Bad Mothers – the worst taboo?

What a relief to hear the writer Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Treasure, exhort mothers to tell the truth, “even – no, especially – when the truth is difficult”. (Guardian, 19/04)

Not only is motherhood not always what it’s cracked up to be, but women are left isolated and sometimes, children put at risk, as we are too afraid to ask for help or let off steam by talking honestly. It’s time to tell the truth. Mothers, shout it from the rooftops.

We don’t want to hear a mother’s truths: we don’t want to know about her struggle with herself as she wrangles her children. We don’t want to know about her resentment or even hatred for her child; we close our ears when she lets slip that she finds motherhood boring, unfulfilling or terrifying. We want mothers to hide their complexity because complexity maketh a monster.

As a mother, I, too, have hidden behind the lies and half-truths, been ground down by the political and patriarchal policing of motherhood that Waldman writes about. I, too have been a member of that exhausted congregation, soaked up each commandment on perfect parenting. You’re not feeding them right. You didn’t breastfeed long enough. You’re allowing too much screen time. You swear too much. Let alone the questions that trap women in the good-bad, angel-monster dichotomy of femaleness: are you back in your pre-baby jeans? Bonding with the child? Having enough sex? How’s that career? House looking beautiful?

Despite having close relationships with other women in which I can discuss many intimate details of my life, there exists a taboo against admitting that we might not find motherhood as satisfying or riveting as we’d hoped. Though I adore my children there have been times when if I could have, I’d have handed them back. But would most women admit that? Not a hope.

As a daughter I have viewed my own mother through the lens of fear and loathing because she didn’t fit the “good mother” mould. As a little girl I remember my horror as she told me not to call her “mum” and warned me off having children. What freak would describe being a mother as “hell on earth?” Raising three children alone, she was no freak, I see now, but a young woman under pressure who sometimes resented her children.

As a young girl I couldn’t see her as human, as having needs that weren’t being met. As a woman, and now, as a writer, I see the horrendous strain she was under.

As a novelist I’ve freed myself. My need to understand my mother’s ambivalence, to reclaim my own complexity and to find empathy, led me to Cora, the protagonist of my novel, Wounding.

Cora is, in fact, the everywoman; the ‘everymother’. She is knotty, broken in parts, confused; so damaged by what she perceives as her “lack” that she looks for punishment in self-harm. She, like so many mothers, is at risk of being completely subsumed.

“She pictures the children, their demanding, clutching limbs, their hungry faces, their toes and fingers, grasping, grasping. Natural demands that ask too much of her. She is defined by what she is unable to give. She is defined by her lack. She is lack, a void, a blank space that devours. Takes, takes, takes. She cannot give.”

I created Cora because I wanted to write from a female point of view that wasn’t simplistic. I didn’t want to reduce her to a stereotype. I wanted to test the reader: can you feel compassion for this flawed woman? Cora struggles to fit the expectations of her family and wider society. Does this make her normal or deviant? Unnatural? An aberration?

I was prepared for some backlash to Wounding but I’ve been surprised by how many readers, in particular, women readers, have identified and empathised with her struggles.

There’s nothing ‘natural’ in our current blueprint for motherhood; as Waldman tells us too, women are the primary authors of our own subjugation. I want the story of motherhood to be rewritten, for just as women have begun to claim some equality we are reminded that we aren’t ready yet to be individuals, with our own motivations, tastes, passions and fears. We are trapped in the dichotomous territory of femaleness: good or bad, angel or monster.

Writing Process Blog Tour

The marvellous Salena Godden invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour, answering the questions below before nominating other writers I admire to continue the tour… Watch out for Springfield Road AND Fishing in the Aftermath – Salena’s memoir and poetry collection, both out this year.



  1. What am I working on?


As always I’m juggling a few projects, not sure if this helps my process or hinders, but it’s how I work. So, I’m writing my next novel, So the Doves, meddling with two plays I’ve drafted and reworking The Mesmerist’s Daughter for re-release with Neon Press. There’s an academic essay sitting on my desk too and some poems… I have a very messy brain. Plus I’m leading workshops, performing and hoping to perform some more. With a bit of luck, So the Doves will be finished by December and I can get stuck into another novel that’s been hanging around in my head for a while, Salt and Ashes.


  1. How does my work differ from others in its genre? 


That is a crazy question. I don’t work to a specific genre or think in those terms. I write about what interests me, in a way that I hope engages with the characters and their world. I try to write about people that aren’t usually the focus of literature, but I’m not alone in doing that. Readers are usually the best judges of what is unique to a writer’s style. All I can do is write the way I write… If I tried for originality, I’m afraid it would be too self-conscious and mannered, which is definitely NOT what I want.


  1. Why do I write what I do?


To understand, to look deeper and more clearly. All writing is political – consciously or not. I grew up in a working class family, on a council estate – a lot of my fiction addresses issues that stem from that, even covertly. I try to write about characters to reveal their complexity, their ‘dependent origination’, if you like, so as not to reduce them to stereotypes – whether that’s about gender (in WOUNDING) or poverty and education, (in So the Doves). I know it’s a cliché, but I feel that I don’t have a lot of choice… Like most writers I have my obsessions, my ‘thing’ that I’m working through. I don’t want to write to provide answers however, I write to begin the questions.


4. How does my writing process work?


I write around 2000 words a day, Monday to Friday unless I have a deadline. When I sit down to write it comes fast, but I can sit on an idea for ages, making notes, writing fragments, planning, creating character profiles – I fester in it for a while and then it begins. Short stories I tend to write in one sitting, and then edit over the next couple of days. I was incredibly lucky to work with an amazing editor for WOUNDING, that was a fantastic experience, having someone you trust read what you’re doing and giving you honest, skilled feedback. I have my routines – but nothing superstitious – I walk the dog, run, do yoga, meditate – all that stuff and then sit down at my desk and get on with it.



Right! Back to it… Thank you for reading this far, let me know how you go about your creative process. It’s now my pleasure to hand over the Blog Tour to one of my favourite writers, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, her novel, HOME, published by Red Button Booksis a brilliant, unsettling story and I highly recommend it.


Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone’s first novel, Home, is published by Red Button Publishing. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, her second novel, a series of picture books for the under fives, and a blog tracking her attempts to read a novel a week for a year. Rebekah also teaches creative writing for City University.


A Wounding extract for Mother’s Day…


The large clock on the wall in the sitting room marks out time. Cora sits on the sofa, a book open in her lap. The house is quiet: empty. She is supposed to enjoy this emptiness, revel in the depths of the peace, the space, as if it were a hot spring she could sink herself into. As her husband left the house with the children he kissed her and said,

         ‘Have a little time to yourself, Darling. It’ll do you good. Perhaps open a bottle of wine or something. Go for a walk, watch a film. We’ll be back around seven…Ok, take care. We love you.’

         Sitting there, she feels time should open up before her, as if a gate were thrown wide revealing an expanse that she could disappear inside, but it doesn’t. It closes off, constricts as sure as a snare. They have gone for the day, he has driven them over to his sister’s house, where they will play with their cousins, shouting, dirty-faced yelps of excitement, running garden dirt through his patient sister’s house; she is a doting mother, their aunt, her sister-in-law. His parents will be there – the grandparents, the heads of the family. There will be absolute harmony. She won’t be missed, she is sure of that.

         Everything is demarcated, a territory, a place, the family, love, even sex. All relationships are territorial, marked off, divided from all the others, outsiders, instating privacy. There is no such thing as time only geometry, topography, the delineation of words, shared interests, history. The only unity Cora can understand is spatial. She consists of spaces, gaps between matter, she slips between time. She takes up space on the sofa. Breathing.

An extract from WOUNDING…A sneak peek for you, Happy Valentine’s Day! x

I walked you home, side by side. I still hadnt touched you, not even a brush of fingers. My whole body seemed to vibrate with the intensity of being near you. I felt like we werent just two individuals walking along, but like some kind of energy connected us, that we were set apart from everyone and everything around us. I asked you where you grew up and went to school. You looked up at me and said, Nowhere special. like that was enough of an answer. And you just stood there, looking up at me. Whilst my fingers played with the cold, sharp weight of my keys, wondering if now was the time to kiss you. Like comedy, timing is everything for the first kiss. I didnt want to mess it up. I wanted to impress you, to impress myself on you. A car crawled past us, its music blaring out. I let it pass. You cleared your throat and looked down at your feet. I stepped forwards, took my hands from my pockets and with my hands around your waist, pulled you towards me. You were perfect. You tipped up your face and waited as I bent to your lips.

Wounding, Being.

Just recently I had to fill in a ‘biog’ for my publishers – you know, listing major life events that may or may not be of interest to journalists, readers, etc. and it was strange, as an exercise and in the reading back of this story of self that could be interpreted, as one person pointed out, as a tale of redemption and self-improvement. And whilst I can see why someone might think that, and yes, my life has taken some interesting and unexpected turns; this made me uncomfortable. It made my scalp itch and my throat sore. Why did this idea piss me off so much? What’s wrong with ‘doing well’?

            Well, it’s because I’m not a progressive ‘narrative’ leading towards a happy ending – better educated, better employed, better spoken, and all the other tropes of improvement that imply a leaving behind, a shedding of skins, an outgrowing of identities too paltry, unworthy, ugly or squalid to endure. I find this ideology of progress or teleology even, offensive to say the least. I haven’t left my previous experiences behind – I’m not ‘better’ now. Language and its dualist structures doesn’t help. I am this, I was that… names, nouns, fixed in place, ossified, judged. And so what those experiences might have been I’ll resist naming in order not to pin myself down with a classification slapped on my forehead. Fuck the biography. I am involving not evolving (as Deleuze might say) I’m a series of folds and overlaps, undoings and redoings; enfolding, enveloping identities, neither this nor that but many, few, maybe. It isn’t simply a matter of moving on, away from, leaving behind.  I won’t be fixed as an example of meritocracy in action or any other call that binds me as recognisable, a subject in a happy ever after – therefore knowable, demystified, ripe for targeted marketing, expectation, and radical exposure and eventually, censure. We are all complicated, all evading simplistic taxonomies of being. Perhaps that’s the way forward – avoiding announcing my forms as nouns, but as gerunds, performative, , changing, doing, being, in flux, interlinked, exchanging… an infinite verb – so I’m still stripping, stealing, loving, learning, mothering, sleeping, shitting, fucking, singing, screaming, bleeding, breaking, laughing, breathing, breathing, breathing.

Wounding addresses this issue – it’s about secrets, and social/cultural expectations and pressures. How do we cope when we don’t ‘fit’ into the roles and ideals available to us? Do any of us fit? Of course we don’t, how can we? If our messy, hideous, fucked up, gorgeous, non-conforming selves were entirely acceptable and lovable, we might be impossible to control, it might just be impossible to sell us the commodities that will ‘improve’ us, fix us, make us happier, younger, fitter (have I just referenced Radiohead?). Call me paranoid, but a society of contented, self-accepting (and therefore, tolerant and empathic) individuals doesn’t make for profitable business or fearful, passive and malleable citizens. So I’m involving, not evolving, I’m loving, loving, loving.