It isn’t the first time we’ve addressed the issue of motherhood – for instance, we have featured Aliette de Bodard and Julia Fine on the podcast discussing the representation of mothers and parents in speculative fiction. But it is a perennial problem that mothers tend to be written out of much of our fiction. As Polly notes in the interview below, ‘Mothers are everyday superheroes’, so let’s celebrate them a bit more!
Polly’s debut adult novel, Dark Lullaby, is out now from Titan.
Motherhood is rarely the central focus of SFF novels. What did you want to explore about motherhood in Dark Lullaby and why did you want to make it the central theme of the novel?
I never really know what I’m doing when I start writing to be honest. I like being led by my subconscious, the story and its characters and so for me, it’s often only after I’ve finished a book that I begin to understand what I was trying to explore. For Dark Lullaby, I vividly remember the moment that fell into place.
I was waiting for my unborn daughter to arrive. It was days after my expected delivery date and I was on yet another incredibly slow walk around the park with my husband. I was thinking a lot about the upcoming labour and how it would go, about how much our lives were about to change and what might lie in store for us. The combination of those thoughts made me feel rather terrified. I wondered if I would be able to do it – any of it. What helped, more than I can say, was that on that path through the park, I kept passing mother after mother after mother. A mum helping her son back onto his scooter, another pushing a double buggy, another with a newborn in a sling. I kept thinking, she did it, she did it, she did it. And then: she’s doing it, she’s doing it, she’s doing it.
That’s when I realised that was the aspect of motherhood that I had felt drawn to exploring in Dark Lullaby. Mothers are everyday superheroes and they’re everywhere, just quietly getting on with it. To have a child, they have to make sacrifices – just what a woman’s body goes through having a baby when everything goes ‘to plan’ is immense. Upping the stakes around this in my story was merely pushing at the reality I see mothers facing everywhere.
And the relationship between a parent and a child is just like no other; the staggering level of love, the revolving journey between dependency and independence. That feels so rich to me that I’m not surprised it ended up as the central theme of my story – it needed to be given the airtime it deserved.
Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, Dark Lullaby features a woman trying to conceive by choice. Yet the demands on her from the state are still great. Why was it important for her to take this path by choice?
I’ve always been interested in the choices one makes that can shape a life. This led me to explore how far a woman might voluntarily push herself to start a family as this was a question I was facing myself. After years of being unable to conceive, my husband and I discovered we had unexplained subfertility and started fertility treatments. We were incredibly lucky that I became pregnant after our first round of treatments but until that moment, I felt the question of ‘how far would I go’ like a shadow around me. I knew it was up to me to make this decision and that meant the responsibility landed with me too.
In Dark Lullaby there were other pressures imposed by the state that meant the mother in my story felt this even more as a difficult choice. I imagined that in this world that the balance was about to be tipped. Maybe in the next generation, the element of choice would have been taken away but I knew I wanted this story to be about how becoming a mother would have to be a conscious decision. The importance of making and living with your choices echoes throughout the novel and culminates in the climax when the mother faces another decision of being able to protect her family but only by living with an incredibly difficult truth.
Like clifi (climate change science fiction), declining fertility narratives are growing in popularity. Why are we so afraid of declining fertility rates, especially when the planet can’t cope with population levels we have now? How did you want to address this theme differently to how we’ve seen it before?
I wonder if the fears around declining fertility rates are ultimately born from what would feel like a loss of hope. I’ve just walked down my high street and was bombarded with advertisement after advertisement, all featuring very young children. Close ups of glowing faces: all cheeks, dewy eyes and soft downy hair. It struck me that so many of these companies were choosing to tap into our urge to nurture the young to sell their product and there was a reason for that: we’re programmed to take notice of them and I believe, at a time when the world feels quite bleak, the potential of a young life feels innately hopeful.
I’m not sure our brains are very well equipped to feel global problems such as overpopulation but they are very good at understanding an individual’s plight. It’s feeling declining fertility rates on a personal level that makes the idea of them so vivid. It’s the thought of ‘what if I won’t be a mother’ that can take your breath away, something that to many feels like a biological given or right.
Maybe I’ve not explored this theme so differently as many other stories but I suppose I did want to address it in this personal way, through one family’s experience of living through this.
Talking of fears, many of us fear the nanny state, with heightened surveillance and governments deciding what we can and can’t do in our private lives – a fear that has only grown in the wake of the pandemic. Exploring these kinds of fears in SFF is nothing new and yet we continue to lap up such stories. What purpose do these kinds of stories serve if not as warnings (if they are warnings, they don’t seem to have been heeded as yet)?
I’m questioning myself whether many of these stories exist and are consumed because of how the setting of a nanny state pushes at a story. The way it squeezes characters both from the outside in and the inside out. I think partly there’s an element of that being an attractive prospect for writers and readers, to get a story moving, immediately inspiring feeling for its characters.
Also, I wonder if we continue to be drawn to dystopic narratives because they’re a kind of safeguarding to what’s happening in our own lives. It’s less about these stories being a warning and more about them leading us to embrace our present. Rather than the ‘grass is always greener’ maybe there’s comfort to be found in feeling that the grass may in fact be withered, patchy and yellow.
Pitch us the book! Why should readers pick up a copy of Dark Lullaby?
Imagine a world where parenting is rigorously and constantly monitored and your child could be taken from you if you step out of line … it’s terrifying, right? You’ll probably have nightmares for life about it unless you read Dark Lullaby and cathartically head them off.
Polly Ho-Yen lives in Bristol with her husband. She used to be a primary school teacher and now writes fiction for children (9-12-year-olds) with a sci-fi or fantasy twist. She has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award. Dark Lullaby is her first adult novel.