My eldest child is a maker. An idea possesses her, and with a single-mindedness I can only admire, she decides what she is going to create, and she makes it.
This week when I unfairly stopped her from taking the coffee table up to the treehouse, she got out her tools and some scrap wood from the garage, and made one. When her brother asked for a submarine from cardboard boxes, she put one together for him and even hooked up headlights with some bulbs, batteries and electrical wire. When she can’t think of anything else to do, she gets out the sugarpaste and food dyes and makes models. A pom-pom craze hit this house mid-week, and she has now made five pom-poms and is currently partway through making “the World’s Biggest pom-pom” with what might be the World’s Biggest ball of yarn.
As I attempt to access those thin, flickering films in the archive of my mind those last few days of pregnancy in a November eleven years ago seem like a hazy, shaky memory. I try to visualise myself as a not-yet-mother, and I can’t quite see who she is. I’m so young. So green. So naïve. The birth took me by storm, as did the recovery. (Which I write about here) I mostly fumbled through new parenting and hiked my way up that steep learning curve, one uncertain step forward, two steps sliding back. I found myself at the bottom of the well of post-natal depression, and eventually clawed my way back into the light. I journeyed to the darkest reaches of my own heart as I experienced new and startling emotions: boundless love, desperation, rage, fatigue, connection like no other. I looked into the dark pools of my child’s gaze and within them beheld a reflection of who I really am.
In sixth grade one of the cool girls nailed me with her withering stare and spat these words at me. Hook nose. I went home and checked myself out in profile, and yes I guess my nose did sort of make a hook shape. It certainly wasn’t the upturned pixie that Ms Cool had. An epithet that has stayed with me, I later came to understand it as having a racial element. But at the time it only confirmed what I had always felt about myself: that I was ugly.
I tried to have a seasonal nature table. Honestly, I did. You know, those little sacred spaces in people’s homes, usually covered with items like acorns, pumpkins and gourds, maybe an autumn leaf or two. There’s almost always a little Waldorf-inspired felt gnome and maybe even a red and white spotted toadstool.
For years I have walked into friends’ houses and admired their little gnomes, all white fluffy beards and pointy hats crouching wisely beside those Fly Agaric toadstools. Little felt leaves with white-stitched veins, maybe a felted acorn, possibly a wee wooden house for Mr Gnome to retreat to in the evenings (no doubt with a fireplace and a cup of cocoa). Ahhh, so gorgeous, so homely, so tidy.
When I was little, probably 4 or 5 years old, my mother bought me a bag of M&Ms. It was an impulse buy from the candy shelf near the check-out at our local supermarket. I picked M&Ms because you could really make them last: one by one you select a little piece, so pleasing in their not-round-not-flat shape, predictably comforting in their uniformity. Colours mattered: greens were the best, browns not so good so to be eaten quickly. There were no blues because according to childhood lore they ‘caused cancer.’ The other colours were all equal. Some had intact Ms imprinted in white on the side, others had partial Ms; still others had little chips out of the side. I wouldn’t gobble them up. No, I would savour each one.
There are different kinds of silence. As a Yoga teacher I know this. The hush of a room full of students moving in unison with their breath, the no-sound after a sustained chant, the concentrated stillness of the mind when during meditation thoughts grudgingly, fleetingly stop. Yes, there is a time for words, thoughts, language… and there is a time for silence.
Words: the relentless daily onslaught of sound. From the youngest’s still-dark morning, “I want mokie” to his last half-willing, half-reluctant “no, I don’t waaaant to go to bed,” my day is embroidered with those words. The children talk, oh do they talk. Three high-pitched voices giggling, arguing, scheming, reading, singing. And my own voice. An American baseline underpinning those Welsh melodies. I talk all day, talking with my children, talking at them at times, mentoring them as they learn, helping them to heal their squabbles, shepherding them over the rolling hills of family life.
How delightful it would be for everybody to be happy, all at once. In my mind’s eye I see each person content with what they have and what they are doing. And there I am at the centre of this peaceful dream, resting in the comforting thought that each person’s needs has been satisfied. I might even run my white-gloved finger across a surface of my home and smile in smug satisfaction that it is clean. (By the way, my hair looks nice too.)
There are times when a child’s behaviour can seem so perplexing or irritating or infuriating, that even the most committed gentle parent might stop to wonder how on earth to respond. Maybe your baby is insistent about playing with the cord of the floor lamp. Maybe he throws his plate across the room like a frisbee as soon as you set it before him, laden with lovingly-prepared food. Perhaps your toddler walks into a playgroup, throws toys at the babies, bites another child, then throws himself down on the floor to scream as soon as you go to him. Maybe your pre-schooler starts making annoying repetitive noises while you’re trying to have coffee with a friend. Or perhaps it’s the daily squabbles between older children, the resistance to helping with chores, the back-talking or insolence. Many parents wonder, “How should I respond?”
I’ve been there. I was there only three hours ago. More about that later.
Back when I was new to parenting, each night I lay in bed beside my husband, cataloguing the events of the day, tagging them in my mind as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting moments. Sometimes he helped me see what I’d done well, but at other times I only saw where I’d struggled. On the days when the balance tipped in favour of my failures, defeat followed me to sleep.
We always went to her house. I’d invite my friend down for a coffee, but she’d always say, “Why don’t you come up to mine?” I’d started to wonder whether there was something objectionable about my house (beyond, you know, the obvious stuff like crumbs, dust and general untidiness) when she revealed her reasons. Though her daughter and mine were the same age, she had two older sons, teenagers at the time. “I like to be around when they come home from school, just in case they need me.”
At the time I thought it was absurd. How could two self-sufficient teenage boys need their mother in the few hours after school? After all, I’d been a latch-key kid. I’d spent every after-school afternoon doing homework, watching TV and talking on the telephone while my parents were out working. But I was really rather wet behind the ears when it came to parenting: my daughter was less than a year old at the time.
My sister-in-law hates Chiff Chaffs. These little migratory birds arrive in the UK in April or May, perching in the tops of trees, calling out a repetitive CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF sound that seems to go on and on. She says that the call is incessantly annoying. I’d never thought of it that way: to me it’s a welcome sign of spring, and I delight when I hear my first Chiff Chaff of the year. It makes me feel as though all is right with the world: in spite of everything that’s happened in the year, the migrants have returned. The Earth continues to turn. It’s reassuring.
A few days ago I was gardening, trying to eradicate those ferocious weeds that grow up between the pavers behind the house. It’s hot, unhappy work. Glancing up to draw the back of my hand across my forehead, I saw the children playing with the running hosepipe. It was fun water play. I turned my back, and when I turned again and walked toward the house I saw something that made me drop everything and run. The hose had been trailed in through the back door and water was running all over the kitchen.