Charlotte Duckworth: Why I wrote my debut novel The Rival

Charlotte Duckworth was looking for novels that reflected her experience of new motherhood but couldn’t find. So she wrote The Rival. It’s gritty, relatable in parts, shocking and has unbelievable twists. Here, Charlotte explains how she came up with the story…

I still feel ashamed by how big a shock becoming a mother was to me. I was 33 when I got pregnant, and although my daughter was very much longed for, I was incredibly naïve. I’d been a wholly selfish ‘career woman’ up to that point – I was a successful journalist and PR consultant and knew nothing about babies, or how to care for them. I’m not sure I ever thought much past that moment when the pregnancy test would show two lines, and I’d tell my friends and family and everyone would be happy for me.

I was clueless; focused on the things that didn’t really matter, like choosing the right buggy and making sure my tiny daughter had a million pretty dresses that she would (inevitably) hardly ever wear, because babygrows were so much more practical. It was a steep learning curve, and one I fell off numerous times.

My sense of alienation was exacerbated by the fact I found myself on maternity leave without a job to return to. Sadly, this is an all-too-common situation. It was terrifying: this open-ended new ‘life’ that was completely foreign to everything I had ever known, and that I was woefully underprepared for.

I loved my baby desperately, but I didn’t feel worthy of her. I’d had issues breastfeeding and given up wracked with guilt at five weeks. She was a difficult sleeper with terrible colic. She hated being in a sling. I couldn’t take her to restaurants or baby classes because she was very easily overstimulated and would scream her way through them. But I didn’t know why – it felt like all the other mothers I knew were so much better at it than me. I’d lost my job, so I had to make this mothering thing work. But nothing came naturally, and every day I felt I was failing her.

I wasn’t used to failing. I missed work. My confidence evaporated. I’d look in the mirror and wonder who I was, and whether I was the only one who felt they lost their identity when they became a mother. So I started to look for novels that reflected my experience, but couldn’t find any.

I’m not a planner at all, so I sat down and simply decided to write about two women, one who had lost her job while pregnant, and another who had replaced her. I suppose the two characters, Ashley and Helena, are a reflection of the two women I feel I was – before and after having my baby. I wanted to examine how the experience of becoming a mother changes you, especially in relation to your career and sense of identity.

I had never heard of post-partum psychosis until I watched a BBC documentary on it when my daughter was eight months old. It broke my heart to see these women struggling so desperately, and I wondered why this hadn’t been covered much in fiction either. I did some more research and as I was writing the book realised that it would make sense for Helena’s extreme stress to push her to the absolute limit. (I will say though that I used some artistic licence in dealing with the condition in the novel, and if readers are interested to find out more about it, Action on Postpartum Psychosis is a hugely important charity working to raise awareness of the condition).

As for me, I would say it took at least a year for my confidence to return, and there are still some days when I look at other women and think how much better off my daughter would have been with them as a mother. But I’m lucky to have a very supportive partner, who, due to the nature of his career, is around a lot more than most fathers. My situation might have been very different if he hadn’t been by my side every day during those life-changing early months.

Before I got pregnant, I had a pretty unsisterly attitude towards mothers and pregnant ladies in general. Especially in the workplace. If I heard them complain about their lot, I was dismissive – thinking they had wanted children so why were they moaning? But now I am a mother I realise what a massively challenging task being a parent is.

I would love readers to realise that mothers need and deserve support. Not just in the workplace, but in shops, on public transport etc. If you see a mother struggling to get her buggy down a flight of stairs, then offer her a hand. If you see a toddler having a tantrum in a restaurant, don’t glare at the mother for ruining your peace. She’s probably desperately embarrassed and exhausted. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to mothers but to all parents, and anyone looking after children.

I wish as a nation we valued carers more than ambition, and that’s another theme I hope to highlight in my book. I think it’s something we need to work on.

The Rival (Quercus) is published 6 September. But you can get the e-book now.