Award-winning author Clare Mulley won the hearts of the nation with her debut biography of Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb. It was awarded the Daily Mail Biographers Club prize and was described as a ‘truly brilliant book’ by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But in an exclusive article with Motivating Mum, the mum-of-three reveals the difficulties she faced juggling life as a writer and a parent.
Motherhood - in all its wonderful complexities - seems to be the story of my life. When I had my first child I decided I wanted to work part-time from home, so I left my job as a fundraiser at the charity Save the Children and started researching the life of the charity’s founder, the wonderfully named Eglantyne Jebb. The plan was to quickly produce a best-selling biography. I had no idea what I was taking on.
Eglantyne dedicated her life to promoting children’s rights and welfare. She not only founded the world’s largest independent children’s development agency, but also wrote what has now evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. But she never became a mother herself and in fact confessed she was not fond of children, once calling them ‘the little wretches’. I admire Eglantyne for many things. She was a wildly romantic, courageous, eccentric and passionate woman, who in between illicit romance in Cambridge, espionage in Serbia, spiritualism in Shropshire and public arrest in Trafalgar Square, permanently changed the way the world regards and treats children. She was also someone who knew her own strengths. Not a sentimental woman, she focused her efforts on children in general, not on any particular child. Eglantyne, I soon found myself muttering, never had to juggle her work with trying to find baby-wipes, negotiating maths homework, or putting away the lego, again.
It took me seven years to research and write Eglantyne’s life. At the same time I had three (wonderful) kids. At first I worked mainly evenings and weekends, slowly sifting through Save the Children’s archives. When daughter number two arrived I just strapped her across my chest in one of those baby carriers, and took along with me to the Women's Library in London, where the staff kindly let me go through their records so long as the baby did not wake. However not many archives or libraries were so accommodating, and I soon realised I was not going to get on well with anything trying to work this way. Getting an au pair was liberating; I now had three full days a week to dedicate to the book. And with limited time for both writing and mothering, I was always aware of just how precious every day was. I had to be disciplined about structuring my time, and not worry about the washing or the state of the kitchen, but motivation was never an issue. Plus, as anyone who works part-time knows, you give great value for money because you never actually switch off completely. I found myself coming up with more solutions to problems while I was pushing a swing in the park, than when I was pushing shut the study door. I just had to make sure I remembered them for when I was next at my desk.
By the time I was six months pregnant with my last daughter, a few years later, my agent and I had a race to see who could deliver first - book deal or baby. I won, but only by a few weeks. I am not sure which delivery was harder or more painful, but the baby certainly came out faster. The last three chapters of the biography were written over the first three months of my new baby's life, mostly during or after a feed as she slept on my lap. I quickly discovered that I can type quite well with one hand, but only if it is the right hand, so little H got used to feeding on the left. All in all it was a fairly unbalanced time in my life.
However tired I was, which was usually very, I think I became more motivated as my children came along – real, lovely, children, with rights to welfare and opportunities, like every other child in the world. What amazed me was how motivated Eglantyne remained without this maternal impulse. Even in 1919, the year she launched Save the Children, she wrote with typical wry humour to her close friend Margaret Keynes (the younger sister of the economist), 'I suppose it is a judgment on me for not caring about children that I am made to talk, all day long, about the universal love of mankind towards them'. What I rather slowly realised is that mothers may have particular insights into children and childhood, but we don’t have a monopoly on humanitarianism. Eglantyne once said that ‘to succeed in life, we must give life’, and there are plenty of ways to do that, just as there are plenty of ways to be a good mother. I now believe that combining motherhood and writing has not only kept me sane and happy, it has made me much better at both.
Having said all that, it was wonderful to finally hand the manuscript over last year - dedicated to my three daughters. Of course it’s been a busy year promoting the book, but the paperback comes out this March – just in time for Mothers’ Day – and that feels hugely rewarding. I only feel rather sorry I shall have less excuses for my delays now I am working on the next book.
The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children is available in all good bookshops and on Amazon. All author royalties are being donated to Save the Children.