Stroud applies a literary attention, a poetic energy and a nature writer’s eye to a life spent largely in kitchens and bedrooms. She describes picking up socks and hanging up damp towels in the way other writers have described picking across battlefields or having sex in foreign fields. Most importantly, she pours noise and colour into an experience that at times is chokingly quiet. As Stroud writes, while some women complain that there is a silence around the pain of labour, there’s another silence, just as loud, “around the squashed feeling of despair that can come with cooking supper which will get thrown into the bin untouched, night after night”.
It’s the honesty that makes this book so compelling: TMI in Technicolor! Siri — but not for sissies… ‘There were times when the other children were very small, when I would take them to baby groups, looking for other women I could talk to about the new feelings of dark love which occasionally took hold of me,’ Clover notes, before deciding: ‘It’s safer to just go on singing pat-a-cake-pat-a-cake as if the feeling didn’t exist’, only to put it down on paper.
While I have no doubt of the extremities of emotion Clover Stroud feels – and depicts in her imagery – this is far from a Cuskian account of the darker emotions our children can pull us towards. Nor is it a political commentary on the state of contemporary motherhood. Stroud’s struggles to balance her return to work, her marriage and her sex life with her extraordinary output of care-giving are touched on lightly. The vocation of motherhood clearly wins out for her: “How can I explain [to Pete] the tricks my mind plays on me by telling me that I don’t like the toil that motherhood has forced on me, while quietly pondering whether a sixth child is out of the question?”
It is a chronicle of an inward life, of sweat and leakages and love and all. The most relatable of her views is hatred of the mumsy security of the Topsy and Tim books, which she compares to a video recruiting Isis brides. One which “suggests life in the caliphate is going to be about making date cookies in the sun while waiting for your warrior husband to arrive home. You give up your life and all your freedom, and when you get there it’s really terrible clothes, bleeding heads on sticks and bombs going off everywhere.”
Stroud was shortlisted for the Wainwright prize for nature writing for her debut memoir, The Wild Other. Her new book is nature writing, too; but this is nature as experienced from the inside. She excels in evoking the feral, instinctive forces that motherhood unleashes, which can be so difficult to explain or describe (hence the shocked refrain of new mothers: “Nobody ever tells you!”). And while she is acutely alive to its joys – sexual, exhausting, earthy joys – these are always intertwined with darkness and difficulty. “Motherhood hurts,” she writes. “And I like to be hurt.”
Parenting is about equipping your children with the love and skills they need to become happy functioning adults. Stroud’s book will give anyone heading out on this fearsome journey a lantern to guide the way. The book is not always pretty, and sometimes its directness is shocking, but it is full of love and honesty and talk. And ultimately those are the only things that matter.