Balancing act: How to bring up baby while giving birth to a book

Though it’s never easy, it is possible to pursue your dreams and be a mother

Novelist Alison Jameson at  Poolbeg Lighthouse on the Great South Wall in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Novelist Alison Jameson at Poolbeg Lighthouse on the Great South Wall in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Shortly after my son, Arthur, was born I had a visit from a female doctor in Holles Street. She was a nice, calm woman in scrubs until she spotted a book, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which had been tossed on to a window sill.

“Well, the first thing you can do is get rid of that,” she said.

“What?” I asked, looking at her blankly.

“That,” she said staring.

You’d think there was a penny-farthing bicycle parked at the wall.

“What you need now is Hello! magazine or OK! or . . . ” and here she mentioned another female author who would not thank me for naming her here, “a book like that – one that doesn’t require any thinking at all.” She was only warming up.

“You can put away your Filofax and your laptop. You won’t be needing them either.”

I didn’t own a Filofax and my laptop was at home, closed on my desk, ready to wake when the baby slept because that’s how I was going to do it. I had read Anne Enright’s Making Babies and got as far as the part where she described writing in one room while her husband read the newspaper in another and rocked the baby with his foot. And I stopped there – that was all I needed to know.

But according to Dr Strangelove it was all over for me. Apparently as a new mother I was to lie in a corner somewhere reading magazines while the baby drank off all those extra calories and put them on his own tiny backside instead – followed by a good bowl of brain cells for dessert. I would not be able to operate any heavy machinery, electronic devices, read a half-decent book – and as for writing one? Well, ha ha ha.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this but maybe it should be with the presumption that it’s somehow okay to lecture a new mother as to how she should spend her time, that being a mother somehow makes you fair game.

I may have been horizontal and a bit dazed but my brain was still there. My work was nowhere on the radar. All I knew was that the baby was lovely and that whenever he looked even close to hungry a nurse would pitch his head at me like a bowling ball.

Writing for the Guardian recently, Viv Gostrop asked the question: “How do you do the things you really want to do, the things that require you to be selfish and absent, and still live with yourself as a person?” Well, Viv, it depends what you mean by “selfish and absent”. It is hard to reconcile the concept of motherhood with selfishness, full stop.
They just don’t go.

An important interruption
In the middle of writing this piece my son had something very important to tell me: “One day, a dinosaur flushed a pirate down the toilet.” Okay, thanks for that. Yes, to a four-year-old that’s very important and I had to stop and acknowledge it.

Even if you think you’re entitled to do the particular thing that is so very important to you, there is a fair chance a little voice will tell you otherwise – or even the little voice inside your head that’s saying, “but he’ll be grown up in no time at all and I’ll have missed it”. Nature’s way, blaggard that it is.

And yet the idea of mothering and also needing to do something for ourselves is not new. My own mother was of a generation of women who stayed at home, and I remember times when she would disappear down into the garden for hours – clipping, weeding, mowing – and forget about tea time so that my younger sister, a toddler at the time, would carry the teapot out into the garden as a subtle hint – but now I understand why my mother did that. There were six kids in our house. She was preserving her sanity, smart woman.

Arthur was born in January and I remember singing along to the Budweiser holidays ad: “The autocrat is coming, the autocrat is coming.”

Oh, how we laughed.

And then he came.

Straight away he had my heart and now I wasn’t my own boss either – I had a new employer, cute and a bit crusty, more Alan Sugar (“You’re all bleedin’ useless”) than sleeping executive.

I did worry that I would not be able to write any more. I remember not getting a lot of sleep and trying to put my handbag into the fridge and somehow with this dust-bunny head on me I thought I could pull off a new book.

A new routine
We gradually found a good routine, my husband doing his fair share but my laptop had no part in it. During my pregnancy I had begun a new book about a woman and a lighthouse keeper who lived on an island – and needed to get back to it.

Arthur was more than six months old when it dawned on me that, without more help, the writing simply wasn’t going to happen. We found a part-time nanny for two afternoons a week to start and, in that time, Little Beauty began to take shape.

The book took four years to write when previously I might have managed it in two. I cherished those afternoons when I could retreat to my own fictitious island, the lighthouse and the sea. That said, I wouldn’t change any of it. When it came to writing about motherhood now, I finally had some clue of what I was talking about.

Arthur will start school this September and, for the first time since he was born, I think I will be able to write almost every day. The thought is thrilling on one hand and yet, of course, I feel a bit sad about it too – and any mother reading this will understand why. Is it possible to do what you want and be a mother? It’s about finding a middle ground or “third way” – your own way of making it work.

The writer Annie Dillard has some advice that I found helpful: “Let the grass die.” It was important for me to accept that I could not do everything. So I may never sleep under a perfectly ironed duvet cover or make my own flaky pastry. When time is tight – and it always is – I just do what I have to do, and write.

Alison Jameson’s new novel Little Beauty is published by Doubleday

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