I’ve just read a graphic memoir by Paula Knight called The Facts of Life that seemed to reflect my own life. It’s an intensely personal story that tells of how the 47-year old author came to give up her pursuit of motherhood.
The novel follows the story of Polly, a 1970s child who grows up assuming she’ll probably have babies one day like most people. Along the way she watches nuclear-horror drama Threads and witnesses the AIDS tombstone adverts on prime-time TV: the EXACT same things that put the shits up me. Also, that dirge that was in the charts for ages, ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’? Who knew she was singing about being childless and pitiful!
Polly is ambivalent about parenting: her head is filled with the same “negative chatter” about becoming a mother that plagued me, too – it’s almost as if she is trying to talk herself out of it, which is exactly how I was.
She has an exhausting chronic illness (ME/CFS) which complicates things further, but in her mid-thirties she and partner Jack decide to give parenthood a go. It’s a rough, frustrating, sad journey: by the time Polly is 39, they have had three miscarriages and borne insufferable periods of waiting that end only in fresh disappointment.
Knight is spot-on with the typical comments that Polly gets, like “At least you know you can get pregnant” when she miscarries (FYI: never a helpful remark after age 35).
Her poignant vignettes will be familiar to many:
So many bells rang for me whilst reading this. Polly’s mum had breast cancer, like mine: this is one of the factors that dissuades her from doing IVF. For me, ingesting hormones during treatment after seeing my mum die of estrogen-receptive breast cancer felt like torture. Polly also decides against adoption:
“Deep down, I know that my need for a child would never be as great as its need for me”
I related to that, for sure.
All the uncertainty, the limbo, is too much for the couple; they want to prioritize Polly’s health and their own happiness. So they move on.
Knight explores the painful questions that can assail you on a bad day, such as: what will happen to my precious bits and pieces, my sentimental legacy, if I have no children or siblings?
And the way that time accelerates, your future suddenly gaping ahead on fast-forward:
“Without a child in my life between now … and some time later … my mortality came sharply into focus”
What if your partner dies first? Who’ll arrange your funeral? Will anyone come? Polly muses, as I do sometimes, on starting an old folks’ commune. She feels guilty about Jack not having the chance to become a father because of her defective body; he might run off and impregnate a younger woman.
Sigh. I feel like Paula Knight has been inside my head.
Despite the limitations imposed by Polly’s ME/CFS, chinks of light start to appear: fun and fulfilment start to return to their lives (which, as I always say on here, just happens).
The general population, as usual. find it harder to accept: “I can’t imagine life without mine”, says one friend; also (hello again, old chestnut): “Have you thought about adoption?”.
In interviews, Paula Knight has talked about the need to educate children in the idea that it’s OK to grow up and not have babies, for whatever reason. The latter part of her book explores how fixedly family-centric our culture is:
“As a person without kids, you must prepare to be effaced in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’ “
She talks about the lonely disconnect you sometimes feel in situations with parents and children, how everything revolves around mothering, and the joy of bonding with fellow non-parents. She describes the euphoria that can take hold, until you have a setback, such as hearing that you might have had success if you had done X or Y.
It’s amazing really: Knight nails everything about this strange journey.
The final pages explore the impact that pronatal ideology has had on attitudes towards non-parents. She also examines the so-called biological urge and asserts that ambivalence is inherently normal: for this alone she’s my new hero. Many of her ideas are similar to the ones that inform my own leanings towards a childfree outlook.
“I don’t believe that my sense of fulfilment would have been complete at the point of childbirth”
Paula Knight is keen to spread the message that a life without offspring is not a lesser life. I think The Facts of Life has the potential to drive this home to a wider demographic. It’s a beautiful book and at times I felt I was reading my very own thoughts.
On closing Knight’s book I get the reassuring sense that she’s just fine with the way her life turned out.
The Facts of Life, by Paula Knight, is published by Myriad Editions, £16.99.