Poet Hollie McNish writes on breastfeeding shame and challenges of having sex after birth in new book

Hollie McNish

Hollie McNish - Credit: Archant

Hollie McNish actively urges parents with babies to attend her poetry gigs.

As the author of a book on motherhood, Nobody Told Me, she knows all too well the isolation of those early years.

Besides, her verse challenges intolerance towards children in public places and is searingly honest about those aspects of motherhood that most women don’t openly discuss.

“My gigs are for adults but I always send a message that it’s fine for under ones to come. I get lots of nervous venue managers but the noise has never really been a problem. Most parents are pretty good – no-one listens to their baby screaming for 20 minutes if someone’s performing. The newborns usually feed then go to sleep.”

McNish adds: “Many parents don’t have the possibility of going out. I know some people who haven’t been out of the house after 7pm for two years. I found it really quite a lonely time and a lot of people seem to feel like that if they are not in a baby group. I remember the magic of going to a (mother and baby film) screening being able to watch an adult film even though I had a baby.”

The Cambridge graduate was 26 when she fell pregnant with her daughter, now six.

In her book, diary entries and poems record the difficult years to her third birthday, including morning sickness, sex after birth, and the moment her partner told her he didn’t love her any more.

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Her poems such as Embarrassed, about our double standards over women’s breasts, have struck a chord all over the world and won her fans like Tim Minchin and Benjamin Zephaniah.

“A lot of mums come to my gigs because of that poem. I was sitting in a toilet in Cambridge to breastfeed my daughter because I didn’t feel comfortable in a café. She immediately fell asleep and instead of having a nice cup of tea I was stuck for 40 minutes feeling angry at the world and how ridiculous it was.

“There was a poster on the door for a club night with a woman in a bikini and I thought ‘what the f**k am I doing in a country that makes me feel in any way weird about doing this?’”

She’s often had to travel to gigs on trains with her daughter.

“She’d want to walk up and down the train and people would be so annoyed. I think they have a really low opinion of parents. Once I packed every little plaything to amuse her. After five hours she hadn’t made a sound then started singing London Bridge is Falling Down and someone tutted.”

It’s something of an understatement when she says: “motherhood gave me a lot to write about”.

“The things I thought I would find hard weren’t really but there were unexpected feelings of shame and guilt about not doing it right or not looking the ideal of flowing linen maternity.

“I realised motherhood is like weddings, all white rich and upper middle class and if you don’t fit it you feel awkward.

“The amount people talk about nursery borders and prams but no-one mentions the more important psychological and physical stuff. :that your body changes massively, you are grappled constantly and you just have to be fine with it. I didn’t want anyone touching my body for a long time.”

McNish’s Mum’s The Word event with Lydia Towsey and Liv Torc is part of the Roundhouse’s annual spoken word festival The Last Word.

“In other countries spoken word events are much bigger, the UK is catching up. In Edinburgh they get up to 1,000 people at events. Now traditional page poets are joining the scene just as spoken word people like me are publishing books. It’s exciting.”

Despite plays music venues and festivals, McNish doesn’t relish the limelight.

“Some people are confident on stage but I was never into drama. Going on stage wasn’t my dream I just like poetry. Luckily if you are shy you can just stand and read from a book.”

Mum’s The Word is on June 3 at the Last Word Festival which runs 24 May - 18 June.