Motherhood, mental health, and adjusting to lockdown…

Saint Saviour’s third album ‘Tomorrow Again’ is her first in six years. It was never the plan to leave it so long after 2014’s ‘In The Seams’ but soon after the release of her second album Saint Saviour (“Becky”) became pregnant with the first of two children (now aged two and five).

Motherhood was overwhelming and imposing for a singer who has toured non-stop since the age of 17 in her own bands and as the lead singer of the globetrotting Groove Armada. The experience of being grounded, emotionally and physically, as well as losing her own mother in the same timeframe forms much of the subject of ‘Tomorrow Again’.

Here Becky speaks to comedian, actor and writer Jessica Fostekew (a mother of a five year old son herself) about the ups and downs of combining motherhood with work as a creative.

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JF: Do you ever get really excited about a time you can do some work without kids? Like you’re so grateful for the time and headspace, farrr more than you should be [laughs]. Then you get to it, you get a tiny bit of momentum aaaand this enormous fatigue hits you?

SS: Oh yeah. It’s the build up of that low level exhaustion, that white noise. It builds up and the moment you relax it floors you. And maybe it’s the awareness that they’re coming back at some point [laughs]. I sit down at my piano, really excited that I have time to write or be creative and sometimes I just know instantly.. there’s nothing coming today. Sometimes I do take naps to see if that helps, but that just makes me feel awfully guilty.

JF: Nooo, we have to talk about guilt. Don’t feel guilty about napping. I love a nap. I LOVE a nap

SS: Oh good. I get so tired. I do think we underestimate the physical work that goes into parenthood. And the mental gymnastics of continually planning.

JF: Yeah the planning, the planning alone is exhausting.

SS: One thing I’m intrigued about with you is you’re so busy. You do so much different stuff. And you’re physically busy, in ten different places in a day. I have to ask, where do you get your energy from?”

JF: Well I do have patches of doing that – running around and being in 10 different places in a day. But it’s not good. As a self-employed person who has writing, live work, podcasts, telly, acting etc I have to accept I don’t get a lot of notice. But I do also know I am on the spectrum of being a workaholic, as a lot of self-employed people are. And that is unhealthy. It’s an addiction borne out of restlessness, ambition and fear.

I noticed it first as a problem when I was about 30 and was trying to work it out. In fact I was getting there – like working out what a reasonable amount of things to put on a to-do list was. But having a kid fucked it up the wall. Until lockdown started I was manic, I really was a woman on the edge.

SS: Yeah I think I’ve been to that edge.

JF: I am actually so grateful that lockdown happened. I’m now so determined that my life won’t be what it was when things start up again.

The other thing lockdown gave me – and it was something I’d always talked about trying to do but never managed – was the ability to spend time with my son without work on my mind. Before lockdown I’d be like ‘oh great he’s playing with that thing, quick run upstairs and record that intro to that, text so and so to organise that, reply to my emails’. I’d be on my train & bus journeys and I’d be working, I wasn’t ever present or looking around me.

SS: Yeah you have to have that meditative time..

JF: I’ve got this shrink, I do CBT, and it’s saved my bacon time and time again. And I first went to her specifically with ‘I’ve got a kid, I can’t manage my time.’ It got to the point where even if I got good news – like I heard I’d got a part – I would feel like crying. I would be like ‘I can’t manage this’. And then you’ve got the guilt. Acting, comedy is supposed to be your dream job.

SS: I recognise that workaholic behaviour. I’m always anxious that I’m not doing any one thing well. Always guilty. I thought this album was all to do with motherhood but really what it’s about is suddenly being confronted by my nature. Before I had my first kid, my whole life from 17 years old was focused on work. Everything was work.

I was tenacious but in an intense way, not in a healthy way. It got me stuff on my CV but my personal life was absolutely on the back burner. That included my sense of womanhood. Like, I was never in tune with my cycle – in fact that went away for a long while due to an eating disorder – and I ignored that. I ignored rest, I ignored personal relationships, I ignored my body. Then when I had my daughter, it was like a big mirror came up. It’s like life was saying ‘well we were waiting for you to stop so we could show you all this shit, who you actually are’. It’s been messy but I have sought help and I think I’m beginning to work myself out a bit…

JF: Yeah there’s no way of saying this without sounding wanky but that slap of self-discovery that parenthood gives you – whether it be about motherhood or where it be a mirror to yourself – is enormous. It took me ages to come to some balance.

I had a really big wobble when my son turned one. I tend to wobble on landmark events, it happened when I was heading towards 30. These days you would call it.. what.. a mental health crisis, a mental health scare?

Ultimately, I go into my head around landmark events. I thought my next would be at 40. I didn’t expect it on my son’s first birthday but I had a real ‘what are you doing?’ moment. I mean I took five weeks off when I had my son and I got straight back to gigging. I was up and down the country, with my son in tow, for the whole year. I’d get sitters to look after him in hotel rooms, I’d be anxiously phoning them on the side of the stage. I was on a train to Liverpool, juggling bags and the wheels had come off his buggy and I just thought ‘what are you doing?’

These weren’t even gigs I hugely enjoyed, they were mostly hen and stag dos, loads of just pissed up people in sweaty rooms. So I made the decision to come at things a different way, take a different path. I made a very patient, thought-out plan and just wound things down that weren’t making me happy. And it worked, things immediately started going better in other areas.

SS: I do really admire you for being so bold, being like ‘I’m bringing him with me, he’s part of me’. I went back to one of my jobs when my daughter was four months old. I was still breastfeeding so I had to pump milk but they didn’t make it very easy for me so I just sort of gave up. That is something I do feel guilty about. It was one of those moments where I wish I’d been more like ‘no I can’t do it in the toilet where people are constantly walking in, I’m a jumpy anxious person. Get me a room with a lock. I have to be comfortable to do this and it’s important’. I should have been more assertive.

JF: But what can you do.. you went for the option that was kindest to yourself. I had something similar. I went for a writing job – a trial writing for a well known TV show. There were no women in the office, it wasn’t a very nice environment and.. well.. I just wasn’t brave enough to say ‘I need to express and my son feeds on demand so it will be every 90 minutes’.

So, I’d creep off to the loo every couple of hours for 20 minutes with a handpump. I didn’t say anything as it just wasn’t the right atmosphere, so they probably thought I had terrible shits or I was just texting. When it was over I asked my agent ‘what was the feedback?’ and she said ‘we’ll get back in touch when the producer changes’ which basically means the feedback was so bad I’m pretending there isn’t any [laughs]. If I were to go again I’d definitely try and be more assertive but also I do think in the past 5 years feminism has come on. It feels like it would be easier now to have that conversation. 

SS: Yeah hugely. I agree. It has come on. But it needs talking about more as breast feeding is so mysterious. Like who knew that boobs have their own routine. They’re like ‘right its feeding time’ and you have no control over it. Breastfeeding is such a mad experience. You realise we are such sophisticated animals.

JF: Yeah like the few studies they’ve done include findings like your milk is specific to your kid, that’s incredible.

SS: Yeah – and its dynamic – like if your kid is ill it might put some more antibodies in. If it’s hot, they’ll get more water. Like you don’t know about that stuff before you become a parent.

JF: Yeah. I had mates who were like, not unreasonably, ‘I’m desperate to have a kid and I like the idea of being pregnant but the idea of something latching – and latch being the actual word used [laughs] – on to my nipple sounds disgusting.’ One friend – when I was breastfeeding my son just past one year – was like ‘yeah but who is that for?’. I was like ‘biiiitch’ [laughs]. And then it was her turn and she breastfed for 3 years. But then conversely, I think the pressure on people is also too much. And there’s this class divide around it. Middle class parents almost feel too much pressure – like I’ve got friends with mental & physical health problems because of it – and then there’s another group of women who don’t seem to get told about the benefits at all.

SS: I think somewhere in there there is also this shared thing among women who wait a bit longer to have kids – like, we are hardened professionals, we intend to do this shit right. The guidelines and recommendations and trends will all be adhered to, but it’s not particularly intuitive, creative, relaxed. So stressful.

JF: Yeah, ironically unnatural…

SS: Yeah, I mean, you see cool French women chucking formula in with a bottle of Evian at a long lunch, I’m far more into that. None of this carrying round flasks of boiling water and panicking about everything being perfectly sterile. It’s just not me, I just always felt so penned in by it all. When I had my second I relaxed and tried to be a bit more instinctive and god it was so much more enjoyable.

JF: Yes, get in!

SS: Yeah and being relaxed helped me bond so much more. I mean I co-slept with him, which you’re not supposed to do, and squashed him a couple of times [laughter] but he was fine, it was just so much easier to feed him and both get back to sleep. When he was newborn I had him in my music room in a cot, so I could play and record while he slept. I went on tour when he was still quite young, like six months or something.

I was fine in my head but physically probably still a bit….fragile. I jump around on stage a hell of a lot and now I make sure I wear very thick dark tights. [laughter] There were times I was jumping up and down in front of thousands of people doing a long continuous wee.

JF: Just a long trickly piss yeah?

SS: Yeah. I mean, I’m definitely a lot less dignified nowadays [laughs]

JF: Yeah I don’t care. I don’t care about going on stage with food on my clothes. We’ve kind of got an excuse about that stuff forever now. Look I’ve got a lot on my plate, I don’t have time to worry about a bit of piss. There’s always going to be a bit of piss on me somewhere. You can’t worry and you do learn to let things go and manage situations better. You know like when you have a horrible gig – like a corporate gig or we have these gigs at the moment where people are like 400m away in pairs and it’s just shit [laughs].

I used to get really upset about that stuff but now I can be like ‘the situation was horrible but I did alright in it. It was the situation, not me, that was bad. I did the best I am capable of doing’. I try and take the same attitude with parenting and I tell my son – when I’m trying to pull him out of some horror situation – that I love him, it’s this behaviour I don’t like. And it’s the truth. But I must say that more than I know as he’s now saying it back to me. I haven’t given him a fifteenth biscuit and he’s like ‘I love you Mummy but this behaviour is absolutely horrible’.

SS: What was your situation with childcare and work?

JF: I took too long to get childcare.

SS: Why do you think that was?

JF: 80% guilt, 20% money. I had just written it off for some reason. I don’t know why I let myself get to the edge of a breakdown before I do something about it. I never learn.

Like, in lockdown my son’s nursery re-opened but I was thinking ‘well he doesn’t need to go in’. And I struggled on, then after three weeks I took him in. His behaviour was transformed. It was just me saying to myself ‘I’m strong, I can do this’ but the best advice would be ‘just take the fucking help and look how good it is for him’. Kids are different in their childcare setting and that’s no bad thing. It gives them a fuller life. It’s his social life – that’s where he’s learning to be half hulk, half wolf, half monster!

SS: Yeah I was the same. Or got my mother in law to help, which was too much to ask on reflection, I just felt I wanted her to only be looked after by family members, which was really about offsetting my guilt. Thankfully I found a brilliant childminder who we are very close to, and she’s flexible with my random self employed income which is key!

SS: [laughs] We should talk about putting our parenting experiences into our work. A lot of what I’ve seen of you on TV – like on Live at The Apollo – and on stage, esp your Hench show, has been about your child.

JF: Yeah a lot of things have helped me turn parenthood into comedy. The fact that I don’t mind the world knowing that I’m a massively flawed person and parent helps. Also, the breaks I’ve had in comedy so far have been borne out of some openly fierce feminist opinions so it’s been fun to construct a narrative around wanting this gentle, woke, feminist baby and getting a violent, sexist boy. Well of course he’s not actually sexist but I’ve got this narrative seam now which – through innocent accidents – he drops gold into.

Like during lockdown he was learning about the body and we were eating gherkins. He asked me if they were good for us and I said I thought they were good for our gut or something. He said ‘well I hope when you’re eating them you’re thinking about whether they’re good for your womb.’[laughter] Constant gold. But I am constantly checking myself in the same way I wouldn’t talk about a partner or friend without permission, that I’m being careful using my son in my work. I hope it’s obvious – and I don’t think the show would have done well without it – that there is an incredibly intense love there and we’re both fine.

SS: What I loved about your show Hench, when I came to see it in Soho, was it’s riveting honesty. The fact the entire room went with you through that brutal birth story, in tears of laughter. I looked around about half way through thinking ‘oh god, this is hilarious but what does everyone else think’ and was really happy to see it connecting with quite a mix of people. I’ve just not seen that before.

JF: I hadn’t thought about it as therapy, but I met someone who is making a documentary about birth stories, because it’s just so mysterious, and as part of it she was saying how normal birth trauma is, to varying degrees, and actually, telling the story of your birth is one of the most cathartic and healing things you can do, and most people get to do it, like, five times tops? Well I’ve had the luxury of telling it so many hundred times, that I am as over that trauma as I will ever, ever, ever be [laughter] what a gift!

SS: Yeah, it’s been incredibly cathartic for me to write through it. I’ve realised that I really do rely on writing songs to make sense of life for myself.

On the face of it, my album is a sweet collection of songs about my family, but I binned so much depressing stuff! I’ve tried to weave complexity into the lyrics but bring light to the melodies. What came out when I first started writing was ‘wow I’m really fragile, life suddenly seems very short, I don’t think I can do this’. It took me a while to write myself out of that.

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‘Tomorrow Again’ is out now.

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