Happy, Crappy Mother’s Day

Rocks

How did you spend Mother’s Day? Bathed in prosecco, sunlight, love and expensive smellies given to you by your thoughtful children, or by your thoughtful partner on their behalf? Did you give your own mum a hug/card/bouquet? Do you feel #spoiledrotten and #soblessed?

Or did you spend it crying, because your child or your mum is no longer with you? Fed up, because your partner fell short of some elusive benchmark that makes his/her efforts worth hashtagging- or because you don’t have a partner and had to make your own Mother’s Day breakfast? Or painful because your own mum is not someone you feel you can celebrate. Or because you never got the chance to be a mum. I know at least one woman to whom each of the above things applies.

And maybe that’s why- as much as I enjoy the customary lie in (that we didn’t bloody GET today, thanks a LOT, bloody clocks going back) and handmade card and family outing- Mother’s Day makes me feel kind of weird.

I just can’t get fully on board with any special day that has the potential to make as many people feel crappy as it makes happy. See also: Valentine’s Day. And I definitely can’t get on board with every company from banks to bakeries urging us to “tell them what makes mum special” on Facebook so they can harvest our data and pummel us with advertisements.

But there’s something else that doesn’t quite sit right with me, too. You see, there’s a middle ground between finding the day excruciating, and skipping through a field of wildflowers with your non-whining children, while your dashing partner cooks a roast for a multi-generational celebration of motherhood. And that middle ground doesn’t fit in the idealised, Insta-version of Mother’s Day that we see all around us.

I mean, the fact that it’s Mother’s Day, instead of Mother’s Morning, or Mother’s Hour, is a bit of a big ask. We’re supposed to be happy and pampered and relaxed, and our partners are supposed to be grateful and worshipful, and our children well behaved and adoring, for a whole day?

 The truth about this day, and every day, is that while one minute, your kids are kissing your eyelids and declaring their love, the next minute they will not put their trousers on, and you will curse your partner for daring to have a shower, while YOU deal with the CHILDREN, oh my God. You may go on a lovely trip out, but someone will still put their entire leg into smelly mud and then wipe it on your trousers.

You might even (this would never happen to me, ahem), have a sort of mad, half-asleep midnight rant at your other half before Mother’s Day has even begun, because you feel that they might not have applied themselves to the project fully. Even though you really don’t care, and you really are happy with some snipped-up post-its glued to a piece of A4. Such is the power of marketing.

And if you don’t get to hiss resentfully: ‘and on Mother’s Day, too’ at your kids/partner at least once during the day, it’s just not proper.

The truth about this day, and every day, is that it is happy and crappy and messy and joyous and annoying, all at the same time. The happiest days have crappy moments, and the crappiest of times bring happiness too. That’s motherhood. Expecting it to be 100% glorious, for 24 hours of the year, is a bit of a nonsense.

If you did have a glorious day, I am genuinely really chuffed for you. But you might be reading this having had a  bit of a shit Mother’s Day- not for any deeply personal reason, but just because nobody was their best self, or everyone had diarrhoea and vomiting or nits, or you had an accidental hangover and felt guilty about it all day. If you had one of these days, I say don’t sweat it.

For me, motherhood is not about fireworks, but about collecting those sparks that glimmer through the days, all year round: seeing your kid concentrating on a jigsaw puzzle with the sunlight on the baby frizz on their hair; making them pronounce ‘cucumber’ as ‘puke-umber’ over and again; exchanging a proud smile with your partner when your child carries their used plate to the sink, even if it is after a fraught mealtime. Sometimes, it’s about the glory of grabbing your handbag, containing no breadsticks and no wipes, and heading out without your family. It isn’t, I don’t think, about a day.

“What a misery guts!” I hear you cry. But I’m not, really. I had a lovely Mother’s Day. I didn’t skip through wildflowers, but I did climb on rocks with my babies. I ate bacon and sausages and a picnic and a third of a chocolate éclair. My four year old boomed “GO BACK TO SLEEP MUMMY WE WILL MAKE YOU A CUP OF TEA” directly into my ear at 6am (or was it 4am or 7am, I don’t know, bloody clocks). It was magic, at times, and it exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.

It didn’t look like something from the centre pages of a Boden catalogue. But then again, nothing about motherhood- or the motherhood I experience, anyway- ever did. And that’s fine with me.

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In Memory

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There is nothing that kills a conversation quite as effectively as the words ‘my sister died.’

When asked how many siblings I have, I always say that I was one of four. Or that I have three siblings; or that I have two sisters and one brother. It’s only when people ask where my siblings live, or how old they are, that things can get awkward.

People are always shocked. And then they want to know when, and how old she was, and how (2004; sixteen; drowning). And then they often say that they’re sorry they brought it up, that it must be hard for me to talk about. And then we move on.

The thing is, it’s not hard to talk about it. What’s hard is that it happened. Talking about her is lovely. I want to talk about her. I’m just not so sure that other people do.

I had a tattoo for Helen this week. I guess it’s my way of memorialising her. We have lots of ways of doing that, us humans- and many of them are public.

Flowers in cellophane are tied to lamp-posts, with a photo that eventually fades in the sun and turns to mush around the edges in the rain. Trees are planted, and songs written, and plaques screwed to benches, and Facebook pages created. The Taj Mahal was built by a grieving husband as a monument to his wife (the fact that she was just one of his several wives takes away some of the romance, but let’s gloss over that…).

For me, written words have been my way of creating a memorial for Helen. I have always loved writing, but losing Helen cut something open in me, and words poured from that place. Notebooks are filled with long letters to Helen and short (bad) poems and angry scribbles. There are folders of writing about Helen tucked away on the laptops I have used over the last twelve-and-some years. And there are pockets of my grief dripped like spots of ink across the internet.

So it made sense to me to use words (EE Cumming’s words) to memorialise Helen in a tattoo. But why did I write it on my skin, forever? Why not just read the poem, or have it framed? Why do so many people get tattoos in memory of someone they have lost?

Most obviously, of course, it’s about honouring the person with something permanent and indelible. My tattoo will last as long as my love and grief for Helen will last- that is, as long as I am living. It’s about making Helen present, somehow.

But there’s something else, too. For me, it’s the same as the roadside memorials, or the Taj Mahal. It’s about making private grief public.

There’s a short period of mourning after a death, when it is demanded of you to outwardly grieve, to talk, to emote. But when the world perceives that the immediate, acute wound has healed over, that’s the end of that. And never mind the scarring that remains. Normal life can cover that up like a heavy-duty concealer.

Often when I’ve written a blog about grief, I’ll get messages from people I know. ‘My sister died too.’ ‘It was like that for me, when my husband died.’ More often than not, if they are a newer friend or a work colleague, I’ll have had no idea that they went through this loss. You can’t tell, from looking at someone, what they are carrying around with them. You can’t tell from the outside if someone’s heart has been shattered, and cobbled back together.

So maybe having a tattoo, or tying bunches of flowers to a lamp-post, or drinking a little too much gin on the eve of an anniversary and misery-posting twenty photos of your loved one onto Facebook, is, in part, wanting to signal your loss, to show that you haven’t come to terms with it, or got over it, and that you never will.

I feel uncomfortable writing this, but let’s grasp the truthy nettle: I do want my grief to be recognised. More than that, I want grief, generally, to be recognised and spoken about. Not just to rear up for a few days of stricken hashtagging and tortured newspaper think-pieces when a famous person dies. Or to be packed away along with the funeral outfit that you never want to look at again.

Look, I don’t want to lie on a chaise longue and weep about my sister all day. But I do wish that we could talk about grief as easily as we talk about birth, or love, or Kimye. Let’s face it, a conversation about sex is far more likely to happen in an office environment than a conversation about grief, and something about that seems off to me.

So, in the interests of talking about loss- and if you’ve made it this far- this is what it’s like, for me, almost thirteen years down the road of grief:

I miss her every day. (See, sometimes words are so over-used that they don’t do the job unless you dig into their meaning. I miss her. Every day. If you know what that feels like- here, have an awkward hug from me. If you don’t, can you imagine? Missing someone, every day. The constant hum of something like homesickness. The longing.)

I cry for her every day. Crying doesn’t necessarily mean tears. Sometimes it’s a heavy fullness in my chest when I am washing up. Or sometimes it’s a messy, snotty sob fest into my pillow- and that kind of crying, actually, feels the best.

I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.

I can be happy- I am happy- but I’ll never not be sad.

I’ll love her until the end of time.

And, always, I carry her heart (I carry it in my heart).

I can only speak of my own experience. But if you know someone who is bereaved- even if it happened a long time ago, and even if they haven’t built a marble palace or injected ink into their skin to make their private grief public – maybe ask them about it sometime. The chances are, they miss their loved one every day too.

In Praise of the Power Pal

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Things I did not manage to do last week:

  • Remember that we were supposed to grow a cress-head thing for a competition at school, until a Facebook status reminded me.
  • Actually grow a cress-head thing (luckily the kids said they didn’t want to, because they “don’t like competitions”- so I got to dodge a parental fail and feel smug about my peace-making, surely future UN negotiator children).
  • Anything at all towards planning my rather huge upcoming career change.

Things I did manage to do last week:

  • Meet up with three different friends on three different occasions.

Some might say my priorities are off. I say they are bang on. As we whack our way laboriously through these ‘midult’ years (it’s a thing, apparently- the ages between 35-55,  according to experty types) like so much bracken and brambles, I say that our friends are just as important as they were when we were teenagers- perhaps even more so. In fact, I feel that our midult friendships have much in common with our teenage ones.

At eighteen, life feels bewildering and huge. You have no idea about anything. Who am I? What will I become? Am I in love? God, what’s happening to my body?

You’re peering over the edge of something, and it feels like the shit is about to get real. Sex. Relationships. The Terrifying Future. Your friends are there with you throughout, riding the raw realness of it all.

Then in our thirties, when we’re supposed to be grown up and settled, the truth hits us in the face like a spade: we still have no idea about anything. Life feels bewildering and huge again. Should I have children? When should I have children? Gah, I have children. Am I in love? Am I still in love? And of course: God, what’s happening to my body?

Now the shit really is real, and this seems to be the time of life when it also starts to hit the fan in ways both glorious and awful. Birth. Divorce. Bereavement. Redundancy. Parenthood. All of life’s rich tapestry is here in these midult years, and sometimes it feels like it’s unraveling in your hands.

To mix my metaphors with gay abandon, now you’re peering over the edge again- except now there’s a real possibility that you might fall off. And when you do, you know who’s going to be there to catch you: your mates. Just like they were when you were eighteen.

Just like then, they’ll be there to listen; to talk, and every other reply will be ‘YES! Me too!’; to cry; to laugh (while sometime crying at the same time) until your drinks come out of your noses. The drinks now may be different- slightly more expensive, and crucially not vodka jelly- but the laughter is the same.

There’s one big difference, though: while those heady teenage friendships were characterised by great expanses of time, midult friendships are defined by a lack of it.

Back then, nights out would stretch into mornings; you could spend weeks in each other’s company (my friend Ben and I almost literally spent every night and day of the summer of 1999 together- we shared a bed, we worked the same summer job, we ate all the cheese and crackers and we drank all the tea. It felt like it would never end).

Now, time for friends is almost unbearably truncated. Work, family, trying to stave off inevitable physical decay by charging around the local park, the all-important sleep. All of these jostle to push time with friends further down our to-do lists.

At that’s why midult women, I think, develop a crucial new life skill, which I will call power-palling. We kick social niceties to the curb and cut to the chase, so that when we do meet, it is maximum impact and minimum filler. For example…

You arrive to pick your kids up from a friend’s house. The children are en masse doing that weird writhey thing where they watch telly with one leg on the sofa and their chins on the floor. ‘Sorry it smells of poo,’ your friend says by way of greeting. You plonk your handbag down and get straight to the point: “I had a weird smear test result. I’ve just had a camera…there… and I’m a bit scared, but the doctor said it’s probably OK.’ In ten minutes flat, you’ll have to take the kids home to bed, or their heads will implode. But by the time you leave, you feel better.

Or, when the shit is realler than real and hitting the fan like nothing else, you knock on your friend’s door and, when they open it, you just start crying straight away. There is no time to waste at our time of life!

Power-palling is your friend responding to a text in twenty seconds when she thinks you are in crisis, when everyone knows that 36 hours or more is a perfectly acceptable response time for non-crisis text conversations these days.

It’s squeezing two month’s worth of catching up, laughing and mulling life over into the two hours between the kids’ bedtimes and your own- because you both understand that, as glorious as your union and the sauvignon blanc may be, your lives may depend on not having a hangover tomorrow morning.

(I have to caveat, here, that I think this all applies to people who don’t have kids, too- this isn’t a ‘parent thing’: it’s just that my only life examples involve kids, because they have a way of penetrating every single thing that you do and are).

It’s concocting an actual agenda- in your head, or even on paper- of crucial things to discuss over a cup of tea, and continuing to shout them at each other as your mate bumps her buggy down your front steps and wheels it down the street. ‘WE HAVEN’T EVEN DISCUSSED THE PATRIARCHY/BEYONCE/INSTAMUMS!’ you yell forlornly at her retreating back, and you already can’t wait until next time.

As I write this, I’m painfully aware that there are friends I haven’t caught up with for far too long, whom I love and whom I really must power-pal at the first opportunity. Friends, I am coming for you. I may be waxing my legs at the same time, and I do have to pick up the car from the garage in 45 minutes, but we both know that’s more than enough time to make everything alright in our worlds.

Thanks for everything, Jo March

L reading

I’m jealous of my seven year old daughter. Specifically, of her bookshelf. Following Christmas, and her birthday, and the digging-out of a box of musty paperbacks from storage, it is bursting with chapter books.

God, those books. Surely there is no fiction more exciting than the stories aimed at the middle years of childhood- that time between picture books and adolescence?

The Worst Witch. Little House On The Prairie. Just the titles make me swoon. I could dive into them and stay there forever. I used to suffer from panic attacks; should I ever struggle with them again, I’m going to repeat the titles of children’s novels with each breath: Anne of Green Gables. Little Women. Ramona The Pest. I’ll be calm in no time.

 

It’s not just the books themselves, but the feeling of the discovering them. I remember it sharply. It’s like falling in love- it is falling in love. That’s what I envy, I think: I can never go back to having not read those books again, and she is just at the start of it.

My girl is falling over herself to read all the books, all the time, often juggling several at once. We encourage her to finish one before starting another, but she doesn’t. She has one on the go by her bed, one on the kitchen table, sometimes one on the arm of the sofa too. I get it. I get the fever of it.

I went into her room yesterday morning, wondering why she was still asleep at 7am (freakish event) to find her with her lamp on. She looked up at me from her bottom bunk, where she was sitting with her knees up to her chest and a book resting on them. Her face was alight: ‘Mummy, it’s so EXCITING, Sophie’s just found ALL THE JEWELS’. Her first mystery book.

Because I can’t just enjoy a feeling without pulling it apart in my mind, I’ve been pondering what it is that is so magic and important about this swathe of children’s fiction (Dick King Smith. Narnia. The Borrowers. I keep thinking of more)- particularly for little girls:

These books help children to understand themselves, to become themselves. When you are a girl of seven or eight, and you’re just starting to figure out who you are, you can enter the pages of a book and recognise yourself, or the person you want to be. In a world that tells you to be Cinderella, you can leave fairytales behind, and find girls in those pages who are different. Clever, clumsy girls who don’t look like princesses, and don’t always say or do the right thing. Mildred Hubble and Anne Shirley and Ramona Quimby. Girls who get cross, and fall over, and get grass in their hair. Through these books I understood that it was OK to be a clever, clumsy girl who didn’t look perfect, and embarrassed herself occasionally (or even most days). And even though my peers, and my own self-critical inner voice, and magazines and the world at bloody large would try to convince me otherwise as I navigated the teenage years, I really believe that this understanding gave me a strong foundation.

And so these stories are feminist without even trying to be. I’ve become increasingly worried and dismayed at the way girls are bombarded with sexualised, passive role models from a very young age- in TV shows and pop songs and films and adverts. I get that when our daughter is a teenager, she’ll need to explore that side of herself, to hold herself up against those ideas (a horrifying thought, to which my current response is: la la la, I’m not listening)- and I’m hoping that at that point, more literary heroines will step in to help when I’m lost for words and strategies. But she is seven right now. So it makes me want to punch the air to rediscover these stories filled with role models galore- finding the jewels, solving the mysteries,  and kicking back against convention.

Lucy- the littlest, as well as a girl, is the first one to venture into the cupboard and find Narnia. Arrietty, narky and wayward, is determined to go borrowing just like her dad Pod. Jo March is just, well, she’s everything.

These aren’t stories about feminism, they just are feminist- which, to my mind, is the best way to let those all-important messages drip-drip-drip into little minds and dilute the swill of misogynistic bile they’ll be exposed to as they grow up.

And finally (well, not finally- I could bang on forever, but I have to stop typing somewhere), these books let children create a world that is theirs and theirs alone. We all know the benefits of parents reading to children, and it’s a time most of us treasure- albeit while, sometimes, glancing at the clock and dreaming of Netflix and looking forward to the click of turning the light off. But of all the milestones our girl has reached in her life, seeing her discover the joy of reading alone has possibly given me the most pleasure, especially as she struggled to learn to read. The days spent sweating over sounding out C-A-T are a distant memory now (have hope, parents of reluctant readers, have hope!).

I love the fact that she’ll know how Sophie’s mystery is solved before I do, and she’ll tell me about it, her words tripping over each other in her haste to get them out. I love it that when she is curled up with a book (is there any more comforting phrase in the English language?), she can be safe under our watch but escaping into her own, independent world. I love that through stories, she’ll hopefully find laughter and fun and ideas beyond what we can give her.

And I hope that she’ll learn the same lesson I did: that she need never be lonely, as long as she has good books.

 

The Magic Number?

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I’ve never been a person who ‘just knows’ about things. Sure, I’ve been with the same man since I was 19, but there has been no ‘just knowing’ about it. There has been a lot of choosing, and working, and talking, and sometimes freaking out.

It’s the same with most things: houses, jobs, hairstyles. My approach is never to ‘just know’, and always to deliberate. Trust my gut? Nah. I prefer to trust many hours of tortured overthinking and introspection, and list-making. With tick-boxes.

But there was one thing I did just know about: I wanted a child. And then, when we’d been lucky enough to have her, I just knew I wanted another one. No overthinking required.

Two kids was a no-brainer. But THREE? Three is a possibility that I think I’ll always be on the fence about- at least until biology kicks me unceremoniously off the fence onto the side of ‘no can do’.

I have friends with three kids, and they just knew they wanted three (and they’re doing a damn good job of it). I’ve got friends with two kids, or one kid, and they just knew too. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one having a constant internal bicker with myself about this subject, with one voice bleating ‘yes, a baby, now please’, and the other admonishing bossily: ‘hell to the no, woman’.

(Here come the lists…)

In the “yes, a baby, now please” corner:

  1. Babies are lovely. Children are lovely. Being a mum is lovely, a lot of the time.
  2. I always wanted lots of children. That was before I had any, obviously. But having been one of four, and knowing how fantastic growing up in a big family can be, I think I’ll always feel a pang for a tribe.
  3. Babies really are lovely.
  4. I’m going to say this, and I’m not proud of it, but… There’s a swotty part of me, the part that got straight As at GCSES, that wants three in order to score top marks at mumming. It’s quite aspirational, having three. Not wanting another would feel a bit like an admission that I wasn’t loving having two- like proclaiming a cake delicious, but then declining another one. (Note to self: not a reason to have baby).

In the “hell to the no” corner:

  1. While I’m sure I could manage, technically, with three, I suspect I’d be frazzled. I’m not a coper like my mum-of-three friends. When we’re in the park, I panic if I can’t see both the kids, my head swivelling constantly from one child to the other like an electronic toy that has been through the washing machine, and I come across as really, really rude to whoever I am talking to. I have a tendency to break into a sweat when both are yelling MUMMY from different parts of the house. My hands feel full, literally and figuratively.
  2. The bits where being a mum is not so lovely, and even some of the bits that are lovely, are, well, really hard. There seem to be so many scenarios in parenthood where you are stretched to capacity: having a newborn; having a newborn and a toddler OMFG. Let’s be honest, even with older kids, leaving the house is sometimes like a mad dream where everything plays in reverse (why do they stand in the doorway like that, when you are trying to shut the door?). But these days, now that they are 4 and 7, I can manage. I can manage to put them both to bed without nearing breakdown, on my own when need be. Weekends are somewhat relaxing. It’s doable, having two. I like doable. Could we go back into the breach, really?
  3. As someone who has known the dark side of love and loss, having lost my sister at a young age, I know only too well that love also invites pain. And we’ve been so lucky, so bloody lucky, to get the two that we knew we wanted to have. Choosing to stick, rather than twist, feels like a way to protect my heart somehow.
  4. I don’t ‘just know’, and when it comes to whether or not to have more children, I’m starting to think that ‘just knowing’ is the best barometer.

So maybe it really is time to hang up my uterus, and appreciate that I am, actually, hashtag blessed with two, and borrow other peoples’ babies for  squishing and surreptitious head-sniffing.

And if that fails to quell the broody beast within, well, we’re still in our mid-thirties- by the skin of our teeth- and I do warn G regularly that I may simply lose my mind in a couple of years and suddenly demand another one (assuming it’s possible, obviously).

I mean, babies. They are so very lovely.