Motherhood


It would of course be lovely if I could be one of those amazing Gentle Parents who aim to act always by consensus, who empower their children to make good decisions for themselves, who never assume dominion or authority over their children – and all that.

Wouldn’t Ariel be lucky if she had a mother like that? A mother who would never shout or punish or say things like If you hit mummy again then mummy will hit you, and I’m bigger than you so it will hurt – let alone follow through with such a threat… A mother who would always be calm and reasonable, or at least wiling to apologise and admit that she’s wrong if she occasionally fails to practice what she preaches…

Well I do truly and genuinely admire people who can follow that model effectively, and in all honesty I do aspire to it, in my way. But I’m not capable of doing it, not all the time, if ever. It’s too hard. If I haven’t the energy or the time to discuss and negotiate, I just don’t. I assert my authority, I threaten, in the event of disobedience I carry out my threats, and I never (hardly ever) back down, even from the fights which in all honesty I wish I’d never started*. I do all these things, and I don’t even feel bad about it.

* Like the one over whether or not I’m going to get out of bed at 5am to accompany my perfectly capable Ariel to the toilet, just because she doesn’t fancy going on her own…

It would be so much better, I’m sure, if I could manage to be a Gentle Parent, but I’m not. I wasn’t brought up that way, I’m not made for it, I wouldn’t know how to do it and stay sane, and I’m not sure (now) that I would even want to try.

Yes, I am somewhat authoritarian. My name is Maia and I am an authoritarian parent.

It isn’t all bad. I am less authoritarian than my own parents and, if she chooses to be a parent, I am hopeful that Ariel will be less authoritarian than me. And I’m not, as the title to this post hints, the worst possible mother. For one thing, I am here: every day. Every day, I get up and I do parenting – some days I do it well, other days not so well – but every day I am here and I am doing it, I am being a parent. And that is not a small thing. It amazes me that so many people do it, because it is not a small thing.

Today is a day
to stand back and say
that this is okay.

So I’m making my peace with my mothering, authoritarianism and all. I’m accepting that there is only so far I can go in unlearning my earliest lessons in how to parent. I am steadily realising that I am not, never will be perfect, in mothering or in anything else – but that, as it turns out, this is OK. I’m OK.

It’s good to know. If nothing else, it’s one less worry to distract me from actually being the person, the mother, that I want to be.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.”

Something clicked while I was playing in the bath with Ariel this evening. We were pretending to be at the beach, making sandcastles with my trusty yellow bathjug standing in as a bucket. Ariel could barely even wait for me to lift up the jug-bucket before she was enthusiastically splatting my imaginary sandcastle and yelling with glee – “I broke it down mummy! I splatted it all over the place!”

And I remembered some theory I had read somewhere* about how young children destroy things because, not having the skills to create, they enjoy destruction instead as a way to feel powerful and thereby align themselves with the grownups. The idea is that children (unless they have had a very liberal education and a very sheltered existence) will generally see adults as powerful and themselves as powerless. Because they experience their powerlessness as oppression, they want to become powerful and so they enact power in their games, practising in earnest for the power they crave. An adult builds a tower, a child knocks it down.

If I remember rightly, the author proceeded on the basis that once the child has learned to create – to build wonderful towers of its own – the child will enjoy creating far more, as the more adult (and so more powerful) occupation, and leave off destruction as the mindless splatting of its (powerless) infancy.

Of course, it may not work like that. Maybe the child is encouraged to enjoy destruction and not to reach towards creativity. Maybe destruction is modelled to that child in the home, in the school, in the media, in the world. Maybe the joys of creation are never even seen or approached, let alone taught. Destruction is so easy, there is such a satisfyingly powerful thrill – perhaps it is an addiction – and creativity is a slower, more careful, more patient activity, taking time and skill and effort. A slow pleasure, with pride and joy to be had, but no dramatic climax. The difference between midwifery and Caesarean – or something like it.

And I began to wonder, in the warm water, in a flight of monthly connectedness, whether it is as simple as this: as simple as the possibility that men** have – to borrow from an old, old saw – womb envy. They feel that they cannot create life, they see that women can create life – the ultimate creativity. Lacking the ability to create, they take pleasure instead in destruction… especially in the destruction of the creatrix… because it makes them feel powerful, because by destroying us they are stealing our power for themselves. Maybe the child that is/was mankind feels that it has been always kept out of creation, maybe it has felt that way for thousands of years…?

Obviously it isn’t as simple as this. But suddenly, in the bath, the connectedness of creativity, destructiveness and power come together, in a viscous glob – as the destructive powerlust of those who cannot create. Of those who cannot create – life.

Which all leads to the obvious question: would men be happier if they used compost toilets? What comes from their bodies, nourishes the land, and food grows. Could compost toilets change the world?

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*I am pretty sure it was in Bertrand Russell’s “On Education” (1926) but I don’t think I have the book any more so I can’t check the reference.

** Tiresome, I know, but I feel I should point out that I don’t mean “men” etc as meaning all men or any particular men but only as broadly referring to constructed masculinity. Or something.

In Brave Bitsy And The Bear, Bitsy is a small toy rabbit who falls out of her girl’s pocket in the woods. Lost and all alone, she finds her way home with the help of a big, sleepy bear. (Ah, but will bear make it back to his cave before he falls into hibernation?)

In real life, Pink Rabbit – pictured above – is a small toy rabbit who got left behind somewhere in Gloucester and hasn’t been seen since. He didn’t have much chance of finding a bear to help him, and he hasn’t found his way home.

Ariel’s grief was overwhelming and palpable. Once she realised that after retracing our steps unsuccessfully we were going to stop looking and head home, she cried his name over and over. His loss changed everything. It was so hard: mothers are supposed to be able to fix anything, yet there was nothing I could do but help her through her grief and her guilt and her loss. What do you say? To her, Pink Rabbit was a real person with hopes and dreams and fears, a person who had his own rich life but who nevertheless had been there for her always, whenever she needed him.

Perhaps this is why we make up stories for our children. We pretend that what is, isn’t. Because what is, is hard to take.

Right now, all we can do is to hope that Pink Rabbit is having an adventure. We couldn’t find him, so he must have gone somewhere. Perhaps he is in the jungle, perhaps he has gone to the South Pole to look at the penguins, or to the North Pole to make friends with a polar bear. Maybe he will send us a letter or call us on the phone.

When she got home today she said – Where’s pink rabbit, has he come home yet? I gave him to you, mummy, and you lost him, didn’t you.

Ah, love, he escaped to be a wild free travelling rabbit. He might come back when he’s been all around the world. Bitsy found her way home. In real life, we’ll just have to wait and see. Rabbits don’t always come back.

If anyone sees this rabbit: please ask him to come home, or at least to send a postcard.

Thank you.

Us

Why should I stop?
She’s happy, I’m happy, it’s good for both of us. Why stop?
It isn’t a question of deciding not to wean.
It is a question of not deciding to wean.

In this I am lucky.

Basically, because I’ve got no family near to know better than we do.
Because I’ve got no partner near to know better than we do.
Because I’ve got no health professional to know better than we do.

What would make us stop?

Nobody asks a healed woman why she still drinks chamomile tea.
Nobody asks an old married couple why they still have sex.
Nobody asks a grownup why he still eats fishfingers.

The assumption is – because they like it, that’s why, and anyway they’re doing no harm to anyone so why is it anyone else’s business why they do it?

Well, we like it. That’s why. So there.

I’ve been thinking lately in various contexts of the insecurities we may betray regarding our relationships with or feelings towards our own mothers (or ourselves as mothers, come to think of it), when we express our ideas on motherhood and on reproductive freedom, and all that stuff.

I know this is true of me. How I feel about motherhood – about my role as a mother, about my own mother, and about mothering in general – are all highly coloured by one another, interconnected.

When I honour mothering in other women, it is not just an act of sisterhood. It is about honouring myself as a mother; and it is about honouring my own mother. It is about celebrating what mothers do.

When I recognise and confront the darker, painful aspects of motherhood, it is not just an act of confession or truth-speaking. It is about sisterhood with all mothers, including my own, about acknowledging what it is like, how hard it is, and the sheer bloody strength of mind and will and body that it takes to keep soldiering on.

And when someone obliterates the mother, erases her importance or her experience, silences her voice – it is as though it is myself that is obliterated, erased and silenced.

Someone advances the argument against abortion that “Hey, your mother might have aborted you! Then where would you be?

Someone else shames a mother for speaking out about the unpleasant realities of modern motherhood – the drudgery, the guilt, the self-doubt, the loss of self, the poverty, the loss of status, all that – with the refrain “Hey, I pity your kids! Having a mother like you must be terrible! I hope they never find out how little you enjoy / cherish / love them!”

Won’t somebody please think of the children!
Save them from the selfishness of Woman!

It is pretty clear that these people find it easier to empathise with the child – even one unborn – than with the mother. Some of the people I am talking about are mothers themselves, and yet still they identify more with the child than the mother. (One wonders what has happened to their sense of self. Oh, yeah. Motherhood happened.)

So what is it all about? Why this difficulty with identifying with the mother as human, when it is so easy to identify even a zygote as human? Why this assumption that some unrelated third party cares more about the child in question than its own mother? Why this assumption that someone else knows what is best? This unwillingness to trust the woman/mother to do what is right?

I think it is fear. Not in all cases, obviously. But if you do sense your mother’s unspoken resentment or regret or disappointment or anger, her sadness or shame or grief – if you sense these things and are afraid of their power, then there are only two possible reactions.

The easy path

To deny all knowledge and to ask no questions.
To pretend that such things cannot be.
To silence all doubts and silence all doubters.

To ridicule the very idea that a child might bring sadness rather than joy -
To deny the possibility of joy and sadness co-existing,
of pleasure and love sharing a home with anger and resentment.

To never face the question – what if?

What if my mother resents me?
What if she always did?
What if she wishes I had never been born?
What if she wishes me out of existence?
What if she had aborted me before I was born?
Does she wish she had?

What if,
when all is said and done,
when all is weighed in the balance,
when everything is counted,
what if my very existence is found wanting?

What if I was not good enough,
did not bring enough joy,
did not bring enough light -
does that negate my value?

What if
she never loved me
at all?

Am I worth what I cost her?

Better to avoid these questions.
To pretend that none of these questions need to be asked
because they are academic.
To pretend that the premise never arises,

because a child is always worth it.
Whatever it costs.
Whatever the price for the mother,
it is a price always worth paying,
right?

Is it making sense now? Anyone who ponders even the questions, anyone who muses about the price, is threatening precisely because they are asking – how much? how much does it cost? is it a price worth paying? They are questioning the value of a child, weighing up the value of a child and asking – is it worth this?

And this is sacrilege, of a very personal kind. It is about us. It is about each and every one of us. It is about how much we are worth.

So yes, avoiding those questions is the easy path.

But still hang on to that sneaky little doubt, because that sneaky little doubt – that lack of trust in mother – could be all that saves you from death at her hands.

Never question.
But never trust.

The hard path

Ask the questions. Know that whatever the answers may be, we are still here, which is worth something because it is all we have.

Accept one’s mother as human, and troubled.
Love her anyway.

That’s the hard part: Love her anyway.

Cake people by race

Today, I came across a couple of articles by Lowri Turner. I had no idea who she was, and still have only a fuzzy notion – apparently she is a Z-List columnist who has been on the telly in one of those celebrity reality gawk shows, and made a fair few quid flogging her wedding to the glossies, and generally she just doesn’t fill your heart with a quiet respectful smile.

In these articles (Guardian and Daily Mail, practically identical sentiments expressed) she wrote about her feelings on being a single mother with a mixed race baby. She is white, her two sons by her first marriage are white, and the new baby is half Indian. She states openly and repeatedly that she loves her baby and I believe her. She also talks about her complicated feelings on the subject of her daughter’s race. In theory she is a white liberal who knows that racism is wrong. In practice she has to a greater or lesser extent the same racist modes of thought that we all do, by dint of living and growing up under white supremacist patriarchy.

The difference between Turner and the rest of us is that she has had to confront those painful, uncomfortable truths as she looks at her own beloved, precious daughter. The difference is that she has to KNOW that she finds her daughter’s darkness strange. She has to CONFRONT that she finds it strange that her sons hardly seem to notice the difference that strikes her every time she sees her baby. She has to acknowledge and actually THINK about her fears for her family: that she worries about her daughter’s future in a racist and sexist world, that she worries about how racist and sexist society will perceive her and her multi-coloured family – a single mother with children of undeniably different fathers, one of them not even white.

Turner has been roundly slapped with the label “racist”. Her racism, directed at her own innocent new daughter, has struck many as particularly vile. People say that this woman, whatever she may feel inside, must not say such things lest her daughter in years to come will read them and realise that her mother does not love her at all.

The Daily Mail comments and these blog posts (one, two, three, four) and comments thereon are all good examples.

Yes, Turner is racist. Her reactions to her daughter prove that. She as good as admits it. But we are all racist, and – for what this is worth – it does take enormous courage for a white liberal to recognise that in themselves and to admit to it. It takes great courage to stand up and say – I married a person of colour, but that doesn’t mean I’m not racist. That doesn’t give me a free pass. I still need to examine myself and to think and to confront the nasty things I find. The parallel with “feminist” men struggling to recognise and challenge their own sexism needs no elaboration.

Yes, Turner doesn’t strike me as the kind of person I actually want to champion – what little I know of her (which may be unfairly skewed) leads me to suspect that she is pretty much taken up with the cult of celebrity, and that automatically makes her – in my book – someone I probably can’t respect. And she certainly says some dumb things about how she feels that her baby cannot possibly look like her just because they have different colouring, or about how anyone who dates or marries a person of a different race is making a political statement.

But then what? Someone, albeit someone we don’t respect much, has stood up and honestly talked publicly (as a columnist, that is after all her job) about racism – she has analysed her own feelings, examined painfully her owned weaknesses, questioned her own hitherto unsuspected racism.

And what are we saying? That she should STFU? That this should Not Be Spoken Of? That she is a Bad Mother if she seeks to start a public conversation about our latent racism, just because her own confrontation with her own latent racism happened in the context of her reactions to her own mixed race baby?

Should we also STFU about post-natal depression or about the difficulties some of us have in bonding with our babies? Should we also STFU about discipline problems, about our “unmanageable” children, or about how we are tearing our hair out trying to cope against all odds because they JUST KEEP WHINING?

Should we just pretend that being of mixed heritage is the complete non-issue that it should be, when it isn’t? Should we pretend that just knowing and believing that racism is wrong and harmful automatically makes us “colour-blind”, when it doesn’t? Should we pretend that by Not Talking About It, the elephant in the room will simply fade away – when it won’t?

Let’s not. OK?
Let’s not pretend.
Let’s not be afraid of our own truth.
Let’s talk about it.
Let’s learn from it.

Let’s grow up.

Symbiosis
A close association between two or more organisms (usually of different species). There are four types of symbiosis: amensalism, commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism.

Amensalism
Two or more organisms living together where one is harmed by the relationship without harming or benefiting the other.

Parasitism
Two or more organisms living together where one is harmed by the relationship and the other benefits.

Commensalism
Two or more organisms living together where one is unaffected by the relationship and the other benefits from it.

Mutualism
Two or more organisms living together where both benefit from the relationship. In obligative mutualism, the benefit is critical and irreplaceable: the two organisms are interdependent and cannot survive without one another. In facultative mutualism, the two organisms derive a less critical benefit and could survive without one another.

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In Psychoanalysis (with a capital P) , the relationship between a mother and her dependent infant is referred to as symbiosis. It is, apparently, a stage between autism (in the “dictionary” sense of utter self-absorption rather than the medical sense of having the developmental condition of that name) and individuation. It is a stage of gradual separation in which the physical unity of a pregnant woman gradually evolves into two separate individual human beings with two separate identities.

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What kind of symbiosis?
What can a child give to rescue its all-consuming need from the charge: parasite.

A mother clenches inside with the need for her child.
A mother cries out – bring me my baby!
A mother rocks, empty.
Empty.

A child can fill that need. Like a rare magic.

A mother smiles gently as she caresses the softness of her tiny beloved.
She catches herself at heights.
She dreams.

Joy.
Hope.

A mother can go to the ends of the earth, the ends of existence.
A mother can die for that child.
Even a mother who cannot kill, can die.

Strength.

A mother watches the well-meaning relatives, the neighbours, the friends, and she burns with waiting, longing to be alone. And “alone” doesn’t mean “alone” any more, yet she is barely even conscious that a child has entered into the meaning of “alone”.

Kin.

The child of such a mother is no parasite.

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And then – the symbiosis ends, and independence takes over. This takes a long time – which is good because the shock of separation is a shock that can break a person.

The loss of mutual dependence is as much a cause for grief as the discovery of autonomy is a source of joy. Each little milestone is a sign of gradual birth; but also a sign of gradual death. The birth of autonomy, the death of mother-love.

Except mother-love does not die. It potters on, not needed, but still hanging about the place, like a wardrobe in the garage that is too big for the new house – but it might come in handy someday, right?

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Baby (Leboyer)

I am warm.
I am warm.
A noise!
A safe place. Warm.
I am the world.

I am born.
Pain, light, noise, change.
Pain inside me.
The world is going wrong. What happened to the world? My world?
Where am I now? Where is my world, my warm, warm me?

I am warm.
This dulls the pain, muffles the noise, darkens the light, softens the change.
This milk is me.
I am not the world any more, but this milk is me, and I am it.
And it is warm.

Baby (Leboyer)

This world is not so scary.
The lights are pretty, the noise is funny.
And as for the pain – this milk is my protection.

Where is my milk?
It is me!
Where am I!
Help!

Here it is.

Sometimes this milk that is me isn’t here.
Sometimes this milk that is me doesn’t seem to be me.
Is this milk me, when it goes away sometimes?

Here it is.

Yet I am not so sure that this milk is me.
And if it is not me, what am I to do when I need it?

Here it is.

But what if it were not?

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MUMMY!
MUMMY!

MUMMY!

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Mother rabbit and bunny
Slowly, Ariel has grown.
Once she was a part of me. Like a limb.
Now she is not.
She has her own limbs.
I am her limb.
And one day I will be her appendix.
Or, a prologue.
Baby, I wish you joy.
Baby, don’t leave me yet.

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