Walk the Line with Claire Kilroy: ‘I was stupefied by motherhood. I worried that I might never return to writing’
Dublin author Claire Kilroy’s first book in over a decade is a tender yet raw account of motherhood. Here, she reflects on her lost identity during her son’s early years and the ‘invisible, unvalued’ labour of mothering
I was always writing stories as a child. Not in a precocious way but almost as a form of play; of disappearing into another world the way kids do. Then it became a thing I could do to sort of ring-fence my sense of self when I felt under siege.
When I was in college studying English, they used to tell us that the literary canon was about sex and death. That seems like a male variation of what inspires me: love and loss. We forge these bonds between one another but, by definition, we will lose each other and that seems to me the thing to write about now.
With my first four novels, the only thing I was responsible for was writing, moving each book on a little further every day. I produced a novel every three years by just sitting there until it was done. Then I had a baby and Soldier Sailor took 11 years.
I didn't consciously take a break from writing. I consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) tried to write every day, adding to a file called Notes 5, but raising a child is huge and childcare wasn't an option in the early days because it costs a second mortgage and we were trying to secure a first mortgage.
It felt like a forlorn enterprise because I no longer had a good run at things and the novel as a form requires sustained focus. My child got older and I got mornings and early afternoons to myself. All the scrappy notes I'd made were in Notes 5, waiting to be crafted into a narrative.
I worried that I might never return to writing. I was stupefied by motherhood. I couldn't finish sentences or remember why I had come into a room. Whole episodes of my life are still missing. It was like the biggest alcoholic blackout ever. I had no space, no time to think or process, and I became so frittered by the 24/7, 365-ness of it that, on a fundamental level, I no longer was myself. I was her for so long that I worried I would never be me again.
I gave a copy of Soldier Sailor to my son and wrote: ‘when I am gone, you will find me here.’ It's for him. And it's for me; this thing blew my life up and left me feeling like a failure for years. It’s for all the soldiers too, meaning all the people who are doing the unpaid labour of raising the next generation. This work is unseen, invisible, unvalued.
Once I emerged from the infancy years, I wanted to look hard at what it was that had so floored me. I wanted to understand why I had found it so difficult, but also to articulate why the bond I forged with my child through it was so profound.
I don't want to be talking about motherhood, I want to be talking about parenthood, but we are still so far away from that in Ireland. All responsibility for babies falls to their mothers. The fathers can opt in if they choose. They can take paternity leave if they choose. Women don't have these choices.
Mothers watch the fathers' careers take off while theirs stagnate because employers know the burden of care falls on female shoulders: she won't be available for overtime, she'll have to run when the crèche rings up saying her kid just got sick. Women fall further behind, they have smaller pensions, they are less valued by society in a very literal way and lose confidence, lose status.
I'm re-entering the workplace now. My child is seeing me in a whole new light and it's good for us both, and good for my marriage.
While I was working on Soldier Sailor, my friend, Christine Rossiter, and then my cousin, Carolan Long, were taken in their thirties by cancer, leaving young children behind. Dying young was bad enough, but both women were terrorised by the knowledge that they were leaving their kids behind.
Motherhood was life’s biggest obstacle for me. A great male writer told me recently that I needed to become more selfish, and I thought, that's not it at all. It's the other way around. If the great males start doing some nurturing, they will see there is much to be gained from forging these bonds. The great males will become greater males.
An ethos that I live by? Go for a walk.
I have a difficult person in my life, and a dear friend asked whether it would be helpful for me to consider this person as having a mental illness. And you know what? It's so helpful. Every time they do something hurtful, I can shrug it off as not personal – it’s the best piece of advice I have ever received.
Books I return to again and again include Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Athena by John Banville, and Ulysses by James Joyce.They are my favourite authors, alongside Martin Amis – Money is one of the best novels ever and I am sad that he is gone.
I am most proud of my brilliant child. He's terribly empathetic. Parents regularly tell me about some nice things he did for their kid. He never tells me himself so he doesn't know I know. But I do.
Next for me, is toying around with a historical novel involving a ghost.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy is published by Faber and available in all bookstores