Before my son was born I thought that being a writer and a new mum would fit together like J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. With no day job holding me back I’d finally have the time to finish the book I’d been working on for three years, and with any luck it would be in a Waterstones three-for-two promotion by the time I was out of nursing bras, and back into my favourite jeans.
A few friends in the know gently hinted that looking after a baby could be pretty hard work – full on in fact. But I didn’t think their advice applied to me – after all, I’d worked in telly for fifteen years; I knew how to pull an all-nighter when the need arose. And, besides, everyone knows that babies sleep a lot and that you can feed them with one hand while working a keyboard with the other.
So, as my due date loomed, I looked forward to the pleasant afternoons I would spend as a writing mum, tweaking the final draft of my novel while my baby slept. If all went well I would soon be ferrying my completed manuscript to the post office in that dinky little shopping basket that came with the new pram and meeting my agent with adorable infant strapped to my chest in a sling. Then, once the book was in print and setting the world on fire, there would be festivals to attend and readings to give. I would slip into one of my pre-pregnancy party dresses and schmooze the night away at the Groucho Club or Hay-on-Wye, while Daddy took a shift at home with a bottle of breast milk I’d expressed earlier. There’d be plenty of time between signings to hang out another load of environmentally friendly re-usable nappies, whip up a batch of brownies for the NCT reunion and pen a quick article for the Guardian about my wonderful life.
Well, at least no one could say I don’t have the imagination to be a great writer.
The reality has been more like this: Dexter arrived very small and a month early, which not only threw my writing schedule completely out the window, but turned our lives upside-down in ways we hadn’t imagined possible. He did sleep, but only ever in my arms for the first three months, and after that in sporadic bursts that occasionally stretched into hours, if I was lucky. He never took a bottle – not from me or anyone else – so there were no evenings out for a very long time. My brain became marinated in fatigue, and my body a slave to feeding, changing, rocking and pushing. I can’t remember when I last saw those favourite jeans – I certainly have no use for them now – and as for terry nappies and home-made baby food in ice cube trays – give me a break.
When Dexter was very young I did work out a way to feed him on one side while operating my laptop on the other, but l soon had to stop because I was developing repetitive strain injury in my wrist and going around with one boob bigger than the other (you’re right, this isn’t Mumsnet and you probably didn’t need to know that). In early 2009 I thought the completion of my first draft was just weeks away. In fact it has taken eighteen months; and, I confess, for six of those I hired the services of a nanny for one day a week so I could properly crack on.
Now that I couldn’t actually write my novel whenever I wanted to, I daydreamed about it instead, like a shipwrecked man thinks about steak and chips, or a child dreams about Christmas in August. I kept the characters alive in my head by wondering how they were killing time waiting for me to come back and get on with it. In the middle of a night feed I’d stop myself nodding off by imagining my three main protagonists doing the things characters must do before their novel-lives begin, and I wondered what would become of them once the story was over. Thinking about their lives outside my plot helped them become more real, plus it kept me company in the dark.
I did a lot of walking and pushing in those early months – slogging round and round the garden to trigger the first nap of the day, pushing the pram up and down the streets for the post-lunch nap, pacing the floors between the bedroom and the lounge in the small hours. I didn’t tell Dexter stories, because it had become a challenge to construct sentences with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, I sang songs, and when the words to those got lost, I sang numbers, or the alphabet, or the information off packets of nappy wipes. My notebook and pen went everywhere with me, as they always had, but I didn’t get much opportunity to use them, because as soon as I stopped walking or pushing or rocking, my son would wake up. I’m sure I lost some great short-story ideas out there on the streets of Kilburn and Willesden Green, trodden into the pavement, and under the swings and up and down the endless aisles of Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s and the chemist.
Some of the ideas I did manage to write down seem a bit bonkers now. For a while I became obsessed with brick walls and thought about writing a book about them. It was a fitting metaphor for what my writing life had become, but at the time I was truly interested in all the different designs of walls, bricks, and masonry that I saw during my daily walks. Then there were all the interesting new characters I was meeting in my new life – surely some of them would lead to quirky new characters and plots? Reading back through my notebooks reveals a story idea about a woman whose health visitor turns into a turkey, another about a nanny whose severed hand is discovered under her young charge’s bed, and my favourite, which I really will write one day – the sleep-deprived mother who goes postal and strings up all the squirrels in the park after one of them steals her toddler’s oaty crunch bar.
My novel, however, languished on the computer. I said a silent apology to my characters for leaving them in the lurch and promised that when I came back they’d get better lines and more focus. Meanwhile my son was growing fast and well-meaning people were beginning to ask me when I was going back to work. Working on a novel became a great way of putting off the truth – that there was no job to go back to. Ex-colleagues, relatives, and friends old and new have all seemed suitably satisfied when I say that I’m working on a novel, as though they actually believe it will one day be published and that I may actually get paid some money for it. You know, like a real job. The trouble with that, of course, is that it comes with a certain level of expectation. Some people I know truly believe that I will finish my book and find a publisher, and I’m deeply afraid that the person who believes it the most is my husband.
I am happy to report that the first draft is now finished - only eighteen months behind schedule - and the second draft is under way. Dexter will be two in March and by then I really do hope to have something ready to send out. In the days before he came I used to love to write in the early mornings. Now I write when I can, whether I’m in the mood or not, because a two-hour nap is a two-hour nap, thank you very much. Housework and chores, of which there seem to be more and more these days, are left in mid air once the boy goes down for his afternoon kip. I can Hoover with a toddler under my feet, but I can’t write, and anyone who says they can, is a liar, if you ask me. I’d like to think that my experiences as a mother have had a positive impact on my writing, but perhaps not in the way I was expecting. I don’t feel I have any special insight into motherhood, as if it was some kind of higher plain I’ve reached with a flash of my Caesarean scar and a testimonial about My Battle With Colic. The mother in my novel is nothing like me, and never was. I haven’t toned down the violence, or become sentimental about the child’s death at the heart of the story. If anything, I have wanted to make my treatment of it leaner and tougher. Despite that, there are echoes now in the chapters that I’m rewriting, something sinewy beneath the surface that ties the new me back to the old one who began this story almost five years ago.
It’s a cliché to say that bringing a book into the world is like giving birth, but sometimes the two processes do feel very similar; my novel may not win any beauty contests, or save the world, or even make the Waterstones promotional stand, but I’m not prepared to let it lie unfinished at the back of a drawer. I’ve come too far for that.