‘It took me years to feel OK about putting something so personal out there’ — Christiana Spens Interviews Emily Morris

Emily Morris is the author of My Shitty Twenties, a sharp, honest and often very funny memoir about the experience of single motherhood, from heartbreak and hardship to the hell of mother-baby groups. She talked to Christiana Spens about the writing and living of it.

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CS: I really loved My Shitty Twenties—I could relate to so much of what you write about (especially the obnoxious mummy-baby groups, the long-haul trip to Australia with a one-year-old, and the strange fit of doing ‘normal’ social stuff alongside bringing up a baby). As a newly single mother as well, I found the book so encouraging and supportive, and I can imagine a lot of people out there feel the same way. It really feels like a book that is necessary (as well as all its other merits), because until now I haven’t read anything like it at all. So to begin with, did you find it hard to come across a relatable book when you were at the beginning of this story, and did that have anything to do with your decision to write your version?

EM: Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed the book. Yes, I found it really hard to find relatable books about parenthood and pregnancy, especially as I was single. There were a lot of images of supportive husbands, usually with bad dress sense and terrible hair. It’s kind of understandable to assume there’s a male partner holding the hand and massaging the back of every pregnant woman, but it’s not really relevant these days. Loads of bold and brilliant women are choosing to go it alone and of course, gay couples are having babies too. The whole business of babyhood is still biased towards couples, though, and straight ones at that. There is fiction about single parenthood, but lots of it is quite old now and often the ending involves the swooping in of a heroic man.  I did think about writing a guidebook, but I’m no expert, and my experience, like everybody’s, is totally unique. In the end, I decided to just write down what happened, in the hope it would help people. When I was pregnant, I needed to read something that told me I wasn’t the only one having a child on my own, and that things would turn out OK for me and my kid. I decided to have a go at writing that book myself, so to hear you say you found support and encouragement within its pages makes me feel like I did what I set out to do.

You talk about the demonization and marginalization of single mothers in the scene where a woman is verbally abusive towards you while you’re with your son; what effect did this sort of criticism have on you personally, and what do you think we can do to change attitudes?

I only started writing about my experiences when I’d been strengthened by them. At the time that woman was horrible to me (and she wasn’t the only one), I was pretty weak and downtrodden. I got pregnant by a man who promised me he was infertile and who then legged it, so I felt like the world’s biggest idiot. He told me my life was going to be shit with the baby in it, and I believed him. My self-esteem was extremely low and my body image was awful. At that time, anything negative that happened to me, like that woman in the park and the sneering at mother-and-baby groups, felt like part of the consequences of my naivety; it was all my own stupid fault. Gradually, I realised I loved being a mum and I was great at it, despite the far-from-ideal circumstances. My son was (and still is) ace and I loved being around him. It still took me years to come to terms with my body though.

These days, there’s no way I would even entertain that train of thought! It’s partly because I am older, wiser and stronger, but I also think there’s a lot to be said for the resurgence of feminism and the body positivity movement. I can’t help but think that had all that happened to me ten years later, I would have felt better supported and more able to cope. There’s a hell of a lot of vile sexism being exposed at the moment, but there are also a hell of a lot of voices speaking up and saying it’s not OK.

We are definitely stepping in the right direction. I have spoken a lot about discrimination towards single mums, and a lot of single dads have said ‘what about us?’. I am sure they are judged too, and face incredible difficulties, but I believe strongly that the negativity towards single mums is a gender issue. Just the term ‘single mum’ is loaded with horrible crap. It’s partly thanks to the right-wing press, but also because of a deeply-ingrained misogynist belief that all single mums are out to drain their ex’s bank accounts, or are desperate for sex. There are actually websites that promise men sex with ‘ugly single mums’. It’s vile. Then there’s the widespread (and ancient) belief that all single mums ‘do it on purpose to get a council house’, don’t work and have kids by multiple fathers. So what? There are loads of men walking round with kids by multiple mothers, but no one knows because in most cases, they’re not looking after them!

The fact is that the majority of single parents work (but are still poor, thanks to in-work poverty) and most don’t get child maintenance from their ex. Most are just busy making the best of a very difficult situation. Also, people think children from one-parent families are all doomed. After the 2011 riots, David Cameron actually said he thought many of the perpetrators didn’t have fathers at home. My son watched a clip of that recently and he was amazed and incensed. No father at home has to be better than a bad father, or a mother and a father who aren’t getting on. I can’t speak for every situation, but in one like mine, where the father chooses to have absolutely no involvement with the child, surely if there is going to be any shame, it should be on him? ‘Absent fathers’ is not a term in our vocabulary though, and absent fathers (by choice) aren’t getting judged while they’re struggling to get their buggy on a packed bus; they’re just going to work, drinking in the pub, getting on with their lives. The national single parent charity Gingerbread does amazing work campaigning for the rights of single parents and helping to dispel myths. For now, I think single mums and dads just need to keep telling their stories, making their voices heard and, of course, raising brilliant kids.

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One of my favourite scenes was when you reluctantly went to a baby yoga group and joked about teething granules being a bit like cocaine, to shocked faces. I’m sure a lot of women out there have struggled through those groups or just never got past the first one (I didn’t!). At the same time, it’s a shame that there aren’t alternative ways of having support as a new mother, that aren’t so cliquey and cultish. Did you find that anything else helped as your son got older? (I feel like there should be mother-baby group support groups, myself.)

Those groups are the worst! For me, the best thing I could do was to stop trying to fit in with the other mothers and just hang out with my non-parent friends. I was 23 and single, living in my childhood bedroom in my mum’s rented house. The other mothers I met were at least ten years older, with husbands, cars and fancy houses – we were on totally different planes. My friends loved having a kid around, because he was cute and a novelty, and it’s helped his confidence and politeness too; he has never been fazed by chatting to anyone, adults included. I think for a lot of people who have done the whole career, mortgage, marriage thing before having a baby, they are so excited about it when it happens that they want to really throw themselves into it and talk about it a lot. At baby groups, people just want to talk about babies, which is boring if you spend your life with a baby.

I loved my baby immensely, but I did not go through the rigmarole of getting us both out of the house to go and talk about slings, prams, shit, sleep-deprived hubbies, routines, weaning and trying for the next one. Sod that.

These days, I have a few parent friends, either because I have known them for years and they have started having babies now, or because we met through work or whatever and it just so happens that they have kids. Mother-and-baby groups throw a load of women into a room and expect them to get on with each other, just because they have all been through the (fairly common) experience of giving birth. Just make friends with people who have got the same interests as you, who want to talk about those interests. Some of them might have kids, it might emerge, and if they do, maybe you’ll level with them and find common ground: great. Parenthood is an important part of life, but not the only one. It helped me that I was very conscious of the fact that I was not just a mum but a student, a travel agent, a single woman in my twenties. ‘Mum’ wasn’t the sum total of who I was (or am) and I think remembering that is crucial. It can be hard to get out in the early days, especially if you’re on your own, but despite its downfalls, the internet can be a very handy thing. And Gingerbread, again: they are amazing and have lots of regional support groups for single parents.

You write about music in the book quite a lot—what you were listening to at different points, and the mixture of longing and exclusion for going out like you had pre-baby. I also saw a photo of you and your son at a festival recently, so presumably you found a compromise… Would you consider writing more about that side of things?

Music has played such an important role in our little family; when I was skint and depressed I just used to put on some really good tunes full blast and my son and I would dance around the living room and instantly feel loads better. I hated all those CDs of posh people nursery rhymes, so I just played him whatever I liked, right from him being tiny. Right from him being in the womb, actually. He is so into music now; one of my friends recently donated him his decks and he is amassing quite a vinyl collection! Taking him to festivals seemed like a naturally fun thing to do together. They are so expensive, but I was lucky to win a few tickets, and volunteered in kids’ tents with him in tow. Some of our best memories were made in muddy fields and I wrote a lot about them on my blog. I did want to include them in my book, but they didn’t fit in with the narrative because they happened after the book finished. If I could find a way to write about music and festivals and the part they played in our family, I would love to. Maybe I will one day.

When it came to writing the book, how did you remember everything?! I have massive memory blanks when it comes to that stage of my life (due to sleep deprivation etc.) so I was really impressed with all the details you included. Did you take notes at the time? Did photos help?

I did not take notes at the time; I was in no fit state! Certain parts of that time are still so vivid, though. I have such a crap memory about day-to-day stuff, like remembering to post letters or buy milk, but I have always remembered dates and details really clearly and as a writer, I’m very grateful for that. And yes, photos definitely helped, even though most of them were grainy and blurry because they were taken on a flip phone. I am glad I took loads, and that Instagram didn’t exist, because I would have probably been a right baby bore.

What writers / books influenced you?

Anne Lamott is a brilliant writing coach and I would urge everyone to read her book about writing, Bird by Bird, but she also wrote a great memoir about her son’s first year, called Operating Instructions. Everything by Sylvia Plath will always inspire me. For this book, I was massively inspired by Anneliese Mackintosh, whose stunning short story collection, Any Other Mouth, mixes reality with fiction, and Amy Liptrot, whose memoir The Outrun reminded me that it’s OK to write real life (and who did it beautifully). Also, The Chronology of Water, an excellent memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch, and Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?  There are many others, I am sure, but those are the ones I remember now.

Why did you want to write the story as a memoir, rather than a novel or other form?

It was simple, really: I had to. The blog was called My Shitty Twenties and I was never going to call the book anything else, so I had to write it as a memoir. The blog got a lot of attention in its heyday, so pretending my story was fiction would have been futile. Writing a memoir wasn’t without its issues, though: it took me years to feel OK about putting something so personal out there. I kept stalling and suffered from horrible anxiety about it all.

Eventually, thankfully, I realised I just needed to talk to my son about it. When he was mature enough, I did. He told me to just get on with it and understood completely why I had to write it. Now, he thinks the book is funny and he is proud, which is the greatest relief.

What are your plans for the future, in terms of writing?

I now have a wonderful agent, Becky Thomas at Johnson & Alcock, who I love working with. I began writing a script for a comedy drama based on some of the experiences in My Shitty Twenties and discussions are being had about that, so we’ll see what happens. In summer, I went on an Arvon course and got stuck into a YA novel (my day job is with young people and I love teen fiction and think it is really important). It sounds trite but I want to write stuff that makes a difference and helps people out. My Arvon tutors gave me great feedback about that book, so hopefully it will be real one day. And I am working on an adult novel about the pressure women are under to conform to a boring path in life. After all that life writing, I am very much enjoying the freedom and fun of making things up. It won’t happen overnight, because I have to fit writing in around work, but I very much hope to publish at least one novel.


Christiana Spens is the author of Shooting Hipsters, Death of a Ladies’ Man and other books. She writes freelance for Studio International, Prospect and other magazines.