Isabel Costello on Women and Motherhood

I’m very pleased to have a guest post – and a very provocative post it is – from Isabel Costello. Isabel hosts the Literary Sofa blog, on which she invites writers to talk about aspects of their work, as well as reviewing their books and selecting Hot Picks twice a year. (Check out her Summer Reads 2016 and add to your TBR.) It’s one of my favourite blogs and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t discovered it already.

Isabel’s debut novel Paris Mon Amour is available in digital and audiobook and is high on my summer TBR pile. Here, Isabel talks about her inspiration…


Like many writers of contemporary fiction, I am drawn to issues which trouble me. My debut novel Paris Mon Amour was inspired by a longstanding frustration with the double standards by which men and women are judged, concerning looks, age, sex and almost everything.

Once I’d decided to make my first person narrator a middle-aged woman, a perspective I’d like to encounter more as a reader, the story came immediately. When 40-year-old Alexandra discovers her husband is cheating, she embarks on an intense affair with the 23-year-old son of his best friend; if the roles were switched to older man/younger woman, it would hardly be a story at all.

There lies my point.

We are surrounded by sexualised images of women but the truth about female sexuality is considered less palatable. Whilst male sexuality is seen as a supreme, elemental drive, women’s is often viewed/portrayed as passive or existing to serve men’s needs. A sexually assertive woman like my protagonist has always risked condemnation and punishment, as recorded in the Old Testament, in centuries’ worth of novels and the online ‘slut-shaming’ taking place now. My fascination with the subject of desire has led me to some excellent non-fiction including Come as you are by Emily Nagoski and The Sex Lives of English Women by Wendy Jones, giving the expert view and the frank testimony of individuals respectively. Both reinforce my feeling that the version we are habitually presented with doesn’t begin to reflect the complex realities of women, sex and love. I wanted to explore some of them by telling Alexandra’s story as honestly and openly as I could.


The tendency to reduce women’s lives to a binary of opposites also applies to motherhood. Women are judged on reproductive status (once again, in a way that men aren’t) as if this is an indicator of our contribution to society or even worth as human beings. I’m interested in all aspects of women’s experience, not just those that resemble mine, and writing a character who suffers from endometriosis and the grief of infertility has helped me to see this issue from both sides.

Motherhood is obviously an important role. In some ways, it is under-valued and deserves more respect than it gets. For many women, being a mother is the most fulfilling and emotionally rewarding dimension of life and that’s wonderful. I feel very lucky to have two lovely, funny teenage sons. But where each of us finds meaning and fulfilment is a deeply private matter – only we can know what we want and what makes us whole.

The mothers v. childless women conflict causes enormous pain and offence. Despite it being the legacy of a patriarchal system, it is an uncomfortable fact that much of the antagonism is between women. Both groups feel under attack, and it’s natural that some will react defensively in the face of criticism – I might too, if I were required to justify every day what must surely be the most personal of choices. A 40-year-old woman I know says it’s not a normal week if she hasn’t faced ‘snark’ over her decision to remain child-free. And it must be hard enough for those who are not childless by choice without having to explain their situation all the time.

This is a pointless battle nobody can win. A culture of guilt and anxiety has sprung up around parenting which also invites judgement: on number of children, how to raise them, how to balance childcare with working. There is unhealthy pressure to be the perfect mother and to keep silent on the things you’re not supposed to feel. Being a mother is a huge source of love and happiness for me; it has also, at various points, made me feel trapped, desperate and completely out of my depth.

1 in 5 women of my age are permanently childless (defined as not having had a child by 45), twice as many as in our mothers’ generation. With every sign of this trend continuing maybe there will be a gradual increase in respect and empathy and an end to dividing women into opposing camps. Right now it seems a lot to hope for.

In her examination of ‘lived experience’ in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ It’s true, and there are many ways of doing that.


In the Media: 9th November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s awards time again this week. Congratulations to Helen Macdonald who won the Samuel Johnson Prize with her stunning memoir H is for Hawk. There’s an article about it and an interview, both in The Guardian. You can also listen to interviews with all the shortlisted writers on BBC Radio 4.

While in France, Lydie Salvayre won the Prix Goncourt with Pas Pleurer.

The Green Carnation shortlist was announced this week and there are four women on the shortlist of six – congratulations to Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh and Laurie Penny. Prior to the announcement, Antonia Honeywell wrote her thoughts on the longlist.

The National Book Awards (UK) shortlists were also announced this week. Lots of books by women worth a read on there too.

And the Saltaire Society shortlisted a self-published book for their First Book AwardThe Last Pair of Ears by Mary F. McDonough. The first self-published book to be shortlisted for a Scottish Prize.

That might make you think about Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake which was the first crowd funded novel to be longlisted for The Man Booker Prize earlier this year. Well, Unbound, Kingsnorth’s publishers have announced a Women in Print campaign to try to increase the number of female authors published.

This week has also seen The Bookseller’s report on diversity in publishing – still not good enough, is the overriding conclusion.

It wouldn’t be an average week these days without a Lena Dunham story. Accused by a right-wing journalist of sexually molesting her younger sister following a confessional passage in her book, discussion ensued from Emily Gould, Katie McDonough, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Carolyn Edgar on Salon; Sarah Seltzer on Flavorwire; Emma Gannon on The Debrief; Grace Dent in The Independent. To cheer you up after that, here are 37 Funny and Inspired Thoughts from her book tour on Buzzfeed.

In more cheering news about prominent females, Mallory Ortberg, founder of The Toast, had her book Texts for Jane Eyre published in America this week. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Mesle wrote a stunning essay/review about the book’s feminist credentials. She’s interviewed on Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. And you can read an extract, 7 Brutal Literary Breakup Texts on Buzzfeed.

And the Amy Poehler stories are still going. The woman herself answers the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair. Here’s 5 Unexpected Things Marie Claire learned from Poehler’s book. Jessica Valenti has (mis?) read the book and declared ‘bitchiness’ the secret to Poehler’s success in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Hadley Freeman told us ‘Why Amy Poehler is the Ultimate Role Model for British Women‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

In translation:

  • Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) ‘Homesick for Sadness’ on the fall of the Berlin Wall in The Paris Review
  • Julie Winters Carpenter interviewed about translating Japanese poetry on the Asymptote Blog

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the 13 (I tried to keep it to 10 but it’s been a very good week) best things I’ve seen this week:

In the Media: 26th October 2014

In the media is a weekly round up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.


This week there’s definitely a celebration of feminist role models happening. At the forefront (mostly because her book Yes, Please is out in the US on Tuesday and the UK the following week) is Amy Poehler. Bustle have 15 Quotes that Prove She’s Our Brilliant Fairy Godmother; Popsugar have 19 Times Amy Poehler Said What We Wish We’d Said, while People have her answering questions people posted on Twitter and Facebook. Amanda Hess, in Slate, wrote about Poehler joining the famous women’s comedy/memoir/advice-book club; Lydia Kiesling wrote in Salon about how Nora Ephron presides over Poehler, Dunham, Fey and Kaling’s books, while Sam Baker in Harpers Bazaar wrote about Fearless Feminist Reads and why they’re important for teenage girls as well as adults.

Someone else who’s been written about as a feminist role model this week is Jane Austen. Jane Austen: Feminist in Action by Sinéad Murphy ran on the Huffington Post blog; Alexander McCall Smith explained why he’s modernised Emma on the Waterstones’ Blog; Sarah Seltzer on Flavorwire wrote about ‘Why We Can’t Stop Reading – and Writing – Jane Austen Sequels‘, while on Something Rhymed, Emma Claire Sweeney wrote ‘In Praise of the Spinster‘ about playwright, Ann Sharpe, Austen’s family’s governess.

Another amazing woman, Joan Didion, is also being celebrated this week. Her nephew is making a documentary about her. You can watch the trailer here. He’s decided to raise funds via Kickstarter which led to Flavorwire publishing Some Other Joan Didion Kickstarter Rewards We’d Like to See and Vogue re-publishing her 1961 essay ‘On Self-Respect‘.

It would be wrong not to mention Hallowe’en this week, particularly as there’s been a group of pieces around that theme. Wired’s podcast, which features Lauren Beukes, is What’s Scarier, Haunted Houses or Haunted People?; Electric Literature have published ‘“Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them”: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations‘, looking at Diane Cook and Helen Oyeyemi amongst others; Sarah Perry has written on The Gothic for Aeon, and Kate Mayfield who wrote the memoir ‘The Undertaker’s Daughter’ is on For Books’ Sake talking about How Not to Write a Memoir and in The Guardian talking about ‘Growing Up in the Family Funeral Parlour‘.

Talking of scary, Gone Girl‘s still a hot topic this week. Tana Wojczuk wrote ‘Gone Girl, Bluebeard, and the Meaning of Marriage‘ in Guernica in response to Elif Bautman’s piece ‘Marriage Is an Abduction‘ from last week’s New Yorker. Amanda Ann Klein wrote about the ‘Unbearable Whiteness of Gone Girls‘ for Avidly, and Steph Cha wrote about ‘Laughing at “Gone Girl”‘ in the LA Review of Books.

This week’s other notable essays/articles:

And the interviews:

In translation news, I’ve seen no articles this week about the identity of Elena Ferrante – hurrah! But I have seen that there’s a new imprint called Periscope devoted to translating poetry by women – hurrah!

If you’d like some fiction to read/listen to:

Or some non-fiction:

This week’s lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week: