One of the only cheering pieces of news to have caught my attention in the last month was Natalie Imbruglia’s announcement that she has both signed a new record deal and is having a baby on her own, using IVF and a sperm donor. (It is barely three weeks since Boris Johnson became our Prime Minister. Pass me some fucking Valium.) All I could think when I saw Imbruglia’s Instagram post was, “good for her. What a joyful thing”. There’s something incredibly inspiring about seeing a woman take control of her own life like this.
I’ve mentioned Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast a few times, and I recently listened to Day’s own episode, in which she invites fellow journalist Dolly Alderton to turn the tables and interview Day about her failures. Now, I love both Day’s and Alderton’s work, but I’m aware they’re perhaps not for everyone. They are both white, middle-class, seemingly-privileged writers who certainly don’t appear to be all that well-acquainted with failure.
But I think this is the whole point of the podcast. In the basement of every successful person is a trunk stuffed full of fuck-ups and failures – but we don’t often hear about them. We toast our achievements, put them on our mantelpieces so that they glitter in the sunlight, and we banish our losses and missteps to the shadowy corners of our minds, and only dwell on them in the dark hours. I wish we were better at talking about failure. I wish I personally could untangle “cocking something up” from “feeling like a terrible, irredeemably-flawed human being”. And this is why I love How To Fail, Desert Island Discs, and The Comedian’s Comedian, for providing me with glorious examples of inglorious, nonfatal failure.
The ‘failures’ Elizabeth Day discusses include not going to a former boyfriend’s going-away drinks before he left for a journalism assignment in Iraq, on which he was killed, and her experiences with IVF. It’s not exactly an easy listen – I learnt, for example, that when you’re going through fertility treatment, there’s a procedure called “the scratch” WHERE THEY LITERALLY SCRATCH THE LINING OF YOUR WOMB TO “STIMULATE” IT. I feel a bit funny just typing that – and Day went through it, then CYCLED HOME. The woman is nails, hard as fucking nails.
It’s not a spoiler to say that her attempts to conceive so far have been unsuccessful – she’s covered it in her journalism – and in the episode, she talks openly about how that has impacted her life and relationships. And something she said had me biting my fist to keep from squealing in sheer recognition, and relief that someone had articulated the feeling. “Who are these men, who feel they’re entitled to a woman’s ovaries at a time that suits them?” she asks. “Actually, what I was offering [during my twenties] to a succession of people, was to bear their child. And to be a good mother… like, that is a fucking gift.”
She goes on to talk about men who say, “I’m not ready”: “OK, so when you do reach this mythical point – and by the way, no-one ever feels ready for anything – you think then that you are going to meet the perfect woman who is going to be available to get pregnant for you?”
In a piece for Grazia published back in March, writer Nell Frizzell explained beautifully how, despite all the steps towards equality that have been made, parenting is still something that throws women back decades, straight into the arms of old-fashioned gender stereotypes. This is largely unavoidable due to the physical reality of pregnancy, childbirth and, if you choose it, breastfeeding – but it’s not just pregnancy that puts women on to a different schedule to men.
You are still a child when you are thrust, unprepared, into a cycle that’s the very stuff of life and death. No-one is ready for their periods to start. No-one is ready for the pain, the anxiety, the mess, the learning to hide their physical reality. I cannot tell you how it is something you do not get entirely used to. The molar-grinding ache never quite becomes commonplace, the inconvenience never quite becomes unnoticeable. Female biology forces us to confront wholly unchosen pain and bloodshed often by the age of eleven or twelve – it has never occurred to most women that being “ready” for things is an option, quite frankly.
And yet despite all this – despite the facts of how heterosexual couples have children – it is women who are taught to compromise. Men are allowed to decide when to compromise; we never stop telling women to settle. To wait. To accommodate. There’s a KT Tunstall lyric that rings in my head with alarming frequency these days, from her second album, Drastic Fantastic: “do you remember the night, when I had to play your angel, and save your soul?”
(The track is called ‘Funnyman’; given my weakness for comedians, the humour does not escape me.)
But don’t we raise women to play angels? To compromise who they could be for the benefit of others? To be the caretakers, the grown-ups in the room? From an early age, we’re told that girls mature faster than boys, a refrain that starts at school. Most women I know can remember having a rowdy boy placed next to them in class because the teacher hoped the presence of a well-behaved girl would be a calming influence. We still find ways to make women responsible for men’s bad behaviour. No-one is immune; recently, I found myself wanting to take at least a sliver of blame for something horrible a guy did to me. Me, someone whose main hobby is ‘feminist ranting on the internet’. We expect and encourage women to be mothers but we do not raise men to be fathers.
Back to Natalie Imbruglia then. Seeing a woman of 44 starting a new chapter in her career while also becoming a mother on her own – it feels like a beacon, a breakthrough, a barrier knocked down. She is not waiting for a man to be “ready” to join her in raising a child; she’s chosen a different path. And every time a woman does this – decides to live on her own schedule rather than someone else’s – it widens that path for other women.
It means we don’t have to compromise. It means we don’t have to play angels for men who haven’t grown up yet. It means that “not ready” is finally meaningless.