Results of the 2017 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

Finally, and despite various technological problems (a major computer crash!) I am very happy indeed to be able to share the results of our 2017 Writing Prize. Many, many thanks to all those who entered and trusted us with their writing. And many, many thanks to the poetry judge, Alison Lock and fiction judge, Ana Salote for reading, considering and making final decisions.

Poetry Category (Adult)

Winner: ‘First Light’ by Laura Potts

Runners-up: ‘Faith’ by Rachel Bower and ‘Oyster’ by Rachel Bower

Commendeds: ‘Two (for R and F)’ by Jenny Barton, ‘Son, at Aberdyfi’ by Suzanne Iuppa, ‘Petrified’ by Louise Larchbourne, ‘Midnight and Saffron’ by Maggie Mackay

Poetry Category (Children)

Winner: ‘Secret Island’ by Izzy Mattesini

Commendeds: ‘Tigers’ by Lanora Clarke and ‘Another Day’ by Annie Young

Poetry Judge, Alison Lock’s Report

It has been an absolute pleasure to read the poems submitted for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. It was Mother’s Day when I first read the many intense and passionate invocations of love for a newborn child, about the hardships of mothering, the sleepless nights. Many poems resonated with me and took me back to my early mothering days. I even shed a few tears.

I was also daunted – how was I ever going to choose a winner from so many good poems. I decided the only way was to be methodical, so I set to work by compiling a list of criteria to work through with each poem. I looked at the style, the presentation, the language, punctuation, the form each poem took, the rhythm, and asked whether the title added anything. And then there was the theme, how original was it, how compelling? How did the imagery enhance the subject? And finally, universality – was this a poem that would speak to many? Did it capture the human condition?

After much consideration, I had my long-list. I let it settle, and then I went back to it. I wanted to hear how they sounded. I waited until I was alone and then read them aloud, first indoors, then outdoors. I believe that poems are far more than words balanced on a page and that it’s important to hear how they sound – to listen to their music by allowing a poem to echo against the walls, or to feel it catch on the wind.

The winner was always there I realised, right from the first reading, but I had to be sure. It was more difficult to choose the second and third places from the shortlist.

Winner: ‘First Light’, ticked all the criteria, but it was not just that – I shivered when I read it aloud, as though it was singing out to me. I could hear the mother’s voice ‘…chiming/like goblets/through lobes/of the trees’. I could see her waiting ‘…where the tiny light asleep/is her/moon man…’ I loved the way this poem made use of the white spaces, the periphery. This is a poem that owns the page, it yearns to be read.

Runner-up: ‘Faith’. A beautiful evocation of a woman’s connection with her instincts, to her connection with nature, the ‘rock salt and lime’, ‘[b]lack tea, laced with a feather of rose/breathed through soft lips’ – an alternative to the ‘accepted norms’ of childbirth. I love the ‘mole-soft smell of baby hair’ – so evocative. This poem was full of fabulous imagery.

Runner-up: ‘Oyster’. The opening line takes us straight into a fairy tale – ‘As he sleeps, she spoons light from the jug/and sprinkles it over the floorboards.’ While her baby sleeps the mother ‘works quickly’, but these are no mundane housekeeping tasks. Transformed by the world of the child, she is ‘scattering petals and droplets of wax.’

Winning Children’s Poem: ‘The secret island’. Lots of images, rhyme, and alliteration – ‘whispering willows/creaky and crooked…’ – this poem was exciting; a poem with lots of action, and I wanted to be there.


First Light

It is somewhere in a sometime
that a long late light
            on the other side of this city’s eyes
holds the dark hills

and the voice of a mother
                        is chiming
like goblets
            through the lobes
                        of the trees

in that moment when she cradles
                                    in the crick of her bone
the silver limbs
            the candled skin

and there are moons
which are trembling
and spin
            in the warm air

where the tiny light asleep
is her
                                    moon man
her lamplight
                        at sea

and one day the soldier

slumped to his




The Secret Island

The river that flows
and the whispering willows
creaky and crooked a pathway for us,
bubbling waters and icy-cold swimming
adventures at moonlight with plenty of daring.
Rock pools and ridges a wonder for dens
and when storms come the treasures we find
that have been left on the shore behind.
Brightly coloured bushes and fire-wood we need
a pathway above us with roots and leaves.
Our secret island we visit each year
and this to us is why it’s so dear.



Fiction Category

Winner: ‘In Fear’s Eyes’ by Jess Thomas

Runners-up: ‘A Wingless Wedding’ by Elizabeth Hopkinson and ‘Baby Steps’ by Dervla McCormick

Commendeds: ‘Poppy Day’ by Corinne Atherton and ‘Bella and the Beast’ by Fiona Ross

Fiction Judge, Ana Salote’s Report

Writers are naturally people watchers and lovers of words. Being asked to judge a writing competition is an invitation to do both. Each story is a window into someone else’s world: their preoccupations, ideas and patterns of expression. It’s an interesting and enjoyable process.

In line with the Mother’s Milk remit many of the stories submitted focused on parenting. When so much of what manifests in the world can be traced back to parenting this is an inexhaustible and critical issue to explore. Each unique family dynamic has the potential to perpetuate good or evil. There’s also a vast seam to explore in what parents can learn from children. Feminism and relationships are equally wide topics and it was good to see writers considering these issues with some very individual standpoints.

Winner: ‘In Fear’s Eyes’. There’s an instant hook in the opening line of this story which marks it out as something different. The writer has chosen to personify an emotion that stalks all of us throughout life, but which intensifies when we become parents. The stakes are raised by love. Fears begin in pregnancy and continue throughout the birth process. With our newborns we are hyper-vigilant to every breathing pattern, rash and temperature change, and so it goes on as the child grows and new risks emerge. It’s a story that examines fear and resilience and what children can teach us about facing fears and embracing the new.

Runner-up: ‘A Wingless Wedding’. A sci-fi look at relationships uses a short form to ask big questions about love and sex. The erosion of sexual apartheid mirrors what is happening today with new self-defined gender categories. What is the role of physical bonding in relationships? What form does union without desire take? Fathers are at one remove from the gestation and birthing process, where do they fit if the genetic link is also removed? Different forms of love, eros and philia, alternating through generations gives plenty of food for thought.

Runner-up: ‘Baby Steps’. We all know pushy parents but what happens when the child is the driven one? Enlightened parenting strikes a balance between encouraging independence and protection, between allowing talents to flourish and forcing or moulding. This story sets up the dynamic between a determined, ambitious child and a parent who supports with a light touch. We see how the dynamic plays out in childhood and later in the face of tragedy.

In Fear’s Eyes

Once there was a woman who saw me, and fought me. There isn’t a time when I am not around, but I’m felt, not seen. Some have called me doom, others think I am the sense of their mortality, and I am both those things because I am fear.

‘Why not try a water birth?’ the midwife asked Melissa, and as her eyes widened I found the chink in her armour.

‘No thanks,’ my prey replied, ‘I don’t really like water.’ It was music to my ears.


For every one of her twenty-nine years, I have stalked Melissa. As a child she only knew the sweetest dreams, she climbed the sofa, fell down the stairs, burnt her fingers on the oven, and crawled on, always curious, and always happy. I followed the risky teenager, the one who ran over rail tracks, drank vodka under bridge trusses, and still aced her exams. Then she became a backpacker, and I chased her across zip wires, and as she parachuted from planes. Never could I catch her. Melissa was gifted with an impenetrable force field, not unlike a golden aura. It engulfed her body, and kept her from me, year after year.

There were things she didn’t like, of course. Spiders gave her goose pimples, especially while they flickered in her hands as she threw them out of her home. Heights made her queasy, never more so than just before a bungee jump or sky dive. Then there was water, which she simply avoided. Why hadn’t I seen it before? The dilated pupils, the beautiful precursor to my way in, why would I have missed that?

It was because the baby was drawing upon that forcefield. As soon as she started ‘trying’, I was there waiting, a shadow in the background of each failed test. Each loss. The glow fading, getting thinner and thinner, but still impenetrable. All I needed to do was wait.

Having ruled out the birthing pool, she took to the bed. Knowing my moment was coming, I must have become too excited, too palpable, for she looked right at me for some time, not through me, but at me. I turned, as one does, to see if she fixed her eyes on someone behind me, but there was only myself and the wall.

Pethidine, Entonox, Epidural, forceps, suction, then finally the scalpel, all the while looking in my eyes.

How dare she threaten me in such a fashion? So insolent, and disrespectful. I knew what I was going to do, if I couldn’t have her.

The surgeon announced the final incision, the cut through the womb, and as I turned, the golden light surrounding her child blinded me. No wonder hers had become so weak. It was pumping down the umbilical cord, in final bursts before the doctor severed the attachment. When the baby cried, Melissa stopped staring at me. Her smile was one of elation, and not just that, I swear I saw triumph.

Now, there is one thing I know about new mothers – they are easy prey. The foolish woman thought she’d won, but I knew all about what was to come, and I knew better than she could imagine, just how simple it was going to be for me in the coming months. I waited.

It is difficult to admit my continuous failure in those first two years. Her aura blocked all my usual routes in; the constant check of breathing, the temperatures, the rashes, the varied nappy contents, even the apnoea alarm sounding when the baby wriggled out of its zone. Melissa’s defence was still dim, but still there. Then came the weaning, and I didn’t even get a chance when the child gagged, she even explained it as a natural reflex. Far too relaxed a demeaner. I tried to find a way in with MMR. In desperation I even managed to wriggle the latch loose on the baby-gate, but the father spotted it, and fixed it promptly.

Now he was easy, far more than her. And, although I infiltrated him it only seemed to cause him to act. He fixed the baby-gate, got a webcam, attached rubber to every corner, put clips on cupboards, buffers on doors, and even let the baby eat dirt ‘to build its immune system’. I couldn’t comprehend him. But he did find me the route in to Melissa.

‘Two things on which I’ll put my foot down,’ he said, ‘learning to ride a bike, and learning to swim. They’re life skills Mel.’

It was beautiful. Her glow faded to less than a shimmer. I was almost in, and I would have bet on the pool bringing down the final barrier. Her husband went into the water with their two-year-old, and Melissa sat with me on the side. At one point I thought she was going to take my hand, and suddenly invite me in, with open arms.

As the child’s toes touched the water, it let out a shriek. For a moment it distracted me from Melissa, the fresh opportunity to consume the child as its glow disappeared in a flash. Instantly, I was all around, flitting from child to child, parent to parent, and I turned in time to see what I’d been dreaming of. Melissa, eyes closed, biting her lip, devoid of armour. I was in. I gripped her, ready to make her terrified, poised with a panic attack, right up until she strangled me.

At first, I was unsure of what was happening, and as I suffocated I twisted and turned, then I heard it: laughter. There, in the water, the child was laughing. It gurgled. The shrieks were ones of joy. Before my eyes it regained its glow, the light growing stronger and deeper until it reached out a cord to Melissa and began pumping her guard with light in growing bursts. The cord wrapped around my neck, once, twice, then thrice. I kept fighting.

I fought back, right up until the end I grappled with her in the changing room, thinking I could win her over with the slippery floor, and dirty changing mat, but she only grew stronger. Once she changed the baby, and started walking out of the leisure centre, I was tired but still trying. Then she walked up to the counter, and killed me.

‘I’d like to book on to adult swimming lessons please,’ she said.

Behind the receptionist was a mirrored wall, and as she paid for the course she looked at her reflection. The last thing I saw before I gave up the fight, was her smile, and it was one of triumph. Once she was a woman who saw me, and fought me. Now, there isn’t a time when I am not around, but sadly, she just ignores me.



Non-fiction Category

Winner: ‘Axis’ by Victoria Bennett

Runners-up: ‘For Creativity’ by Rachel Rivett and ‘Confession’ by Alison Bond McNally

Commendeds: ‘Our First Words’ by Laura McGarry, ‘A Chocolate Tickle’ by Leslie Muzingo, ‘How to Give Birth in Twenty Simple Steps’ by Christine Grant, ‘Jammy Dodger’ by Rachel O’Leary, ‘Something to Keep’ by Angi Holden, ‘Women Like You’ by Jess Thomas, ‘Auntie Ellie’ by Annabel Barker, ‘Memory’ by Dawn Rapson, ‘Into the Abyss’ by Caroline Cole

Non-fiction Judge, Teika Bellamy’s Report

Although I established the Writing Prize 5 years ago and have been its main organizer ever since, I have never been involved with the judging. Until this year. So I came to the process intrigued, if a little daunted, since I knew that the quality of the submissions was always very high. This year was no exception and my non-fiction pile was full of exceptional pieces. But after much reading and deliberation I came to a decision.

Winner: ‘Axis’. As soon as I started reading this piece I was drawn into the narrator’s story, and found myself in that dream-like state of total absorption in the words before me. That’s a wonderful, though often rare, place to be. Its major theme is the clash of death and life – something that virtually everyone can relate to – and the conflict it brings to the narrator. There are no clichés or platitudes here. No manicured neatness. Simply the messy stuff of grief, new motherhood, love and fear. This piece deserves to be read and shared far and wide.

Runner-up: ‘For Creativity’. Being a fan of Tolkien and wholeheartedly agreeing with his stance on the value of the genre of fantasy, I was delighted to see the author quote Tolkien in this passionate, though well-researched, argument for the importance of creativity for our individual (and societal) wellbeing. This is a powerful and expertly written piece.

Runner-up: ‘Confession’. Over the years I’ve been running Mother’s Milk Books I’ve read a huge amount of prose about new motherhood and seen so many approaches to this complex and deeply emotive experience. Many of the approaches seem over-familiar. But not this one. In ‘Confession’ the author likens the experience of going to the doctor’s with her newborn for a routine postnatal check-up to the experience of a religious confession. It is honest and painful and raw, and yet so relatable. Again, another stunning piece of writing.


Every time I wondered about whether or not it was possible to make my commended list slightly smaller I answered with a resounding ‘No’! I loved and appreciated reading every single one of the commendeds, and with my publisher’s hat on I knew that, given the resources, I would happily publish every single one, since they are all original, well-written and thought-provoking. I would definitely like to read more from these authors in the future.



It is three in the morning…

I write the words over and over, just to see the ink take shape, but still it does not fit.

Twelve hours. That is all it takes to change a life. See me then, before. Here I am. I am laughing, sharing home-cooked stew with my husband in front of the fire. Blue sky gives way to the bruising of clouds. Rain falls against my window. The telephone rings, but I do not answer. If it is important they will call back. We are in love – with life, with each other, with this baby that kicks and rolls inside of me. We are making plans.

It has taken a long time to reach here. We were cautious. We whispered in the dark. The thin blue line, the expectant hush, the prayers. We did not dare to window-shop the future. Instead, we celebrated each moment, each growing ball of nerves, each small increment of life: this day our baby is growing fingernails; this day, our baby is six centimetres small, but recently we have started to believe. We are building new horizons.

October pivots on its axis. Like winter hovering, I sense some shadows, but this day gives itself to light. These are the moments we almost miss. The purity of joy. We think we can hold them forever, that we have arrived at some state of being, but as all things, this too shall pass.

The third time the telephone rings, my husband answers it. Something in his voice is strange. He hangs up and turns to me, and I can see he is trying to find the words to speak.

My sister has been in a canoeing accident. They are keeping her heart going and trying to increase her temperature. No one mentions drowning. No one explains.

I stop eating. I don’t believe in any God, yet I am praying…she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok….

The telephone rings again. My husband answers. There is a pause.

She is not ok.

A scream leaves my belly, rips out whatever was there before and hurls it across the room. I rock. Hands try to comfort. I am told not to cry. I must think about the baby. I must think about the baby.

And that is that. She is gone. I must sleep, but I cannot, and the sight of my husband’s sleeping face makes me angry, so I get up and go to another room, sit in bed and try to write.

It is three in the morning and my sister is dead…

Exhaustion takes hold, but only momentarily. When I wake it hurts more. I am waiting for morning to come and wishing it would stay away. The baby kicks inside me. It is agitated. I want to escape it, escape this body for an hour, drink a brandy, smoke a joint, knock myself out until the light comes but I don’t, because I am carrying life inside me and I must think about the baby. This baby, who will be born into loss and will never know that once upon a time, life was different.

My sister, who took me swimming at midnight under a yellow city moon, who sang the Reefer Blues, who refused to let go of the wire even though the police were approaching, who taught me Joni Mitchell songs and how to spell the word ‘feminist’, who when I was twelve told me not-to-let-the-bastards-get-me-down, who stuck my life together at nineteen with hope, love and lentils, who burnt curtains with Christmas decorations and belly-danced in shimmering gold before my marriage day, who had hair the colour of honey and fairytales, who twirled in flowers to the chants of eastern gurus and sang Babooshka in long skirts skimming across the summer grass, who arrived in a rainbow of ribbons and blonde-haired children, apologising her way into every late day, who placed her hand on my growing belly and chattered to my unborn child. My sister, whom I loved and worshipped, who always broke my heart with her sadness, who took until I was twenty-six to tell me why, who broke a bridge with the words of truth that we were only just beginning to rebuild.

Now, no time can be returned, and waiting in the wings is a tidal wave of shame and anger and guilt and it makes no sense. It will never make sense.

Where was she? What happened? Was she alone? Why? When? It is suddenly very important to know the small details, to anchor the hugeness of loss against the physical facts. To know the how, when knowing the why is impossible and yet, it is not important at all, because she is dead. My sister, always late for everything, is early for death, and her death leaves behind a shape I do not know. No more ‘six children’, no more ‘four daughters’. No more but the stories she leaves, and those hurt too much.

I touch my belly in the dark. I am scared. How much can I bend in the storm? My body vibrates in pain. Everything aches or throbs or stings. Sleep runs faster away. The future disappears, and so does the past.

A swift kick to the ribs tells me that life continues, even in the fog of this pain. I must sleep, rest, eat, relax, nest, prepare, be strong, give birth, release. We must keep going, but right now time sticks, enters a different zone where I stumble, not knowing how to move my body in this new atmosphere, not knowing how I am supposed to do this. The words are too small, the faith too small, the loss too big. No time for platitudes. I know life is transient. I know it is fragile, that as one falls another waits to be born. The cycle continues. I know the metaphor but right now, it hurts too much.

The monster under the bed turns out to be real after all. It has come out from the dark and eaten my sister, and what do I do with that?


Interview with Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, winner of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

Many thanks to Grace, last year’s prose winner, for taking the time to answer my questions – I don’t often get to hear what happens with the winner’s prize money, so this lovely story is very welcome! Hopefully this inspiring Q&A willl give those still considering whether to enter the Writing Prize or not further incentive to get those submissions in. The deadline is midnight on 31st January, just 2 and a bit days away… do consider entering. Guidelines can be found here.

Photo courtesy Grace Fletcher-Hackwood

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 32 and I live in Manchester, where I’m a city councillor.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember… I think my first story was about a snowman. I got my first rejection letter from a publisher when I was 9! My mom (who was the inspiration for Kat in ‘Shush’) was my first reader: as soon as I could hold a pen she bought me a diary and encouraged me to write every day.

3. How often do you write?

Sadly, despite the diary I never really got into the daily writing habit! I’m very inconsistent: I can go for months feeling as though I’ve forgotten how to write at all, then spend a week writing for hours at a time.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I spotted the prize in Mslexia magazine’s excellent listings section! I’m a big fan of any competition where instead of cash, the entry fee is an excuse to buy a book or some stationery…

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I can remember exactly where I was – checking my emails as I walked up the stairs! I’d been feeling a little down on myself as a writer because it was a while since I’d been published or placed in a competition: winning the prize made me feel as though I wasn’t completely wasting my time. Plus the very kind words from your judge helped me to identify some of the strengths in my writing. It’s really helped me towards finding my voice.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

‘Shush’ was originally written for a different competition, for which the theme was ‘Discovery’. I brainstormed that word and thought about how sometimes life’s most exciting discoveries – twenty quid when you’re broke, or anything at all when you’re six and digging in the back garden with a spoon – are things that might seem quite small to other people.

The library in ‘Shush’ is inspired by my wonderful local community library, The Place At Platt Lane in Fallowfield, so I split the prize money with them and it went towards their 85th anniversary celebration – we had a great day.

7. Any future writing plans?

At the end of last year I was lucky enough to have a novel longlisted in the Mslexia Novel Competition. I didn’t get any further in the competition, but now I have a novel draft to work with – so I’m going to spend some time hammering it into shape.

8. Any tips for writers?

If you’re like me – inconsistent, and only capable of working when a deadline looms – then enter loads of competitions! Some of them are free to enter; some of them give you great feedback; some of them you might even win – but all of them will prompt you to get something written.

You can read Grace’s winning story, ‘Shush’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Dawn Allen, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

As there are now only 12 days to go until the deadline for submissions for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize  I thought it was high time that I shared this interview with Dawn Allen, the prose winner of last year’s prize. Many thanks to Dawn for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope it inspires YOU to put pen to paper and enter our Writing Prize!

Photo courtesy Dawn Allen

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a single mother to my three children: daughters aged 3 and 6, and a stepson who is 15. We’ve lived in Cambridgeshire for some time now but I grew up in Dorset and have also spent time living in Canada as I have family there. I used to work in Local Government before my stepson lived with me and then I completed a Psychology degree part-time as a mature student whilst he was in primary school. Since having my daughters I’ve been a full-time mum and we enjoy a lot of creative pursuits together as well as exploring the outdoors. In my spare quiet moments I love reading and knitting. I’ve also been practising pilates for over 10 years and recently started Qi Gong. I’m keen to learn to paint and try new ways of creative expression as I find it really therapeutic and I also like to learn new things alongside my kids, so they see me trying things too and starting at the beginning the same as they do.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was quite young, firstly sending letters regularly to my aunt and grandmother in Canada and then short stories when I started school. I can remember writing to my grandmother when I was about 5 saying that I was going to write a novel, and I recently found the title page I’d drawn for it. I haven’t got round to writing it yet but one day I will, probably (hopefully!) a bit more easily than when I was 5. In secondary school I had some short stories published in the school magazine, and my parents still have copies of a lot of my teenage work. I’ve always loved to write, both as an expression to others and as an expression of imagination.

3. How often do you write?

I’m quite sporadic with my writing, I tend to either think about an idea for a long time before actually getting it on paper all in one go, or I might wake up in the middle of the night with something I have to write down there and then. I don’t have a regular practice to my writing, but then I’ve never been good with routines so I think it’s just my way of doing things and it definitely works well for me around the children. I try to keep a notebook with me to write poetry as that’s normally inspired by being outdoors so then I don’t have to try and remember it for later. Once I do start writing I usually keep at it until I’ve finished the complete first draft. Sometimes that’s a few hours and others it’s over a couple of days, but once I start it’s like I need to get the words out so I don’t want to be distracted with anything else. It means a lot of the evenings I start writing have turned into mornings by the time I’ve finished writing but I’ve come to accept that as my style and it suits me.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I decided to enter because I love the essence of Mother’s Milk Books and I enjoyed having the opportunity and challenge to write within such a meaningful theme. It gave me the chance to write from the heart which is a very empowering experience.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was really surprised and it actually took a little while to sink in. I hadn’t expected to win but I was really proud of the piece I wrote because I realised afterwards that I’d needed to write it not just for the writing prize but also for myself. To then have someone else read it and choose it as the winning piece was a really special moment.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

It’s basically an expression of the inner voice I’ve had to find as a mother. I’ve spent a lot of evenings in the dark, alone, feeling like I’m getting everything wrong. I would sit on the floor and despair that these children only had this failing, useless mother to look after them in the world. But then when I realised I was totally alone, and they did only have me, I also realised I was actually doing a pretty good job. I just needed to give myself a break. I tried to think of what I would say to someone else exactly in my position and I wrote this piece as if I was sitting next to myself in those darkest moments, saying the things that I needed to hear. And not only because I needed to hear them but also because they were true.

 I think all parents, whether raising kids with a partner or alone, have times when the fear and doubt are just overwhelming. We all need a positive voice to acknowledge and encourage us, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it can come from within. I felt this particularly fitting to the theme of love within a family context because so often as parents we are so busy giving our love to our family that we forget to give ourselves the love that we do truly deserve.

Photo courtesy Dawn Allen

7. Any future writing plans?

Well I’m hoping to get around to the novel I’ve been planning for the past 29 years, although I think that’ll have to wait until my children are a little older. I’m continuing to write prose around my experience as a parent and also trying my hand at different genres of fiction.

8. Any tips for writers?

I think it’s important to just start writing, even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going to end up. The important thing is to get going and not be put off by over-thinking it. I find that often a story will take you where it needs to go once the words start flowing.

            It’s also good to read a lot, and to try different authors and genres. I think it helps you grow in your own writing to see that of others and to learn what you do and don’t like from it.

            Most of all I would say to write the words that you need to write and be comfortable with your own natural style. Your voice is unique and you should have confidence in that (although that’s easier said than done, I know!).

Dawn’s winning prose piece ‘Nurturing My Darkness’ was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: LOVE. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Jessica Bradley, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

As we celebrate the publication of our latest book The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A huge thank you to Jessica for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize. 

Jessica with children (photo courtesy Jessica Bradley)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in the north of England with my husband and our two girls who are aged 2 and 5. I am currently in the second year of a PhD in which I am studying how people communicate multilingually within the arts, specifically in street theatre production and performance.

Being a mum to two little ones and a PhD student means that life is certainly never boring. I have lots of inspiration to be creative, but not so much in terms of time! I hope that although juggling the two different parts of my life can make for an extremely busy time, my children will understand more about the joy of learning and the possibilities that are open to them. I enjoy reading, poetry, crafts and visual arts. I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to work doing something I enjoy and to live near my family who are supportive. As a family we try and spend as much time as possible outdoors and we are fortunate in that we live only a short drive from lots of beautiful countryside.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I think I have always enjoyed writing in some form, certainly when I was a young child I would write little stories for my friends and family. I find writing a very satisfying way to communicate and to play with ideas and stories.

 3. How often do you write?

Technically I write every day, as my PhD requires me to do so! I believe that the more you write, the more you can write and I try to mix up the kind of writing I do. I write for a couple of work-related blogs, I write my research journal, I do my academic work of course but then, when I have the time and the inspiration takes me, I do some for myself.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

Having left my long-term job in September 2014 to become a postgraduate student and after just about coming out of the fog that is sleepless nights and small babies I found myself reflecting a lot on the change in my situation and this process of reflection led me to start to consider some of the themes I was presented with through thinking about my own experiences. Motherhood is wonderful and yet also all-consuming in ways I hadn’t expected before I had children myself. I find it to be a source of never-ending inspiration: it pushes me to write about it and to explore my emotions and experiences creatively through writing. I needed somewhere to ‘place’ this kind of work and to see it as a creative output of its own. I saw the opportunity to submit a piece of writing for this competition on the Mslexia website and thought it would be worth a try.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was surprised to say the least! It was the first piece I had ever submitted for a prize of this kind and to be honest I was not expecting to win at all. I then felt quite nervous of it being in the public domain and asked a few friends and family members to read it and to pass on their comments. They were very positive about it and reassured me that it could be published: their support and kind words were very gratefully received! After that, I felt quite proud of it. The nicest thing was being able to tell my eldest daughter that I was going to have my writing published in a book as she is very keen to write and to become an author when she grows up: her eyes lit up and she was so excited. I think she told her teacher the next day at school. She’s been writing her own little books ever since: perhaps we can set up our own little family writing group!

6.  Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

The piece itself is quite a personal story about my eldest daughter who was taken very ill at four weeks old and rushed to hospital (terrifyingly). Although I talked about it a lot both at the time and since it happened, I had never written about it. I found the process simultaneously cathartic and overwhelming. I did find it hard to read again as it brought back the memories of that time and the fear I felt both as a brand new mother to a tiny baby when everybody wants to ‘have a go at holding the baby!’ and then the shock of her illness and being rushed to hospital. The experience did characterize the first few months of motherhood for me: this sense of being so afraid that she would be ill again. It’s interesting now to reflect on that time as I can see how different things are now.

I do think it’s important to portray this side of motherhood which so often doesn’t get talked about: the fear and the intensely fierce protection that we feel towards our babies as new mothers (and forever more!).

7. Any future writing plans?

Well, I’ll be writing a thesis over the next couple of years! I plan to write more of my own creative work too – probably less in terms of memoir and personal writing like this piece was and more short stories and fiction. I have this idea for a book…but it will probably have to wait until I graduate.

8. Any tips for writers?

I do think writing gets better the more you practise. I also read a lot and I think this has helped me with my own writing. I find showing my work to people to be a very difficult process, and so my response is to make myself do it as much as possible! I try to get outside myself comfort zone, even if it is frightfully uncomfortable. Also that you can find inspiration in everything, even the unexpected: I recently wrote about the never-ending ‘soft play centre’ party circuit that parents of 5 year olds are so familiar with.


Jessica’s winning prose piece ‘The First Winter’ was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Barbara Higham, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

I love a good story – of course! – and some of the most interesting ones are about writers. So I thought it would be a good idea to interview the winners of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize with a view to learning more about them and also to (hopefully) encourage more of you wonderfully creative folk to enter this year’s competition (to be launched September of this year). First we will hear from Barbara Higham, the winner of the prose category.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a dreamer who is approaching 50, dwelling on those hands of time. A mother of three: Felix (almost 16), Edgar (12) and Amelia (8). I am managing editor of Breastfeeding Today magazine for La Leche League International and have worked in LLL publications since becoming a Leader in 2004. I work in a school part time with a child on the autistic spectrum and have just begun a job in a nursery and pre-school one day a week. Before I had children, I read German language and literature at Manchester uni, then worked as a librarian, qualified as a solicitor, sold children’s books in the world’s biggest bookshop and worked in legal publishing.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

As a young child in notebooks. I liked writing stories and poems. Then diaries and letters.

3. How often do you write?

I correspond with friends by email daily. I’ve written a few articles in magazines and a few stories that I haven’t shared with anybody.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

Teika suggested it. I had just received a rejection from a magazine to which I’d sent ‘Dusty Bluebells’ and didn’t have time to write anything else.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

Flabbergasted and thrilled. A real lift.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

I think the piece speaks for itself.

7. Any future writing plans?

I enjoy writing but am not at all sure anyone else might want to read what I’d write.

8. Any tips for writers?

I wouldn’t have the audacity!

Barbara’s winning piece ‘Going Back or Dusty Bluebells’ will first be published in the summer issue of Juno (out June 2014) and then in the 2013 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology which is to be published this September.

Results of the 2013 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

I am delighted to be able to announce the results of the inaugural Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. Thank you to all those who entered and supported our very first competition – I’ve appreciated every single entry and am pretty impressed by the amount of fantastic writers there are out there. And I already can’t wait for the 2014 prize to begin!

Please note: first publication of the winning poem and an extract of the winning prose piece will be in the summer issue of the fantastic magazine Juno (out June 2014). We also aim to publish an anthology of the winning and commended poems and prose pieces this autumn. Please look out for it!

Poetry Category (adult)

The judge’s report is at the end of the results.


Left to right like the A-train – Helen Goldsmith


Accident – Jan Dean

Blue Bonsai – Sarah James

Caleb Hollow’s Room – Cathy Bryant

Road Trip: Kennack Sands, 1950s – Abigail Wyatt

Troubled Mother – Kimberly Jamison

Babushkas – Julia Prescott

Intergalactic Love – Alison Parkes

The Ballet Lesson – Alison Parkes

Cutting Strings – Sharon Larkin

Lucky Lucy, Lucky Last – Rachel McGladdery

Making Tea for One – Susan Cooper

Dyad (We slowly learn the dance) – Alison Bond McNally

This Work – Stephanie Arsoska

Poetry Category (Children)


My family – Jordan Clarke (aged 13)


Breastfeeding – Lanora Clarke (aged 3)

Prose Category

The judge’s report is at the end of the results.


Going Back or Dusky Bluebells – Barbara Higham


And She Sucks – Lindsey Watkins

The Mothering Ocean – Anna Burbidge

Mother Tells Me a Meaningful Story – Cathy Bryant

When you are tired, I carry you – Helen Goldsmith

Intimacy – Helen Lloyd

Milestones – Clare Cooper

Night Flower – Alison Jones

Mother of five – Dawn Clarke

Angela Topping poetry report

This competition was a real pleasure to judge: so many good poems were submitted. I spent a few afternoons by the fire reading the entries, and sorting them into piles, attaching sticky notes and re-reading. It took me a while to reach my verdict but in the end after much reading aloud and leaving things for a few days to see what stayed with me, I went for one which had jumped out at me in the first instance. ‘Left to right like the A-train’ has excellent imagery, wonderful rocking rhythm and a beautiful structure. Its warm tone and universal appeal really struck me. It is a very worthy winner.

I was thankful that Teika had asked me to select the best runners up for a pamphlet, because there were so many other striking pieces covering different aspects of parenthood. ‘Cutting Strings’ is an original take on the sorrow felt when a child leaves home, using the symbolism of destroying an old sofa. ‘Accident’ is a tight thin poem which expresses the shock of a dreadful accident happening to one’s grown up child. The lexical choices are startling and the mother’s ache of the memory of him as a baby, ‘sleeping like a Y’. ‘Caleb Hollow’s Room’ is a spare poem written in the uncaring tone of officials stating that the dead child’s room should be dismantled. It’s a heartbreaking and understated take on the cruelty of The Bedroom Tax.

‘Intergalactic Love’ I liked for its unusual approach to the theme, reaching across the stars for any other mothers who might be doing the same peaceful moonlit breastfeeding as the speaker. The tender tone is achieved by soft words and open vowel sounds. ‘The Ballet Lesson’, too, catches a moment between mother and child and the desire to remember it. The description of the child is touching without being sentimental: ‘the wavy parting of her hair/ the wispy plaits’. ‘Blue Bonsai’ is mysterious and a rich approach to expressing a child’s wonder. Again, the language is spare and restrained, leaving space for the reader to pick up on the visual clues.

‘Road Trip: Kennack Sands, Late 1950s’ is a breathless and wonderful rush of memory with great sense of detail and fun, a feast for the senses and gorgeous language. I thought the imagery of ‘Babushkas’ very apt for the subject of passing parenthood down the generations. ‘Dyad (We slowly learn the dance that soothes all woes)’ is a strong, compact poem, a beautifully turned formal sonnet which celebrates the beauty of breastfeeding with soothing rhymes and gentle iambics. ‘Making Tea for One’ is another formal poem in which the rhyme works very well and seems natural. It’s a sad topic which rang true for me, of a daughter wishing her mother could be there still to drink tea with her as they used to do.

‘Lucky Lucy, Lucky Last’ also struck a chord, as I was the last child in my family too. It was the descriptions of the child that tipped this poem into a commended, and the lovely sensory words like ‘dandle’ and ‘toddle’ and ‘dowel’. The speaker worries about the challenges the child will face after this phase is left behind, and ‘Troubled Mother’ addresses that anxiety beautifully. The rhyme words act as a comfort as the speaker tells the mother not to worry, pointing out all the good things about the son, and the wisdom of allowing him to make his own mistakes, trusting in the upbringing he has had.

And finally, ‘This Work’ encompasses the whole of parenthood. I liked its structure with the repeated opening to each stanza and the progression from the negative aspects to the positive. It is fantastic to know what a fruitful subject parenthood can be and also to read so many beautiful poems which include breastfeeding and all its joys.

The children’s winner is ‘My Family’ for its sense of fun and the way each family member is characterised. I like the way parts of it rhyme but the poet has not forced a pattern on the poem as a whole, but just let them occur where they fall. ‘Breastfeeding’ was a commended because it was good to see a young child enter and with such a concise celebration of breastfeeding.

Susan Last prose report

Winner – Going Back or Dusky Bluebells

I’ve chosen this for several reasons – one of which, I confess, is a ‘Going Back’ moment of my own. My parents had a copy of Iona and Peter Opie’s Lore and Language of Schoolchildren on their bookshelves when I was a child, and once I discovered it I devoured it greedily, dipping in and out of the rhymes and songs and comparing them with our own playground ditties. This piece brought back those days, sat cross-legged in front of the bookshelf in our spare room, and made me smile at that recollection. I enjoyed the way this piece reminded me of the brief, joyful and magical moments that come and go throughout our lives, and the importance of being ‘in the moment’ to appreciate them. I’ve resolved not to rush my own children out of the bath too quickly so that they can enjoy the delights of sliding up and down very fast! I thought the piece was well-structured too, with easy movement between the author’s personal experience and the more factual information, and the well-drawn images of childhood (skipping, bathtime, bedtime reading) perfectly illustrated what the author means when she describes our awareness of our own past childhood as our children grow.

Commendeds – in no particular order

And She Sucks: I loved this breastfeeding story – there were so many telling details in it that spoke to me about what a unique relationship it is. The ‘spidery little hand exploring’ made me smile in recognition, and the image of the mother breastfeeding while out on a hike when her partner was carrying the baby made me chuckle out loud! The rhythm of this piece was very well-crafted and the repetition of the core phrase never became clunky.

The Mothering Ocean: I enjoyed the image at the heart of this piece, of mothering as like ocean tide rolling in and out and bringing gradual change; I’ve personally been very aware of this as my small children have grown up and I now no longer have a baby in the house. I thought that this was an interesting lens to examine parenting through and that the piece was very successful.

Mother Tells Me a Meaningful Story: This piece was special because it was a parenting piece written by a non-parent, which reminded me that of course we all have our own experiences of parenting whether we have children of our own or not. The way in which the author describes her evolving relationship with her downtrodden mother is very touching.

When you are tired, I carry you: This brought a tear to my eye because it brought back such clear memories of carrying my first child around in the sling – I carried all my children and this author captured all that I felt about it in a really beautiful way. I found the descriptions evocative, and the emotion very genuine and tender. Lovely!

Intimacy: This piece is a beautiful depiction of the incredible closeness that exists between a mother and her child; the author manages to put into words a feeling that many of us have, but few can articulate so clearly. I loved the vocabulary and imagery of this piece too and the bittersweet feeling that such an intense intimacy can only ever be a passing phase as the child grows.

Milestones: I liked the idea at the centre of this piece, of examining the milestones of parenthood alongside those of the growing child – it expands on the idea that when a child is born, so is a mother – which is a concept that I personally have found important in my own parenting journey. I enjoyed being invited to reflect on how motherhood has changed me, and reading the author’s own experience.

Night Flower: This piece was absorbing and richly evocative; the author has tapped in to the magic of birth and used all the tools of our language to describe that most intense of moments in a really original piece of writing. (It was such a poetic piece I half-wondered if it ought to be in the poetry category!)

Mother of Five: I thought the central image at the heart of this piece was a very strong one that worked extremely well as a way of describing the incredible depths of feeling motherhood brings; it was touching and heartfelt and makes a strong point about the different, yet very real, emotional bonds we have with all our children.

Interview: Alison Lock on motherhood and creativity

I am delighted to be able to post yet another wonderful interview on the Mother’s Milk Books blog – this time from poet Alison Lock whose beautiful poem ‘On the Carpet’ – which featured in Musings on Mothering – really struck a chord with me. Thank you again, Alison, for taking part!


Alison Lock is a writer of poetry and short stories and a facilitator of Life Writing courses. She is also the mother of four sons and has always been interested in the ways that creativity can support and nurture the time spent together during the early days of parenthood. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air, was published in 2011 and her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, was published in 2013 by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

1. Have you always considered yourself to be a creative person?

I think everyone is creative but it comes out in different ways. For me, I have always been involved in some creative activity, whether it be playing music, sewing, felt-making, or writing poetry and short stories. When the children were young I liked to go on walks with them and gather leaves, twigs, stones; anything for making collages etc. I never really thought of it as being creative, it was just what we did. Now I believe that even if there is no visible output we cannot help ourselves but be creative – it might be simply that we bring our creative side to how we read a bedtime story, the expressions we use, the way we draw on our own experiences in the telling of a story. I am particularly drawn to the imaginative, the eclectic, the irregular things in life.

2. Has motherhood enhanced your creativity? If yes, in what way and why do you think it has enhanced your creativity?

I have been a mother for longer than I have not — with 18 years between my youngest and my eldest — and, of course, once embarked on, motherhood never ends, so it is difficult to imagine what I would be doing if parenting had not been my primary role. Creativity has been a necessary part of this process and has seen me through some difficult times. These days I write and although my writing is not overtly therapeutic I can see that elements of my life are reflected there. It is inevitable that we draw on our own life experiences, if only subconsciously; sometimes they form the mere shadow of a story.

3. Do you have any tips on how to find time for your creative work amongst the everyday busyness?

Nowadays, I am very focused on my writing and once the school day has started I retreat to my office. I know that if I begin my day with housework, my opportunity will slip away. I admire those people who are more organized than I am but it is not the way I work. I am ashamed to admit that I do not even write lists.

4. What does breastfeeding mean to you?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read Penny Stanway’s Breast is Best — a bible for the positive effects of breastfeeding in its time. I wanted to give my child all the benefits that are associated with breastfeeding but unfortunately things did not go to plan (although my subsequent babies were successfully breast fed) and I was left feeling guilty. I still do believe that breast is best but I am aware that things do not always go to plan and that it is important to be supportive to all mothers whatever their choice.

5. Were there any pieces in Musings on Mothering that spoke to you particularly?

Musing on Mothering is a beautiful book. It shares everything about being a mother (and a father too) expressed through prose and poetry, photography and artwork. It is about the joys and the sorrows too. It is about uniqueness and similarities and it is about sharing and communicating and reaching out to mothers at moments when mothering can seem a lonely and a thankless task. There is so much richness, so much experience and generosity gone into this book and I believe that all new parents will find nourishment there to help them through the darkest nights.

6. Are you working on any particular project right now?

I am putting together another poetry collection, I am rehearsing a long poem to be performed with a musician, I am writing a novel for young adults, and I am also in the process of writing some new short stories. I know, it sounds impossible, but I like to have too much to do!

7. Is there any one piece of work that you are particularly proud of?

I think that has to be my first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. Like most first books, whether they are novels or collections of poetry, they often come about as a kind of build up of experiences and a tipping out of words and thoughts and ideas. I was so delighted to be offered the chance to have my work published and it opened the door to so much more.

8. Is there any one person (or persons) that you consider to be a true inspiration to you?

Although there are inevitably some, whether artists or not, who have influenced my life, I cannot pick out one and say that they are my inspiration. There are too many people to be admired, many who do good works in all walks of life.

9. Is there any one piece of art or music, or writing that has influenced you, or inspired you to continue creating?

I sometimes find that listening to music or visiting an art gallery will trigger new ideas, often they are the unexpected things, or the unplanned visit. I visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park when I get a chance too. I find the outdoors is the best place to think. At home I listen to my collection of old vinyl records.

10. What would you to say to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a creative person, but would like to try their hand at something new?

As I said before, I believe we are all creative, but it is finding the source and the channel that suits us best. There are many arts and crafts to try out and I would say – indulge yourself, don’t be afraid to try something new; give yourself the opportunity to explore your creative side and you never know where it might lead…

Happy 2014! and The Latest News

Our big news so far is that there are only 4 days to go until the Writing Prize comes to a close. We’ve received some great poetry and prose submissions so far but would always appreciate more! We also really need more contributions from children; this category is free to enter and any amount of lines on the theme of parenting (silly, funny, serious or sweet!) would be very welcome.

We also have our January sale now on, which means that you can get 20% off your shopping basket when you use the code JANSALE at The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (a good chance perhaps to get some early Mothers’ Day gifts in?).

We’re also now open to submissions, hooray! If you’re interested in submitting your work please do read the submissions guidelines carefully and email me if you have any queries.

Thank you so much for all the support and encouragement you’ve given me over the past year, and I wish you all a very healthy and happy 2014, with a good dollop of soul-enriching creativity thrown in!

Best wishes from Teika x