‘I am a terrible mother.’
Opening line of ‘I, Witness’
I studied drama, first at the fabulous BRIT School and then at Kingston University for my undergraduate degree. I’m not a very good actress, but I love plays and the emotions they evoke. I read Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ at both school and university. I’m sure everyone who took this subject did, it’s a staple. I remember heated debate over Nora’s decision (spoiler alert) to leave not only her husband, but also her children.
My lecturer told us that people walked out of the theatres appalled at this turn of events. I remember thinking ‘how silly.’ Staunch feminist that I was (and am) I was glad that Nora found freedom. Though I felt for her children too. Complex emotions indeed, no wonder it’s recurring theme in fiction. Absent parents, but in particular mothers, which often seems like a bigger deal. My mum was adopted, her mother felt she couldn’t cope. I had views on this in my younger years that ranged from outrage to sympathy and back again. I just wanted a Grandmother I guess, a family history.
I didn’t think about my missing Grandad so much. I lived with my mum growing-up so perhaps that’s why. My dad’s a nice man, who I saw every other weekend and during holidays. My parents got along pretty well. No-one ever offered him sympathy for this position, but I heard people say what a great dad he was managing with me all on his own on our weekends. No-one ever said that to my mum.
When I had my oldest son at 25 I found myself in a similar position to my own mother. I’m very glad I retained full custody of him. But it was interesting that there was no discussion that it would be any other way. I also remember getting asked a few times in job interviews when he was a pre-schooler whether I had adequate childcare. This is probably a legally murky, but not an entirely unreasonable question. His dad was never asked. It got me thinking again about women and their expected role. However far we’ve come, parenting does often seem to be the preserve of women, especially if there is a family ‘breakdown’ or break-up.
The statistics bear this out. There are around 2 million single parents in the UK and only 10 percent are men. There are biological reasons perhaps, the obvious practicalities. But not all women are broody, and not all instinctively know what to do. When I sat down to write about Madison I wanted to explore motherhood. Actually, ‘I, Witness’ is told by four women. It looks at motherhood from their – very different – perspectives.
I decided early on that Madison was an alcoholic, but a sober one, trying hard to get life back on track. Her mother, Charlotte, features in the books. She has the same problems and had raised Madison alone, and with little in the way of support. Addiction can lead to all sorts of familial disconnection of course, not just in terms of mothering. Madison’s alcoholism in ‘I, Witness’ means that she lost custody of her daughter, Molly. Unusually, she is the parent not in the family home, her ex-husband, Rob, belongs to that 10 percent. By the time we meet Madison she’s on the up, and her situation isn’t vastly different to a lot of dads who don’t live at home.
I spoke to a couple of women who were in Madison’s situation, and what impacted me most was that they were all desperately weighed down by limited-access and guilt. I also spoke to some dads and they were fairly cheerful about it all and pretty pleased with their role. There weren’t an awful lot of differences between the men and women as to what those roles were either. Just the perspectives.
This is one of the things that I have found interesting to explore, and to write about. I get that Nora wasn’t in that situation, her choice was more dramatic and also it was a choice. But I use The Doll’s House just as one example since it had an impact on me, and I’m not sure how much views towards motherhood have changed.
Parents can be great parents however they choose to do it, and I make no judgements on those choices. There are plenty who don’t live in the family home but still show-up. Financially, emotionally, in practical terms. Hurrah to them, and all the big brave adults having to be especially grown-up and make it work with exes for their children’s sake. There are parents who just find it too difficult and opt out, but I do wonder if women are more criticised for it, and why.
Single parents as the head of the household make up a quarter of all families now. People don’t feel they have to stay in relationships that aren’t working, and families come in all shapes and sizes. That’s great. In ‘I, Witness’ there is also a domestic violence storyline, and if that’s not an example of a hell far worse than separation then I don’t know what is.
My family wasn’t the norm, and looking back was incredibly progressive for the 80’s. We got a lot of stick for it; homophobia and racism were things I was familiar with at a young age. I also heard my mother told-off more than once for not ‘providing a dad’. I’m glad of it all now. I grew up in a household with no prejudice, as I hope my sons do today.
Madison’s situation isn’t good, and it causes her a lot of pain, but she is doing her absolute best with the difficult hand she’s been dealt. Her relationship with her daughter is frayed, as was her relationship with her mother before her. She is, in her own words and mind, ‘an affront to motherhood’. It’s not what I think of her, it’s not what I hope readers will think either.
I love Madison: obviously I’m with her pretty much all day every day at the moment, and as the series progresses so too will these relationships. I don’t believe in absolutes, and rights and wrongs. We’re all trying and sometimes we get it wrong – I think Madison and the other women who tell this story show that – but motherhood still seems to be one of those areas you don’t get to stumble in. Or maybe this is a perception a lot of us mums put upon ourselves.
Today is Mothers’ Day and I don’t really fuss about it. I am thinking about motherhood though, not least as I work through edits on book two. My mum lives abroad and I’ll miss her. We get along well and she’s an amazing grandmother. I am thinking about the Grandmother I never met, and what it must have taken for her to do what she did. She died very young, before we got to meet her. I would have liked to know her story.
I think of the women who raised me, and all the great mums I know whether they are with their children today or not. I hope they are okay. I hope that readers find Madison, with all her flaws and all her brilliance, as compelling to read as I do to write.