Hollie McNish – author, poet, activist, mother, spoken word artist, winner of the Ted Hughes Award – is coming to New Zealand to speak at Word Christchurch. Author and Spinoff Parents contributor Holly Walker caught up with McNish to discuss motherhood and writing.
When I read award-winning British poet Hollie McNish’s ‘poetic memoir’ about motherhood, Nobody Told Me, I was already three years into motherhood and pregnant with my second child. I dogeared practically every page, because they all gave me that ‘oh thank god, I thought I was the only one’ feeling that great, honest writing about parenting does. The hybrid book of diary entries and poems chronicles McNish’s first years of motherhood – from the moment she found out she was pregnant on the way to her first spoken word appearance at Glastonbury to the day she dropped her daughter at preschool aged three – in beautiful, frank, funny and often fuming detail. As the title suggests, it covers all the stuff you don’t usually find out until you’re thrown in the deep end. After I finished it I immediately wrapped it up and sent it to a pregnant friend, thinking, ‘at least someone will have told her!’
Hollie McNish is appearing several times at the upcoming Word Christchurch festival, including a panel on motherhood with Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes on 1 September and a poetry session with Hera Lindsay Bird on 2 September. Ahead of her trip to New Zealand I interviewed her by Skype. She was staying at her grandmother’s house, speaking softly because her eight-year-old daughter was asleep on the bed behind her. It was my baby’s second day at daycare, but my four-year-old was home sick and made regular appearances during the interview. It was, in short, a perfect encapsulation of the wonderful chaos of working motherhood. Note: the following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to start with the idea of ‘Nobody Told Me’. I think it’s such a great title, and it’s so true because when you become a mum you’re just like, oh my god, why did nobody tell me it was like this? But do you think that if someone had told you, you would have been able to hear it, or do you think it’s something that you have to experience for yourself?
No, I think I would have been able to hear it. A lot of people say that – ‘do you really want to know the gory details?’ – but the book isn’t about so many gory details. It’s not like I go into the birth a lot, but I think I would have been more confident to ask for what I wanted, if I’d have known more. Like about stitches, or the placenta, that you have to give birth to that after giving birth. I found it traumatic after I gave birth for them to say ‘now you’ve got to push out the placenta!’ Maybe I should have realised that, because I knew that existed, but I just had such a lack of education about it… And you know, I was very geeky at school! I listened in every science class, it wasn’t like I wasn’t listening! It just wasn’t on any curriculum, any of it. I think in general the more you know about stuff, the better prepared you can be.
I’m sick of the idea of not sharing. I think the things that we don’t share to do with motherhood are the things that people deem not to be ladylike. We don’t share the things about body fluids, or the fact that you’ll bleed, or…
Bits might fall out!
Yeah! I think it’s cause of this historic idea of a lady, you know. I talk to my gran loads, I’m at her house at the moment, and talking to her about birth I find fascinating. She was like, ‘nobody told me? Nobody, told me NOTHING!’ I had loads more knowledge about it compared to her. She was saying ‘oh my god, in my day you weren’t even allowed to say that you bled to your husband.’ And men weren’t allowed to see the birth, so she said she had NO idea what happened really, or how torn she was or how sore she’d be, or how bad it would be for her to continue walking around all the time. Hiding all that was so tiring. And she got so much less help and sympathy because nobody knew.
Yeah. It’s like, not only do you have to go through this huge trauma, but then you have to pretend that it hasn’t happened.
I remember trying to stand up with my daughter in the first three days, just walking around the flat – I didn’t leave my flat for quite a long time – and she was like, ‘stop walking around, stop holding the baby!’ And I remember thinking God, nobody said that, nobody would ever say ‘don’t walk around with the baby.’ I thought the mother was meant to hold the baby all the time. But she was like, ‘Hollie, you’re going to get a prolapse. At the moment your body below is open more than it’s ever been, stop standing up holding something!’ These things are so important! But it’s just women’s health, I think it’s the same everywhere. The number of women I know now that have got prolapses just because nobody talks about this stuff. I just think the more we talk about how bloody hard it is, the less medical problems we’re going to have in the future. Because so many people give birth, it’s sort of seen as, ‘oh, we’ve been doing it since the beginning of humankind’. But we do it wrong, for a start! It’s sort of brushed off because so many people do it.
It is a weird thing, isn’t it? I remember the first time I was in labour, thinking, I can’t believe this is what everybody does! This is literally happening every minute of every day, it’s the most normal thing in the world, and yet it’s INSANE! Why aren’t we walking around either celebrating women, or wrapping them up in cotton wool and saying ‘I’m so sorry you had to do that!’
Exactly! When I was walking around seeing people pushing prams I was just like, she’s done it, she’s done it, she’s done it. And I don’t care what sort of birth you’ve had either. They’re all very, very difficult basically, apart from the 0.5 percent of people who have some orgasmic birth and it’s fine. But the rest of us, it’s pretty hard. I was overwhelmed. Like, how is it still like this? How is it??
There’s a quote by Miranda July in her book The First Bad Man about the process of becoming a mother.
“I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother. It hurt. I tried to be conscious while it happened, like watching my own surgery. I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely; when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with, it wouldn’t hurt anymore, I wouldn’t remember.”
I wondered if that was kind of what you were doing in Nobody Told Me, documenting that change from the pre-mother to the mother self?
Do you know, I didn’t even think about it. It’s just been a thing that I’ve always done. I’ve got diaries from my first five years of going to nightclubs as well! Since I was about twelve I’ve just kept diaries and poems about it all.
I honestly think the reason I wrote so much about being a mum is just cause I was awake for a lot longer than I’d ever been. In the night-time, I wasn’t great at feeding and then being able to get back to sleep. That’s one thing I found really annoying, everyone’s like, ‘why don’t you sleep between feeds?’ If I told you to sleep right now, could you just go off? No! So I just used to stay awake.
I was just having so many experiences that I’d never had, and I was fuming quite a lot of the time. I just found myself so angry that it was so difficult! It was so difficult, so physically exhausting, and so uncongratulated in society. How can these three things go together!? I couldn’t believe how little respect I was getting for what I’d just done and for what I was doing every day. My daughter’s dad, to be fair, did – he was amazing. But just society in general, I was like, oh my god.
I think I’ve always written more when I’ve been annoyed. When you’re in a good mood I don’t really want to sit on my own and write! I feel like going dancing or going out to see friends. It’s just if I’m in a bad mood that I write more poems.
I wondered what you think about the idea that one of the reasons we don’t hear this kind of narrative from mothers is because everybody’s so in it, it’s so relentless, it’s so all consuming that many people don’t have the opportunity to even talk about what’s happening to them because they’re so busy doing it?
Yeah that’s true. But I also think that many people, because of their relationships or marriages, don’t want to talk about this stuff. I see loads of couples who when they’re together say things like ‘oh, we share the childcare’, then as soon as the guy’s gone, the woman’s like, ‘do we fuck share the childcare!’ I think many of them don’t speak up because they don’t want to rock the boat in their relationship, which is already pretty hard after you have kids. I don’t think I know one couple, when the guy’s been banging on about them sharing equally, as soon as they leave, always the mum’s like, ‘yeah, but he doesn’t order the raffle tickets for school, or gym class, or all the little extra things.’
It’s all that mental load stuff, isn’t it?
Yeah, and it’s boring! One of my friends was saying she felt like she’d lost her spark and she didn’t know how to get it back. She’s got two kids, they’re 8 and 6, and I was like, ‘you’re bored’. That’s all it is. It’s so boring doing all that stuff. It’s like being someone’s PA, all the time, and not being paid for any of it.
With very little appreciation.
Yeah exactly. I found that from the minute I was pregnant. I thought, oh my god, there is so much pressure to be loving this. At no other time in my life were people telling me that I should be ecstatic with joy whilst vomiting every day, not drinking, and thinking about whether or not the skin between my fanny and arsehole was going to rip open when I gave birth. Am I really meant to be overjoyed? I mean let’s at least be sensible about it.
But if I put something up online about it, I get comments like ‘well I loved being pregnant’. That’s great, but there’s sort of no need to say that in this place. You probably loved it in the same way that I got into a good uni because I had a supportive family and my own bedroom and a mum that drove me to netball matches, do you know what I mean?
Yeah, there’s privilege involved.
Yeah, but it’s a minefield, isn’t it? Loads of people ask me to talk about breastfeeding because of the poem I did about it. Every time I talk about it people always comment like, ‘oh I was lucky enough to be able to breastfeed with no problems for a year’, and I’m like, alright, but you don’t need to tell me that. That’s got nothing to do with whether it should be on this government’s economic agenda, or talked about at this health conference. At the same time, don’t want to not say well done, because it can be hard, but I also think well, great, but you’re a very privileged middle-class woman with a husband that was supporting you. It’s not all because you tried hard.
I also noticed in that poem, ‘Embarrassed’, you say ‘if you can’t or don’t want to that’s okay’. It’s like if you’re talking about breastfeeding you have to hedge your bets. It makes me a bit sad. It’s like you can’t celebrate something or talk about doing it a particular way, because if people can’t or don’t do it the same way, they take it very personally.
Totally. And you have to, because you don’t know why. Loads of people can’t choose to breastfeed. Psychologically, I mean. They just can’t, because of their jobs, or their partners, or if they’ve got terrible body image problems. I know there are other physical things, but physically we should mainly be able to without a problem, it’s just lack of support that makes it difficult. We shouldn’t be getting mastitis so much, that shouldn’t be happening. But yeah, you do always have to say, ‘but…’
And somehow find a way to be affirming to everybody but also make the point that this should be easier.
It’s funny as well, I wish I could change that poem a little bit now.
Do you? What would you change?
I didn’t think it would be shared so much! I didn’t even share it at first, it was my daughter’s dad who said he thought I should share it. It was one of the ones that I was just going to keep in my diary.
Lots of people have taken it as if I am against breasts being sexual, because it talks about ‘tits on a billboard’. And I think that is also quite an unhelpful argument.
Quite often people put really negative comments under the poem on YouTube. I don’t read them a lot, but I find it quite interesting to see what people have against breastfeeding, and it’s fascinating the weird hate that you get for it. But quite often underneath that, other people have written stuff to counter the hate like, ‘you think breasts are sexual and they’re not, their purpose is to feed a baby’. Which I get, but for most of my life actually, they are sexual. For like, two years, they weren’t but for the rest of it, the only person who’s sucked on them has been a man mainly, during sex. They can be both. We don’t have to say no, no, no, this is the point of a boob.
I’m interested in the comments you get on YouTube, when people feel moved to tell you what their own experience has been if it’s different from what you’re writing about, because I feel like talking about all of this kind of stuff is so important, to bring it to the surface, to make it the subject of literature, all of that. But when you do that, you do invite people to comment on your personal stuff. How have you managed that? Has it been difficult?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t really mind sharing stuff like that. I don’t know if I ever have minded, really. I guess I don’t feel like that’s the most personal stuff. In the book, I know it seems quite personal, but I’ve got another diary that I write about my daughter, and it’s got her first words in it, it’s got the song that her dad used to sing, it’s got what she got me for my first mothers’ day, it’s got her birthday, her name – I find that a lot more personal.
I’m quite anti taboos. I think the taboos we have in our society cause all the trouble. The fact that we’re alright with watching murder mysteries at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, but we’re so against, like, ethical sex tapes, for example. I find it weird, all that stuff, and I feel like the more those sort of taboos are broken, the less sexual abuse there’s going to be, the more confidence and ownership of people’s bodies there will be.
And sex – I mean obviously I wouldn’t describe the very intimate sexual acts with my partner, or at the time my partner, we’re not together anymore – I wouldn’t have described that, but the feelings I think are so commonplace, I don’t feel like they’re that private. And I don’t mind people commenting on them. Whatever you put online people will comment. And mainly the comments I get are about how ugly I am, like it’s not to do with the content. And if it’s nothing to do with the writing then, like, pffft, I mean, it just sort of proves the point.
Holly Walker’s memoir The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing is published by Bridget Williams Books. An essay by Holly Walker is also included in the anthology Is it Bedtime Yet?, available in all bookstores.
Hollie McNish is the author of five books of poetry: Papers (2012), Cherry Pie (2015), Why I Ride (2015), Nobody Told Me (2016), and Plum (2017). She will be appearing at Word Christchurch in September.
This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. They’re so confident you’ll save money this winter that they’re offering a Winter Savings Guarantee. So you can try, with no fixed contract – and if you don’t save, they’ll pay the difference. Support the Spinoff by switching to Flick now!
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.