The auditorium was full, and had the look of spilling over, as the aisles were arrayed with mothers standing and bouncing rather than sit with their fractious babies. Already this was a show I can get along with – one that understands that parents want to do things too, and it’s not always feasible or affordable to leave the children behind. (Although I myself was enjoying a rare blissfully child-free morning.)
And so it ought to be. Today’s talk was titled Motherhood. By mothers, for mothers, so to speak. Mums, grandmas, friends, babies, some children and even a sprinkling of dads. All here to see best-selling New Zealand writer Emily Writes and award-winning U.K. poet Holly McNish.
Emily Writes started blogging in 2015, writing while up in the night with her baby. Her very first post went viral (http://www.emilywrites.co.nz/i-am-grateful-now-fuck-off/), her frank, irreverent style and often-overlooked subject matter striking a chord with many. She has written two books, Rants in The Dark (2017) and, with others, Is It Bedtime Yet? (2018) and also edits the website Spinoff Parents.
Holly McNish has written five books of poetry and a spoken word album. Her fourth book, Nobody Told Me, won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award. It chronicles her journey into motherhood from pregnancy to when her child turned three. A video of Embarrassed, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiS8q_fifa0) about breastfeeding in public, went viral – like Emily’s post, striking a chord with many. Find her on https://holliepoetry.com/.
Author Catherine Robertson chaired the discussion, asking insightful questions. For an hour the women discussed the highs and lows of parenting, the expectations society places on parents – especially mothers – how isolating motherhood can be, and the political side of parenting.
Holly pointed out that parenthood and motherhood are much more politicised than we give it credit for. It’s true, I realise when I think about it. Depending on where you live in the world you may be penalised or incentivised to stay home with your children. Childcare may be free, public transport may be free. Public spaces may or may not be welcoming to the young. Even the supposedly homogeneous ‘Western’ culture is widely varying. A Polish friend visiting Britain asked Holly where to find the ‘loud’ train carriage for families. She had to explain there wasn’t one – but there was a quiet carriage. There are structural and political decisions at play that parents don’t notice until it’s pointed out. So thank you, Holly McNish, for pointing it out.
Parents are a cohesive group in some ways, Emily and Holly both agree, but because we are always transitioning to that next stage of parenting (infant to toddler to child to teen) we are harder to unify. Political decisions can thus often leave parents out, because the parents it will affect might not even be parents yet. I find myself agreeing. A teacher or police officer might be so for 20 years, a strong position to be arguing for better terms. Parenthood is harder to unionise. (But I would love to see the day!)
On the subject of taboos both Holly and Emily have a lot to say. It may be better now than in the past but by no means are we there yet, they both agree. Holly mentions how her grandmother couldn’t explain to her own husband that she was bleeding after birth, and rather than broach that taboo joined him uncomfortably on his walks.
I wonder now about my own grandmothers, and what they must have suffered in silence and isolation. I think as well of the things I myself have never shared with anyone, or took too long to share. How much better my parenting journey might have been if I had felt able to speak up. How much better our journeys are when we can share our troubles, our lows as well as our highs.
Blood, pain, prolapses, tearing, discomfort – Emily would like for them all to be talked about openly. When women feel they can’t discuss these serious issues with a partner or doctor the impact on their health and happiness can be huge. And Emily is right of course, there is no reason we can’t discuss our own health over a coffee or wine with the same level of interest we show in our baby’s eating and pooping habits!
Again the structural issues come up as a force against this. After a check-up your doctor or midwife you may deem you ok for sex, says Holly. But what about tennis? She adds. What about swimming, jogging, masturbation?
Emily and Holly both speak so passionately, so engagingly, about motherhood, that the audience were engrossed throughout, no mean feat with crying babes in situ. Listening to two talented women speak with such humour and honesty about the dark moments of motherhood as well as the light is so refreshing in this era of curated perfection via Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. For that hour and long after we were mothers connected, not quite so alone any more.
I left feeling so glad I had come. As I walked back to my car (regrettably choosing avoiding a parking ticket over getting a signed book) thoughts rolled in my head of the power of words, both spoken and written. Holly and Emily’s words are breaking taboos, encouraging honesty, and flavouring motherhood with some much-welcomed humour. I highly recommend you find them at another event, read their books and feel empowered too.