Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 1

 

This week, 4th-10th May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, so I’m reposting this piece, which I wrote last year.

If you’ve read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, you’ll know that I have a special interest in maternal mental health. My kids are in their 30s now, but I went through a tough time during those first weeks of motherhood, especially after my first child was born. I was so terrified that my baby would be taken away if anyone suspected I wasn’t coping that I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, and it was only when I interviewed a perinatal psychiatrist as part of my research for this book that it became clear that I’d suffered from postpartum psychosis, albeit in relatively mild form.

My memories of those early weeks are still painfully vivid. Not only of crippling exhaustion, but of nightmares, fleeting hallucinations, paranoid anxiety and delusional thinking. I was desperate for sleep, yet unable to give into it because I was terrified my daughter would die while I slept. I wasn’t sure if was going mad or if I was simply exhausted, but I knew my ability to cope was at fault. After all, other women managed…

Me with Emma the day after she was born

The experience has haunted me ever since, and if you’re one of my regular readers, you will know that all my books touch on postnatal depression or the difficulties of early motherhood in some form. But my most recent novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is perhaps the book I’ve been wanting to write ever since I became a mother, and as this is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I thought I might share my own experience and talk a little about how I came to write  the novel. There’s too much to say in one blog post, so I’m going to split it into four consecutive posts.

Cornelia Blackwood started as a short story called When the Bough Breaks around fifteen years ago. I was working as a magazine journalist and I’d been trying to to convince the magazines I wrote for regularly that they should run something on postnatal depression, or perhaps on the effects of sleep deprivation and lifestyle change on new mothers. They weren’t interested, so I thought I’d try exploring it in fiction. The short story worked well, but I wanted to go deeper with a novel, and this novel is perhaps the closest I’ve come to saying what I want to say about how, for some women, the experience of early motherhood can be difficult, exhausting, frightening, and traumatic. In some cases, that manifests as postnatal depression or even psychosis. For many women, the glowing and serene new mums that smile out from the pages of the baby magazines represent their own experience, and for them, I am truly happy.

But for some women – more than you may think – new motherhood is not a rose-tinted time that glows brightly in the memory, rather it is dark and frightening and bathed in shadows.

This is post one of four, so tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how it was for me in those first few weeks. (You’ll need to scroll up for part two!)

If you, or someone you know is struggling, you can find sources of support through  Maternal Mental Health Alliance 

THE WRITING LIFE – authors in lockdown

I’m shocked to see how long it’s been since my last post! What happens to the time? Anyway, the idea for this post came from something Northumberland libraries are doing to help promote reading and keep the connection with readers during lockdown. They asked authors what we’re reading and how we’re coping.  I’ve used my response as the basis for this post. 

 

Just because they’re pretty…

LET’S START WITH MY FAVORITE SUBJECT – BOOKS!

Some of my friends are struggling to read at the moment but I’m finding it easier to read than to write. It’s also the best possible activity to take my mind off what’s going on outside the front door. Since lockdown started, I’ve read six novels  and I’m halfway through another. I usually read roughly a book a week, so this is very slightly more than usual for me.

MY Lockdown reading

The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. This has a clever premise (strangers getting to know each other through a notebook in which they’re encouraged to write their own truths). A light, easy read, and very charming.

My One True North, by Milly Johnson. I don’t read a lot of romance, but I fell in love with Milly’s writing a few years ago. Her books just get better and better, and this was an absolute delight, beautifully written and thoroughly uplifting – perfect lockdown reading. I loved it so much I felt genuinely sad when I finished it.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. This was our bookclub choice. We usually meet in pubs, but now it’s Skype with wine and crisps. Five of us loved it, the other two liked it, but it was a winner overall.

Heat stroke, by Hazel  Barkworth. This one’s out at the end of May. A heady, claustrophobic (in a good way) novel about the tensions between a mother and her teenage daughter when the daughters friend goes missing.

The Man on the Street, by Trevor Wood. I’m not a huge crime fan, but I really enjoyed this one. It had great character depth, and I loved the main character – an ex-military policeman who finds himself homeless and unwittingly witnesses a crime.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.  This month’s book club read – I’d been meaning to read this for ages, and after I bought a new copy, I discovered I already had one on my shelves! This went down well – two of us liked it, the other five loved it.

The Covenant, by Thorne Moore.  I’m halfway through this historical drama, and I’m loving it so far. It’s a prequel to one of the author’s earlier novels, and it’s out this summer.. 

So that’s my lockdown reading so far. Next on my list is The Cazelet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’ve been meaning to read these for ages, too – heard so many wonderful things about this author.  Hilary Mantel wrote an excellent piece about her recently in the Guardian. You can read it here: Elizabeth Jane Howard

How am I coping in general?

Well, it’s horrible this, isn’t it? I think we’re all a bit jittery. Like many others, I’m missing my friends and my family. Part of my writing life involves meeting other authors in coffee shops, either for writing sessions or just to chat about our writing projects. Although I quite like my own company, I also love being with others, so social distancing is hard. 

For the first few weeks, I was listening obsessively to news bulletins and press briefings, but I’ve slowed down on that now, and I’m careful what I read on social media. The outpourings of political rage, the horror stories and the tragic personal stories of loss and grief are quite a strain on my mental health, and there are days when I simply don’t feel strong enough. I’m allowing myself to admit that now.

In many ways I’m lucky – my kids are grown-up,  so no homeschooling or stir-crazy teens to deal with. My husband and I are used to working at home, and we quite like each other. We have a lab/collie cross called Norman, who keeps us company and joins us on our daily exercise.

Norman among the daffs

 

Norman nestling in the wild garlic

Writing

Workwise, it’s hard to concentrate. I’m in the process of working on an outline for my fifth novel, but one minute, I’m worried that it seems disrespectful to be making up stories while so many people are suffering, then the next minute, I’m thinking, we need stories now more than ever! Then there’s the financial aspect – we’re all suffering a massive drop in print sales at the moment, although hopefully, our e-book sales will do slightly better. Many of us supplement our income by running workshops or doing events, but of course, all of these have been cancelled.  I’m still mentoring, but it’s online or phone tutorials instead of the lovely face-to-face meetings. When I can’t concentrate on work at all, I bake, which is fine, but then I eat the stuff I baked, which is not.  And don’t even get me started on wine o’clock…

So, that’s how this author is coping. I’m a bit fed up, but I’m thankful to not be working on the front line, and I am profoundly grateful to those who are. 

How are you coping? Are you reading more or less than usual? If you’re an author,  how is this affecting your work?

*EDITED 2nd May  It seems the 99p deal has ended – sorry, peeps. I never know when these deals are going to start, or when they’re going to end. Ah well. It’s 3.99 now, so still half the price of a physical book (but obviously not as good as 99p!)

Let’s all try to find something to smile about,  and remember, there are always stories. Let’s take one day at a time, blow a big fat raspberry at Covid19, and settle down with a good book..On which topic, if I may be so bold, how about The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood?

Read some of the reviews here

Buy the e-book here

For more about me and my books, please visit  my website

THE WRITING LIFE – a room of one’s own

Virginia Wolfe famously told us, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Well, the money bit is tricky – most of us have other jobs or at least rely on teaching and critiquing to keep the lights on. And I know that for many writers, men as well as women, having a room that’s exclusively for writing is a luxury they can only dream of. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a lovely study-cum- office at the top of the house.

I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair, two monitors, a comfy sofa, a coffee table, lots of books around me – it should be the perfect environment for writing a novel. But what do I do at that desk? I do admin, then I faff around on Facebook. Then perhaps a bit more admin, before taking to Twitter. Next I’ll probably check my Amazon sales ratings and see if there are any new reviews. Then I’ll check my email again and if there’s nothing that needs answering, perhaps it’s time for a quick look on eBay. I probably need more ink, or a lightbulb, or something.  Then I’ll just have one more look on Twitter before I make a start. Chances are I’ll find a link to some fascinating  blog post and that’ll be another 15 minutes gone. You know how it goes.

A designated place for fiction
One of the articles I read recently was one of those ‘top tips for writing your book’ pieces. Now, I know as well as any other writer that the top tip for writing your book is just sit down and bloody well write it. But one of the tips was, don’t write your novel in the same place as you do your admin and social media – have a space that’s exclusively for writing. This made  sense. I can see how having a special  ‘writing place‘ and going to that place regularly to write helps to automatically switch your brain into writing mode. It’s probably one of the reasons so many of us like writing in coffee shops, as well as the fact that we can’t be distracted by domestic chores and we’re less likely to be distracted by admin and social media.

I love writing in coffee shops – I wrote most of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood in the coffee shop across the road – and as long as they ‘re not busy, many places don’t mind you sitting there with one drink all morning. But even one coffee a day has become unaffordable for me at the moment, though I still try to  go once a week. So I needed an alternative. After spending last Saturday doing a tour of the secondhand furniture shops, I found this little fold-away table for a fiver.

I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table, or in the sitting room, but there’s always something The House wants me to do. Fortunately my ‘room at the top’ is divided into two with a plasterboard wall so that guests can stay overnight without feeling as though they’re sleeping in an office. It’s a small space, not big enough for a proper desk, but perfect for this little fold-up.

Trick your brain into focusing on fiction
So I can still be tucked away at the top of the house, but I can close the door to my study (when the dog isn’t demanding it be left open so he can be near the radiator and see me at the same time!) and I can focus entirely on the novel instead of being constantly tempted to check Facebook or Twitter.  It was also a conscious decision to work facing a blank wall – an attempt to trick my brain into thinking the most interesting things are happening on the screen.

As for whether that’s true, I can’t say at the moment because I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. That point where the confidence I had about it at first has disappeared, and The Fear has arrived. A quote from Iris Murdoch springs to mind – “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Ain’t that the truth!

Ah well, for me this is a normal state of affairs. I just need to put myself in that chair every day, switch on my laptop and step into my fictional world. It may work, it may not, but one thing’s for sure, nothing’s going to happen if I don’t try, and I’m pretty sure that reducing the distractions will help.

What do you think? Should we write fiction at the same desk where we pay the bills?

TTFN!

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