Waiting in the corridor of the neonatal intensive care unit after the premature birth of her twin daughters, Claire Lynch is a confusing figure for the nurse on duty. In a talk she recorded for BBC Radio 4 that charts her challenging path to motherhood, Lynch notes the nurse’s dawning realisation that she has “not risen, Lazarus-like, from an epidural, but might just be another kind of mother all together”.
Lynch hopes her debut memoir, Small: On Motherhoods, will increase awareness and understanding of families like hers so the sort of confusion she provoked on the ward will become a thing of the past. “The story of our family is not strange or unusual in many universal ways,” she says, “but it’s one not everyone will be familiar with. I hope the book might help shift that perspective by showing who we are, and also maybe offer a new perspective on motherhood itself. The dynamic is different for my wife and I as there isn’t a predesigned idea of how things will work with two mothers, so we have that opportunity to look at things differently.”
In a lifetime of watching pregnancy cliffhangers in the movies and soap operas I had never seen a woman on both sides of the bathroom door
In her own memoir, Making Babies, Anne Enright asks, tongue in cheek, "can mothers not hold a pen?" It seems fitting that it is Lynch, a professor of Irish literature at London's Brunel University and Enright devotee, who is taking up the gauntlet with such gusto. Lynch's grandparents were both from Cork but met in London and her family has been back and forth ever since. "Nobody in my family had been to university," she says, "but I think embracing my Irish culture through literature felt like a legitimate reason to study.
“After years spent thinking and talking about books, I reached a point where I respected writers so much that I began to think of them as other beings. Eventually, though, I realised that was nonsense, that I had this experience I needed to make sense of personally, which could be useful to other people too. If I had not had this particular insight into becoming a mother, though, I’m not sure I would have begun to write.”
The journey that Lynch and her wife embarked upon to conceive their children began long before they decided to attempt to impregnate Bethan with Lynch’s eggs using a sperm donor. “I think we were completely naive,” Lynch says. “We thought that we were having fertility treatment as a kind of technicality or a necessary hurdle to overcome. I hadn’t really considered the emotional fallout, but there is no alternative to the psychological investment because you must maintain hope. At the time it was too difficult for us to discuss with anyone, but I think more honesty about all the things that can happen along the way would be helpful for people. That’s in part what prompted me to write.”
Lynch describes the process of undergoing IVF as a “permanent injury to the imagination”. This encapsulates an important thread that runs through the book – the importance of allowing lives, our own and others, to evolve in ways that are contrary to what we have been led to expect or dream of. As the couple awaited the results of a pregnancy test, Lynch writes: “The moment is not quite as I had always imagined. That in a lifetime of watching pregnancy cliffhangers in the movies and soap operas I had never seen a woman on both sides of the bathroom door.”
Small anecdotes such as these get to the heart of why this memoir is so vital – Lynch explores what it means to be seen, and simultaneously invisible, as parents in a same-sex relationship. So much of what Lynch and her wife have experienced is universal and yet, it still feels like a radical act to view these familiar happenings through this lens even though, as Lynch says, they “have always been here”.
“If you grew up in a traditional nuclear family you see that model and imagine that’s what your family might look like one day,” Lynch says, “but if you’re gay, you eventually realise that your life course is varying into some different direction. Things have changed so significantly in recent years, but that adjustment of what family might look like becomes much easier if you’ve seen some more examples – in soap operas or films or on your own street – of what different families might look like. It does feel like a big deal to be that family for other children to see now, and I hope the book helps people more easily imagine all sorts of other types of families and other types of mothers.”
The practical reality of dividing up emotional and physical labour between two women, instead of a heterosexual couple, shines a hot spotlight on the extent to which, as a society, we default to traditional parenting roles. Both Lynch and her wife took extended leave from work at different times; both are equal partners. “How we have done things – with no hierarchy of parents – could be and should be available to other families whatever the cultural expectations might be,” she says. Fathers tell her that “they wish they’d done the same. Shared it. Made space for each other.” It is a stark reminder from Lynch that “mothers are more than bodies”.
Her dark humour is delicious as she dissects the experience of attending antenatal classes with her wife and being asked to sit with the fathers, but, as with all great comic writing, there is a deeper truth. Lynch saw it as “a lesson in forbearance. That people will make me feel lost here, if I let them.” Surely, as a society, we can do better than this. The men shared their fears of repeating mistakes made by their own fathers. Lynch embraced their vulnerability and encouraged them to imagine a different way of parenting. “End it with you,” they agree. “Don’t pass it on.”
Lynch believes there is a “civil war” raging in women. “For every woman, the subject of motherhood is complicated,” she says. “Whether they choose to have children or not, whether they have the ability to or not, we all have skin in the game one way or another.”
Small: On Motherhoods is published by Brazen Books on June 24th