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’.
Jonathan Rigby, Page 45 Comic & Graphic Novel Reviews25 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.View source
Antonia Charlesworth, Big Issue North13 March 2017
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.
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.
Josh Franks, Ink Magazine
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.View source
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.