In her new book, My Wild & Sleepless Nights...
British author Clover Stroud tackles a topic that is not only insanely complex but also highly contentious – motherhood. You know, that adventure you embark on that turns out to be the longest, most exhausting, and most thrilling marathon of your life? Here, our founder Georgie Abay talks to Clover indepth about mothering five children over 20 years; the devastating grief of losing her mother slowly after a tragic accident, and then her beloved sister; the creative process behind her new book and the messy, magical world of mumhood.
Talk us through your lockdown experience?
It’s a scary time, which has also oddly brought up some great stuff as well. The duality of it is quite confusing and the conversations I’m having with friends and certainly what I’ve been feeling is, it’s scary and it’s incredibly unknown. You go between a state of absolute horror and anxiety, to a sense of relief and at times, even a sense of joy at this enforced pause and stillness. I’m very aware that I’m not a healthcare worker. I’m not a key worker. I’m not on the frontline of this. I speak from a position of not having to go into the hospitals. I absolutely have the utmost respect for the key workers and the health care workers, particularly those who are really fighting this battle for all of us.
As a family living in the countryside, it has forced us to slow down and that has been quite healthy. It has forced us to really look at each other and with five kids, we all have to pull in the same direction as well. I think that’s the main kind of thing that I’m taking away from it at the moment – that duality of the scary confusion combined with a kind of awakening.
Your book, My Wild & Sleepless Nights was described by The Times as “quite simply the best book about motherhood I have ever read”. The book examines what it means to be a mother and reveals with unthinking honesty the many conflicting emotions that this entails, the joy and the wonder, the loneliness and despair. When you wrote this book, did you anticipate that it would resonate so deeply with mothers across the world?
I hoped that it would be a voice that women would understand and would find very familiar. I wrote it because basically, I had my first child when I was 24 (he’s now 19) and then I had another five children through two marriages. So, I had two kids in my 20s and I then got divorced. Then I had another three children in my late 30s and then my fifth child, Lester was born when I was 40. I’ve now been parenting for nearly 20 years.
When I was holding my newborn baby Lester, I was confused, delighted, occasionally deranged, excited and enraptured by motherhood, as I had been when I was first holding my eldest son Jimmy, who’s now 19. The challenges of motherhood remain the same. People would say to me, “Oh, you’re an old hand” but I didn’t feel these things at all. I still felt like an amateur. That was one of the things I wanted to communicate in the book – motherhood is really hard and it doesn’t really get easier – it goes on being challenging.
What is it like having children of such different ages?
When Lester was a newborn baby, Jimmy was hitting adolescence. He was 15 at the time and he was going through the normal adolescent challenges – he got expelled, he was smoking weed… I wanted to write about parenting, not just babyhood and pregnancy and dealing with a toddler, but dealing with all those things at the same time.
When I look back at that period of Lester being a newborn baby and Jimmy being expelled, and then the other kids who were at preschool, it was incredibly chaotic, sticky, dark, and hard. I feel that the book really records that moment in our life. If I was going to write a book about motherhood, now it’d be different. Jimmy’s 19, Lester’s three. We’ve got through adolescence and Jimmy is now at art college and he’s a really fantastic young man. I think as mothers, we don’t want to admit to the darkness. We are scared to talk about it.
When you were writing the book, was your intention to make mothers feel less alone?
When you write a book, it’s a big thing. It’s like doing a big marathon. So, you have to do it because you really, really want to do it. When you start out, I don’t think you’re writing it for other people. But part of the joy of writing is also the conversations you can have around the creative process. I find Instagram so helpful for this, it has been such a brilliant resource.
I’ve written about the way motherhood has changed my career and my sex life with my husband and my relationship with my children. A lot of it is kind of dark. As I was writing it, I did at times think, “Oh, should I be saying this? Is this what other women are feeling?” I would chat to women on Instagram, all around the world. What I heard was a resounding, “Yes, this is what I feel. Yes, this is as difficult for me as it is for you.”
You started writing in quite a confessional way in your late 20s as a journalist…
I realised how liberating it was. I started journalism when Jimmy was born in my mid-20s. I started doing a lot of pieces for magazines and newspapers about the kind of stuff that I was going through. I was a single mother in my 20s and I was married to an alcoholic. I’ve been through a lot of life trauma. I felt like I could write in this very open way because of the kind of feedback I got from other people saying that, “You’ve really helped me and you’ve really, really liberated me.”
I have written about the sex drought that happens, but also that desire is still there if you do allow yourself to feel sexual as a mother. There’s also the weird kind of pressure on us to be these sort of well-behaved, well-organised people who are endlessly patient and good at doing crafts with our kids and cooking cupcakes and so on. The idea that sex comes into it is almost something slightly subversive. There’s a slight feeling as a mother, that you shouldn’t be having these kinds of appetites. So, admitting that it is there, was also kind of liberating in itself. Being the one who speaks the truth can be kind of a nerve-wracking or scary place to be. But because so many other women have said, “Yes, I see myself in the way you write,” it ceases to be nerve-wracking.
We're more connected than we've ever been with platforms like Instagram and Facebook. But for so many mothers, there's still that dreaded sense of loneliness that happens when you first become a mother. Why do you think even though we're so connected, we do still have these feelings of loneliness?
There’s a whole chapter on just giving birth in the book. Giving birth is a lonely landscape that you have to walk out onto. Nobody else can give birth for you. Those first few weeks with a newborn baby are overwhelming, they’re exhausting and they’re extraordinary. You do feel separated from the world – you can’t go out and be part of life in the same way that you were. So you’re having to completely reimagine yourself as a woman.
We’re expected to almost give up the parts of ourselves that we were before and we’re supposed to settle down. One thing I wrote about in the book is, I find that phrase, “She had a baby and settled down,” really confusing because having a baby is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever done.
You have openly and really beautifully shared your experience with postnatal depression - do you find that that has been quite healing?
I had postnatal depression badly with my third child and I wasn’t expecting it at all. I had just met my second husband. I was newly married for the second time. We were very happy. We had this beautiful little girl and I was expecting my life to feel happy. I felt very, very overwhelmed and I felt very dark, and I felt very trapped and confused. Evangeline was born in September and it took me until December or even January to really realize what was going on. I have a really close relationship with my husband, but I was keeping it all a secret from him.
For me, postnatal depression manifested in that huge sense of uncertainty about who I was and was I doing the right thing. Small decisions that I was making about how I was spending my day or things that I was doing with my baby. For me, it was a voice telling me that I wasn’t a good enough mother and that I wasn’t bringing her up in the right way. The quicker you say to somebody close to you that you don’t feel normal, the sooner you can start getting help for it.
Postnatal depression feels like this big energy that overtakes you. That is so scary and dark, but once you know what it is, once you kind of know it’s almost like naming the kind of monster that you’re scared of, you can then start to treat it. But it takes a while to get through it.
What have you learned about relationships after babies?
My first marriage was relatively brief, but it was in my 20s. It lasted three or four years, and I’ve been with my second husband for 10 years now. Forgiving each other is really, really important – and also that you’re walking in the same path. You need to be able to move on without dragging resentments and irritations along with each other.
Try and make as equal a relationship as is possible, which is a very difficult thing to do, because usually, financial reasons mean that one person is working more and then the other person has to pick up the domestic slack more. But if you’re both aware of it and you’re talking about it, it makes it easier. You don’t always have to have your arm around each other. You can be walking in parallel, but slightly separate from one another, but as long as you are pulling in the same direction.
You've spoken so movingly about your mother's devastating accident and the grief surrounding this. You've said that it's not true that every cloud has a silver lining. How has it impacted you? In particular, how has it influenced the way that you parent your own children?
Mum had a riding accident when I was 16 and this is what my first book, The World Other is about – coming to terms with this and living with this. She was left profoundly brain damaged and she lived in this state where she couldn’t look after herself, she couldn’t walk or talk or care for herself for 22 years until she died in 2013. From the age of 16, I was aware and living with this sense of traumatic grief.
Unlike a death, mum was still alive, but she was sort of dead at the same time. There have been other griefs in my life. My beloved older sister died of breast cancer before Christmas. I’m just kind of at the beginning of my grief journey.
I was very close to mum. I came from a big loving family. I’m the youngest of five. We had lived in the country with horses and it was a beautiful childhood and it was suddenly over in a very traumatic way and I survived that. I would even say that I have thrived in difficult circumstances. The lesson that we teach our kids is that you can survive, even though life will throw up the most scary and the most challenging things in your path.
We can’t wrap our children in cotton wool, and neither should we want to. The pain and the darkness that life brings is life. It isn’t that life has gone wrong. It is what will happen, and it is the way that you live beyond that and the way that you love as well beyond that, that will enable you to live an interesting, creative and generous life. Witnessing the death of somebody that you really love has made me more determined to kind of honour them and live in a way that they would be proud of as well.
Now, I know that you've spoken about enjoying the madness and chaos of a full house, but I need to know your tips or hacks for maintaining some sense of calm and balance in a house with five children?
Well, to be completely honest, I think that you have to let go of control a bit. I don’t mean that the children are just running wild and completely feral, but I’ve let go of the idea that my house is going to be completely tidy and well organised and everything’s going to have a place. For me, that would certainly create higher levels of stress. So, letting go of control a little bit. I always find it funny going on to Pinterest and looking at people’s craft tables or activities – mine always look so messy in comparison. The thing that your children will remember is your presence. This has been said many times. What we remember is the love and the loving kindness.
Finally, what would be one thing that you'd like women to take away from your book?
Well, one of the things that’s very important to me in the book and it’s very clear at the end of the book as well, is that loving your children and believing in them through the challenges, through the kind of difficulties of parenting. I think this particularly applies to adolescents actually because I hadn’t really read anything that really addressed adolescents in a memoir in a way. Obviously, there are novels about it, but I wanted to write about the baby as in the toddler years and children, but also about adolescents.
Adolescents get such bad press. You hear people despairing about them and saying that their adolescent son or daughter has become so difficult or turned into someone they don’t recognise. Jimmy had some really difficult times. We had some really bad rows and there were months when I felt really unhappy about my relationship with him and how he had changed from the little boy that he was. But we go through the difficult terrain together.
The book does end with Jimmy moving away from me, which is ultimately what we want our children to do. We’re setting them up to go out into the world. So try and enjoy the moment, because, in late teenage life, they move away from you.