Bluebell woods Instead of walking along a river or through a field, I’m pacing back and forth across our living room, my arms folded around a wriggling warmth. It is 4am. The streetlight outside makes our world feel like there are two moons, and in my bone-deep tiredness that makes perfect sense to me: things carved, halved, doubled. Normally, I would be writing to you about a long walk, with a book in my pocket, and I’d create a map for those who would like to do the walk too. This month it’s a little different. The map for my night-time walk is too small to plot - though, really, if we zoom out, it’s years and years long.

Last month I gave birth to our daughter. She’s an adorable tornado, one we’ve been summoning for years: weathering cycles of IVF, living in all the in-between spaces, falling in and out of orbit. My book Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit, a collection of poems about IVF, disability and folklore, was an attempt to articulate that time, hauling words out of the depths like a fisherman. In many ways, it feels like I have written her into existence. She already feels coated in stories. For one, her egg collection date fell on World Book Day, and I had a bizarre but lovely experience in the operating theatre. The anaesthetist and nurses were making conversation, asking what I did for a living, and when I said I was an author they spoke of their own children and who they’d dressed up as for World Book Day. Then they got out their phones and bought copies of the picture books I’d written to give to their children, before sending me to sleep with a promise that they’d try to harvest a child for me too. A few weeks later, on a walk through fields of bluebells with my brother, I got a call from the lab to let me know how many embryos had made it this time, a series of numbers and letters — and she was in there, among them, waiting to be rearranged into a name.

Wood and flowers Books have kept me company and anchored me throughout my life, and I’m curious as to how reading will slot into this new world. So far, as expected, I’ve read very little, but what I have read has echoed in surprising ways. I’ve found myself gravitating towards old favourites. I packed Northern Lights by Philip Pullman in my hospital bag — which is, of course, where it stayed, but there was something comforting about knowing it was there: this beloved childhood favourite, a story about travelling between worlds and exploring new lands.

Yesterday, I rummaged through my bookshelves and pulled out a copy of Rebecca Perry’s poetry collection little armoured — again, an old favourite. Her poem ‘Wasp’ is one I always return to, and some of the lines echo around my brain now as I make whooshing noises, pacing back and forth, rocking us both.‘Little nuzzler,’ Rebecca writes: ‘little nuzzler, nuzzling a neck. / Little alien, little feeler, little zebra. Little dinosaur legs.’ I think back to Pullman’s Northern Lights and contemplate my daughter as a daemon, as an ever-changing soul. In the half-light, I can almost see her shape-shifting from one animal to another, furry and warm, and softly sighing.

I’ve also been relistening to Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things. I have been collecting fragments of the story across many nights for many weeks, and I’m not even halfway through. It’s an eerie tale about a man called Peter who is sent across the universe to speak with an alien life form. In many ways, it reminds me of Northern Lights and His Dark Materials, especially Mary Malone and her encounter with the mulefa. Faber writes about the timelessness of space in a way that mirrors my current tiredness: the discombobulating awe, the vastness, the lack of gravity. Yes, I think to myself, continuing to make those white noise sounds that are supposed to mimic being inside a womb —but could equally be the pulsing sound of a strange space engine— yes to weightlessness, to newness, to unfathomable science.

In the darkness, I can just make out the outline of another book placed rather optimistically on the coffee table: My Work by Olga Ravn, translated from the Danish by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell. I adored Ravn’s book The Employees — again, a story set in space, and I don’t read many of those, so I’m not sure why this pattern has set in now. Presented as a series of interviews between humans and humanoids, The Employees is a conversation about what makes us human, and in my opinion can also be read as an extended metaphor for IVF. Her new novel is very different. It is an exploration of motherhood, part fiction, part essay, part poetry and memoir. Somewhat ironically, I don’t know when I’ll have time to get to it, but I’m looking forward to it, nonetheless. It appears to be a patient book, and I’m sure it will wait for these bizarre nights to get shorter.

Of course, there is also the daytime. When the sun rises, my night-time pacing and whooshing give way to some snatched outdoor moments. My husband, my daughter and I like to walk through the woods, amazed that spring has happened while we’ve been hibernating indoors. The bluebells are up again and I think back to this time last year when so many threads were unknitting themselves, remaking and reshaping, and I received that phone call. I think about the years of potential narratives branching out in all directions, some disappearing into the undergrowth; not knowing if this path would bring us out here, either — out into the woods, where all the best stories are born. I am so grateful that we have somehow made it here. I’m also aware of all the other versions of this tale. I hold onto all of them, tightly, watching the three of us: storied and storying, sleepily walking into spaces we haven’t read before.

Jen Campbell is a bestselling author. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.

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51 comments

Beautiful, thank you so much! To write this whilst nursing a new born is awe inspiring.

Isobel 24 days ago

I can relate so much to your beautiful words… I followed a similar journey to motherhood and now have a daughter. I’m looking forward to reading your books now. Congratulations and best wishes from one Jen to another.

Jen 24 days ago

Just catching up on your news Jen and I am absolutely delighted that at last it all went well. I am so very, very pleased for all three of you!

Cat 1 month ago

“In many ways, it feels like I have written her into existence. She already feels coated in stories.” You write so beautifully Jen, thank you! I am also reading ‘Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit’ with my morning tea today and enjoying it imensely. Tove Sofie

Tove 1 month ago

What a incredibly wonderful piece of writing! Love everything about it. Looking forward to reading more by Jen Campbell.

Anette 1 month ago

Wow Jen you have such a way with words:) I love this piece so much, thank you.

Liz 1 month ago

What a beautiful piece, Jen. Thank you. Your poetry shines through – the way you managed to capture this special period in writing is incredible, especially given how exhausted you must be – I remember that time very well. I loved your term “adorable tornado” – I call my daughter a “chaos muppet” for pretty much the same reasons… I wish you all the very very best. Sending love.

Alexandra 1 month ago

Beautiful piece, Jen, thank you. I agree wholeheartedly with your premise that books anchor you and yes, motherhood does indeed have a huge effect on your reading habits and choices. I grew to love many new children’s books through sharing the reading experience with my child and I am sure that you will too. I have young grandchildren now and am rediscovering that shared experience with them. Wishing you all the best, Carolyn

Carolyn 1 month ago

I always appreciate and enjoy this column but this is a particularly gorgeous piece of writing. I could underline nearly every sentence. Thank you for sharing this with Toast’s readers. (And warmest wishes for Jen’s family.)

B 1 month ago

I have enjoyed your instagram posts for some time. This is a gorgeous piece of writing. Congratulations on your daughter’s birth!

Mary 1 month ago

What a beautiful piece about early motherhood. My son is now 18 but it doesn’t seem 2 minutes since he was a chubby baby in my arms. I have been following your channel for years and couldn’t be happier yours and your husband’s wish has finally come true and you are now a family if three. Thank you for sharing this insight into your new world Jen. Wishing you and your family all the very best parenthood can bring xx

Sara 1 month ago

Hi Jen! I have followed you for some years now, so naturally I love and admire you! Thanks to you, I have read an amazing variety of books… always enjoy your intelligent reviews on Toast, love your YouTube book discussions. When you mentioned (in passing) this recent pregnancy, I was so thrilled for you and I have been hoping and wondering on your behalf ever since. I have two grown sons and it has been the Great Adventure of my life, getting to know these fabulous creatures. I wish you the same journey – I am so happy for you!

Julie 1 month ago

This was the loveliest article to read! Congratulations on such a huge life chapter opening up to you and sending you only the best future narratives to your family xxx

Christina 1 month ago

This piece gave me goose pimples, tingles at the back of my neck and and tears in my eyes. Welcome to the new and strange world of motherhood.

Camilla 1 month ago

Oh this is such a beautiful piece Jen! I just love the way you write. I lost myself a little at the beginning and found reading really hard especially because while I was pregnant I read very little too. I’m back to reading my usual 8 books a month and loving it so much. As they get older and more consistent you start to get little pockets of time and you’ll feel less discombobulated by the whole experience.

Jess 1 month ago

Beautiful, Jen. Misty eyed reading your retrieval experience. And very very happy for you.

Fleur 1 month ago

This is a beautiful description of your journey and experience. I’m sure it will help others. My own “bundle of joy” is about to turn 10. Making me reflective. At some point along the way I lost the art of reading for pleasure and I’m desperately trying to rediscover the joy in it I once found. Motherhood comes in like a wrecking ball loaded with confetti and joy but the smithereens of your previous lives glinting in the new landscape to once again be found.

Anne-Marie 1 month ago

Lovely! Jen’s thoughtful words are a highlight of my reading.

Lyn 1 month ago

This was a wonderful read to accompany my night, up with my own wee one. Snatches of audiobooks is all I’m managing currently. Thank you for such beautiful words about your journey so far.

Shona 1 month ago

Such a gorgeous piece, my lovely. Your writing is ethereal. 💚

Vix 1 month ago

What a beautiful description of those hazy wonder-full first days of motherhood. Loved this

Maggie 1 month ago

I loved this essay, Jen, and once again send my congratulations to you on your new little child. It’s many long years ago for me, but I still remember vividly those nights walking the baby and feeling there was only me and him in the quiet world. I also still remember all the books I got through during the night feeds – Doris Lessing’s ‘The Golden Notebook’ stands out for me!

Carol 1 month ago

Gorgeous reflections; looking forward to exploring Ravn too.

Emma 1 month ago

Beautiful piece of writing, so evocative. I just recently read Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit and it was such an interesting experience – I’m not a frequent reader of poetry, but I definitely found a lot of meaning in that collection. Wishing you all the best!

Sabrina 1 month ago

Absolutely beautiful. What a treat for your daughter to read when she’s older.

Maddie 1 month ago