Where did the idea for The Mother of All Problems book stem from?
I’ve been writing for a long time and have often used books as a form of unofficial therapy. Being able to immerse yourself in another world, whether written by yourself or someone else, is enormously freeing when the stresses of life build up, and both reading and writing have stood me in good stead over the years of medical school and working in the NHS. But the moment that writing really ‘saved’ me (excuse the melodrama) was when my mum was diagnosed with young onset dementia and I decided to start writing a blog.
I had no experience of blogging and prior to that point, zero interest in social media. But I started small and wrote under a pseudonym. That way I had a layer of psychological protection from the trolls and the freedom to write the absolute truth in all its ludicrous, dark glory. The more I wrote the more I connected with people – every post drew comments along the lines of, ‘thank you for sharing – I feel like this too.’ I set up social media accounts so that I could promote the blog and I found new friends on Twitter, tips from dementia carers, words of encouragement and support. I realised that far from being alone, I was in fact part of an enormous, global network of carers, and that in writing my blog I was actually giving some of these people a voice.
A few of my regular followers had suggested that I write a book and I found I was reaching a point with the blog where documenting the hard reality of Mum’s decline was becoming depressing. A retreat back into fiction seemed both inevitable and welcome. I wanted to tell the story of a normal woman in the sandwich generation, stuck between caring roles for family members at both ends of the age spectrum. I wanted to draw out the highs and laugh at the lows. And thus, The Mother of All Problems was born.
What would you say are the overarching themes of the book?
The central theme of the book is identity. My main character, Penny, takes on so many roles she loses her sense of self, becoming defined only in relation to others. In the first half of the book she feels she’s no longer a person in her own right, merely a mum, wife, daughter, sister or carer. She describes this as ‘being stretched so thin she’s in danger of disappearing entirely,’ which is I think how a lot of people in this situation come to feel. Penny’s journey through the book is one of self-discovery. She rekindles her love of music through the dementia choir, finds support and purpose in her close group of female friends, navigates the tricky path of health and social care provision to access help for her parents, dips a toe back in the world of business, and ultimately learns to stand up for herself.
Family, particularly the role of the matriarch, features heavily in the book too. Maternal bonds are explored through Penny’s roles as a mother and a daughter and, equally, the dynamics between siblings, spouses and friends form a key part of the story, illustrating the different ways we interact and care for one another. In terms of wider society I wanted to look at the concepts of care and duty, and also to shine a light on the unsung heroes: the sandwich generation quietly going about their business, keeping families, friends and often entire communities together; school teachers and preschool leaders; those working in health and social care; the voluntary sector, and those who lead community choirs.
The dementia choir brings the theme of music into the book. Initially I use music as another example of how Penny has allowed elements of her personality and activities she enjoyed, become subsumed by her roles of mother, daughter and housewife. Through the choir she finds fulfilment on a personal level but I also wanted to focus on the power of music as a therapeutic tool.
You mention female identity as a key theme of the book. Can you tell us a bit more about this, particularly the idea of the sandwich generation and women holding communities together?
The Mother of All Problems is unashamedly women’s commercial fiction written by a woman and aimed at other women, although I genuinely hope men will enjoy it too – I’m all for inclusivity. I find female identity interesting (if unexpectedly complex in modern discourse) and I wanted to celebrate the strength of female relationships - between friends, family, or loose acquaintances - as well as shining a light on those quietly powerful women who hold communities together. The unassuming middle-aged mum is rarely held up as a hero. Youth, beauty, chastity, desirability and biddability are the characteristics society tends to venerate in its womenfolk and we don’t hear enough about strength, determination, willfulness, creativity, wit and cunning. These traits are not seen as aspirational or inspiring and yet they are essential for most women who just want to get stuff done. I know a lot of brilliant women – often the ones multitasking the life out of everything on a daily basis – and I wanted to write about them, celebrate them, and give them a voice.
The subject matter could be seen as somewhat depressing but the comedy in this book is truly laugh-out-loud. What inspired some of the humour in the story?
Real life is random, complex and often completely hilarious. Whenever I’m having a bad time, I find myself thinking about how I will later relate the scenario to my husband and friends. I’m already turning it into an anecdote whilst I’m gnashing my teeth and railing at the injustice. I think a lot of stories develop this way – retelling a version of events edited to entertain others is how we learn and how we grow from each experience.
And my job as a GP affects how I relate those stories. It’s fair to say that my humour is dark. Medics’ humour is, by virtue of necessity, as black as it comes. As coping mechanisms go, ‘laughing in the face of adversity’ is a pretty good one if the level of adversity is a manageable three or four out of five and it was a particularly useful skill to have in the armoury when coping with Mum’s diagnosis. Seeing the funny side of a situation diminishes the fear and frustration it would otherwise provoke and chuckling alongside someone else helps reduce the sense of isolation – so I’m a big believer in laughter being the best medicine.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
Aching sides from laughing at top quality relatable humour, pink eyes (from the occasional cry rather than conjunctivitis), and, for all the quiet, unassuming people of the sandwich generation, a feeling of being ‘seen’ (as the youth say). Along with a lifelong love of the work of Nancy Peach, her back catalogue, and all her future novels, natch.
Check out Nancy Peach's new book The Mother Of All Problems click here