I walk down the harbor to the decommissioned whaler and wheel the pram up the ramp. My mind winces away from Melville-induced images of the slaughter that took place on the wide boards of this deck. I don’t want anything to spoil the moment. Libby Jo and I are setting to sea, not ten miles from the Arctic Circle. My five-month-old and I are in northern Iceland, as part of a research trip for my PhD novel.
I hadn’t intended to have children. I was married at 24, and that, too, hadn’t been in my plan. My plan was a small apartment in Paris, where I would write and have endless love affairs. But once I fell irrevocably and inconveniently in love with a boy from Yorkshire, the dream became a small cabin in the woods, where he could . . . do whatever he decided he wanted to do . . . and I could write. I knew I would also have to work, because neither of us had money and he wasn’t the kind of boy who makes much. So, I waited tables and taught him to do it, too.
I liked children, but never saw how the writing and the earning money could work with mummying. I thought I’d leave that to other women.
When I was 35, we left the woods and I became a busy career woman. I ran an office for building services engineers in Central London and wrote in the early mornings before my cycling commute. I had a large flat close to the center of London and a wardrobe of Karen Millen suits. I spent nearly a hundred quid a month on my hair.
One day, I was in a department store on my lunch hour, looking for fabric to make some bathroom curtains. I saw a sign that said “Nursery Fabrics” and, imagining plant motifs, I wandered over. I found myself looking at blue flannelette with a pattern of Peter Rabbits. Totally without warning, I dropped my bag and my folded macintosh on the floor, clutched the fabric to my heart, and wailed. People came to comfort me. I went for a cup of tea in the staff canteen. There was talk of calling an ambulance. It was excruciatingly embarrassing, but I just couldn’t stop grieving.
That’s how I discovered that I wanted children, after all.
Libby Jo is a bit fretful. I take her out of the pram and tell her we were going whale-watching, that we might actually see some whales.
The other eight or nine passengers come aboard and we hear a safety talk. The crew search for and eventually find the little lifeboat for Libby Jo to use instead of a life vest, in the unlikely event the ship sinks, and put it on top of the other flotation devices in the locker I’m sitting on. I sit back down and put Libby Jo back in her pram. She looks a little sleepy.
None of the other passengers speaks to me. They smile at Libby Jo, in that weird grimace I’ve become used to in the five months I’ve been a mother, then look at me as if I am a failure. I am used to that, too. I am a bit too old. I don’t look mumsy enough. I evidently don’t look like I know what I am doing, because every day someone feels free to come up to me and tell me something is wrong with my care of the baby. To the professional class I have abandoned—lawyers, engineers, and business people—I have largely become invisible.
It is a nice, bright day, but the air has a brisk tang. The sea is calm and we are making good time. We arrive where the guide says he’d seen several kinds of whales the day before and, sure enough, there are small black dots nearby that get gradually bigger. It is terrifically exciting.
Then Libby Jo looks up at me, smiles, and explodes with diarrhea.
After my breakdown in the fabric department, my maternal urge was overwhelming. When my husband refused to start a family, we had proper rows, with drink and other people and lots of drama thrown in for good measure. My husband wasn’t unwilling to be a father; he was terrified he’d be a bad one. We went to counseling and started trying.
Six years and nine miscarriages later, we gave up. I had left my well-paid job and we’d sold the big flat and bought a smaller one in South London. With some of the profits from the sale, I’d taken a year to do an MA in Creative Writing. I’d had two miscarriages in that year, but finished my manuscript and started my writing career. By the time I gave up on motherhood at 41, I had four book deals, had started a PhD, and was lecturing part-time.
At last, I thought. At last I was being true to myself, doing what I was meant to do, freeing myself from societal expectations to become the person I’d always actually been.
My husband was made redundant and we sold the flat and bought a narrowboat. We sailed off into the sunset to begin our new life, a life on our own terms, with our own values. We didn’t know we were four months pregnant. We also didn’t know we were about to lose our life savings in the dot-com crash. So much for life on our own terms.
I whisk Libby Jo to a small deck on the other side of the wheelhouse, in the bow, away from the horrified looks of the boat staff and other passengers. I take out the nappy bag, a repurposed messenger bag with a cheap generic changing mat rolled up in the place I used to carry books—the dismay of my antenatal group—and steel myself to examine the situation.
Libby Jo has pooed bright yellow-brown liquid up her back. It soaks her romper nearly to the neckline and is staining through her cardigan. Luckily, I’ve pulled her out in time to save her pink ski jacket. I ball up the romper and put it and the first tranche of baby wipes in a nappy disposal bag. The next biodegradable and leaf-patterned bag receives the cardigan and another lot of baby wipes.
There is my baby, naked on a ship deck in the Arctic circle. I realize, yet again, why everyone assumes I am a bad mother.
Someone from the group comes to see what I am doing, grimaces, and scurries off. I can hear the laughter as they report back.
The next thing I hear is a big “Ooooooo!” They’re seeing whales. And I’m mopping up baby poo.
I’d been a mother for about a month when I made it to the library to get some new reading and realized I was totally uninterested in the latest Jonathan Franzen.
Slowly, painfully, I fell out of love with contemporary literature. After that, I tried writing against the zeitgeist and, to my everlasting shame, accidentally became “cozy.” Not even my editor could sustain interest in my books. My fourth novel went more or less unreviewed. It and its sequel sold 30,000 copies and might as well have sold ten, for all the cultural impact they made.
But I wasn’t interested in big questions about power or sex or money anymore. I was interested in love and sacrifice and live-saving friendships. I was interested in what we might call “God” after the scientific advancements of the last century. I wanted to experience loss and yet triumph, with Lyra Silvertongue and Harry Potter and Skellig’s Michael. I didn’t need to read grit anymore. I needed to read hope—intelligent hope. And I found it in the incredible explosion of talent that was taking place in children’s fiction.
After I clean Libby Jo, I take off my cashmere jumper, roll up the sleeves, put it over her head, and tuck it under her feet. I zip her into her ski jacket and zip up my raincoat. I tell myself that I will be warm enough. I’m not, really.
Through all of this, on a loudspeaker, the guide is telling about the kinds of whales I am missing. There is, he says, a sperm whale nearby, but he hasn’t seen her yet. I stand and peer down the gunwale, towards where cameras click in the stern. I see a tail flap into the water. Libby Jo whimpers and I turn back, take her out of her pram and hold her. It isn’t her fault; it’s my fault. I want too much. I shouldn’t have come on this research trip with a five-month-old baby. I should either have stayed home with Libby Jo or come on my own.
The thought of leaving her behind makes the Arctic breeze blow right through the core of me. And the thought of giving up my research makes me hot under my arms with rage.
When I applied for a five-year contract for the other half of my lecturing post, the interview team asked what I would do about childcare. It was an illegal question, and I knew it, but I answered it anyway.
I answered it easily, because my husband had decided that he would quit the rather menial post he then held to become a househusband, something he’d talked about doing since we married in the 1980s. When he actually started keeping house, however, we quickly discovered that we were weren’t quite as free of gender normative expectations as we thought. Working full time was not anywhere near the idea I had of motherhood. And keeping house for a woman and living on her wages did not feel possible to my husband, once he tried it. Our sex life stopped. We resented each other bitterly. He expressed his resentment passive-aggressively—I never had clean clothes for work or a nice packed lunch; he never did the books. In contrast, I got stressed and screamed at my husband. A lot. And never failed to mention that I was the breadwinner.
In the second year, he began to study part-time for an MA. When he finished that, he started a teaching certification program. Inexorably, the responsibility of after-school care and school transport fell on my shoulders, just as I was trying to be such a star in my five-year contract that the department would want me forever.
I failed to get the permanent full-time contract. He failed to become a teacher. My books failed. It was failure all around.
When money is tight, you have to ask yourself, “What is really important?” I suddenly had lots of time to wonder. For the first time in my writing career, I could write anything I wanted. I didn’t have to write literary fiction, to try to prove to everyone how clever I was. I refused to write commercial fiction and sell myself to the highest bidder—I was too old to waste my time that way. I started writing about my own teen years, writing out the pain of them that lived deep inside me. I was developing my own aesthetic, at long last. Although I had urged my students to hold tight to what was valuable to them in their reading, no matter how unfashionable, I hadn’t actually done that myself.
I had already written for children, but I hadn’t wanted to be “a children’s writer” because it was seen as being less, both in and out of the academy. But the books that had most excited me had come from children’s publishing.
Slowly, I stopped caring about what other people thought of my choices, both as a mother and as a writer. In fact, stopping caring about what people thought of my nappy bag helped me stop caring what people thought of me writing for ten-year-old readers. In each case, knowing someone was watching me, yet going ahead and doing something controversial anyway, became my new form of political and social rebellion.
And that stayed with me, even when I hired a cleaner and got a new book contract, or two or three, and began to visit schools again and do “being a writer” again.
I am a different writer than I would have been if I had not seen the Peter Rabbit flannelette. That is true. But I am not a lesser writer. I am a better writer.
I look at my baby and she looks back at me. She knows I am upset and I know she fears it is about the poo. It isn’t about the poo. It is never going to be about anything she’s done wrong, and I am going to have to let her know that, always.
Just then, I hear something and both Libby Jo and I turn to see a giant head rising out of the sea. Up it rises, gray-brown and slick with water and taut skin. An eye the size of a dinner plate regards us from about a meter away.
She looks at us and we look at her. The moment seems to last forever. Libby Jo squeals delightedly. I can feel her heart racing under my thumb as I hold her up to see the sperm whale.
The whale blinks and rises higher and then jumps. We can see the whole of her enormous back, cresting over the bow of the boat. Her tail flips up and showers us with droplets, like a priest’s benediction of holy water. Libby Jo coos.
Suddenly, all the other passengers crowd onto our little deck and peer over the rails.
“We missed her,” one says. Another turns to me. I am visible now, as a human being again, not just “the mother.”
“That was the biggest one we’ve seen,” he says. “And she was so close to you!”
I pack up the nappy bag and put Libby Jo back in her pram. We go back to the stern with everyone else as the whaler chugs back through the waves to the harbor.
I’m not going to miss out on anything, I realize. It’s going to be different. And it might be harder.
But I am going to see more of life. And, in a strange way, life is going to see more of me.