There's no "me" in Mother.
For a lot of women, Motherhood is a lifelong goal. For some it comes easy, others have to work long and hard and spend a fortune to get there. For many, their attempts are met with failure and yearning. And then there are many women who have no interest in becoming a Mother and decide against it.
Motherhood is sold as the feminine ideal. Like a warm bath of nurturing, mentoring, cuddling, adorable play, peace and hormonal tranquility. Oh sure, Women are coming forward now to tell us all those dirty secrets our own Mothers never told us. The sleepless nights, screaming babies, leaking breasts, post pregnancy depressions. Some headway has been made towards revealing the truth of raising infants. It ain't all sunshine and roses.
But what comes next?
Our little darlings head off to school and Motherhood gets a little easier. Right? Some of us return to work immediately, some when school begins and others remain in the home. We are slowly learning not to judge each other regardless of which way we do this, because it's meant to be about choice. What is good for the Mother AND the child.
This Mother thing. It's something I always knew I would be. I felt compelled to have a child. I believed that my life would never be complete without the attainment of Motherhood. For me, pregnancy actually happened fairly easily once we decided it was time. It would seem that despite my menstrual struggles actual fertility wasn't going to be an issue.
Raising an infant was incredibly challenging. I was fortunate, however, not to experience post-natal depression and for the most part my baby was a decent sleeper and had a cheery disposition. She was a cutie patootie and I felt mostly moments of extreme bliss and gratitude. The love for my child was satisfying and redemptive. I felt complete, and lucky to be feeling so. I knew plenty of Mums who didn't share my experience
Of course there were moments of darkness and self-doubt. The compulsion to be the Martha Stewart perfect-Mother-and-Wife was a powerful one. Though I'm forever grateful that my launch into Motherhood was did not coincide with the launch of Instagram, I still wanted to do it all. We decided that I would stay at home and take care of all things household and child-related and shortly began traveling the world with Husband's job. There were enormous challenges involved in the expat life of we'd embarked upon, but it was also an extremely privileged time and pleasure was around every corner. We moved from Australia to Brazil, Brazil to Canada, Canada back to Australia and then finally returned permanently to Canada. We occasionally had nannies or childcare provided, were paid well and made friends from all over the world. If you ever get the chance to live abroad with your family, take it. It's an incredible experience.
So here I was, with time on my hands to really immerse myself in the raising of my daughter and I embraced it. Immersed myself in it. It was everything I imagined it would be. I somehow ended up with exactly the child I'd imagined. What I didn't expect, however, was my own reactions to my new role in the world. I actually didn't enjoy playing with my kid. Of course I relished time with her, loved reading to her and watching her explore the world each day but I found play to be a drudge. Perhaps the constraints of spending the day in a child's world meant I just couldn't make myself enjoy every aspect of it. I was extremely disappointed in myself. I told no one, as to speak this out loud seemed to fly in the face of how I wanted to be perceived. I felt guilty and ashamed. I grew up living my life in an imaginary place and time with my head in the clouds. My daughter played the same way which was a dream come true.
We were kindred spirits, surely, but God how I hated the role-playing and the dress-ups. I spent a childhood creating fanciful times for my toys and relished this invisible world, so why on earth didn't I enjoy sharing this time with my kid?! My most successful trick was to get her to play hairdresser or makeup artist. This meant I could sit still and do nothing whilst she fussed over me. It felt like cheating, but it was bliss. My husband, on the other hand, would come home from work and happily indulge in dress-ups and Barbie role playing games. He grabbed at all opportunities to play with his daughter and indulge her creative side. He was so good at it and I was jealous. I was the creative, the theatre director who didn't want to dress up and play games with my own child. What kind of horror was this?
As my daughter began school I embarked on a crafting career which eventually led me to teaching kids to craft. Did I craft with my own daughter? Hardly ever. The blame certainly can't be placed at the foot of a child who is learning, who wants to make a mess and screw things up and never finish anything. I found the process so incredibly frustrating. The rare times in which I didn't care about mess or dirt and destruction was in the garden, but she never lingered long to help me out there. Perhaps She and I are so similar that the creative process can't be shared well between us. Even now we get frustrated with each other when we embark on a crafty project. I've found it's best when we do them separately and check in later to show our work, or lack thereof. We are like toddlers, experts at parallel play yet sharing none of it. When I really think about it, this makes sense. Artists work alone as a rule, we have grown to doing the same. I learned well from my own Mother, but we didn't work on creative projects together until I was a young adult. Maybe when my girl is grown we will take more pleasure in such things.
I hope so.
Don't get me wrong, we shared a plethora of loving and stimulating experiences together and are extremely close. It just really shocked me that I wasn't the Mother I assumed I would be. I didn't want to make homemade playdough, or create things out of found sticks and rocks. I never wanted to wear the princess crown or the superhero cape. I found it all so very tedious.
There. I said it. I was bored.
I was immersed in the life of my child, enveloped in her adoration, fortunate to have everything I thought I wanted and I was disappointed. No one ever told me that being a Mother is a process, not an endgame. No one. Perhaps it should have been common sense, but it never occurred to me that I might not actually love every teeny tiny moment of it. Not one Mother sat me down and said, hey congratulations on becoming a Mother. That's awesome. You will feel love like you've never experienced before, your heart will feel overwhelmed by it. The bond is incredible. But also, I should mention, sometimes you'll actually hate it and feel rage and frustration that you never thought you'd be capable of. You'll be so bored that you'll wonder if drinking at 9.30am is really such a bad idea, it might make Sesame Street more tolerable at the very least. You'll talk too much to any grown up who crosses your path and have absolutely no idea if you've already told your Husband the sentence you're about to blurt out, but you'll say it anyway. Fuck it. You don't actually care anymore, you just want to hear your voice out loud saying adult things to an adult!
I have only realised now that it may not have been the right decision for me to give up work to focus on being a Mother. Of course, it was beneficial to all of us as a family. With only one career to focus on the decision to travel was a somewhat easy one to make. I have no doubt that being available for my kid in this way was of benefit to her. Yet when you roll yourself up in a Motherhood parcel tied with a big pink frilly bow it becomes very difficult to imagine another way, and so you accept it, become complacent. You roll with the punches, never knowing that most likely your own Mother felt exactly the same damn way and never expressed a word of it to anyone, least of all you. Her daughter.
As my girl grew it became evident that she wasn't always going to be a sunny-side up kid. Waking her from a nap could lead to an hour of sitting silently next to her watching cartoons while her brain "came to". Meltdowns occurred but still seemed within the "normal" range, yet what is normal after all. At times she would get so frustrated that the day could feel destroyed. I found it increasingly difficult to cope with, being a person who has always run a mile from conflict. Outbursts from those around me trigger my own anxiety. But we are told that this is what toddlers do. We just keep moving forward. Eventually things did settle down. We found our groove and we travelled.
I have a sensitive child. Her empathy bucket runs over and refills constantly. She cares deeply about the mental state of those around her, feels injustice to her core. Call her mean or a liar and you have found the words which hurt the most, integrity is a big deal for her and empathy is her superpower. Yet how crippling it is for a kid to feel everything so intensely. Every little slight, comment or eye roll from a peer can set off tidal waves of self-doubt and anxiety. She is also perpetually connected to my own mental state and seems to intuit my feelings before I have become able to articulate them. Often she provides comfort when I haven't asked, yet this connection also means we can both spiral out of control together into a whirlpool of anxiety. As the adult, it falls to me to be as calm as possible. Obviously this is pretty darn difficult when you are faced with your own self-doubt and anxious thoughts, and your child is mirroring them back at you. I do my best.
My girl is entering her teenage years now. She deals with anxiety and depression daily because of her special superpower. But if you met her you wouldn't catch a glimpse of this darkness. Her sunny side up sleight-of-hand performance is perfect. Outwardly she seems happy-go-lucky, friendly and confident. She is a brilliant actor.
Of course she is also hilarious and fun and and moody and messy and goofy. A "regular" teen. Yet more and more now, the status of regular teen is being redefined, lengthy studies are being completed. We know now that teen anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions. Our kids are having trouble coping with the world they inhabit. I feel so keenly for their struggles. I know my daughter isn't alone in her pain, the statistics tell me she is, in fact, a part of the majority.
So what does this mean for us Mothers?
The rise of anxiety and depression in young people has a knock on effect on their parents, relationships are put under pressure. Men and Women are often in conflict regarding how to deal with mental health issues. Culturally, Men are encouraged to suppress their emotions and push through, be strong. Women are for sharing, though the majority still find it almost impossible to defy the perfect Mother framework and freely share their story. I'm sure Fathers are feeling the stress just as intensely as Mothers, but I am unable to write from their perspective so I'll continue with this Mother narrative.
It is what I know.
Motherhood can be a trap of one's own making. Jumping into being a parent without full knowledge of what to expect often leaves you raw with exhaustion, frustration and disappointment and a keen yearning for something, somewhere else. Combine this with the endlessly flowing river of guilt and it's surprising we Mothers keep keeping on.
There is much said and written and joked about regarding the male mid-life crisis. He has given up so much fun and irresponsibility to be a good citizen, provider, partner, Dad. Of course it's no surprise he buys that flashy car, has that affair, gambles, we joke. It is a cliche, certainly, though a reality for many but yes, #notallmen. The cliche of Women in midlife is that of the crone. She is hormonal, grumpy and past her prime. This comes from the endless sucking it up, inhaling our desires and exhaling support of everyone else's needs. We are the carers, often dealing with the most difficult era for our children whilst struggling with our own enormous hormonal changes and having to deal with the care or loss of ageing parents. A Porsche a hot young 20-something someone and a weekend at a casino doesn't sound that bad when you're knee-deep in emotions and emotional laundry. My Mother once told me that as young Mothers we didn't have enough fun, took it all too seriously. I'm sure she is right but we're too busy taking it seriously and reaching for perfection to pay attention. Comparison is absolutely the worst, no matter what age you are.
What to do?
As we Mothers gain experience we begin to understand there is an ebb and flow to this parenting gig. Sometimes it's a wonderful wander through a field of flowers and sometimes it's just a fucking nightmare. But nightmares always end, the sun always rises. At the risk of sounding like Anne Shirley, we learn that tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it. We crash, we burn, we rise from the flames. Sometimes we are a little wobbly on fresh wings, and often we need an enormous amount of physical and/or emotional support. I don't live in Australia surrounded by family and old friends. I have made my own family here in Canada over the years since we moved here. These people are my lifeline. We all speak the truth and are very frank about ourselves and our struggles. The most intimate friends I have who are Mothers lean on me as much as I lean on them. These relationships are the single-most important thing in my life as an individual, we laugh and cry and drink and dance. The best thing you can do is find your people, no matter what age you are. They are out there somewhere waiting for you.
Slowly but surely I am coming to terms with the reality of the type of Mother I am. I am not Martha Stewart (not a bad thing considering her time in prison) nor Susie Homemaker, nor a sweet and gentle "lady". I am me. I am an individual, and a Feminist, and a person in recovery from and Eating Disorder, and a creative, and a director and teacher and a bit of a writer. Sometimes I yell, sometimes I cry. I quite often leave the ironing pile until it is falling over and step over the piles of God-knows-what littering the basement floor, I drink the wine and sometimes make a decent dinner.
I think I am beginning to understand what a good Mother really is. She is a rock against which a child can crash and scream and cry. She waits for the calm and then tries to pull everything back together until the next wave hits. She weathers the storm, instills trust and boundaries, and waits it out. She is the safe place. This is what I try to be.
This is what I will continue doing.