I have a three year old. An exuberant, charismatic, chatty three year old who is wondrously curious about everything. But not long ago, I had a tiny newborn in my arms and I was learning all about motherhood for the first time. Not long ago, conversations pivoted around questions like ‘how old is she?’, ‘how is she sleeping?’, and ‘are you breastfeeding?’. General appreciative compliments abounded, and support was extensive when it came to physical matters like weighing your baby or consulting lactation experts or starting on solids. In a couple of years, questions will no doubt be posed at my daughter directly - ‘how old are you?’, ‘do you like school?’, ‘what’s your favourite subject?’. But for now, I have a three year old. Which means a few things. I am experiencing the indeterminate, ‘in between’ phase of early childhood, when my daughter is no longer a toddler, but is not yet in school. People tend to compliment her on what she looks like or what she’s wearing rather than have conversations with her (because she is three, maybe, there is not much expectation of her ability to converse). Motherhood is more ‘new’ feeling and intense and demanding than ever before, but there is much less conversation about it - and much less interest in me and my child overall (I don’t mean this melodramatically; simply that we, as a duo, are not novelties anymore). I may still be dealing with ‘toddler matters’ like weening and potty training, but suddenly these are not such acceptable topics to be discussing openly in the way I could before. Even between friends, questions around challenges are often shared in lowered tones, tinged with shame or guilt - ‘is your little one having a lot of tantrums too?’, ‘is she still wearing a nappy at night?’. And speaking of questions - they are rarely asked by others at all in this phase; there is simply a calm assumption that I am not ‘new at this’ anymore and that I must now know what I am doing.
The smell of Malta after a hot summer’s day, when the light is soft and pink, the air is still, and the buildings rise up like luminous sand castles left behind at the beach, is distinctly special. For a brief time, it makes you forget the hot, challenging hours that went before it. It is the lover’s gift after feuds and tears; the smell of contentment, of peace. I start to remember myself again - my aspirations and purpose. I realise I have been lost in survival mode. What a power is heat to oppress the senses and mind! Here in this mellow respite I can breathe in the memories of the day and notice things again.
Isn’t it a wonderful feeling when your mind expands and understands something new? Or when you gain a fresh perspective, or feel inspired by a different way of thinking? I’m starting to realise that this all-important stimulation of the intellect - and heart - is highly undervalued, but absolutely critical, for mothers of young children. It is so easy to become overtaken by practical duties and emotional reactions, and subtly, your identity is reduced to what you are doing or feeling in the moment. But we are so much more than that - and remembering the potential of life is, surely, essential to developing it.
I am part of an informal community: a group of mothers who are my friends and who are exploring the same questions and interests that permeate - or flood - my own life. Like most groups of friends, we didn’t seek each other out exactly, but somehow found support and solace in a common experience. Essentially, we are trying to nurture our young children in ways that are as meaningful and natural as possible. There is much to decide, and the huge spectrum of considerations can feel daunting and enthralling to a new mother who feels like her eyes have just been opened to another world. There is breastfeeding; nutrition and ways of eating; responding to crying and sleeping; vaccinations; what products are best and natural on precious new skin; what kinds of nappies, if any, to use and when to stop using them; how to carry your baby; what clothes, fabrics, bedding, approaches to healing, and toys are best; and of course - most topical of all - the issue of screen time. As our eyes and minds widen to new ideas, so the scope of scrutiny grows exponentially. It can seem suffocating to list the choices a parent faces like this, which is ironic in itself for those of us wishing to live life more simply.....
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I was Whatsapp-reflecting with a friend the other day (n.b. this is a special kind of reflection, popular amongst parents who have little time to converse, involving diary-like voice notes which serve to articulate - and in the process clarify - a range of thoughts for both others and ourselves). He mentioned that he notices a kind of competition between families, even when they are already friends, in the way that personal challenges are shared. Or rather, in the way that they’re not shared - for fear of giving a less than perfect impression of how one is coping as a mother or father. I realised then that there is actually a lot of shame associated with parenting today. Shame that we are not doing it quite right, or loving every moment as we should, or following through on all that we’d planned to do. How utterly tragic that on top of every other emotion that a parent goes through on a daily basis, he or she might also feel ashamed that things are simply not as they should be.
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.
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.