LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The story we are so often sold about motherhood in books and movies and social media is that it is a blessing and a privilege - that you can create the perfectly balanced lunch, make sure your kids never get too much screen time, work a full-time job if you just sacrifice enough of yourself, never complain and make sure to snap that perfect Instagram pic of everyone smiling. But Ilona Bannister's debut novel "When I Ran Away" draws on her own experience, navigating the guilt and the grief and the rage women actually feel while trying to keep things from falling apart. Narrator Gigi is struggling to be a new mother in a completely unfamiliar space. She's a working-class girl from Staten Island now living with her affluent husband in his native London.
Ilona Bannister joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.
ILONA BANNISTER: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this book is about many things, but it's also about rage.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It's an angry book, and I say that as a great compliment. We don't talk about women's anger enough.
BANNISTER: (Laughter) No, we don't. And I think especially in the context of motherhood, we're really uncomfortable with thinking about mothers as people who get angry, as thinking about rage, particularly thinking about women with babies as having those feelings. I think we're comfortable enough with the idea of being weepy or an emotional mother or even experiencing depression. But the idea that motherhood can take us to an angry place, it is frightening, and we do feel shame around it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And that anger, that rage is also directed at her husband, Harry. There is this scene where Gigi has gotten everything together the night before for one of her children. And I'll read the list here. (Reading) The rain boots in the named plastic bag, signed the homework diary, checked the spelling sheet, packed the karate uniform and the after-school pre-karate snack, labeled the water bottle, tested him on his five times tables, did a lice check, and then when he went to bed, finished three client letters and emailed a brief to counsel.
I think this is a list that's familiar to any working mother.
BANNISTER: Yeah. I think so many working parents know exactly what that list is. And it's relentless, and it's every day.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want you to read what happens next after that scene where she's done all that - I just described the night before. But she forgot her son needs a shoe box for some infernal project, which they always seem to give you at school.
BANNISTER: (Laughter) Yes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she asks her husband, Harry, to get it. And he instead grabs a massive packing box and says, oh, it'll be fine. It'll be fine.
BANNISTER: Sure. I'm going to do a bit of Gigi's voice as well.
BANNISTER: (Reading) I wasn't angry at how unfair it was. I was angry because I knew a woman would never hand me a half-ton of cardboard when I asked for a shoe box. I was angry that Harry wasn't a woman. That's still the problem. He hasn't been trained since before he could speak to intuit the needs of others. He hasn't been shown how to push against the pulsing muscle of his heart to make room for everyone who needs a space in it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Talk me through this overwhelming theme in the book - basically the invisible work that women do.
BANNISTER: It was actually very satisfying to give voice to it here and to explain exactly what that burden is, how women need to compartmentalize. But that is impossible because we carry our families and everything they need into our work with us. And we carry our work into our families. The mother's life is everyone's life. Everyone has a piece of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What prompted you to get so granular about this? What inspired it? I mean, this mirrors your own life in - to some degree.
BANNISTER: I was an immigration lawyer. And then I had my first son. I went back to work. I had a difficult time. Then when I had my second son, which was another traumatic birth, I dealt with some mental health issues, and I needed to step back from my career. So I became a stay-at-home mother. I just began to notice how differently people treated me, how they spoke to me, how they assumed that all I wanted to talk about was my children.
So there is an assumption that the labor that goes on at home isn't as valuable as everyone else's. And so having viewed it both as a working parent and as a stay-at-home parent, I think I really needed to just vent my frustration and the judgements on both sides that come very often, also, from other women.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And another big issue in the book is class. At a certain point, you know, Gigi needs help. She needs support. Harry offers to get her a cleaner, a babysitter, but Gigi struggles with that because of her own background.
BANNISTER: Yes. Yeah. Class can't be avoided when you are dealing with two people as different as Gigi and Harry, and particularly because Harry is British, and class is very relevant in the U.K. I wanted to explore the idea of what happens when you are raised in one class and then you find yourself in another. What does that mean for your identity?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me ask you this. The book is called "When I Ran Away." And we learn that, eventually, Gigi does have a breakdown and runs away for a few days. What was so powerful for you about this idea of basically escaping?
BANNISTER: (Laughter) I think that we all know what that urge to escape is like now. When I had the idea for her to escape, I didn't want it to be the thing that was often imagined that mothers want. It's not the massage or the spa or the fancy hotel and the room service. It is literally - sometimes, when you're in a place...
BANNISTER: When you're in the place that Gigi is in, that mental place, just being able to sit in silence, to stare at a wall is sometimes really the thing that you need, the simplest thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ilona Bannister. Her debut novel is "When I Ran Away." Thank you so much.
BANNISTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.