The Facts Of Life by Paula Knight

Did I look at the fact that Doug and I had just featured five books in a row by men before deliberately picking up this graphic novel created by a woman to read and review? Darn right I did. Bonus for it coming in my recent shipment of sale books from Penn State University Press. Thank you, feminism, for forcing me to read a book I’d recently purchased in a timely manner.

The Facts Of Life is an intensely personal, deeply moving story of being a woman growing up and maturing in the back half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and all the pressures that society placed in those years on women to get married and have kids. Polly, as Paula Knight names her stand-in, is born in England’s Northeast in 1969, a time of rapidly changing social mores. Even though contraceptives on demand are giving women and families freedom to control their reproduction, it’s widely accepted that woman are still going to start families and have children when the time is right.

Polly has always known this, even if the misinformation she picks up as a kid — not helped by her parents’ generationally-typical prudishness regarding sex education — puts her well off sex and reproduction. While sex eventually becomes a regular part of her life once she’s an adult, she’s ambivalent about reproduction. It isn’t that she doesn’t want to have kids. But between her diagnosis with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, her chosen career as an illustrator and unlucky timing with her long-term relationships, she doesn’t actually feel that she’s in a good place to have and raise a child till she’s well into her 30s.

At first, everything seems fine. Her health is good, her finances stable and her partner, after a bout of ambivalence of his own, supportive. To their joy, they get pregnant fairly quickly. But then Polly starts bleeding, and they soon discover that she’s having a miscarriage.

Thus begins their tumultuous journey with medical interventions, or attempts thereof, to have a baby. Ms Knight speaks frankly of her experiences with her emotionally devastating miscarriages and with the way they forced her to reckon with the social conditioning that had her wrapping up so much of her self-worth in being a mother. Almost more painful is the aftermath of making the hard decision to no longer continue her fertility treatments, and the way she’s subsequently treated as unnatural and unfeeling for not having kids. Out of her self-reflection comes this deeply felt, thoughtful book, that discusses not only her journey with fertility and long-term illness, but also talks about what societies could actually do to support the birth rates they claim to need.

As a mom of three who’s also suffered two miscarriages, I empathized deeply with Ms Knight’s experiences. I also admired her courage in bluntly dissecting and exposing the many contradictory messages sent out by the last fifty years or so of conventional wisdom, which all seem to boil down to shifting the responsibility for child bearing and rearing primarily, if not solely, to individual women. Things have gotten slightly better since this book was published a scant six years ago in 2017 but so many of its points remain relevant. Perhaps we have the pandemic to thank for the increased realization that involved parenting is difficult and often thankless, and that choosing not to have children is a valid path for many women, especially in this economic and sociopolitical landscape.

With black and white art throughout, this graphic novel elegantly expresses its points in rich if minimalist-tending drawings, augmented by the occasional photograph. While definitely a book for mature audiences, its message of being honest with children about sex, reproduction, options and consequences is universal. There is no one way to be a woman, as this book gently reminds us, and not having children doesn’t make you or your family any less deserving of respect or support.

The Facts Of Life by Paula Knight was published March 15 2017 by Penn State University Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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