…and continual change preceding death

Life

I have morning despair a lot. This is when you wake up without bluebirds singing chirpily around your head, no sunbeam dancing on the floor ready to shine on you and no soundtrack like ‘oh what a beautiful morning I’ve got a beautiful feeling everything’s going my way’ or whatever.

On one such morning (okay, it was this morning) I asked Google (yep, yes I did – I asked Google) ‘What is the meaning of life?’ As I get older, I conclude that Google is as likely to have this answer as any other entity – as the stars, as the grass, as the moon, as the gurgle of a baby, the hug of someone you love or hot mozzarella dripping off a freshly baked pizza.

It gave me a nifty noun definition that culminated in the mighty tailwind of ‘…and continual change preceding death.’

I snapped my eyes open and jumped out of bed: yes, that’s it, I thought. That is what I’m struggling with all the time. It’s this business of continual change preceding death with no pause button indicated on the great manufacturer’s (aka the Wizard of Oz, or an amply bearded man with a generally benevolent disposition and foul temper, or a dancing twisted ladder of pure energy or – I don’t know) instructions.

So we must trot along, or be dragged along, or swim ahead, or grab on to something, or in our best moments, glide through with the awe-inspiring elegance of eagles, flying high and flapping our wings the least. When I think about how we are destined for continual change preceding death and that is life it becomes so obvious to me that my unhappiness at the moment is that I am simply refusing to believe it.

I won’t change, I won’t move, I won’t get older, things must stay the same, my babies must always say tut instead of put and lello or lero instead of yellow, I won’t let my hair go grey, I won’t dare cross – I am scared to cross – the vast land of middle-age because continual change preceding death is terrifying to me.

If I climb this mountain, what is on the other side, I’d like to know? If I start to embrace change instead of resisting it, what will happen?

What is this exquisite bittersweet time that we have been given here on earth? Why is such joy wrapped up in such merciless change? I circle back to: what is the point of it all?

I’d like to have the answer. I’d like to at least stop looking for the answer. I know, somehow, that the answer, as articulated through various poets and sages through time, is probably here, now and yet – there – it’s gone. Again.

The Great Escape

Life, Motherhood

He leans nonchalantly against the lamppost, hands stuffed in his pockets, one eye slightly squinting as he surveys the scene around him.

‘How are you feeling?’ I say to my son. A slight shrug of the shoulder, one hand runs through his recently cut hair. ‘Actually…’ he looks around again, the crowds of children returning from their summer holidays, the parents chattering, the new little ones starting school.

‘…I’m pretty bored. Yeh.’

‘You are bored?’

‘Yeh. I’m pretty bored.’ He glances around slowly again, hands moving deeper into his pockets. Steve McQueen has nothing on him. If he weren’t five, I’d expect him to take a pack of cigarettes from his rolled-up T-shirt sleeve and light up.

That lump in your throat you get when it strikes you how big your children are getting was already present, stuck there since the seven-year-old had ushered me away from the school entrance, not even allowing a hug, no backward glance. The nine-year-old, at least, tolerated a kiss on the cheek, taking it with a good-natured smile and thumbs up.

The youngest and me had struck up a deal. When we got to the school gates, I would immediately leave. I would pretend he was on his own, and I wouldn’t even say goodbye. Ok, I had said. You might change your mind when you get to the gates.

So here we are. As I stand back, making moves to go, I watch him, this pretty bored small boy. How he has so many enormous feelings going back to school, how excited he is to see his friends, how scared he is to go in the gates by himself, how tired he is from a sleepless, hectic summer. How full of hope and curiosity he is. He is replete with it, a fat pod of potential percolating, ready to pour himself into his world.

This is all too much for someone so young. He has to say he is bored. It is the only non-threatening, almost-neutral adjective he can pluck out of the air to describe his overwhelm.

I know this, and I hover close by.

‘Mum!’ he shouts. ‘It’s alright if you stay.’

He slips his hand into mine and buries his face briefly into the top of my leg, and Steve McQueen retreats from sight as he strolls into another year.

It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me

Mental health, Motherhood

Why do I love this line from Taylor Swift’s song so much? Why do I want to play Anti-Hero on repeat?

Am I a Tween, filled with so much hope and hormones, hoping that one day I will be just like the powerhouse Taylor, who writes songs and writes off men with equal panache?

No. I love it because – whatever the song is truly about – it makes me just stop and go: Hang on. You’ve tumbled back again, taken twenty leaps backward after those moves forward you made to better your life, eat well, exercise, make a constructive plan for the future, get your finances in order, stop scrolling, become a suddenly beatifically patient person, insert here the thing you need to do to improve yourself.

Is the song about taking responsibility, or is it about taking blame? Now I am trying to navigate the difference between the elegance of personal responsibility and the brutality of blaming myself for all the stuff that is going on in my life. I like the song on a visceral level. It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. It allows me to think on to ruminate on what I should do about this problem that is me.

Is there freedom in saying It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me? I think so. Because any other way of thinking is a set up for despair. But, you know, not too much It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me, because that, too, is a set up for despair.

I read this morning that your children are like a mirror back to you, their brilliance at mirroring your foibles as piercing and as shattering as that reflector would be if it broke into spikes and pierced you right through the heart. Oh I’ve heard this so many times: your children are reflecting back to you what you are, or they are mirroring back to you whatever stress, worry, anger, joy, content and resilience you may be feeling.

I believe this to be true to a certain extent but of course they are a bundle of cells themselves with searing souls and starving hearts of their own – and their feelings are theirs and not yours. It’s hard for me to separate the two, it really is. It’s hard for me to separate myself from anything, in fact.

Yet It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. Loving this line is a separation in itself. Thinking you are the problem is separation too, a nearly futile trip of the ego that sets you as powerful enough to be able to control any given situation.

We only have control over a few very basic and predictable things, I think. The rest is about letting go, surrendering, jumping in the raft and holding on as tight as you can as it flows, flies, flips and floats down the raging rapids of life.

Morning song

Motherhood

In the quiet of the morning, sometimes I wonder at all the young eyes staring at me. Their expectant gaze is matched by a padding of little feet – those of the puppy loping down the stairs, of the toddler, the five-year-old and the seven-year-old. There is a sweet sliver in this glaring early hour in which the eyes all look at me in tandem. They wait, suspended in time.

Usually, I am in the kitchen putting coffee on and I lean back to observe the stairwell: there they are, the eyes. Four pairs, including the puppy’s green offerings, are studying me, this woman who cuddles them and feeds them in that order, every morning, without fail. The rest of the day is frenetic, almost frantic. There is a race to dress them, feed them again (and again), play with them, take them somewhere and mostly, referee them as they live deep in the trenches of sibling rivalry, flinging mud at each other in a never-ending bid to win. The prize, of course, always changes and they are never even sure what it was in the first place. Each of them just wants to win.

The slice of the day afforded to these wondering eyes and soft feet is so short (the fighting kicks in soon enough) but I think about it afterwards. The puppy sets me off. He takes the staring and commits to it fully, from the moment I wake to when I curl into bed to seek refuge in sleep. He tails me incessantly and there is no place too lowly for him. The three-year-old is always in tow, both in tacit agreement that this woman should be followed everywhere at all costs. To the shower. To the toilet. Upstairs when I put away laundry, downstairs when I get more laundry to put away. Up again, down again. To the garden when I am putting rubbish out. Back in again, to the kitchen. To the front door when I open it. Back up to the toilet. All day long.

The eyes are relentless but not unwelcome. They are so innocent; they love me. They need to be with me, no matter how menial the task on display. It must be observed. It must be witnessed. There might, too, be something in it for them. For the puppy, well, there might be a tidbit of real human fare or a tickle behind the ear. For the three-year-old, anything could happen but what he lives for mostly is that I will down the dreary tools of domesticity and play a game of headless Lego minifigures with him. I try to avoid this mystifying game because I don’t like it but a few times a day a thought will slap me awake: do I like trudging up and down stairs to put laundry away or constantly sweeping the kitchen floor more than playing with my small son?

At this point, a tiny but ever-present part of me screams inside: ‘No, I don’t like ANY of it!’ but then the urge to bolt is always superceded by love. Alright, if I’m being honest – guilt too. I drop the unpaired socks in a basket where they will stay, sink to the floor and make my decapitated Ninja fly through the air to the delight of my baby. ‘Love you too Mama,’ he says, without any declaration from me. The older two look on scornfully and declare, ‘That’s not even a real game,’ and soon the youngest turns away from me.

I go back to the kitchen and empty the dishwasher, the puppy with his grassy eyes following me devotedly across the tiles, just in case.

Mum, mummy, mother, time

Motherhood

A lot of confusion recently from my two oldest sons on this whole mummy business and how it’s going to pan out. My six-year-old wants to know if I will still be young when he is a grown-up, and my four-year-old has got the wrong end of the stick completely. He is sure that in order for him to be a dad in the future, he will have ‘to find a new mummy’ altogether, and I will be out of a job. Which in a way is true I guess.

The four-year-old is also adamant that I do not become ‘a lady’ by which he means do not become an old lady.

Sometimes, I wish I could stay young so I could meet them at some sweet juncture where our ages cross, and we could transverse adulthood for a happy while together. Wouldn’t that be something? Meeting your 25-year-old child when you were 25. Or when you were both 40. I’d love to get to know them in that way, but short of time travel becoming a thing, I won’t.

The bending and folding of time never stops shocking me. How can I be dreaming about having children in my 20s, fretting for them in my 30s, surrounded by them in my early 40s all so – all so close together? And sometimes I look in my boys’ eyes now and fancy I see the adults they will become. I stumble into the future blindly but I imagine I see it there in the distance, too. Now is always now and we are so complacent about how this ‘now’ disappears at warp speed. (And yet, so much time with very small children feels glacial, snail-like; somnambulant drips of minutes stretching like glue through the day.) I think about when I’ll definitely be dead and that’s it, that’s my journey with these souls over, and I’ll never get to see them or the men they will become at 60, 70 and 80.

It’s our nature to surf on that wave of the next thing, the new thing, even when it’s just 10 minutes into the future. It’s kind of the carrot and stick method of living, it’s how we are built as humans. To bathe in the now just feels unnatural, unless you really set your mind to it and yes, get all mindful.

I don’t know if I’ve been doing that or not these last few weeks; I haven’t sat down to meditate, or reflect, or take deep breaths or any of those tools I found so useful a short while ago. There’s an other-wordly, precious quality to these lock-down days that ticks along beside the intense suffering of so many as the pandemic rips up lives and economies across the world.

I’m aware of it. How precious the days are. How lucky I am.

Big, shiny success

Creativity, Motherhood

What is success in life? What is your definition of success? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the weekend. Is success outside of you?

Happiness 101 dictates that it is nowhere to be found outside of you, only bloody inside of you. What a drag! Is it true? Now I’m not going to start waxing on about how you can be perfectly content without material things or concrete achievements because I’m not a barefoot monk sitting under a benevolent tree weeping fragrant blossoms. But I have started to question what success is.

This is because I consider myself a failure at certain things. Either I haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t tried at all, or I have given up too easily. If I were happy with that state of affairs then that would be a success, I guess. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I am happy with my state of affairs. And a lot of the time the answer is: yes. I feel incredibly lucky to be the mother of three sons and the stepmother of a beautiful daughter. I feel lucky to be married to a man I love, even though we are very different, it still feels right (when we are not fighting, of course.) If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to ‘be’ or ‘do’ (ugh, that question), I would have said ‘mother’.

Being a mother featured big on my to-do list, as I’ve mentioned here several billion times before. So am I a success? Do I feel like a success?

No *uttered in pathetic, small voice*. Because we are programmed to always want more. We always want more, and we always want to be more. It’s a cursed thing, it’s a great thing, it’s a human thing. We will always want more or feel like we should be more, or that we are missing out on something, or that we are missing out on being something.

How many of us think, often, even once in a while, ‘Jeez, my life is exactly the way I always dreamed it would be.’ Actually, writing that sentence, I can say that I have thought that thought, briefly, recently. It was early in the morning. The coffee was glugging and chuffing its way out of the machine. The boys were playing around me; the littlest one ran up and hugged my leg. There was crappy white toast in the toaster (my goddam favourite) and salted butter ready to be slathered all over it (I’m not allowed it because of gallstones, therefore I can’t stop eating it.) An old Beatles album, Rubber Soul, played in the background. I’d like to add that sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window, but it was pissing down. No matter. I still thought: living the dream. Living the goddam dream.

And that is success.

PS I have a deadline coming up which I’ve been avoiding and I would rather do anything else – pull off my toenails, iron my vulva (to steal a phrase from a funny old friend), pluck out my my eyelashes one by one and glue them back on again with yesterday’s porridge – than go near my book draft. See above. What is success? I’ll report back from the front soon.

How to parent yourself

Motherhood

Ambitious blog title, eh? I haven’t got a bloody clue how to do that, but I am interested in finding out. I think there are adults who have managed to reach maturity fairly unscathed and there are adults who simply have not reached maturity yet, even at 35, even at 60.

Even the unscathed grown-ups are still hauling around that inescapable inner child, and though they might be treating them fairly well, now and then they might get a shock when that wayward young one stamps their foot to try to get things to go their own way.

As well as mothering my children, I often notice the need to parent myself, and frankly it is exhausting and I fail at it quite a lot of the time. I get my kids up, dress them, feed them, take them to activities I think they would enjoy (like today, for example. My toddler son had a marvellous time hiding in the shoe cubby-hole while the music teacher sang about monkeys jumping in the bed and the other tots clapped their chubby hands in delight), I read to them. I remember that I actually have to, like, hang out with them also, sans distractions, so I crouch down and try to just think: isn’t this great? Me and my three boys just hanging out, spending quality time together. I try not to think about: the laundry, the dishes, what’s for dinner, have they had enough fresh air today, where have all the socks gone, why is there only one of every shoe readily available just as we are about to leave the house, why can’t I keep my voice light, calm and gentle, should we be doing crafts, are they going to be fucked up, is this enjoyable, really? Is parenthood enjoyable, really? I want to read my book, I wonder if anyone has sent me an urgent What’s app message, is it just me or is parenting three young children shockingly hard, what if this were the 70s, does that mean I wouldn’t have to worry so much about meeting their every need, how is their emotional development coming along, oh crap am I their blueprint for relationships, how long before I can put the TV on, if they play in the street will they get run over, what is the point of cooking dinner if no-one ever eats it, why do I feel so old all of a sudden, do I have early onset Alzheimer’s, how long can I get away with not washing their hair, do they have cavities yet, is hanging out in the living room with them like that movie Room where the mum and kid are being held captive or is it ok to hang out in the living room, should we go back outside again…

These thoughts come in between moments when I snap to and think – Jesus, they are growing so fast, can you JUST. ENJOY. BEING. WITH. THEM. I’m parenting the only way I know how – it’s fuelled by love and incompetence – but the deeper I wade in to their childhoods the more aware I become of the need to parent myself.

Myself has gone absolutely wild with the lack of mothering. No boundaries when it comes to sleeping or eating. Emotions allowed to run unchecked. I haven’t taken a firm hand with myself to even cover the basics. I think I can coast like this for a while but it’s not fun.

If you’ve reached adulthood without any inner anchor of self you have to try to find it. I think you do that by parenting yourself. Trying to understand yourself. Giving yourself what you need, and not simply what you want in that moment. Setting boundaries. Respecting your dreams. Telling yourself No when necessary and equally Yes when it’s called for.

Ultimately, being there for yourself. You have to be, because no-one else really will. You are the mother of you.

Hitman

Motherhood

My youngest son favours hitting or biting as a way to get things done. Won’t let me turn on the oven on its hottest setting and put my play pasta in? Take that *brutal slap across the face. You want to strap me into this restrictive straitjacket of a car seat? Not on your nelly – how about this *sinks teeth into my wrist.

What? What’s that you say? I am not allowed to precariously carry these piled up glasses I’ve hunted from the cupboard by pulling my highchair over so I can teeter on the edge to get them? I think you should revise your opinion *throws all the glasses on floor and punches my leg.

He is often violent with his brothers, pulling their hair or biting them when they snatch a toy or berate him for destroying their intricate lego games; he has experimented with hitting smaller babies and – yes, well he just keeps hitting me. I get a good whack or scratch in the face for just about everything I do, bar breastfeeding, although once he also got pissed off with my boob and hit that too.

He’s an angry young man, and it appears to be his default mood. Of course, I blame myself. I was monumentally cranky in the third trimester carrying him and it’s hard not to wonder if all the Tupac I kept listening to had some kind of effect on him. Tupac blasted out during labour and even up to the point of birth; I have no idea why, all I knew was that I had to listen to something that was the opposite of gentle to distract myself from the pain I felt.

Now he is like a small and angry rapper from the ghetto himself and I know I have to love it out of him. It is going to have to be severely loved out of him, just oodles of extra stretchy infinite love. Just like I have to love all the irritating unhelpful (straight up understatement) qualities out of myself, I am acutely aware that I have to love this tendency out of him.

I’ve been pretty angry with him a few times, usually based on the level of pain or surprise experienced in relation to the latest wallop, and obviously unleashing anything on the rage spectrum works the opposite way. More anger from me, tenfold back from him. Getting all shouty is clearly not going to bring out the sweeter qualities in my little ball of frustration. So it’s all about love. And I love him so much but gentle is not my default mode in any of these situations.

So I have work to do. Countless times a day I have to catch myself, ramp up the gentle, scoop out the love, set my inner Tupac firmly aside and channel – I don’t know – Celine Dion instead (alternative suggestions welcome).

Undone

Mental health, Motherhood

My middle son has this tiny pair of walking boots, impossibly cute, suitably hardy and adorned with preternaturally long laces that are always coming undone.

Putting shoes on my three small boys is – sheesh – I dread it. If my husband is around I will diligently go find the socks in our massive odd sock basket (my new way to store the endless mountain of insolently unpaired socks) but I will attempt to avoid the actual putting on of the shoes, which seems to go on forever, can involve getting kicked in the face or, worse, one of the boys lying luxuriously on the ground, foot aloft like a very short emperor, waiting to be shod.

Lately, my son’s walking boots have had me beaten down because no matter what way the laces were tied or how carefully maneuvered, within minutes they were undone again, ready to trip him up, say, at the top of the stairs, or as he was crossing the road (my brain likes to keep me on my toes with all the worst case scenarios). The top of one lace was frayed out like a dried old bunch of weeds, which, upon regular viewing, sparked a sense of hopelessness inside of me. It would never fit back in to the tiny top eyelet on his shoe, yet I knew that maybe if it did – just maybe – the laces might have a better shot at staying tied.

So I laced and laced again, every day, ten or twenty times a day, observing the frayed head, sighing when I looked at the eyelet, thinking about where to get a new pair of such laces and adding that to my list of Important Things That Need Done.

Shoes. Socks. It’s the tiny things that will derail you when you are feeling overwhelmed, as I am at the moment with the monumental task of motherhood. Straightforward things can seem insurmountable.

Then, the other day, after we’d all hurled ourselves in the door from school, I grabbed the boot from where it had been thrown in our hallway. I sat down on the bottom stair, and picked up the dried weed lace, rolling the top of it slowly between my thumb and forefinger, then threading it easily into the pinpoint eyelet. It all took less than a minute.

Briefly, I marvelled at how simple it had all been. I knew also, in that moment, how really simple everything else is too. How things can change on a dime. How all it takes is a tiny action, a small shift in perspective, and life will become just that little bit easier.

Hug

Motherhood

When your chest

is touching mine

the beat of your wee heart

fluttering and thumping

so close

and you are sad

and you have been screaming

and it’s been oh, such a long day

(it’s only 9am)

and I am sad

and I have been screaming

time calls a truce.

An infusion of love happens

electric,

unbreakable.

We pull apart –

always you first;

there’s a lot of stuff to do

when you are three.

I linger,

your heartbeat still resonates

in my chest,

and I think –

I needed that

quick-wire kick

of love

more than you.