Our concepts of motherhood and female desire don’t sit comfortably together. The ideal of the nurturing, loving mother, selflessly caring for her children, and the woman who is sexual, aroused, naked and open, don’t combine easily in our imaginations. Although sex obviously leads to pregnancy, there aren’t many authors who explore this post-birth conflict without judgment, guilt or adultery. Clover Stroud’s recently published memoir, My Wild and Sleepless Nights – a Mother’s Story, is unusual in its stark honesty about her experience of motherhood, and also because she writes openly of her continuing desire for her husband. She still craves sex within the ordinary chaos of running a family home.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights starts with pregnancy. Clover is expecting her fifth child and straight away we are immersed in the aching exhaustion of carrying a child, the violence of labour and her passion for the new born baby, Lester. This book is about the joy and claustrophobia of motherhood. “It’s a wild love; it thrashes and roars. It’s a massive jagged emotion, coursing through my blood and covering my skin and seeping into my bone marrow. It’s a deep love but there is fear there too.” (p77) Clover has two teenagers from her first marriage and then three young children from her second. They live in Oxfordshire, near the Ridgeway, with a horse and a garden with a paddling pool and her husband, Pete, is often working in London. Her story is set in the period when Lester is a baby, pulling her in one direction, and her teenage son, who is getting in trouble at school, pulling her in the other. “The pressures of caring for my children, making them happy, feeding them educating them, cherishing them, trying to fashion a childhood that’s happy as well as successful, authentic, loving and also woven with my own memories so that it means something significant and enduring, often feels like being in a locked room that’s filling with water.” (p84) Of all the books I’ve read by women writers trying to adapt to and understand motherhood over the years, from Rachel Cusk to Anne Enright, this is the book that chimed most closely to my own feelings. I resonated with the “solemn responsibility” of mothering; the splicing of the self with the constant demands of others; the “intense new love” of it.
Clover Stroud is open about her sexual self. Her first book, The Wild Other, traces the impact of her mother’s terrible riding accident, when she was fifteen, on the paths her life took from that moment. Her awakening sexuality is part of that journey. In her book on motherhood, she may be “fundamentally changed” by birth but she doesn’t become disconnected to her own sensuality. Indeed, her love for Pete is a life raft. Sex with him is “where we can find find one another again.” “Sex is the opposite to motherhood… When I have sex I can forget all that control and be something different, unembarrassed and lustful, like an animal, but also absolutely human in a dark and disgusting way. It’s easier than anything else I know how to do.” (p120) Rather than disconnecting to that part of herself after birth, it is the part that reminds her who she is. And who he is. There is an equality in that connection that can be lost in family life. “However much you want it to be something you will share, the chances are, based on all current evidence, that the mother will carry the domestic load.” (p160). Sex is a way of bringing them back together. “After, there is the unfamiliar, wet reassurance of spunk on the sheets. Something fragmented in me feels, for a moment, as if it’s put back together. Then, from the next room, Lester starts crying.” (p138)
It is this sense that sex continues to connect the new mother to who she was before, that she might experience something blissfully separate from the mess and chaos of everyday, that feels so relevant and original about My Wild and Sleepless Nights. For some women sex might become even more important. The desire to be touched while stirring soup; the craving for your partner’s lips on your shoulder while pulling the clean wet washing from the machine. We all strive to be good mothers and most of us feel different after birth, but we are still lustful. Perhaps our ideals of motherhood are inhibiting? Perhaps it is connected to the disconcerting concept of our own mothers as sexual beings? It is as though we accidentally move through an invisible boundary after birth and in our new guise it’s inappropriate to be considered sensual, or even write about it. It is still true that a man leaving his wife for sex with a younger women is an eye-rolling cliché, a woman doing the same is shocking. The reality that a woman can be overcome with animal lust when she has children is something we struggle not to judge.
When my husband walked out of the family home two years ago, one of my overriding panics about this unexpected turn of events was how was I going to be satisfy my desire for sexual connection. When I expressed this concern, I was surprised by how many of my friends told me that it was the least of my worries and that I would work it out later. As though it were something that was separate from myself, that could be parcelled up and saved for a convenient moment – when the children had gone to University, perhaps. We don’t die as sexual beings the moment we give birth; it continues to burn and twist within us. So, I salute Clover Stroud for her honesty and bravery in writing My Wild and Sleepless Nights on so many different levels and, although it doesn’t fit into my survey of erotic literature, I highly recommend it. I’ve never read such an honest account about becoming a mother, the tearing love of it and the difficulty remembering who we are in the process. And, importantly, the role that sex continues to play in a mother’s life.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights, Clover Stroud, Doubleday, £16.99