The Best, Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly About Motherhood
By: Katherine May
‘Poignant, funny, sensitive, but most importantly, heart-stoppingly true. This is an outstanding collection of essays, from some of the finest writers, which gets right to the dark heart of what it really means to be a mother.’ Clover Stroud, author of My Wild and Sleepless Nights
Motherhood is life-changing. Joyful. Disorientating. Overwhelming. Intense on every level. It’s the best, most awful job.
The Best, Most Awful Job brings together twenty bold and brilliant women to speak about motherhood in all its raw, heart-wrenching, gloriously impossible forms.
Overturning assumptions, breaking down myths and shattering stereotypes, these writers challenge our perceptions of what it means to be a mother – and ask you to listen.
Michelle Adams – Javaria Akbar – Charlene Allcott – MiMi Aye – Jodi Bartle – Sharmila Chauhan – Josie George – Leah Hazard – Joanne Limburg – Katherine May – Susana Moreira Marques – Dani McClain – Hollie McNish – Saima Mir – Carolina Alvarado Molk – Emily Morris – Jenny Parrott – Huma Qureshi – Peggy Riley – Michelle Tea – Tiphanie Yanique
‘A wonderful anthology. I enjoyed it so much – the honesty, intelligence, fury and tenderness of the essays; and, importantly and refreshingly, the range of voices and stories it contains.’ Liz Berry, author of The Republic of Motherhood
‘This is the kind of book that could well make a difference to someone’s life . . . every mother should read it.’ Laura Pearson, author of I Wanted You to Know
‘If I had added a Post-it Note to every sentence in this book that made me laugh, wince in recognition, or faintly well up, I would have turned it into a paper porcupine.’ – Ceri Radford, Independent
‘All the pain, power and privilege of being a mother is here in these tales of stepparenting; being unable to conceive; having six children; single parenthood; and of how race, class, disability, religion and sexuality affect our perceptions of motherhood’
- Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller Editor’s Choice
‘If I had added a Post-it Note to every sentence in this book that made me laugh, wince in recognition, or faintly well up, I would have turned it into a paper porcupine.’
- Ceri Radford, Independent
“Poignant, funny, sensitive, but most importantly, heart-stoppingly true. This is an outstanding collection of essays, from some of the finest writers, which gets right to the dark heart of what it really means to be a mother.”
- Clover Stroud, author of My Wild and Sleepless Nights
“A wonderful anthology. I enjoyed it so much – the honesty, intelligence, fury and tenderness of the essays; and, importantly and refreshingly, the range of voices and stories it contains.”
- Liz Berry, author of The Republic of Motherhood
“This is the kind of book that could well make a difference to someone’s life … every mother should read it.”
- Laura Pearson, author of I Wanted You to Know
INTRODUCTION by Katherine May
I used to think I had some kind of problem with the word ‘mum’.
It started in pregnancy with the phrase ‘mum-tobe’: the sense of dislocation whenever I heard it. It was so righteous, so compact and smug, so certain. Mum: a fragment of baby talk pasted onto an adult woman, a self-contained palindrome. The brooding hen tapping her bump, a mug of tea (decaf) in hand. I was already sick of her, looming on the cover of every book and pamphlet, the clean, smiling woman, self-satisfied. Her belly was like a balloon. It had always looked so light before I had one of my own, but now I knew how heavy it was, how laden.
That was before people started calling me mum. Years before my son could even approach the word, other adults borrowed it as if it were their own: Pop onto the couch, Mum, they would say. And how’s Mum today? There were a million facetious answers to a question like that, though I knew better than to give them. I broke, finally, during an appointment for his first vaccinations, when I was too nervous to contain myself. ‘I’m not your mother,’ I snapped, and instantly felt guilty. But it was painful, this loss of my name at the exact moment that I felt I’d lost everything else.
I knew that I should be vigilant about postnatal depression, but I wasn’t expecting it to arrive in the first trimester. It was the otherworldly shock of it, I think: I had been assured that I couldn’t conceive. I turned up pregnant at my first IVF appointment, which the nurse told me was not uncommon. This was certainly a wanted baby, but I just didn’t expect him to come so soon. I was bleeding, too, for the first eight weeks, and so I was going in for weekly scans: just a pulsing blob at first, which in time morphed into a gummy bear, and then, gradually, into the cartoon-headed baby that I recognised from other people’s scans. I had miscarried two embryos bigger than this, and I was grateful that had happened before I’d seen what I now saw on the grainy screen. It was nothing, nothing at all, but also everything. And I knew that I was supposed to carry on and be brave and capable, but I was not brave and capable. I could eat only white foods (my husband once handed me a bowl of cornflakes and I wailed, ‘Too floaty! Too yellow!’), and every time I sat down, I woke up an hour later, still upright.
Trying to be brave and capable one day, I travelled into London on the train and ended up locked in the toilets of Tate Britain, sobbing, and being urged to come out by the cleaner. She took me to the cafe and gave me a glass of water. I felt as if I’d been hit by a brick: everything was black and terrifying. It was all I could do to catch the train home again and get into bed, cursing my own weakness, my ingratitude.
This set the tone for my pregnancy, and my first years of motherhood: I was desolate without understanding why. One night, when my son was three months old, I confessed on Twitter that I was depressed, and was struck by the uncanny silence. What I was feeling was unspeakable. Nobody wanted to hear it. One woman direct-messaged me to say that I should get help immediately, because I would no doubt be affecting my child’s emotional development. It was coruscating: the immediate assumption was that my love was lacking, not my happiness. Not for the first time in my life, I felt like a different species entirely.
It was another four years before I got an autism diagnosis, but that is a story I’ve told elsewhere. What I want to say now is that I became a tiny bit more comfortable with that word, ‘mum’, when I could understand why I was struggling. And I grew to like it a little more when I was editing the essays in this collection. Because in reality, ‘mum’ has only rarely been the bland, smiling white woman with the helium bump. The true, dirty business of motherhood is a constellation of experiences. That is the only universal: everybody finds their own way through.
When we were commissioning the essays in this collection, we asked contributors to write as though it was a given that their mothering was good enough. Write about the things you’d tell your friends, we said. You don’t need to qualify what you say. You don’t need to apologise.
That doesn’t sound particularly radical until you remember how much of our parenting is hidden behind the front door. We put the certificates and the rapturous holiday photos on Facebook, and keep the dark moments of doubt to ourselves. We hide the conflicts with our partners that Sharmila Chauhan reveals so recognisably, and we tamp down the simmering ‘maternal rage’ that Saima Mir identifies (a phrase I will now use forever). And it’s no wonder we do: after all we live in a culture that actively judges our parenting, from acid comments about the children of celebrities to the tuts and glares that come when a child is too exuberant in a public space. Hollie McNish captures this with great fire in her essay, pointing to the many shocking ways in which life isn’t designed with mothers in mind.
Many of our authors find themselves on the edges of that identity, anyway. As an adoptive mother, Michelle Adams shares her fear that she might not be the parent her daughter wants, while Jenny Parrott recounts her life as that most maligned beast, the stepmother. Susana Moreira Marques muses on her reconstituted family, and Emily Morris explores the feeling that, as a single mother, she is not quite enough of a family for her son. Peggy Riley pulls back the hospital sheets to show us the life of a mother who never carried a baby to term, Javaria Akbar grapples with an unplanned pregnancy, and Jodi Bartle explains why she can’t stop having babies. The closer you look at motherhood, the more unstable it appears as a category.
These multiple versions of motherhood have always been there, if a little hidden beneath the persistent image of that jolly, inflatable woman. But perhaps contemporary motherhood comes with an extra set of dilemmas and anxieties, conjured into being by our fear of doing it all wrong, and the judgement that may follow. Charlene Allcott considers how to fall in love again when your first love will always be your children, and Dani McClain makes a passionate case for seeing the bigger picture when writing for and about black women who parent alone. MiMi Aye ruminates on the heartbreak of raising children in an age of rising racial tension, and Huma Qureshi wonders whether she should do more to help her sons feel connected to her Pakistani heritage. Meanwhile, Josie George meditates on life as a disabled mother whose own physical constraints can’t help but affect her son’s freedoms, and Joanne Limburg tells us what she’s learned as the autistic mother of a neurotypical teenager. Michelle Tea delves into her internal debates as the queer mother of a son who seems determinedly cis-gendered, and we walk alongside Tiphanie Yanique as she reflects on the meanings of marriage and mortality when children are dependent on you.
If this book is full of questions, then there are also some hints at answers. Carolina Alvarado Molk found her way back to herself through reading about other women’s experiences of motherhood, while Leah Hazard makes an impassioned case for knowing our bodies as well as midwives do. But another answer also emerges, loud and clear, from between the lines: we need to talk about all the different ways of being a mother. Even when we don’t relate, we can listen. Sometimes there’s strength in knowing that there’s more than one way to get by. Sometimes we see a version of ourselves in lives that might otherwise feel alien to us. Either way, we learn that complexity is something to be celebrated.
Does this anthology represent the sheer diversity of motherhood? Not even close. That’s partly because a fully representative collection of essays would sprawl across your bookshelf like the Encyclopedia Britannica; maybe it would never end. There are still many voices we’re not hearing – mothers who already find themselves under an uncomfortable level of scrutiny, who don’t feel entitled to express dissent, or who haven’t yet found their way into the world of the professional writer, with all the amplification that brings. In my own working-class background, women would have found it absurd to theorise the brutal fact of life that was mothering, despite making jokes about its hardships. There was a real terror of exposing the flaws in your parenting – the kids home alone after school because everyone was working; the inevitable dips in mental health – for fear of attracting the attention of social services, or ‘bringing the police to our door’. The mothers who write here have a means of expression, and the social permission to express anger, doubt and ambivalence. Not every woman feels quite so safe.
That’s not to underestimate the courage of many of the essays in this collection. We invited our writers to choose a part of their personal experience that they felt was rarely seen, freed from any obligation to pretend that everything’s perfect. Women know from experience that this invites sneering: these ungrateful, ineffectual, selfish mothers, airing their dirty laundry in public. I think many of us are ready to weather that storm in order to tell some necessary truths. This is a book of brilliant writing, full of images that will stay with you, phrases to be reused, stories that break your heart or make you laugh. Arguments that cut to the quick. Perspectives that you might feel relieved finally to hear out loud. Given that none of it’s my own work, I’m unreasonably proud of this anthology. Had I not already had the pleasure of editing it, I would have guzzled it as a reader.
At its core, this is a book about love. Love, in its truest form: complex, frustrated, compromised, argumentative. White-hot one moment; cold as metal the next. I always think this is the most authentic love, and it’s what I feel for my own child: fury, rage, adoration. All at once. It’s nothing to be proud of. It just is.
Whenever I hear women reaching for the moral high ground ‘as a mother’, I think of all the appalling thoughts I’ve fostered since I gave birth; of the small children I’ve secretly damned to hell for hurting my son’s feelings; of the acres of landfill I’ve filled with disposable nappies (and I was in no hurry to potty train); of the distinct urge I feel to protect him above all others. When he was two months old, I was driving home one afternoon and another driver cut across me suddenly at a junction, forcing me into an emergency stop that left the baby seat juddering behind me. In that moment, if I could have caught them, I knew I’d have killed the driver with my bare hands. Something about that experience sums up motherhood for me: it’s savage and raw, and not entirely in my control. Good doesn’t really come into it.
This is not a book about self-sacrificing, pure-of-heart, bleeding-breast saints, but neither is it a book about how terrible we all are, how degraded, how seethingly desperate for gin. It’s about the strange places that love takes us, the peculiar feelings it evokes, and the winding paths we tread. It’s a snapshot of reality, told in twenty dazzling voices; the best job in the world, and simultaneously the most awful. Because motherhood is everything at once: pleasure and pain, anger and tenderness, light and shade. In short, true love.