Last weekend I went for a massage, leaving the baby with her dad and a bottle of expressed milk. It wasn’t hard to leave but it was strangely hard to be there, both glad to be alone and not, knowing this window of freedom was just that.
Previously I had wondered what women meant when they talked about a loss of their sense of self when they become mothers. I have been thinking a lot what this means for me, and it is simply that I am tired and the baby is very demanding and there is simply not time or energy to contemplate myself – the things I like to do, the things I think about the world, how I feel about everything. And most of all exactly who I am now that I am someone’s mother, in addition to everything else I used to be. The baby comes first, I fade into the background and when I come face to face with myself – in an hour off, when confronted by a memory from my old life – it can feel overwhelming and sad to be reacquainted with this person who I used to spend every day with.
I am still here. I know this, and I know I will reemerge in stages, even if this “I” is different from before.
Our daughter is 4 months old, by most accounts a cranky, difficult age where babies are coming to terms with their fast development and are overwhelmed by these changes and the world around them. Her sleep, which had previously been relatively ok, went totally fucked a few weeks ago and though it’s improved a little, she still wakes frequently and then at 5.30am, full of beans and ready for the day (if you’d had a decent night’s sleep yourself this would he doable, but ya know …). She wakes too early from naps and her lack of proper sleep makes her tearful and scratchy, and she sails from joy to hysterical yelping better than any teenager. Totes emosh, I think as I hug her little wriggly body.
In this “phase” she cries approximately 2 seconds after I leave the room and often wails until she is carried, so basic tasks like getting dressed or making a cup of tea or hanging the washing out take hours and must be interspersed with feeding and cuddling and singing and cheering up this little grumpy person. I can no longer always feed her to sleep like I used to so I spend some of every day jiggling her to sleep while she screams in my arms and flails about and I silently count to 20 and try not to think of people having cocktails in a bar in Dalston, and sometimes kiss her chubby tear-stained cheeks, and tell myself that she will sleep eventually. Sometimes I am so tired that my ears have a constant slightly painful swish in them, and I cry at everything and even my teeth hurt.
Through it, I love her so much I think my insides will explode. And I constantly think to myself: this is the hardest, most grinding, exhausting and frustrating thing I have ever done. Who knew babies were like this? Everyone lies about it, including me when I speak to mums with brand new babies in cafés, because you HAVE to. I feel guilty about everything, including napping when Adam gets up with her at 6am, how I STILL feel tired and sad after a long nap, any time away I have, my ingratitude at wanting MORE time away, the minutes I leave her grizzling while I do essential tasks like, you know, cleaning my teeth or taking a shit.
Occasionally I stand next to her in the early morning and consider the 12 hours ahead of us and think I cannot do this and Adam leaves for work and I really, really want to say “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME” but I never do because I am not a total cow. I can barely write about it because it is often a bit misery memoir, because all mums suffer, because I don’t want to look like I’m moaning, because I’m lucky to have a lovely baby and a lovely flat and lovely partner and lovely family and live in a great part of London and not have to put my children in a small boat to escape a marauding gang of murderers. There are always mothers with less support than you, getting less sleep than you, with more children or crankier babies than you, so everyone is silent on it except in their friendships and everyone is quietly shouting “FUUUUUUCK” as they mainline coffee and push their buggies up hills.
Every day has some moments of joy, sometimes lots of them. Today I was hugging her in my bedroom and I caught sight of the mirror and her face looking at me in it, lit up with pure happiness. When I sing her certain songs, or she spots her favourite toy, her jaw drops in ecstasy. She has started to do a real dirty cackle whenever I make miaowing sounds against her neck (what? Miaowing into your baby’s crevices is totally normal), the best sound in the whole entire world.
Things are tough at the moment so I’ve lowered my expectations accordingly, which make it a bit easier. If she sleeps beyond 5.45 or if I haven’t sobbed by 8am I feel like I’ve triumphed! Although I feel frequently brittle I also feel tougher than I ever have. I feel like a warrior, like I did after my 2-day-long home birth with no pain relief. (I remind myself of the birth, a lot!) I see my reflection in a shop mirror while I push the baby in her yellow buggy, with my Nike Airs and my mom Parka and I note that I have washed my face and my hair isn’t too dreadful and I even put on mascara. And even if I don’t feel like it I say to myself: I’m still here. And even if I don’t feel like I am, I say: I’m nailing it. One day I hope Rosa will be proud that I am trying my best.
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I look at the baby looking at things. She reaches out to touch them. She laughs for the first time. The problem is the baby is so damn sweet. It has quickly become clear that she has come to colonise my heart and she is never, ever giving it back. Everything I had built up is undone. I am like a wobbly jelly on the floor: I cannot withstand anything. She cries in the car for what seems like forever, an exhausted cry; it sounds like a puppy whining and we, exhausted too, end up sobbing along with her (they should photograph this and put it on the side of condom packets). She smiles and gurgles in the sunshine and I can’t stop kissing her soft skin and she is so beautiful and new that I, still exhausted, feel my eyes fill with tears again. All this crying. This is the frontier of the new world we have created, and we are ruined.
I think back to my decision to have a baby and how at the time, it was impossible to comprehend the intensity of what we were doing. The fact that right now a whole human being almost completely relies on me day and night for all her physical and emotional needs is kind of terribly burdensome and terribly beautiful. All this time I am caring for her and she is responding to me we are developing this bond that started when she was growing inside me. When I walk in the room she turns her head and her whole face lights up with joy. I am the apple of someone’s eye, and it is adorable and exhausting.
The thing about babies is that they are so lovely and they are always there. It is a joke how much they are always there. I know this joke now, which comes into its own on a bad day when you think about having to do it again the next day, and the next and the next until – when? They go to school? University? – and every night too. Every night too! What a punchline. If I wanted I could worry about every tiny decision. If I wanted I could feel guilty about every mistimed moment, every nappy-wet-for-slightly-too-long, the time I plonked her on the bed just a little too hard because she was crying again. If I wanted I could go utterly mad.
Out on a walk, all three of us, I tell Adam that I am going to run ahead and it is predictably glorious, the lightness without the baby in my arms and the wind blowing and the speed I can pick up and the flashback to my previous life, or another life, one without her. But it’s only for a minute and I come back to them, like I always will, like 99% of me will always want to. But the coexistence of these two opposing desires fascinates me. I look at her, so small and beautiful and needing me: how will I ever leave her? And then: can I leave her now for a bit please? Us parents are all obsessed with getting our lives back, the milestones that show how independent we are or how grown up the baby is. But I can’t help but think these landmarks are there to distract us from the irrevocable thing that we have done. The truth of it is: you are never, never getting your old life back.
But, we must still messily staple our old and new selves together. The weeks and months are flying by but days with babies often last forever, so we go places every day, however tired we are. Even at the weekends I force her dad to agree to day trips out of the borough, and he humours me because he loves me and because he is kind. When she was a month or so old we took her to the Tate Britain and I nearly wept as we walked in – the fact that people make art reminded me how big the world is, how small our domestic tribulations are, how babies are sweet but there is other stuff – thank god! – in the world apart from babies.
There is other stuff in the world apart from our children. In the V&A I see other mums and we exchange knowing looks because we are remembering the other non-baby parts of ourselves, the fact that we are interested in art and culture and we are remembering the holy fact that in the world people are moved to make art.
People make art and they maintain parks and they parent too. The ratios of the parent in me and the other parts of me are still to play for. For now, I carry my beautiful baby everywhere along with all the silly stuff you need to carry for babies, and I ache all over. I breastfeed her a gazillion times a day and sometimes she sleeps in my arms. It is so bodily. I catch sight of myself in the mirror, laces undone because it’s hard to reach them when she’s in the sling and hair a horrible mess and no make-up – this stuff shouldn’t matter but it adds to my feeling of being all at sea, at the behest of somebody else who needs me and ensures I don’t have the time or will to put on tinted moisturiser. Sometimes a glamorous young woman goes past and tears spring to my eyes and then I laugh at how silly it is, all of it, her glamour and my lack of it and my concern for my lack of it. I can’t shake the feeling that that I am temporarily suspended from the real world or a world that is somehow more important, even though for me this is very real and very important.
In yoga the teacher tells us to think back to our third trimesters, our imaginings of our future babies, our curiosity about them. I realise I have not looked at her from this angle: how I know her now, thinking back to the ways she was growing inside me and the night she came into the world.
I couldn’t have guessed all the things about her. I guess the future is the story of her needing me less and less. For now, she grins at us gummily and leaps for joy when I sing her the bouncing baby song from baby class. Sometimes when she is crying and I know she isn’t hungry or tired, I take her outside and usually something about the change in air or light or temperature calms her. She stares at the trees searchingly, as if she has questions; in wonder, as if she cannot believe that they are there.
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Before I had a baby, I was desperate to know how I would feel overall about the experience of having a child and caring for her. There is so much information and hyperbole and marketing around this major life event, but I know (now more than ever) that my previous knowledge, the sum of the words and pictures I had absorbed, are scant preparation for how something will make you feel. I remembered reading an article by a woman who said something like I just found looking after young children frequently boring and depressing; I feared feeling like that too and yet I truly wanted a baby. Are we ambivalent about having children because the whole experience itself engenders so much ambivalence? Is it because we know it will be so hard yet feel compelled – thanks, biology – to do it?
In the early weeks I felt shocked by how I suddenly seemed to have lost everything – freedom, time, personal space, the luxury of sleep. Newborns do not necessarily make you feel, immediately, that you have gained something great in place of these things. It seemed like some giant, mean cosmic trick, to ensure our biological desire to procreate then triumphantly show you the reality: ha! This is what it is really like!
I realised I had known nothing about babies. I was overwhelmed by how much our daughter cried and how little I felt understood her, my confusion over what she needed and my perceived inability to soothe her. I was obsessed by the idea that we had a “difficult” baby and would compulsively ask people if they thought she seemed “normal”. At the worst points I genuinely wondered if we had made a terrible mistake in giving up our autonomy, and I remember saying to my dad do you think we shouldn’t have had her? It would have been easy for him to reassure me of the opposite, but instead he said I don’t think you had any choice. This calmed me so much in the moment: the inevitability of it, that we always would have had her.
Our daughter is now 9 weeks old, universes away in every sense from her first weeks. She smiles at us so that her eyes crease up and her mouth is wide open in a hysterical canyon of joy. She smacks her lips together after a feed and arches her tiny body like a fat little seal. She gurgles and goos when she wakes up almost like she is holding a conversation. Her eyebrows rise like Robert de Niro and she has these expressions: solemn, baffled, bored, surprised, non-plussed, joyous. The best moments with her are heaving with love and heart-breaking and the best things that have ever happened to me. It is like everyone said it would be, which makes it hard to write about in any kind of new or interesting way. It is hard and rich and fiercely full of meaning and emotion and significance. It is what I wanted.
We are learning to spend our days together; I am learning to do what all mums must do on maternity leave – fill their time but not over-fill it, rest, learn to go with the flow and take each day at a time, balance what the baby needs with what you need to make sure you can be a good mother and also an actual individual away from your baby. At times I feel like we are almost permanently attached to each other and strangely, for now, I don’t mind. All the clichés about the low bits are true: how mad and sad sleep deprivation can make you; how exhausting the guesswork of what does the baby need right now is; how tiring it is to endlessly walk round and round and round a park with a baby who starts crying again whenever you stop for a rest; how suddenly you are sometimes hit with an ache so violent to be able to go for a cocktail or catch a film or try that new restaurant that it nearly floors you.
Such is the fug of new motherhood with its hormonal fuckery and broken nights that I cannot follow conversations, can’t tell one day to the next, sometimes can’t even remember the mood of days previous. Looking back to the first few weeks of her life, I cannot recall much about how the hours played out, what we did day to day – already I have forgotten. I think about women and our biology and whether I still think gender is constructed and think feminist-heathen thoughts like I can’t believe they let us fly planes. I tell myself not to fantasise about a time when I am not tired but to see tiredness and this general state as a long piece of string I am riding on.
It feels necessary to constantly zoom out, else you could fixate on the fact that you’re singing Incey Wincey Spider again while you have a wee with the door open. People talk to you a lot when you have a baby, and older people often say these are the best years, don’t wish them away, and I believe them and that I must think of this long game, this bigger picture. In the future I think I will look back and see these early babyhood days in a summery blur and agree that yes, this was when I had everything.
I feel clearer about the nature of happiness than I have done before, and what I feel is that I am happier now things are harder. It is another cliché, the whole oh it’s really hard and tiring and a bit lonely and I miss going for long boozy evening meals and to the cinema BUT it is worth it because of how the baby has enriched our life! – and it is horribly true, for me. Every thought about maternal love is boring and predictable and just like everyone says. To us, she is perfect. Even when she is crying and the other babies are not, or when it seems impossible to put her down for more than 5 minutes, or when it’s 3am and I have changed the third nappy in an hour, I fiercely and whole-heartedly think to myself I would not change this about her. At first this felt like the strangest thing to me, but I have come to realise that this is real love, this total acceptance, this defence of imperfections or inconveniences because they are hers. I do not believe in fate or suchlike but somehow the way she is deeply feels like the way she was meant to be.
When she is crying, I look at her confusion and distress and think that it’s our job to get her through it, in this pre-verbal stage, by holding and feeding and loving her. I suppose it will always be our job to get her through it.
Sometimes at night I go to bed with her lying quietly beside me in her cot, her arms resting above her head, and I love her so much that I go through all the photos and videos of her on my phone because I need a dose of her before she wakes up a few hours later. This is the state I am brought to. This, apparently, is being a mother.
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(All unreferenced quotes from Penelope Leach’s 1977 “Baby and Child”)
Birth feels like the climax to long months of waiting but it is not really a climax at all. You were not waiting to give birth, you were waiting to have a baby. Your labour has produced her and there is no rest-pause between the amazing business of becoming parents and the job of being them.
It’s a summer’s day, the back doors are open, a bee buzzes outside. I am lying on the bed while my mum and dad potter around the flat clearing up and Adam looks after our brand new baby, that is, holds her while she sleeps and makes sure she continues to be alive. A plane flies by in the distance; people are on it, going somewhere. The fact that the outside world continues to exist is infinitely shocking and comforting.
There are things I haven’t noticed yet, that I will come to notice in the next few days, like: my daughter Rosa has a round wide face with the hint of being heart-shaped one day, and the best mouth I have ever seen, with a tiny cupid’s bow and the propensity to shape it into the sweetest o, all the time. Her limbs thrash around like she is conducting an orchestra, and she sometimes holds her fists in a comical squirrel-eating-nuts pose. She hiccups a lot.
The night after she was born I had a dream that she was lying looking at me and singing like a little bird in a high sweet voice with her little o mouth. I will need to hold onto this dream in the coming weeks, the idea that she will be a person, and not just this thing which, although strange and sweet and miraculous, could not be loved yet, because what the absolute fuck has happened to us and our lives?
During this settling period don’t torment yourselves by expecting love. Love will come but it will take time … You cannot turn on your love for your baby at the flick of a switch or the cutting of the umbilical cord. The mixed feelings you have for her now are neither a guide nor a warning for the future.
At first during the night feeds I have some kind of post-birth adrenalin spike and I relish these late night challenges: I feed her, write down the time and length of the feed, settle her, have a drink and something to eat. I CAN DO THIS! I think. She will either come for a feed crying and jerking or happy and alert and jerking, eyes like a little blackbird in the dark, and I will have to kiss her and kiss her. Come on ol’ blue eyes, I say, tell her about how she has ruined us, our carefree lives, now that this terrible weight of care is in it. I now know how much I didn’t know before she was here. I didn’t know anything, anything at all.
Several times in the next few weeks, exhausted by giving birth and shaken by awful hormones and the overwhelming relentlessness and responsibility of the task at hand, I will look at Adam and say what have we done? I will realise that there is a worldwide fucking conspiracy about how awful all this business of the first weeks is, and no one is allowed to tell you but they all know that this time will hold the entirely most difficult moments and days of your life.
It is the heartbreak that hits me so violently, the true realisation about my old life, now dead; and the partnership of two being over and my partner’s tired face and his tireless endless encouragement. Then the anxiety, convinced that something is terribly wrong with the baby, being too anxious to sleep or that she will start crying again and need you to feed her however tired you are, and how you think you hear her crying even when she is not (until she does). My google searches for this time reveal, depending how generous you are, the worried rantings of a new mother or an absolute madwoman. “Newborn how many times feed” “newborn won’t stop feeding” “newborn red birthmark on eye” “10 days old how many dirty nappies” “sore nipples” “mastitis” “baby fast breathing” “newborn spits up milk” “baby will only sleep on our chests” “how to stop baby crying” but all of them are actually saying the same desperate thing which is SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME.
Your newborn baby’s behaviour is a series of reactions to what she perceives as random stimuli … While she remains a newborn her behaviour will be random and unpredictable. She may cry for food every half hour then sleep without any for another six hours. This morning’s “hunger” does not predict this afternoon’s because her hunger has no pattern or shape yet … Her sleep is similarly formless; ten minute snatches through the night and a five hour stretch in the day till you nothing about how she will sleep tomorrow.
When I nap I open my mouth in my sleep just like she does and for a minute my confused brain thinks I am the baby. I think of how my own mother held me and I am desperately sad that now I have the real responsibility of someone else’s life, that I cannot just fuck it all off and get on a train and go to Oxford and lie my head on my mother’s lap. I cannot ever do this again. During one of the many hours when she sleeps on me, I see a coach going past the window to London Victoria, and an urgent part of me longs to get on it, alone, and from there somewhere far, far away. Perhaps to wander some backstreet of Venice or take a yoga class and go for coffee with my phone turned off, not answerable to anyone, but I guess I can never really be alone again. How thrilling and how terrible. To long to be away and to know how unbearable it would be too – what an awful, tender corner we have backed ourselves into.
Then one day we get her in the sling and she sleeps peacefully and we go to the PUB. One morning I sit with her while she is in her bouncy chair, looking happily at me with her bright eyes. One evening I rock her and sing to her in the garden and she actually stops crying.
If you can let it, your body will start loving the baby for you even before she is properly a person. Whatever your mind and the deeply entrenched habits of your previous life may be telling you, your body is ready and waiting for her. Your skin thrills to hers. Her small frame fits perfectly against your belly, breast and shoulder.
She has fat little arms and fat little legs. She sleeps like a frog on our chests, clambering upwards if she slips too far down, and we kiss her soft head. When she is two weeks old I have a massage in the same room where she was born and I realise that I have walked into this room every day since her birth and have not once reflected on that fact. Nor I have I remembered how much we wanted her, how much we dreamed of her for 9 months. Or thought how lucky we are that she is safely here and so beautiful to us.
As I come to try and write the “truth” down, I realise that this truth changes every day, minute to minute, and that perhaps this is why people don’t tell you it – because it constantly slips out of grasp.
In these days I will keep thinking of a letter written in to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar agony aunt column where the writer asks “WTF?” about their life. I will try to make myself remember her response:
The fuck is yours … That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
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“Gestation: the period of development in the uterus from conception until birth” – Oxford English Dictionary
“It could happen from any time now!” – everyone
The midwife has come to the house and is listening to the baby’s heart. Through the monitor it sounds like this: wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow, and I do not know if I will ever have a more favourite sound than this fast rushing stream. It is an old-fashioned moment: I am lying on the sofa while the midwife takes my blood pressure and checks the baby and Adam gets to listen to her through this old wooden trumpet shaped thing that looks as rudimentary as the tape measure they use to measure your abdomen. The sun comes in at the window and I know I will always remember this moment, so despite how clichéd it is I could weep. I do weep, frequently, these days. The culprits include strangers who smile kindly at me. Baby animals. Manipulative TV shows. I was always overly sentimental but at times I think oh come on! This will get worse, I know.
I am 39 weeks pregnant with our first baby. The uncertainty around exactly when and how she will arrive is mostly fine and at times unbearable. I am on maternity leave and all I do is sleep and re-pack my hospital bag and read my books about birth and do some cooking “for the freezer”, just like they do in the movies. It is lovely, and I am happy and mostly not too anxious and I know there is a thunderbolt coming and that there is nothing I can do about it.
Most nights I get up at 4 or 5am, starving, and eat a bowl of cereal and look at my bleary-eyed reflection in the hall mirror on the way back to bed. For the rest of the night I have the deepest, quietest of sleeps, as if my body is being kind because it knows what’s coming. In this last week my face has got fat and I care a little bit but not that much. I think maybe once I was an object of desire for a small, niche demographic of humans but I feel very far from that now. This is ok, I think. I waddle and I look like I am carrying a beach ball under my t-shirt. This bump is a perfect globe, one that makes me head to the loo eight times a night.
It seems like a long time ago when I peed on a stick on an October night and the result was POSITIVE then we lay on the bed, not embracing, not saying anything (except fuuuuuuuuuuck in our heads), until we dropped off to sleep. Any period where the seasons change three whole times feels like a long time. Now that era is nearly over and soon she will be here. Adam hasn’t got much work on at the moment so gloriously, we are together a lot, and I cannot resist announcing the significance of each moment – this could be the last time we go to the cinema with just the two of us! This could be the last meal we have out before we are parents! She could come today! She could come tomorrow! I say these things a lot but I cannot fully take them in. We wake up in the morning and it is just me and him, it has been this way for 6 years, it has been everything. From now on we will watch things reshape.
He takes a picture of me outside in a garden with this ridiculous bump and we know we will look back at the photo from the future and remember this moment fuelled with all its meaning and imbue it with even more. I have photos of my mum, pregnant with me, that are the same. I have photos of us all, as a family. We are living in the middle of what people call a special time. It turns out I don’t care very much about being original. It turns out I want what most people want. That the things that are meaningful for most people are also the things that are meaningful for me.
At the last scan (unless the baby is overdue, this was the last time I would see her until I see her) I felt more entranced than ever at this wondrous biology, at her gorgeous spine, at her perfect heart. I do not know why people need religion: nothing is more weird than the fact that humans and other animals grow their own offspring inside them, nothing is more strange and spectacular. Nowadays, I talk to her a lot and already I love her. Already everything is changed.
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“Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and this one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”
– Charles Baudelaire
- Contemporary central Vesterbro apartment
- Casa do Largo – 2 br Alfama Castelo in Lisbon
- A beautiful place to stay in Biddenden
When I was 20 I’d arranged to leave a big group of friends holidaying in a villa near Granada, Spain to join some other friends from university for the remainder of their month-long trip around Europe. The first part of the holiday was a dream group scenario: people fitting happily into either do-ers or lie-ers by the pool, lots of great food and wine and silliness and a roaring fire at night in a compound-style casa with old walls and an olive grove down the hill. We played games and sang songs loudly and I lay on a rock too late with a charming man who was not my boyfriend and crept to bed in the early hours of the morning, feeling just on the side of that being ok.
The time came to leave them and I got a lift then a bus to a wrong place then a right place and finally met up with the girlfriends I was due to travel with. We saw an old church and had a meal and stayed in a quaint B&B. Immediately it was clear that I had made the wrong decision. I did not want to be there. I did not want to travel around Europe for a month. In the toilet of a bar I tried to choke down the boredom and alarm of a panic attack. The next morning I told them it was not going to work out. I remember a few sympathetic faces and a few blank with incomprehension, the kind that make you feel infinitely lonely. (Since then I have not worried myself about people who don’t have enough imagination to empathise with the full, mad gamut of human neuroses. These neuroses are like multiple wriggling newborns; they are so alive.)
By the evening I was back at the villa. Everyone was very kind, one of the boys nailing that combination of teasing and compassion that allows those kind of boys to speak of Complex Things. “See,” he said. “I told you it wasn’t safe to leave the compound.”
My history is one of not wanting to leave the compound. I have begged to come back from holidays early, then come back from holidays early, stuck out holidays by counting down the days and generally wished even the best holidays were at least 1-2 days shorter. Nearly everywhere I have ever gone, even if the trip was by my standards a relative success, I have felt some of these feelings regularly, sometimes frequently: an acute sense of dread about “something bad happening”; hypochondria, usually related to sunstroke or food poisoning; fear of some kind of accident occurring or something preventing me from getting home as planned, like missing a flight or losing a passport; mighty tear-stained meltdowns precipitated by my frustration about these feelings; a terrible sense of being sick of myself; relief when I get home because I’ve “made it through” without anything awful happening.
Certain things make it easier: going somewhere with bigger groups of friends or family, going somewhere familiar, not going too far, not going for too long. There are exceptions to the rule – America (a bigger version of Britain) is further but much easier than North Africa. 10 days somewhere familiar can be less problematic than 5 more exotic. I seem to forget every time that this will be part of most trips, and each time feel surprised – oh it’s me again, this me. Alain de Botton observed this in The Art of Travel – we forget the person we always have to travel with, ourselves, as well as the difference between anticipating and actually going somewhere.
This gap between states is the paradox – coexisting with this anxiety I have huge, regular cravings for a “change of scene” which leads me to frequently plan holidays, usually when I see pictures that tell a certain story, even if it is not exactly the truth.I consistently forget that the reality of this change of scene might not be quite what I thought it would.
There are some places where I have felt an amazing sense of peace and calm, as I imagine you are supposed to feel on holiday:
Now I am seven months pregnant and our new flat is just starting to look like our home and it’s spring and I don’t want to go anywhere. I do not want to go to South Africa or Sri Lanka or India. I do not want to have dinner on the beach in Maui and I do not want to walk the Great Wall of China or travel on the Trans Siberian Railway. It seems like everyone else dreams of these things and other people’s decisions to do these things are immediately accepted as impressive and positive. The truth is that going to places just does not – usually – contain the truth I think it will. Its truth is messier, and for now I am done with it and I am done with trying to fix myself into a certain type of person, am done with apologising to myself. Like a stubborn alcoholic too fond of their fun, booze-addled persona, I have started to question how much I believe in self-improvement anyway – the unquestioning kind where we blindly put all our efforts into change, into creating the best possible versions of ourselves. To fight against our natures in this way takes a huge amount of effort and self-wrangling and instead I could be reading books or helping old ladies across the road or encouraging my future daughter to be a feminist.
I no longer care about being the intrepid type of traveller that I longed to be when I was younger, partly because it is hilariously over-ambitious and also because that person was tied up with how I wanted others to perceive me, and I mind much less about that as a 32 year old than a 19 year old. These people are so fundamentally different from me in almost every way, in terms of traits and values – I know that now – that wishing to be like that would mean wishing myself away entirely.
For now, I choose my life. I choose holidays in Derbyshire. I choose rainy disappointment and getting stuck on the M25. And then coming home.
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I have been thinking about how it is almost impossible to convey anything about your life without it doing some small violence to other people. Nowhere is this more evident than pregnancy, birth or motherhood, where saying or writing things as factual as “I didn’t have any drugs during birth”, “the birth was actually ok”, “my baby sleeps all through the night” can easily wreak havoc on someone’s self-esteem or self-confidence.
I am sensitive. We are all so sensitive. There are degrees of violence and intention – for a lot of the time people don’t intend to cause harm, and indeed lots of people are very careful to speak carefully or to stipulate that this is only the case for them, that for others it will be different. The worst is of course when someone tries to make you feel bad, or responds to something you have said to make it about them. This is terrible theft, and I know I’ve done it myself. So often we should just listen, it is the graceful and generous thing to do, but instead we say oh dear, sounds like you had a tiring night, I was up with the baby from 3am so I’m pretty tired too! And the other person’s space to speak and be heard is all gone, we’ve filled its place with ourselves. We feel like we had to say it, it was bursting out of us because we all need and want to be heard, but of course usually we don’t have to say it.
There’s a bit in my pregnancy yoga class where the teacher gets you to shake your arms and hands and legs to help let go of all the comments and unrequested “advice” because, as she says, “I will do exactly as I like anyway.” I have been very lucky overall and not had to put up with much of this compared to other people I know, but small things have got to me – advice not to have a home birth, certain comments on how “small” and “neat” my bump is (most of the time I don’t mind at all, and these are so well-intentioned! But once or twice I have only heard “inadequate”!) and, perhaps worst of all, the doom-mongering: enjoy lie-ins while you can, enjoy quality time with your partner while you can, enjoy going to the cinema or sleeping for more than 3 hours in a row or ever reading a book again for the next 5-18 years while you can. Even if this sentiment has a good degree of truth, it denies the fact that we are adults who will do our best to organise our time in the way it works for us, albeit under much more challenging circumstances, and it is so much more about the people saying it than the future of the parents-to-be. It is competitive anti-bragging – I am more tired, my life is harder than yours.
I can only conclude that we have got to this point by creating an industry around motherhood (and other factors too – we don’t bring up babies in true communities any more and are often alone with our anxieties). This is of course a double-edged sword – all the things written and spoken on the subject do serve to educate us to make our own choices. My mum said the other day how strange it was to think of all the women in the world giving birth to two, five, ten babies, doing this quietly, in war zones and refugee camps, coping without baby blogs and Baby Bjorns and baby yoga classes and NCT classes. We have it ostensibly easier with all these things, and yet all the chatter makes us go a bit mad. The internet is a relentless skewed showcase of other people’s lives and those other lives make us feel so bad, even though for the most part they have exactly nothing to do with ours.
This time in my pregnancy is very happy and mostly physically comfortable (I know by saying that I may inevitably be making someone else feel bad or sad!) compared to the first awful bit and hearing these kind of comments infiltrates this time and make it less perfect. It is a finite time, I am very aware of it, but it’s mine and I want to protect it. I know it is my responsibility to make this happen too, to avoid reading certain things or to say to people “I would rather not talk about that thanks”, because other people have a right to speak and be heard too. There are just generous and not so generous ways of speaking.
AndI know I am one of those women who is going to need to write in detail about the exact textures of extreme sleep deprivation and exhaustion and publish it on this blog, and therefore possibly and inadvertently make someone else feel terrified, and of course that is ok too.
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It’s freezing and dark and we’re all sick of it: thank goodness for other lives in the dead of winter. I’ve just finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which has paragraphs like:
When the ceremony was over we drove to the lodge at Pebble Beach. There were little things to eat, champagne, a terrace that opened onto the Pacific, very simple. By way of a honeymoon we spent a few nights in a bungalow at the San Ysidro Ranch at Montecito and, bored, fled to the Beverley Hills Hotel.
The rented wreck of a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. The votive candles on the sills of the big windows in the living room. The thé dé limon grass and aloe that grew by the kitchen door. The rats that ate the avocados. The sun porch on which I worked.
John would wait until I came uptown at 11 or so to have dinner with me. We would walk to Coco Pazzo on those hot July nights and split an order of pasta and a salad at one of the little unreserved tables in the bar.
At this time of year it feels entirely impossible for me to believe that it will ever be warm and light again, and impossible not to continually imagine life being like that once more. If it gets bad I start to Google things like “English summer day” or “Big Sur” or “Japanese spring blossom”. Joan Didion made me want to re-read Elizabeth Smart’s At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for bringing California alive (out of everywhere I have been, nowhere beats California for nature and there is nowhere I dream of more in the winter):
The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives … Round the doorways double-size flowers grow without encouragement: lilies, nasturtiums in a bank down to the creek, roses, geraniums, fuchsias, bleeding-hearts, hydrangeas. The sea booms. The stream rushes loudly.
So many of our emotions are a result of a failure of our imagination or recall. We forget so quickly what has been. I have been pregnant for four months and already the things I no longer do feel like things I never did. When I walk up Charlotte Street at lunchtime and see people standing outside with pints and glasses of wine I just cannot believe that was ever me, I almost cannot believe that anyone does that. It seems delicious and decadent and outrageous and somehow not true. Like I do know that I definitely spent a fair few nights of my life holed up in London pubs on winter nights, the kind of night where you have nowhere to be and nothing to do except what you’re doing, and no adverse consequences than a lighter wallet and a heavier head the next morning. But it seems whole countries away, tucked into the past, like looking through a window at someone else’s life.
This is also the case for: sharing a bottle of white wine in the park after work in the summer. Evenings after work when I used to pop to Topshop and nail a whole wardrobe’s shopping in one hour and not feel guilty. “Getting ready” to “go out on a Saturday night” with a girlfriend and more white wine. And for the tiny pieces of underwear that I found in a drawer recently that were like postage stamps in my palm that I used to 1. fit into 2. want to fit into. Who was this person? Has she gone forever?
Now I am sitting on the sofa and I am 32 and our baby is hiccuping inside me. This physical experience is amazing and a bit irritating and thoroughly unbelievable to me.
In the same way that the past is hard to grasp, the future is impossible (and probably futile) to truly imagine. When you find out you’re going to be a parent of course you spend a good deal of time imagining how this might feel, and the books try and tell you and a million people will try and tell you and the really good writers try and explain it because, as Eva Wiseman wrote recently:
I thought I wouldn’t write about this, about babies and birth, but I can‘t not, because right now at least it is absolutely everything.
About the imagined worst bits I collect whole sentences, as if by considering it hard enough I can at least mitigate the element of surprise:
Eva Wiseman: “the crippling, furious, white-faced exhaustion that comes from being awake for three days and three nights, some of those in a room where the lights never went out … that exhaustion that you can almost chew on.”
Esther Walker: “I am one of those people who became down in the dumps about having a baby for no earthly reason other than I just found it, frequently, exhausting and dreadful.”
Rachel Cusk: “At its worst moments parenthood does indeed resemble hell, in the sense that its torments are never-ending, that its obligations correspond inversely to the desires of the obliged, that its drama is conducted in full view of the heaven of freedom; a heaven that is often passionately yearned for, a heaven from which the parent has been cast out, usually of his or her own volition.”
And the better bits:
Cheryl Strayed: “There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched.”
Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Anne Enright: “It is better here, and more difficult.”
I wonder if one day I will think that these are all true for me or partly true for me or some more true than others. Joan Didion was talking about death when she wrote “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” and I guess it is true for birth as well. But somewhere in California there is a jacaranda tree and a eucalyptus tree and Elizabeth Smart’s cathedral redwoods, and spring will break and whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen.
I have been terrified (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I have been euphoric (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I imagine life will have a lot more of that to show me. I am 20 weeks pregnant now, and part of me wishes I could press pause and be in this moment a while longer, getting ready for our little girl. I think that in 10-15 weeks I won’t want to press pause anymore; I will be thinking ok, out with you now baby, and your hiccups and your elbows and your knees. Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Filed under: parenthood, pregnancy | 3 Comments
I am 13 weeks pregnant, it is winter, it has been the strangest three months of my life. Winter is always partly like being asleep. When I look back at the last weeks, I think I was there, I can remember most of it, but it feels more like someone else is describing it to me.
We moved house, to a new area of London, more strangeness; dislocation is always strange. Leaving the new house in the dark in the morning, coming back in the dark at night, peering at this new place where you will spend your life. Even the daytimes we had here in the first week seem to have been in the dark.
At home, when home was in Hackney, early on in morning sickness, when I was terrified by it and uncertain of how it was possible to get through the next two months, the first cathartic weep I had was at this from the introduction to Anne Enright’s Making Babies:
“I wanted to say something about the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out.”
The sense of relief that someone was talking about dying was overwhelming, I don’t know why, perhaps because feeling very ill induces grand statements in us – I’m going to die! when we’re lying on the bathroom floor after a bad prawn cocktail, when what we really mean is please, please let me die. Not forever, of course. Just let me die for now. I felt thrown and cheated that no one told me it would be this bad, when of course they had, I just hadn’t been able to listen, my imagination hadn’t been big enough to hold it.
And the oddness, the oddness. About 8 weeks in I tried to connect the images on my pregnancy app to what was lying in the silent, watery dark inside me, but it was impossible. Your baby is the size of a poppy seed. Your baby is the size of a raspberry. Neither could I connect to what I knew was my happiness that we were going to have a baby and that didn’t really worry me, I knew it was because I was trying not to throw up on a train full of people and because I would spend the day trying to get through 8 hours of not throwing up over anyone in my office, then when I got home I would try and eat something and cry over a sad dog on the telly then collapse into bed and the next day it would start again.
At the time I felt like I needed concrete reasons for why I had opted for this – volunteered for this – but of course, our reasons for wanting children are generally nebulous, gooey, irrational perhaps. Having children, from what I understand, is one of those hardest, best, worst, most difficult, most wonderful thing you ever do experiences, so perhaps it always feels slightly odd to elect for it. And pregnancy and birth, the relatively common physical or mental health complications or issues that come from it – for example the women who have severe morning sickness and vomit up to 50 times a day for 9 months and then do it all again for a second child! and a third! – do we do it because it’s worth it? Is it because we forget? Is it because we are mad? Is it because we love each other, because we want to make versions of ourselves, because we want to fall in love again, because we adore gorgeous babies, because we only get one life and we want to create something in it, because it is most bizarre, biological normality-that-feels-miraculous?
Over those 3 months I did not manage to apply the things I’ve “learned” – for example, to use mindfulness, or what yoga has taught me, to get through. I didn’t write a word, except for work emails. In this way I sort of failed, I’m not saying that to beat myself up, I just mean this is how I know I can improve when it comes to the kind of well-intentioned, strong life I would like to live (on a practical note, what it means is trying to do yoga every day – even for 5 minutes! Even when life is hard! – and writing things down when they are difficult.) Instead I relied on Adam, and others around me (both Kates, mum, dad, other friends and people who were kind at work and by email and text). I almost completely relied on Adam, physically and emotionally. I didn’t get myself through it, he got me through it.
I felt so negged out by the world (not depressed, just down). Winter doesn’t help. We did this positive thinking seminar at work and at the time it was actually very useful, it was all the obvious stuff but very well approached – there are things around you that you can’t control, all you can control is your reaction to it, and so on – and every time I think about this I conclude that you may as well be happy, you may as well see the good in stuff because there just isn’t any point to not. In this extraordinary piece of writing there is an extraordinary quote from someone called Franco Beradi:
“Depression can’t be reduced to the psychological field. It questions the very foundation of being … Faced with the abyss of non-sense, friends talk to friends, and together they build a bridge over the abyss. Depression questions the reliability of this bridge. Depression doesn’t see the bridge. It falls off its radar. Or maybe it sees that the bridge does not exist … If we consider depression the suspension of the sharing of time, as an awakening to a senseless world, then we have to admit that, philosophically speaking, depression is simply the moment that comes closest to truth.”
In eastern traditions, the wise women and men are called enlightened; the argument is that they are more wise because they have found some truth by shedding off all the peripheral rubbish, by stripping back, by simplifying down and down until you get to some bare reality. Are they right or are the melancholic right? Or do they see the same truth and draw different conclusions from it?
It’s winter, and I don’t know if there’s a bridge. I don’t know if the world is more beautiful than terrible, and maybe there is some kind of blindness, a denial in finding peace in it, but I’m not sure that it matters. Winter is hard, and a few weeks ago I saw my baby on the screen during the scan and he or she swirled around faster than I could have imagined and her/his heart beat so fast! Me and Adam stared at the screen, our mouths were wide open. There was where my joy had been hiding for these months, there is the baby, our baby. I think we all just want to be happy. I guess we may as well be allowed to try.
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At a conference recently I saw a presentation by a man who spoke with no notes for 45 minutes over a series of pre-recorded sounds. He had to tailor his talk around the noise, knowing what would come next, fitting his words into the time allotted by the previous sound – the coo of a mother talking to a baby, the dawn chorus, the pop and fizz of a bottle top coming loose and the liquid busting out of it – before the next one arrived. You could call it a soundscape, the visual equivalent being a series of images, of landscapes in the loosest sense, flashing on a screen and making you feel things.
When I was young I went to a museum on a school trip where there was a reconstruction of World War I trenches. The light aimed at twilight and you could smell the fusty scent of a museum trying to evoke damp and a hint of decaying bodies (but not enough to make schoolchildren gag). And it had the recorded sound of muffled gunfire and shouts and the odd scream to allow you to imagine a modicum of what it might be like to be fighting in trenches in France in 1918. But of course it only felt a bit like that, it mostly felt like you, a school girl in the 90s, imagining what it might be like to be a man fighting in the trenches in France in 1918.
In meditation they’ll tell you that to clear your mind of noise, all you need to focus is on the fact that you’re breathing in, and then breathing out. Sometimes it feels refreshing to gently remind yourself that you’re walking down the road, that it’s Thursday in London in August, that you’re 32. In the last few days instead of looking or thinking I’ve listened, and the effect is similarly, peculiarly calming. Listening to all the city sounds around me, all the time – the soar and sink of cars passing, the wail of an ambulance, the snippets of conversation from the people on the bus – curiously detaches you from other forms of noise. It gives a perspective on all the scenes of your day, as if you’re watching a beautifully dull, real-time art-house film about your life.
One place I walked with my ears open was Fitzroy Square in my lunch hour, strolling the streets of Bloomsbury and thinking of Virginia Woolf doing the same thing a hundred years ago. She lived on that square for a while, and I have never been able to walk around that literary stretch of London without her in the centre of my mind. I’ve thought about her a lot recently after seeing a National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition about her and reading Alexandra Harris’s (brilliant and very accessible ) biography of her. Reading about her and reading her again I marvel at her sense of story, entirely new, her confidence that there is the capacity for drama in everything, her ability to listen and drop sounds onto the page in endlessly interesting ways.
“One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
Sitting in front of the house she had lived in, on a bench, I listened to the sounds around me, just waited and listened on Fitzroy Square, to the engines and the conversations and the wind. The weather was about to turn, just like the weekend before when my family and I sat in the garden until the sky turned entirely black in seconds and forced every object to turn several shades darker and sent a sheet of rain hurtling across the garden to meet us.
There is the capacity for drama in everything.
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