The Facts of Life 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’.
Joe Gorden, Forbidden Planet blog8 February 2017
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.View source
Editor’s Choice, The Bookseller5 December 2016
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
Aminatta Forna4 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 Birmingham4 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.
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.