Life & Culture

Don't keep mum: breaking the silence on the early years of motherhood

Marianne Levy's new book tells the truth about birth and babies


At what point, asks Marianne Levy, does a traumatic birth stop being “worth it”? When the mother doesn’t survive? What if the baby dies?
These are punchy questions, which she asked following two harrowing labours, amid a feeling that nobody wanted to talk about what she was going through.
“‘It’s worth it’ says to me ‘shut up’,” she explains. “It’s such a strange thing to say. You’ve made the calculation, if both of us died, it’s not worth it but everything else, on some kind of moral level, is.”
The end result, she argues is used to “justify the [bad] treatment of women” and enable people to look the other way, whether that means delaying epidurals, cutting maternity services, or sacking woman during maternity leave.
Levy, Essex-raised but now living in Islington, poses that and other questions in Don’t Forget to Scream, a collection of essays about the reality of motherhood. It was conceived during lockdown and gestated through periods where she’d carve out precious minutes between home-schooling and caring for her kids, aged eight and four. Juggling the book with everything else at the pandemic’s height was hard; some days she thought it would sink her “but often it was what keep me afloat”.
For years, Levy struggled to vocalise her first, harrowing birth and the dissonance she felt at seemingly losing her identity overnight. “I spent years trying to articulate what was happening, trying to talk about the birth, about this tremendous change I felt I’d undergone physically and mentally, and I couldn’t seem to get through to people,” she recalls. “I’d say ‘I’m tired’ and they’d say ‘of course’, or I’d say ‘I’m finding this hard’ and they’d say ‘well, it is hard’. It felt as though language wasn’t working for me any more.”
As a new mother, what surprised her was how invisible she felt. “Society has decided to frame the experience of motherhood as tedious and ordinary, and it’s neither. It’s felt absolutely extraordinary, and I found it hard to convey that, that this incredible, difficult, wonderful, terrifying hurricane was blowing through me. I wanted to be able to say that and for people to hear, and was astonished when they didn’t.”
Four years later, with her second labour — a comparably less bad experience, but still involving neonatal intensive care and post-operative infections — she found herself incapable of doing “the whole mother and baby are doing well thing”. Instead, two weeks in, she posted a short blog “about how I actually felt”. As a successful children’s author, the words came pouring out.
This time, she found an audience; it went viral, as did a follow up. A natural “people pleaser”, Levy found that all this stuff she’d wanted to say “and felt there was no place to say in polite society, I could say on the page. I can be funny and angry, I can talk about rage, and about love.”
As a mother, much of what Levy writes resonates; from the mundanity of long maternity leave days to the frustration of watching a partner walk out the door, and also the myriad pleasures small children offer. Is she concerned her candour might put women off?
She describes feeling woefully unprepared — and, after things didn’t go to plan, ashamed they hadn’t. “The problem I have is you meet people who said I had a terrific birth without pain relief, and I’m so proud of myself or my partner. I don’t want to take away from anyone’s pride, but the flipside is shame if you didn’t have that good experience.
“Intellectually, I knew it didn’t reflect who I am. Emotionally, that’s very difficult to let go of, and it feels important to be able to say that publicly. From there maybe there will be some solutions. ‘So long as your baby is healthy then it’s a good outcome’ — that’s not enough, the bar is far too low.”
As a society we are getting better at addressing difficult subjects. But while there are “corners of the internet” for frank conversations about motherhood, “it still feels often like a fight”. And it makes sense. “It’s a nice thing about humans, we want to make things OK, if someone says I’m suffering, you want to say this too shall pass,” Levy says. “But what that does is silences the person, it doesn’t make it not hard, and it legitimises fairly dreadful treatment of women by saying it won’t be forever. Well, it’s not forever, but it is for now.”
We discuss recent revelations about failures of maternity care. Levy notes that our “maternity services are filled with brilliant people trying very hard but nonetheless they are in a terrible state due to underfunding”.
She thinks much of the language around obstetrics is terrible. “Women are diagnosed with an incompetent cervix, you wouldn’t have a man diagnosed with an incompetent penis, it’s so absurd,” she says. “There is plenty of work to be done, with women’s health generally. It feels mad that this is an ongoing conversation and yet it absolutely is.” The book is not just about those early days, but the divide that sets in when the road forks and mothers often stay home, while fathers return to work.
She cites the fact that 79 per cent of private companies offer enhanced maternity pay, but only 21 per cent do so for paternity.
When couples are staring down some of the world’s most expensive childcare costs, “you’re essentially saying for the man to stay home you’re going to take a hit of potentially thousands of pounds a month,” she says. “At that point you’re saying parenting is women’s work, you’re setting up for a lifetime of inequality. It’s the woman who is packing the changing bag, the woman carrying the domestic load, and the man becomes the breadwinner by default.”
She and her husband both count themselves as feminists, yet by the time their first child arrived, her prolonged labour meant he was midway through his leave. “Suddenly the door shuts and it’s 1954, he’s going to work and I can’t even get a pint of milk without 45 minutes preparation.”
Society reinforces this at every turn; Levy points to small things like the lack of baby-changing facilities in male toilets. Such frustrations are what propelled her to write the book. Going into motherhood, she had high ideals, and it was a “dreadful shock” to find the world didn’t match that, that her old life had almost been “erased”.
Some suggest the pandemic-prompted shift to more men working remotely will have a positive impact. Levy isn’t sure — her husband, like many, is already facing pressure to spend more time in the office, and she worries about a “never off the clock” dynamic leaving women taking on more, not less.
“What I hope is that the men who were around their children all day and see what a difficult and rewarding job it is and want to be more involved, can be more muscular with those who employ them. I hope it endures but I don’t know if it will.”
As a middle-class woman, living in north London with a supportive partner, is she worried that she will be criticised?
“I’m nervous,” she says. “All I can say is I wrote the truth of my experience as honestly as I could. Even if it doesn’t reflect their experience, the feedback I’ve had suggests it will reflect the experience of someone they know very well.”
And, she points out, “if it’s been this tough for me, it says to me it’s going to be far worse for a lot of other people. Silencing myself doesn’t do any good, we need more voices not less.”
With her children growing up, Levy is now dealing with new challenges.
In one memorable chapter, her five-year-old recounts a school assembly on the Holocaust — “they killed them for being Jewish. And I’m Jewish” — and Levy realises she can’t duck out of that conversation.
She studied theology at Cambridge, and has a strong interest in religion, although describes herself as culturally Jewish and probably agnostic. She is keen for her children to come to their own decisions about their faith.
“We made a very deliberate choice in where we live, down the road from Finsbury Park mosque, surrounded by churches, Stamford Hill is just round the corner, in a part of London that is so energetically diverse, and we’ve stayed because we want our children to see all the different choices,” she reflects.
“That can only be a good and beautiful thing.”
Her children are too young to read the book but she is aware one day they will; initially this put her off. “But then I thought I don’t want to bring my children into a world where we can’t talk about this stuff,” she says. “There is a lot of love in the book that I hope they will see. I do think we don’t do our children any favours in pretending everything is fine all the time.”
“We see the early days of motherhood as the preparation for when you get to a child, and that discounts the whole experience of early motherhood.”
She would tell her pre-parent self to “keep talking” and not be cowed by those who don’t want to listen. And, she says, “I would immediately give her this book — that’s why I wrote it.”

‘Don’t Forget to Scream’ is published by Phoenix (£14.99)

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