Mothering Sunday is tomorrow, and the shops are full of pastel-coloured cards proclaiming, in sugary Hallmark rhymes, affection for mothers. Some have silly jokes about wine. Plenty are addressed to the “best mum in the world”. None comes close to capturing the transformational experience of motherhood.
“Kafka’s Metamorphosis pales in comparison to pregnancy and birth,” says Hollie McNish, the poet and spoken word artist whose searing performances address the realities of being a mother.
“All the love poems I have read and loved, all the female muses I have heard spoken about in verse and song and pop music and Shakespearean tragedies, all paled in comparison to birthing a baby, attached by the umbilical cord, blood still pumping between the two of us,” she says. “Yet I never read about that anywhere.”
McNish has built a hefty following from her live poetry gigs, her viral YouTube videos and now a book, Nobody Told Me, which is a diary in poems and prose about her pregnancy, childbirth, and the first three years in the life of her daughter. Some of the poems are bright with shouting and swearing, others quieter, reflective and tender. Here she is, for example, on morning sickness:
Bright yellow sick in the sink every morning bright yellow sick and I’m constantly yawning like the gold at the end of the rainbow, you’re calling and I’m sick and I’m crying as the birds call the dawn in
She writes about pain, shame, and worrying she doesn’t have everything she needs for the baby’s arrival. When the baby does come, she writes of getting to know her new identity, of rediscovering her body as sexual. Her loving, awestruck relationship with her child blossoms through the book.
After studying Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge and then for a Masters in Economics in London, McNish was making a name for herself as a poet when she discovered at 26 that she was pregnant. She began to write about a process which felt utterly new.
“I realised I had basically never seen a mother’s body. And now I had one and didn’t recognise it,” she says. “My life has been filled with poems and plays and paintings plastered with romantic muses, but birth, motherhood, parenthood, this love, was almost invisible to me until I’d lived it myself.”
Her work soon found an audience: McNish has performed on TV and radio, and last year presented a series on Woman’s Hour about birth, sex and parenthood. Nobody Told Me has been nominated for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, a prize whose previous winners include Kate Tempest and Andrew Motion, and which marks “outstanding contributions made by poets to our cultural life”. The winner will be announced on Wednesday.
Her poems are strikingly raw and truthful. When she performs, with a combination of self-possession and vulnerability, they really come alive. Her performance of “Embarrassed” (also printed in her book) has been viewed on YouTube nearly 1.5 million times. It’s filled with fury about McNish being made to feel ashamed of breastfeeding in public, while images of nearly-nude women are all over billboards:
And I don’t want to parade this, I’m not trying to make a show But when I’m told I’d be better just staying at home And when another mum I know is thrown off a bus […] I think for God’s sake, Jesus drank it So did Siddhartha Muhammad and Moses and both of their fathers
The poem is now recommended to young mothers by midwives, to help them feel less alone and more confident in their breastfeeding bodies. Underneath the video, one YouTuber has written: “A few weeks away from the birth of my daughter and I’ve been getting more and more nervous about how I will breastfeed her if she is hungry in public. So thank you. Truly thank you so much for this.”
Parenthood is so often dismissed as an inherently sentimental subject for writer, usually with a casual nod to that Cyril Connolly line, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” McNish says: “I think there’s an idea that no-one wants to read about it... or that it’s the sort of writing that should be reserved for diaries, not the actual literary world.” She recalls a poetry gig where she “listened to a poetry editor joke about how to lessen the load of sifting through submissions by clearing out all the poems about periods and birth”.
“Motherhood is still seen as being unimportant for anyone [who isn’t a mum] to be bothered with,” she says. But “no-one has ever suggested to me that only soldiers would be interested in reading Wilfred Owen”. She finds it absurd: “Surely one of the beauties of art is that you can understand people and enter worlds that you don’t have a first-hand knowledge of. It’s not only detectives who read murder mysteries.”
The lack of value placed on the subject runs deep. Even McNish used to tweak her set before gigs to make sure it didn’t contain “too many” poems about motherhood, “despite the fact that those ‘mum’ poems ranged in subject from post-natal depression, to Transformers, to sex, to the Tripoli refugee crisis”.
Thankfully, with new voices like hers exploring and exploding motherhood, things are changing. A revamped edition of The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood, first published in 2014, comes out this month. Another anthology, Writing Motherhood, is brand new. Edited by the poet Carolyn Jess-Cooke, it is the culmination of a long-running project to bring contemporary poetry about the subject to live audiences, and includes 80 poets from the UK and the US, including McNish alongside Sharon Olds and Carol Ann Duffy.
Also out this month is the poet Clare Pollard’s Incarnation, a meditation on pregnancy, children and storytelling. Like McNish, Pollard digs fearlessly into maternal anxieties, and the physical wonder of reproduction. One poem, “Suffer”, is a catalogue of all the things a pregnant woman worries could go wrong, from the trivial – “You might give her your nose” – to more precise and terrible anxieties, such as “You might watch her die of an untreatable disease in a kids’ ward with murals of Dumbo or In the Night Garden”.
McNish is glad of the positive reaction to her work, but it’s also “upsetting, in a way, that so many of the parents I speak to relate to the more traumatic stories and poems – and also that so many see it as a relief that people are ‘finally’ talking about parenthood in different ways.” She thinks that fatherhood is another under-discussed subject, ripe for “opening up”.
But becoming a father will never be as strange as becoming a mother. “Birth is still the most dangerous thing a woman is likely to do,” says McNish. “Motherhood will kill more women than most other pursuits. The day before I gave birth I wrote about the fear of waiting for something you’re told will be both the best and most painful, the most love-fuelled and confusing, potentially deadly, thing you will ever experience.”
You can’t go through that and not be changed. You can’t even read about it and stay the same.
Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish is available in paperback (Blackfriars, £8.99).
Find two poems from the collection below:
You are the reason why
my belly tripled in size
and left striped lines
across my skin when you left
You are the reason why my chest moved
from an A cup to a C
to a double E
and back again
to keep you well fed
You are the reason why
my old-size jeans
no longer fit me
why the belt
no longer reaches the stretch
of my slightly wider hips
You are the reason I miss sleep
Why my eyelids feel weak
You are the reason why my heart
skips a beat
Why my laughter lines double
and grow deeper
You are the smile carved
like a permanent mark
on my face
Every time you wake me up
at six a.m. to play
Drumming on my belly
Blowing raspberries on my skin
and I joke that one day I might put
you back in
and when I tell you that you lived
you tell me it’s a fib
asking me for proof
like a toddler detective
I point to the place
you lift my top up a little
then bang on my stretch marks
It’s Hard to Be Apart
We were one person at one time
Nine months you were inside
My blood ran through your system
My body fed your mind
And when you came out it was great
To hold your hand, to kiss your face
But despite the heavy pains
Sometimes I wish we’d stayed the same
’Cos now I watch you walk away
A little step more every day
My brain and eyes in constant game
To follow every move you make
To make sure you do not fall
Run too far and I can’t call
And time passes too fast now
And though I love to see
It’s so damn hard to be apart
My heart was pumping through your heart
We were one person at one time
I could protect you with my life
Sometimes I break down and cry
Just watching you stand by my side
And as the train pulls away
I just long to kiss your face
It’s a love I can’t describe
I will protect you with my life
And it’s still hard to realise
At one time you were inside
And your blood flowed out of mine.