I first encountered Zoe Williams over a dozen years ago. I was working for Carlton TV as a producer for Thursday Night Live (a current affairs shoutathon presented by Nicky Campbell and Andrew Neil), and Zoe was a columnist for the Evening Standard. She appeared on the show a few times, despite the fact that the audiences could be really quite rude (the whole thing was like Question Time with the brakes off and an open bar).
Since then both she and I have gone on to have two children and write parenting books. Zoe is now best known as a Guardian columnist, but her work has also appeared in the Spectator, Marie Claire, Grazia, Red and the New Statesman.
I am best known for running a terrible competition and giving away a foot grater.
She was last year’s Columnist of the Year at the Workworld awards and is shortlisted for Feature of the Year for this year’s One World Media Awards.
I tweet a lot and drive a red Mini.
So, karma-wise, all is even in the Universe, which is as it should be.
Zoe’s latest book, What Not to Expect When You’re Expecting, is released soon, and it’s a stright-talking book for pregnant women and new mothers. Here she talks about what pregnant women need to know, and what she really thinks about Mumsnet and mummy blogging.
There are so many parenting books (and I can’t complain about that having written one myself) – what does yours offer that’s different?
ZW: It’s funny, the exact same question came up a lot from Guardian readers, many of whom were totally furious: “women have been giving birth for thousands of years! You seriously think we need YOU to tell us how cute your baby is?” I really puzzled over it, because my first thought was, “Man, they’re right. What have I done?”
But in fact, I think it’s like writing a book about falling in love, or cooking fish. Just because it’s part of life doesn’t mean that it’s not a new story from everyone who tells it. If anything, I hope the difference in my book is how terrible I was at everything – the terrible moods, the awe-inspiring weight gain, the total refusal to listen to experts, on any matter, without shouting at them. I really hope anyone pregnant who’s feeling cranky and bad about herself can read this and think, “thank God I’m not that bad”.
What’s the one thing pregnant women need to know that they aren’t currently usually told?
ZW: Oh, I’m very big on breastfeeding: two things pregnant women need to know. First is that it’s amazing, if it works it’s like being in heaven. Second is that it’s not that big a deal. Most of the health claims are overstated (as you can read in my book!) So if it’s not like being in heaven, don’t kill yourself trying to do it.
And are there any parts of pregnancy that those who’ve gone through it need to keep schtum about? Or is all knowledge power?
ZW: Well, my sister had a two-year-old when I got pregnant, and was pregnant again herself, so it was fresh and present in her mind, and if she’d lied to me about it, I would have been able to tell. But the truth is, when people tell you frightening things (like, “you might poo yourself, but you’ll be so out of it you don’t notice” – and you think, how out of it would I have to be?), your mind finds a way to explain them away. So I just listened to my sister and thought, “oh, she’s always been the weaker of the pair of us, I’m sure I’ll be fine” Ha! Like hell!
Do you think the expansion of the online world has helped or hindered mothers in general? I think that forums like Mumsnet and Netmums can be great for connecting people, and for quickly finding advice from people who’ve been where you are now. But they can also be the source of enormous judgementalism, over-thinking of simple issues and avoiding the real world.
ZW: I think the major things about the online world are exactly as you say – it makes you feel very supported, in a very particular way. People identify with each other really strongly if they’ve both got the same very specific problem (like, say, your daughter is anally retentive, or your son prefers Gordon to Thomas the Tank Engine, even though Gordon is clearly a dick) and are infinitely more useful to one another than the half-baked memories you get off your family (my mum told me that I’d gnawed a baguette down to the middle when I was six weeks old. So of course, when I had a six week old of my own, I assumed there was something terribly wrong with him, because he couldn’t even hold his head up. My mum had obviously meant six months. The internet would never make this mistake).
But sure, as you say, you can get terrible tirades from strangers, and these seem to crop up more in parenting conversations than any others. My rule of thumb with that is that I would never put a point of view on t’internet more strongly than I would put it if I met someone at a party, and if anybody else does, I just don’t listen to them because I don’t think they’ve thought hard enough about how they’re coming across.
In June Zoe will be speaking at the parent blogging conference BritMums Live. So what does she really think about the term ‘mummy blogger’? Some people are very proud of the tag, whilst others find it incredibly patronising and hate it. And if Zoe wasn’t writing regularly for The Guardian, would she blog?
ZW: Oh, it’s funny the blogging idea – exactly the same slightly patronising conversations happen about foodie bloggers, and how they’re not proper professionals because they take pictures of the food instead of describing it, and all they ever call anything is “tasty”. But I think for someone deciding whether or not to go to a restaurant, a blog is often much more useful than a conventional review.
Speaking for myself, I have always found describing things, especially stressful or unknown or infuriating things, incredibly cathartic. Just the act of turning it into a story seems to take the sting out of it, even if the story pretty much always ends with me realising I’m wrong/ over-reacting/ under-reacting/ something. So I would always blog, if I weren’t writing for the Guardian, and if blogs didn’t exist, I’d probably write a lot of letters.
What Not to Expect When You’re Expecting by Zoe Williams is published by Guardian Books and released on 7th June 2012, RRP £7.99
I have 3 copies of the book to give away – check back here tomorrow to find out how you can win one