I brought my daughter into the world through a haze of what felt like the most intense, on-going agony I had ever known. An experience of childbirth which over the course of 36 hours felt, to me, like a kind of breaking away of the self—a death of some sort of a previous reality.
After four months of essentially lying around eating, picking out cute cushions and counting down to my maternity leave, this pain caught me ridiculously off-guard and shook me awake again. Just as well. I subsequently understood why you never really tell another mother-to-be just how much it hurts. A kind of ancient unspoken rule of protection.
I look back now on the significance of my well-seasoned midwife’s strangely philosophical response as I looked up at her and asked her if anything could be given to ease this, even for just a moment—“that’s why they call it labor, anyway it’s too late now”. The truth that the outcome of this would be worth it and that this process was only temporary gave some comfort. So within that haze, I realized, rather like my daughter, that the only way out of this was through.
THE TRUTH THAT THE OUTCOME OF THIS WOULD BE WORTH IT AND THAT THIS PROCESS WAS ONLY TEMPORARY GAVE SOME COMFORT. SO WITHIN THAT HAZE, I REALIZED, RATHER LIKE MY DAUGHTER, THAT THE ONLY WAY OUT OF THIS WAS THROUGH.
In the early weeks of Motherhood it is hard to tell where you end and they begin. Your baby’s cry is a hotline to a primal, reptilian part of your brain which signals, in my case at that time, a kind of perverse obsession to make it right for them. The quelling of their pain or discomfort becomes a military mission. It signifies the beginning of a lifelong relationship you will have with your child, well beyond the point where they are just a pod in need of milk or a cuddle or a changed nappy.
Food, fluid and contact may work to stop their cries, but often babies seem to suffer what for looks like no good reason. A sense of helplessness rises up within you in not why.
In reflection what I learnt is that you never really know. It may have felt like I did in these early months of routine. I’d certainly feel very self-satisfied when I had her to sleep early and through the night, eating well and rarely crying. But who knows what reality was like for her then, or if there was actually anything fabulous I was doing to help her be so content. As mothers, we often talk ourselves in and out of the fact that we are doing well and our child’s behavior and health is convergent on that. Is it really true?
In the rush of mother and baby groups I attended in the early months with the desperation of a self-imposed prisoner needing to get out for adult company, I noticed the quiet, non-crying babies were the prized possession. Goal number one was to convince others of your baby’s contentment and that they slept through the night, then you could fiddle with playdough in ease.
Pushing my little bundle around shopping centers and parks for hours while I sipped a hot latté became my new guilty pleasure. I loved getting out into the air, watching the sky and trees. I felt my thigh muscles returning as I’d push the pram uphill. I would get mini makeovers at the counters while she slept. I would be asked “Is she good?” dozens of times a day and I never knew how to respond. I surmised this question possibly meant: “Does she cry?” “Are you ok?” “Is this hard?” “Are you happy?” The simplicity of “happy mother, happy baby” belies a kind of existential truth. Our children are a reflection of us, therefore if others see them unhappy, in pain, or suffering we feel guilty and judged. It is very hard to accept that our child’s physical or emotional pain belongs to them and is not significantly connected to you. At what point does a child you brought into the world become accountable for their mistakes and responsible for their own pain?
Over the years, as she grew, my relationship with my daughter blossomed. I said goodbye happily to the baby stage and welcomed the deeper communication a child becoming more verbal by the day brings.
The start of school triggers a new world of fears; letting go of them into the unknown. The possibility of rejection and isolation in friendships, the pressure of academic attainment. I felt a sense of dread and fear again and considered home schooling for all the wrong reasons. This was the first time I truly felt a panic at the thought of not seeing her, and that she would change and be shaped by an institution with ideals and values that didn’t fit my own. It seems irrational now, looking back.
Could this be because of bad memories formed in my own childhood?
We have no memories of needing milk in the first few days of birth but we can recollect the first time we were left out of something or felt sad at school, this presents a ramped-up sense of identification when we witness our children confronting this inevitability.
WE VIEW OUR CHILDREN THROUGH THE LENS OF OUR OWN CHILDHOOD AND IT’S A PRISM—IT CAN’T ACTUALLY BE MADE RIGHT THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE, EVEN IF THEY ARE OUR FLESH AND BLOOD.
I’ve witnessed the most stoic, high-powered, professional women be reduced to wrecks over the fact that their child wasn’t invited to a large party. We are there again, in the schoolyard having been left out and it hurts, it hurts a lot. We keep the memories of childhood locked away, fossilized by adulthood and beneath the veneer of our day-to-day lives. But when your child comes home rejected it’s a raw, open nerve and in a flash you’re eight again. Do we see too much of ourselves? Do we transpose the reality of what actually happens to our children with the past dreams of what happened to us? We view our children through the lens of our own childhood and it’s a prism—it can’t actually be made right through someone else, even if they are our flesh and blood. On the cusp of the teen years as I am now with my daughter, I feel her need to push me away more; her need for privacy, the sanctity of her bedroom. The changes in her body and mind met with solemn awareness. The dance of the personal and political. It is so hard to walk the tightrope of giving advice and patronizing, of giving freedom yet overprotecting.
Parenting my daughter is a paradox of knowing she can only learn through hardship yet wanting to buffer every fall in life and absorb her pain instinctively. It hasn’t come to any logical conclusion. It remains a kind of dance.
Through her I am forced to confront myself; to re-awaken my past pain and re-live experiences, telling myself along the way I’m re-writing a narrative and constructing a life to go “right” where mine went wrong. Somewhere deep down the futility of this rises up to bite me, and I become aware that she is very much her own person, I’m just looking after her for a while. I silently promise her to do my best.