A clarion call to recognise that parenting isn’t the be-all and end-all of family life, Paula Knight’s extraordinarily powerful graphic memoir is a beautifully drawn, funny and sometimes painful exploration of what it takes to be a woman, and a mother – or not.
In 1970s Northeast England, best friends Polly and April are sitting up a tree, whispering about periods and swapping their hazy knowledge of the facts of life. They both expect to have families one day – it’s the normal script to follow, isn’t it? But, as they grow up, education and career become important, too, and they believe that they can have it all.
When, some years later, Polly settles with Jack, her career has taken off and she feels torn over whether or not to try for a baby. Has she left it too late? Did she have any control over that choice? They go ahead, but after repeated miscarriage and chronic illness take their toll, Polly must confront what family means in a society where ‘family’ usually means ‘children’.
It captures the reality of growing up in a society where pregnancy is natural, expected and supposed to happen quickly and in our own timing. The graphics were so engaging and made this book unique and easy to read. Recommend it to everyone facing infertility.
Being illustrated throughout gave it a whole new dimension. Not only was I taking in the words but the images expressed exactly how Paula remembered the scene. The stages of her story did not need to be imagined but came to life in front of my eyes. Her story was not fiction, it was fact, and the images expressed and reinforced the script.
‘This is such a good book… so original…very accessible. The drawings have an immediate impact but are also full of subtlety that you can go back again and again and find new things to look at. The book beautifully captures the arc of experience that we all have as women. I wanted to recommend it to everyone while I was reading it’.
This funny, affecting and poignant graphic memoir…tells the semi-autobiographical story of Polly, and her journey of acceptance that her long-nurtured expectations of becoming a mother are never to be fulfilled.
Caroline Sanderson, Mslexia
With humor, penetrating intelligence, and an eye for human details, Knight… explores a difficult subject with compassion.
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… 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.
I’d like to highlight Paula Knight’s wonderful graphic memoir The Facts of Life, a sensitive comforting gift for any woman who has not chosen, or has not been able to choose the path of parenthood… a funny, affecting and highly poignant graphic memoir of what it takes to be a mother… and what it takes not to be one.
In her moving and sympathetic book, Paula Knight charts the emotional cost of the pursuit of motherhood and thoughtfully challenges the societal notion that to live a life without children is to live a lesser life. My favourite quote of the whole book was, perhaps, ‘not childless or child free, just me.’
Funny, poignant and philosophical, this elegant graphic novel challenges cultural pronatalism and examines the experience of living with a chronic, yet poorly understood, illness. I learnt a lot from this visually sophisticated and tremendously informative work, which is a must-read for anyone interested in reproductive politics.
Ian Williams, co-founder, Graphic Medicine
I am moved by your book. I have no doubt that the story of your journey will have an intensely personal resonance to many. Your book will give comfort and hope.
Arri Coomarasamy, Professor of Gynaecology, University of Birmingham
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. Paula Knight is to be congratulated for producing a book which will be of value and comfort to people of both genders whose experience is similar… but should also have wider appeal for its insights into the lives of others.
One way or another and whether we like it or not, women’s identities are tied to their child-bearing capacity. This beautiful book is a moving, intensely personal account of that predicament.
Intensely moving… honest and personal. It is a story told in pictures with sparse words about fertility, about loss, about growth. Of expectations - both personal and those from friends, family and society. It is about grief and pain and love. I wish I could think of a less trite way of saying this, but it makes you feel less alone.
Victoria MacDonald, Health and Social Care Correspondent, Channel 4 News
For Knight the pleasure of nurturing is found in working on her art and giving back to nature; both are acts of creativity and legacy, equally as legitimate as having children.
I’ve just finished reading (The Facts of Life), and it was truly amazing. It captures the reality of growing up in a society where pregnancy is natural, expected and supposed to happen quickly and in our own timing. The graphics were so engaging and made this book unique and easy to read. Recommend it to everyone facing infertility. It showed the challenges of friendships, work colleagues and personal struggle of making a decision to stop.
Stephanie Phillips, World Childless Week Founder
23 September 2018
When I received Paula’s book TheFactsOfLife I was not sure how I felt. Could I get to grips with a life story in the form of a comic book, because that was how I first perceived it? Could the story line be as engrossing as a fully scripted book?
The simple answer is yes, and being illustrated throughout gave it a whole new dimension. Not only was I taking in the words but the images expressed exactly how Paula remembered the scene. The stages of her story did not need to be imagined but came to life in front of my eyes. Her story was not fiction, it was fact, and the images expressed and reinforced the script.
I could recognize and relate to numerous situations; the clumsy comments, emotional tides and unsaid words. I sat up and paid attention when Paula reflected on women and how they have been perceived and treated over time. That was thought provoking. I loved how the book started with the planting of the saplings but held onto their meaning until later in the book.
The complete text by Francesca Howell was published in the summer 2017 edition of the British Infertility Counselling Association Journal and is viewable at the source below. The review is on page 23-24.
With humor, penetrating intelligence, and an eye for human details, Knight chronicles her life of being prepared for motherhood and her eventual efforts to get pregnant. Paula, growing up in Britain in the 1970s, starts learning about sex from adult comments, awkward playground conversations, and exploring Barbie’s anatomy with her best friend, April. As an adult, Paula puts the thought of kids on hold to focus on her art career and deal with a chronic illness. Then April gets pregnant, and Paula wonders whether she’s ready to take the plunge—or whether a 30-something single woman is starting too late. She struggles with miscarriages, fertility treatments, misplaced sympathy from friends, and growing uncertainty about whether all the heartbreak is for something she really wants. Knight, a children’s book illustrator, fills her pages with loose but precisely drawn figures and elegant swathes of nature. Prying near-universal questions about female identity from her singular experience, she explores a difficult subject with compassion.
A very good, well put together, honest book… I read it in one sitting, which I think is a testament to what it's like. It made me think a lot about my own upbringing and experiences and those of my friends and our expectations. I think it's really good and refreshing that Paula talked about it and has been able to share some of her story.
Andy Oliver, Broken Frontier
27 April 2017
This is graphic memoir that doesn’t just communicate the issues involved and question the assumptions So much of this week’s Myriad Week coverage has revolved around entrants to their First Graphic Novel Competition and that’s entirely appropriate given that, to date, Myriad have published not just the two winners but also three of the shortlisted runners-up. Paula Knight was one of those finalists in the competition’s first incarnation in 2012 with her debut book The Facts of Life published earlier this year.
A couple of years back I reviewed some of Knight’s self-published minicomics at Broken Frontier here including Spooky Womb and X Utero: A Cluster of Comics which dealt with issues surrounding childlessness, our definitions of “family”, fertility and miscarriage. I said then that if there was one thing the reader took away from those comics it was Knight’s “ability to constantly play with the form both in terms of presentation and tone, with a notable aptitude for evocative symbolism on show throughout her work.”
The Facts of Life expands Knight’s exploration of the same themes and there are stylistic echoes of those earlier publications throughout its pages. The book takes the unusual but understandable step for a self-proclaimed graphic memoir of giving its cast of characters pseudonymous on-page identities (with the exception of the recurring presence of Neddy, a rocking horse without a rider that represents its central characters’ situation throughout).
As a child, Polly and her friend April make the same curious journey into the arcane realities of the adult world that generations have made before them – discovering the world of sexual relationships in often baffling increments via the media, illicit reading material, her parents and the odd overheard conversation.
Years later Polly and her partner Jack decide to try for a family of their own. But after many miscarriages, and with Polly’s health complicated by chronic illness, they are forced to question whether their aspirations of family life are realistic and just why we define the concept of “family” in the way that we do.
Knight’s narrative preamble examining her younger incarnation’s childhood life is a vital part of this graphic enquiry. It’s a reminder of how from a very early age women are indoctrinated into the idea that their identity is defined by having babies; a message that is constantly re-enforced in their impressionable childhood minds as a societal norm.
Where the book’s first section looks to the origins of the familial conventions that we are conditioned to accept, the second and middle segment is very much Polly and Jack’s heartrending story. This is a poignant account of hopes raised and dashed, of loss and grief, and of a gradual coming to terms with an inevitable decision.
Knight’s use of visual metaphor to communicate emotional states through this period is quite astonishing in its efficacy. Sometimes the form that takes is quite literal – her observations of a pair of inexperienced nesting swans on the bank of a local river for example – whereas on other occasions it manipulates and subverts the very structure of the comics page itself.
A resonant song that Polly associates with her tribulations, for example, weaving through panels and immersing her in its grip, poignant character fadeouts on the receipt of bad news, or sudden real world photographic artefacts emerging on the page and taking us from a representation of reality one step removed into the actuality of the situation itself. The Facts of Life is a gentle masterclass in all the storytelling tricks of which comics, and comics alone, are capable.
It’s when we get to the book’s final section that Knight starts breaking down and questioning why we define family in the way that we do and how the legacy of the past informs that thinking. Seemingly small things like family anecdotes that will never now be passed on take on an extra pathos not just because of the sadness of circumstances but also because it’s ingrained on us by our social environment that childlessness somehow equals failure.
There’s an understated emotional eloquence to The Facts of Life that is all the more potent for its quiet dignity. This is graphic memoir that doesn’t just communicate the issues involved and question the assumptions surrounding them, but crucially also acts as an accessible repository of shared experience for those in a similar position. Paula Knight’s long-awaited debut proves to be one of 2017’s finest uses of the medium so far.
Elisabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures
26 April 2017
What makes this graphic memoir extraordinary is that it deals not only with the author’s own experience of infertility but also with the wider social and cultural reasons for why women are still made to feel that motherhood is their destiny. The other major strength of the book, from my point of view as a comics scholar, is that it combines accomplished visual storytelling with the use of highly creative and engaging visual metaphors, which, in combination, enable readers to really understand and empathize with the author’s thoughts and feelings.
Jackie Kingsley, The Press and Journal, Aberdeen
13 April 2017
That a woman’s life is bound to include having children goes without saying – except that people say it all the time. But what if things don’t work out that way? That’s the subject of Paula Knight’s touching graphic novel.
After several miscarriages, Knight, an illustrator and writer of children’s books, and her partner decided to stop trying for a baby and start living a fulfilling life without kids.
The novel chronicles Knight’s journey to this point, from a care-free Seventies childhood, to ambivalence about motherhood in her twenties, to the heartbreaking miscarriages in her thirties, the sadness of which is made more poignant by the jaunty drawings.
But the story doesn’t end there: Knight questions why motherhood has come to be seen as so inextricably bound up with women’s identities and concludes that it doesn’t have to be this way.
As she puts it: “Childless? Childfree? Neither. Just me.” Hear hear.
In The Facts of Life, Paula Knightbrings a playful and sophisticated design sensibility to the graphic medicine and autobiographical comics genre. The book follows her personal journey from birth to now, focusing on any reference to parenthood and specifically the expectations placed on women to become mothers. It is an honest and compellingly moving account of one woman’s navigation of an issue that is still not talked about enough. I’m not sure whether the conclusion of her question to procreate or not is meant to be a surprise for the reader; certainly the first scene of the book is ambiguous, showing Knight beaming back at the back seat of her car while a lorry in the foreground puns on the central question of the book as Mothercare is partially occluded to become ‘othercare’. I read the book without reading the quotes on the back cover (I like surprises) and I recommend you do too if you want the answer to that question to remain a surprise.
The cleverness of that framing and visual wordplay is typical of the wit and wisdom of Knight’s comic though, and throughout the book are dozens of gems of creative page design and use of unusual graphic elements to tell the story. In a particular favourite of mine an unrolling toilet roll becomes a ribbon, becomes a road and ties together taboo and a mindful awareness of the minutiae of everyday into an intensely poignant moment. Really you have to read it just to see how that is achieved. As an illustrator and graphic designer, there is no doubt at all that Knight is a master, but the pacing of the book as a whole doesn’t always live up to these golden moments and personally I felt that at least half of the childhood stuff was surplus to requirements. I understand the choice to ground the story of the adult author’s struggles (the real meat of the book) in an exploration of where her attitudes to motherhood came from, but really this could have been achieved with more impact in fewer pages, or perhaps spread out throughout the book in a more fractured timeline. This may be my personal issue with the tendency of autobiographical comics to give more information than is necessary, simply because the details are known intimately by the author. Less is more, people. In most The Facts of Life does this well, shows rather than tells, and is definitely worth a read, not least to engage with a hugely pertinent contemporary issue.
Jonathan Rigby, Page 45 Comic & Graphic Novel Reviews
25 March 2017
"We tried to carry on as normal but my negative chatter started up again…
I'd never be one of those mums who could bake cakes for a school fare... or one of those mums who could rustle up costumes for the school play."
It is, perhaps, one of the facts of life that you are inevitably not going to get everything you want. But somehow, to not be able to conceive or carry a child to term for whatever reason, when you fervently desire for one, seems one of the cruellest tricks that life can play. Yes, there are those who are adamant they do not want children of their own, women and men, but the majority of people do wish to procreate and bring their own progeny into this world and seem to do so without any problems whatsoever, by and large.
To be denied that chance is to undoubtedly experience a sense of loss akin to losing someone who has been born and lived a life, however long or brief. Though it is also a very different loss, perhaps absence might be a more appropriate term, because you will never quite be sure what it is, who it is, that is missing from your life. You can imagine, you can dream, you can wonder, but you can never truly know.
Consequently, like BILLY, ME & YOU (about the loss of a child) by Nicola Streeten and HOLE IN THE HEART (having a child with Down's Syndrome) by Henny Beaumont, both also published by Myriad, this is one of those works that leaves you feeling rather raw emotionally. Which is clearly how Paula felt upon finally accepting that her dream of having a child was gone, which in her case as she explains, was at least in no small part due to her ongoing battle with ME. I don't doubt there are elements of that pain which are still with her today, and probably always will be. How can that not be the case? But Paula has at least been able to come to terms with it, begrudgingly perhaps, to some degree, and find a measure of peace.
This is her story, of how a little girl growing up in the north east together with her best friend, ended up travelling a divergent path entirely due to the vagaries of fate. Upon reaching adulthood her friend quickly settled down and became a mother with seemingly effortless ease, having a beautiful daughter and embracing being a parent in all its innumerate, relentless ups and downs. Whereas for Paula, who would have welcomed the maelstrom of madness that motherhood brings with open arms, well, matters were sadly much more complicated and rather less fulfilling.
I will have to hold my hand up at this point and say this is a book which it is probably impossible to digest with an entirely objective perspective. Whether you just don't want kids, or desperately do but just haven't met the right person yet and time is ticking, are currently trying but are struggling to conceive or carry a child, currently have a child or children, were sadly unable to, or indeed are currently pregnant, you have a subjective world view on this issue. It is inevitable. But given this is a work about trying to allow people to see a traumatic situation from another's perspective, I don't think it remotely matters. In that sense this is a very interesting work in that it will engender entirely different feelings in the people that read it.
I would imagine those who wanted children and were unable to do so will have the closest sense of what Paula has been through rekindled rather painfully. Those, like my wife and I, who ended up going down the route of IVF to get our daughter, will be reminded once more just how fortunate we personally were to overcome our fertility issues and know just what Paula has missed out on. People struggling with fertility currently will definitely empathise with the agonising uncertainty and not-knowing Paula and her chap went through, combined with wondering just how it will ultimately turn out for them. People who just popped kids out without any problems may well feel sorry, but really can't hope to grasp what they have endured, despite what they might think. And there may well be some, not wanting children themselves, who probably think they've simply swerved a bullet.
The point is, this is her, their, story and Paula does an incredible job of allowing us to understand just what they went through, indeed, what they are going through. And actually, on that last point, as someone who does suffer with ME, Paula does ponder deeply upon whether having children would have been a real uphill struggle for her. I gained a slight sense, rightly or wrongly, of looking for crumbs of consolation where truly there were none for her, but it's just part of the indefatigable honesty Paula pours into this work, when bone-sapping fatigue was in fact at times her mortal enemy on several levels.
What this work also does, in addition, is allow Paula to look at society's perceptions of women, particularly in relation to children, and how they have and haven't changed since her childhood. In that respect, like Una's BECOMING UNBECOMING about her childhood during the Yorkshire Ripper years and sexual violence towards women, there is a dual narrative going on which neatly broadens out the conversation.
Artistically, I was extremely impressed. I've only seen a few mini-comics and short strips that Paula has done before, but this is very accomplished work. The linework combines real fluidity and motion with a gentle neatness that enhances the detail. Neither under-inked nor over-inked, just a perfect weight, it gives a robust purpose to the art that is also very easy on the eye. A real talent and this was a very deeply moving read as I am sure it will be for most people.
And I should add, despite the upsetting subject matter, there are happier times shown too, which do underpin the whole story, told by a clearly very strong woman, despite her recurring physical frailties due to ME. I have only had the pleasure of meeting Paula once, but she made me smile by reminding me in occasional depictions of her here, of an impish mischievousness I definitely detected in person!
A veritable triumph of autobiographical comics, which will only help to further much needed conversation on a very difficult, harrowing subject for many people, whom we should all have boundless empathy for, whether we truly understand their suffering or not.
Sex education has just been made compulsory in schools but in the late 1970s Paula Knight got her sex education in the North East from playground talk, clandestine glances at porn magazines and a children’s picture book she found in a Lake District bookshop. Knight’s education didn’t extend to conversations about consent or agency and it remains to be seen whether that changes with government policy.
The Facts of Life fills in the blanks, boiling down the aspects of womanhood dictated not just by biology but by society into a digestible story – entertaining and educational for women and men of all ages.
Knight’s personal account of being caught between expectations for her to have children and her own uncertainty about whether she wanted them is poignant and insightful. With thoughtful illustrations she depicts the trauma of miscarriage and chronic illness, and confronts what family means to a woman when she chooses not to – or can’t – reproduce.
Charlotte Heathcote, Sunday Express
5 March 2017
This poignant graphic memoir explores what it takes to be a mother and what it takes not to be one. Semi-autobiographical, it charts the emotional journey of Polly as she tries to accept that her plans to have children, nurtured since childhood, will be unfulfilled due to infertility.
Sweetly funny and painful by turns, it’s the perfect “non-Mother’s Day” gift for any woman who has not taken the path of parenthood, whether by choice or not.
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).
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.
I’d like to highlight Paula Knight’s wonderful graphic memoir The Facts of Life, a sensitive comforting gift for any woman who has not chosen, or has not been able to choose the path of parenthood.
From the publisher of last year’s wonderful Hole in the Heart, a funny, affecting and highly poignant graphic memoir of what it takes to be a mother… and what it takes not to be one, in this semiautobiographical tale which spans the late 1960s to the present day, and tells of Polly and Jack’s quest for a ‘family’. In this Mother’s Day month, it’s rather wonderful to have an alternative and comforting book gift or self-purchase at the ready for those who have experienced miscarriage, are unable to have children, or who have decided not to have them
4 November 2016
In some ways motherhood has changed immeasurably, from contraception, to technological advances, through to same-sex marriage, all of these have wrought their influence. Yet despite these shifts, in other ways motherhood, the institution, the way it dominates the lives of women, has barely changed. We seem to still say, even if women can now make choices around when and how to give birth, still all must be mother. In her moving and sympathetic book, Paula Knight charts the emotional cost of the pursuit of motherhood and thoughtfully challenges the societal notion that to live a life without children is to live a lesser life. My favourite quote of the whole book was, perhaps, ‘not childless or child free, just me.’
Arri Coomarasamy, Professor of Gynaecology, University of Birmingham
4 October 2016
I am moved by your book. I have no doubt that the story of your journey will have an intensely personal resonance to many – many who are perhaps suffering in silence. Beyond suffering, however, there is hope. This is a message that many women and couples in the throes of pregnancy loss need to hear. At a time when very little makes sense, your book will give comfort and hope.
Linda Newbery, Reviews by Writers
2 October 2016
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?
For generations, women have been conditioned from an early age to believe that the greatest thing they can aspire to is motherhood. It’s what their grandmothers were made for, it’s what their mothers were made for - it’s what they’re made for.
And if it’s not their family and friends bludgeoning them with this matriarchal imperative, it’s society. Our governments, the media, and the advertising industry have consistently tried to define what the role of women should be. While no longer having to stay at home with the children, there is still a social expectation for women to want a baby regardless of how that might negatively affect her health, lifestyle or career development.
Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is her journey from childhood to the present day, during which she is surrounded by influences that attempt to force this child-bearing narrative upon her. As she grows older, advances through her career, endures and overcomes health problems, she must confront the ever-looming decision of whether or not to have children. And, more importantly, whether her decision will reflect badly on other areas of her life.
The “facts of life”, which can be read as both sex education and the dismal truth about the world, are taught to us as we grow up by the parents and teachers that are most influential people in our lives. In using this phase as the title of her book, Knight challenges the social paradigm that presents them as one and the same. It is still a common belief that a sad fact of life is that a woman’s life is not complete without children. In nodding to this, the creator asks us to consider that women shouldn’t have to have children if they don’t want to, nor should they be judged from a moral standpoint on that decision.
Knight makes a further argument that not having children doesn’t invalidate a person’s nurturing instincts. During the prologue we see her and her partner planting trees. Beforehand, when they’re in the car, there’s a curious panel showing her face bathed in sunlight with a Mothercare van visible in the windscreen, the ‘M’ of its logo just out of shot. This “Othercare” tableau shows that the desire to bring something into the world and care for it is universal and pure, irrespective of children. For Knight the pleasure of nurturing is found in working on her art and giving back to nature; both are acts of creativity and legacy, equally as legitimate as having children.
As a man, it’s hard to ever imagine the amount of pressure - both environmental and biological - women are under every day. It’s maddening to see how quickly young women are pushed into defining themselves and others through motherhood or the prospect of it. But Knight depicts the struggle of being a woman, and having to face those decisions with such humanity that it’s hard not to empathise. Instead of accepting the binary label of being “childless” or “child-free”, she asserts that she is “neither, just me”. We are all more than the labels we are given by other people.
Her delicate, highly-realised style brings an unsettling edge to the story and the imagery, catching you off-guard at times. Her comic pages carry that same sense of careful decision-making. Each page is an object lesson in how to tell a difficult and complicated story concisely.