Influences and Inspirations Behind a Dystopia: How my personal journey to parenthood shaped Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen

I was walking down a towpath when I heard that my nephew had been born. I almost tripped into the glossy water as I flapped about with the news. I wanted to tell everyone: the person at the window of the boat we’d just passed, the dog walker being pulled along by a spotty terrier. My husband and I were boaters then. We’d been teachers before and now we’d become boaters. Both felt like full time occupations.

It was at this point in my life that I started writing the book that would become ‘Dark Lullaby’ and where I was, living on the water, and what was happening, my nephew arriving in the world, feels coiled around the roots of this story for me.

The idea had first settled in my mind back when I was teaching. I have a vivid memory of doing a last-minute display on a noticeboard in a darkly lit corridor, the day before a school inspection. I can’t remember what the time was but it was of course hours and hours after the children had left, well past dinnertime. There was an air of expectation; everyone was in their rooms getting ready, anxiety thickly pasted upon their faces. Everyone was trying so hard. Everyone was exhausted. Lessons were being planned down to the minute; they were being interrogated this way and that way to make sure that every child in the class would be reached and engaged, every single moment of the lesson. I was working with some great teachers but even they were white with worry.

Sitting in the bedroom compartment of our boat a few months after we had both left the school and teaching, I remembered the panic of those inspections. It felt far away from me now and made me realise just how much boating had been an escape route for my husband and I. I’d just been to see my sister who told me about the pain of breastfeeding, the worries about weight gain and everything else there is to hold in your mind when you’re caring for a newborn. She was trying so hard. She was exhausted. What if, my brain plucked out, parents were inspected as much as teachers are? It was a terrifying thought. So terrifying that I felt I had to write something down about it, contain it and turn it into a story. I wrote the first chapter sitting in bed on the boat, where if I looked one way I could see water and if I looked the other, people’s feet stamping heavily past on the towpath.

I was writing pretty blind at this point but I felt pulled by the emotional journey of the mother I placed at the centre of the story. Over time and many rewrites, I built the walls that would imprison her. As I was going through this process, my husband and I were beginning to suspect that we had subfertility issues. Months of trying to conceive had turned into years and we realised that we needed to seek help. After rigorous testing, our doctor explained to us that we had ‘unexplained subfertility’- there was no clear reason why we couldn’t conceive. As I was living through this news, I started to wonder if the world in my book, where parents were being put under an immense scrutiny, could come about because the children that were born were so few and so highly valued? What if this was a world where unexplained subfertility spread to all?

This book very much grew alongside the arrival of our daughter. Like her, it needed much help, patience and tenacity to come. Life has moved on for us now: we no longer live on a boat and my nephew is at school these days and is a wonderful, thriving personality. And we feel blessed to have a child who we think the world of and for whom we try to be the very best parents we can be. But despite everything, I don’t feel the pressures of parenting as a shadow around me. I sometimes wonder if I wrote them all out into the story of ‘Dark Lullaby,’ leaving me able to embrace the joy of being a mum.

You can read the SFBook Review of Polly Ho-Yen's Dark Lullaby at