I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘pram in the hall’ since I read at The Breastfeeding Festival in Manchester on 25 June. Perhaps in the past, this notion was true. The idea behind it is that women had to choose between motherhood and writing; doing both was impossible. Now, that might have been the case before effective contraception, but I believe motherhood can unlock writing, particularly poetry.
When I was 26, I had been writing poetry seriously for 12 years, but working in an office had not been conducive to that pursuit. Had I mentioned to anyone there that I wrote poetry, I’d have been ridiculed. So I kept quiet. I’d lost both my parents during those years too, and I’d become pregnant with my first child, just after my mother’s death. Being pregnant with a longed-for child and mourning a mum I’d been very close to, was a strange time.
I booked myself onto an Arvon course, at Lumb Bank. One of the tutors was Liz Lochhead. I showed her my scared little poems in our tutorial, and she did something very powerful. She gave me permission. What she actually said was ‘Angela, you are a born poet and you HAVE to do this’. She could have had no idea of the importance of those words. They cancelled out everything which had knocked me back. They drove me forward, they made me take myself seriously.
We had saved up so I could be a stay-at-home mum. I’d never really fitted into the office job, and had never been career-minded. All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I’d been told over and over again I couldn’t be one. The careers woman at school suggested I should be a secretary if I wanted to write. I walked out of that interview. But being a mum gave me headspace. It freed me up. When you are a baby-wearing, breastfeeding, attachment parenting mother, like I was, you are rooted, emotionally intelligent and very much in touch with all things tactile and playful.
I’d imagined I’d write about being a mum, but in fact, my little girls took me back to my own childhood, and I began to be able to explore the treasured memories I had of growing up as the baby in a family of four, growing closer to my parents as each of my siblings left home. My poems then were often a way of speaking to the beloved people I wished I still had round me. I wanted my children to have known them.
Eventually, I was able to write about my own experiences of motherhood. But I think I had to work through my grief first. I learned the art of parenting from my mum, unconsciously, and being in tune with my babies showed me how she must have responded to me, and how her mother had responded to her. Now I have just become a grandmother myself, I expect I will have to write even more about my own daughters before I write about the new family member, a granddaughter. At least she will know her grandparents. I never did, not on my mum’s side at least.
I wrote this poem about my mum’s mum, and how the stories about her I was always told made her real to me. This poem is included in Letting Go (Mother’s Milk Books).
My granny’s a whispering woman,
her stories follow me down the hall;
hang, half-told, in the corners of the kitchen
above a tut-tut of metal knitting pins.
My granny’s a soothing woman,
smoother of brows with a cool palm;
polisher of brasses; igniter of fires;
she picks up babies before they cry.
My granny’s a loving woman,
shoes clucking on tiles when I call.
her eyes laugh at me in photographs.
“She’d have loved you” my mother says.