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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.