After the birth of my first child, people often asked me, “How are you managing with feeding?” or “Are you coping with the lack of sleep?” But not once did anyone ask me, “How can you bear to never be alone?”
Of all the changes parenthood brought for me, this was the most significant. As someone who was accustomed to spending long periods of time immersed in reading, writing, and reflection, I was completely unprepared for the impact of a tiny but omnipresent person in my life.
Surprisingly, and against my better judgment, some would say, I went on to have two more. The first few years felt like a sort of shrinking, a process of adapting and lowering expectations.
As hard as I tried, I found it impossible to derive creative satisfaction from decorative baking or family art activities. I thought I could suppress my creative life, put it away in a shadowy corner of my brain and dust it off again when the kids were older.
But creativity doesn’t submit. Instead, it ferments and mutates. As the demands of my biological creations grew, I developed the ability to disconnect, living what I can only describe as a double life: the life in which I was mummy—cooking, cleaning, cuddling, and occasionally smiling—and the other life, in my head, in which I composed poetry and fiction that would never make it onto paper. Often I disappeared so far into my head that mummy found it difficult to surface. These were dark days for all of us, during which I was in danger of losing my grip on reality. But, perversely, it was the desire to escape from reality, plus my love of fairy tales, that saved me.
Anyone who has suffered from postnatal depression will know how easy it is to be engulfed. And anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of fairy tales will know that there are stories in which beautiful, kind young women are rescued from disaster. But here’s the thing: there are hundreds of fairy tales, and rescue by prince occurs in only a few. So deep down, I knew that I had to find my own way out. I recognized that I was struggling to reconcile the mundane daily activities of motherhood with my internal creative life, which was altogether more complicated and less compromising. But I had to try.
The journey began one Halloween, when I decided to create a shadow show for my daughters. I chose the story of “Vasilisa and the Wise Doll.” Vasilisa’s encounter with the fearsome witch, Baba Yaga, who lived in an enchanted house on chicken’s legs, had caught my imagination from a very early age. But it was only while researching it that I came across Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves and began to explore why that story might resonate with me as an adult and mother.
Estés introduced me to the idea of the “too-good mother” and the “task” of allowing her to die. Vasilisa’s tale starts with the death of her mother. Estés argues that the female protagonist is at the stage where she needs to accept that “the ever-watchful, protective, psychic mother is not adequate as a central guide for one’s future instinctual life.” As the too-good-mother dies, Vasilisa must step up by “developing [her] own consciousness about danger, intrigue, politics. Becoming alert by [herself for herself]. . . . As the too-good mother dies, the new woman is born.”
There are, in fact, many fairy tales in which the too-good mother dies early on, leaving the heroine to battle evil forces, stepparents, tyrants, and witches alone. And for me, Estés’s analysis illuminated my relationship with fairy tales, my own mother, and my daughters. To see a female protagonist lose her mother and overcome adversity was to glimpse the fear, excitement, and indeed necessity of growing up and negotiating the adult world.
Even now, as I write this, Estés’s too-good-mother theory sheds light on one of the underlying elements of my postnatal depression. Before I had a child, I was the most important person in my consciousness, but once I became a parent, I lost that position and had to step back from center stage. As the most important person, I still claimed the right to have the protection of a mother. But as soon as I became a mother myself, I became the protector, and my own mother no longer had the power to shield, rescue, or cure. So, in some ways, motherhood was a bereavement in which I was not only grieving for a previous, carefree life, but also for a mother-daughter relationship that had to morph into something else. To an extent, it was the task of allowing my own too-good mother to die that had overwhelmed me.
In “The Wise Doll,” before she dies, Vasilisa’s mother gives her the doll to keep in her pocket; it accompanies Vasilisa and in fact takes on the role of adviser in her trials with Baba Yaga. The doll is a talisman as well as a gift from mother to daughter, and it represents the instinctive wisdom and resilience that a parent transfers to a child, as tools to take forward into life. When I look back at a time when I was really lost, it’s interesting to see that I chose creativity to help me find my way home. As an artist and musician, my mother had passed on her own talisman. As I let her go, I took away a rich internal life, a self-reliance, and a deep understanding of the intrinsic value of creativity.
Instinctively, I began to realize that storytelling would be the means by which I passed on a gift to my own children. While my baby son slept, I took my daughters, aged three and six, on a candlelit journey through the forest with Vasilisa and her wise doll. For an hour, we were all transported to a magical place. But I was aware that it was the start of a much longer journey for our mother-child relationships. During the storytelling, I gave my older, more adventurous, daughter a wax skull torch to hold, knowing that she would blaze a trail through life. I gave the younger daughter a pocket-sized doll, in recognition that she had wisdom far beyond her years.
The more I read of Estés’s intriguing exploration, the more I began to understand the link between traditional tales and personal development. The familiar elements, such as tasks to complete or secrets to be unearthed, represent life’s challenges and rites of passage. But their fantastical and often naïve packaging allows us to choose between recognition or blindness.
Reading these stories to my children at bedtime became a healing experience. It brought back the closeness of my own relationship with my mother, recreating a sense of safety and security that compensated for a day of feeling adrift and unprotected.
I found, however, that the majority of fairy tale books we’d been given or come across at preschool and in libraries, were simplistic and unambiguous. Even those published in the early 2000s often presented shocking gender stereotypes. Thus, I realized that to find my connection with motherhood through fairy tales, I had to find my authentic parent voice. Not the sugarcoated voice of a consumerist, commercial society but a voice that expressed genuine love and care in all its complexity. I wanted my children to engage with storytelling at a more primal level, and so, as I began to emerge from the stupor brought about by sleepless nights, breastfeeding, and endless baby talk, I decided I needed to change the narrative, too.
In my own childhood, I’d often been tasked with reading to my much younger sister. As a ten-year-old, I’d found the repetition tedious and had begun to change the details of familiar tales, as much to entertain myself as my sister. Sedate princesses became rude and selfish, and adventurous princes lost their nerve and handed over responsibility to siblings or unprepared dragons. The result (perhaps not the one my mother was after) was my sister in fits of giggles or wide awake and primed for a late-night session of Any Questions?.
The process of questioning and changing a narrative was a familiar one. But now, as an adult, I turned a childhood game into something new. While the fairy tale retained its entertainment value, it became a way of provoking thought and challenging expectation. Of the stories I created for my children, one sticks in my mind. On a wet summer’s day, I took them all through the local woods to visit some friends. Because the ground was too sodden to sit and eat our picnic, my walking story provided the entertainment. Where more appropriate to start Goldilocks and the Three Bears than in the woods?
I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’d told that story. With books; without books; with puppets; with silly voices. It was done. As I started the familiar words, my ten-year-old turned away and even my six-year-old rolled her eyes. Knowing this would be a hard one to pull off, I threw myself into the role of Baby Bear. Traditionally a bit of a crybaby, in this version, he took on all the tyrannical characteristics of a spoiled only-bear cub. By adding real-life observations of bad behavior (and believe me, I’d built up a fair bank of experience by this time), I was able to draw them in. As the bear family left their porridge to cool and took their familiar stroll in the woods, Baby Bear cajoled and whined and played his mother and father off against each other in order to get his own way.
Then, I mixed it up. Just when the bears were about to go home for their porridge, Baby Bear lost his mother and father and discovered that he didn’t know where he was or how to get home.
Immediately, the twist woke them up. My four-year-old son, who’d been flagging, pricked up his ears and stopped complaining that his legs hurt. Baby Bear, helped by some sympathetic trees, overcame hunger, fear, and loneliness. He learned to forage, to make furniture from logs, and eventually slept a peaceful night cradled by tree roots, covered by leaves, and under the protection of the moon.
The following day, Baby Bear arrived home to find his parents had not only apprehended the villain Goldilocks, but they’d locked her in the woodshed with the spiders, leaving her there all night. Baby Bear, with his new-found confidence, released Goldilocks, berated his parents for being so thoughtless, and befriended her, inviting her to stay and share his breakfast.
On reflection, the story of Baby Bear losing his way but finding resourcefulness was both a literal journey, taking place, as it did, on a walk, but also the journey of my own narrative, along a path I wanted my children to consider. With the innate knowledge that I would not always be there to protect them, what I wished for them was the ability to dig deep when things got tough, to look to the resources around them, and to find beauty in unexpected places. In short, I wanted them to develop resilience. But I also wanted them to know that, from this struggle, would come a generosity of spirit toward others that brings its own rewards.
As my children grew older, I learned to adapt to the ever-increasing complexities of their development. Even at the age of seven, my oldest daughter showed early signs of her desire to move away from childishness and innocence. One day, she asked, “Is Father Christmas really just you and dad?”
I was flooded with emotion. A fleeting memory of a December morning about four years earlier flashed across my mind; she’d heard windchimes, and I’d had to chase her though our village as she frantically searched for Santa’s sleigh.
With reluctance, I replied, “Do you really want to know?”
The quest to seek out unwelcome knowledge is explored in the chilling story of Bluebeard. Bluebeard takes his young bride home and gives her free run of his castle—except for one room. Although he tells her it exists, and even gives her the key, he expressly forbids her to try to uncover its whereabouts or enter it. Of course, she disobeys him, as he knows she will, and when she does, she discovers the mutilated remains of his previous wives and realizes what awaits her.
The traditional morality behind Bluebeard is synonymous with the expression “curiosity killed the cat.” In Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” it’s the disobedience and audacious curiosity of the heroine that almost brings about her own death, and she relies on a last-minute rescue by her brothers. But, in Angela Carter’s incredible reworking, “The Bloody Chamber,” and indeed du Maurier’s take, Rebecca, the message is more subtle. Both heroines have an instinctive knowledge that something is amiss. They follow their instincts and make a conscious decision to actively seek answers.
These versions access a far deeper psychological truth, which Estés highlights in her analysis.
Estés talks about “the key to knowing.” Whereas tradition would have us punish the nosy, meddling female, Estés refers to the “naïve woman” who “tacitly agrees to ‘not knowing.'” By denying the woman knowledge, by getting her to ignore what her instincts are telling her, Bluebeard is rendering her powerless and keeping her childlike. Thus, by pursuing the truth, Carter’s heroine, and the second Mrs. de Winter, choose to move from a state of innocence to maturity.
Sometimes it can be easier to maintain the barriers that keep difficult truths at bay. The key that unlocks the door symbolizes the means of removing these barriers. As Estés says of fairy tales and analysis, “Asking the proper question is the central action of transformation.”
If we remain in a state of ignorant bliss, we can’t fully develop.
I had so loved the magic of my daughter believing in Santa. It was a tiny piece of my childhood relived, and we’d had hours of fun playing with fairy dust, discussing reindeer, and trying out different flying methods. But this wasn’t the first time she’d asked. Her intuition had detected a deception perpetuated by those closest to her, and in her own persistent, intelligent way, she had analyzed a spectrum of clues: types of wrapping paper, remains of carrots, and anecdotes from school friends.
“Yes,” she said, “I really want to know.”
“Then, yes,” I replied, “It is me and dad.”
Seeing the sad bravery in her face was unforgettable. But once we’d both let it sink in, I asked her not to tell the younger two children, and we talked about ways she could assist in the festive subterfuge.
I have always been a relentlessly curious individual, and this is something I’ve encouraged in my children. I want them to be questioners and truth seekers, even when the truth may not be kind or lovely. As parents we try to strike a delicate balance between empowering our children to acquire knowledge but equipping them with the tools to survive it and put it to use. When I reflect on that incident, so seemingly trivial, I understand now what a pivotal moment in the parent-child relationship it was. It was the moment my daughter refused to collude, wanting instead to strike out on her own, no matter what the consequences. Estés’s analysis of Bluebeard helped me to accept not only the inevitability of this moment, but its significance as a stage in my daughter’s development, and consequently the importance of my support in guiding her through it.
I went on to write the story of Betony, an elf who befriends a local girl, Morwenna, in the woods. Morwenna is starting to have doubts about Santa, and Betony proceeds to challenge the unsound science behind Santa mythology, the consumer ethics of Christmas, and the traditions of the Nativity. He then invites Morwenna to take part in his own family’s Solstice celebration of nature and earth magic. My daughter loved it. Sometimes we have to let go of one kind of truth in order to find another. The following Christmas she dressed up as Santa and presented gifts to her younger siblings.
For the last 20 years, reflection has seemed like an indulgent and often guilt-inducing luxury. The challenges of raising three children have largely dictated that I cope with life, rather than think about it too deeply.
Now, however, locked down with three teenagers—a situation I never expected to find myself in—I am retracing the footsteps of a journey I was only partially aware of making, a journey rooted in the link between fairy tales and my own parent voice. At the end of each day my children emerge, vampire-like, from their rooms, wincing at the sun, and we sit round the table together for our evening meal. Here we discuss, debate, argue, and laugh, my husband and I increasingly taking a back seat.
There is a pandemic, and I have no special powers to protect them from it or from any of the other pain or perils they might encounter in the world. Their too-good mother has died, and they need to become the central protagonists of their own narratives. But I’ve done all I can to give them their talismans: the thirst for knowledge, the resourcefulness, and the kindness, empathy, and humor to see them through to the other side. It’s not perfect but hopefully it will be good enough.