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…

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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.

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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.