My friend Colin once accused me of being a completer-finisher. Apparently that’s a personality type that likes to complete and finish a job. Yup, that’s me. I love the scratch of my pen across the last chore on my to-do list. I love ticking that empty box with a flourish. Making lists helps me to manage the home, my volunteer and paid work and my own interests and hobbies. Crossing off the items on those lists leaves me feeling accomplished, and able to sit down and relax at the end of the day.
Having three home educated children means that I don’t often get through my to-do list. There are days when I don’t even get one task completed. It’s all I can do to get up, dress myself and feed the family. Standards have dropped to the point where my four year old chooses to cut holes in a pillowcase and wear it as clothes all day, and I just shrug my shoulders and write an amusing Tweet about it.
A few years ago I was asked to contribute a piece to a forthcoming anthology on mothering. Since publication, several people have asked me to include the piece here on my blog. After discussion with the publisher, I am pleased to publish it here for the very first time.
The Other Side of Sleeplessness
I can still remember the initial shock of it. Being woken repeatedly, night after night, never quite getting into a deep sleep cycle, never quite grasping that complete relaxation that goes with perfect rest. Without regularity or apparent sense, my baby frequently and piercingly woke me from sleep. She woke to be nursed, to be held, to be rocked, to be changed. She woke for comfort and for company. She woke because she needed me, and my role as her mother did not stop when the sun dipped below the horizon. A 24-hour job, I was on call all the time. But the sleep, oh the sleep. I needed it, it needed me, and yet we were kept apart by the ceaseless needs of my newborn baby.
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.