It's Got to Be Perfect is the name of Claire Allan's latest novel, but as she acknowledges herself the quest for perfection can do more harm than good, especially as a mother in the 21st century. Bernice Mulligan reports
" IF one more person suggested a ginger nut biscuit, I thought I might brain someone," jokes Claire Allan as we talk about her latest book It's Got to Be Perfect, and more specifically the writing of it. Listening to the softly-spoken Derry author and journalist, it's hard to believe baked goods could invoke such passionate emotions, but as she puts the whole biscuit issue in context you begin to understand why.
"I was pregnant with my daughter Cara at the time, and was suffering from hyperemesis, which is where you throw up constantly for nine months. As soon as I put my feet to the ground in the morning the vomiting began. I tried everything – homeopathy, medication, the aforementioned ginger nut biscuits – but I was still being sick five minutes before she was born. It was terrible."
One would think a book borne out of such terrible strain would be dour and downcast, but It's Got to Be Perfect is anything but. It is highly comical and escapist, centring on 32-year-old Annie Delaney who has a habit of sleeping with hairy men and her best friend Fionn, who, to Annie at least, seems to have the perfect life.
"I do think there's a huge pressure on people to be perfect and to have the perfect life," says Allan on what prompted her exploration of this subject. " You have to have the perfect marriage, be a perfect parent, have the house kitted out entirely from the Next catalogue. But the reality is that trying to keep that up is exhausting. So the book is a look at how perfection isn't all it's made out to be."
Allan knows from experience that trying to keep up appearances can have seriously negative consequences. After her first child Joseph (six and a half ) was born she suffered severe post-natal depression without initially realising it.
"Although I did everything I was supposed to in terms of looking after Joseph, I just didn't feel this motherly bond you hear about. I knew something was wrong and I began to wonder was I a bad person."
During her post-natal depression, Allan says she found it hard to accept help from anyone else. " When people would offer to help I'd say, 'No, I'll do it'. It was like I was trying to prove to myself that I was a good mother."
Returning to work was the catalyst for, as Allan describes it, "a bit of a meltdown".
"I was back at work trying to combine everything and I just couldn't. So, in the end I took a month off and was put on appropriate medication. During this time, myself, Joseph and my husband Neil went on a little break for a few days and that was a turning point. Everything was so relaxed, and I began to feel myself bonding with Joseph properly. I remember thinking: 'Ah, this is what everybody's talking about!'"
Allan addressed the issue of postnatal depression in her first book Rainy Days and Tuesdays and says the response was overwhelming.
"I got so many emails – people saying they'd had depression maybe 20 or 30 years ago but never knew what to call it. And then there were other women writing in to say they were going to seek counselling as a result of reading the book." Allan also writes a blog,
www.claireallan.com, using the same open, honest style that is the trademark of her books.
"Although I wouldn't necessarily be the most open person talking to people, I suppose I am quite open when I write, because writing allows you a certain freedom. I never pretend I lead some glamorous life – I'm just honest and I write about real life – feeling tired, getting the kids ready, etc – which I think people respond to."
Allan recently wrote an interesting blog entry after seeing a T-shirt for young girls with the slogan 'Future Footballer's Wife' emblazoned across it. Does she fear for Cara as she grows up?
" Yes, celebrity culture worries me. There just seems to be a lack of strong female role models. I hope she will see me doing something I enjoy and be inspired by that. But this culture seems to encourage them to grow up so young. Cara's just 19 months now, but if she reaches 10 and is still playing with dolls I think I'll be very lucky."
Allan is putting the finishing touches to her fifth book, which she admits was "quite tough" because Cara did not sleep for most of the period she was writing it.
" We used to call her ' The baby who never sleeps'. It's only in the past two to three months that she's begun staying down for the whole night."
But with a demanding job as a journalist with The Derry Journal and with a deadline to make for It's Got to Be Perfect, how did Allan cope with so little rest?
"I was very grumpy," she laughs. "Nobody could look at me. But you just get on with it, don't you?"
Mother & Babies