I have an ongoing (and desperately boring) problem with my back, which involves an unstable sacro-illiac joint and a lot of pain. I spend far too much time with a thankfully particularly lovely McTimoney chiropractor. Whilst I would never wish a back problem on anyone, there is – I assure you- an unexpected upside to the experience and it is that when i go and see her, I get to be looked after by someone else for a change. Its only half an hour, and obviously I am paying for the privilege, but it’s a crazy fact of mothering that it involves such relentless and unrivalled nurturing of other people on such a constant basis, that to be nurtured yourself can actually feel like a genuine luxury. It’s not quite as tragic as the Japanese cuddle cafes (what does that say about our lonely, individualistic society?) but its not far off.
On Saturday I woke up to discover my back worse than usual. It was clear by about 8.30 that I was not going to be able to just grimace and get through the weekend with a dose of stoicism and a couple of ibuprofen. Luckily, Nicola could see me that morning, so I wrenched the boys away from cartoons and the preteen out of her onesie and our family outing became a trip to fix mum’s back. Understandably no one seemed that excited. Secretly, I was quietly lamenting that my half hour of being put back together was going to be punctuated by an irritating cacophony of ‘I’m bored’, ‘Are there any snacks?’ ‘Why did we have to come?’ and the insistent sound of the massage chair being started and stopped.
But this time, I suggested they stay in the waiting room.
‘They will be all right, wont they?’ Nicola asked me.
‘Of course they will’ I said, as I skipped (actually hobbled but mentally I was skipping) through the door before they could follow me.
Now to anyone who has not got children, this will not feel remarkable nor worthy of note. You’d be forgiven for asking why on earth I am boring you with such irrelevant detail. Except that after having three children spread out over now thirteen years, and having needed to have at least an eye on them if not be completely surgically attached to them for all or part of that time, that I can now leave them alone for a full half hour, with little more than faith that they will entertain themselves and not need me, is HUGE.
‘It gets easier, doesn’t it?’ Nicola said to me knowingly (she is the mother of four grown up boys) as we sat down without them.
‘It does’ I replied.
And here is the thing, IT REALLY DOES. it doesn’t get easy, but it gets easier.
Yes, as their physical needs diminish, their emotional ones grow and without doubt it is still hard work at times, often gruelling, in wholly different ways, but the truth is, its those early years of mothering that are the ones that drain us of our every resource and put us under so much pressure that at times we feel we just might crack.
The truth is that small children need all of your attention all of the time. Idle parent philosophies are wonderful- this blog will end up littered with them I have no doubt- but they simply can not be applied to the parents of babies, whose needs are continuous and fierce or toddlers, who in the hands of an idle parent would without doubt end up somewhere perilous before anyone’s had the time to finish their tea. (I had a friend around the other day with a toddler who, whilst we were busy chatting away, somehow managed to fall into an empty laundry basket in the back loo and was stuck there for a full half hour. It was hardly perilous, but I am not sure she found it that much fun.) None of the early child-rearing is rocket science- although you’d be forgiven for thinking that PHD was a genuine requirement for getting a baby to sleep through the night, it so elusive, but it all so constant. Being needed, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is exhausting. So them growing up a little bit, and you becoming less needed, can feel like a revelation.
But there is also another, often wholly overlooked, reason why it all gets easier, and that is much more to do with us than with them. And that is the fact that in those early days, we don’t just feel like we might crack, we do crack. We have to.
To say as a society we are unprepared for parenthood is a huge understatement. As Penelope Leach says, ‘bringing up children is probably the most difficult task people undertake, yet our society offers less preparation for it than for anything else’. We get more guidance on how to raise a dog than we do a child. There are no courses, degrees or apprenticeships in motherhood- we really have no choice but to learn on the job. In some ways this is a great leveler. No matter what you have done previously, how you fared through education, or which lofty heights you might have flown to in your career, you are literally thrown back to the start line with the birth of your first child, and expected to undertake an impossible obstacle course with no map. As Alice, founder of The Mother Movement in Australia says, its a bit like asking all men aged 30- regardless of their qualifications, previous experience or ambition -to all become accountants.
Some mothers take to the experience like the proverbial duck to water, whilst others find it a huge anti-climax and wholly unfulfilling, and most ricochet to and from each extreme like a manic depressive, never having imagined they could so long for a shade of grey ( excusing that phrases’ other connotations!)
On the good days, there is the love that is so intense it is visceral, the time gloriously wasted trying to illicit the prized gummy smile and there is often an unexpected relief that comes with days that lack of structure and the license to come off the treadmill, but on the hard days – and you will have both, no doubt- its as though the ‘you’ that you have so carefully constructed through your teens and in all likelihood throughout all of your twenties is disappearing into the fog of sleep deprivation, the mounds of washing and the monotony of basic nurture. And its this loss of ability, this sense of being unqualified and having absolutely no sense of who you are anymore apart from an adjunct to someone else, that makes the whole experience so hard for so many. Its as though to become a mother, you have to give up every inch of the person you were before motherhood, as though you need broken to be reformed.
Transition, under any circumstances is not easy. As human beings we are often ill-equipt for change. And when the change is wholly surprising and on someone else’s terms, it can feel difficult, even painful. But in the process of becoming a mother, that adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is nothing if not true.
In my job I work with mothers or women who are becoming mothers all the time. I see first hand the lack of confidence that the majority of women have in their early pregnancies and in those early weeks and months of becoming a mother for the first time. I see otherwise forthright women, who are instead tentative, unsure and questioning. I see women grappling with sleep deprivation and the necessary muddle that is those early weeks and sometimes, I see them falling apart. But I also see what can only be described as an extraordinary process of metamorphosis in each and every one of them. Because as the days, weeks, months and then siblings roll by, these same women get more vocal, more sure of themselves, more confident in their ability- not necessarily to get it right but to at least muddle through. Only today I was speaking to a woman who was telling me about the magic of being the mother to a third child. ‘I don’t have any more answers this time around’, she said, ‘the difference is I don’t mind’.
In the process of their experience, these women (and that means all of us) are not just learning the tricks of the trade and developing the confidence to leave things undone but they are also –probably unwittingly- forging a whole new identity. Very often it is out of the ruins of their old one, and sometimes it can feel as though we have lost more than we have gained, but without doubt, women as mothers become bigger, stronger and better versions of their former selves. A bit like those Japanese earthenware pots, with their cracks filled with gold. And it is that; the new, more confident, more whole identity that we forge, not just as women but as women who are also mothers, that makes us more capable of handling the immensity of what it means to be a mother. And it is this, above all else, that makes it easier. Not easy, just easier.
‘There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’