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Writing Motherhood

Carolyn Jess-Cooke
ISBN-13: 
9781781723760
Publication Date: 
Thursday, March 9, 2017
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‘This is a truly inspiring collection, all the more so for its wit and its grit, its poetry and its honesty; here we have women producing ‘good art’ despite – and often  because of – ‘the pram in the hall.’
– Shelley Day

‘Essential reading for anyone who is a mother, or who had a mother, and is interested in how motherhood and creativity intertwine. Packed with top quality writing that serves to remind us that far from being marginal, the challenges of motherhood are central to the human condition and the dual creative role of writer and mother is both conflicting and super-charging.’
– Helen Cadbury, author of the Sean Denton series of crime novels.

‘On reading Writing Motherhood, with all its scope and complexity – I felt relief. It was like holding onto a familiar length of rope; you know the weight, the grip, the exact roughness of it. It was like being tossed a life-line.’
– Helen Calcutt, Wales Arts Review

 

Debates and debacles surrounding the issue of motherhood have hounded women’s writing for decades, and despite advances in feminism, equality, maternity leave and childcare, we are still asking female writers with children how they find time to write.

Through a unique combination of interviews, poems, and essays by established writers, Writing Motherhood interrogates contemporary representations of motherhood in media and literature, queries why so many novels dealing with serious women’s issues are packaged in pink covers with wellies and tea cups, and portrays the exquisite moments of motherhood as often enriching artistic practice rather than hindering it.

Entries include an insightful interview with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Sharon Olds, excerpts from Hollie McNish’s motherhood diary, Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful portrait of being and having a daughter, and specially commissioned poems by Sinead Morrissey, Rebecca Goss, and many others. Crime fiction fans will enjoy CL Taylor’s witty essay, ‘How Motherhood Turned Me to Crime’, and Nuala Ellwood’s heart-wrenching depiction of miscarriage and loss. 

By engaging with both the creation of literature by mothers and literary representations of motherhood, Writing Motherhood is a vital exploration of the complexities of contemporary sexual politics, publishing, artistic creation, and 21st Century parenting.

REVIEWS

Review by Helen Calcutt, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The morning after my daughter was born, I got straight back into writing. She had been late, and struggling to find a way out. We both underwent a speedy and painful induction. When induced, the body suffers contraction after contraction, without rest. The natural rhythms are suspended, and a new chemical urgency swamps the body. I couldn’t manage the pain (or the fear) and screamed for an epidural. From this point, I couldn’t feel. She was struggling to reach me, and I couldn’t answer. I’d been numbed to her throughout the pregnancy – fighting her every step of the way. But still, somewhere inside, I’d sensed her insistence; her slow, relentless beauty. Now in these crucial throws, I had no way of communicating with her at all, and it was mortifying.

In the final pushes, I was heavily assisted. My partner tells me the floor of the hospital room was like a butcher’s blood bath. ‘She was the real sea, and all the blood to follow.’ I didn’t know how to push, so had to lie on my back attached to a monster of machines by tricks and wires. When the last toe, slipped soft and white from the vertical wound, she spleened into the world. Hungry for life, she suckled perfectly.

And despite being left alone that night on the hospital ward, torn and psychically dislocated, having to feed every 3 hours and sleep none, I still found energy for inspiration. The morning after the dreadful day, and the long, clicking hours of the night (it never ceases to amaze how many machines there are in hospitals; how many people breathe like crickets) I woke to a nest of crumpled silk. Her lily hands, her familiar face. I watched her sleep in the plastic bed, I ate biscuits. I took out my yellow notebook (in that new sense of quiet, that uneasy calm) and began to write.

I, or we, have been operating like this ever since. And she has always, selflessly, allowed me to spill my ink. Some might think this is selfish of me. I think its magic.

When first asked to review Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology, the free, unbridled ‘account’ of motherhood that I’ve given above is much what I’d hoped for. I wasn’t disappointed. For a potentially ‘samey’ subject – at worst self-righteous, at best a pointless glorification of poet-mothers and their pens – Carolyn Jess-Cooke has produced something remarkably well-balanced. Surprising at times, speaking like an old friend in others, this collection of poetry, prose, essays, and interviews is indeed a ‘chorus of voices on the wonders and terrors of motherhood’ collected and collated by an astute and insightful editor. It’s aim? To re-introduce the ‘pram in the hall’ argument, that creativity and motherhood (and everything that comes with it) no longer need be opposed, but can, as the ever-wonderful Zoë Brigley puts it, be ‘valuable for the creative life’:

 

Does creativity have to be incompatible with domestic life? Once all the…..rubbish is cast off, what might be left behind is a more positive way of parenting that demands focus, mindfulness, and awareness of others. It’s a way of life that can be inspiring and empowering…

(Motherhood *is* valuable for the creative life, Zoë Brigley, Pg 116)

 

In short, Writing Motherhood celebrates those truthful, and perhaps controversial accounts of the double occupancy of being a writer who is also a mother. No, the pram doesn’t have to sit in the hall for you to sit productively at your desk. Play, compromise, and mindfulness, are all (potentially) creative pathways of being. Much like walking, which is often celebrated as a major outlet for writers, it physically pulls you away from the desk and immerses you in the dusk and distractions of daylight. Motherhood too is a distraction, and a ‘dusk’. It’s your rise and fall (like the sun), a physical re-immersion of the senses, and of the heart. It gives you a reason to go away, to engage with, and fully experience, the fruits of your own flesh. It also gives you a reason to go back.

On reading Writing Motherhood, with all its scope and complexity – I felt relief. It was like holding onto a familiar length of rope; you know the weight, the grip, the exact roughness of it. It was like being tossed a life-line. Something to pull and tug against, and settle your feet under:

 

My baby flicker-kicks

with all five ounces of her weight,

with all four inches of her length.

 

I dream her hand

Pipping from the egg of my belly

Like a wing through a shell….

 

…In perfect folds and re-folds

her cells gather, graceful as an origami swan

she flicks and settles, settles and kicks;

(Pg 33, Die Schwangere, Nuala Ni Choncuir)

 

This poem, ‘Die Schwangere’ by Nuala Ni Chonchuir, is a highlight, and extraordinary. It is an astute, organic piece of work, driven right from the depths of what is to carry life. It’s the most common thing in the world, but unique, making you (and your little one) an extreme paradox. A catalyst for your love, your pain, your sickness. The tone here is like that of Popa or Pilinszky, but its spring-loaded musicality is close to traditional, common-place almost.

The poem also isn’t so much a poem about being pregnant, as it is about listening. Nuala heard her child. She annotated its movements, its particular-rhythms, its repetitive heart-motor – all echoed in the repetitive energy of verse. This is a testament to this mother-poet’s openness, and her willingness to inwardly observe the recurrent nature of her child. Its ‘flicker-kicks’ and dreaming ‘hand’. It’s also a testament to editor’s vision. If nothing else, Jess-Cooke’s selection of writings on-the whole serve and satisfy the reader’s need for the individual’s experience. To not only read about relatable moments, but also moments we’ve never had to face, but because we have access to empathy, can understand. There will also be moments when you’re simple reduced to tears. As with poems such as ‘Strange Fruit’ by Kaddy Benyon:

 

Sometimes I just want to show

you the places I’ve mottled, rotten

and bruised; I want you to lean close

enough to hold the strange fruit

of me and tell me I may yet thrive

(‘Strange Fruit’, Kaddy Benyon, Pg 81)

 

Others will leave you disturbed, yet somehow in the same breath, soulfully uplifted:

 

The Mud Man whispers to me in a dead language.

Noli timere, he hisses. But I am afraid.

I do not know how I got here, and I will not pray

                                                   (White Pebble, Hilary Menos, Pg 54)

 

We’re quite often afraid to recount the finer details of motherhood, focusing purely on its gentle joys. It’s as if we’re admitting defeat if we go openly with the idea that it’s bloody difficult. Even worse, that we use those intimate, close-held experiences as the needle with which to thread the beginnings of a new work. Writing Motherhood, embraces these stark realities; ‘the advantage of motherhood for a woman artist’ (Pg 15, Intro), as well as the heart-breaking possibility that, for every child born, there’s potentially a book lost. Reading this anthology reminded me that either can be true, it simply depends on your perspective at the time.

There are many accounts and approaches to motherhood within this collection, offering the reader a panoramic view of the subject. To help with this, the book is grouped into six sections, ‘Transformations’, ‘Slow days, Fast Years’, ‘Loss, Absence, Suffering’, ‘Mothers Work’, ‘Mothers and Others’, and ‘Transitions’. As mentioned above, this anthology has been shaped to reflect and render all approaches to the creative-mothering experience. Most admirable is its open acknowledgment of loss, and that loss of a child is as much a part of motherhood as seeing them through their teenage and adult years. What’s impressive is that the few writings that explore this theme (there are fifteen of them) introduce the critical notion that loss also has a scale. There are many ways in which we can lose a child, and suffering and death has many guises. Be it ‘a startled lullaby’, the ‘feeble constellation’, the ‘ninth day’, the ‘seed flesh’, or quite simply:

 

a torn sail

and loss, and loss, and loss, and loss.

(The Foster Mother’s Blanket, Becky Cherriman, Pg 79)

 

‘The Weight of a Girl’ by Nuala Ellwood is a particularly special piece. It’s prose, but it’s poetry by spirit:

 

We took out our matter and gave her a name: Nerina. The sea nymph, the girl whose being was too heavy to bear. And we took her down to the river that runs through our city and let the water carry her away. She is there as you are here in my head, two girls swimming in different directions, but never coming home.

(The Weight of a Girl, Nuala Ellwood Pg 76)

 

This was difficult to read. It is hard to imagine how difficult it was to write.

The true accomplishment of this anthology is its unashamed approach in handling subjects we find difficult to air. Many of the pieces here hold your inner gaze long after reading – they’re profoundly genuine in spirit. It’s second feat is its eclecticism. Jess-Cooke has brought together a volume that will speak to readers who are not just mother-writers. But I am convinced, that if you’re a man who writes, a woman who doesn’t, a man with children who doesn’t write, or a man who does – you will find something here that stirs you. A series of gems are poems such as Liz Berry’s ‘Connemara’; Alice Oswald’s ‘Poem for carrying a baby out of hospital’; Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Lifting the bedcovers and there’; Becky Cherriman’s ‘The foster mother’s blanket’; Mary Austin Speaker’s ‘After the first child, the second’; Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘White Butterflies’; Carrie Fountain’s ‘Working Mother Poem’ – the list goes on. Essays include Zoe Brigley’s ‘Motherhood is Valuable for Creative Life’, and of course Jess-Cooke’s stunning introduction. I’d go so far as to say that it’s worth buying to read this alone. There’s also an interview with Sharon Olds that’s a must (though I don’t feel she so much answers any of the questions as simply asks more) and her poem to follow, ‘Her First Week’.

The only piece I unfortunately cannot endorse, is Holly McNish’s piece ‘31 May’.  It is not the way the piece is written that lessens its effect, but the idea itself. On the whole it feels flabby. The language is clumsy and there’s too much of it.  While its an ambitious piece of work with potential, it simply comes across a barrage of frustration, and  it hasn’t been scrutinised. Where is the self-editing here? The self restraint? The moment’s of reflection? It covers the ground, but nothing grows up. And compared to the other pieces in the book, it doesn’t have the same ring of truth, the same emotional affluency.

As women writers juggling the tricky task of raising our beautiful children, while fostering our beautiful writings, it’s important that we address the world, and this anthology is the starting point for that. Crucially, how one’s learned experiences, as someone who bleeds into a page, and bleeds time for her children – can enrich, influence, and educate the creative industries.

Surely too, it’s about our ‘species’, as Olds put it, that ‘art is as old’ as we are. There’s a lot to be said for how motherhood instils you with ‘precious knowledge’ (Pg 46) about the human condition. How we relate to one another, and are determined by our patience, our frustrations; our ever-evolving abilities to compromise. ‘I think it’s a matter of our survival and the Earth’s survival for us to get to know ourselves as quickly and deeply as we can,’ says Olds. Indeed. Motherhood is a hugely accessible starting point for this kind of learning; as is Writing, one of the most influential methods of sharing our experiences with the world. Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology has re-opened this crucial dialogue.

I was also able to sit, with two men, with the book in my hand and say, ‘This is fantastic. I always knew there was a way of letting this go’, and could openly announce, with rivered language, that I have finally embraced my life choice. Furthermore, it was this book that led me to do so. That led us into an hour-long discussion about it all – my personal anguishes and memories, nervously intertwined with the glittering affirmations and tales of complete strangers. What a remedy.

Review by Lyn Greenwood, Mslexia

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Arts Council-funded project used sessions at various UK literary festivals to ask how motherhood and writing impact each other. Here over 80 writers give us their poems, interviews and essays on some of the ‘prickly, political, heart-wrenching, leg-crossing and tender’ aspects of the mothering experience.

This collection reveals something of the inner lives of mothers, but also exposes an aspect of publishing which has often done its best to deflect this world as ‘niche’ and unworthy of the resources of publication. It also raises the question, as Zoe Brigley points out, that perhaps we need to look at our definitions not only of motherhood, but also of creativity (p.117) to clarify what we expect of ourselves.

Six sections take us on a roughly chronological trajectory through motherhood from first stirrings (… ‘inside me you pulsed,/single celled,/extraordinary’, Liz Berry p.28) to the bittersweet farewells of the teenage years (‘…I’ve mostly been/ losing you bit by bit.’ Julie Hogg, p.151). Relationships with other adults around us are re-formed and renewed by the fact of our own motherhood: ‘Look/how giving birth has left us deconstructed’ (Stav Poleg, p.127) or ‘I yearn for her regimental poise, that maternal grace.’ (Jo Young, p.133).

The width and depth of the writing here makes reviewing difficult: a quick dip in to clarify a point or find a quote and I’m re-reading from today’s point of view a piece that chimed with me a few days ago when I was a different mother. Rachel Zucker’s ‘The Day I Lost My Déjà Vu’ (p.70) is particularly good at evoking this chaotic, confusing and exciting state of mind. There is so much wonderful work here to discover, to soothe and to stimulate, to identify with and to revisit and inspire.

Review by Suzy Kopliku

Thursday, May 4, 2017

I lightly tap these words and watch them tip toe across the quiet, ordered screen so as not to stir my grandson as he sleeps soundly in the bed beside me. This is about as much quiet and order as I've been able to wring out of the day thus far.
Practically speaking, a mother’s time is limited by her children's needs and routines and the constraints of the childcare available to her.
Free time feels luxurious and rare these days, especially for mothers. Free time is akin to a favourite Saturday morning sweatshirt that makes allowances for natural breadth and freedom of movement. As both a full time mother and a work at home mother I have, at times, over the years, felt metaphorically as bound in bone corseting as any pre-twentieth century woman.
A mother often plays the centrifugal role in a family and as a result her own identity often becomes an extension of that role. In the early weeks and months after having a baby, identity becomes a question that many mothers wrestle with. Much of this book illustrates the ways in which mothers navigate their roles in order to make time for creativity and how, post birth, they can emerge with an identity that may be re-defined but that they are not solely defined by. The over-arching message in this book is optimistic. Not only can motherhood make space for creativity, it can often be a catalyst for it. The excerpt below written by Rebecca Stonehill, titled ‘Writer and mother: How children can help (and not hinder) the creative process’ suggests that perhaps one is flint to the others steel. Perhaps, the experience of motherhood can actually become tinder for the creative flame to kindle:

Prior to children, my right-hand companion to my writing process was procrastination. With three small children to care for and a supportive husband who took them out on Saturday mornings so I could write, I didn't have TIME to procrastinate any more. Here was my precious opportunity and I had to seize it with both hands. 
Those mornings came to form a vital pulse of my writing, with many short stories and sections of my novel springing from them. 

Writing Motherhood, edited by Carolyn Jess Cooke, is full of thoughtful essays and poems that examine the role of motherhood in a woman’s creative life. The diversity of experience detailed in the book share the common theme that motherhood can be a window into a woman's creative expression rather than a door which closes her to it.

A mother's life is made up of many constant re-negotiations of time, needs and priorities. The obstacles mothering presents to creativity are real, sleep deprivation, breast feeding and birth recovery being the most immediately pressing and physically demanding. These difficulties are not shied away from, indeed they are described at length from many diverse angles throughout the book. Yet the breakthroughs that come like morning light are equally as present. The kind of re-emergence of self that motherhood brings is beautifully described from the perspective of the child as his understanding of the world around it simultaneously grows ever more coherent in Rebecca Goss’ exquisite poem, ‘The Baby who understood Shadows’:

This baby she washed, fed,
kept close as fog, now able to see through

the branches of her arms, find the sun's rays,
his own shadow, all things that are not her.

Though motherhood draws boundary lines around space and time it just as powerfully forces a blurring of boundaries between self and other. Empathy with a child’s rhythms can expand a mothers sensory experience of the world. Exploration of the world through the budding sensory perception of a child is detailed in the playful internal rhymes of Sinéad Morrissey’s poem, ‘The Camera’, which describes how her young daughter steals and stashes random, ordinary objects around the house and wraps them in ‘blankets’:

pine cones, driftwood, rocks -
the waist-high were your common subjects

and while I watched, the air above me stretched
 

The photographs her daughter takes take this extra perspective to a poignant conclusion:

your own bright smile framed twice,
you've nevertheless led me back
to an earlier time, before we swapped

the kitchen table for a sturdier one
or painted the door frames brown,
when you were four, unschooled, unkempt,

absorbing this house and your place
in it: bewitched by the marvelous - 
and then stealing it.

Motherhood provides more than just new insights and creative inspiration though. In the chapter titled ‘Mother’s Work’, Holly McNish deftly argues that the skills required for negotiating with a toddler provide better qualification for a chief ambassador to the UN peacekeeping force than a PHD in conflict resolution. Her piece concludes:

Have you ever had to settle a dispute with a child or group of children without resorting to fist-banging, shouting "Ra ra, Mr Speaker", raising your voice or laughing in a pompous, arrogant manner at them?
Er no.
Ok, thank you. We'll let you know. We were really looking for someone who has toddler-care skills. Primary teaching might work too. We'll call you.

Writing Motherhood covers all aspects and stages of mothering including, most movingly, a chapter on loss, absence and suffering.
In ‘Postcards from a Hospital’, Doireann Ní Ghríofa writes with aching clarity about the time her newborn spent in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Poetry glimmers through each starkly written paragraph:

‘Blood blood - Blood blood - a steady thud.’

‘Every hour I descend to the basement in search of my Persephone.’
 

The sharing of such experiences through the art of writing gives voice to the experience of motherhood from mothers themselves, as Sharon Olds writes:

Someone who has knowledge of a subject like motherhood, which through most of human history had not been memorialized or embodied in art, has precious knowledge.
 

Considering how the experience of motherhood effects us all as human beings it does seem extraordinary that the writings of mothers on the subject of motherhood hasn't been more widely available.

As a writer and artisan who is also a mother to five and grandmother to one I thoroughly enjoyed reading Writing Motherhood, in-between nap times, exam coaching, cooking, taxi driving, changing nappies and school runs of course.
 

Review by Amy Leigh Ridsdale

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Motherhood. A reality for me and a reality for many. Whether you're an expectant mother, a grandparent, a mother etc this book really connects and touches base on so many issues related to Motherhood. Many raw emotions have been spilled on many pressing matters such as miscarriage, emergency births, separation anxiety ( childcare). Each has been composed by a mother going through her own experiences as a Mother and a parent. One in particular really hits home for me and was almost identical to my very own experience and as such allowed me to realize that others understand what I have been through. Doireann Ni Ghriofa POSTCARDS FROM A HOSPITAL, I deeply connected and related to on so many levels. As mothers, we all need a bit of support, comfort and to know that we are not alone in what we go through on a daily basis. This book serves as a kind of journal with entries from multiple different women sharing their experiences. This book can serve as a comfort, as a reassurance when you are seeking strength encouragement and have a need to know that you are not alone. In saying the above, I highly would suggest this novel as a must read.

And to all you mothers out there who like expressive writing and embrace motherhood, this book is what you have been seeking.

Review by Shelley Day

Friday, January 27, 2017

Writing Motherhood is an amazing collection of contemporary writings by women on motherhood, specially commissioned pieces edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke; a great mix of poetry, prose and interviews that explores the wide range of ways in which women writers have fantasised about, experienced, and written about motherhood – what it means for them as women, as mothers, as writers. It’s a fascinating and compelling collection; such a range of lovely, lively, fresh and honest work has found its way here. The accounts are thoughtful, moving, gritty, often raw, sometimes sad, and always beautifully written.

            Many women talk about how they battled with the apparent loss of their creativity when the baby came along. Esther Morgan, for example, finds she can no longer achieve ‘the act of becoming adjacent’ upon which her creative practice has depended. Her writing self surfaces again, however, once she learns how ‘to find poems in the music as well as in the silence.’ Her writing changes to become ‘a part of the rhythm of living rather than apart from it.’ It becomes ‘a poetry of connection, rather than escape.’

            Similarly, Rebecca Stonehills writes how her ‘life changed irrevoacbly’ and the novel she was writing just ‘juddered to a halt.’ The energy and even the desire to write eluded her totally after the baby was born. But Rebecca managed to re-capture her writing mojo by blogging about what she found difficult about motherhood.

            Motherhood, it seems - despite the dominant ideas in our culture that tell us how ‘natural’ it is - is fraught with all sorts of tensions and difficulties, all sorts of uncertainties and ambivalences, though none of the contributors in this volume gets stuck for long in the downside. Sinead Morrissey, for example, begins her poem The Camera: ‘Daughter, for the trick of making me travel / in three dimensions at once, I raise my glass./ Degna Stone’s poem Ruby, Aged 4 1/2 is a long list of complex feelings on both sides, but is ultimately life-affirming. C I Taylor took the plunge and transformed her angst and loneliness into a new genre of writing; she took a risk, and it worked. Poet Catherine Graham looks back after a period of post-natal depression and expresses in her poem how her feelings for the infant helped her through: ‘How wisely you reminded me / that even sand and water / in time / become solid, unbreakable stone.’ Greta Stoddart finds unexpected solace in the community of mothers she meets every day at the school gates.

            One thing that really shines through all the writings in this collection is the sheer power of the feelings mothers can have for their children; often unexpected, these are feelings that can take you over, delete your boundaries, fundamentally alter who you are. As Rose Sandler puts it, ‘Having children turns you mad. Nobody warns you. /’ Deryn Rees-Junes talks about feeling such a deep connection with her baby daughter that the boundary between them disappears: ‘I can’t tell us apart. When I do, daughter, I’ll admit, I’m lost, /

            The emotions of motherhood can be all-consuming. As Rachel Zucker puts it, ‘Now, I have never been anywhere / else … my beautiful child eviscerates me.’ Jacqueline Saphra refers to ‘the helpless love one creature must bear another.’ Rebecca Goss tries to express what it is like when the boundary between yourself and another person dissolves, when the other is ‘kept close as fog.’ She talks about ‘The fist she held / in her lips, when love required her to eat him.”

            The writings in this collection are as powerful as the feelings and the psychological struggles they describe. Alicia Ostriker says, ‘This is a prison … It does nothing but open its mouth.’

For some of these writers, writing itself proves to be a crucial way of working through the bad times or, in the case of still-birth, as in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s piece, of simply surviving the trauma and learning to live with the loss. As Marie Naughton reminds us, there is no word for a parent whose child has died. Such parents are left groping for words in a strange limbo. Nuala Ellwood talks about the twin ‘weights’ of love and loss. Doireann Ni Ghriofa, in a deeply moving account, describes in close detail her anguished experience of neonatal intensive care, making the reader cry with relief when finally the baby opens its eyes: ‘Her eye, when it opens, seeks me out like a mouth.’

            Carol Ann Duffy’s moving poem brings together birth and death, and the twin experiences of both mothers and daughters.

            Holly McNish’s piece made me laugh out loud. She brings humour to bear, the better to expose the taken-for-granted assumptions that continue to dog motherhood, and to make bright and visible the aspects of the experience that are invisible at worst and undervalued at best. She imagines that the skills motherhood has taught her are so many and various and useful that she emerges from the experience equipped to apply for the post of Head of a UN Peacekeeping Mission.

            This is a truly inspiring collection, all the more so for its wit and its grit, its poetry and its honesty; here we have women producing ‘good art’ despite – and often  because of – ‘the pram in the hall.’

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