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Originals … with anthropologist Dr Susie Kilshaw

Dr Susie Kilshaw is a medical anthropologist based at University College London specialising in the anthropology of reproduction. In particular, her work focuses on pregnancy and pregnancy ends. Her previous research may seem a very different focus: men, masculinity and war, but the thread that runs through her work is gender and notions of reproduction and risk. Her book Impotent Warriors: Gulf War Syndrome, Vulnerability and Masculinity (Oxford: Berghahn, 2009) discusses the way Gulf War Syndrome narratives involve concerns about impaired masculinity. This work touched on the way sufferers of the condition expressed anxieties around their fertility and articulated concerns about compromised fertility and damaged reproduction. This focus on reproductive disruptions and risk have continued in her current work on reproductive loss. Her ethnography, Pregnancy and Miscarriage in Qatar: Women, reproduction and the state (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Navigating Miscarriage. Social, Medical and Conceptual Perspectives (Berghahn, 2020), co-edited with Katie Borg reflect a decade long research focus on miscarriage. Her ongoing Wellcome Trust – funded research focuses on the residues and remains of pregnancy ends in England.

More here

A few questions …

What do you find most challenging about motherhood?

The juggle and the mental load. At times I find balancing parenting, domestic life, and work challenging, as a result any sort of focus on myself disappears. The relentlessness of domestic and emotional labour often feels taxing. As a feminist married to an involved and loving father and partner, I am surprised and frustrated that so much of parenting and particularly its mundane domestic elements still seem to fall to me/the mum. This is often the subject of conversations with my friends- so I know I am not alone. Only today I met a friend, also the wife of a pilot. Our husbands are away several days a week, and we shared our frustration that we often find we are wholly responsible for holding the fabric of the family together. The constant ‘to do’ lists and stream of thoughts is a constant backdrop: what will we have to eat tonight? do I have those ingredients? Should I go to the shop before or after pick up? Does the youngest need PE kit tomorrow? Is her PE kit clean? Having a head full of this information is exhausting.

What are the highlights of motherhood?

I remember a close friend described her 2-year-old daughter as ‘really good company’. I remember thinking that this was one of the strangest things I had ever heard. Until I had a 2-year-old. Actually, to be honest this likely came later for me. I am now the mother of a 11- and a 14-year old and I simply enjoy their company. I am reminded of Tina Fey’s comment that having a teenage daughter is like having an office crush because you’re thinking about them a lot more than they’re thinking of you. Perhaps it is similar to an office crush because the slightest positive attention or comment fills my whole being with such pleasure, confidence, gratitude and sheer sense of accomplishment. My daughter saying ‘You’re a good mum’ or spontaneously saying ‘I love you’ is far better than that positive book review. Well, almost.

If you could change something of your mothering or parenting journey so far, what would it be?

I began to write that if I could change something it would be to have more confidence in that experiencing miscarriage(s) did not mean there was something wrong with my fertility, but I realise there is something else I would change. My sister died of breast cancer last year. I would give anything to change this element of my mothering journey, as her absence is acutely felt. We would often message one another about parenting concerns or to share amusing things out children had done. I am reminded daily of how her children are having to face life without her as their mother and this makes me ache with sadness. Her loss reminds me that we mother with help and support from the people around us and I wish she were still part of my mothering team.

Do you feel like a mother?

Most of the time I don’t feel like a mother. In my head I think I’m still twenty-two and trying to figure it all out. I definitely am still trying to figure it out, but then there are flashes of full realisation or my identity and my role as a mother. This usually happens when one of my daughters is ill or when they are upset about something. Last night my eldest had a nasty run in with a hot water bottle. The hot water bottle won, unfortunately, and it is in such moments when I most feel like a mum. When they need you most and you are the providing care, comfort, making important decisions about their safety or wellbeing. It is in those moments that I see myself as mum through their eyes.

What do you want most for mothers or parents?

Motherhood is highly moralised and often feels like a battleground.

One of the aims of my work is to populate the landscape of miscarriage discourse with diverse voices. It concerns me that women and their partners may feel that they aren’t responding in the ‘right’ way and that there may be something wrong with their experience or their approach. This is not isolated to pregnancy loss. There are so many ways that parents and, particularly mothers, can be made to feel guilty or that they are not living up to expectations. Motherhood is highly moralised and often feels like a battleground. I would like parents to see a plethora or approaches so that they can find something that makes sense to them. For them to see that parenthood is transformative, but also always transforming and in flux. Anthropology has helped to reveal how parenthood occurs in culturally distinctive ways and how we parent is not necessarily the only model or enduring model.

About your writing …

In your online article ‘How Culture Shapes Perceptions of Miscarriage’ published in 2017 on, you write: ‘If there’s one thing a baby teaches us—whether through a miscarriage or a full-term delivery—it is that we are no longer in charge.’ Could you tell us more about your thinking?

In UK society and much of Euro America we are taught from a young age that we have control over our reproductive lives. Anthropologist Erica van der Sijpt (2013) has written about how the dominant language of reproduction is typically framed in discourses of choice and agency, with the expectation that desired fertility outcomes will be fulfilled with access, reproductive freedom and choice. Women are seen as individual agents, able to choose and construct their reproductive path. However, what is entirely missing in this is the sheer uncertainty of reproduction, the commonality of reproductive disruptions, and that there are limits to reproductive agency. The British women I have interviewed in my 10 years of researching pregnancy endings often speak about how their miscarriage was a shock and an unwelcome revelation that they were not able to control their fertility or reproductive lives. The women I met often planned their lives and their intended fertility outcomes meticulously, but became aware that pregnancies, births and family life often escape design. Miscarriage amongst my interlocutors was experienced as a lack of control and led to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Those that went on to have children saw a miscarriage as a stark reminder that when it comes to fertility, reproduction, birth, babies, and children that much is out of our control.

In your introductory chapter to ‘Navigating Miscarriage. Social, Medical and Conceptual Perspectives’ (Kilshaw and Borg (eds.) (Berghahn, 2020) you write ‘Miscarriage provides opportunities to investigate cultural understandings of motherhood: how we approach miscarriage tells us about what a pregnant woman or mother is to be.’ How can anthropology help us all make sense of miscarriage and motherhood?

An anthropological lens also enables us to see variation and it destabilises our assumptions about motherhood and miscarriage.

Anthropology provides a means to explore miscarriage as simultaneously biological, social and cultural. In Navigating Miscarriage the chapters explored how miscarriage interacts with kin, marital, gender, religious, and political structures and revealed how despite miscarriage being a global phenomenon, it is framed, understood and experienced very differently depending of cultural and historical context. Anthropologist Marcia Inhorn who has written extensively about infertility and assisted reproductive technologies in the Middle East and the USA has shown that ‘reproduction is always embedded within larger social, cultural, economic, and political relations and forces’ (2007:10). Context is always relevant when it comes to reproduction, miscarriage, and motherhood. When I teach medical students about pregnancy loss I emphasise that context is always important on an individual, family, community, social and cultural level. The same woman may experience her miscarriages differently depending on her specific context. An anthropological lens also enables us to see variation and it destabilises our assumptions about motherhood and miscarriage.

An anthropological approach highlights fluidity and how things are not necessarily fixed. Miscarriage in the UK used to be silenced and seen as something about which one shouldn’t speak. In a short space of time, we are now used to celebrities talking about their miscarriage. Clinical practices have been informed by such shifts with changes in clinical language and increased sensitivity to miscarriage care.

More on motherhood …

The road to motherhood is so often rocky and uncertain.

The road to motherhood is so often rocky and uncertain. For women of my generation, since puberty we were led to believe that pregnancy was something scarily easy to achieve. Sex education focused entirely on how not to get pregnant. Conception and pregnancy seemed straightforward: a linear progression ending in the birth of a child. We were the agents of this; our reproductive lives and family construction were entirely in our control. Developments in and the global spread of reproductive technologies, including easy access to birth control and Assisted Reproductive Technologies like IVF have informed how we imagine foetuses, babies, children, parents and families. From home pregnancy tests to the coil to IVF to fertility apps, technologies form how we think of reproduction. Key to this is an emphasis on choice and domination. This has led to a prevailing view, particularly among middle-class, educated, predominantly white women, that pregnancy timing can and should be chosen (Elliot 2020).

Many of the women I have interviewed in England suggest that they typically planned their pregnancies around weddings, education, work, holidays, buying homes, the age of a child, and other major life events. In this way I was very similar to my interlocutors. Like the women I interviewed, I threw myself into what has now become commonly known as ‘TTC’ (trying to conceive). Similar to my approach to most things I did most things I approached-with curiosity, a great deal of research, and perhaps a tinge of obsession. I took my folic acid and pregnancy vitamins, I exercised, I reduced my alcohol intake or at least tried to. When I did get pregnant, I was relatively confident that it would all work out and I did all that I could to reduce the risk of anything going wrong.

Reproductive technologies create new choices, but also more burdens, accountabilities and anxieties.

By engaging in these behaviours, I was also performing or at least signalling my embarking on motherhood. In this way we often engage with and commit to parenting long before becoming parents. Indeed, new forms of ARTs such as egg freezing demand that people be forward thinking, reflexive reproducers in advance (Faircloth and Gurtin 2017). Self-improvement and self-monitoring have become central to fertility and pregnancy in contemporary UK, part of a broader trend of what these authors have termed ‘anxious reproduction’. Reproductive technologies create new choices, but also more burdens, accountabilities and anxieties. The implication is that by following expert guidelines and engaging in this discourse, you are keeping your pregnancy/ embryo/ foetus safe; hence it is unsurprising that women in such contexts experience shock and feelings of culpability in the face of reproductive disruption or loss. When things aren’t straight forward it is unsurprising that the burden often falls on the woman. Women typically expresses feelings of shame, guilt, culpability and frustration. Miscarriage is often perceived as a failure of successful monitoring or appropriate planning.

The discourse of control surrounding reproduction extends to a sense that medicine can prevent a miscarriage. I cannot count the number of times that a woman in a state of extreme distress calls their doctor, midwife or early pregnancy unit anxious to be seen immediately in the hopes that their bleeding or pain can be explained away or stopped and their pregnancy saved. It is so very hard to accept that one isn’t responsible for a miscarriage and that nothing can be done to save a pregnancy such as this. The façade of control suddenly comes crashing down and it is so often the woman and the health care professionals that are left in the shards. I’ve seen dedicated, hard-working, caring, professional NHS nurses and midwives being inadvertently consigned to an unwelcome adversarial role because of these expectations of control and anticipation around the mastery of medical technology and interventions. The nurses I have observed for over 20 months during my fieldwork are devoted to delivering sensitive, responsive and professional care to women experiencing miscarriage and yet they often bear the brunt of expectations of medical interventions.

I strive to normalise miscarriage and pregnancy ends generally, including abortion

As part of my work, I strive to normalise miscarriage and pregnancy ends generally, including abortion. We would benefit from a new approach to pregnancy that recognises it does not always end in the birth of a baby and instead see it for an important social and biological process regardless of outcome. We would benefit from more realistic expectations around fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy ends and reproduction. We should recognise that the quest for parenting is all too often filled with potholes, detours, junctures. We do a disservice to women by not teaching all people about the reality of miscarriage and other pregnancy ends and teaching them very early in their sex and reproduction education.

Originals … with writer Nicola Brooks-Williamson

Nicola Brooks-Williamson (she/her) was born in London to a Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother. She spent her childhood in the Caribbean before returning to the UK to study veterinary science at Liverpool University. She specialised in ophthalmology, married a Welshman, and became a mother to three children one of who has autism, epilepsy, and learning delay. She now lives in Surrey, enjoys pottery and gardening, and writes daily amid the chaos of her family and menagerie of rescue animals.

Her children’s novel The Little Witch from London was shortlisted for the FAB Prize 2021. She has had work published in poetry and short story anthologies, has written a monthly column A Mother’s Love, about motherhood from all angles, for Croydon Community Focus and her latest work can be seen in the third edition of Covert Literary Magazine.

She blogs on mental health and waterfalls on and is on Twitter @onebreathatatim and Instagram and TikTok @nickyloveswriting


A few questions …

What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?

So many influences shaped my parenting philosophy.

Age. This bringing different life experiences and desires. As a mother in her 20’s I was determined my life would remain unchanged. My sons would fit into my life. I climbed down cliffs with a baby on my back. Took them to gatherings of university friends where they, young and childless stared at these noisy beings in fascination. I flew abroad to party with girlfriends whilst my husband (happily I might add) looked after the babies.

Culture. Culturally and ancestrally, I am West Indian. That brings with it a strict disciplinarian philosophy (this does not mean corporal punishment which I do not condone for my family personally) and expectation of well-mannered children. Just because I adored them, did not mean the world would, so I taught them to tread kindly and with respect as they go through life.

Isolation. A special needs child brought distance from friends and family, but he made us stronger as a unit.

What do you want most for children?

I will answer this as what do I want for my children.

I want them to be happy every single day (a bit unreasonable I know) but at the same time understand and be strong enough to handle that sometimes life throws curveballs. You might not like a job, a relationship may end, all of these are part of life.

I want my ‘normal’ (i.e. not special needs) children to be financially independent, but not allow this need to crush their dreams. And to be flexible enough to change or step off their planned path if necessary.

I want them always to love and support each other, even when they disagree.

What surprises you the most about motherhood?

Everything. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, something new comes up. Just when you think they’re too old to need you, they need you more than ever.

I thought only puppies could smell that good.

And the love, the overwhelming, all encompassing, wonderful love you feel for them. Note, you will not always feel this, especially when they’re being nightmares or refuse to clean their cesspit of a bedroom. How gorgeous babies would smell. That scent of softness and talcum powder. I thought only puppies could smell that good.

The ferocity, strength, and protective instincts I have developed to fight for them. Before I became a mother, I was shy and still am to some extent (unless I know you and then I can talk the hind leg off a donkey). I still need to stand up for my own needs more, but when it comes to my babies, I will march in there and fight the world for them.

What do you find most challenging about motherhood?

My most challenging issues have been,

  • not beating myself up over mistakes made,
  • keeping calm so the mistakes weren’t made in the first place,
  • and raising a disabled child.

In hindsight a lack of self-care, bringing work stress home and juggling too many things were a recipe for meltdowns. Mine, not the kids.

Sometimes when you’ve had a day of seizures, Sudocrem smeared on the walls and carpet, the dog covered in soap powder and poop being tracked through the house, it’s easier to have a meltdown rather than calmly dealing with the situation. But, beating myself up over every parenting fail means I am not celebrating the wins. I need to take a step back and look at my children. How are they doing? Fine? Then move on.

What are the highlights of motherhood?

Just as there are lows, there are also highs. Successful breastfeeding was a highlight for me, especially as my mother was not encouraging and found the whole process distasteful. In addition, I had had an emergency caesarean followed by agonising mastitis.

Children have a contagious sense of curiosity, awe, and positivity …

Seeing the world through my children’s eyes makes everything seem brighter. It’s as if I’m experiencing it for the first time. Children have a contagious sense of curiosity, awe, and positivity, and produce unexpected bubbles of joy. My disabled son told me I was awesome, and he liked my (terrible) singing. Another thanked me for his freckles. My youngest asked me to dance.

Watching the wonderful individuals they are becoming. Recently, my son went paddleboarding and came back with his board loaded with rubbish. No one asked him to. It was as natural as breathing. My other son saved someone’s job when no one stood up for them. Incidents like these are the rewards and highlights of motherhood.

About your writing …

In your article in Covert Literary Magazine – Summer 2023 you include the bold statement ‘Maternity leave was never an option I gave myself.’ Can you say more about this?

There were three reasons for this.

Having lived in different countries, I was not used to the generous UK time allowance, so it wasn’t something I’d set my mind on.

Self-employed, and having purchased our first house barely before I gave birth, we couldn’t afford the drop in pay.

And from the view of a young Black woman in her twenties who had been told she was not good enough, I was determined to prove I was. I could have that emergency C-section, breastfeed but still work 12-hour shifts and do night duty. Insane.

You write too about pumping breastmilk during the drive to a 12-hour shift and pumping again before a night shift. We rarely read about expressing milk. Why do you think this is?

The short answer is cultural differences, longer UK maternity leave, and influential marketing of formula. But I could write so much more. This should be normalised, openly discussed and spaces set aside mentioning expressing in their accessibility literature. Expressing is much more the norm in the States- sadly lack of protected maternity leave mean mums return to work at or before the baby is 6 weeks old- and with paid healthcare, you tend to get an IBCLC, advice and support.

Not every mum needs to express, but some do. I returned to work when my son was weeks old. I wanted to continue breastfeed. Others express to donate milk, during cancer treatment, tongue-tie, or to include others in the feeding regime. For countries that don’t have access to clean water, electricity, or breast pumps, they routinely hand express. A technique that is never mentioned in the UK.

It’s 2023 and the majority still use American YouTube videos for reference. Has anyone told you if you have high lipase your baby won’t drink your expressed milk? (It tastes sour.) Or that the type of pump makes a huge difference. Any advice given on techniques? I hope this changes in the future.

In your short story ‘Diaspora Tabanca’ published in ‘With Our Eyes Open: Book a Break Anthology 2017: Volume 2’, pregnant Abella ponders where home is. ‘Would home soon be the place she brought up her children, where she rested her head at night? Could anyone nowadays call one place home?’ Are the thoughts of this character semi-autobiographical and how has becoming a mother affected your definition of home?

Yes, Abella is semi-autobiographical.

Defining home since becoming a mother has been a roller-coaster of emotions. From the initial crash course in the culture and habits of the environment I was in, to confusion and then acceptance. A bit like the motherhood journey itself.

I brought up my boys in Devon. I still remember my dismay and feeling of rejection as a proud new mum, at the pub sign, ‘dogs allowed, no children’. Born in the UK, I spent my childhood in the Caribbean where social gatherings tend to be all ages, and children welcomed with open arms. This expectation led to some awkward birthday parties. Initially, I opened my house to parents and siblings, serving adult food and wine. Parents left the invited child with a wave and barely a backwards glance. Only my French bestie understood my confusion as she too expected all age inclusion. I quickly learnt sausage rolls, crisps and jelly were more the norm.

This culture clash meant initially I did not feel comfortable, but things improved. Mothers are universal and someone with a young baby is absorbed into the mummy network and accepted faster into a new community. Advice given, clothes shared, it’s lovely and began to break down the barriers I felt.

Over time, as I watched my boys grow and feel at ease in this space, the differences between countries lessened, the niggles became less painful, and I finally felt at home.

More on motherhood …

Working mum guilt and changing support networks

By the age of thirty-two, I had three boys under five.

I needed help.

A support network is an essential part of parenting and don’t beat yourself up or weep if this changes over time. Friendships do. It took me a long time to recognise and accept that. The old saying is apt. Friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life.

My first support network was the antenatal mum group. So close, sharing baby milestones, I thought we would be friends forever, but geographical and life changes meant we drifted apart. So, what next?

The next stage is usually the school mum network. You lock eyes at the school gates. The stay-at-home mums, the working mums, the glamorous mums who make you wrap your coat tightly over slippers, joggers, and food-stained T-shirts, and wonder if you fit into any of the cliques.

For me, working as a vet, different schools, and my middle child being disabled, meant those relationships were difficult to sustain.

Perhaps when you have ‘normal’ kids it’s hard to visit someone with an autistic child that has daily seizures and learning delay. Or maybe it was just too hard on my part to maintain these friendships amid the continuous round of medication, hospitals, hoping your child doesn’t die, and absence of family support.

Ah, family, I haven’t mentioned the grandparent or extended family support have I. That’s because it wasn’t there. One side of the family lived abroad and stated clearly when they visited, they were here for a holiday, not childminding duties. I guess that’s called setting boundaries. To me their visits were just extra, unwanted work, piled on top of my never-ending to do list. Exhausted, I cried myself to sleep on many occasions.

The other branch of the family was distant, still unsure of this whole mixed-race grandchild concept. Many had never met a Black person. I kid you not. (For those not in the know, my husband is white, Welsh ancestry and I’m Black, Caribbean ancestry).

At the time I resented those families with loving grandparents. I would cry in the car on the way to work after I saw those ‘perfect’ families at the school gates.

I spent much of those early days angry and wracked with guilt.

That my children didn’t have the extended family I had growing up.

That one ate too much, another not enough and the other was dairy intolerant.

That the house wasn’t clean enough.

That I was neglecting my youngest.

Each time I went to breastfeed the baby, his special needs brother would poop behind the curtains or throw a plant pot off the balcony. Any distraction so I would hug him instead. Breastfeeding inevitably ceased for my youngest. At seven months this was earlier than his older brothers. Instead of patting myself on the back for my achievement, I worried he did not get the attention that his older siblings did.

I hired au pairs to help. Some were great. Even the teenager who, fed up with my special needs son soaking her whenever she bathed him, poured a bucket of cold water on him. To be fair, bath time was much more peaceful after that. Some were more of a hindrance. I remember one relaxing in an armchair on her first evening and asking what I was cooking her for dinner! Having had a day from hell at work and then coping with three lively boys, I cannot print my answer. Then there was the one who started dressing like me and telling me she wanted a husband like mine. I thought it was hilarious, my husband less so and he took to hiding in his room whenever she appeared. A pity, she was great with the kids.

As the kids grew older and babysitting was no longer required, the need for help didn’t stop. I just had different questions.

I found online support in a group of like-minded mums. We all work in the veterinary industry. The internet plays a valuable role for those who can’t physically meet up as much as they’d like, and someone is always awake. They cover everything and anything, from the best robot vacuum to how to leave an abusive relationship. Only they can understand that the childminder closes at six, but a collapsed dog needs surgery now. Some of these extraordinary women have operated with the baby in a back carrier, the weight forgotten in the focus on saving a life.

Perhaps at our lowest we have that lightbulb moment.

I’ve been called out at night and taken the baby. Strapped into his car seat, sound asleep, I’d lock him safely in a kennel and get to work. I have pumped breastmilk on the morning commute, added the pressure of extra travel and studies to become an ophthalmology specialist, and been called supermom, whilst I was overwhelmed and drowning.

Perhaps at our lowest we have that lightbulb moment. Mine was when my youngest at eight, got left outside school, alone, the doors locked, and teachers gone. It was winter and dark. He’d been left until last previously when clients walked in and demanded to be seen just as I was rushing out the door. That particular day, my son phoned me and the first thing he said was don’t worry, I’m home. He should not have to reassure his mother and more seriously, he took a lift with a stranger. Another mum, but still. I will never forget that nauseating fear, that sick feeling of what could have happened.

I switched to a school with an afterschool policy, and my son got used to doing his homework (or playing on his Nintendo DS) in one of the larger kennels. That day was a valuable lesson, and I began to move towards a better work-life balance. I didn’t always get it right, but I can now look back and begin to let go of that guilt as I see my boys turn into wonderful, young people.

Originals … with writer B.J. Woodstein

B.J. Woodstein is a Swedish-to-English translator, writer, editor, lactation consultant, and doula, as well as an honorary professor in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia. Two of her most recent books are We’re Here! A Practical Guide to Becoming an LGBTQ+ Parent and The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature. She especially enjoys translating children’s books, including The Summer of Diving by Sara Stridsberg, with illustrations by Sara Lundberg, and The Book That Did Not Want to be Read by David Sundin, with illustrations by Alexis Holmqvist, and she reads all her draft translations to her children, in order to get their input as the target audience. She lives with her wife and their two daughters, two cats and one dog in Norwich, England, and can be reached at

A few questions …

How do we create family?

It doesn’t matter whose body the baby has grown in

To make a baby, of course, you need an egg, sperm and a uterus. But to make a family, you need nurturing and love. It doesn’t matter whose body the baby has grown in or how many genes you have in common; what matters is the way you engage with one another. I wake up grateful for another day with my wife and our children, and I’m always eager to see how we will relate to and play off one another on that particular day. My absolute favourite thing to do is to have one arm around each child and to hold them close, with my wife cuddled next to us; we belong together and we are a family unit. I only hope that the children will always feel the love their mothers have for them and that they will feel the connection between us, the close bond that makes us a family.

How does thinking about motherhood affect your identity?

Motherhood changed my entire career trajectory. Before we had the children, I was almost entirely focused on my job. I gave it most of my time and energy, and I conveniently ignored the fact that it didn’t love me back. Work is still an important part of my identity, but I came to realise that for me, the most vital role I could ever fulfil is that of mother. Due to having the children, I turned down a dream job when I realised the move it would require wouldn’t suit my daughters’ lives, and some years later, I left another job because it was negatively impacting on my and my family’s life, and I needed to put us first. I don’t resent the children for this, as some have suggested I would; indeed, I am so glad that having them forced me to reprioritise and to reconsider who I am and what truly matters to me.

What are the highlights of motherhood?

One of the most surprising highlights of motherhood for me has been breastfeeding. When I was first pregnant, I knew little about breastfeeding and I nonchalantly said I’d try it out but I wouldn’t be bothered if we swapped to formula; at the time, I was only vaguely aware that I myself had been breastfed. Little did I know that I would become so passionate about it that I’d battle through pain, illness, lack of medical knowledge and much more in order to give my children my milk and to form a physically nurturing bond with them. As of this writing, I have been breastfeeding for over 8.5 years, and it has been amazing to nourish them with both nutrients and love from my own body. Breastfeeding has been my not-so-secret weapon, the tool I’ve relied on to meet all sorts of needs from my children. It also inspired me so much that I eventually trained as a lactation consultant!

How can we better support mothers and parents?

without mothers and children, society wouldn’t survive

We live in a society that doesn’t recognise the labour that parents, especially mothers, provide. Women are expected to give and to give and to not think of themselves, so we need to move towards making the world more family-friendly. Obvious suggestions include offering good-quality, low-cost day care for parents who wish to return to work or payment for parents who stay home to care for their children; providing safe spaces for people to go to with or without their children in order to get non-judgemental support with parenting; treating mothering as the meaningful role it is and giving parents more respect and help; and recognising that without mothers and children, society wouldn’t survive and would be meaningless. Teachers should be paid more than politicians or financial advisors or sports players, for instance, and that would send a message about how children – and therefore parents – are valued.

What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?

I describe myself as an atheist Jew. I am not religious, but I am culturally and ethnically Jewish and I have been inspired by some of my ancestors’ traditions. For example, donating to charity (tzedakah) and healing the world (tikkun olam) are important aspects of Judaism, so my children regularly discuss the ways in which they are privileged, and they buy items to donate to food banks, and they choose to forgo having lots of presents for Hanukkah or their birthdays, instead supporting the work of their preferred organisations with that money. Education is also very important to many Jewish people, so my wife and I have consciously chosen to prioritise a good school and extracurricular activities that support our children’s development, and the girls themselves make active choices about how they want to spend their time. Raising ethical, independent, well-rounded, conscientious children is obviously important to most people, but for me, this stems from my Jewish background.

About your writing …

In your book ‘The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature’ (Anthem Press: 2022), you write:

‘To use a cliche, a woman with a baby in literature is damned if she breastfeeds and also damned if she does not.’

How did you reach this conclusion?

These lines stood out for us too:

‘Many literary works show anxiety about mothering and being a good mother, which is understandable given the vast range of ideas and obligations our society seems to have for women; one dichotomy seems to be that women should both take care of children but also act as if they do not have children, and another can be said to be to both nourish children while also being sexually available to men.’

Please can you tell us more!

As time went on in my breastfeeding relationship with my children and I became more passionate about breastfeeding, I began to wonder why I so rarely saw breastfeeding depicted in literature, either for young readers or for adults. It’s part of life, so shouldn’t it be in books, too? As I spent years as an academic in literature, I decided to delve deeper into this topic and the result was a book I published in 2022, The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature.

In the book, I explore many different aspects of how breastfeeding is described in both words and images in literature for different audiences and across languages/cultures, but unfortunately my findings were overwhelmingly rather negative. To me, this reflects the fact that breastfeeding is not well supported in our culture. Here in the UK, for example, breastfeeding rates are pretty low, and women are encouraged to hurry back to work and to their former lives, which can impact their breastfeeding relationships.

a woman with a baby in literature is damned if she breastfeeds and damned if she does not

Something I claimed in the book is that ‘a woman with a baby in literature is damned if she breastfeeds and damned if she does not’, which sums up the catch-22 many mothers find themselves in, both in literature and in society at large. In many novels, I found that mothers were frequently judged, regardless of their choices. As motherhood is still seen as the highest (or perhaps only) calling for women, a mother is expected to put her child above all else. If she chooses not to breastfeed, she is judged as being a bad mother. How dare she be so selfish that she does not prioritise her child’s physical health and emotional well-being? What does she think her breasts are for, after all? And yet, if she does breastfeed, people are disgusted and disturbed. Why is she showing her breasts in public? Is she only breastfeeding for her own enjoyment? Doesn’t she realise her body is there to serve men and that she should put men’s pleasure in her sexualised breasts over a baby’s need for nutrition and nurturing?

Simply put, women can’t win, whatever we decide to do, which is perhaps why I’d advocate that mothers should make decisions about what works best for them, and try to ignore what others say to them (easier said than done, of course).

Similarly, in my research, I found that there was a huge amount of pressure on women to both give everything to their children but also to live as though they don’t have offspring. This is another impossible thing to achieve. Women are often encouraged to believe that if they are going to be successful, they need to live ‘like men’, or at least to be like the stereotypes that we have of men. For example, women should talk with deeper voices (not those high-pitched, girly ones that aren’t thought to sound authoritative) and we should work extra-long hours, never taking time off to see our kids’ shows at school or to care for them when they are ill. Men aren’t held back to the same extent by having children; they often carry on as before, their lives scarcely changing because of the new presence in their family. If men do get involved in a tangible, more public way, people praise them for picking up their kids from school, but meanwhile, they frown at women who do so, assuming she’s not dedicated to her job. We just don’t respect motherhood in our society, not in all its fullness, diversity and complexity. Motherhood is treated as something other, rather than as something that is one aspect of a woman, the way fatherhood is accepted as just one aspect – often a lesser one – of a man.

A woman who has a baby is pressured by our society to ‘get her body back’ and lose the pregnancy weight as soon as possible, to start having sex (with her presumed male partner) within two months of birth, to return to caring for the household and to her job quickly, and so on. But equally, she is expected to dote on her child, to ‘enjoy every minute’, to never forget ‘how fast time passes’, and to give all her energy and passion to raising her family. You can’t both be one-hundred percent dedicated to your work and one-hundred percent dedicated to your children, and never mind having some time to yourself. The expectations on women are enormous and completely impossible to meet.

I think in literature and in life more broadly, there are a lot of preconceived ideas about what a mother is, and more specifically about the concept of a ‘good mother’. This is quite limiting and can make it challenging for women to find their own way forward as parents. If I could be so bold as to give advice – appreciating that I am an imperfect human being who fails on a daily basis – it would be for people to try to ignore all these voices and ideas to whatever extent they can, and to try focus on who they truly want to be. What does being a mother look and feel like to you? How do you want to relate to your child/children? Your mother isn’t living your life, your partner isn’t living your life, your best friend isn’t living your life, your boss isn’t living your life, society isn’t living your life – only you are. It’s not worth desperately trying to please everyone and to become the ideal person, because that is never going to happen.

Personally, I want my children to know they are loved and adored, and I want to be as present as possible in their lives. But also, for both financial and personal reasons, I want and need to work, and I think it’s important for my daughters to see that there are many facets to my personality and to my life. It isn’t easy to balance everyone’s needs, and I don’t always get it right, and I do sometimes feel judged by other people, whether it’s for not being a stay-at-home parent or for giving up on a supposedly important job, among many other things. Frankly, all these judgements do sometimes make me criticise myself, and that’s painful.

We’re all just doing our best, in a challenging world …

I’d love to see more literary works that depict this struggle honestly, rather than focusing on the supposed dichotomy between good and bad mothers and highlighting the unachievable expectations on women. We’re all just doing our best, in a challenging world, and we need support rather than criticism, encouragement rather than anxiety.

More on motherhood …

When a family member found out that I had a girlfriend (and not the boyfriend she’d imagined), she was quite taken aback. A bit later in that conversation, she said to me, ‘People like you don’t have kids.’ When she announced that, it was my turn to be surprised at how our conversation was going. I wasn’t sure what a person like me was. Did she mean queer people don’t have kids, or that people who work hard don’t have kids, or that people who had left their native countries don’t have kids, or atheists don’t have kids, or what? What sort of person did she think I was and why would it impact on my choice to have children or not? Because she had made the comment in the context of our discussion about my sexuality, I have always assumed that she was referring to that, and I was offended and hurt. People like me most certainly do have children.

For me, my queerness is inextricably linked to my being a mother, both the fact that I chose to have children and the way in which I parent. Like many people, I longed to have children; it was both a physical and an emotional desire. But because it was never going to happen naturally, my wife and I had to extensively discuss it and consciously choose to become mothers. Once we’d made that decision, there were many further choices to ponder in regard to how we wanted to go about doing it. I enjoyed all the conversations we had and felt I learned a lot about myself in the process; I even came to think how lucky we were that, despite the lack of sperm in our relationship, we had so many options for how to create our family.

Our daughters know how they were created; we don’t believe in hiding information from them and we answer all questions from them (and their friends, when appropriate) in a matter-of-fact and open way. Besides a basic knowledge of anatomy and procreation and legislation, the key message our children seem to have taken from our honest conversations, much to my pleasure, is that they are very wanted and extremely loved children. They were not accidents who we reluctantly decided to keep and parent; we actively sought to create them, and we spent a lot of time, effort, money and emotion on it. They seem to delight in their own importance, telling us that they made us mothers and they improved our lives immeasurably, and they sometimes roll their eyes jokingly and say, ‘We know you love us more than anything! You’ve told us loads of times!’

As a mother, I feel that my queerness has a lot of benefits. My wife and I, as noted, did a lot of thinking before we had kids, and this forced us to reckon with our own childhoods, as well as to explore how we might want to parent. We both grew up in traditional, relatively conservative homes in which we seldom discussed our feelings or perspectives, and we have actively sought to use different techniques and approaches in our mothering. For instance, bedsharing, extended breastfeeding, babywearing, the aforementioned dedication to candidness, an inclination to challenge societal beliefs and stereotypes, the willingness to speak up on our children’s and other people’s behalf as needed, a focus on empathy and compassion and an acceptance of the diversity of humankind, and an emphasis on quality family time are all things we have chosen to do or to concentrate on in our household and I would argue that these decisions stem to a certain extent from our experiences growing up ‘different’. Even though particular aspects of my life have been difficult because of my queerness, I believe this has made me stronger, and I like to think that I’m a better person and a better mother for it.

We’re queer mothers, and yes, people like us most certainly have kids.

Also, although this was not my guiding principle in choosing to become a mother, I’ll admit that there was a small part of me that enjoyed the idea of proving people wrong. This included both people like my relative, who made the assumption that queer people wouldn’t have kids, but also all the people around the world who believe that we shouldn’t do so. There are so many people out there who look upon LGBTQ+ folks with disgust or fear, or who actively work to keep us from having equal rights or access to marriage, health care, fertility treatment, the opportunity to foster or adopt, and more. There has been this naughty little voice inside me saying, ‘Let’s show them! They’ll soon realise how great LGBTQ+ people can be at parenting. They’ll see that they had erroneous misconceptions about us.’ Indeed, academic research into queer parenting has shown that we queers are just as good, and sometimes even better, at raising children than our heterosexual, cisgender counterpoints. Obviously, it’s not a competition, but it is powerful to learn that our children are less likely to be bound to gender stereotypes or to feel limited in their choices for their future. Our children see us, two women, taking care of everything in the household and forging careers, so they have no preconceived notions that men do one thing and women something else. They are aware that some people believe this, but as far as they see in practice, everyone – including children – needs to help with laundry or cooking or taking the dog for a walk or sorting out bicycles or the car. Our children see for themselves that families come in many different formats and that everyone plays an important role in the family. When I hear prejudiced or ignorant comments from others, I think about how much more knowledgeable and accepting children can be, and I’m grateful that families like mine exist so we can help change society for the better.

A different relative cautioned me that I shouldn’t be out at work; the concern was that I would be disliked and misunderstood and not promoted. I countered – through my words during the conversation, and through my actions ever since – that I was never going to be ashamed of or silent about who I am, and I certainly wouldn’t want to send such messages to my children. I am proud of all that my wife and I have been through and accomplished on our journey to becoming and being mothers. We’re queer mothers, and yes, people like us most certainly have kids.

Originals … with poet Aoife Lyall

Aoife Lyall is the author of Mother, Nature (Bloodaxe Books, 2021), shortlisted for the Scottish First Book Award 2021. Her work has received national and international recognition through the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards and the Emerging Scottish Writer Award. In 2020, she was awarded National Lottery funding through Creative Scotland to write her second poetry collection, The Day Before (Bloodaxe Books, 2024). Her work to date focuses on motherhood, identity, and emigration.

She can be found online here:
Twitter: @PoetLyall
Instagram: aoife_lyall

A few questions …

What do you find most challenging about motherhood?

The balance of innocence and safety is a precarious one.

The promotion of motherhood as a singular state of being: that it should be my only identity, my sole and pressing purpose for being on Earth. For some people it is- and what a joyous thing to find, and to witness- but I struggled for a long time to reconcile my creative pursuits and autonomy with the performative, all-encompassing concept of motherhood presented to me, especially as a new mother who had no desire to join the litany of baby classes on offer, or to forge friendships exclusively based on being a mother.

Now my children are a little older, the most significant challenge I face is guiding them through a world unrecognisable from the one in which I grew up: trying to figure out how much they should, or need to, know about what is happening all around them. The balance of innocence and safety is a precarious one.

What are the highlights of motherhood?

Observing how the world unfurls in the face of my children’s burgeoning awareness: their astonishment at the colours of the sky, the shape of the clouds, the sound of birdsong. Witnessing the moment they blew their first bubble, read their first word, knocked over their first tower of bricks or blocks. Rediscovering my own spontaneity and sense of fun when they ask if they can have at disco at 06:15, or a sandwich with questionable fillings, and I think ‘Why not?’ Seeing what they learn from me, and what they figure out for themselves. Learning how to be with my children: sometimes on their terms, sometimes on mine.

Revelling in their lack of inhibitions, in their unquestioned confidence, in their absolute belief in what is possible. I learn something new from them every day, not least how to be kinder, more patient and more compassionate: not just towards others but to myself as well.

What do you want most for mothers or parents?

For children to be recognised as a part of life, neither an expectation nor an aberration, an inevitability or an inconvenience. One thing lockdown highlighted was the irrefutable fact that a significant number of people in any workplace, in every profession, have children. Many of us will have seen the amusing clips on the news of children bursting in during serious discussions and been presented with the reality that this person may be the world expert in immunology or global currency, but they still butter toast and look for missing socks. I want that duality to be seen, acknowledged: for parenthood to be recognised as concomitant with other pursuits, professional or otherwise; for society and workplaces to fully embrace the reality that many people do not have family nearby or access to other forms of support. That we, every one of us, are the village.

What do you want most for children?

Rediscovering my own spontaneity and sense of fun when they ask if they can have at disco at 06:15, or a sandwich with questionable fillings, and I think ‘Why not?’

At this point in time? Stability. There is a generation of children, including my own, growing up through: a pandemic; a war; a cost-of-living crisis; the curtailment of rights; libraries being underfunded and closed; healthcare veering wildly towards privatisation; education costs going through the roof while education budgets are slashed; food bills, mortgage rates, and utility bills rising at unprecedented and unsustainable speed; all with parents who are overworked, underpaid or unemployed, burnt out and suffering physically, financially, and emotionally from the turmoil of the last three years, and all of this on top of inevitable stressors and tragedies of life. I am at my bravest when protecting or caring for my children, and we need to teach this generation how to protect and take care of each other. After all, today’s children are tomorrow adults, our future friends and colleagues: and what is good for them is good for us.

What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?

Anything and everything: growing up in a big family in Catholic Ireland; my mother’s confidence; witnessing the revelations of the abuses of the Church (particularly the cruelty and depravity of the mother-baby homes); moving to Scotland; having friends who chose to become parents, who became parents by chance, and those who chose not to become parents; being pregnant; being blindsided by hyperemesis; conversations with friends who are doctors, midwives, and speech therapists; working as a teacher; starting to write; experiencing a missed miscarriage in the throes of a family crisis; the mothers I meet now my children are in school and nursery.

The most significant revelation for me was the knowledge that my parenting philosophy has been shaped by all these things, meaning it is open to scrutiny and change, and so I do not worry about following one specific set of beliefs but instead allow my understanding and philosophy to adjust and adapt as my children grow up.

About your writing …

We are intrigued by the title of your poem and the collection ‘Mother, Nature’. Could you say why you choose this?

The poem for which the collection is named was inspired by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, Islands (Episode 1). In this episode we witness a foody bird feeding from the dripping shell of a fairy tern’s egg. What astonished me was the scene that followed: the fairy tern returning and continuing to incubate her egg because she doesn’t know what else to do. It was so savage, so heart-breaking, so natural.

The word ‘mother’ is often used as shorthand for love, nurturing, bonding, closeness, intimacy, caring, self-sacrifice, and loyalty. When paired with ‘nature’- usually marketed as pure, gentle, wholesome and spiritual- it conjures up images of a perpetually benevolent force, something which has been immortalised in myths, legends, stories and statues in every culture since time immemorial.

And so, with that one little flick on the page, that single comma, I wanted to disrupt the idea that motherhood is an inherent characteristic, something that all women want, that all women work towards and desire above all else and, with that, to refute the belief that not choosing to enter a state of motherhood is somehow ‘unnatural’.

with that one little flick on the page, that single comma, I wanted to disrupt the idea that motherhood is an inherent characteristic, something that all women want

I also wanted to challenge the perception that expectant mothers are filled with all the knowledge and understanding of all mothers past at the moment of conception, and to contest the promotion of motherhood as the most natural thing in the world as if ‘natural’ somehow precluded pain, suffering, doubt, fear, and death.

Could you tell us more about ‘Trapeze’ and these lines from the poem:


The lack of sleep. The near misses.
The aching doubts. I practise natural
until I cannot see myself


Trapeze’ was written at a time when every day was a struggle held together by routine. I was not in control of my life or my body. I couldn’t stop, or rest, when I needed to: feverish with mastitis, delirious with exhaustion, I had to keep going because there was no one else who could intercede or take over: no family, no friends without young children or babies of their own.

The lack of sleep meant forgetting the baby’s name, nearly driving through red lights, slipping on the stairs, forgetting the day of the week, the month of the year. But as long as the baby was seen to be thriving, I became this strange spectre: the most and least significant entity in the room; invisible but subject to constant scrutiny.

And so I got through each day by pretending I was okay. I performed the part so well, so convincingly, no one seemed to think anything was wrong. Over time I began to doubt that anything was wrong, and that, through sheer will, I could do it on my own; that my struggles were unique to me, that it was only me who couldn’t cope; that if I failed, I would be the only one, and I would be left alone in my disgrace.

More on motherhood …

For so long I thought motherhood was something I had to aspire to, that it was something out there for me to discover. Always an eager pupil, I thought it was another thing I could prepare for in advance: a test with a certificate I could frame and hang on the wall along with my other qualifications and accolades. And I tried to do that, for a while: I read the books, learned what symptoms to watch for, when to introduce solids, when to expect first steps. And in those moments, went things went well, I got a taste of the success I was so used as I made my way through school and university: short bursts of euphoria; confirmation that effort equalled reward. And when they didn’t? When things went ‘wrong’? That became my personal failure.

And those earliest weeks and months became defined by that idea of success and failure. Did she feed well? Did she sleep? Did she hold her head up early? Was she late rolling over? My daughter’s milestones became judgements, comments on my character and ability, not hers, and that belief made almost impossible to enjoy them on their own terms.

Right at the beginning (as I learned with hindsight) every action is either pre-emptive or reactive, so there is very little living in the moment. Every decision is either a ‘right’ one or the ‘wrong’ one, and until the child can start to articulate their needs or wants, days can veer wildly between ebullience and despair.

Then a little time passed, and I started recognising the things that caught my daughter’s attention, and so I spent a lot of time coming to her, coming into her games, her ideas, encouraging a love of play and exploration. I was in her world, and watched it grow around her.

Now she needed more from me than nursing and nurturing: she needed me to be all of myself.

But then a little more time passed, and she got to the stage where she didn’t always want to be asked what she wanted to do. She didn’t always want me around. She complained of being bored, even in a room full of toys and games, arts and crafts. I couldn’t understand her frustration at first: she had built an entire world around herself, how could she ever be bored of it?

Then I realised it was because she had reached the limits of her own imagination, her knowledge of herself and the wider world within which she existed.

Now she needed more from me than nursing and nurturing: she needed me to be all of myself.

And with that, I began to share my knowledge, my interests, my curiosities. No longer content to read the words on the page, I began talking about who writes and illustrates the stories, about all the stages of book production from the original concept to the final publication.

Through this, my daughter, and later my son, started to recognise certain authors and illustrators. When they came up to me while I was working at my laptop, usually during the brief five or fifteen minutes of a cartoon they were watching, I didn’t instantly close it as if I had been caught in the act but showed them what I was working on, and talking about how a submission was put together, how a journal was edited. My daughter started coming home from nursery with books she had made, and as she progressed the thick blue wavy lines were replaced with pictures and words, sentences and storylines.

In the car, we stopped defaulting to nursery rhymes and children’s audio books and started integrating an eclectic music list of our own. A chance encounter with The Repair Shop led to weeks of fun: suddenly DIY and toy repair took on a whole new level of significance. A book from the library has led them to an interest in the Impressionists. A love of Lego means we spend hours at the kitchen table building all sorts of kits between us. We are bringing them into our world, and they see we are enjoying ourselves so much more.

Writing this, I know a little more time will pass and they will discover those all-consuming passions that define late childhood and early adulthood, the ones that I will want to be part of, that they will chose to keep me out of or let me into. I can only wait.

I will not tell you to treasure every moment, neither will I tell you to wish it away. All I can say, all I have learned, is this: don’t be yourself: be all of yourself.

Originals … with poet Kuli Kohli

Kuli Kohli was born in India with cerebral palsy. Now lives in Wolverhampton, married with 3 children. She’s retired from Wolverhampton Council after working 32 years. She runs the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group. Her poetry Patchwork and A Wonder Woman are published by Offa’s Press. She’s performed at universities in London, Berlin, Liverpool. She writes for Disability Arts Online. She’s performed at the British Museum in London. She has been appointed Poet Laureate of Wolverhampton 2022 to 2024. She’s been awarded an honorary doctorate degree, Doctor of Letters, by the University of Wolverhampton in 2022. She is involved in various projects around the country.,

A few questions …

What surprises you the most about motherhood?

The Asian community said it was impossible for me to get married, let alone experience motherhood. Becoming a mother was a big surprise. I was extremely anxious about how I would cope with being a mum, but I’m glad I did it. It felt like an experiment for me to see how I would manage with motherly duties. I have cerebral palsy which affects every aspect of my life, from getting up in the morning to basic personal care, to falling down through losing my balance, to cooking meals and eating. Carrying drinks without spilling them is a problem. It takes me three times longer to do physical activities. I need a walking stick, these days, to help with my balance, so, how on earth would I be able to raise my own family?

Becoming a mother was a big surprise.

What do you find most challenging about motherhood?

I was extremely ill throughout all my pregnancies. I thought ‘What I have got myself into?’ I suffered low blood pressure where I saw stars before passing out, I had morning sickness which felt like 24-hour sickness. I suffered indigestion and heartburn which meant I couldn’t eat very much. The migraine attacks were horrendous where I had to stay in bed for 2 days or more. My sickness record was at the highest.

When I had my children, I was worried about dropping them or hurting them. I couldn’t give my baby a bath without my husband or grandparents’ support. It was difficult to dress and feed my children, but I found a way to do it. Through the tough prods of my fingers and tight holds of my hands, my children adapted to a special kind of motherhood, not experienced by many.

What are the highlights of motherhood?

It was fascinating that a woman with multiple disabilities could give birth to a perfect human being. The first time I saw my baby’s face after giving birth I was delighted. It was such a relief when I heard the words: ‘He or she is fine, fit and healthy’. To hear these words meant the universe to me, I soon realised I was just like any new mum/dad/guardian, but for me it was extraordinary.

Another highlight was when my in-laws came from India to live with us, it felt like a huge weight being lifted off us. As working parents, it’s always hard to find trustworthy childcare facilities. I didn’t want to feel like a duck with three ducklings following me all the time. I am so glad that my children had their mother and father, and grandparents in one house. This is the best kind of mother/parenthood a child can get.

Do you feel like a mother?

I believe that motherhood brings together so many responsibilities that need to be credible for your children to become good human beings.

When my children were babies, I did feel like a mother because I did what I could to comfort them. Now they are older, 26, 22 and 17, I feel more like a friend than a mother. I give them freedom to develop the way they want to. I give them guidance when they need it and ask them questions about what they intend to do with their lives. I will always be their mum but most of the time they need a friend to confide in not a parent. I enjoy their feedback, their thoughts and their aspirations. I believe that motherhood brings together so many responsibilities that need to be credible for your children to become good human beings. Motherhood’s main goal is not just to bring a child into the world but nurture, encourage and love that child until the end.

What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?

A Mother’s Philosophy

The joys, the losses, the fears,
the anxiety, the beauty, the tears,

Everything around me has helped
shape my experience as a mother.
The joys, the losses, the fears,
the anxiety, the beauty, the tears,
the love, the loathing, the bumps,
the doctors, the medics, the dumps,
the midwives, the nurses, the NHS,
my husband, my family, my in-laws,
the household chores, the screaming,
the crying, the soothing, the calming,
the singing, the shopping, the juggling,
the teachers, the schooling, the cuddling,
the out of school activities, the sharing,
the joking, the laughing, the caring,
the feeding, the laundry, the bathing,
the accidents, the listening, the playing,
the squabbling, the sickness, the quarrels,
the problems, the tackling, the solutions,
the ambitions and most of all the love
that we have taken and given
to our children has all impacted
on my life as a mother in a family unit.
Never give up, never think you’re alone,
support is always available if you ask.
Becoming a parent or guardian
will change your life forever.

About your writing …

You performed Black Country Wonder Woman in the lockdown of 2020, with your son rapping some of the verses, twenty years after your experiences of miscarriage and having a baby born premature. What was it like to revisit the experience two decades on and in the lockdown?

I wrote Black Country Wonder Woman for a commission by Multistory for a project called ‘Sandwell Stories’. Revisiting the birth of my second son, Roshan, was something I thought about a lot, so when the commission came along it was the only story I could write about in connection with Sandwell. The lockdown and the pandemic gave me the appropriate tone of mind and feelings to revisit my experience as a mother who had endured a few miscarriages and the strange circumstances of the birth of Roshan. Whilst feeling lost and anxious during lockdown I could easily link my experience to my Sandwell story. It was hard to write the experience down in a ballad type of poem. I wanted to write it as it was then, and suddenly it became relevant to the lockdown and pandemic. I quickly realised I was writing for other new mothers and not just for myself.

Staying in and working from home was a shock to everyone’s system. I had never worked from home because I worked as a Welfare Rights Support Worker which meant that I had to support the officers, managers and clients. To give this support proved very difficult over the phone, email and Teams calls. This new experience and the emotional side to it gave me the ability to think in terms of my personal story about giving birth in difficult circumstances especially the petrol strikes of September 2000. Considering all these poignant feelings, I could then retell my experience in a dramatic way.

Could you tell us more about ‘Black Country Wonder Woman’, in particular these lines:

The baby will be fine
It’s you we’re worried about

Kind nurses and the hospital staff were great
Just as I deserved

I have cerebral palsy which means I don’t have much control over my body, I also fall down quite a bit. So, when I got pregnant, I was extremely worried about falling down and losing my baby. I was told by family members that I must be careful at all times. As the pregnancy progressed, throughout various illness, bumps and tumbles, the doctors and nurses told me that the fetus was safe in its amniotic sac. I needed to protect myself from all the external hazards around me. For someone with CP everything is a potential hazard!

Life didn’t get easier, I just got stronger.

The nurses in the maternity unit and all the antenatal hospital staff always gave me extra help and gave me a lot of motivation to keep going and carry on. They understood how disability affected me so they needed me to understand what was expected in the process of being a fragile mother. The NHS staff were quite astonished with how I was coping for a woman with cerebral palsy. They knew I needed that extra bit of help, encouragement and guidance. I remember when I was a child and throughout my life I was in and out of hospital. I was always anxious about going into hospital because I’d had so many engagements with the medics and consultants that sometimes I felt like a guinea pig. My CP created so many aspects for the doctors to investigate, they were fascinated about how to cure my spasms, my hearing loss, my inability to balance and my bodily pains. Life didn’t get easier, I just got stronger.

More on motherhood …

When I took on this commission, I thought this is a very good idea to give mothers and others an insight into becoming mothers, fathers, parents, guardians. I thought if I could tell my story about my experience of motherhood, I could provide it from another perspective to encourage new mothers.

As a woman with cerebral palsy and multiple other disabilities, being a mother was something I thought I would never experience. Even my own parents and the Asian community had doubts about it. They would say, ‘Who is going to marry her? She can’t even look after herself let alone look after a husband or have a family of her own’. They pitied me and felt sorry for me, but I didn’t want pity or sympathy, I wanted compassion, empathy and respect. I needed someone to say, ‘Yes, beta, darling, you can do this!’

Motherhood is my best friend

I was young, naïve but had some motivation. I was a ‘wobbly woman’ with a dream to gain everything I could in this lifetime. I wanted to do it for myself and wanted to prove everyone wrong. After years of anguish and heartbreaks, I finally got on track to finding the life I loved and valued. Now when I am out with my growing children and husband, people say ‘Is that your brother or sister?’ and even thought that my husband was my father (he’s the same age as me!). When I say, ‘No, it’s my son or daughter or husband’ they are flabbergasted and say, ‘You have been blessed!’ or they say, ‘You must have done something good in your previous life to achieve all you have’. I say, ‘Excuse me, no, I have achieved all this in this lifetime because I don’t know of any other lives.’

Motherhood is my best friend because she gave me all the encouragement and awakened my intuition to the parenting instinct we all have inside us.


As a disabled woman, I struggle with life,
the challenges I must face every day –
from the moment I get up in the morning
right through to the end of the night,
these challenges make me who I am.

Relentlessly, I found a way to get through.

Like a worthless cow for sale whilst
I searched for a suitable husband.
Who would love, support me for who I am?
Finally, I found a diamond, my partner for life.

I thought motherhood was for someone else,
something I never thought possible.
Yet, I wanted my own family, a unit of love,
something I could call my own.

To take care of a baby seemed a million
miles away, “What if I dropped it?
What if I hurt it? What if I couldn’t cope?”
All these ‘what ifs’ crowded my mind.

When the moment came, after the pain,
a tiny bundle was delivered…
The first time I held my son Akaash,
all the doubts, worries and fears dissolved.

Motherhood… you came and took my hand.

It didn’t end there; my journey had started…
I am a swan with a new signet,
Motherhood like a magnet
a bond that tied us together.

The water below treacherous,
I knew I could swim with support,
Motherhood stood by my side
with arm bands, a paddle and a float.

With all the excitement in the start,
I was fragile with ill health.
My husband was extremely happy
with the birth of our son.

Another set of eyes and ears,
a new sensibility in a world
of incapacities. I was a mother
like no other, but it felt perfect.

Like every mother on the planet,
be it human, birds or animals,
parenting is an experience,
a change of a mindset,

a change of attitudes, duties
to safeguard new life.
Maternity leave with my baby
was a precious, valuable time.

A proud Dad, he helped in every aspect
except the changing of nappies,
poop was left for me to clean,
I didn’t mind – made it Mummy’s job.

Motherhood you provide, you guide,
you send the extra helping hands
when it’s quite a trial,
fill me with magic, mile upon mile.

To every mother, father, guardian,
you know you give it your best,
love is out there like a light switch
always on, always bright.

Now, my children are growing up,
‘Mum you’re our mum,
a very special mum!
With all your difficulties,

you raised us like any other mother would.
A wonder woman, a super mum,
if you can do it, so can everyone else!’
Motherhood, you took my hand.

Don’t Forget to Take Time Out as Mum

Take time to think,
it is the source of power.
Take time sit and watch,
and uncover your eyes.

Take time to read,
it is the fountain of wisdom.
Take time to laugh,
it is the music of the soul.

Take time to accept, sustain,
it will heal the wounds of pain.
Take time to walk in nature,
it is a way to link up with unity.

Take time to meditate,
it is discovering how to connect.
Take time to love and be loved,
it is a human right.

Take time to work,
it is the price of success.
Take time with your children, your family,
it helps to build a positive future.

If you are always rushing in life,
you can forget the value of time.
When it comes to a full stop, you realise
life and time walk together, hand in hand.

Originals … with poet Kate Thirlwall

Kate Thirlwall is a poet, teacher, wellbeing coach and mother living in Oxford. Kate’s poems are published in the highly popular Beyond Birth: A Mindful Guide to Early Parenting by Sophie Burch – available on Amazon – and have been selected by the charity Make Birth Better for their lived experience library and online training programmes.

Kate’s poetry books are available to buy at

The Newborn Mother, illustrated by Tim Smyth (2019)
Little people: big wisdom, illustrated by Tim Smyth (2020)
Running out of silence, illustrated by Merlin Evans (2020)
19: The Isolation Chronicles, illustrated by Kate Thirlwall (2021)
The Fine Woman and the Firebird, illustrated by Merlin Evans (2022)

You can follow Kate on Instagram @katethirlwall

A few questions …

What do you find most challenging about motherhood?

I find the external noise of social media has been one of the biggest challenges around and obstacles to intuitive mothering and listening to my instincts. The amount of information available about parenting in modern times is both a blessing and a curse and I have seen a huge expansiveness in my confidence as a mother since quitting most forms of social media. I feel that it robs us of special time with our babies as it is easy to use it to connect to other mothers but the best connections I have made have been in person and in small groups of women where we can spend time being open, honest and authentic about our experiences. I feel one of the biggest challenges in motherhood is staying true to yourself and being strong in your intentions; without comparison to others and being proud of your choices.

I feel like a mother who is growing in her identity, just as my child is growing and being shaped by the influences around him

What are the highlights of motherhood?

The main highlight for me has been feeling completely in my physical, emotional and spiritual power as a woman when giving birth. I felt a deep sense of coming home when I became a mother and I’ve never felt more connected to myself or to my body than when I was pregnant. It was like all the artificial, external pace of society melted away and I was able to surrender to a natural rhythm and compass within. Nothing for me has felt more transformational than motherhood. Since my son was born, I have continued to be amazed by the beautiful process of learning and raising another human being and the reciprocal love and bond between mother and baby is the most precious of my life. I feel so grateful that I have been able to become a mother. It is who I am, who I strive to be and the most meaningful endeavour I have undertaken.

Do you feel like a mother?

This question was posed to me and a group of new mothers in a post-natal course by the course facilitator and I was so pleased someone had put this to me. It gave me space and permission to say that becoming a mother is a process and one that continually deepens, shifts and grows. As new mothers we are also newborns, and so I would say I felt like a newborn mother when I first birthed my son, and now, five years on, I feel like a mother who is growing in her identity, just as my child is growing and being shaped by the influences around him. Feeling like a mother for me means feeling like a leader, feeling centred, feeling a strong, protective force within and feeling wonder at the person I have grown inside me and who continues to grow outside of my body in the world.

I would like mothers to receive more acceptance from health professionals that our feeding choices may evolve and change over time and that they have to be up to the individual.

What do you want most for mothers or parents?

I want there to be a radical rethink of the education and messages mothers receive around feeding their baby as I have seen so many women suffer under a hugely pressurised and guilt-ridden experience of breastfeeding. I feel very strongly that ‘fed is best’ should be the message which is spread everywhere so that whatever shape your feeding journey takes, you can see yourself as a mother and as a family as making healthy, safe and responsive choices for your child, whether those be mixed feeding, breast feeding or bottle feeding. I would like mothers to receive more acceptance from health professionals that our feeding choices may evolve and change over time and that they have to be up to the individual. I have witnessed a huge amount of unspoken and unprocessed shame for women around their feeding experiences and there is a lot of healing that is happening in private when the damage the system is creating needs to be spoken.

How can we better support mothers and parents

I think we can learn a huge amount from other cultures where the transition into motherhood and parenthood is given deep cultural significance and where a community or tribe comes together to support the mother and new family; particularly in the fourth trimester as the new mother and baby are establishing their relationship. In our Western culture of striving, there can be a sense of rushing a mother out of the fourth trimester instead of retreating inward to heal, bond, feed and then re-emerge into the world at a natural pace. I would love to see a blend of support available for mothers which marries the skills from midwives, doulas, family members, doctors and friends so that each mother experiences her first forty days as a mother as being in a safe cocoon-like environment, led by the mother, for the mother.

About your writing …

The first poem in your poetry collection The Newborn Mother captures the difficulty for a new mum of answering the seemingly simple question, “how are you?”. Could you say some more about these two extracts from this poem:

“Tentatively tiptoeing, terrified, into the open landscape of quiet
warrior mothers”

I wrote this poem when I was around four months into my journey as a mother. It was while my baby was sleeping and I was watching people walk past as we sat in a café on a cold November day. I could feel an aching tiredness in my body and I felt in a trance like state most days as the full physical demands of motherhood started to take hold. The initial celebration of the arrival of my baby had passed and I now realised I was embarking on journey in which I had no real training apart from my inner wisdom and my experience with other people’s children. As I watched the crowded city bustling in front of me, my radar was primed to look for other mothers like me, walking with their new, tender beings and doing all they could to respond to them. I felt like I saw those mothers everywhere; and yet they seemed to disappear in the speed of the city’s movements. I looked down at my baby and felt jealous of how peaceful he looked; oblivious to the demands of the world; ignoring the pace of things and allowing his body to rest when it needed to. I felt my responsibility so keenly to protect this cub out there in the open landscape of the world and to honour his needs. I saw a world filled with women, quietly and stoically raising children in plain sight.

“I’m starting again. Starting my life and his life again.
Two newborns.
So ask me how I am and stay for the long answer”

Birthing my son was a rebirth for me too

Birthing my son was a rebirth for me too; it felt like a second chance to become myself and to come back to my true nature; this time accompanied by my child. I felt like I came home to who I had always been and it was a chance to reassess what was really important in my life. I wrote these lines because they felt such a true representation of the transition into motherhood. So many people asked me ‘How are you?’ after I had my son and I couldn’t comprehend how to put this into a succinct answer. By asking this question, it felt to me like someone opening a giant door of an experience that was bigger than anything I’d gone through up to that point and so I wanted to be able to fully express my answer to it. Saying that, I also felt the social pressure to please the other person who was asking me how I was; as the people asking weren’t necessarily wanting or expecting an in-depth reply; more reassurance that I was happy or coping or joyful or well. I wanted to express the complexity of being asked how you are as a new mother, and the gap between feeling able to respond authentically and responding efficiently. Finally, I remember wanting to express that I was starting my own new journey to be as real and genuine as possible in my role as a mother and to model this to my son.

More on motherhood …

there are many women who are struggling with setting themselves impossibly high standards in motherhood

An aspect of motherhood which I feel deserves more attention is high-functioning perfectionism and how this shows up in many areas of our mothering. In my experience, there are many women who are struggling with setting themselves impossibly high standards in motherhood; a trend which can be exacerbated by social media, WhatsApp groups and our own internal ideal of what a ‘good mother’ ‘should’ do. In my own experiences and in the experiences of close friends, this kind of high standard mothering is also reflected in expectations of gender roles within the family, where women in heterosexual partnerships can find themselves unconsciously assuming an emotional load for which they never sign an explicit contract. Social expectations of a good mother and a good father can vary; causing additional pressures on women. I wrote the poem ‘Choices’ about this phenomenon, zooming out on myself and looking at the ways a woman can choose to use the information and perceived sets of rules which surround her. A second aspect of perfectionism is how it robs us from the richness of being everything we are as mothers and as women. I wrote the poem ‘Honestly’ to show the contrast between the pain of constructing a flawless Instagram reality versus the beauty of accepting ourselves in all our colours in motherhood. The less explored parts of ourselves which we can sometimes go to great lengths to hide, are, in my opinion, the places we need to express and heal in order to model to our children that they are normal, natural and deserve to be heard.

I remember feeling so anxious in the early days of motherhood when I would go to new baby groups. It felt like a return to the school yard. Would I make friends? Would people accept me? Am I doing this right? If my baby cries, will I be able to model a warm, attuned response or will I panic and rush myself and him? I remember wanting to talk about me as a mother as well as my baby and feeling relieved when I found a mindfulness group where this type of conversation was possible. We would talk about expectations of families, work, partners, siblings and how there is a constant navigation of information and advice and how difficult it is to filter things out so that we are choosing what will nourish us and not what will cause us to abandon ourselves or to overstretch to please other people.

It takes a lot of bravery to go at a slower pace

If I could give one piece of advice to my younger, newer, mother self, it would be to try and carve out time to be on your own, so you can really tune into what you need and what your family needs too. It takes a lot of bravery to go at a slower pace, or to choose your own pace / routine / way of being which works for your family. Whenever I have made a decision as a parent based on the influence of others or the fear of not fitting in, it has not felt right and has not had the desired effect. This poem is a rally cry for mothers to listen to their intuition and to beware of routines, books, experts or the latest motherhood trend as they can make you alter yourself to fit in rather than feel where you truly belong.


I looked down at the sticks on the table.
Each of them brittle and decked with thorns.

I knelt my head down to the base of the first stick and my eyes met the first thorn; like a shark’s tooth.

A familiar reflex shivered through me.
To take each stick and use it to beat my back until my gait was so weakened that I could no longer lift my head to see a path in front of me.

My fists clenched the edge of the table and I drew myself up to standing.

I took two paces back from the table and looked at these seemingly natural weapons again.

Slowly, deliberately and carefully, I teased off each thorn.
It was painful work and at times I winced when I thought I had placed my fingers away from the sharp edges but they slipped and I bled.

Finally, I saw these sticks were bare and unthreatening.
I interlocked them, finding the places where they had yielded and learned to grow.
In these places there were nooks that allowed the graft to fix tightly and with new intention.
After meticulous construction I could see it was ready.

I had built a mast.

A mast to plant inside the boat that would sail me onward.


She made a cake that made the kids hyper, overexcited and then sad.
She had THE best time.
She is so happy that she has to share this with strangers.
Hashtag positivity.
Yet she itches to scratch out reality through her squares.

Show me a woman like any other:
and sacred
and self-conscious
and monstrous
and scared
and lonely
and together
and in love
and grieving
and deep
and sensual
and empty
And full of sweet contradiction.
And…made up of everything.