There is a moment in Marianne Levy’s first volume of essays, Don’t Forget to Scream, in which she drags herself to a family party three weeks after giving birth: “I didn’t know how to say I was bleeding all over; that everything was sewn together between my legs, that my daughter was too small and I was too stunned; something terrible had happened.” She spends the afternoon stunned, “agreing that I was lucky, my daughter was beautiful, that it was all totally worth it, and wondering if I’m really going insane”.
The subtitle “Unspoken Truths About Motherhood” may be a bit of an exaggeration. In the five years since I became a mother, I have read memoirs such as Sophie Heawood’s hilarious and poignant memoir about accidental single motherhood, The Hungover Games, Candice Brathwaite’s Guide to Black Motherhood, I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Francesca Segal’s beautiful account on giving birth to early twins, Mother Ship and Emma Jane Unsworth’s descent into postnatal depression, After the Storm; novels like Sheila Heti’s confusing but chilling meditation on whether one should even have a child, Motherhood and Helen Phillips’ terrifying thriller The Need; poetry, from Liz Berry’s searing The Republic of Motherhood to Hollie McNish’s riotous Nobody Told Me; and polemics, such as Eliane Glaser’s provocative Motherhood: Feminism’s Unfinished Business.
There was an urge for honesty, for realism, for chaos, for anger. And yet, when Levy writes that instead of being honest, she “protects and reassures” people, self-censors, questions their experiences, and quietly fears for their sanity, I acknowledge it. I recognize all of that. And I applaud her urge to “invite other women backstage.”
Levy is as aware as anyone that motherhood is an ordinary miracle, but she also knows that it’s still a miracle. That she’s lucky. Happy compared to the two friends who were due to give birth on the same day and expected their boys to be like brothers except only one survived. Lucky compared to the friend who miscarried. Happy compared to the friends who want kids and can’t have them, and the friends who don’t want kids and are constantly being asked why not. But being lucky doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. She worries about whether it’s worth having a baby or whether that phrase is actually being used as a “stopper to silence me quickly and efficiently.”
What do we mothers don’t talk about enough? The way “the baby comes and the front door slams and suddenly it’s 1954”. The endless advice; In a chapter titled “A Quick Advice,” she lists all the (contradictory, annoying!) advice she’s given in a mad jumble. And the shabbiness of it all; in “Filth” she categorizes the filth of motherhood, snot as scum.
And we’re not talking about how time twists and turns, says Levy: “It’s 8 in the morning. You play cuckoo with your toddler for six hours. It is now 8:02 a.m. Explain.” I also enjoyed her incredulous anger at the moms who say they work better now when they have less time: “Really? Few acts of concentration gain from not enough time and constant distractions. No one wants anyone operates in 30-second bursts or even fixes his car while frying sausages and messaging his class on WhatsApp.”
“Don’t Forget to Scream” gets really interesting when Levy wonders – usefully intensely – why we don’t talk about such aspects of motherhood. Is it because we’re conditioned to smile and please? Or because there are parts of motherhood feminism that it cannot (or cannot yet) reach; Stretch marks are “a badge of honor…fine, silver, superbly Instagrammable lines, testifying to the great power of the human body, tributaries flowing to the great Mother River within,” but incontinence and uterine prolapse not so much.
But amidst all the anger and wit, Levy — who has written five books for children and teens — writes with great tenderness about her children and the “whole minutes of honeyed joy” she has with them, however tough and contradictory they may be this joy could be.
Don’t Forget to Scream is published by Phoenix for £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit us telegraph books