"Self-sacrifice is not a core characteristic of becoming a mother"
Successful author and behavioural scientist, Dr Pragya Agarwal, released her latest enthralling new book (M)otherhood in June, 2021.
The fourth book in Pragya’s impressive catalogue, (M)otherhood addresses the cultural, societal and scientific elements that stimulate how we think and talk about motherhood.
Drawing upon her own experiences as a mother of three daughters, including twins, Pragya emphasises the need to tackle society’s obsession with fertility, childbirth and women’s bodies.
More importantly, how this infatuation has constructed the unfair pressure on women to obtain motherhood.
Since moving to the UK from India in 2001, Pragya has been an unstoppable presence within the literary world.
However, her extensive talents have also made her a two-time Tedx Speaker, successful women’s rights campaigner and a prominent contributing writer to powerhouses Forbes and Huffington Post.
The influential author is also the founder of the social enterprise ‘The Art Tiffin’, a programme designed to help children develop their creativity through play.
In addition, she also founded the research think-tank ‘The 50 Percent Project’ which inspects the status, diversity and rights of women across the world.
These components personify Pragya’s undeniable work ethic, which has been a catalyst for equality and inclusivity.
(M)otherhood serves as another tool in the writer’s perseverance for change. To evoke questions and deep thought about the perceptions of women and to assure readers that progress still needs to be made.
Pragya spoke exclusively with DESIblitz about her new book, the foundations of her career and the importance of creativity.
How did your love for writing begin?
My love for writing began with my love for reading, I have loved reading since I was a little child.
I would wait for my school library to open to be able to get a book out every week and would read it immediately under the covers late into the night.
I would save my pocket money to buy a book every month, and I would carry a book with me everywhere I went: to the shops, to weddings, to the playground.
The words created these worlds for me that I hadn’t known or seen yet, and I suppose I wanted to be immortalised with my words on paper in the same way.
I was also quite shy and introverted so writing seemed easier than talking to people.
What was the first piece you wrote?
I can’t remember the first piece I wrote, because I was always writing and scribbling in my notebooks.
“I remember writing a journal as a young child and making a note of every book I’d read.”
But the first piece that I had published was when I was around 9 or 10 years old for our school magazine. It was a short story about a universe where everyone still had tails.
It was funny but came about from some scientific text I had read about how we had an embryonic tail, and sometimes a baby might be born with it if it doesn’t disappear although it is very rare.
I was thinking about these lost aspects of ourselves that have gone as we have evolved, and what our lives would be like if we still had them.
How would you describe your writing?
I am not sure if any author finds it easy to describe their own writing. I would look at how others have described my writing.
A review in the Observer has called it ‘genre-defying’, and another in New Statesman called it ‘powerful and compelling’.
Other writers and readers have also called it ‘bold’, ‘brave’, ‘exhilarating’ and ‘beautiful’.
“I suppose my writing is meticulously researched but also intimate, and honest.”
I want to write things that resonate with readers but also challenge them, take them out of their comfort zone, question the status quo and inherent issues in our society.
That is the thread that runs through all my writing, bringing my own specific lens to highlight the universalities of our shared experiences.
What is the importance of creativity?
Creativity is extremely important. I did a TEDx talk about this in 2018 talking about the science behind creativity and how it creates a sense of well-being.
A few minutes of creative effort, whatever form it might take, can have huge short-term and long-term benefits for our mental and physical health.
It is also important for us to be able to express ourselves freely, whether we draw, sketch, make pottery, dance, sing or write.
When we do something creative, it has a meditative effect that creates a feeling of flow where we are more connected with ourselves and our emotions, and also the environment around us.
It is also through creative expression that we can connect with others and bridge our gaps.
What was the motivation behind ‘(M)otherhood’?
I wrote (M)otherhood to think about how the social and political meanings of womanhood and motherhood have been constructed.
I wanted to examine this very intimate and personal role through the lens of my own personal experience but also through scientific and historical analysis.
This was to show that the obsession with women’s fertility has shaped so much of women’s status and role, and gender inequality in our society.
How has the reaction been to the book?
It has been really fantastic, and I am overwhelmed by how many people have been sharing their experiences of reading the book, and how much it has resonated with readers.
I’ve had really wonderful reviews in major mainstream publications, appearances on Sky TV, BBC Scotland, Times Radio and BBC Woman’s Hour.
It has also been selected as the July book club choice by Layla Saad, whose own book has been a New York Times bestseller many times.
I am really delighted and honoured.
What does motherhood mean to you?
I have written a whole book about it, so I could not say anything new here.
“It is something that is a huge part of my identity, but not my whole identity.”
Motherhood has shaped my life in many different ways, and I love being a mother but not all the time.
There are times when I find it boring, exhausting, tedious and there are times when it is the greatest source of joy for me. And, it is ok to say so.
I cannot enjoy or love it all the time, much like anything else, but that does not mean that I love my children any less at any point.
Also, I think that we have to move away from the myth of a ‘perfect mother’ and carry this guilt that if we don’t get consumed by motherhood, if we don’t give all of ourselves, we are not a ‘good mother’.
I have realised more over the years that it is not a binary choice, and that motherhood does not have to come at the cost of my own self.
That self-sacrifice is not a core characteristic of becoming a mother.
Which barriers are you trying to break?
This is a difficult question because barriers can be both external and internal.
It can be societal paradigms that tell women how they should act and behave, how they have to shrink themselves, how they should never be ‘too much’.
There are cultural conditions that shape these expectations so sometimes brown women can carry more pressures like these.
We can also internalise these messages that tell us what to wear, how to laugh, how to act in public or else we are responsible for how others, particularly men, act towards us.
I am trying every day to question these internalised beliefs and external messages and reflect on my cultural conditioning.
I also want to show that we are empowered to create change no matter how small it might be and that we don’t have to wait for permission from others to live a life that is meaningless and fulfilling for us.
Which authors do you admire and why?
There are so many authors who have inspired, provoked and challenged me.
I love Elif Shafak’s writing and activism, and how both are inter-linked.
Also, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar because it shattered some of the illusions of what Indian women are like, and challenged the norms around a mother-daughter relationship.
I will always remember the lyrical quality of An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.
Unlike his much more well-known A Suitable Boy, this is a much shorter book. Beautifully poetic and evocative, it weaves in loss and longing (oh so much longing!) and unspoken desire, along with classical music.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies showed me other people living through cultural transition, and her recent work shows how she is constantly challenging herself now writing in Italian.
Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work reminded me that I was not alone in those early days of motherhood and so many more.
There just isn’t enough space here or on my bookshelves for them all!
Have you faced any challenges as an author?
I suppose I have been quite fortunate in my publishing journey. At least that is how it can seem from the outside, and I have to count my privileges too.
“But as a mother with two very small children (twins), time and space are difficult.”
Sometimes I just don’t have the headspace to write, to immerse myself in my writing, the luxury to shut my office door and write whenever I want to.
I wrote a piece for Literary Hub magazine recently about mothering while writing which got some incredible feedback so obviously it resonated with many others.
Childcare isn’t easily available or affordable. We don’t have any family nearby and so I just can’t disappear for days to go on a writing residency to complete a project.
I also do a lot of consultancy work and speaking around my writing for financial reasons, and because that is just how my work is, and so I have to juggle that with writing commitments too.
I also have chronic illnesses so pain is an integral part of my life. It is often not possible to write and travel when my body is not cooperating.
So these are all the challenges that I have to overcome on a daily basis.
I also feel like an outsider coming from an academic background, as a writer of colour, and with no networks or connections in publishing.
What are your ambitions as a person/writer?
This sounds cheesy but I want to leave the world a better place for my children and the next generation than how I found it.
I am worried about the rising nationalism and partisan politics and how basic human rights are under threat.
If I can do something to change things for the better, to make things more equitable for people in this world through my writing, my talks, my consultancy work, then I would think that I have been successful.
Pragya’s enthusiasm and love for writing, creativity and equality are clear for all to see.
(M)otherhood serves as a reminder of the difficulties women face and more alarmingly, how nonchalant society has been towards these conceptions.
In addition, the book is consistent with the impressive author’s previous works, which also focus on thought-provoking content.
Wish We Knew What to Say (2020) embodies how children perceive race. With the inclusion of personal experiences, the book provides a handy guide on how to tackle conversations around racial identity.
Whereas Sway (2020) offers an eye-opening explanation of how unconscious bias, casual racism and stereotyping has hindered the way people see others and the world, without even realising it.
It is this insightful, fluent, scientific and logical writing that has trajected Pragya’s career.
It should come as no surprise that the creative author was named as one of the UK’s top 100 most influential women in social enterprise in 2018.
Pragya was also included in the top 50 ‘High and Mighty’ List of people making an impact in the India-UK corridor.
Her countless accomplishments represent Pragya’s deserved recognition. Her modest and caring nature shines through her books and philanthropic work, making her a must-read author to follow.
Get your copy of (M)otherhood and Pragya’s other fantastic works here.