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.
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.
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.
I remember walking down the long corridor of our home, as a child, to collect the post from the little wooden letter box stuck to the front door. We lived with my grandparents and so quite often the envelopes would bear their names - my Grandpa’s mostly. The routine in the house was relatively predictable at this time of the morning: Grandma would be sitting up in bed, having some breakfast that had been prepared for her by Grandpa, and he himself would be enjoying cornflakes followed by marmalade on toast - the very same choice faithfully made every day for many decades - at the dining room table. He wore his distinguished pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers; she sat in a handmade floral nighty with a shawl around her shoulders. The image is printed indelibly on my memory, not because it was remarkable but because it was every day.
When I imagined contributing my own little piece to the ever-popular discourse on births - and I wasn’t sure I would - I didn’t think I would need courage. It’s all too easy for women whose births didn’t quite go ‘to plan’, or who in fact endured something quite traumatic, to feel disempowered to speak about it. Writing a birth story almost seems like an anticlimax, or at best a cathartic exercise that won’t actually inspire anyone else! And so I decided to write up my humble experience for a number of reasons - to describe with words of truth and love a birth that is far from perfect; to encourage all those women who have felt disappointed or upset by their births to still feel capable; and to not - on principle - remain silent because the story isn’t conventionally worthy of admiration.