Friday, January 27, 2023

In Conversation With Sarah Jane Barnett, Part Two: ‘The First Year Of Motherhood Was The Hardest Year Of My Life’

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Award-winning writer Sarah Jane Barnett has just released a part memoir, part feminist manifesto called Notes on Womanhood, which covers a whole host of topics. In part two of Capsule’s two-part conversation with the author, we look at the effect motherhood can have on mental health, how having a parent come out as transgender altered Sarah’s understanding of womanhood and the financial impact of burnout.

Part 2 (Having a transgender parent, the difficulty of motherhood, mental illness, self harm, burnout, women shouldering care work, ‘doing nothing’)

(TW: Self harm, postpartum self-harm)

You wrote about your transition to motherhood – how you didn’t know how to be a mum and felt part of yourself ‘dissolving’. How hard was that?
The first year of Sam’s life was absolutely the hardest year of my life, and I’ve had hard years. I didn’t have a huge amount of support because my family and husband’s family don’t live here. I really wanted a child, so that was fulfilling. But you’re given this baby to take home, and my husband only had 10 days’ leave and then it was just me – bleeding for six weeks and delirious with lack of sleep.

You experienced some self-harm in early motherhood?
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a teen. I first went on antidepressants when I was 17 or 18, and I’m still on them. In my teens, and at times in my 20s, when things went really badly or I felt I was under too much pressure, self-harm was the place I went to. It’s not uncommon for women especially, and I didn’t have the tools to cope.

As a new mother, my struggle wasn’t so much to do with parenthood itself, but other factors such as my husband not being able to get much leave, not having a community of support, and also having those expectations of motherhood ‘being natural’. While I feel like I’m a natural carer, I did a huge amount of reading on how to care for a baby. It’s not something we just ‘know’. I was also trying to write a PhD in poetry at the time, and to do other work. Trying to do all that while being a new mother was overwhelming. But I haven’t self-harmed for years now, thanks to working with a brilliant therapist.

Do you feel there’s less stigma nowadays talking about mental illness and self-harm?
I think there’s still quite a lot of stigma, but I feel quite comfortable talking about it. We need to talk about it. Also, I’ve got messages from people after reading my book saying, “I also self-harmed in early motherhood because I found it so hard”. So, I’m glad it’s in there. I feel well suited to motherhood, but it’s been great to see more stories told – like the [2021] film The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Colman – about women who don’t take to motherhood. I think hearing these stories and breaking that taboo is really beneficial.

You write about how unpaid care work, housework and life admin often falls to the woman, but how that, at times, it’s also made sense for you to do that because your husband is the primary breadwinner?
My husband and I are on the same page in that he wants to be an equal partner. But even if we decide to split the domestic work equally, we’re part of a system that doesn’t support that choice for men. We’re still working on it together. I do more of the domestic and emotional work than he does, and he does more paid work, but that’s what’s currently working for us. In part this is because he can earn more, but also I want time with our son when he’s young. But also, I want to create too. There’s no simple answer!

What does your husband think of the book?                                                        
I got permission from everyone who I mentioned by name in the book, apart from my grandmother who had died. But my husband hasn’t read the book. He trusts me and felt he didn’t need to.

Even the bit about him shrinking your son’s special socks in the dryer when he should have known better?
Not even that bit, but he knows that’s in there! He’d read it if I asked him to, but this just isn’t the kind of book he’d normally read, in the same way that I haven’t read his IT strategy documents.

Some men I know struggle with the idea of the patriarchy, and say things like ‘it’s not our fault, we want to be an equal partner in the home, and women keep saying we oppress them and that’s not fair’.
I don’t think being defensive and saying ‘it’s not my fault’ is helpful. In the system, some individuals benefit more than others. Through a man’s mere existence as a man he will benefit, just as I benefit by being a middle-class white person. So, it’s about recognising the ways in which you benefit, recognising the ways in which other people don’t benefit, and how those two are connected. Then, of course, trying to find ways to change the structure. Things can be not your fault, but still be your responsibility.

“I know quite a few couples where one partner has transitioned and they’ve stayed together. Don’t we love the person rather than their gender?”

You thank your parents in the book for letting you write about them?
I’m very grateful because there’s a lot about them in there. It was a consultation process. My mother read everything and she’d send me notes back and forth, like, “That didn’t happen,” or, “That happened on a different day”. Dad read the book and we discussed it. Publishing it without their full support wouldn’t have felt right to me.

What did they think of the book?
They’re proud of me. My mother especially because, being such a feminist herself, she could see its value. And they gave nice feedback because they’re both academics and writers so understand the effort involved.

You wrote about your father telling your mother many years ago that she was too fat for him to love. That must have been a bit confronting for them to read?
Yes, it definitely created conversations between us. It can be hard to look back and face your previous self. But Dad said that 30 years ago, and isn’t the same person now. I think what helped is that the book has an even-handedness – I’m also looking back on my previous self and the abuse I’ve done to myself. So I think that, reading it, they felt we were ‘all in it together’.

When you were in your 30s, you found out by accident that your father was a closeted trans women. How did that feel?
I felt all sorts of things: bemusement, anger, grief, clarity. I was confused that my parents hadn’t told me, especially as I had a close friend who had transitioned. I asked, ‘why didn’t you just talk to me?’ But it was a process they were going through privately, and it had nothing to do with me. I was really glad I did find out as I could better support them.

Did they split up?
No. They had their 53rd wedding anniversary last week and were super cute about it.

Wow. A lot of women wouldn’t have been able to handle that situation.
It would be interesting to see the stats. I know quite a few couples where one partner has transitioned and they’ve stayed together. Don’t we love the person rather than their gender? But also, my mother is an incredible woman.

You wrote about how it was painful to watch your father come out as transgender – wearing tight dresses and wigs – and you said something to her like, “Stop buying into this beauty shit”? You almost felt possessive of womanhood – that she was kind of ‘getting it wrong’?
It’s complex because when someone transitions, there’s an exploration of self, and that’s what happened with Dad. It’s strange to experience your parent going through that. I did feel she was ‘getting it wrong’ but that’s because I wasn’t well-educated on transgender experiences, and now I would respond differently. I have huge compassion for Dad.

You wrote that you almost felt she was claiming womanhood without lived experience, when she had benefitted from the traditional gender role of a man?
There’s some truth in that because my father benefited from presenting as male in academia and the professional opportunities which that brought. But my father always had a lived experience of being a woman – it was just very different to mine. Writing this book helped me untangle my feelings about Dad coming out, and I’ve realised it’s okay to have lots of different feelings. I can completely support trans people living as they want, and still feel anger or sadness regarding my dad. One doesn’t negate the other. I also feel so joyous for her and proud!

Will you write another book?
A few months ago I said to my writers’ group, “I’m never writing another book ever again”. When we next met, I was like, “hmm, I’m starting to feel like writing again”. But I’m giving myself until next year to practice rest. I’m actually ‘doing nothing’ as a project for six months. I’ll have occasional paid work and be a mother and do unpaid domestic work, but I’m going to practice behaving and living in a way that I haven’t before, and see what happens.

“[Burnout] manifested in panic attacks for about six weeks, and then just total exhaustion.”

How will that work day to day?
Reading. Walking. Gardening. Weaving. I have a little weaving business. I’d like to lengthen and deepen my meditation practice. Also, to explore things I’ve wanted to do but haven’t had time. And also to see what will happen if I give my body six months of not having a major project. Since my son was born, I’ve written three books and a PhD while also working. Towards the end of this book, I got quite sick with burnout.

How did that manifest?
It manifested in panic attacks for about six weeks, and then just total exhaustion. I was working 20 hours a week in a job, and I had to quit. I’d been trying to do too many things for too long, and my nervous system burnt out. Even just going to a café to meet up with my best friend was a big thing. I haven’t written about this, but it was a full-on, hard-core burnout and I had to work closely with my doctor.

Had anything like this happened before?
Yeah. In my late teens, I got very sick and spent three or four months in bed. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. That was when I was first diagnosed with depression. But I think it was a type of burnout as well. This time, I think it happened because writing the book was a very emotional process, and I had to process a lot of feelings.

Also, the pandemic had a huge impact. My husband was without work for a time and I was on a writing grant so we had very little income. There was a lot of uncertainty. We’re so lucky that my parents could help, and that we had savings and own our house. I think ‘wow, if this affected me this way, imagine how it has affected people who have more financial insecurity’?

How did your family respond to your burnout?
We try to just roll with it. We’re all people with weird brains in my house. My husband and son have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. Our family environment is very accepting of everyone’s ‘selfness’.

You write in the book that “It is never too late to be what you might have been”?
That’s a quote from novelist Mary Ann Evans, whose pen name was George Eliot. I think that every day, you can let go of what has been, and in a sense, start again.

the book cover on Notes On Womanhood, the new book by author Sarah Jane Barnett

For part one of our two-part conversation with Sarah Jane Barnett, visit here.

Notes on Womanhood (Otago University Press) by Sarah Jane Barnett is available to buy now

You can find Sarah’s work at: Notes on Womanhood cover image by Henrietta Harris, Fixed It XV1, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Melanie Roger Gallery.

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