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The Early Years

On writing and early motherhood

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When I was pregnant with my son Caleb, I worried about many things.

My pregnancy was high-risk; I was called to the hospital every fortnight for additional scans and told to avoid exercise. I was advised not to leave the country. This was not Anglocentric arrogance on the part of my medical team: my issue was so unusual that, I was told, only a handful of surgeons worldwide would be experienced enough to avoid significant damage to me, and to the baby, should anything go wrong.

Inevitably, then, this blotted out other more prosaic concerns, but those were there, too. What kind of parents would my husband Andy and I be? How would we cope with the sleepless nights? Would the wooden cot we’d found dismantled in a corner of our attic, bequeathed by the previous owner of our house, pass modern safety standards? Would I be able to breastfeed? And, once I was a mother, would I ever write again?

My pregnancy progressed, happily, without mishap — until week thirty-nine, when I developed pre-eclampsia, and was rushed to hospital for a hurriedly rescheduled Caesarean section. For the most part, though, that overwhelming life-and-death fear receded, and that final worry – about whether I would ever be able to write again – expanded to occupy more space in my mind.

I’d got pregnant, through IVF, in June 2019; our son was due in February 2020. Writing-wise, I was in the place I’d dreamed of since I was five years old: making a life as a novelist; teaching creative writing; meeting readers who, amazingly, cared about my books, my characters, and what I might be writing next.

My debut novel, The Versions of Us, had been published in 2015 in a way that still felt dreamlike to me: a multi-publisher auction; twenty-four international translations; a TV deal; the Richard and Judy book club; number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Another novel had followed in 2017 — Greatest Hits, on which I’d been lucky enough to work with a singer-songwriter I’d admired for many years, Kathryn Williams, on a world-first associated soundtrack.

There were challenges ahead — in 2019, I’d delivered a third novel to my editor, and he felt, quite rightly, that the novel needed a major rewrite. I was worried about this, but hoped I’d find a way. Writing was the way I paid my share of the mortgage, after all, and it was an essential part of my identity, stamped through me as if through a stick of seaside rock.

But pregnancy, and then the muddled, exhausted hours, days and weeks of early motherhood, shook that sense of self to the core. The possibility that I would never write again seemed terrifyingly real: I felt that my identity was changing irrevocably, as if the pieces of myself had been shattered and rearranged into a form I didn’t recognise.

I kept a diary while my son was tiny, scribbled on my laptop in the scraps of time I could find while Caleb slept. On Monday 23 March 2020, the day before the first full UK lockdown, when Caleb was not quite three weeks old, I wrote: ‘His eyes, when he opens them, are a deep bright shining navy. He doesn’t open them that much yet. His ears are perfect, huge. His skin is pale and shining like a shell’. And then, ‘Words are my currency, my stock in trade, and yet they desert me here. The first time I’ve been able to sit here and write since he was born. Even sitting here typing, with tired, shaking fingers, feels like an achievement’.

Now, three and a half years later, it still does.

That diary was short-lived, subsumed by the demands of new motherhood in lockdown; but when Caleb was three months old, and his nap times had settled into something like a regular pattern, I returned to my laptop, fired by the desire to write. I typed wildly, quickly, the words pouring out, as they so rarely do; it was as if something had shifted, a blockage had been plumbed.

My relief was overwhelming: I was a mother now, yes, but I was still a writer, that part of me still intact. And I even began to hope that this new aspect of my identity – motherhood, through which I felt so acutely attuned to another person’s shifting physical and emotional needs, so ready to embrace the world – might inform my writing, bring new depths to it, open doors onto unexplored aspects of my creativity.

I wanted to write, and I needed to write: the time I spent away from Caleb, recoining my currency of words, was both precious and necessary. Precious because my connection to him, and his need for me, meant that I felt I had to justify every moment I spent away from him, to make every word and sentence count. Necessary, because the more I worked to redefine the boundaries of my creative self, the happier I felt, and the better mother I hoped I could be.

I have written two novels since Caleb was born and am now deep into a third. He is a wild-spirited, creative, kind, empathetic toddler who knows that Mummy is a writer, who has held my books in his hand and turned the pages, pretending to read them. He sits at my laptop sometimes, tapping the lifeless keys, telling me that he is working. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask, and he turns to me and says, ‘I am writing a story about a dragon’. Can I read it? He shakes his head. ‘No. Not yet. It is very long. I need you to go away so I can write it.’

There are days, especially those on which Caleb is at home, looked after by Andy or my mum, when it is very hard to close the door on our little boy, and sit down to write. Days, too, when the tiredness that we parents of small children carry – Caleb wakes most mornings around five, and several times through the night – feels so heavy, so deadening, that I struggle to compose a coherent sentence, let alone the thousand words I aim to add to my draft each day. Writing is demanding; it requires your full attention, your full intellectual capacity, and that is difficult to give if your brain feels as mushy as the Weetabix your toddler has just thrown onto the floor.

I am not the sort of writer who believes that we must have firsthand experience of everything we explore in fiction: I wrote about parenting, about the experience of birthing and raising a child, before I was a mother myself, and I tried to do so with accuracy and sensitivity. But any major life change – and becoming a parent is certainly one of those – brings a shift in our understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive in this complex, mutable world, and that certainly finds its way into our writing.

I feel, since becoming a mother, that my skin is thinner, more porous; that I feel things more deeply, empathise more — with other parents, for sure (who really knows what it’s like to try to soothe a screaming toddler in a supermarket until we’ve been there ourselves?), and perhaps with humanity more generally, with the ways we all variously muddle along, trying, failing, failing better.

I am interested, too, in the daily minutiae of motherhood — in the myriad tasks we mothers (and fathers, but even here, in the twenty-first-century global north, this work still falls predominantly to mothers) perform each day in the business of keeping our children safe and well. I am fascinated by how the practical advice issued to mothers – about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, feeding, working outside the home etc – has changed over time, and to what political ends. This new interest has fed into my writing both tangibly – I am working on another novel, The Mother Line, tracing the history of five generations of mothers in one family – and intangibly, through a determination to offer space in my fiction to reflect on the particular pressures exerted on mothers both by society, and by our own often intransigent expectations of ourselves.

Fortunate am I, then, that none of the greatest fears I had during pregnancy came to pass. Caleb is here, and healthy, and I am still a writer. An exhausted one, yes, and one who finds it harder to hold the large-scale canvas of a novel in my head in the way it seems to me now that I did, almost effortlessly, before I had my son. Time is in shorter supply, and I am rarely able to spend whole afternoons at galleries and cinemas and museums, refilling the creative reservoir. But, mostly, the dual parts of my identity run relatively smoothly along adjacent tracks. I write, I invent, I devote hours to the creation of fictional worlds, and then I close the door of my office, drive to pick up my son from nursery, and remember – most days, at least – just how lucky I am to be both a mother, and a writer.

Laura Barnett is the author of The Versions of Us (2015); Greatest Hits (2017); Gifts (2021) and This Beating Heart (2022). A fifth novel, Births, Deaths and Marriages, will be published by Doubleday in 2025. She teaches creative writing for Curtis Brown Creative and Manchester Metropolitan University.

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