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.

 

0 thoughts on “Isabel Costello on Women and Motherhood

  1. I have a hard time explaining (so I usually don’t) that, although I love my children to bits, I would have been perfectly happy without them too. They are not a necessary part of my identity, to define myself as a person. I wonder, though, if they would be a bit disappointed if I told them that.

    • I’m continually astonished at how difficult people find this idea – patriarchy’s done a very good job of ensuring women have internalised that it’s their role to be a mother and nothing more. They might be disappointed while they’re young but I wonder if their reaction might be different when they’re older: I can’t understand my mum’s narrative about my brother and I and how her entire world revolved around us, it makes me want to scream ‘Didn’t you want something more?’. But then she doesn’t understand why I don’t want any biological children…

      • And I had yet another experience – my mum regularly intimated that she never really wanted children or wished she hadn’t!! Quite surprising that I did, under the circumstances.

  2. Great post… and very topical, sadly!

    Like Marina I love my kids & grow with all the highs (and lows) the role of motherhood brings … but I’m actively trying to eccenuate the other aspects that define me & yes, remind people I’m not just a mother (or wife or daughter)

    I’very also begun to focus especially on 40+ female protagonists in fiction (partially as research for my own WIP but also spurred on by a post from Linen Press founder Lyn Michell when she was rather rudely told no-one wanted to read about middle-age women) so look forward to seeing what you discover/uncover Isabel….

    Paris Mon Amour high on my TBR too… looking forward to seeing how you’ve challenged the societal gender sexuality ‘rules’

    • Isn’t it interesting that people don’t want to read about middle-age women (apparently) but there’s an overwhelming number of books about middle-age men, many of which have won major prizes and are, on the whole, a complete yawn-fest (technical term). Have I mentioned the patriarchy yet today?!

    • Replying to Poppy and Naomi here…

      It’s been essential for me to have an identity and an occupation that goes beyond motherhood and keeping house, and that benefits my whole family. I didn’t want my sons to grow up with that view of women.

      On the middle-aged women in fiction question, I too have heard this many times and I reject it for the absolute rubbish it is. Readers want all kinds of things they’re not being given and in view of reader demographics – middle-aged women are huge consumers of fiction – I’m really surprised anyone still thinks this. But it’s not just the age group, it’s also how it’s portrayed. In reality, women don’t disappear at 40, or stop having sex or ambitions or any of the other things that make life interesting! For me, it all comes down to ‘write the book you want to write’. I’m already glad I did.

      • Yes! It was fascinating to go to Bare Lit Festival this year and hear people of colour talk about the books they want to read and the difficulty they have in accessing those stories. It’s so frustrating and limiting in so many ways.

  3. Such an eloquent post! I’m childless by choice and can report a much more positive experience than your friend, possibly because both my partner and I have other child-free relatives in our families. Friends – childless or otherwise – feel that it’s entirely up to us and have felt no need to sling barbs in our direction. I do know, however, that I’ve been very lucky.

    • I’m really pleased to hear that’s been your experience, especially many report the opposite. Maybe those who feel criticised are more likely to say so. I know (and know of) so many amazing women who don’t have children – certainly more than 1 in 5 of my writer friends!

  4. This is a great post – thank you! You are absolutely right about the double standards. I’m editing my second novel about a (real) woman who had serial affairs and left her children for a more fulfilling life and yet I keep being told that no one will want to read about such an unsympathetic character. Of course if she was a man that would be no problem at all and I would be under no expectation to ‘make him more likeable’. It’s infuriating! It’s also one of the last taboos in our society .. Thanks too for your honesty about children. There needs to be more debate about this. I too loath the ‘have vs have not’ kids issue – it’s divisive and unpleasant setting women against each other in a way that is insidious and upsetting to us all.
    Looking forward to reading your novel!

    • Thank you, Annabel! You’re about to set me off on one of my bugbears (and another double standard) – the idea that women have to be ‘warm’, ‘nice’, incredibly empathetic etc – and that the reader won’t relate to anyone they wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life. To me that is extremely patronising. I came up against that with my novel, because she’s a woman in crisis at the point of telling the story, so not all cuddly and loveable necessarily, and of course she does something many would strongly disapprove of. I’m incredibly grateful and lucky that my publishers understood what I was trying to do and didn’t try to make it something it isn’t.

      • This makes me rage. Annabel, I’d love to read your next book, it sounds great. I find it odd that there’s a belief women don’t want to be friends with women who aren’t warm and cuddly. Some of my friends are opinionated, confident, stubborn, uncompromising and absolutely brilliant. I’d love to read more stories about women like these. Hurrah to both of you for writing about them.

    • Sorry, Annabel, in my rush to get onto a juicy topic I forgot to say that I love the sound of your book. Wouldn’t it be great if things started to change on the portrayal of women (all women), FINALLY?

  5. I find it especially weird coming to this as a 24-year-old; I haven’t actually decided whether I want children or not yet, which is a state of mind that is absolutely not part of public discourse around children and motherhood. It seems as though people either know from the moment they hit puberty that they want to be mothers/parents someday, or they’ve always known that they definitely don’t. I go back and forth on it at least once a week, and it frustrates me that I spend that much time thinking about it at all – fertility rates for women in my family suggest that I’ve got a good thirty years before I’m “out of time”.

    • I bet not knowing is a lot more common than it appears! You’re right, you have tons of time to figure it out and enjoy other things in the meantime – that’s what I did in my twenties.

  6. What an excellent and thought-provoking post. The fact that we are still being defined by our relationships with others, be it men or children, speaks volumes about how far we still have to go. I still fight it in my own head every day, often subconsciously subverting the satisfaction of my own needs in favour of what I THINK will make my family happy. Because that’s my job. Like Marina, I love my children entirely, but also believe I would have been perfectly happy had I not had them. Wondering what that life would have been like feels like breaking a taboo. I love Isabel’s protagonist, Alexandra. She’s complex and conflicted and when she finds herself unexpectedly driven by desire, she has to reassess the roles both she and society have imposed upon her as a woman. A thoroughly recommended read.

    • Thank you, Rachael, both for your comment and the very generous thumbs up for my novel! One of my children has reached adulthood whilst I’ve been grappling with the whole ‘how to do it’ on motherhood. The greatest claim I can make is that I love my kids and am doing my best – they are far less inclined to judge me!

      I know your novel touches on similar issues and I think it’s great that we’re using our voices and words to challenge these dated and false messages. Whatever our age!

  7. Great post which relates directly to the themes of identity and motherhood I explored in Buy Buy Baby. I find it astonishing that there’s so much pressure on women to have children and Jennifer Aniston’s recent piece in the Huffington Post was excellent. Why isn’t being a person in your own right enough for some folk? But there are so many images in the media portraying motherhood as the ultimate goal that it’s hardly surprisingly that many women feel the need to conform,

    • Completely agree, Helen, and you tackled the issue with a lot of insight in Buy Buy Baby. When I think of all my lovely friends who don’t have kids, the idea that their lives are any less full and meaningful makes ME angry! It’s a failure of empathy and imagination – we’re never all going to want the same things and that’s fine!

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  9. ”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.”

    Hear hear, Isabel. Or is it here here? Interesting blog – really looking forward to reading your book,

  10. Excellent, thought provoking and timely post (still fuming after the whole Andrea Leadsom remarks fiasco). I want to read more characters of my age (I’m 51) who are grappling with all this stuff – who are still active sexually, who have desires, who aren’t defined purely or solely by their relation to their children and/or men. Paris Mon Amour does just this – that’s why it was so refreshing to see a woman who has a healthy sexual appetite and acts on it – and then the added complication/moral issue of him being the friend’s son. I thought you handled the sex scenes really well Isabel. Trying to think of other books that have done this – The Lemon Grove and The Woman Upstairs – loved the voice in that. So angry! Has anyone read Maestra? I haven’t.

    In the novel I’m writing which is called Rip Her To Shreds, I have three female narrators – one is particularly unlikeable. In fact I worry she’s not dislikeable enough. But human I hope – with strengths and vulnerabilities.

    I do get intensely fed up of the line of questioning too to female authors – the whole ‘how do you find the time to write when you have children?’ Part of me does want to know their secrets but they don’t ask men the same. Grrr. I love my children dearly but yes, at times it’s been a struggle to keep a sense of my own identity.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Alison. Getting feedback like this from readers makes me want to do an airpunch! I had this really strong sense that readers DO want stories of this kind, and even though it made my journey to publication extra difficult, I stuck to what I wanted to put out there. If I’d warmed it up or watered it down it wouldn’t have been the same book. All the best with yours, it sounds brilliant!

  11. I wish I could post a picture here. This morning my 19 year old daughter and I were texting back and forth and at one point I wrote, “I give up being a mother as of today… I’ve done my best (as pitiful as it may be) and now you get to forge your own path. Godspeed.”

    I hovered over the send button, took a screenshot and deleted it. I was worried how she would take it, embarrassed for writing it, and ashamed that I felt like quitting ‘motherhood’.

    I agree – women are judged. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be judged. And it hurts like hell to wake up from the dream and find out we’re not perfect. We don’t fit into a neat box with all the edges of our tattered selves tucked inside.

    The more we talk about it, the more tolerance and love we can show each other.

    Great post.

  12. HI Isabel…Intrigued and interested to read , not only of your new book which I will have to get somehow(though not being kindle is tricky I think, living in Cape Town.??) but also the comments of women here. (Found on women writers blog ) The whole motherhood vs not, the good mother vs not, the way other mothers antagonize and compete and the whole identity issue women seem to have! ! One thing men don’t seem to have is an identity crisis (at least to the same extent ) it seems! Also on your doubts /issues of readers liking your characters or not … Often wondered whether this was important too and believe indeed that ‘you write the book you want to read!’.
    I too have written on the ‘motherhood juggle ‘ in my book From Courtrooms to Cupcakes on what mothering meant to me, (4 kiddies) as opposed to my own mother (who took the career route and really didn’t mother at all) and am just busy with editing the sequel….
    So….excited to have found you and will follow you and your explorations and insights ! Would be delighted if you would pop onto my latest blog too- which deals with the whole sex aspect of middle aged women …it seemed to have generate quite a bit of interest and with your topic of an affair with a younger man…will need to read!
    All the best for your book/
    PS I go under the name of niki Malherbe- if interested!

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