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Katherine May on the Challenges of Motherhood

Posted on 20th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

The Best, Most Awful Job is an unflinchingly honest look at the highs and lows of modern motherhood. An anthology containing pieces from Hollie McNish, Leah Hazard, Michelle Tea and others, it is edited by Katherine May, author of the profoundly moving and powerful The Electricity of Every Living Thing. In this exclusive essay, Katherine discusses the challenges associated with being a mother diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. 

Around this time two years ago, I was deep in existential dread. My memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, was about to be published, and I was certain that catastrophe was imminent.

I had all the usual anxieties - that everyone would hate my book, or, worse still, ignore it completely – but I also had a very specific concern about what I’d written. I had confessed a secret that many mothers keep, and which I wasn’t sure I should share in such a public way. I had said that I wanted to be alone.

Not alone as in ‘five minutes to grab a cup of coffee in peace’. Not even, ‘an hour in a bubble bath with the door locked once a week’. Those are the clichéd moments of me-time that are supposed to represent the limits of what we can stand before we scuttle back to our children.

No, I meant alone. The kind of alone that involved going off on my own for a whole weekend, and ranging over the South West Coast Path while I recovered my sense of self. The kind of alone that involved falling into complete silence for days at a time, and entirely forgetting my responsibilities. The kind of alone that was supposed to send me running home in an agony of separation, but which didn’t.

There were some very good reasons for my desire for solitude. When I wrote Electricity, my son was three years old, and I was completely overwhelmed. From the moment of conception, it had been blindingly obvious that I hadn’t coped well with being a mother. I loathed all the fuss that came with it, from the maternity appointments at the local Sure Start centre to the noisy, chaotic toddler parties that seemed to fill my every weekend. I hated the awkward obligation to socialise with other parents at parks and play dates. I didn’t want to chat about getting my figure back, or brag about developmental stages, or worry about school places. When I expressed this out loud, people would back away from me. My desire to run away was not socially acceptable, but theirs was. 

Despite all this, I loved my son: fiercely, passionately, bewilderingly. I never had a moment of doubt about that, not even in my most desolate moments. I loved him, but I could see that I was not performing my love in the way that I was expected to. I had failed, somehow, to get the mummy-memo. My love looked wonky to other people: too tentative, too conditional, too abstract. There was too much of myself left in it, too little selflessness. I realised that I was an outlier, perhaps even an outcast.

In the fullness of time, I came to understand why my love looked different from the outside: Electricity is a book about discovering I’m autistic. And despite my fears, publishing an account of that time in my life didn’t bring the ceiling down on my head. In fact, many women – autistic or not – sent private messages to say that they felt the same urge to rest and reset. Some even told me that they had begun their own projects to walk some remote and craggy path, somewhere, once a month.

But other people were not so kind. In a Q&A after one reading, a woman put up her hand and asked, as if it were entirely neutral: ‘Are you able to love your son?’ I did my best to disguise my fury, but I’m not sure I entirely managed it.

We have a long way to go before people understand and respect autism as a difference and not a deficit, and, sadly, outdated misconceptions that we are unfeeling linger on. But I think, more broadly, we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the diverse ways we can approach motherhood. From the tabloids to the gossipy corners of the playground, we have made a weapon of judging the quality and extent of other mothers’ love, and it’s time that stopped.

When we were commissioning the essays for The Best, Most Awful Job we asked all our authors to write as if we trusted them, on a basic level, to love their children. How would the conversation about motherhood change, we wondered, if we started believing that the vast majority of women are giving their children all they need, in their own way? The result, I think, is extraordinary, shining with fury, frustration, melancholy and yearning. These emotions are not the opposite of love, but what love is made of. And until we stop clinging to the image of one, idealised type of mummy, we will not understand the fierce, astonishing scope of motherhood. 

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