In 2001, Rachel Cusk published a book. At that time, she was a novelist at the beginning of her careerm and this was to be her first memoir: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. Cusk had started writing it while her eldest child was an infant and she was halfway through her pregnancy with her youngest. In the book, she writes about the banality of mother-and-baby music groups; she quips that attending antenatal classes “is like attending classes for death”, given the solitary nature of how we both start and end our lives. When it was published, Cusk’s baby was three, the foetus one, and, she wrote a few years later, “it was my sincere belief that nobody would read it or care about it, and in all honesty I didn't blame them."
Instead, she received a cautionary letter from a friend, also a writer: “Your book is going to make people very angry.” Then the reviews started to appear. One upheld A Life’s Work as “the contemporary crisis of feminism”. She was accused of child-hating, of doom-mongering, of pretention and shameless greed. One tart review read: “If everyone to were to read this book the propagation of the human race would virtually cease.”
Evidently, people continued to procreate – and Cusk’s career continued to ascend. What’s perhaps more surprising, though, is that books like A Life’s Work – which dared to expose the darker, stultifying, more animal reality of raising a child – would come to dominate publishing two decades later.
Today, countless others have joined Cusk’s memoir on a shelf of motherhood-based writing. In 2004, novelist Anne Enright released Making Babies in which, as the book’s marketing blurb attests, she “wrote the truth of it as it happened, because, for these months and years, it is impossible for a woman to lie”. In 2013 Rachel Bowlby’s A Child of One’s Own gave space to the “untold” stories of parenting. The waters broke in the late 2010s, with Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018) triumphing in a year that saw half a dozen prominent motherhood memoirs published. And still they came, with Charlotte Runcie’s Salt on Your Tongue and Nell Frizzell’s The Panic Years bridging into the 2020s.
“Over the last decade, we have seen an explosion in narrative nonfiction by women, for women,” says Rachel Mills, literary agent at Rachel Mills Literary, when I ask her what’s changed in publishing since Cusk’s book. “It's not surprising that as a part of that there are books about motherhood.” More intriguing, perhaps, is that while previous generations may have turned to practical books to prepare them for the rigours of motherhood, these more personal narratives have become valuable resources for those expecting and raising children.
“It is the first time that women have been able to publicly explore all the many issues around motherhood,” says Mills. “We can't really look to the generation that went before us, because everything is completely different. That's why people are exploring things in non-fiction and in memoir, and that's why people are interested in reading them – because our mothers' experience of motherhood is totally different to what ours is.”
Pregnant with her first child in 2018, author Lauren Elkin wrote about the appeal of warts-and-all auto-fiction over more sanitised guides to parenting: “It is to Cusk and Heti that I need to turn to try to understand what I’ve embarked on, and how what I’m experiencing is not always in line with the way the culture represents it to me.”
In the same year, Parul Sehgal, then-book critic for The New York Times, wrote wearily of the toppling pile of books about motherhood that had graced her desk. By that point, the titles ranged from Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, about a murderous nanny, to an essay collection by Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, which Sehgal called “a sort of Rosetta Stone for the moment”.
Four years on, and the tide shows no sign of abating. If anything, the matter has become even more potent. The residual anxieties generated by the pandemic and climate catastrophe have sharpened the notion of whether to have children into a razor-like point, while two years of working from home have made the raising of children an even more claustrophobic and isolating experience than it was before. While mothers have existed since the oldest stories – murderously, in Beowulf and Medea – and proven rich inspiration for authors across the canon (Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison among them), in the last few years fiction has given mothers – and mothering – a platform of their own. After centuries of publishing, a more intimate perspective has appeared between the covers: that of the mother herself.
Fiction has seen the birth of a new genre: “mum noir” – gripping, psychological thrillers that navigate the darker side of motherhood, such as The Push (2021) by Ashley Audrain, which prods relentlessly into the fears held by nearly all parents, or Nightbitch (2021) by Rachel Yoder, in which a new mother deals with abandoning her personhood to the limits expected of mothers by becoming a dog. Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted debut Burnt Sugar (2020) played in the space many of these titles explore: the innate ambivalence of motherhood, and the societal fear of it.
“I hope it says that there’s an audience for dark, weird, feminist novels with complicated heroines and room to empathise with many different experiences of motherhood,” Chan explains over email. She hopes that the release of her book suggests “readers are thinking about the impossible pressures that many mothers face”.
“There seems to now be more space for fiction about motherhood that explores thornier feelings, such as the desire to escape and coping with burnout and anger, as well as the forever controversial subject of maternal ambivalence,” Chan adds.
But while maternal ambivalence has been provocatively pored over in these pages, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was something only experienced by white, middle-class women: having children may be universal, but only some people’s views on it have traditionally been published.
Things have begun to change: Pragya Agarwal’s (M)otherhood (2021) examined the choice and experience involved in motherhood from a South Asian perspective. In 2020, Candice Brathwaite became a bestselling author with I Am Not Your Baby Mother, which shone a vital light on Black British motherhood.
Speaking about the books on motherhood she admires, Chan cites This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris, and the forthcoming Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones – books that “tackle questions about mothering in the face of adversity, whether that means disability or reckoning with the medical system.” It’s been incredibly gratifying, she adds, to see The School for Good Mothers – “a story centered on an Asian-American perspective” – read “as a universal story, and to hear from so many readers that my book makes them feel seen.
These dialogues demonstrate that the narrative that began with A Life's Work has deepened and made room for less-told stories. “I think actually we're probably done with a ‘should I have children?’ narrative,” says Mills, “but I think we'll see a lot more different sorts of family structures and the questions around that.” Trans mothers, mothers with disabilities and mothers in non-traditional families: all of these have stories left to tell.
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Image: Olga Shtonda for Penguin