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 www.mumstheword.press/shop
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.
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.
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
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.
So ask me how I am and stay for the long answer”
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 …
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.
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.
Yet she itches to scratch out reality through her squares.
Show me a woman like any other:
and in love
And full of sweet contradiction.
And…made up of everything.