Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Happy Birthday Mama

Happy birthday to my mama who would have been 66 today. She made this blue blazer herself, she was a talented seamstress. I have not inherited this talent in the least. I am not good with material pursuits. I get frustrated when I make my first mistake sewing and give up easily. I’m very unaware of my surroundings. I don’t remember faces well. 

I loved this blazer and we kept it when she died. I don’t have it any more. I kept her sunglasses too but at some point they broke or I lost them. A broken pair may be in a box somewhere. 

I don’t have any things that belonged to her or smell of her. I don’t often get to her grave, inconveniently far away from anywhere I’m ever likely to be in. I have only been a few times.
The more time passes the less I remember her, her voice, how she looked. 

For years after she died I felt like a mind lugging a body around, and that feeling never entirely went away. I live in my mind and easily become isolated and alienated from the physical world and people around me. Grieving as a developing teenager shaped my personality. 

It’s difficult parenting young children when you’re so uninterested in the physical world. Being that young is almost exclusively about engaging with the world. Toys, games, trees, things, things, things. I don’t like things too much because you can easily lose them so it’s best not to get too attached. 

But I can’t bring that to the table when I’m mothering. I have to be the vessel via which my children access reality. I have to name things, show things, give things, touch things, keep things, tidy, make, move, shape, point out. I can't.

My son took ages to start pointing. I never pointed at anything. It’s just stuff, here it is, all of it, whatever. It’s just stuff. Grief killed my ability to sense the point of living, and that feeling never fully went away. 

Children need a mother who doesn’t struggle existentially. It’s exhausting not having the personality for it. It’s exhausting needing hours to read and write every day in order to function as an average human. It’s exhausting knowing I’m not up to the task and turning up anyway. 

I wake up feeling stressed. I can’t say ‘good morning’ to my baby, I pick him up silently and warm up his milk. He whinges as I try to put him in the high chair. I put him on the floor instead - I can't make the milk and hold him at the same time and it's not 7am yet, I am tired.

He starts crying properly. I ignore it and think to myself, a normal mother would say something to him. She wouldn't be quite so successful at ignoring it. She would feel guiltier. She would say 'just a second,' she would use words like 'sweetheart.' 

I push down the lever on the kettle and wait for the sound of bubbles. I look at my phone to find some words. I love words. Immaterial, eternal, thought-provoking. Thoughts. If only I could be a thought. If only my children could know my thoughts without me having to speak them. 

It is tiring to speak. I'm an introvert, and mothers, I suspect, are a better fit for extroversion. Probably why there are more male introverts than female ones. Mothers have to be other-centric. They have to externalise, constantly. And the repetition. Repetition is key. It's also soul-destroying. 

My toddler has heard us. I hear the rumble of his feet add itself to the kettle's crescendo. He doesn't say good morning. He doesn't say mummy. He doesn't say anything much, he stands there and stares, sometimes smiles, sometimes babbles. That makes sense - I haven't been repeatedly greeting him, so why would he now greet me?

It's all my fault. I should say good morning to him now. 

'Good morning, did you sleep well?' someone says. 

Someone hugs him, kisses him on the cheek, as she has seen people do in adverts or films or perhaps as she remembers her own blur-faced mother doing, once upon a very very long time ago.

I want to leave. I want to be alone. I made a mistake.

can't, they need me like I need her. 

can't be better. I can't be mother enough. I can't talk beyond these awful efforts that amount to nothing. I can't repeat things more than twice. I am lazy or broken or both.

Happy birthday wherever you are, I hope it's a fun day today, I hope you are celebrating with whoever is with you instead of us. Happy birthday on this black day where I struggle to be anything other than miserable, anything other than subpar, anything beyond a mess. If you have made it, pray for me and for us. That we may make it through this ordeal. That I may bring myself to be cheerful and name the cars, the trees, the leaves, the colours, the shapes, the fabric of this cage. That the boys may survive my misery. That they may be stronger than I am, just like I am stronger than you were, when you left us so quickly, so early, so cowardly, all those years ago.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Reason Young Mothers Are Isolated

Since having children, my life is very restricted. No one without children understands what these restrictions entail. If you start to illustrate it, it sounds extremely boring. It sounds something like 'well my little prince sleeps from y time to z time so I need to be somewhere where he can sleep/eat/play/get his precious demands met at this hour and then somewhere where they can sleep/eat/play at this hour and this is really important and you should hear it.' I can feel people switching off when I start explaining, I just sound like 'blah blah blah my sweet angel and his all important needs blah blah my life is different now blah blah I can't just do whatever I want like you blah blah blah smug smug smug blah blah boring'

I feel all kinds of negative emotions about this. I feel like I sound like my life revolves around my child, like I'm coddling them, like I can't just relax and put my friendships first once in a while, like I can't just allow my child to be uncomfortable so that I can have coffee with a friend for a few minutes, like I can't just take them on a slightly longer tube journey, like I can't just make them sleep later or wake them up.

I can feel people thinking that I should just do things differently, so that I would have an easier time of it. Just get a babysitter or get my husband to help more or be stricter or more flexible.

Maybe it's all in my head, but when I talk to my other friends who are friends with people without children, they all share these same experiences.

'I had three kids in quick succession when I was 26. I was in survival mode. I couldn't go out that much. I was really tired. My friends treated me like I was being a moron. Just get a babysitter. You aren't making an effort with us. You've changed.'

'It makes me very sad but I have to keep a distance because their inconsiderate nature breaks my heart. Some of them haven't seen my son since last year. That's nuts - no loyalty. I'm not cool and trendy and I don't want to go an hour away from my house, so that's it.'

'When I spent my first night away from my breastfed child everyone was like "oh don't worry about it, not your problem now" and acting like I was being controlling over the kids when I was worrying.'

'Someone said how easy it must be for me to go to the spa because I can go any time of day and my daughter can just sit in her buggy. When I said that wouldn't be fair to her she looked confused and her boyfriend looked super condescending like "oh, look at you, treating your baby as more important than it is." The implication is if you were a better parent you would control them better, train them better like a dog. And also I always get the feeling that "if that was my kid I'd do it better."'

We are not very often around children as adults any more, since big families don't really exist so when our younger siblings are babies we are still children ourselves. So no one seems to be aware of what children are like until they have a child themselves.

The most important fact that you only become aware of once you have a child is as follows.

Until the age of about five, children start screaming pretty quickly if they don't get what they want. 

Seriously, they do.

They just start screaming. And it gets louder and more forceful.

And that is how you learn to know what they need and when they need it. Because if you don't learn it, you have a screaming child the whole time. And, often you can't give them what they need, so your life will involve screaming on a daily basis even if you are striving to meet your child's needs.

No, they are not spoiled. An older child can be told to wait. They can be told that what they want is not going to be given to them. And if they are well behaved, they will not scream. But that takes years. Before you have children, a two year old and a four year old are roughly the same. A 3 week old and a 3 month old are the same, give or take a few kilos. Once you have kids, you realise that much of what we think a 'child' is, is actually a pretty socialised child that is attending school. We have almost no idea what children and babies are like before that stage. Certainly no-one who isn't a parent has any idea how monumentally different a three week old is from a three month old, how difficult having a three week old is, and how much relief you feel in comparison with a three month old, especially a three month old who has learned to sleep on a surface other than your chest. Not only do they not know, they also don't care. The minutiae of child development is boring and irrelevant.

But it dominates any parent's life, not because they are obsessed with their child, but because they are obsessed with having a life that has a little screaming as possible.

But in order to get to that result, you will have several years of screaming. At first, all children scream. And it is through each parent's sacrifice as well as the passing of time that they get to a point where they understand that their whims are secondary a lot of the time, and that they have to wait or not get things they want. Learning that takes a lot of screaming being endured on the part of the parents, and a lot of conscious decisions of how and when you're going to endure the screaming so that the child learns that they cannot always get what they want. You're not going to choose a spa as the ideal setting for that, unless you're completely inconsiderate.

If you are a parent, and you're reasonably conscientious, you don't want to take the wider public on that journey with you. If you're outside, you're going to want your child not to be screaming. That doesn't just happen, it takes calculations, provisions, organisation, a plan B and a plan C, patience and work. That means you have to meticulously organise your life around your child's needs, whether you are the kind of parent who wants to or not. You're not doing it because you're smug about being a parent and you want to be the best parent in the universe or spoil your children. Some people probably are, but the vast majority are doing it our of a survival instinct not to have every single day of their life filled with screaming.

You have to make sure your children are getting what they want and need at any given moment, and that if they are not, you have a strict time limit on how long they will go without. That means you have to be prepared. They may want to run - that means you can't be in the middle of Euston Road at a time when they are reasonably likely to want to run, because if you are, and you don't want them to run into traffic, the only solution will be to tell them that no they cannot run right now - cue screaming.

This is the difference between people with children and people without. They think that screaming only happens when there's something seriously wrong, all that all screaming children can be soothed with a cookie. No - not if they don't want a cookie at that particular moment. They are tyrants and they are unreasonable. And not to subject others to that isn't spoiling your children - the time to teach them not to be tyrants, to learn how to be reasonable (a long and arduous process) is not in a nice coffee shop surrounded by freelancers and people trying to have a nice conversation. So when you're taking your kids out, you anticipate their needs and give them what they want, within reason. That rules out all kinds of activities. It rules out long journeys that don't end with grass or swings or both if you have a crawler and a toddler. It rules out lunches in places without high chairs. It rules out lunch that isn't followed by a playground or a park or soft play. It rules out being outside after 5.30pm. It rules out 99% of stuff you would jump at the chance to do if you didn't have kids. And the frustrating thing for young mothers today is that nobody cares about that sacrifice, not even your friends, until they undergo it themselves.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

How Letting Go of Control Helped Me Enjoy Motherhood

My brothers were 17 and 11 years old when I was born. I was pretty lonely as a child whenever I wasn’t at school or at a friend’s house so I always hoped if I had more than one child they’d be close together. 

I wanted a sibling for Francis as soon as he was born, and the desire only grew as the months passed. And yet when I found out I was pregnant again, I was filled with hesitation. Looking after one baby was hard enough. 

Once Louie was born, I became anxious about Francis being too little to share his mum. I worried he wasn’t getting the attention he needed, and that his peers were getting. I watched other mums calmly chatting to their toddler, and I felt guilty as I struggled with my fussing baby and gave Francis cake to stop him from whinging that I was not able to focus on him. I’d feel worse that when the baby slept, I was so exhausted all I could do was be awake and make sure Francis didn’t hurt himself. Sometimes I’d even fail at that. I started thinking I should go back to work. I was harming my children - well rested professionals would do a better job of caring for and educating them. And then maybe I would feel better too.

I spoke to my husband and we decided on a compromise. Francis would go to daycare for three hours every weekday. I felt I had failed at everything. I wasn’t a full time mum, but I didn’t have a job either. 

But from the moment Louie was born, there have been moments every day where my heart has soared with joy at the sight of the two of them side by side. The promise of a bond to come. The hope that they would have a companion for life in each other. 

These moments have only grown in frequency and intensity as time has passed and I have adjusted to the demands of my new role as mother of two. Often that adjustment means making my life easier. Finding a good daycare. Putting the Night Garden on. Not cleaning the house as much as it needs. Cooking frozen food. Asking my husband for even more help. Falling asleep with the children instead of relaxing with a glass of wine. Having a glass of wine instead of ironing. These adjustments, that once felt like failures, now feel like triumphs. I’m triumphing over my own limited view of what a good mother looks and acts like, and in doing that I’m creating space for joy. 

Louie has, mysteriously, always found Francis very funny - in spite of being an otherwise pretty serious baby. Francis will put his finger in Louie’s mouth - his favourite ‘joke’ - and before I can stressfully tell him to be gentler, Louie is laughing his head off and trying to put his own finger in his brother’s house. I watch them laughing uncontrollably and feel so grateful that they have one another. In order to feel this gratitude, I need to be present and awake and conscious to experience it. That takes work. 

Having two babies close together has been a lesson for me. A lesson in letting go of control. A lesson in realising that whatever you envision your family to look like is going to involve a struggle, and it’s going to demand flexibility. There will be unforeseen challenges along the way. Some of them may force you to change the picture a little. But it’s not going to change beyond recognition. It’s not being downgraded for a lesser picture. It’s becoming the work of art it’s intended to be. And the real moments of joy it brings will be fuller, clearer and better than they could ever be in that image in your head.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Do Clever Women Have a Responsibility to Work?

I graduated from the University of Oxford in 2012 with a degree in English Language and Literature, my third language. Three years later, I got married. My son was conceived that same week. I didn't mess up my period maths. There was no broken condom. I knew what I was doing. The following spring I gave birth to my son and left my job as an editor for a financial research firm in London's City. My second son was born the following year, four months after his brother's first birthday. I have been working in the home uninterruptedly for over two years. I have been a wife and mother, a housewife, for the past two years.

I was raised on benefits in a single parent household by a father who left school when he was still a child. Before applying to Oxford to read English, I had applied for philosophy at Cambridge and failed. I had been studying philosophy at UCL for a few weeks before I mustered the confidence to apply to study English, my true passion, but a language that I'd only learned in secondary school. I feared I would never be at native speaker level, and certainly not to study it at one of the most competitive courses in the country. UCL's English Faculty interviewed me and rejected me soon after. Oxford, not just one of the most competitive in the country - one of the most sought after courses globally - also gave me an interview and said no. A year passed, and I interrupted my philosophy degree and applied again for English. UCL said no without an interview this time. Oxford offered me a place.

I am not a quitter. And I have all the pieces of paper to certify that I am one of those people that some refer to as 'very clever'.

Writer Laura Wade is one of those people. According to Wade, 'your responsibility if you're a very clever person is to be part of the workforce.' She talks about when she sees 'the very clever alpha mums at the school gates who start to treat motherhood as a job because they're so gifted in so many areas. Sometimes these women can over manage,' she explains. 'You have parties that have been done by party planners for two-year-olds and all the rest of it, and you think, you should be in the workplace because you're brilliant and you're frustrated and you don't even know it.'

I could get angry. I could get uppity about Wade suggesting she knows What Women Want better than those women do themselves. About her suggesting that it's somehow smarter or more fulfilling to work outside the home. About saying that motherhood is treated as a job by misguided people - suggesting it does not in fact count as a job.

I don't think it would be particularly difficult to demonstrate that Wade is frightfully reductive with her point of view to the point of bordering on the offensive. That there exist mothers who choose to stay at home, or to seriously reduce their working hours, and they do so consciously and happily. That there's nothing inherently frustrating about homemaking, that not all housewives are morons and not all CEOs are brilliant.

But what I think is more interesting than complaining about a couple of un-pc comments, is to talk about why someone who is arguably neither demented nor idiotic - a well regarded and established playwright - has reached some rather dubious conclusions regarding motherhood, work, and that dreaded of all questions, 'can women have it all?'

The received wisdom seems to say:

1. Each woman should be free to choose what they want when it comes to balancing home and work.
2. Each woman is different.

Neither of these conclusions help us, and here's why.

1. The fact is, women are not free to choose. The majority of women have financial pressure forcing the choice, but even if they don't, they have to 'choose' while the baby is still 12 months or under. That's not a real choice because it means that no one can choose whether or not they want to raise their children having experienced it. Everyone has to anticipate what it might be like, and if there's one job where no year and no month is the same as the last, it's parenting.

Women have to make the choice based on the first, arguably most difficult, stressful and in some ways least rewarding, months of parenting. I've met women who returned to work after 3 months and said to me 'I don't know how you do it.' But the 'it' they're referring to is different from what I'm doing. I haven't spent the last two years of my life looking after a newborn. I wouldn't have lasted. It's thankless, gruelling work. Yes - all parenting has an element of that - but raising and educating your family is something that makes more and more sense the longer you do it, something that becomes easier, better and more rewarding the longer you do it (like almost any career). And yet women are being told they have a 'choice', based on the fact that we can take a few months to test out whether motherhood is for us. Realistically there is no way for us to make an informed choice - it's not like an office job where an internship is reflective of what you'll be doing: maternity leave is completely different from long-term mothering. Women have to take a complete gamble based on inadequate information and experience, or 'try it out' for a few year, seriously harming their chances of finding a similar job if they choose to return to work later.

2.  Yes, each woman - and each human - is different. But that doesn't mean that there aren't also similarities among us, as well as identifiable trends. It is not clear that women don't have a biological predisposition to look after their children that is more effective than it is in men. What is clear is that for many women this is either not possible or not desirable. Caregiving is an extremely low status position: who earns more, and who do you assume to be smarter, a nurse taking blood pressure or a scientist doing experiments in a lab? Our society does not value nor respect caregiving positions and motherhood is no exception. Wade's concept of the 'very clever alpha mums' is a product of this bias. She's wrong - but it's an easy assumption to make: that taking care of your family is mindless work. I know so many mothers who have said they look forward to going back to work and 'using their brain', I've heard this phrase so much I'd describe it as a trope of maternity leave, along with coffee mornings and the sleep training vs attachment parenting divide. And yet, for me, mothering has been more intellectually stimulating and demanding than my Oxford degree. Am I just weird?

Maybe. But maybe there's a different issue at play. That anything done in utter isolation, receiving little societal support or value, becomes mindless drudgery. Even discovering the cure for Cancer - if you do it in a grim abandoned lab with no colleagues to assist you, thus having to spend the bulk of your day washing test tubes and cleaning the lab floors instead of being able to focus on the science part, would lose its appeal in that context. Imagine that you did discover the cure for cancer in such a setting, and once you contact the press, nobody is interested in it. Nobody wants to cure cancer, they think it's better to accept your fate. And certainly nobody thinks it's impressive or worth talking about that you've spent years working on this cure for something that doesn't need to be cured. You start to feel as though you constantly have to justify the value of your work, which you have done in isolation. Does it still sound appealing?

And that's what's happened. With just 20% of mothers choosing to be Stay At Home Mums, those that do are unlikely to do so in community. Humans are herd creatures. The menopause is nature's way of ensuring grandmothers are able to help raise their children's offspring - most mammals are fertile until death but humans are not because we are raised in community. That's because infant humans are born prematurely: they need such constant and undivided attention that one person is not enough for them. The mother cannot be the only one with this task. Not even just the father and mother. A community is absolutely necessary and until recently, it was the unchanged way in which humans were raised.

The biology is clear: mothering is not something you are supposed to do by yourself. Mothering entirely by yourself quickly becomes a horrific ordeal. And then it's easy to see the appeal of the rhetoric of choice. We shouldn't have to be trapped at home, we start to say. And it becomes increasingly problematic to talk about what women want in anything other than extremely individualistic terms. The problem with individualism at that extreme degree is that it doesn't leave the possibility for an individual to want anything that doesn't purely relate to themselves. If all we focus on is enhancing individual agency, we don't acknowledge that collective identity is a necessary part of human fulfilment. It's good being able to eat an ice cream if you want to eat an ice cream but sometimes what we want is to throw an ice cream party, and for people to come, and for them to enjoy the ice cream too.

Maybe women want to want similar things to other women. And maybe that's not insecure or anxious or stupid. Maybe it's sensible. It might be that women want their choice justified by seeing that it's also what others do. Maybe that's why Wade believes that anyone who's clever is going to be happiest in the workforce. Because then she's made the right choice. That's not just down to random insecurity.  It's because parenting humans is impossible otherwise. 

You cannot be abandoned to make the choices of exactly how to raise your children entirely by yourself. Humans are social, they go by received wisdom. We don't just guess what to do with a baby, there's nothing blindly 'natural' about it either. We need instruction, guidance, support, tradition, discussion, care, love. That's the fabric of human life. And women are better at both seeking and giving it. Women are more anxious and insecure than men because it's sensible to seek validation and recognition if you're responsible for infant life. It's sensible to be hesitant and to seek validation from others. A parent who doesn't do that to some degree is raising the next Hitler.

Breastfeeding forms a great example. Breastfeeding is impossible for most women who don't actively receive support from at least one other woman. It can be a family member or a nurse or midwife or doctor, but you are very unlikely to just naturally know what to do and encounter absolutely zero problems along the way. The majority of pregnant women will attend a pre-natal breastfeeding course - the NHS funds these: it's clear that breastfeeding is something passed on and learned in community.

And just like breastfeeding, every single parenting decision holds a huge burden of responsibility on the individual. We want to read books. We want to hear from others. We want to see what others are doing. We compare. Not because we hate ourselves or because we're cripplingly insecure - although it becomes that when there's so much shame attached to not being assertively self-confident. It's because it makes sense to. It makes sense for women to want to err on the safe side and look around and not be too wacky when it comes to looking after their babies. So when society keeps telling us there's 'no right answer' and 'just do what's best for your family' it suggests that a good mother 'just knows' what's best and that you shouldn't doubt that innate knowledge. That's just not true. Everyone has moments of drowning in self-doubt, perhaps not every day and every hour, but only a sociopath brings a new life into the world and thinks I'm absolutely smashing it. 

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Two Worst Pieces of Advice Given to Writers (and the Best)

There’s lots of great advice for aspiring writers out there, but there’s two things that are repeated again and again, and I personally think it would be no great loss if nobody advised them ever again. 

The first is, ‘if you want to be a writer, write!’

‘It might seem obvious but,’ begins every published author’s advice ever, ‘stop talking about how you want to be a writer and just write!’

Whenever I heard this, previous to taking my writing ambitions seriously, I’d just think ‘how??’. My brain would start running off the list of ‘excuses’ it had for not writing. No time, no ideas, no clarity on what kind of writer I was, no feedback, no ability. No amount of Nikeslogans made a difference to me. The thing about this mental list is that it’s not really excuses. It’s all real. You probably don’t know how to make the time. You probably don’t know how to identify specific ideas in your endless internal monologue. You probably have no knowledge of what the different kinds of ‘writers’ that actually exist are. You’re probably too embarrassed to ask for feedback. You probably need someone else to tell you where your abilities lie. 

What is going to allow you to go from not really writing to writing isn’t a platitude about just doing it. In my experience, the number one thing that’s going to make a difference is getting  to know writers

Being a ‘writer’ is like being an ‘actor’ or ‘musician’ in that it sounds like a self-indulgent dream for attention and fame rather than a reasonable aspiration (especially to people who don’twant those things). So you need to meet these ethereal beings. Go to a writers festival. Email a journalist you like. Call them. Take a course and ask the tutor to go for coffee. Organise a Meet Up. As soon as you start meeting writers in the flesh, very quickly you will see what being a writer actually looks like. It’s much easier to bake a cake if you’ve grown up in a family with a baking aficionado and you witnessed cakes being baked and assisted in the process countless of times. If you’ve literally never seen anyone do it, you’re going to struggle through the most basic steps and give up by the time it comes to the difficult part. The same goes for something less ‘visible’ like writing or singing or acting. There are still processes behind every art – there’s a craft and a job aspect to every creative ambition, and the sooner you acquaint yourself with it the sooner your romantic dreams will become palpable realities that you can begin to emulate.

The second piece of terrible advice given to hopeful writers is to ‘write every day’. 

There is a shift for everyone who has an ambition, ‘creative’ or otherwise, from that ambition seeming like a ridiculous dream, to it becoming an actual goal for you. When it becomes an actual goal, it really doesn’t matter at what frequency you’re pursuing that goal. Writing every day is a sure-fire way to know that you’re exercising the muscle and cultivating the craft – but lots of people don’t have the resources or need to write every day, and that doesn’t make them ‘not writers’. There’s no sense in feeling like if you don’t carve out an hour or more to write every single day then you’re not really the person for the job. It would be like deciding to run a marathon and then thinking you have to train every single day or you’re not on track. 

The absolute best advice I’ve read regarding this was in a book which said that you only need to write one hour a week to complete a book in one year. What I love about this advice is that not only is it true – time-wise that is enough to reach wordcount – but it’s also helpfully concrete. It’s so important for writers starting out to acknowledge (and physically practice) the dictum that ‘finished is better than perfect’, and the best way to do this is to have an extremely manageable goal. One hour a week is exactly that: it’s quantifiable, and it’s doable – and I say that as a mother of two pint-sized dictators. Once you make that regular time every week, then you may well start writing more frequently or for longer spans of time – but it’s a great initial aim because it allows each writer to discover their own rhythm.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

How to Talk to People About Having Children

When I was running around my toddler and pregnant with my second, a neighbour said to me, ‘it’s good you’re having them close together, so you’re done quickly!’ 

That same neighbour recently asked me for any hand-me-downs I can give to her friend expecting a boy. 

When I walk around with my boys, strangers ask me jokingly ‘when’s the third coming along?’ Constantly. I usually smile and laugh along, but once, in a more irritable mood, I replied ‘soon, hopefully!’ The man stared awkwardly, unsure if he could detect sarcasm in my tone. 

I know women who have five or more children who tell me to get used to it. They have even had family ask them ‘surely, this is your last?’ with each pregnancy that followed the third. 

My friends who don’t have any other children complain of people asking them when they’re going to have a baby. Especially if they’ve been married a while. 

‘There’s no wrong or right time,’ my (male) friend said recently. 

‘Well, there is a better time than others, in terms of what’s physically viable.’ I couldn’t help but say.

‘What would you say is the best time?’ my other friend asked.

But it’s not a subjective question. It’s to do with our bodies. I don’t actually know when the average woman is least likely to face complications in pregnancy or labour. But I do know that after a certain age you are automatically ‘high risk’, so there must be a ‘better’ time, physically speaking. 

But that doesn’t mean we are free to assume anything about other couples’ experiences regarding their family. Maybe that couple who ‘still haven’t started a family’ have been trying for years. Maybe that woman with three under three is pregnant. Maybe not everyone sees pregnancy as a binary between ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’. For some people, believe it or not, the answer to ‘are you trying for a baby?’ lies somewhere on a spectrum.

I don’t think we ‘shouldn’t talk about it’, I don’t believe we should compartmentalise everything profound and personal to the ultra private sphere to the point where we only secretively discuss things. But neither do I believe these are things we can talk about with a neighbour as we run out of the door to the supermarket.

There are some things you should only ask about if you’re in the mood to listen. Because otherwise you just create frustration in the other person, who feels they have to give the answer you’re looking for, the answer that validates your own choices and beliefs. And when it comes to parenting, although there might be scientific information regarding the physical side of things that we should all be aware of, there really is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. There’s only infinite stories, feelings, anxieties and hopes, in an insurmountably broad spectrum of possible experiences. 

Thursday, 24 May 2018

5 Pro-Choice Sentiments I’m Tired Of

  1. ‘If you don’t agree with abortions, no one’s forcing you to have one.’
Imagine murder became legal. Imagine it became far more socially accepted. You say you’re against its legalisation, and someone says to you ‘if you don’t agree with murder, you don’t have to do it.’ The argument makes no sense. It’s ignoring the fundamental disagreement regarding the question of when a human is legally recognised as a human. 

  1. ‘Women aren’t just baby making machines.’
This has always seemed a case of strawmanning to me. I have felt zero pressure to make babies. If anything I have felt societal pressure to do something other than make babies, or more precisely, to choose between making and raising babies myself or delegating this in order to do something else. We could argue it’s just pro-life groups putting that pressure on women but the Catholic Church is pro life and pro nuns. Nuns don’t have children and they are in no way seen as inferior to mothers.

  1. ‘My body my choice’
Ignores the philosophical disagreement of whether it’s just one body or two.

  1. ‘It’s a woman’s right’
So many women have abortions because they feel they have no choice. So many women perceive motherhood as their individual responsibility: if you choose to have this baby you have to get the space, stuff, money, food, enter need here, for the rest of their life. So many women are not helped before nor after an abortion. So many women’s lives are affected negatively because their maternity is handled catastrophically by society. This is not just about abortion. This is about our society’s entire attitude towards motherhood. Almost all mothers are abandoned and isolated in some small way, because our society is extremely out of touch with what it means to support women. 

  1. The complete silence on the fact that you can abort a child with an abnormality as minor as a cleft lip up to birth, but you can’t abort a child with ‘no abnormalities’ beyond 24 weeks of gestation. Why is the Left so comfortable with this clear prioritisation of ‘normal’ foetuses over ‘abnormal’ ones? My guess is no one is comfortable with it, they’re just not talking about the disturbing truth that our society still does not value disabled people as highly as able ones.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Why Christian Mothers Are Called to Rest

‘Turn your back on the Tempter when he whispers in your ear: “why make life difficult for yourself?”’ 

St Josemaria is my favourite saint. A Spaniard who didn’t beat about the bush, he gives practical, simple guidance. He is encouraging, but he is demanding. He believed every day work was the path to sanctification for many people, not unlike Mother Teresa who called Christians to ‘do small things with great love.’

You can imagine my surprise, then, when a priest from the Work, the prelature founded by this saint, responded to my confession with a single Spanish word: ‘descomplicate.’ Literally the word means to ‘uncomplicate’ – the very sentiment St Josemaria had said not to listen to in his words above. Don’t make life difficult for yourself, this priest said to me. ‘All these things you speak of – order, rules – they’re making your life very difficult. This voice that says to you, do this, do that, this voice is not God’s.’

This is so difficult for me. One of my favourite things about religion is that it provides a clear structure to order our decisions. It tells you what is right and what is wrong by proclaiming ‘the truth’ in no uncertain terms. In a world of relativism and being left to our own devices, religion has been a refuge for me, it has helped me to orient my own morality and world-view. 

But what’s even more beautiful about the Church is that it does not allow for us to just follow the rulebook of the Catechism and then rest peacefully at night. It calls for us to do everything in good faith. It calls for us to hold a deep understanding of why we believe certain things to be right and certain things to be wrong. It demands constant study, deliberation, and dialogue.

As a mother, my day is filled with small decisions that seem to be of great importance. Do I sit down and write when the baby sleeps, or do I spend this time tidying the house so I don’t have to do chores while the children are awake, sacrificing time with them? Is it ok if they watch television? How long for? Are these toys still age-appropriate? Should I drop one of the milk feeds now? Is it too soon for daycare? 

Even a small decision such as when to wash the dishes seems to contain the much bigger question: ‘when should I do this in order to be the best mother I can be?’ Which has me wondering ‘am I doing the right thing? Am I up to the task of parenting?’ as a constant bit of background noise in my internal monologue.

This is a huge struggle for me. That constant doubt and constant deliberation builds up into unmanageable anxiety, and quickly turns to loss of patience, anger, even despair at the normal challenges each day presents.

‘Stop hurting yourself with your own hands.’ The priest said, adding, ‘internally, I mean.’ I felt like crying as I remembered the few times I have broken down and felt an impulse to hurt myself with my own hands, literally. I knew it was the Holy Spirit who knows and sees everything that was sending that message to me.

‘Whenever you can rest, choose rest. You have two very young children, it’s to be expected that the house will look like chaos.’

This priest looks impeccable whenever I see him – his shoes are always freshly polished, his meditations are always typed out onto a sheet of A4 paper that is perfectly folded into an A6 size, as though he has used a ruler to flatten the folds. He places his few, shiny looking belongings – a phone, a beautiful pen, a watch that he takes off -- on the desk in front of him, in a neat row, whenever he is about to begin to share his words. He knows that order is a natural virtue that we are called to cultivate. 

And here he was telling me that God was not asking me to bring order to the chaos around me. 

‘God wants Sofia to be rested. He wants her to be well. If you are not looking after yourself, then you can’t love others. God doesn’t want you to be una mamma bravissima[an amazing mum] and to keep the house tidy. He isn’t that kind of father. He’s a good dad, who says ‘listen, Sofia, look after yourself. Rest. Do what you need to do to feel well in yourself. Make things easier for yourself. Because you can’t avoid things being difficult right now. Things are difficult right now. So you must make life easier for yourself.’

Thursday, 10 May 2018

How Perfectionism Is Making You Lazy

I have more ideas than I can work on, or even write down. It has always been that way. My mind is like a popcorn machine of ideas. Things to do. Events to plan. Ways to decorate the house. Things to cook. Outfits to wear. Conversations to start. Books to read. Stuff to write. I don’t have ‘a notebook’, I have several, all for different projects, and they’re all intended to be beautifully organised and presented when I buy them, but they all lie about in different areas of the house, and I end up writing about a thing that belongs in a different one in whichever one is visible at the time the idea comes to mind. And mostly I don’t write anything down. Mostly I don’t make a start on the things that do make it out of my mind, through the pen onto the paper. And mostly I don’t follow through on the stuff I do begin to act on.

I have never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I am very ambitious – and having high ambitions for each thing you do can be a kind of perfectionism. So while I don’t need everything I do to be perfect – I brush my teeth for ninety seconds fewer than the recommended two minutes – I do want certain things to be more than good, to be truly great.

Padre Maurizio Botta says perfectionism is the path to laziness. It might sound unlikely, but it immediately made perfect sense to me because it resonates so much with my own experience.

I am extremely lazy. I don’t say that in an attempt at self-deprecation, I don’t think it’s that rare to be extremely lazy. I think it’s probably actually the norm, and I didn’t really think of myself as lazy until I met a handful of people who aren’t. I’m not like those people. I’m not someone who works hard at stuff because I know the value of hard work. I have to really force myselfthrough the work, whilst every bone in my body is screaming ‘no’, begging me to abandon, because it really needs a rest from the last thirty-five seconds of yet another tedious, thankless chore.

Only after Padre Botta’s words did I realise these two tendencies in me – perfectionism and laziness – go hand in hand, and the root anchoring both of them is pride.

Perfectionism says to you: ‘what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Abandon this endeavour. It will never meet your standards. It will be sub-par. If you can’t give it your full attention and truly try your hardest you should stop wasting time on something that will end up disappointing you anyway.’

Laziness says to you: ‘what you have to do is worse than doing nothing. It’s going to cause you discomfort, maybe even pain. Don’t do it. Stay here and stay comfortable.’

They feed each other: laziness says don’t bother doing thisand the righteous ‘but it’s something I have to do’ voice is soon silenced by perfectionism which says it will probably end up a piece of crap anywayit’ll be worse than if you hadn’t done it at all: you won’t have done a good job, and, what’s worse, you’ll have given up your time and your comfort. 

This is the voice of pride. You are better than this, it says. You should only do what you can do well, and it makes so much sense to our proud heart – if I’m going to sacrifice time and comfort, it better be for something that I can take pride in – something that reflects my ambitions and my best abilities. 

The most wonderful thing about children is that children, especially in the beginning, don’t wait. They don’t wait for you to have time to do a job you can be proud of. They don’t wait for you to be rested. They don’t wait for you to be ready. They’re here, and they need to be served, and they force humility on you as you realise that not only are you imperfect, you’re also plain old lazy. You won’t always do a great job. You won’t always do a good job. Sometimes the job won’t get done. But sometimes you will just about get it done, and that’s preferable, even if it’s nothing to be proud about – only something to be thankful for. So only by the grace of God will your children thrive and grow up and be strong. Discovering that has been – and continues to be – painful, and yet also the biggest, greatest blessing.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

How to Be Present With Your Children

Recently, I’ve been struggling a lot with boredom, and the consequential guilt that has arisen from it. I find myself bored with my children. And so I find myself feeling guilty that I’m bored.

When I was at university, the development of my identity was at the centre of everything I did. Each week I studied what was interested in. I wrote about what thought. I wore things that I liked. I picked friends who made me feel stimulated. I learned to cook whatever seemed might taste delicious, I tried new sports and stopped them if they didn’t feel right and carried on if they were. Every decision I made was about what I wanted, who I wanted to be, what path I wanted to take.

Motherhood, for me, has been diametrically opposed to this. Stop – says the infant child – and be here, right now, as you are. Not to tell me interesting stories. Not to listen to me tell you mine, or unload my anxieties, or ask you for help with a difficult decision, or gossip, or joke. No. Listen to me gurgle. Watch me reach for the nearest object I can just about focus my gaze on. Watch me learn to focus my gaze on your gaze. 

Stop searching for your ‘self’, and bring your current self, as it is --a work in progress-- to the table. Be with me, as you are, right now. And give yourself over to, not just this moment but, each moment. Give yourself over to a series of seemingly inconsequential moments that provide no satisfaction to that search for truth and self-actualisation that previously formed the telos of your days, months and years. You are not the culmination of your interests. You are not your outfits. You are not the books you read nor the parties you vote for. You are a mother. You are not even what you thought that was – you are not ‘a mother’ in that sense of that image or list of tasks you had of what a mother might look like or do. No. You are not any type of mother, you are not ‘the kind of’ mother ‘you’ want to be. You are just this: my mother. This child belongs to you as you belong to this child. 

In other words, it’s boring. It sounds beautifully still and truthful and primal – but a lot of stuff that is beautiful, still, true and primal in essence is unstimulating and dull in the experience of it.

And for a long time I have told myself – and believed others who said – that it’s boring because of my internal resistance. It’s boring because we are flawed people. It’s boring because I’m fighting the pure simplicity of it. It’s boring because my mother isn’t a strong presence, hasn’t been a physical presence for a long time, in my life, so I’m anxious about how to be a mother myself, which manifests in boredom. It’s boring because I’m fighting my own nature. It’s boring because everything beautiful and good is only obtained with struggle and hard work and the inevitable boredom that comes with tedious tasks that delay gratification for a greater, future, good. 

Until I started reading a book. Well –listening, in fact. I started listening to an audio book, because I barely have time to read now, so I put on podcasts and audio books during the hours I spend with my children, because I don’t want to ‘be present’ with my children. There, I said it. I put on audio books in the background. And I pay attention to them. I listen to them more than my toddlers’ screams and singing and shouts and laughter. I listen to pre-recorded adults more. And I find it more interesting than my own children. And I feel ashamed and I try to limit how much I do it as much as possible – I do it feeling wrecked with guilt that I’m not fully focussed on That’s Not My Duck.

I started listening to this book, One Beautiful Dream– Jennifer Fulwiler’s ‘rollicking tale of family chaos, personal passions, and saying yes to them both’ – which I have not yet finished but which I highly recommend for anyone who’s wondering what they’re called to do in life re: children/career/family size. I started listening to this book and the realisation suddenly hit me, that, maybe, just maybe, I find being with my children boring because it is boring.

It’s not boring because there’s some internal battle within me struggling against something that is in fact wonderful and good and meant for me and the best thing for my children. Maybe it’s just boring. Maybe I’m just not supposed to be doing parenting that way. Maybe defining ‘being present’ in a particular way that refers to your actions, your thoughts, and the amount of eye contact and focus you place on your child is not only narrow but downright incorrect. Maybe being present is something a lot more fundamentally earth-shatteringthan looking like a Montessori-trained nanny. 

Jen (we’re on first-name terms after I listened to her read her memoir to me) talks about writing being her ‘blue flame’ – her God-given gift that, when used and cultivated, has her setting the world on fire. ‘Be who you were created to be,’ says St Catherine of Siena, ‘and you will set the world on fire.’ For Jen, it’s important all mothers find out what their blue flame is and use their gifts in order to be better mothers.

This wasn’t particularly new to me: the idea that you should reserve some time for yourself, pursue your interests, leave time for things other than childcare and household chores etc, in order to be a better mother. In order to ‘be there’ for your family. You can’t pour from an empty cup, etc.

But I still thought of this as a binary between ‘myself’ and ‘my mothering self’. I would have some ‘time off’ to go and do what fed my soul, and then I would go back and give myself completely to my children, give them my full attention, point out the names of things to them, smile back at them, make them giggle, gently tell them off when they do something they’re not supposed to, or consistently put them back on on time out, ensure they choose their own outfits, insert parenting advice from parenting web article here, etc, etc, etc.

Then I realised: maybe that’s not it. Yes, time apart from your children/the home is of upmost importance if you work in the home. It’s important to have time where you are not working. But that doesn’t mean your work can’t be stimulating to you on a personal level. It doesn’t mean if you’re not suffering then you’re not doing the best job you can. Sometimes mortification is about letting go of our narrow, human conception of an ideal and opening up to what God wants of us. Sometimes to deny yourself is to deny yourself that ideal that you’ve been striving for – that ideal that you’ve been, paradoxically, denying yourself for (or so you thought). 

That kind of sentence makes me cringe. A voice in my head (I bet I can guess whose) is saying ‘no, that’s just hippy crap people tell themselves to justify their own human failings and inevitable falling short of the high standards God has for us.’ The voice in my head is very clever – smarter than me – it tells me that the path to doing a good job is to try hard and accept you will fail and ask for forgiveness and energy and try hard again. Not to give up on the things you feel guilty about if you’re not doing them. That’s the path to comfort and it’s fundamentally short-sighted and defeatist.

That’s true, in a lot of ways. But sometimes a true thought or sentiment is leading us to a false conclusion. In my case, this idea that I shouldn’t give up on something just because it’s extremely hard (true) was making me think that the best mother, the present mother, does not listen to audio books (less self-evidently true). She pays attention to her children. Her mind isn’t elsewhere. She is aware of their gurgles, their smiles, their coughing, their crawlings, their teeth coming through.

The thing is, some mothers are like that, and that is them being ‘the best mother’ they can be. Maybe a lot of people’s good mothering looks like that. It could even be that the vast majority of good mothers look like that. But what do you look like when you’re present? What is it like when you’re present, not when just ‘a good mother’ is present?

This notion of ‘being present’ just isn’t me. ‘Situational awareness’ is actually my Myers-Briggs type’s lowest cognitive ability. My strongest is ‘introverted intuition’. That means that my preferred, and most capable, way of apprehending the world is intuitiveand introverted. Concretely, that means that for a long time – my whole life – I have tended to be the last person to notice if someone is smiling at them. This doesn’t change when it’s my own children doing the smiling. I suffer from a severe case of ‘resting bitch face’ because I am always absorbed in my own thoughts and forget to manifest a variety of emotions to the external world and the people surrounding it. If I am reading (or, more likely, texting) it takes several seconds for me to register that someone (in the real world of the flesh) has spoken to me. Do not be offended if I don’t wave back to you when you run into me in the street – I have either not seen you or not recognised you. I cannot find my way from the station to a friend’s house that I’ve visited dozens of times before. In short, my head is always in the clouds.

I knew this, but what I didn’t know was that this would make me terrible at a lot of mother-child activities. I am never going to enjoy sitting on the floor of the boys’ nursery  whilst colour sorting legos. Or building cars out of legos. Or building anything out of legos. Just anywhere near legos. Legos are dull. It’s just stuff. Stuff is boring. Toys are boring. Books are less boring – but kids’ books are still prettyboring. Teeth coming through are boring. I don’t care. Milestones are kind of exciting, but the run-up to them is not. If our children got up one day and started walking, that would be cool. But the gradual, slow, process of learning to walk is not, for me, a joy to witness. Singing nursery rhymes is boring. Trying to teach my infant children anythingis boring. I do it as far as it’s necessary, of course, but I’m never going to relish the opportunities for it.

I was feeling so awful about this, riddled with guilt, thinking maybe I didn’t belong in the home with my children. Maybe, even though I wanted to be a stay at home mum, really I wasn’t meant for that and I should think about finding a job. Then this book changed everything. I realised that just because I found a lot of stuff I was expected to do boring, this didn’t mean I found my childrenboring. It didn’t mean I found being a motherboring. In fact, when I let go of expectations of what I am supposed to do, I am not bored in the least. I am fulfilled. Yes, I still need a break from work regularly. Yes, I still need to directly use my ‘blue flame’ gifts in moments apart from my children and away from the house. But when I let go of my expectations of what a good mother must do, what ‘being present’ looks like, then I am at peace with my children. Not bored. At peace.

And when you find peace, you realise the wealth of things that brings you joy. I like listening to podcasts and audio books while my children explore the world, largely ignored by me, but perfectly capable of getting my attention if they need it. I like – no, love– cuddles. I can cuddle for hours, and we probably do, aggregately, every day. I like putting on loud music and dancing, and I never not find my toddler’s dancing hilarious to the point of laughing out loud. I like story time, but I only like it at bed time, when we’re in pyjamas and in bed and have had milk and we’re huddled up under the covers – and it’s fine that that’s the only time I enjoy it. I like doing very dramatic readings, with different voices and accents, which I am terrible at. I like making jokes that only an adult can understand, but to my children, mostly for my benefit, but also because I don’t want to have a ‘child-friendly’ personality the whole time I’m with them. I love taking them to church. I love doing household chores with them – whether or not they’re interested in what I’m doing. I love going for silent, non nature-focussed, non-game related, non-educational, non-adventurouswalks down the same streets every afternoon. I love being with other people with my children playing freely in whatever way they want (as long as it’s not life-threatening).

More than anything, I love letting them be. Not interfering. Not teaching. Not demonstrating. Not modelling. Not talking. Not watching. Not listening. Simply aware of their presence, while I inhabit my thoughts.  And that may not look or sound like much. It might even look like I’m distracted. Maybe I am distracted. But I have always been distracted. It’s being distracted by thoughts that gives me a need to write. And my need to write isn’t separate from my being a mother. My being distracted isn’t something I put on hold while I am fully focussed on my children. I am a distracted mother because I am a distracted person. And that isn’t something I need to address or change in order to fit better into a mould of what an ideal person is like (‘present’). That isn’t something I need to be anxious or guilty about, even if it has negative outcomes as well as positive ones. That is just part of who I was created to be. I am distracted by things that interest me. Being a distracted mother means I am a mother with interests. Being interested in things other than my children doesn’t mean I am disinterested in my children as people.Being distracted doesn’t mean I’m not emotionally present – that is a facile distinction to make. Being detached doesn’t imply coldness. You can feel a distance from your immediate surroundings without lacking in empathy. Your mind can be engrossed by a million thoughts but 80% of them might refer to the children you would rather contemplate than play lego with. You don’t know what being present looks like for you until you allow yourself to ‘stop’, as a newborn demands of you with such urgency, and bring your present self – a work in progress – as it is, to be with them, as you are, right now.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Why I Don’t Feel Like I Have A Choice When It Comes To Motherhood

I write this on my phone leaning out of the window. We don’t have a balcony. I thought when we’d live in Italy we’d have a balcony. We don’t have internet yet either - hence why I’m writing on my phone.

Things are different from what I imagined. Not just moving to Italy. My life right now, it’s different from what I imagined. I think this moment in life - getting married and starting a family - is one of those we picture again and again from an early age. It’s one of the images that make up the ‘when I grow up...’ complex of images. Like having an office job or buying a house or being an air pilot or whatever dreams and ambitions make up your goals that you constantly build and work towards in your head. 

Motherhood is different from what I gathered based on the collective imagination I grew up influenced by. I thought it would be wholesome. I thought it would be my choice. I thought it would be fulfilling. I thought it would be okay. 

It is and it isn’t. And, if you know me and my Myers Briggs results, that’s not a place I’m comfortable standing in. I don’t like grey area. I’m a judger: decisive, controlled, organised, assured. And I’m none of those things right now.

Motherhood is hard, but not because of what I thought might make it hard. Not because of the lack of sleep. Not because I’ve had two children in two years. Not financially. Not because I’m not only responsible for myself. Not because of the struggles. The struggle is where the love grows. Only out of love for your children do you deny yourself again and again.

What’s hard is something else. It’s my surroundings. It’s not the children, it’s my peers. It’s not how mindless it is to be with little ones all day - it’s how mindless it becomes when you are told it has to be all day, every day. Those are the choices given to women today. Be with your family, or be with your colleagues. We don’t have colleagues in the work that is carried out in the home. That is no longer ‘work’. ‘Housewife’ listed as one’s occupation is code for ‘unoccupied’. Not least because it takes a level of wealth to forgo being a two income household - so we easily stumble into the stereotype of a woman with two grown children and a nanny and a cleaner who in fact spends most of her day in and out of yoga. 

When my first born was nine months old, lots of my new friends I’d made on maternity leave were returning to work. The phrase ‘looking forward to using my brain again’ was thrown around a lot. I thought to myself - what do they mean? I found it so challenging to be with Francis. To understand him, respond to him, engage him. I was using my brain more than I did at work (which was less than I’d done at university anyway). 

But slowly, it has started to become brainless. Not because Francis has become less interesting himself - but because being a stay at home mum is increasingly isolated. Other people’s children grow and start school or people with babies go back to work and each time you have to start from scratch and find new people. 

Of course my children will grow too. Of course it’s early days. Of course the older mums I know are right when they say it gets easier.

But my question is - what happens when you don’t want to delegate childcare, when you have your heart set on doing it yourself, but you don’t want to do it alone? Sometimes I wish my son’s daycare didn’t ask me to leave. I wish I could just take him somewhere where we can all be there and take care of our children in company and in a structured way that specialists can support us with, but not merely because the mother has to go to work, just because that’s a more human way of raising infants than going for endless walks.