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“I wrote the book in a tantrum”: Edel Coffey on motherhood, breaking points and Sarah Jessica Parker

The author’s debut novel was born out of rage against the way mothers are expected to do it all. It’s about two characters battling pressure, trauma and grief. But, ultimately, it could be anyone’s story - and it is

Photo: Bríd O'Donovan

Most tantrums result in screaming, red faces and either parent or toddler yielding to the other. If you’re Edel Coffey, you get a book. 

Breaking Point is the Irish journalist’s debut novel. It’s about two women, Dr Susannah Rice, a high-flying medical professional, TV doctor and mother, known by her fan base as Dr Sue, and Adelaide Gold, a journalist outrunning the trauma of her past. One has it all, the other did, but lost it. 

We begin in New York on the hottest day of the year. Running on autopilot, and by sheer accident, Susannah leaves her baby in the car. She doesn’t realise her mistake until it’s too late, and Adelaide is sent to the scene to cover the aftermath which eventually ends with Susannah as a defendant. 

“I wanted to look at these two women and the different pressures they were under,” says Coffey. In the tradition of writing about what you know, Coffey knows these pressures all too well. “I wrote the book in a tantrum. I was raging” she replies when I ask her the motivation behind Breaking Point. Author soon trumped interviewer: I may have asked one question but I received countless in return. 

“After I had children, I remember looking around me thinking how are we still living like this? How do people do this with a full-time job? How do they clean their house? How do dinners get made?” 

In Ireland, there is government-paid maternity leave for up to 39 weeks which eases the strain and, having her two children very close together, she was out of the workforce for the best part of two years. But still Coffey asked, how do they do it?

It’s a sentiment often said in awe of mothers. In 2011, it was pondered by the fictional contemporaries of Kate Reddy, played by a sporting Sarah Jessica Parker in an aptly named film, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Reddy, a banking professional and mother, spent her days trying to keep all her plates seamlessly spinning at once. How? It’s a question mothers have been asking themselves for decades. 

French novelist Leila Slimani’s Lullaby approaches this unanswerable question of motherhood differently. The international bestseller that scooped up the French literature prize Prix Goncourt in 2016 taps into every parent’s worst nightmare, the death of their children, in a piercing thriller and investigation into what society expects motherhood to look like. 

The two works capture the sentiment of “I don’t know how she does it” from both ends of the spectrum. Society’s tone can switch instantly from disbelief of how mothers manage it all, to abhorrent horror that they haven’t. If you splice the two together the result is Breaking Point. In fact, this was how Coffey pitched it to her publisher. 

Slimani’s writes in a “moralising way, free of fear of judgement,” which Coffey found admirable and fascinating in equal measures. Incidentally, she’s a big Sarah Jessica Parker fan.

“I’m an individual, I’m a journalist, I’m a wife, I’m a sister, but when I had children I was suddenly expected to become this one thing alone: a mother,” Coffey explains. 

“Men are allowed to have fatherhood as one facet of their beautiful, kaleidoscopic lives. But, we are expected motherhood to be this all-consuming, rewarding, gratifying, vindicating experience of our female lives,” She explains. What follows is a disclaimer. 

She assures me that she’s delighted and undeniably lucky to have children – any thoughts contradicting this never even entered my mind – having met her husband when she was 36 and having had her first-born at 37. “I feel the need to quantify this whenever I talk about it,” she laughs. 

It’s a disclaimer society has forced her to voice every time she talks about preserving her individuality alongside her motherhood. 

As well as a wavier, it’s a nod to the jovial side of so-called parental fallibility. When the little things go wrong that remain in anecdote territory, rather than tragedy, more out of luck than judgement. “I drove off and left my buggy on the side of the road on the school run,” admits Coffey. It wasn’t until an orchestra of honking began from the car behind her started that she realised her error. “Crucially, I would like to add at this point, the children were in the car!”

These quirks aren’t just resigned to parenthood. For example, have you ever left your travel mug on the roof of your car? “I’ve done that so many times, once I got home and it was still there. I hadn’t split a drop of it!”. Coffey is clearly quite the skilful driver as well as a writer. 

It’s a line of argument Coffey takes out of her head and puts into the mouth of Susannah’s lawyer, Dana, when pleading her client’s innocence to the jury. A lapse in luck and cognitive thinking pushed Susannah’s case from anecdote to nightmare.

While set in a fictional novel, this case is far from imagined. There are ‘Susannahs’ all over the world. Janette Fennell, who Coffey acknowledges at the back of the book, runs a database in the United States called kidsandcars.org, which attempts to make a record of how often these tragedies occur. Between 2017 and 2021, an average of 39 children died of heatstroke each year after being left alone in a vehicle. Going back even further, over 1000 have met the same fate since 1990. “It was the stuff of nightmares, and still is now”.

Coffey hopes Breaking Point enables society’s expectation of mothers to be a talking point. While explode may be too powerful, she concedes, she at least wanted to open up the debate around the idea of perfection. “I’m so tired of people pretending to be perfect. But people feel the need to pretend in fear of being judged”. 

Already, the conversation has started. The Lost Daughter, the directorial debut from actress, and mother, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a feature film about a college professor (played by Olivia Coleman) who holidays in Italy to flee memories of early motherhood, only to be confronted by them when she somewhat befriends another young mother. It’s moving, mysterious and portrays a reality that has rarely been discussed, until now. 

In an interview on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, she explained how she approached the film with the purpose of breaking down the fantasy that mothers want nothing more than to take care of their children. “But they’re just like us!” She explains. Ambivalence has always been a part of parenthood, she just feels we can “barely bear” to concede this. This only confirms what Coffey and I discussed for an hour.

Breaking Point is about two women reaching their own. But, more importantly, it’s about why society needs to start asking questions other than ‘how do they do it?’ and ideally finding a few answers along the way.

Breaking Point is published by Little, Brown Book Group, £14.99.

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