To live together as brothers and sisters: a hope that transcends time, ethnicity and borders. If the purpose of religion were to be reduced to one thing, it might be reduced to this. It is a sentiment that has spilled into almost every aspect of culture - song, poetry, everyday language. To call someone a sister or a brother is to acknowledge deep ties, to claim solidarity, to promise acceptance and loyalty. But it is only since having a second child of my own, that I have really thought about what it means to be brothers and sisters. And more than that - how to raise up brothers and sisters. How do we foster this relationship as parents and siblings? And how do we extend it beyond our own blood relatives? If this is the ultimate goal for all humanity, how do we start in our own lives?
Today is International Women’s Day, and I love that there is now so much to collectively celebrate as well as champion. We’ve come such a long way in such a short time. Certainly it is easy to notice both the glaring and subtle inequalities that persist in the opportunities afforded to men and women, and in their representation (or lack thereof) across all aspects of culture. But the immense progress made in the advancement of women as equal and potent protagonists in the building of society, over the last century particularly, is nothing short of astounding. One aspect that resonates with me particularly is the rise of the voice of the mother. In what can be seen in historical terms as occurring with breathtaking swiftness, she has emerged from almost total obscurity to claim her rightful, powerful place in humanity’s great evolution.
As a mother of a two year old who hungrily absorbs and repeats most of what she hears around her, I have been reflecting further on something that bothered me many years ago - the content of stories and songs for children. When I pause and listen to the words of nursery rhymes that are passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation and across cultures, I wonder at how they have endured so steadfastly. Sometimes political, often nonsensical, and frequently just plain bizarre, they are a bemusing part of our cultural heritage. But the thing I notice most is that these nursery rhymes simply don’t have much ‘substance’; there is rarely a message that is meaningful for a small person. I remember Michael Macintyre’s joke that the only advice we can glean from Humpty Dumpty is ‘don’t sit on a wall if you’re an egg’. No doubt it’s the rhythm and accompanying movements that seem to appeal most to adults and children alike, but it made me wonder why a good tune and a good message can’t go hand in hand.
This is my humble sequel to ‘A Perfectly-Far-From-Perfect Birth Story’ - a piece I wrote two years ago after my first child was born - and is rather more a collection of postnatal reflections than a birth story per se. Narratives have their place, but sometimes it is the thoughts that come afterwards that are most helpful to the mind and heart. To start with, as I tap away with my baby girl clamped to my front like a koala, I have been struggling to find the right adjectives for this birth. ‘Beautiful’ is used liberally nowadays, it seems, for anything raw, truthful, impressive - even when not aesthetically pleasing to the senses or mind. So maybe I can use ‘beautiful’. A few others that spring to mind but also don’t quite fit are ‘surreal’, ‘poignant’, ‘clinical’, and - dare I admit it - ‘traumatic’. This birth was certainly intense, but I must be honest to both myself and others in admitting that the circumstances were spectacularly undesirable.
‘Black Friday’ - a relatively recent American phenomenon that immediately follows Thanksgiving - has now unapologetically spilled over into many other countries in the Western world. Even here in Malta, a traditional Mediterranean island, there are special opening hours and discounts (plus huge transport disruptions) on this day. And of course in the world of online shopping, anyone can partake of Black Friday's offers - curiously, quietly, greedily. It’s a day that celebrates and feasts on mass consumerism, and which countless businesses feel compelled to participate in - even when they operate outside the cultural context of Thanksgiving. This year, the date is also ironically shared with ‘Buy Nothing Day’ - which, as it sounds, promotes the exact opposite values and behaviours to ‘Black Friday’. The discourse around all of this is conflicting: hype and excitement mixed with resistance and disdain. There are lots of opinions, and lots of counter-initiatives too. Upon reading about some of them, it struck me that this is a wonderful opportunity to think more about ethical buying and small businesses. It is also a chance to cultivate more consciousness and conversation on the force of consumerism. But all the attention surrounding ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Buy Nothing Day’ can also act as veils to perhaps a more important issue - materialism itself.
We read and hear a lot about ‘busyness’ these days. People say - and feel - that they are busy all the time, and it is treated and accepted as a symptom of the age. The more we talk about it, tinged with a mixture of pride and apology, the more busyness becomes a kind of cultural narrative. It’s undeniable that life is very full for most people in today’s (at least Western) society. There are an intricate array of demands on our time due to the cost of living, raising families while maintaining jobs, less localised activity and therefore more travel, interacting with people across time and space almost constantly, and somehow trying to carve out windows for other interests, therapies and recreation too. Some individuals are also engaged in service-oriented activities that aim to help various populations, be it local or international. All of this is a far cry from life several decades ago, when everything was a lot more limited - in terms of where we could go, who we could communicate with, and what we could participate in. We knew less about the world, its problems, opportunities and needs; we simply had fewer options and less information to process.
I realised, after my friends started having children, that our conversations were different. They had all the zeal of intention from before - to share, to discuss, to analyse - but somehow they didn’t seem to bloom in the same way. I’m not referring to the content, but more to the lifespan and completion of a conversation. After my own daughter began to move and demand a little more of my attention than nursing or gurgling as I chatted away, I began to understand. Interruptions from little ones are sometimes sweet and lispy like the first patterings of rain at a picnic, and sometimes boisterous and unsettling like a thunderclap. But they are all a little frustrating because they interrupt the flow of something else which, at that moment, holds your focus more. Of course, my friends and I all accepted that it was simply more difficult now to have meaningful or prolonged conversations when the children were there. We began to ‘postpone’ them to evening phone calls and visits, when we were often tired but longing for some stretches of listening and talking in adult proportions. This is no revelation to anyone with young children, or to anyone trying to have a conversation with someone with young children. It’s fine, it’s a phase, and even a privilege. The revelation to me was that this pattern of interruption was possibly the most exhausting thing about motherhood.
Pregnancy with my second child has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s all relative, of course, and some may read this and wonder at how easy life must have been for me if this was hard. Some others may automatically want to remind me that this is ‘nothing’ compared to having two small children, or having three or four or five. But the fact is, it has been extremely challenging for me, and I’m sure in no small part due to having moved countries immediately before and to experiencing pregnancy through the hottest months of a Mediterranean summer. I have a lot more awareness now of respecting each person’s journey with motherhood, and not trying to compare or rank levels of intensity. For some, one child pushes them to their ‘full capacity’; for others, having ten or more children isn’t massively stressful. The thing is, we don’t need to remind each other that someone else has it harder or that your own situation is very ‘doable’ - we each have our own strengths and limitations. Motherhood will simply bear it’s own unique fruit for each person.
Princesses are an interesting subject. I have come to realise that there are apparently two distinct camps in real life and not just in fairytales: the adoring subjects and the hostile opponents. In the first camp are the parents and their little girls who relish the stories, the images, the songs, the dresses - indeed any kind of product stamped with a princess - and are attracted to them like magpies to jewels. They are loyal adherents to princesses, and certainly see nothing harmful in them. And in the second are the parents who battle this imagery on a daily basis and cultivate a strong contempt for all things ‘princess’. These are the parents who wince at princesses on cereal boxes and at birthday parties, and believe that these sylph-like figures stand for all the wrong things.
I wanted to share a few examples of novels that have stirred me up and opened my eyes. When this happens, I feel even more strongly how important it is to read books. Like most activities in life, reading can be for the moment, or it can be enriching and purposeful longterm. I am wary of a particular word so often linked to the pleasure of reading: ‘escapism’. It feels like a disservice to all that the the writer has done, to all that you can do. Surely reading is not about shutting down, but about opening up. It is not intended to distance us from life, but to draw us further into it, to enable us to taste its flavours and, at the very least, to understand it better. Below are a few examples of writing that, in my humble opinion, have the power to do this. (NB my wish isn’t to allude to or review the stories, but rather share what impact the effect of these stories had on me).