I don’t have children, and am sometimes expected to account for that to inquisitive strangers. “Oh? Is that from choice, or …?” is a frequent response to what seems to be taken as an admission, rather than a statement, of my childless state. These casual questioners seem unaware that that innocuous “or … ?” might possibly plumb depths of grief or loss (though not in my case) which no stranger has any right to probe. As for the idea of choosing not to have children … such a decision is often viewed as peculiar or selfish. Last year, indiscreet remarks from Andrea Leadsom, then a contender for the Conservative party leadership, prompted explanations from her rival Theresa May about why she’s childless: explanations which no male politician would ever be required to give. Yes, we’re in the 21st Century (where, as Paula Knight points out, the world hardly needs more inhabitants) but still it seems that women are required to be wives and mothers by default; or, if not, to have some good excuse ready for those demanding to know why not.
The Facts of Life confronts this head on. I met Paula years ago on an Arvon course and have tracked her progress since as a successful illustrator of children’s books. This is a new departure: a memoir told and shown in versatile comic-strip form. Referring to herself as ‘Polly’, though it’s clearly her own experience she draws on, Paula traces her early and adult years, from her awareness of bodily functions and sex, on through career opportunities, relationships and friends’ pregnancies (exclamations and congratulations followed swiftly by a sense of inadequacy – this shown so neatly in talking heads and speech balloons, no commentary needed) to conception, loss and finally resignation and adaptation. It’s striking how little the Swinging Sixties and the arrival of the contraceptive pill affected the advice given to teenage girls in the 1970s: ‘Polly’, born in 1969, got from parents and teachers the clear expectation that marriage and motherhood were to be her destiny.
Post-viral fatigue syndrome and the break-up of a relationship take Polly into her thirties, when a new man, Jack, offers a new chance. Flexible page layouts animate her dilemma. While an hourglass trickles down the centre of one page, two Pollys face each other from either side: one a paint-spattered artist, the other smugly pregnant, her baby-bulge counterpointing the inward curve of the glass. On another page, a Janus-headed Polly looks left and right at the pros and cons of being a mother. “’Sometime later’ was here now … “ While examinations and tests continue, a well-meaning acquaintance tells her, “You’ll never know love quite like it unless you have children,“ – a familiar statement that pushes other kinds of love into second or third place. The excitement of conception is followed swiftly by miscarriage, more than once, and we accompany Polly as she cocoons herself against the platitudes offered so kindly by friends. The graphic approach works brilliantly here, as we see her assaulted by music, noise, words and visions. Finally, when the barrage of tests and the whirlwind of expectation and disappointment become too much, Polly and her very supportive Jack begin to examine their future without children.
In one drawing a crack in the wall behind two talking heads widens and splits as Polly counters the assumptions of a former friend preoccupied with childcare. Facing a campaign poster image of the clichéd ‘hardworking families’ beloved of politicians, Polly reflects, “As a person without kids, you must prepare to be effaced in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’.” But compensations are to be found in the natural world and in new friendships – and, self-evidently, in art. The decision not to persevere is not an ending, but the start of new explorations and a reassessment of values.
There’s quite detailed medical information throughout, but also humour and a light touch. In one drawing, a deceased Polly sits upright in her wicker coffin to ask, “Um, do you have ‘Farewell Regality’ by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset?” If she doesn’t have children, who will be around in her old age to take care of such things? The charm, skill and wit of the drawings, recalling Posy Simmonds, and the cleverness and variety of page design, fully involve the reader in a tale that is very personal but never self-pitying. This is a tricky balance to strike, and Paula Knight is to be congratulated for producing a book which will be of particular value and comfort to people of both genders whose experience is similar to Polly’s and Jack’s, but should also have wider appeal for its insight into the lives of others and for its exploration into the big questions of life: why are we here? What difference can we make in the world?