Polly (essentially an avatar for author Paula herself) and April are bestest friends, two little girls growing up in the Britain of the 1970s, a very different time in many respects from today. As the play innocently and chat we see not just the simple delights of children happily doing what kids do, but we also start to see how, even at this early stage of development, certain ideas and norms start to impose themselves into their young lives. Not so much in a Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not commandment way, but subtler – such as playing with dolls, and the way this starts them thinking on how they are meant to be when older – married, child, mother (and being the 70s of course married before child or, goodness, she’d be no better than she ought to be!). And this is reinforced by those around them, even in the family – little phrases like “you’ll understand when you have a little girl yourself” all go into providing a particular set of expectations on boys and girls when they grow up, especially the girls.
Not that this is a diatribe against social conditioning and the way so many accept behavioural norms as if this is “the natural thing” (of course they’re not, they’re inventions by human societies, but a lot of people simply don’t question them, or even think to question them). No, what Paula does here is rather wonderful, telling us of a life rich in details that I think many of us can empathise with and indeed recognise, and as she moves forward she gently shows how certain expectations are laid on us, often in a well-meaning way, from our earliest days, and how they shape our thoughts of what we will be when we grow up (and also shape our disappointments if we don’t conform to those expected types). And she does this with some lovey, very authentic experiences, from being a little girl through to mature woman, with sensitivity, honesty and no little amount of humour along the way (because life is sometimes just silly and funny).
Take the playing with the dolls – while you can see that toys like this and the way girls are meant to play with them are designed to make them conform to certain expected roles, that’s more of an observation here, the main element is just what it seems: two little friends playing. And through playing exploring – oh, this dolly has a real vagina and can pee! (or a real “virginia” as the girls think early on, having overheard wrongly a couple of older girls talking about sex). Wait a minute, here’s an Action Man, get his pants off – hmm, he’s different from the girly dolly! Not by much, mind you (poor Action Man, realistic gripping hands, perhaps, but downstairs not so much realism). This doesn’t stop them playing with him and the girl doll playing around under the sheets. Of course they have no idea about sex yet, but they know it involves something to do with a man and woman in bed, so that’s what the dolls do.
And it’s just one of the many aspects of this book that will ring bells for many, especially those of us who grew up in that sort of period (I remember my Action Man and my neighbour’s daughter’s Sindy doll were “doing it” when we played too. And of course we had no idea what that meant back then, but we still had the dolls playing at it). How many of you did something similar as kids? Go on, be honest! And then there is all the half-overheard talk from older kids, or bits cribbed from illicit late night TV (when you were meant to be asleep), films or magazines found dumped somewhere in the woods. And how because we got pretty much zero proper sex-ed in those days kids – naturally curious – would grab anything like these and try and piece together some sort of idea of what went on as an adult, and usually being pretty wrong (it’s better today but still we lag far behind countries like the Netherlands where this is discussed early on and openly so the kids know and it is normal, not embarrassing, gigglesome stuff like here).
And then there is the growing up – going off on your own into the bigger, wider world, half sure that you’re ready for it and half convinced you have no idea what is going on or what you are meant to do (and also convinced everyone else knows and that you’re an idiot for being the only one who doesn’t, of course). college, work, developing new interests and ideas, relationships. And trying to fit those to your old life (grannies who think sharing a flat with your boyfriend is “living in sin”, mums and aunts who ask when you will get married and have kids). We all get variations on that growing up, but for a woman there is the added ticking of the “biological clock” looming over things – “you’re not getting any younger!” Polly is growing up in an era where social change – especially the feminist movements of the 70s and onwards – have changed things, women (and men) waiting longer before starting families. But what happens if when you do decide to start, things don’t go as planned?
And that features a lot: those expectations from childhood playing with dollies, all preparing you to be a mother, part of a “normal” family (whatever that is, I’ve never seen one, all families are mad, but we love them anyway) – to be “fulfilled” as a woman (because clearly if you don’t have a child you’ve not been a “proper” woman). And a now thirty-something Paula, already dealing with an ongoing chronic illness condition, but otherwise in a happier place (trying her own work, settled with a man she loves, Jack), her friends like April already mothers, finds herself pregnant. And miscarries, with all the wretched physical and, worse still, emotional grief that brings with it. And when it happens again she and Jack may have to face that they can’t have children. Perhaps IVF? Maybe, but is is really likely to help their situation? Or is it more likely to cause them both far too much pain again? And meantime moving into their forties it seems like everyone else has families and they’re looked at oddly for not having their own kids (and not just seen as odd, also pitied, because, well, it’s expected).
There is a huge emotional richness to Paula’s book as she explores the impact not being able to have a child has on her, how she views herself and her body (and also how it impacts her partner), both within herself and also externally – the way other people assume at a certain age of course you have children and how the react if you tell them you don’t, about overcoming those sorts of almost pre-programmed attitudes, about finding what it is about yourself you want and, with one path closed, what other paths would you like to explore and enjoy? To ignore the labels placed on individuals and couples who don’t have kids, either because they can’t or through choice, that it isn’t the be-all and end-all, that most of our ideas of family and parenthood are socially constructed, and indeed often re-constructed over different generations and that being different from those expected norms isn’t being selfish or sad, it’s just another part of the diverse nature of life.
This is a beautifully crafted memoir, rich with the emotional ups and downs of life, the good moments (playing with friends, achieving something you wanted to try, relationships, walking on a beach) and the bad (illness, realising that grown up life is way more complicated than young you every dreamed, realising there are some things you may never be able to do and how to deal with those). And through it so many references in both story and art to the previous decades – John Craven’s face on a 70s TV, the posters on a shared 80s student flat, and lovely little touches in the imagery – creative “career” Polly on one side of he page, art brushes in hand, “fulfilled” pregnant mum-to-be Polly on the other half, divided by an hour glass marking the ticking biological clock trying to dictate her life choices, visiting an unsympathetic specialist doctor while imagining herself in armour and shield (don’t we all think that sometimes?), or a particularly heartbreaking moment when she overhears a woman in the next hospital bed and it is clear she’s in for a termination while Polly is there because she miscarries each time they try, both women’s different pregnancy problems split down either side of the page.
This is a wonderfully honest, moving, emotional, human story about what we were brought up to expect in life and what hand we actually get dealt, what we want and what others expect of us, or how we’re seen if we don’t fit the “normal” view of how things are, but how we need to see round that and see ourselves instead. And it’s about the fact that no matter what, it is still our life, and we can still make it a good one for ourselves.
The Facts of Life will be published by Myriad in mid-March