How motherhood memoirs helped me come to terms with my friends becoming parents
By Becca Yeadon
When four, yes, four, of Becca's friends fell pregnant during lockdown, she turned to motherhood memoirs to grapple with her own feelings on the looming choices surrounded womanhood and parenthood.
No one prepared me for how much I would love my friends’ babies. It seems so obvious now I’ve met these tiny humans - her smile, or his eyes, their scrumptious hands and feet. Earlier in my twenties the idea of having children marked the sombre end of something, but at some point in this quarterlife decade, something shifted. I never imagined I would feel so awe-struck and proud at seeing my friends become new parents. Then again, I also never imagined this process would have such an impact on my own sense of self.
There’s no denying that witnessing friends you grew up alongside going through this journey into parenthood, brings with it an unsettling shift.
As the first of my contemporaries started having kids, the looming presence or absence of motherhood, previously a choice kept at a manageable distance, suddenly began to feel harder to avoid. Images of parenthood started to dominate my social media feeds, peppering conversations, and brought into steadily increasing focus with each new balloon-filled baby shower.
It can feel disorientating being a 20-something friend to new mums, caught between the heightened joy and rite-of-passage celebrations shared with friends, and the underlying sense of alienation as those same friends begin to veer off down such diverging, differing, and irrevocable paths. Inevitably I began to interrogate my own life choices, observing them from new angles, and this new analysis brought with it an onslaught of confronting questions about things that had never mattered to me before.
When I found out during the first lockdown that four (yes, four) of my friends were pregnant, this surreal sense of life irreversibly shifting peaked.
I needed to put things back in some sort of manageable order in my mind. And so, in the way I often try to make sense of the world, I ended up turning to books. I picked up my first memoir about motherhood tentatively, unsure I was the intended audience as someone without kids or any imminent plans to have them. But I was curious - perhaps I hoped it would help me better relate to the choices my friends were making, or impart some nuggets of wisdom that might be useful in the coming months. Little did I know how much they had to offer.
I read three memoirs centering on motherhood which struck particular chords with me in the run up to the births of various friends’ babies. I found such comfort and insight in these memoirs that I have summarised each below, along with the ways they helped me find my footing in this new and alien terrain.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud
This memoir plunged me headfirst into the turmoil and commotion that abound when raising a young family, with searingly honest descriptions of pregnancy and motherhood that held me captivated until the last word. Stroud’s book is described by the Guardian as “...a vision of motherhood for the (now middle-aged) MDMA generation”, and it records a year of her life when her family of six (four kids) becomes a family of seven. The feral, primal nature of motherhood, and the sometimes unexplored sides of womanhood unleashed by it, were eye-opening to me, but Stroud also doesn’t shy away from the hurt and pain and sadism inherent in motherhood. “Motherhood hurts,” she says. “And I like to be hurt.” I finished the memoir feeling like the lid had been lifted somewhat on this ‘into-the-woods’ phase of life, and like less of a bystander to my friends’ progress towards it, thanks to this insight.
I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite
I quickly followed Stroud’s memoir with this brilliant book by Brathwaite; a thought-provoking guide to life as a black mother that challenged my preconceptions of motherhood, with wisdom, wit and incredible insight. I hadn’t appreciated the severity of the discrimination present within motherhood and the healthcare system - that, according to the ONS, black British mothers in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. I hadn’t considered before how one-dimensional, glossy and exclusionary the British cultural image of motherhood today is before Braithwaite described it as, “horizontal-striped T-shirts and shiny bobs.” She says, “there was no other version [of motherhood] out there. If you weren’t white and middle-class with this certain set of mummy friends, it just felt like you were sitting on the outskirts looking in.” It shed light on how entering motherhood can have a vast impact on identity and sense of self. I realised that while I was dealing with a disorientating shift, my pregnant friends - who seemed so assured in taking this big step - might also be struggling with a loss of identity we hadn’t fully discussed yet.
The Panic Years by Nell Frizell
If the previous books had given me a tour of this new terrain of motherhood, Frizell’s memoir gave me a language for it. Here, all of the thoughts that whirred around my head were laid out; eloquent, considered, and reassuringly relatable from the first page. Frizell helpfully gives a name to this strange period of time between a woman’s late twenties and her early thirties when she must acknowledge the presence of that giant elephant in the room, the ‘biological clock’. It is a name that perfectly sums up the instability of this period. ‘The Flux’. For someone to call out those questions that every woman asks themselves as they reach their mid-late twenties (‘Do I want kids?’, ‘Can I have kids?’, ‘What does my answer, regardless of what it may be, mean for my life and those around me?’), alleviated some of the pressure I felt in the silence. She vocalised the things pressing somewhere in my mind that I’d found it hard to articulate, giving me room to step back and breathe. Recounting her own ‘flux’ years, in which she depicts, “what it’s like to wade through your own ambivalence about what might be the biggest decision of your life,” Frizell reflects on the silence of her friendship groups on the matter of motherhood despite the shared latent concerns. “As I stood before the great rolling departure board of my future,” she says, “I had no idea that I was doing so shoulder-to-shoulder with millions of other women on their own journey to maternal quandary.”
These are not handbooks for motherhood, I came to realise, but inspirational stories about the resilience of women which are, in their essence, fundamentally relatable to all - mothers, aspiring mothers and child-free women alike.
The thread of courage and strength running through these accounts felt fortifying, and I took great comfort in reading how these women had carved out a space in the world for their families to thrive, despite not being a mother myself. I had dipped a toe into the unknown and, as usual, I came away better for it.
Reading these memoirs, I also felt with a new intensity how easily loneliness and detachment could creep in during this period of heightened change and comparison, for women with all backgrounds and life plans. The vulnerabilities and struggles portrayed in visceral detail throughout these memoirs of motherhood seemed at odds with the sense that everyone around me was taking confident strides into these new chapters of their lives.
I started to understand that the pressure to present an unrattled exterior was hindering us from supporting each other through our experiences, whatever choices we had made.
Until our mid-twenties, most of us have taken each life step - through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood - together. And the falling away of those standardised life levels as we approach 30 leaves us in a dizzying abyss of choices, each of which catapult us in our own decisions further from those of our friends than we have ever felt before.
But surely every woman, regardless of her choices, faces her own set of joys, challenges and anxieties. Through reading these memoirs, I began to feel that sharing these uncertainties might be the key to breaking through the silently building pressure to make big decisions, or to judge, resent or feel cut-off from each other by the different paths we’ve taken.
These memoirs on motherhood that I so cautiously approached extended a compassionate, stabilising hand through their pages. They don’t shy away from the hard questions - these are inescapable, but they provide a space to tease out your own thoughts and consider what feels right for you, whilst understanding and empathising with the choices made by others, and what might be in store for them.
Big choices might lie ahead, and they will surely separate us in ways, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that divergence. Instead we must find common ground in the insecurities we all face, whilst remembering that no matter how at odds our choices might seem from those around us, deep down we are all still the high school kids growing up “shoulder-to-shoulder”, working it all out together as we go.
Image taken from WildBird via Pinterest.