The writer on the silent suffering that drove her to write her unvarnished, granular and often funny take on new parenthood and pregnancy
Before we start our interview, writer Marianne Levy warns me that, as it’s the summer holidays, there’s a very good chance that we might experience a ‘BBC Dad’ moment on this Zoom call, as her eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old-son are at home.
“Someone might just barge here in going, ‘mummy, mummy’,” she smiles. It’s the morning after the English women’s football team won the Euros, and as Levy notes, it’s a been an interesting, heartening moment for her young London-based family. “My sort of great hope is that, you know, WE can remember a time when it was crazy and amazing that the women were the ones who brought [football] home,” she says. “It makes me cautiously hopeful that, even amid the atmosphere or climate crisis and cost of living, well, here’s one good thing that we’ve done to make the world better.”
If there’s one thing that Levy does well, it’s writing about the singular experience of raising children in this very moment, in a social climate riddled with anxiety and disquiet. Modern motherhood is complicated at the best of times, but add the likes of climate change uncertainty, childcare issues and having to explain the enormity of the Holocaust to a young child, and things become infinitely more so.
Levy’s non-fiction book, Don’t Forget To Scream, stands apart from the populous pack of recent books on motherhood, for a number of reasons. With tremendous wit, warmth and acuity, Levy describes the quietly awful terror of birth trauma, the discombobulation of the first few weeks of motherhood, the renunciation of her pre-baby self, the challenges of breastfeeding, the subtle ‘ghettoisation’ of new mums into spaces like parks and cafes, and the ongoing wonder that building a new person from the ground up invariably brings.
And yet, Levy knows that all of this amounts to an ordinary experience of ordinary motherhood.
Scattered throughout are humorous observations of this new world (why does every brand of baby gear have infantilising names like Shnuggle or Bumbo?) as well as compelling discussions on childcare challenges and the gender pay gap.
“The baby comes and the front door swings shut and suddenly it’s 1954,” Levy observes at one point.
“Every time I sit down to write, I’m down £90 in debt and have to work to get back to zero. I worked like I was being chased by a monster,” Levy says. “And also, I’ve been told all my life that work is an integral part of my personality and my drive and who I am. I just wasn’t expecting to find myself backed into a corner in this way.”
Elsewhere in Don’t Forget To Scream, there’s also a colourful, charming essay on the perils of pet goldfish ownership that will make any parent of young kids shudder with familiarity.
First things first: Don’t Forget To Scream may be unfiltered and granular, but it has not been written as a counterpoint to the dreamy, blissful, #blessed version of motherhood. Rather, Levy simply hopes to widen the discussion on motherhood, to include and give voice to those for whom the experience of motherhood, imagined and anticipated for years in many cases, is not quite what they expected.
“There’s been a real pendulum swing [in writing about motherhood] towards, ‘oh, it’s not all that great and Instagram is lying’,” Levy notes. “And there hasn’t been that kind of nuance, you know, where it can be brilliant but also incredibly claustrophobic within the same 15 minutes, and sometimes, within the same heartbeat.”
More than anything, Levy couldn’t believe quite how lonely motherhood turned out to be when it became her turn, mainly because the women she knew who had given birth before her rarely articulated that.
“There’s something about the abnegation of self that comes with babies and small children that I was very ill-equipped to handle,” Levy adds. “Maybe as a society we are very ill-equipped to handle that. In the UK and especially in north London, where I am, we sit in our little boxes, scrolling on our phones, and then we go to our special cafes where there’s not a particular sense of integration with the rest of society. I do struggle with that.”
Very few writers manage to sufficiently describe the multi-faceted array of feelings involved in becoming a parent, and for that reason, readers have instantly responded to Levy’s unvarnished account (truly, it’s the sort of book that should be pushed into every new parent’s hands, alongside the frozen meals and new spit bibs).
I tell her that I found the first few weeks of motherhood a little like coming home to find your whole house underwater, and being told simply that you’re expected to live like this now, underwater. Levy laughs with grim recognition.
“It’s funny — I think mothers were pretty much invisible to me until I became one,” she says. “Like, I literally didn’t notice them. They were a species apart. And I’d read the wonderful, wonderful books by Anne Enright (Making Babies) and Rachel Cusk (A Life’s Work) when I was in my twenties, and I think I was attracted to them because they are writers who write about things other than motherhood, and then came back to that. And I remember thinking about motherhood, ‘well, it will probably be fine, won’t it? Because other people seem to be fine’. But then I don’t think I’d ever thought of the moment where you’re in a situation where you’re like, ‘oh hang on, you’re financially screwed. Physically, I’m in this situation where I can’t leave the house without getting permission. I’ll never be alone again’. I eventually got it, in a very visceral sense.”
Getting pregnant and was fairly straightforward for Levy. She met her husband, a writer, in her early thirties. They married not long after, and by 34 they were trying for a baby. She became pregnant within a month. Her first labour ran to five days, she endured horrific birth injuries. Now, Levy notes with a smile that she can easily stretch to 45 minutes when recounting the entire awful story, although most of her friends are inclined to hold their hands up in surrender after 15 minutes. “People literally got up and walked away,” she recalls.
“[My daughter] was left in my birth canal at nine centimetres dilation for five hours at the end because the doctor who was going to get her out kept getting paged to go back to the theatre for another emergency,” she recalls. “It was horribly frightening, just waiting to become this… emergency.”
And yet, raised in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a feminist, Levy was conditioned to believe that women’s pain didn’t matter, and that shouldering it without remark was some kind of badge of valour.
“Coming out [of childbirth], you’re told, ‘well, you’re not dead and your baby’s not dead’. That’s a very low bar,” Levy says.
“The difficult thing was coming home and trying to fight very hard to get the birthing injuries seen to, and you’d hear ‘well, I don’t see this as being of any concern’, or from pelvic floor specialists, ‘you’re not trying hard enough’. I think I really struggled because the narrative was that if baby is going well, that’s all that matters. She was all worth it. But we weren’t doing well. I wasn’t doing well, And I had no language to say it.”
Writing about it, and the impact this significant birth trauma had on her first few days as a mother, ended up being cathartic.
“It’s funny how these two things can be true,” Levy observes. “That you can have a beautiful daughter, but you can be in pain and knackered and unable to cope with all of this. I thought, ‘supposing these things could both be true’, but it didn’t seem as though it could be true for anyone but me.”
Levy’s second pregnancy was relatively straightforward, and her son was delivered via elective Caesarean section. She experienced post-op complications, while her son also spent time in the neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) right after birth. Again, writing about it all became a moment of reckoning.
“I write about going to meet my son after my second birth — he was put on my chest and taken away very swiftly, and then I went back up to the NICU,” Levy says. “I remember going to the wrong tank and saying, ‘hello baby’, and a nurse slid out of the shadows to say, ‘this is not your baby’. I tell it in the book as a funny story, but actually when I wrote it, my brilliant editor was giving me notes and wrote in the margin, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you’. And it was such a cathartic moment, I guess. The first time anyone said, ‘I’m so sorry’.”
When her son was two weeks old, Levy sought to make sense of her new life as a mum of two, and hurriedly wrote an essay Two Weeks in a sort of fever dream.
“This may not be especially coherent,” she wrote. “The other night, I was crying, for some reason (you cry a lot when you have a baby) and my husband put his arms around me and held me close and patted my back, long and slow. We both realised in the same moment that he was burping me.
“Every now and then I find a new drift of grey gunge, on my shoulder or my inner thigh, and try to think whether I remember a sensor being stuck there,” she added. “Two weeks in and I really ought to rub it all off. Maybe tomorrow. Or in a year, or something.”
Pinpointing the energy of the moment and its maelstrom of emotions to a tee, Levy’s essay, posted online, went instantly viral. So, too, did a follow-up, The Mothers (both of which are found in the book). Another essay, written at the outset of lockdown, ran on the i newspaper website under the headline, ‘Coronavirus lockdown is turning me into a surrendered wife, pliant and pleasant as I bake bread’. It, too, promptly touched a nerve. It was probably only a matter of time before publishers began making enquiries about a book.
“I didn’t write with any expectation of it turning into anything else,” Levy notes. “I had just found this way to communicate in a way that I couldn’t with [saying] words, and that seems to have resonated with people.”
Up until that point, Levy’s literary stock-in-trade has been children’s fiction. In addition to writing five titles for pre-teens, Levy worked for many years as a voiceover artist. After attending Cambridge University, Levy had acting in her crosshairs, working regularly on radio plays on BBC 4. During university, she toured with the Footlights, the storied amateur drama club at the University of Cambridge which counts Emma Thompson, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie among its alumni.
“I was in Footlights at a sort of funny time I suppose, in that on the one hand, we’d be doing the Edinburgh festival for a month, but we were also touring lots of regional theatres with audiences who were sort of expecting to see the next Stephen Fry or Emma Thompson,” she recalls. “Squaring that sort of expectation for something new but with the sort of jolly-sketch legacy, was a strange, strange thing.”
Pivoting to writing from acting, she notes, seemed like a natural progression.
“I like being in front of an audience,” she says. “I like the performative element of reading my writing to a crowd. In fact, I always read my work to myself before I hit ‘send’ to anybody. I’m drawn to people like David Sedaris, who also have a kind of performative element to their writing. Part of me is always thinking about how to keep the attention of a restless, physical audience.
“I feel too as though writing almost points to that sense of being a voice, rather than a kind of physical presence,” she adds. Apart from all that, I do think I’m much more courageous on the page than in person.” Anyone who reads Don’t Forget To Scream, where courageous truth-telling can be found on every page, may well agree with her.
‘Don’t Forget To Scream’ by Marianne Levy is out now published by Orion Books