When you’re not a mother it’s hard to imagine what motherhood is like. Anyone you know who becomes one assures you that you have no idea what it’s like, and replaces you with some other woman who does, and you never see her again. The End. So then you have to tax your mother on the subject. ‘What’s it like — giving birth?’ And she says: ‘It’s fine. You just breathe,’ before snorting derisively, ‘but she had gas and air’ when an aunt later claims to have done it without any pain relief.
In the absence of any actual information from any source whatsoever you start to blame the omertà on the idea that childbirth is exactly like that scene in Alien in which a bloody, flesh-coloured thing bursts out of John Hurt, and all the rest is screaming. Which is why this memoir is so overdue, because the only thing it doesn’t cover in baby-making is how you persuade anyone to impregnate you in the first place. (‘What is wrong with me/n?’ I want to yell at Clover Stroud, but alas she cannot hear me.)
‘Having a baby is like joining a cult,’ this mother of five admits, adding that for every woman (like me) desperate to get in, there’s another alternative me (whose vagina’s been ripped apart) frantic to get out:
At the school gate, I smile and try to look happy. When another mum asks me how I am, I lie. I don’t say that I frequently feel crushed, bored, angry and completely f—ed off.
The story begins when Clover is pregnant with a heartbeat that will become her fifth child, Lester. (‘“Why on earth would you do that to yourself?”, a woman at a party asks me when I tell her how many children I have.’) Meanwhile, her eldest, Jimmy-the-Teenager, chooses this exact moment to start behaving like a teenager, and gets busted by the police for carrying a knife — given to him by his loving mother. Obviously.
‘Look, look at this,’ I say, running across the lawn to pick up the target. This is what the throwing knife was for. It’s really boring for teenagers. In the middle of the country. I mean it’s boring for me, a grown-up, so I’ve tried to imagine what it’s like for a teenage boy.
Also leaping off the page are Dolly —who mothers her mother beautifully — and Evangeline — who gets very excited when asked if she would like to help change her baby brother: ‘Change him? For something else? Like a pet? Can we change him for a guinea pig?’ Plus toddler with a toy train — Dash — whose temper tantrums are totally tectonic.
It’s the honesty that makes this book so compelling: TMI in Technicolor! Siri — but not for sissies… ‘There were times when the other children were very small, when I would take them to baby groups, looking for other women I could talk to about the new feelings of dark love which occasionally took hold of me,’ Clover notes, before deciding: ‘It’s safer to just go on singing pat-a-cake-pat-a-cake as if the feeling didn’t exist’, only to put it down on paper.
She compares herself, constantly, with all the other mothers who might be doing it better. Especially Biff’s and Chip’s (all ‘crap hair and stripy jumpers’) and Topsy’s and Tim’s (who ‘never behaves as if another slow afternoon alone with her children, when there might be so many other thoughts she could be having and lives she could be inhabiting, will actually kill her’.)
I have learned too much to fit it in here. But I think the mad, messy message is ultimately this: what having babies means is that there will be ‘less of the good things, like sleep, sex and money’ but ‘more pure love’. And I hope, like Clover, I get to ‘wrap that around me ... while I’m alive on this earth’.