A moment to write – another hard-won moment, after another contest of wills that has left me feeling sapped though it’s not yet 10 o’clock in the morning. Sigh. I only ever attempt to put Master J down for a nap when he is exhibiting clear signs of tiredness; even so, I begin to wonder if my problem is that sometimes he’s simply not tired enough. Finally, finally, finally he sleeps, and here I am.
Last week was my biggest working week since becoming a mum. I got a great freelance job in, really interesting work interviewing the Sydney Festival director and directors/choreographers of a couple of acts – the perfect commission, in other words, because I genuinely love arts writing – but I was flat out getting it done. I really haven’t got my childcare sorted. Although its flexibility is hard to beat, freelancing is difficult because I have no idea when work will come in. It would be much easier if I could say, “I work Tuesdays and Thursdays” or similar. As it is it’s always a hodgepodge of frantic relief efforts, this time made up of Llew, my mother-in-law, two friends, a friend’s niece and finally my good friend, the moon, the nightly arrival of which allowed me to sit up late working after Master J’s bedtime. Yep, after a 12-hour day with Mr. Boundless Energy, I got to start my professional workaday. In some ways, contemporary motherhood for the emancipated modern woman is a complete and utter shaft.
When my editor got one of the interview slots wrong, miscalculating the time difference in New York, he could have had no idea the chaos and stress it caused my already tenuous childcare arrangements. I ended up driving Master J to a friend’s place and conducting the interview in her daughter’s bedroom, sitting perched on a little girl’s sofa, a carousel mobile slowly turning above my head and the nearby change table an ironic reminder of what had brewed so spectacularly in my own child’s nappy minutes before I was due to put in the call to New York. I must say: Master J’s timing is nothing if not impeccable. Much more impeccable than his nappy, at any rate, the contents of which caused my friend to reel back, hand clamped to mouth, and gasp through her fingers, “What’s he been eating?!” (Answer: blueberries.) And so, with Master J’s food smears smudging my hastily composed questions, I sat rigid in an infant child’s pretty bedroom discussing a boxing play, of all things: the playwright; the boxing ring set; the thematics of violence and redemption; and the actors, with one ear pressed hard against my mobile, struggling to translate the director’s Scottish brogue, and the other trained in the direction of the kitchen, where my friend was doing battle with not one recalcitrant infant but two. At the end of the interview, when the subject made a point of saying he appreciated the quality of my questions, I could’ve wept with surprise, relief and gratitude. Instead I allowed my gaze to sweep slowly around the ad hoc interview suite, marvelling that a full-scale disaster had been averted. I might have cracked a wry smile but for the wobbly bottom lip, because here’s something I didn’t expect of motherhood but which is nonetheless true for me: I’m even more insecure as a writer now than I was before. Awesome.
Actually, make that more insecure as a writer and a woman, if you want to get technical. I have found depths I never knew I had, that’s true, but equally I have tripped face-first into the scummy shallows of self-doubt and struggled to get up again. Frankly it’s happened with greater speed and frequency than seems, well, fair after all the effort I’ve put in, which has been and continues to be considerable. It would be lovely to feel empowered by motherhood – and perhaps one day I will… I hope so – but currently it’s having the opposite effect. What does all this add up to? Not much, Deidre, except example number 7,772 of the ways in which life is not fair.
Imagine I am a puzzle made up of odd-shaped pieces. What’s happened is a total reconfiguration of the puzzle, such that upon completion it’s clear that all the pieces have ever so slightly changed shape. So the puzzle can’t be put back together again, not really. It’s not possible because nothing fits together exactly as it used to or should. Nothing about me is quite what it was – not physically, sure, but not mentally or emotionally either. I’m literally and figuratively a very different animal now I am a mother. In fact, let me claim that right here and now as a possible future book title on the subject. A Very Different Animal… it’s perfect because it’s true. That’s exactly what I am. I woke up one morning (one very early morning, several times, after a broken night’s patchy sleep…) and discovered I’d abruptly changed species.
The differences range in severity and visibility. It’s not simply that my chest – always extremely modest – has deflated to official oblivion since I weaned Master J after 10.5 months of breastfeeding. Everything sort of collapsed inward in that department in a matter of days – and a month later, I don’t feel slim. Nope. I feel and look sunken. Shrunken. Wizened. Caved. Concave.
Having always imagined myself as a six-months-tops kind of girl, I surprised myself by taking to breastfeeding easily and well. It was something my body could do without drama, and I was quietly proud of its ability to function at this most basic level. I was happy to do it, and watching Master J thrive for six months on my milk alone was undoubtedly a source of great wonder and pride. I was and remain astonished by what my body could do. Since it came about without incident, I began thinking I’d breastfeed Master J until his first birthday, before going straight to cow’s milk from a cup. Obviously I didn’t quite make it, and here’s why: I was completely fucking exhausted. It began seeming abnormal to me, that degree of constant fatigue, and as I looked at my bonny boy, now so big and bold, it dawned on me that breastfeeding an infant his size was probably exacting quite a toll. And so one day I found myself giving him a bottle, weeping all the while. Meanwhile he drank with complete indifference to the change, and as with breastfeeding, weaning went on to occur without a hitch (unless of course you count my floods of tears, which forcefully returned for his final breastfeed).
I expected to feel improved, but the extent of it has been a shock. I feel more like myself, or some composite of myself, in the month and a bit since I gave it away than I have in a very, very long time. It’s like a very heavy curtain has been taken down – light’s come flooding back into my mind. I am thinking more clearly, seeing more clearly, feeling more energetic and generally feeling the benefits of having my body back. But there’s undoubtedly emptiness, too – what’s left of my breasts is a hollowness I recoil from. It makes me feel decommissioned. And that’s probably the root of these new and ugly insecurities right there: I have fulfilled my reproductive duty as a female of the species. That evolutionary imperative has been met, and with it comes the reasoning animal’s awful clarity: strictly speaking, I am no longer required.
Oh yes, don’t get me wrong, of course I know all the ways in which I am required – no one need enunciate them to me, though I greatly appreciate the urge if you have it – but I also know there’s something really primal about this sense of insecurity that lingers in the air about me and other new mothers I know. And it is a sense, too, an extra sense of something we can’t name – something we can almost sniff but will never see.
And I feel lucky, so lucky, to have not only my beautiful boy, whom I love so much it punches the air from my lungs to think of him, but my vocation, which remains distinct; importantly apart from him. I remain a writer, and what a blessing it is not to feel my entire identity attach itself to motherhood. Personally I would struggle and struggle hard with that, as so many women must have struggled before me, back in the days (and in many households and societies still) when that was precisely what one did with one’s own self: bury it, then carry on caring for the kids. But kids grow, kids leave, kids have their own lives to lead… and I can see clearly, I can well imagine the utter void where the kids used to be for the women who give motherhood their absolute all. I admire them, because they sacrifice more than I ever could, but I mourn for them too, because I can imagine the painful ways in which that emptiness in my breasts might otherwise spread – were it not for writing, were it not for the times in which I live, were it not for Llew and his recognition of my individual self, dreams and needs. Were it not for many things, not least my insistence – still not as steady as I’d like, but thankfully less strident for being heard – that I am still here.