When Francesca Segal, almost 30 weeks pregnant with identical twins, was told that she needed to have an emergency caesarean, her first reasonable, lunatic thought was whether this meant she had got away with no stretch marks. The right way to respond to becoming a mother has become violently politicised in recent years, but for Segal, plunged in too early, the dominant reflex is a numbed detachment. Some hours previously she had found herself bleeding profusely, but her brain had been unable to compute what was happening. “It seems I am sobbing,” she writes. “How odd I hadn’t noticed until now.”
Segal is the author of two novels about family life, one of which, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award. But this is the first time she has written about her own family life, the first 10 weeks of which were spent with A-lette and B-lette, as her daughters are initially called, in hospital (names, she and her husband Gabe agree, seem “unimportant, compared with the business of keeping them alive”).
The first few chapters of this radiant memoir of that terrible time capture a state of bewilderment that borders at times on the farcical. When she awakes at 4am, after giving birth, the twins are cocooned elsewhere in intensive care. “Somewhere in this hospital are my daughters,” thinks Segal, and sets off, absurdly, to find them. When she first meets them, within the alien, thrumming tranquillity of the ICU (a place that “resembles the cockpit of a spaceship”), she can’t see them: their faces, concealed beneath their masks, remain “a secret known only to each other”. At the side of their beds, with nothing to do, she “stands around. Then someone brought me a stool so for the sake of variety I sat on it”.
She is unable to take in the seriousness of the situation. When a fellow parent reveals her own child was born at 28 weeks, weighing 21oz (600g), Segal says “Oh, sweet”, before realising that it’s not sweet at all, but catastrophically life-threatening. “I have not yet learned to talk here,” she thinks. “I have not yet understood.”
For the past three centuries, literature has largely ignored the experiences of pregnancy, giving birth, motherhood and parenting, so it’s small surprise that, over the past decade, writers have been furiously making up for lost time. The most notable have staked out a mother’s right to feel ambivalence, from Rachel Cusk’s memoir A Life’s Work to the novels of Leïla Slimani or Sheila Heti, who in Motherhood confronted the question of whether to have a child at all.
Segal’s experience is quite different: she is denied the luxury of a subjective response because her circumstances don’t allow her to feel that she is yet a parent. At one point, A-lette is so fragile she can only tolerate Segal’s wrist against the sole of her foot. “I have felt myself taken from them so completely that I could not trust that my children recognised their mother,” she writes. But that isn’t the worst of her fears. Lethal infections and brain bleeds in premature babies are nastily common. There’s a risk that one of them has sepsis, which, she admits, sounds “extremely not great”. Consultants refuse to give a prognosis – and that’s if, she notes drolly, you can hail one to ask.
Segal writes beautifully. I kept returning to sentences such as this: “The exquisite transgression of their forming selves exposed, caught in the act of becoming. I feel my intrusion upon them: they were not ready … They are half beings in the half light.” She is also funny, in an easy, companionable way.
The narrative is presented in diary format, which allows the reader to experience everything alongside her: the “accelerated intimacy” among fellow new mothers in the “milking shed” where everyone expresses milk several times a day; the horror of watching medics, with fingers thicker than her daughter’s limbs, pin down a twin to insert a feeding tube. After the immediate crisis has passed, B-lette is transferred to a different hospital, meaning Segal now needs to be in two places at once, pumping milk and administering love. She spends the next week travelling back and forth on the Central line, trying not to collapse from the pain of her caesarean wound.
Mother Ship stands out most of all for its refreshing absence of solipsism, that sanctioned self-obsessiveness of new mothers who believe their experience to be the most significant in the world. Segal might occasionally mourn her lost, easy life of writing and reading, but for her “too much self is a hindrance”. Instead, she has written a paean to the depthless kindness of other people: the solidarity of fellow mothers who sustain each other with pastries and sound advice; the peerless machinery of the NHS, with its unsung army of workers whose dedication and expertise keep alive the moth-like babies in their care.
There is precious little sentimentality in Segal’s writing, which serves as its own restorative act of love. But occasionally a tiny, allowable amount sneaks in and instantly prompts tears. “Small acts of random kindness happen over and over here: life affirming, soul enriching. Thank you strangers, whenever we have fallen, hands have caught us.”
Francesca Segal’s Mother Ship is published by Chatto and Windus for £14.99. To buy your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph bookshop.