Edit: for some reason this post is showing as May 18th. I wrote it on June 11, so go figure!
I’m currently writing this at 11.30pm, in the garden, where a fairly stiff breeze is blowing. This is the only place I know I won’t run to the baby if he cries (Robert is in the house with him, in case you think I’ve just left him). I’ve wanted to get some thoughts down about motherhood for months, but it’s been rather hard to write. Not just due to the new occupant of my lap. But because my feelings are hurricaning through me and evolving every day.
When I was pregnant, I finally kicked a nasty, expensive habit that garnered me more than my fair share of tuts and frowns.
Bad for your health. And your vocabulary.
Part of the reason I read these exploitative trashmags is that I love peoples’ stories. I don’t think anything is banal. When I was pregnant, I would walk down the street with a person in my body (!!!), thinking, “And this will be you”. The fact that he would be walking down a street lost in his own thought was absolutely mindboggling to me. I find it endlessly fascinating that there’s a story behind every face, that every person dwells within their own private universe. In a way, there’s nothing more ordinary, and nothing more amazing.
In January, Eva Wiseman wrote an article in the Guardian- “The seismic changes of having a baby”. I read it when it was linked by various Facebook friends. The consensus being, “Big deal. Woman has baby shocker”. Commentary on how self obsessed her article was. Big deal indeed.
Something isn’t less special, less beautiful, because it’s commonplace. Every day is filled with unfathomable, unpredictable ordinariness. Dreams, seasons, love. And grief isn’t less black and deep and consuming because it’s something that happens to everyone, every day, everywhere. Nobody (well, I hope not) tuts and rolls their eyes and says, “Big deal. People die everyday”. So why do we do it when people are born? Why, outside the climatic yet somehow bland scenes of a romcom, is it less amazing?
It’s a peculiarly misogynistic view to hold, this woman’s world of babies and childbirth. How dull, how droll. How very trivial. From woman to mummy, from one judgement to another. (I saw a tweet from a supposed feminist about another feminist, scorning an article they’d written sarcastically saying, “Did she mention she’s a mother?” I blocked her). Women across the world are judged on their status as a mother, or potential mother. Being a, “real” woman is partly judged by your attitude towards or your ability to reproduce. Our reproductive capacity is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of being female. It’s when domestic violence often starts or intensifies. It’s a visible, very visceral sign of your sexual activity. You can die because of it- through pregnancy, through childbirth, or through not being able to have a baby. Women are murdered because of it, women kill themselves over it. And the first year postpartum is one of the riskiest periods in a woman’s life- where suicide is the biggest killer. Yeah, this shit matters. This is not trivial. The people I’ve spoken to most about parenthood have been men. It’s applauded for the dads to say how amazing it is to have a child, but for mothers, there’s ridicule. So what.
I can understand a distaste of the oddly consumerist and competitive side of parenthood. Who’s having the “easiest” pregnancy, to the easy baby, to the best pram, the milestones. That’s trivial. But sharing these things is part of the culture of parenthood. Part of life itself. Sharing the darker aspects- feeding problems, illness, relationship problems, postnatal mental health, postnatal physical health, sexuality, the huge shake up of your identity, your body, your mind (hormones are real fuckers), wifework and the distribution of labour and for some, regret- is only just beginning to find the light. And so it should. As I said, this shit matters. Motherhood is a feminist issue.
The whole experience has stripped me down and shaken up my values. I love my job, I care about my job, and I never thought for a second I’d not want to go back to work. I used to joke that I’d leave the maternity ward and go to the pub. But I would happily stay off to look after the baby. And the Daily Mail would write that shit as, “How Women Are Turning On their Careers for Babies”. Which is bullshit. I’m going back to work, and I’m not a different person. This is a new part of me, a new spoke on the wheel. It’s frustrating sometimes, exhausting often, but I never knew how easily it would come to love someone, to do those frustrating, exhausting things. How fulfulling it would feel to change a pooey nappy because it means I could kiss his toes and make him laugh, and how much joy I’d get in those tired hours. I had prepared myself for “not feeling it”. People warned me about it. After all, it makes sense. Here’s a person you’ve never met, you don’t really know, who, for a while, can’t give much back. It might take time to love them. And it did- about 10 hours. And since then my love has grown and grown to strain my heart against my chest, to spill into the world, to everyone in it.
And it frightens me. It terrifies me. Throughout pregnancy, I consciously tried not to connect. I felt at every stage I could lose it, and he could die. I tried to protect myself by keeping myself at a distance. Which is very hard when the distance goes as far as inside yourself. In the quieter moments with Robert on his nightshift I’d play him songs (him! It was him all along in there) and talk to him and feel his kicks in response. And it got harder and harder not to connect when I’d have my panicked morning frappucino (cold and caffeine, the perfect way to get your baby to move) and he’d give me a few pissed off kicks. But it was terror, almost constant terror.
I feel the same terror, mingled with bliss, never a hope of separating one from the other. I’ve sat, so many nights, with his downy head under my chin and cried over it. My fear of death has come back tenfold, because the absolute best case scenario is that I won’t see how my son’s life pans out. (Did my dad feel this way about us before he died anyway?) From both me and Robert, and through both me and Robert, there will come that inevitable terminal separation. Forever and forever from the one who I grew with my body. And that we will break his heart one day, and mine breaks over and over again.
Now my life seems to be measured in his days and weeks and months and years, and not my own. And it feels so very small. The grief is raw, and I try to centre myself. I grieve each clothes size, each little thing that was there that’s already gone- gone! forever! The way he’d sigh after finishing a bottle. Moro! Squealing with delight at Saturday in the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Not being able to reach Monkeys in his bouncy chair. Being so tiny, and now not so tiny. I used to think babies were hams. That’s the word I used- they’re angry and pink and wibbling. But every day! he does something new. He’s babbling now, giving us long lectures in his language we’re only beginning to understand. He rolled over this week and was so shocked he burst into tears. First, a second of silence, then he caught my eye and his lip began to wobble. I picked him up and called to Robert upstairs. This week, he also stroked a cat. He’s just noticing them, particularly fascinated by their hovering question mark tails. I held his hand- his tiny hand- and pressed it onto her fur. He unfurled his fist and began to laugh- a belly laugh (I understand that phrase now, as I held him he bellowed, and I understand that one, too). And it was utterly beautiful. This little moment of discovery in the world, and as near to death I feel I am sometimes, I am born, again.
That probably sounds evangelical, and I am, in a way. I can see why people worship their children.It’s okay to, as people. The problem is when we see them as extensions of ourselves, which they aren’t. From the second they’re born, they’re their own person. Which is frightening in itself, with all that being a person entails. I don’t know how I’m going to cope the first time someone’s horrible to him. When he’s hurt or disappointed. For the first few weeks I was afraid to take him to places I wasn’t sure were child friendly as I knew I’d disintegrate if I saw a tut, or someone mumbling about bloody kids. They’re part of our lives, part of our society. There are some places they don’t belong (we tried to take him to someone’s birthday dinner, thinking it’d be sedate, but I was on the train home 30 minutes later) but that’s okay.
Another reason why I cry is his childness makes me ache for mine. In as much as he makes me wonder and look at the world anew, my small self is huddled inside, nerves as exposed as my heart feels. When he cries- from hunger, or fear, or loneliness- I feel the fear and loneliness of my own childhood. I rush to make it right, to put arms around the lonely one, to wipe away the tears and soothe the fear. And now I feel every child’s fear and it means I can’t watch or read as much as I used to. It causes me physical pain. I find myself crying at the big things- news reports- and the small, FUCKING ADVERTS. (Fucking meerkat bastards). I feel like a layer of my skin has been sloughed off, and sometimes, I want the hardness back. Give me back my cynicism (it’s still there, somewhere). It’s agonising sometimes. Sometimes too much.
I’m not always walking around in a blissful daze. He can do my head in, too. The sheer relentlessness of it is a shock. This person (person!) is utterly dependent on you and it’s so daunting. And grinding. I miss the days of not worrying whether cot death has taken him (my head plays these awful scenarios, screaming), or worrying that something else will (please don’t take him, take me instead). Today, he was driving me up the wall. He’s going through a Baby Phase, you know, baby stuff. More of the mindblasting world to make sense of. I set my alarm so I could be there when he woke up (as Robert sleeps with him, not me, due to medication). He gave me this gorgeous smile and started kicking his legs excitedly and laughing. Which was a good start. And proceeded to go through the day refusing to nap, going on baby lectures, hating to be held, wanting to be held then hating it, lots of bottles, and a three hour battle to get him to sleep. Then he does that thing- that melty heart thing which is why you eventually don’t care, have a second wind and want the whiny exhaustion to last forever. A three hour bedtime and finally get him to lie down, pick up a book and he coos in anticipation, holds his hand out for me to hold, giggles and makes cute noises with rapt attention the whole way through. Then a few songs which he smiles at so much I gave up with his dummy. Lie next to him and he sleepily gazes into my eyes and rests his little hand on my cheek. What a babe. This was the book.
It’s given me more love for everyone, and unlikely allies have emerged. People I didn’t know really cared have been on the end of Twitter, Facebook, a phone, with blankets, toys, little hats, clothes. He’s bedecked in the love and the kindnesses of others, and it’s beautiful. He’s an adored and doted on nephew and grandchild. It’s given me a new love for my husband, too. He was amazing throughout my pregnancy, throughout the labour, and he’s a wonderful father. Utter, utter gentleness and love, and pride. Watching them together is a delight. Just him talking- about any old thing- makes Oisín giggle and whoop with delight. He smiles so broadly when he sees him, they adore each other. Robert’s better than me at taking him out, he shows him the world, shares with him so many things. He’s going to be the stay at home dad, and it’ll be hard. The whole stay at home thing isn’t set up for fathers. But what a role model he will be. He’s just a baby, just a child, but the world will try to teach him he’s a boy, and what a boy is supposed to be. And Robert will be there to teach him that a boy can be gentle, and kind, and loving, silly and emotional, as so many boys are, but told they shouldn’t be. He will grow up with the very best boy to teach him. And I hope I can do teach him well, too.
So, my little baby, when you can read, and if you ever read this, I love the hell out of you. Sorry for the sort of swear word but I’m sure you’ll have heard a lot of those by now. It’s because you’re half Irish, and this is our punctuation. And I’ll love you, whoever you are (and I’m getting an idea, my curious, giggly, reachy little Bean) and whatever you do. Nothing you do will ever make me not love you. You’re pretty ace. Now go back to sleep. xxx
Filed under: Mental health, motherhood | 106 Comments »