Celebrated author Catherine Chidgey on motherhood
Author Catherine Chidgey is a writer at the top of her game. Last year she won New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prize, the Acorn, for her fourth novel, The Wish Child. It took 13 years to write, but has already been followed by a ‘found’ novel, The Beat of The Pendulum, pieced together out of conversations from a year in her life. Chidgey has been open about the fertility struggles that contributed to a 13-year writing hiatus, and the joyous arrival of daughter Alice, born by surrogacy in June 2015. Since then, her unconventional family has grown to include a half sibling for Alice, after Chidgey’s husband, Alan, became a sperm donor. Chidgey lives in Ngaruawahia with Alan, Alice and a tribe of five cats with their own Facebook page (Odd-eyed Tribe).
You belong to a very modern family. What’s the short version you give to people?
We don’t offer information unless there’s a reason to – it’s quite private, after all (even though I’ve made it very public by including it in the the book!). But there is sometimes an expectation that because you’ve formed a family in an unusual way, you’ll want to talk about it in detail. I find that strange – I don’t expect people to tell me all the steps involved in the conception of their children! If it does come up, we just say that we had Alice via surrogacy, and that we then wanted to help others, so we donated sperm.
The emotional journey of IVF is tough (see our story on Page 32). What were your highs and lows?
It was a terribly gruelling time, and to put it bluntly, there were no highs. The drugs played havoc with me physically and emotionally, and it put an enormous financial burden on us. However, if we’d never gone down that path, I doubt we would have ended up exploring surrogacy – so the fact that we ended up having Alice that way is of course one enormous high.
How did your fertility journey affect your creativity?
It stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t write – I was depressed. That was a black time; it seemed I couldn’t be a mother, and I also couldn’t be the thing that I felt truly defined me – a writer.
What advice would you give to other women who might be going through the same thing?
Make contact with other people who are going through it too – online and in real life. Those who haven’t experienced it can’t understand the reality and will often inadvertently say something stupid, e.g; ‘Why don’t you just get a dog?’, ‘Have you thought about adoption?’, ‘Why don’t you go on holiday and just let it happen?’ I found it very helpful to be able to vent to those who understood.
What were some of the hurdles you faced on the road to surrogacy?
Finding a surrogate in the first place, obviously. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in New Zealand, so you have to find someone who wants to do it purely for altruistic reasons. We were looking for a traditional surrogate rather than a gestational surrogate,
“Make contact with other people who are going through IVF too. Those who haven’t experienced it can’t understand the reality”
too (i.e. it would be her egg, not mine), and they are very hard to come by. We tried with one lovely woman for a while, but it didn’t work, so then it was back to square one, trying to find someone else amazing enough to offer us that incredible gift. We were so lucky that Leila chose us. One of the more frustrating experiences was having to go through the lengthy adoption process with CYFS. The law doesn’t really “fit” around surrogacy – it’s woefully outdated – so even though Alice is Alan’s biological child, we both still had to adopt her.
Once you finally arrived on the continent of motherhood, was it what you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think anyone does. No one can prepare you for the exhuastion, or the times when you’re convinced you’re doing everything wrong – nor for the moments of quiet bliss.
Watching a young child discover language is such a joy. As a writer, how have you found the process?
Utterly fascinating – seeing her learn words, but also seeing her starting to grasp what language can do. She can be very persuasive!
I love the scene in your latest book about missing opportunities to teach Alice her colours. Are you an anxious parent?
No. I think Alan does enough worrying for both of us!
You’ve posted on Facebook lately about potty training Alice. How’s that going? Any pro tips?
None! I would like some, though. We’re using a sticker chart and lots of positive reinforcement and I have bought her some special undies... it can be very slow going.
Two books in three years on top of a baby. That thing about the ‘pram in the hall’ being the enemy of good writing hasn’t slowed you down at all. How and when do you find time to write?
I’ve had to adjust my schedule and my overall expectations. I used to make myself write 500 words per day, which I spread over the morning and afternoon. These days, the only time I can write is first thing in the morning, so I get up at 6am and make myself produce 200 words before 8am. It all adds up, though.
Have you experienced any of the conflict between the demands of motherhood versus a creative career? Both are all-consuming.
Yes, absolutely. I love hearing Alice’s busy little feet running down the hall to my office, but if I’m in the middle of a tricky bit of writing – which is most of the time – It’s difficult to pick up the thread again after I’ve looked at her latest imaginary injury (why do they love plasters so much?) or hidden behind the curtains with her.
You’ve had a demanding year, with festivals in Toronto, South Africa and all over NZ. How do you cope with being away from Alice? Who looks after her?
On top of my two teaching jobs and my writing, I had 46 book events or interviews, which is horrifying for a committed introvert! I had to make do with talking to Alice via Skype whenever I was away. I do wonder why women are still being asked who looks after their children if they’re working – men are not asked that question. To answer it, though – my husband Alan does the lion’s share of the childcare, so he does.
Top left: Alan, Alice & Chidgey (also right). Bottom, L-R: Rikk & Leila (Chidgey’s surrogate) with daughter Freya; then Alan, Alice & Chidgey with Leila’s daughter, Poppy, in front; and Donna & Matilda, far right, the result of Alan’s sperm donation.
The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey Victoria University Press, RRP $35.