It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t really talked about the inspiration behind my debut, The Rival, on my blog. So, I thought it’d be good to remedy that! Let me start by saying The Rival is a work of fiction. However, the seed of the idea came from my own experience of new motherhood. One of my friends once told me that giving birth was like being in a car crash, both physically and mentally. It stuck with me before I gave birth, and it proved to be surprisingly accurate.
I was 33 when I got pregnant, and although my daughter was very much longed for, I was shockingly naïve and had no idea what to expect. I’d been a wholly selfish ‘career woman’ up to that point – I was a successful journalist and PR consultant and knew nothing about babies, or how to care for them. Once the first few months as a new mum were behind me, I was amazed not to be able to find any novels on this subject, given all the women I knew who were also struggling to forge a new identity as a mum after so long in the world of work. And so I decided to write about them – a story for women who have struggled with this transition, in the face of a working world that is still so stacked against us.
I didn’t suffer from postnatal depression but like many women, my sleep deprivation in those early days reached the point where I started hallucinating at night, imagining the baby was in bed with me when she was actually asleep in her cot, and my moods swung from euphoric to desperate with exhausting frequency.
To add to my stress, I unexpectedly found myself on maternity leave without a job to return to. Sadly, this is an all-too-common situation. It was utterly terrifying: this open-ended new ‘life’ that was completely alien to everything I had ever known, and that I was woefully underprepared for. And when I did secure some freelance work when my baby was only four months old, I was averaging three hours’ sleep a night, none of my ‘work’ clothes fitted me, and I felt exactly as Helena does in the book: a misplaced lump between two stools. Not yet confident as a mother, no longer a career woman.
It was the strangest time of my life. I had been the old me for 34 years by then, but a mother for only a handful of months, and despite my ferocious love for my baby, I felt bewildered by who I had become. I’d never really realised how much my identity was tied up in my work and independence.
Not working was very strange, and in the middle of the night I’d panic that I should be doing something with this time ‘off’. I read on someone’s blog that when you have a baby, it’s OK for you just to be looking after the baby. You don’t have to be trying to hold down a part-time job too, or finishing a long-neglected novel (!), or doing charity work, or whatever it is that you think is necessary to justify your existence as a stay-at-home-mum. That helped, a little. But it was still hard to give myself permission to do ‘nothing’. Even though I was exhausted and probably working harder than I had done in ages – just in a very different way.
I feel like I really lost myself in those early months. In fact, I would say it took a year for my confidence to return. Thankfully, Oli is super supportive and, thanks to the nature of his career, is around a lot more than most fathers. I genuinely believe my situation might have been very different were it not for the fact that I had him by my side every day during those life-changing early months.
Because this is what it boils down to, in my opinion. Support. New mothers need support. They deserve support. It can make a crucial difference - can truly determine whether they sink or swim.
Since The Rival was released last September, it’s been fascinating seeing how readers have responded to it. Many mothers have written to tell me that the feelings Helena experiences in the story echo those they experienced too. Many more people have said it made them cry. Other people have complained that it’s not a thriller, and despite my frustration that no one ever said it was (!), it actually just makes me sad that my message was completely lost on them.
It’s strange, your debut novel. You pour everything into it - it feels intensely personal, in a way that your second and third novels don’t. I still find it a bit frightening that I have shared that bewildering experience - that intense loss of identity that came with the loss of my working life - with the world, even if it was through a character who isn’t me (I promise!). Those feelings seem so far away now - my whole personality has changed over the past three and a half years, as my daughter has grown, and I’m more than happy in my own skin these days. In many ways then, I’m grateful that I managed to capture those feelings - the raw emotion, the little kernel of truth that was so painful to admit to at the time.
The Rival will always be a special book to me, a marking of time that reminds me how far I’ve come.