The challenges of trying to combine motherhood with a creative career hit home for me a couple of years ago when my older daughter, then four, was doing a project in nursery about summer holidays. She informed me that all her friends were going to France, Spain, Portugal and Florida. Then she asked where we were going.
It’s not easy explaining to a child, who’s already packing her swimsuit and sunglasses in a suitcase, that her mum’s a creative type who’s not currently earning any money, which means every spare household penny goes towards childcare, leaving little for luxuries like holidays.
So I swallowed the guilt and feigned excitement and said: “Harris.” No offence to Harris. It’s a gorgeous island. Or it would have been if it hadn’t rained for the week. Of course I felt selfish for putting my desire to write ahead of my child’s desire, possibly even need (we are Scottish, after all), for some sun and vitamin D. But luckily, my daughter misheard and, two years on, still tells people about our amazing week in Paris.
It’s often said that motherhood is the enemy of creative work. No one can write with a child around, Doris Lessing famously said, after abandoning two of her three children in Africa to return to England to devote herself to her creative and campaigning work. If only they’d had iPads in 1959. I’m half-joking, of course. But thank goodness we have at our disposal a less extreme sacrifice in response to the conflict between the parental and the artistic.
Before I had children I lived to work. I was a journalist and had written a comic memoir, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, about having depression and anxiety and essentially car-crashing my way through my twenties and early thirties. Working, writing, gave me a sense of purpose, identity and self-worth.
When I became a mother, I still had the purpose, arguably a more important one as the life-support system for another person. However, I struggled hugely with my new identity and my dwindling sense of self-worth and confidence. I turned down journalistic assignments because I became afraid of a deadline. Before kids I would’ve stayed up all night if I had to. Sleep-deprived, and with a baby who wanted fed five times a night, that suddenly felt like a decision that was no longer mine to make. The novel I’d started writing while pregnant seemed, at four o’clock one morning, utter rubbish – and probably was – and, through tears of self-pity, I pressed select all then delete.
At that point I was, I suppose, deciding to devote myself completely to motherhood, to live and breathe my children and resign myself to the idea that while some famous and successful women manage to do both I was never going to be one of them.
A little later I was approached about adapting my book initially as a film then as a TV series. As I was doing little else other than feeding and staring at the small person I’d co-created – sometimes in awe, sometimes in terror – I offered to write the adaptation myself.
Though this never found a home, despite loads of notes, another hundred-odd drafts and a couple of near pick-ups, it was a lifeline and a real passion project for me for a few years. Not only was I working with and learning from some incredibly talented women, but it also kept me sane and gave me something that was just for me, an escape from the domestic while navigating the shock to the system and identity crisis that came with new and early motherhood and having two children under three.
I decided to keep writing – starting scores of new scripts and finishing one or two – and reached the short-lists in a couple of competitions. However, I still wasn’t making a living and this was something I was really struggling with. On a practical level, the costs of childcare, even just on a part-time basis, were crippling. Psychologically, the transition from independent professional woman to financially dependent mother was, despite a hands-on and supportive partner, very tough.
Last summer, when we didn’t have the resources even for a Paris via Harris-type summer holiday, I decided I’d had enough of the struggle. I started applying for “proper” jobs, and, because I didn’t want to cancel at the last minute, I attended a Raising Films Making it Possible event at the Edinburgh Film Festival. This was a turning point for me. It was inspiring to meet other women who were all sharing the same doubts and fears but who were determined to build a support network and find a way to make it work.
A little later, I won a John Brabourne Award. This is a scheme administered by the CTBF to help emerging talent in the film and TV industries. It bought me that most precious of commodities – some worry-free time to develop new projects as well as a very welcome confidence boost.
Thanks to both of the above, I now have a comedy in development with the BBC and a couple of other projects at various stages of development. I’m also writing a play as part of the Playwrights Studio Scotland Mentoring Programme.
Trying to forge a creative career with motherhood is difficult. Both want 100 per cent of you. But despite the challenges, there are advantages. Yes, time shrinks with children. An hour to stop and stare would be heaven. But I have found that the time I do have, I usually use much more wisely. Also, being a mother opens up a range of emotional experiences that I couldn’t have imagined and that are invaluable for writing drama or comedy. At the same time, work is no longer everything. If a project fails, it’s not the end of the world.
So now, even if I don’t “make it”, whatever that means, I’ll keep trying.
I’ll keep trying because I am a woman from Glasgow with working-class roots. This sentence screams inferiority complex and I’ve struggled with one all my life. It has taken giving birth to two daughters and the embarrassingly late feminist awakening which it triggered for me to understand it and shake it off and to finally realise that I have a valid voice and something worth saying.
I’ll keep trying because, as I write this, I’m listening to a radio report about a woman who was sacked for refusing to wear high heels at work and a study suggesting some employers place more value on how women look than on their ability to do their jobs. This is in the same week that seven white men signed away the reproductive rights of women in developing countries. We need the voices and stories of women – and other under-represented groups – more than ever.
Finally, I’ll keep writing for my daughters. I want to demonstrate to them that it’s okay to risk failure and that their lives and their dreams don’t end if they decide to have children. Even if it means I’ll never attend a PTA meeting or put on an apron and bake cookies with them. That’s their dad’s job.