“95% Of Women Will Relate To Feeling Guilty All The Time”: Elizabeth Day On Motherhood & Obsession

Photo by Jenny Smith
Last year, at a time when most of us were allaying the creeping boredom by engaging in a number of basic lockdown clichés – mainly lumpy banana bread and ill-advised DIY haircutsElizabeth Day wrote an entire book.
Magpie – a twisty psychological thriller about a happy couple who are trying for a baby when another woman starts to take an unhealthy interest in their lives – delves into female desire, obsession, fertility and motherhood. It’s utterly engrossing, a thick sense of dread unfurling from every page. 
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It’s hard to fathom the discipline required to produce such a gripping body of work when most of us were struggling to maintain waist-up outfit etiquette on Zoom calls. But if anyone was going to do it, of course it would be Elizabeth Day. 
Just one glance at the impressive list of accolades attached to the trailblazing journalist, author and broadcaster’s name is enough to inspire a crisis of self-confidence. Day has become a household name with her chart-topping podcast How To Fail, where she has grilled everyone from Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Ed Miliband; the phenomenon has even gone on to spawn various live events. She is also the author of several books, including bestselling memoir How To Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong and her most recent, Magpie
But like a double-edged sword, inextricable from these incredible successes are the failures from which they are born. Day's innate empathy and talent for helping others come to terms with their fiascos stems from her openness and vulnerability when addressing her own perceived failures: the end of her marriage and her ongoing struggles with fertility. It was Day’s miscarriage in a restaurant that inspired Fleabag's throat-catching toilet scene, penned by her friend Waller-Bridge. Day is "really, really grateful" for the portrayal because to "help other people is a really magnificent thing." And it is this kernel of pain from which Magpie was born.
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So much of being a woman and a feminist woman is about having a degree of control over your own body and your own physical space. And then to have that slightly taken away, even though you're yearning for it, it's just a real headfuck.

Elizabeth Day
"I’ve made no secret of the fact that I've been on a long and somewhat arduous path with fertility," Day tells me frankly when we speak over the phone about the idea behind the book. "I think some people can get so hung up on the idea of becoming a parent that it can drive them into really uncomfortable places in the soul. It can make you very obsessive and very traumatised, because you're processing a lot of grief about the life that you thought you would have."
Day started writing Magpie after her most recent miscarriage, using its creation as a way of bringing meaning to the trauma. "I set out to write with the intention of putting fertility into a novel in a way that I hadn't seen done before," she says. "When I first started going through fertility stuff and I had a couple of rounds of IVF unsuccessfully, I went to my local bookshop as I wanted a book to help me through and to tell me what was going to happen. There was nothing but ream upon ream of mother and baby books, and nothing for anyone else. I felt really excluded and while that's happily changed in the nonfiction space, I don't feel that fiction has caught up with it yet. And I think that fiction is a vehicle for such a profound degree of emotional truth." 
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The book makes no painstaking effort to tiptoe around the brutality of fertility struggles. The bloodshed and pain is gory and visceral – fitting for a psychological thriller but also, actually, just very accurate in capturing the pain of being a woman and trying to conceive. It's a lesser seen phenomenon, particularly in fiction – something that Day is trying to rectify. 
"I have been pregnant three times now," she says. "My path of motherhood hasn't been straightforward and each time it has felt so anxiety-inducing and so physical, and also so psychologically challenging. All of my miscarriages have been at the three-month or before the three-month mark; they've been early. But it's like a weird state of limbo, where you have to change so much of your own existence on the gamble that it might turn out well. I wouldn't exercise as much, I wouldn't be able to have my glass of red wine. I just thought, What if you end up feeling taken over by this baby that's growing inside you? So much of being a woman and a feminist woman is about having a degree of control over your own body and your own physical space. And then to have that slightly taken away, even though you're yearning for it, it's just a real headfuck."
The book is very much about mothers. It is a celebration of their devotion and an examination of what happens when that devotion tips into obsession in the most fascinating way. As well as the biological fallout of trying to get pregnant, Day makes some not-so-subtle digs at the structures in place that make women feel guilty for being unable to conceive.
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"The language of fertility is very much the language of failure – every single time I was always seen by a male consultant," she remembers. "I was always told, 'You're failing to respond to the drugs,' or a friend was told she had an incompetent cervix – and this language I can't imagine being used in a different medical setting. I do think that we internalise it a lot because there is this slightly patriarchal assumption that a woman's role is to bear children. And that's changing massively. I think that we're in a really interesting transitional phase."
This internalised sense of shame extends beyond motherhood, too. "I know that 95% of women will relate to feeling guilty all the time," Day says. "I constantly feel guilty about things I haven't done, things I should have done, things I might not even know that people are expecting me to do. And my default is always to think I've done something wrong." 

Living a fulfilled life doesn't mean that you've got everything, that you've ticked every single box you thought you wanted to tick when you were younger. It means growing in wisdom, which means accepting the things that don't happen and can't change.

Elizabeth Day
Much of Magpie looks at the desire with which we crave other people’s lives and experiences. Social media has produced a generation of people who constantly have grass-is-greener syndrome, a phenomenon which is certainly intensified among women and which Day deftly examines in the book. Her two main female characters, Kate and Marisa, are purposefully foils for each other: the former a stylish film PR and the latter a "ripe" young children’s illustrator. At various points and throughout the unexpected plot twists, the reader finds themselves envying both women.
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"We live in a really competitive culture, where women are pitted against each other, whether it's on the pages of the magazine comparing perfect beach bodies or whether it's in the workplace, and that was a lens through which to explore that particular dynamic between my characters."
As to be expected, the author already has the idea for her next project: a non-fiction book filled with essays about friendship, "a big passion in [her] life." But there is no doubt that Magpie will stick in readers' minds as her most raw, poignant and pertinent work for years to come. Successful careers, meaningful friendships, independence but also an Insta-worthy relationship: Magpie explores the lot, namely whether women can have it all. As we near the end of our conversation, when I ask her whether she believes they can, her response – in true Elizabeth Day style – is resplendent.
"I think you can live a fulfilled life. And that's what I aspire to do; that's my version of having it all," she says. "And living a fulfilled life doesn't mean that you've got everything, that you've ticked every single box you thought you wanted to tick when you were younger. It means growing in wisdom, which means accepting the things that don't happen and can't change. But also realising that in the space left by those things not coming to fruition is this whole other unanticipated world of growth that you would never have experienced otherwise. So the fact that I haven't had children to this point has brought me in contact with the most incredible women who are on similar paths. And I like to think that we're part of the sort of pioneering generation that offers more liberation and more space to women coming up behind us; that there's more than one way to be." 
Magpie is out on 4th Estate on 2nd September.

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