New Year’s Thoughts for Tired Grown Ups

It’s not unusual for me to feel I have no thoughts about the future. Part of a depressive tendency I think. But when New Year’s Eve rolled round this year I was shocked out of the mode I had been in – staggering towards the end of the year – by the realisation that it was about to start all over again. I felt a pressing need to give some consideration to what was about to unfold, and to find within myself some orientation towards it, while also knowing that excitement and desire were not going to be my guides. But I also think this pressing need is amplified by the fact of having children. Their lives will go on whether or not I know what to do with my own, and if I don’t stop to try to give some space to thought, I will simply be pulled along by that force. 

But how to start? 

It has become common practice to use certain methods of processing where we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year. It makes sense that we would look back to review what has been, and use that to refresh our sense of what we would hope for from a new beginning. But I guess this approach relies on a formula of pluses and minuses, and this isn’t quite what I’m looking for. It also requires a certain amount of energy to go through and make the list. 

One other thing that has been on the horizon of my attention for a number of months is that we’re in the process of leaving the baby years behind. Our youngest will be two this January. So two years ago now we were on the threshold of a huge new change as a family, which we were to meet in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. The changes of the past few years have been creative ones: making space for the new, and finding ways to meet the often conflicting needs that have been thrown up as a result. But I can feel that things are just starting now to settle into a new stage. It makes me wonder: are we just into maintenance now? What is there left to create? 

Another thing that I have started to recognise since becoming a mother is a frequent awareness that my very existence might be succumbing to cliché, while also knowing that there is no way out of inhabiting a form of life which in itself is often viewed through that lens. “All mums go mad when they have children,” I remember my husband’s best friend saying. Hearing this, I felt on some level reassured that he got it, that it was not surprising to him. But it is also odd to fall into this groove where your experience is unremarkable, because so common.

Within the stereotype, there are various next steps one might take to fulfil that creative urge. The obvious – have another baby, or almost the opposite – pursue a career move. But I want to acknowledge two things: firstly, if I am needed less, I want to understand in what way that need has changed and where to go next with it. And I want to try to discover from within the life I have now the secrets that it has to share, rather than trying to escape too soon to another one.

This is where I come back to the tiredness. It’s not a case now of just making it to the point where the baby can walk, or feed themselves, or whatever it is that seems like it will make things that bit simpler. We are in this for the long haul. We are just at the beginning of whatever that means. 

As I think about where we have been, I wonder if there are two kinds of things that I will be glad of and might look for as we move through this new year. Two things which similarly give pause: milestones, and resting places. I’ll take the milestones first.

I’m not thinking here of the kind that you can look up in a chart or a list. I’m not thinking of those which come as an expected part of the process. Rather, I’m thinking of those which we create as we go, which become privately and personally meaningful, which give cause for quiet celebration. 

In the past month or so my husband and I have noticed ourselves arriving at one of these with some surprise. Essentially we’ve managed to flip our early evening routine so that instead of all four of us each eating a meal in staggered succession we have begun to sit down together daily at the same time and share the same meal. Although I know you’re supposed to do family meals from age one, I honestly think it has taken us about two and a half years to get to this point. Initially, there was what I remember as a long phase of screaming when we tried to get daughter 1 to eat anything at all for tea/dinner – even sitting down in the chair has often been hard to achieve. Then there was a weaning baby who needed to be introduced to new foods which others in the family probably wouldn’t eat, and who would be voraciously hungry before anyone else was ready. Finally, the general state of play at this point in the day would mean my husband and I would have to take turns to look after or hold one or both of the girls while the other quickly ate. And because the bedtime routine has always taken hours to get through, it would have been pointless to wait, as I know some couples do, to eat together when the kids had finally gone to bed. 

But the main thing is it has brought me such pleasure, quite deep pleasure really, to be able to sit now with my family around the table. It doesn’t matter that the youngest is usually reaching over to my plate, clambering over to sit on my knee, and will leave behind a scene of devastation when we go upstairs. I’m not bothered by having to pick out every last bit of vegetable that the eldest manages to spot, in order that she at least eats something. I’m simply happy that for a moment, here we are, together. 

So this is a milestone, and perhaps it is only one stage in the evolution of our mealtimes which we will end up going through as a family. For now, I am marking it for all its worth.

If it takes time though to arrive at a milestone, I know I’ll also be needing some resting places to stop at along the way. I’ve been thinking about what these look like and what makes them restful. This mainly involves getting to a space where the pressures which normally present themselves in visible ways all around me are for a time held out of sight. It’s a funny thing to think of but at the moment the house is in every sense of the word my workspace, and it is where my work can often mount up. Getting out of it is not just a nice thing to try and do – it’s often a very necessary means of relief. 

At the same time, I think I tend to feel most rested not by going to a particular place, but by finding that place in the presence of another person. As Kahlil Gibran writes in his letter to Mary Haskell: 

Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives. 

It is almost like a memory of something that you still have. 

Image by Eliza from Pixabay


The first year with two

I find myself asking what I want to save from this year. And it feels harder to answer that question than one might think. Do I want to gather up all the things I have learned? Well no, that wouldn’t really capture what it has felt like to live my year this year, and it would probably all sound very boringly obvious in the abstract. Do I then want to link up the precious moments of connection that happen between siblings as they get to know each other, in different ways, for the first time? Well yes, but it’s happened and is happening, and I’m more interested in the continuation of it than in making sure I’ve got the perfect record, which doesn’t feel at all possible to attain. So what is left, then? Something about the change I have gone through, or that we have gone through as a family, or about what has made this year different from any other?

One thing that I have found hard, and which I think runs quite deep, is the responsibility that attaches to being conscious, in every moment, of not one but two little beings. I have noticed, to my distress at times, that it is only me as the mother / primary caregiver that has this. I cannot think of either girl, now, in isolation from the other, and I cannot “rest” from the thought of what one might need while concentrating on the other. Mostly I feel that when others are helping to look after the girls, they move quite straightforwardly from one to the other and back again. It is either or. But for me it is as though I can feel the tug of those parallel lines inside of me all of the time (the unsevered umbilical cord?), and at times of course I can feel how tangled those lines will get in moments of chaos and discord, as needs and wants clash.

This is something I began to notice in a previous post, and so perhaps I can treat the thoughts here as a follow up to ‘Mental adjustments and some self-talk’. In that previous post the things that I was noticing felt very stark. It was a kind of dramatic time, if only within the domestic sphere. But as time has gone on, this newly embedded consciousness and inner prompting has remained and grown with me. It affects me in ways that feel quite subtle or at least beneath the surface, but this is probably because they are little articulated or even known.

The tug manifests itself in different ways: some of them practical, some emotional. I need to stop D2 from trying to stand over the toilet while D1 finally agrees to do what she’s supposed to, climbing on to her stool and sitting on it. This takes some doing as D2 loves to see what is going on and is rather interested in the toilet. Another instance would be when D2 is desperate to be fed, and D1 is eagerly pursuing some other attention-raising activity (shouting, climbing up, strewing objects). The drive to respond to D2 is too strong for me to do anything else, but I do feel somewhat prevented from doing so by D1, and so I find myself again caught between the two. 

There are other kinds of moments in which I experience two emotions at once. When D2 offers (holding out her hand) a “toy” to D1 that D1 doesn’t take; I want to celebrate what D2 has done, but I also see how D1 can’t quite appreciate what she has been offered, even in being chosen by D2 to be the recipient. She doesn’t in that moment want the toy herself; neither does she see it as a toy. I understand D1’s reaction or lack of it, but I also feel a twinge of disappointment for D2. 

I think it is the accumulation of such moments that make the outbursts of togetherness that do spontaneously happen feel so special. There have been several times when D1’s bouncing, dancing and singing on the bed has been met with great hilarity from D2. D1, spurred on, takes even greater delight in knowing she is performing to an audience. And yet there are other times when she tries to replicate that, knowing it is something that D2 likes, and it doesn’t work; D2 simply isn’t tickled in the same way. I don’t know if D1 takes any learning from this, but I am sure it is important somehow in her development as a sister.

And thus life goes on.

One thought that helped me recently was that I haven’t wrecked one girl’s world, by bringing the other into it. Sooner or later, they would have had to have had these interactions with another little person. In playgroups, toys are “stolen” and children get in each other’s way. On playdates, hair is pulled and other people’s snacks are eyed jealously. I cannot stop life from happening. I can only be with them both as it does. 

Reflecting who we are

I have never been able to interest myself for very long in the need to keep up appearances. It seems to take me an enormous effort just to work out how to get things to look good, or at least better than usual, for a special occasion. But it has occurred to me that I am quite deeply affected by the images that I see around me, and that I do often internalise these in relation to what I feel motherhood is expected to look like. I might not be consciously measuring myself against such images, but I am aware of the pressure that they bring, especially when there is nothing else to offset it. 

I think beneath this there is a more basic question: “am I doing any good?” It is difficult to know and there are not many outside sources to give you an answer, or to regularly reinforce or acknowledge your efforts. But also the job itself is so all-encompassing that the answer can perhaps never be definitive. The effects of what we do or don’t do might not be seen for years to come, and even then they might take us by surprise. 

I guess if one was to ask: “what does good look like?” the answer could be as various as all mothers are in their own individual relationships with their children. But still I think there is a value in having some examples to go on, and in seeing others engaged in the same thing. It’s one thing we’ve really lost out on during the pandemic, I think: doing parenting alongside others as opposed to in our own little self-contained bubbles. 

I think what I am interested in is images of motherhood that tell a different story; that weren’t necessarily created to meet the requirements of a particular platform or medium. I want to be able to remind myself that there are sources of wisdom in the lives of those beyond me and my own experiences.

Dealing with birth

There are many recommendations around how we can try and prepare for giving birth, and yet in the aftermath there can be a bit of a void, once the immediate rush of the first few days has settled down. A couple of years ago, as I was waiting for my first baby to arrive, I was moved to watch a short clip from the BBC about how women from the Oromia region of Ethiopia help a new mother to begin to recover. Five days in, she is surrounded by the women of her community who gather to perform a special ritual. Prayers are said, there is singing and dancing by the older women, porridge and tea are shared, and a herbal medicine is prepared to help the mother recover her strength. It is a tradition which seems pitched just right: meeting the emotional vulnerability of the mother with notes of encouragement, cheeriness, and, above all, understanding. It is expected that she should need all these mothers and sisters around her, and so there they are, ready for her.

As I was preparing to welcome our second baby, I heard quite a different story from a woman in this country who is now in her nineties. She described how, when she had both of her babies, it had been customary to go into a kind of nursing home set up specifically for the purpose. After giving birth, she had to wait two weeks before returning home (despite having no serious medical issues), as it was thought best to allow the mother time to rest physically first. I was quite taken aback, thinking of the impact of this separation from the family at such a critical time, but it also made me realise how we can’t take for granted the way in which we do birth now. It makes me think that for so many women, and for so many different reasons, birth and what follows is not necessarily the empowering experience that it might have been.

The one difference that stands out to me in these two stories is that one can be made to feel either visible or invisible, in those early days. With both of my births, I found it very difficult to be observed in the first few hours and days, even by those who were trying to help, as I made attempts to breastfeed. I was very afraid of being told I was doing it wrong; afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it right. But being “seen” is I think a gift at this time, and perhaps the only way that you get to truly realise what is happening to you. 

How we are together

Though I wrote initially that I was looking for images, I was thinking of something that captures motherhood in action, as opposed to a still. But in this search I have found myself drawn in by the work of a photographer, Elinor Carucci, born in Israel but who is now bringing up her children in New York. Her collection Mother captures numerous moments from the first nine years (including pregnancy) of her life as a parent of twins. 

The images in this collection work to straddle the gap between art and life, and illustrate why sometimes we might need art to help communicate a truth about life. We don’t generally get to see ourselves in the act of mothering. But also, children change and time moves on so quickly. ‘I photograph moments because I don’t want to lose them’, Carucci said as she later presented her work to an audience. 

There is a picture that I like called ‘Bath’. The mother is sat behind her son in the bath, and holds him with one arm across his upper body as he tries to strain away. The look and emotion on the boy’s face is unrestrained; he is unhappy about having to have the bath. But the mother’s energy as she looks down is focused on trying to quieten him, whether this is possible or not. It speaks to me of that frequent need to do the quietening, whether or not you feel quiet yourself. And it also conveys powerfully to me that double task of allowing the child the space to feel everything and anything, whilst also offering to contain those feelings of distress which so quickly become too much.

It is not complicated. But it is complex, and there is never a day that does not offer up moments such as those that Carucci has chosen to share with the viewer in her carefully edited collection.

A mum’s work

You don’t really see the work that is involved in being a mum until you become one. Much of this takes place beyond view within the privacy of the home, and often in those out-of-hours spaces. I almost find it necessary because of this to imagine what it is like for other people, either in similar or very different circumstances.

In David Olusoga’s television series A House Through Time, he explores in the course of four episodes the history of a particular house (and its occupants) in Bristol: 10 Guinea Street. In the late nineteenth century, a baby was born to one of the couples occupying the house, but was to die at just ten weeks of what was then a very common infectious disease, in this case tubercular meningitis. The programme explores just how difficult it would have been for the whole family to keep clean: a huge priority especially for any parent of a newborn. There was no bathroom in the house at the time, so any water for washing would have had to have been carried up the stairs, in a house of multiple occupancy which was several storeys high. Each member of this family would therefore have shared the same water for their weekly bath, and the baby’s turn would probably have come last. 

There are times when, as a mum who has chosen mostly to use cloth nappies, the drudgery of constant washing – alongside everything else – can feel a bit pointless, or even silly. But at times like these it can help to imagine how others have borne the daily cost of living, without necessarily expecting that things should be any easier, or that this in itself will be enough to keep everyone safe and healthy. 

In a depiction from a similar time period, Hamlin Garland gives a very unsentimental idea of what motherhood could be like for a wife living on a farm set in the American plains. In the short story ‘A Day’s Pleasure’, Mrs Markham is introduced in the act of carrying out one of her many daily chores: ‘kneading a batch of dough with the dogged action of a tired and sullen woman’. It is interesting because this figure could easily come across as a kind of cliché; the response of the woman to her situation could have been predicted. But the writer with a kind of kindness makes us imagine and feel the burden of what this mother has on her plate. She is kneading the dough at the end of the day after putting the children to bed, and for her this is not a pastime but a necessity. She is physically worn down by it all, too: thin, stiff, with a ‘pam’ in her back, and even somewhat lame. But, again reaching beyond cliché, there is no easy claim in this story that being with the children makes it all worthwhile. It feels as though this woman has little time to enjoy such a thought. 

A reference point

Images carry the potential to be useful, or unhelpful. They can inspire, or they can fuel self-criticism and unhealthy comparison. I think we are increasingly aware of this tendency in how we use social media, for example. Social media gives us access to other people’s lives, and yet the world in our feeds can never be the whole world, however much it may feel like it. This is why I’ve felt the need here to be more active in selecting what to pay attention to: not simply going with what my eyes are drawn to first. Spending here a little time and attention, what I find moving in some of the instances above is the dignity that they lend to a task that can never be complete, nor perfectly achieved. It is dignifying, regardless of appearances.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Strange but instructive things about early motherhood

So much of what is written about motherhood aims to be helpful and thereby explanatory. But the things I have found myself thinking most about are the bits that feel strange, the things you couldn’t have calculated for and that you wonder what to do with. Over time these have gathered so frequently in my mind that I couldn’t do otherwise than write about them at this point. In the process of writing, I hope to find what it is that the strangeness might, at the same time, teach me.

  1. Being subject to your body

I don’t mean the bump, although that is an obvious manifestation, and the obvious does help to make it sink in. What I really mean is the way your body communicates with what you might have thought of as you. The messages are no longer advisory; they have become urgent, almost at times veering on threatening. Food and drink are no longer pleasant pastimes. I am more used now to the feeling: if I don’t eat something in the next two-to-five minutes I’m going to be sick. Similarly at the commencement of breastfeeding: food is no longer a joke to be taken or left. All of this can feel a bit shocking in a culture which, to me, encourages us to think we are in control of our bodies and can bend them to our own will. But on one such desperate occasion I had a thought (an obvious one) that helped me. Your body is not serving you alone any more; it is keeping someone else alive. It’s life and death; you suddenly understand that in the early days of a newborn. This is a bit more difficult to get your head around in pregnancy: it doesn’t look like much has changed except for the weight. But I’d like to think there could be a little more compassion and understanding in our culture, in place of the wry smiles, for new mothers at every stage even in their apparently incessant eating. Two years on, the memory of the kindness of the question: “are you OK?” still sticks in my mind as a group of us waited patiently for a typically long-delayed wedding reception to begin.  

…feeling a rush of milk, she hurried to the nursery. This was not a mere guess; her connection with the child was still so close, that she could gauge by the flow of her milk his need of food, and knew for certain he was hungry. (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)

2. Humans need daily adjustments

There is so much talk of the benefits of routine for babies, and step-by-step suggestions of what to do if you’re having problems – with sleep, naps, feeding and all the rest. But in moments of vexed frustration when I’ve felt trapped in a cycle that I can’t quite end, the one thing that has brought relief has been to remember that I’m dealing not just with a baby, but with a human. The recommendations and guides would have you believe a baby is a comprehensible, airtight thing, a concept that begins and ends. It actually gets quite hard to think outside of this box. And yet: when have humans ever conformed to such an idea about themselves? I don’t sleep to order myself – the time that it takes me to succumb can vary quite a bit – and I have had many nights as an adult (pre-baby) when I haven’t slept through, and have longed for company, a hand or voice in the dark. Equally, sometimes, somewhere to lie down is enough. We are as various as the world around us: the weather, the moods of the sky, the shifting winds and colours of the earth, not to mention the landscapes that exist often hiddenly on the inside. If only I could have the good sense to remember that this must be just as true in the early years. 

3. Expectations and loneliness

You know, of course, that there’s a risk of being lonely. In fact you probably plan for it. But when it comes to it, it never feels as simple as matching a solution to a problem, and I wonder if there is a key here somehow in how we address loneliness more widely. To begin with, it feels as though the need would be met if one could just manage to see some fellow mothers, people who are in the same rather topsy-turvy boat. But I noticed as time went on that everyone, by necessity, ends up fashioning their own boat, in their own distinctive way, so that that sense of being united by a common experience can start to dissipate. Similarly, I sometimes expect that once the right person is there, it will be possible to talk about the things that bewilder me when I’m on my own, the things that have built up in between. But then when we do meet, our attentions are often so crowded by mutual wonder at our respective babies, and the antics that come with them, that the present becomes enough to take account of. It’s good to talk, but conversation isn’t a magic bullet, and it doesn’t always reach the places we need it to. It’s one reason why I am so glad of mothers who have written about their experience, not just today, online, but also on paper, at other times. Though it can be easy to forget it in today’s media, and marketplace, motherhood is not a new, reinvented or modern concept.

The few words she has exchanged with this woman Frances, known only by sight after all from the nursery school queue, are the merest tips of icebergs. (‘Cafe Society’, Helen Simpson)

4. What distance can do

It feels as though she spends quite a bit of time hanging onto my legs, balancing on my hip, or with her hand in mine. That’s how physically close we are day to day, and probably how it has been for many of us especially recently in lockdown. But there’s a kind of loss of awareness that comes with this, and I am grateful for those moments when I am caught off guard, espying her across the room or in someone else’s care for a little while. It’s like a sudden aha moment: being able to see this person for who she is. Sometimes there is an element of suddenly being able to feel an emotion with regards to her that I almost haven’t had space to feel before, or at least for a while. In little ways, the distance helps, indeed feels necessary to the relationship itself.

5. You are still you

Discovering this, after what might feel like the loss of it, is supposed of course to bring reassurance. To allow ourselves such reminders is what we are encouraged to do. But when putting on what Liz Berry in one of her poems calls the ‘uniform’ of motherhood has involved such an apparent transformation, there can be a twinge of disappointment (at least there has been for me) in coming to the realisation that underneath it all, you still carry the person you started out as. The same habits are there: habits of mind and thought, and ways of doing things. I am a little freer from them – I can potentially choose to shut them off when needed, as I have had to do – but I am not free. I know, too, that here begins the story of the kind of mother I will become: one which I will try to direct where I can, but which also will unfold out of and beyond me. It will not just be for me, or for one part of me, to write.

Thinking about this post has made me realise something else. You have to find a way of working out what motherhood means in your head. It’s not just about the doing; it’s also being. The being is now and forever.

Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash