One day, I was sitting in my favourite local cafe in Malta (Creme Cafe in Naxxar - a bustling place of Maltese conversations, books, delicious coffee and amazing raw vegan cakes). I was busy writing, as it is the sort of cafe that inspires writing, when someone with an unfamiliar but radiant face approached me and my then six month old baby. It wasn’t so much what this woman said - questions and compliments about baby Dorothy no less - but the warmth with which she spoke. There was such openness, encouragement and interest, in a quantity and degree of sincerity that we rarely encounter in everyday life - and certainly not from strangers. There was no wistful nostalgia or maternal affection that sometimes come from an older woman when meeting a new baby, either. This woman was my age, and her manner was characterised by a friendliness that is born of love, not reminiscence.
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.
Only the other day, two separate friends enlightened me on the shocking aftermath of music festivals (I have never been to one and even if I had, I might not have known what happens in the days and weeks after the mass exodus). Things are just left behind without a care in the world. By things I mean tents, bikes, clothes, shoes - real possessions, not just crisp packets and beer cans. It takes charities and volunteers to clear up the mess and sometimes pass on these discarded items to those in need. My thoughts immediately turned to refugee camps, where the scene looks similar but the reality is another life, another world. It filled me with horror to think of these two ‘campsites’ and how diametrically opposed they are, and yet how they share some absurd and tragic characteristics: both exist at the border of ordered society, and both are waste grounds of so much human capacity and potential. With these ideas in my mind, I wrote a poem.
Today, plastic is in the news nearly as much as President Trump. More individuals, institutions and countries than ever before are waging war against this new enemy. Whether we are now boycotting all packaging and disposables, drinking out of reusable bottles, or just saying no to straws, there is a definite sense of collective effort in reducing our careless reliance on plastic. The sheer amount of waste humanity can - and needn’t - produce has finally started to weigh heavily on us. And we are no longer only concerned with treating the visible symptoms - cleaning up beaches and filling up our recycling bins once a week. The conversation has shifted to why we need, or don’t need, plastic in the first place.
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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Palm oil. Animal agriculture. Parebens. Plastic. Fast fashion. Toxic dyes. Traffic pollution. Sugar. Genetic modification. There is a lot to worry about. There are countless imbalances and sufferings. But amidst the confusion, apathy and passionate activism all around us, there is a sobering truth: that the solution to it all lies deep inside each one of us. At the root of all this material disaster is human behaviour. If I stop using plastic straws and buy products that haven’t been tested on animals but my heart is full of criticism, despair and aggression towards others, nothing will really change. It is our thoughts that need to change. Our words and actions then become the fruits and flowers of our lives. It is the human being that has the capacity to exploit or sustain all other forms of life, and to construct or destroy a healthy world. It is also the human being that is inflicting unspeakably cruel behaviour on other human beings. The solutions to bitter racism, the oppression of women, and the abuse of children also lie deep within each one of us. Our hearts are the repositories of all the needed change. Our inner condition will determine what our hands do, what our words say. So instead of tweeting or marching or not caring at all, perhaps we need to focus on where change really happens, as we sip on our organic coffee in reusable cups.
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?