, perfect women who fit into neat squares on Instagram – are often punished for it.
Just a few days ago, LBC’s Nick Ferrari suggested that parent bays should in fact be further from the supermarket so that mothers and babies can get fit. I’d love to see him try to lug a broken body with a third degree tear even a couple of steps, or deal with a screaming baby while unpacking shopping bags.
So when I picked up this book it felt like being seen and heard for the first time in my eight months of motherhood.
Reading and writing about mothering in such raw, searing, beautiful honesty is a radical act. When we think of feminism, we might think of fair wages and violent misogyny, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Some might think of bra burning and a rejection of patriarchal structures like marriage or motherhood.
But I’ve found that books about motherhood, like Marianne Levy’s book, but also others like Black Milk by Elif Shafak and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work are, in fact, books about womanhood in all its facets. Motherhood is not a niche category to be delved into only once there’s a foetus growing inside.
Reading is something I’ve always loved but I had let it slide in my first months of motherhood – opting instead to stare aimlessly into space while I was trapped holding a napping baby or rewatching The Office US for the fifth time.
But, this time, I made a decision to do something for me – something mothers are conditioned by society to discount entirely.
I devoured Don’t Forget to Scream one-handed while breastfeeding, batting away a curious hand who wanted to rip at the pages. I read it during cherished nap times letting the laundry pile up and my eyes ache with sleeplessness.
And I’m so glad I did. Because hearing that my feelings are shared by even one other person – that the bittersweet, aching, love-pain of it all, the good tears and the bad tears, the inertia and the wonder, were not mine alone after all – felt like a revolutionary act of self care.
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