Cel­e­brated author Cather­ine Chidgey on moth­er­hood

Little Treasures - - CONTENTS -

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.

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