The first place I ever lived


Here’s a little baby, one-two-three,
On his way to bed, what does he see?
He sees the landing mirror with its rainbow rim
And a mother with a baby
Just like him
He sees the bedroom door
The cot made ready
His father kissing him goodnight
His ball and his teddy.

– “Peepo”, Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Even when we are not in the same room, I think she is with me. I notice she has her own smell and I am surprised it is not the same as mine. When I close my eyes, I see her. I hallucinate her face in the wooden blinds, in the faces of the Queen, Dominic Cooper, Vince Vaughn, Yoda.

Time folds and unfolds like a concertina. We are knitted together, even though we are not combined physically anymore … Invisible spider threads pulse through the wall between us and I can hardly concentrate. I hover and follow them around the house and must tear myself away to work. Her whelps and squeals are siren calls, drawing me back. My cells are alert to only her. She is the queen of me. She runs me.

– “Longed-For Child”, Lucy Jones

Mothers are the countries we come from: sometimes when I hold my daughter I try to apprehend this belonging for her, to feel myself as solid and fixed, to capture my smell and shape and atmosphere. I try to flesh out her native landscape. I try to imagine what it would be like to have me as a mother, and when I do it seems remarkable to me that this mysterious and momentous transaction has been accomplished here, in my house. 

– “A Life’s Work”, Rachel Cusk

My daughter is laden with the joy of a child who is learning to speak, full of valiant efforts and malapropisms and sweet mispronounciations. I put on her new top (noo stop!) and she runs to the mirror (mia! mia!) to see herself, then hoots with joy and kisses the reflection repeatedly. First thing in the morning she cries out, out! to come out of her sleeping bag, mamma light!, socks! brr! An elephant is an uffalant. A blanket is a planket. We read books (the ‘uffalo? she asks, her head on one side), and I know exactly what she is going to say at any point, and when she says something new I translate her, because I grew her and have watched her growing for so many seconds and hours and days and nights.

I know nothing about children but everything about her. I understand all her contexts, all the things she did as a baby, or I think I do anyway. All the constant second-guessing of early parenthood, where you’re trying to understand their temperament or whether they’re hot or cold or tired or hungry or experiencing existential malaise, is clear now. I understand the baby who never wanted to be put down and who took gargantuan efforts to get to sleep, who wanted to sleep on us and who could cry forever if you left her alone in her cot. 

That baby leads in a neat line to my baby. At every nap and every night I lie with her until she’s asleep, and if I try and move before she’s fully out she laces her surprisingly vice-like grip around my neck and murmurs mumma and we lie, facing each other, holding each other. Every night she wants me to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” and I explain that that is not a sleepy song and instead I quietly recite Peepo, which I dutifully learned off by heart, until she is quiet and still. Periodically she stuffs her hand down my top and smooches her lips to kiss me on my cheek. 

For a long time I felt like a failure for not managing to “teach her to go to sleep on her own”, and I was frustrated and angry about the hours and hours of every week where I am lying with her instead of living my life

But this is my life. In the dark, I lie with her and think. Sometimes I get frustrated but I have accepted it as what is right for us, as all about the details of her and the details of me, and that this has not a single thing to do with anyone else. 

In the drowsy hours when she cries in the night and I go and lie with her, I see us as if I’m hovering above our bodies, as if we are sisters or twins but this word is not right, and I struggle to describe our closeness with a words until I think mother. I just did not know it would feel like this until now. I think of those wormholes in Donnie Darko, the transparent wavering loops connecting things together, even though no one can see them, as if it’s a secret no one told us and only she and I understand. 

In the garden she orders me to dig for worms (gig! gig! tiny verm!) and we go for long walks where I push an empty buggy and she pushes hers, full of items she has studiously collected: her soft toys, a Nectar card, her Meg and Mog collection and an empty Persil box. She walks next to me, understanding that she is a mirror of me, both of us with her buggies and her nearly beside herself with glee. She is full of the strange obsessions of toddlerhood: imaginary spiders she constantly points at, the scratches on her knee, things being hot or cold. Happy?, she asks anxiously, poking at her avocado. Sad, she decides, and drops it on the floor. The T-Rex in the British Museum is sad. Dave in Dogger, when he has lost Dogger and is bawling his eyes out, is happy.  She collects and sorts and removes and adds so that I pick up a bag and find a Chanel blusher, a rubber dinosaur, Meg and Mog go to the Moon, a shell and the back door key. 

She struggles with particular basic words but announciates Miss Hubbard, the jolly spinster from Postman Pat, like a BBC news anchor. She merrily waves goodbye to everything (bye bye poo!) and rotates her hand like she’s turning a door knob as she waves bye bye mumma in the morning. She goes to sleep murmuring every word and phrase she has ever learned, including saying goodnight to the four main Seinfeld characters.

She will be two in June. I wish I could bottle her. 

Sometimes she is sad when I go to work and cries pitcha mumma and Adam has to show her the picture of us I have by the bed, where she is 4 months old and laughing up at me and me down at her as I hold her. We look like we really love each other.  

The suggestion that you have to have children to live a life that feels meaningful and purposeful is ludicrous. But it is an easy shortcut to those things, which is perhaps why so many of us unoriginal people do what everyone else does and have babies. I used to have a regular listless “what is it all about” feeling, and she has cured me of that. I think it is gone forever. 

I know one day she will need me less but I can’t quite face thinking about it right now. I think we might have another baby at some point but I can’t even slightly bear the thought that she won’t get my exclusive mothering, or that we will be a different family, or that we wil have to shake things up in her world, even if it means more joy in the long run. Maybe when she is a bit bigger it will be easier to countanence. But I don’t know. My heart, the space around us fills up with feeling as if it will all burst, as if there is no room for anything else.  


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