‘Shared motherhood’

“While shared motherhood can be a richly bonding female experience, it’s important not to run too far with this idea – and remember that there are big differences, too. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, money or, more precisely, the lack of it, gives individual women completely different experiences of motherhood. Among other pressures, too little money can lead to such mental health issues as extreme stress and anxiety from not being able to afford help, pay bills or even take your allotted maternity leave.” 

Barbara Ellen

Every now and again, someone comes along with a few succinct lines to cut through the bullshit. Mothers: they don’t even always share similar genitalia, so much of it is individual. It would be a relief if everyone stopped homogenising them. Sadly, that seems unlikely.  But it would be progress if women remembered that when talking to other women like them, the chats doth not a valid generalisation make.

Dear daughter

Of the many reasons for not writing about you, there is one that overpowers my ability to even try:

So often when I am taking you in, studying your face, registering your charms, listening to you talk to yourself, I am already imagining a time when I will be looking back on the moment trying to assemble it in my mind over and over again.

I don’t have a word for that either. Whatever it is, it causes other words to wilt before they make the page. But I’m willing it give it another go..

*chews pen*

Chasing postcodes

Back in the boom (shake shake the room), Ardal O’Hanlon quipped that the arrival of Eastern European communities meant Irish folk could finally use the WXYZ sections of their address books. Too late for the tattered book in my folks’ house. You know the one; every household has one. Ours is usually sandwiched between the latest regional phone directory and an envelope bulging with memorial cards passed on from grieving friends and relatives down the years. That dog-eared antique had barely margins available by the millennium, and now doubles up as a whistle-stop tour of the lives of the off-spring.

It’s no coincidence the only numbers scribbled in the back pages next to a ream of scored-through dodgy addresses (up-and-coming actually *flings nose in air*) include: Western Union, PPS numbers, NI numbers, bank accounts, and the numbers of payphones on many a draughty landing. There’s also the number of the local pizza delivery service. Emergency information, in short.

All of page X and most of Y (why? indeed) are taken up with a string of residential dots that join up to my current cell, while one brother squats all over Z. It’s no coincidence either that the more ..shall we say.. solvent..siblings have barely a page between them. Losers. But enough of this exploitation of any opportunity to project my personal failings on to them.

This week’s form-filling tasks involved listing my previous addresses stretching back over various criminally dodgy hair-dos. The final tally came in at well above twenty. Barring the mothership, I’ve been in the current one the longest. It’s no coincidence I’m…etc. etc.

I couldn’t remember if that flat where the crazy Spaniard cut up my beloved Rocketdogs in an impressive act of revenge was number 27 or 29. There was that street I remember because it sounded like vulva, and I still have occasional flashbacks of my first bedsit in Grosvenor Square. Nasty ones that feature woeful attempts at flirting with the professional cameraman who lived upstairs (“Oh, I like photography, too”), and almost killing my landlady who lived in the basement flat with my amateur DIY skills. Yikes.

Turning the corner into our road last week, I spotted the giveaway signs of another house I lived in three doors down even though I’ve never set foot in it. The living room blind hangs at half-mast as a mark of respect to the new arrival, and an invitation to day-light to come in and sit down. The blanket-draped handle of the pram the only visible sign of life.

Late at night, the dim glow from the corner of the upstairs window is barely noticeable. In the mornings, I occasionally pass the same midwife who ordered our blind up, our heating down, and straddled me on my own bed with a nipple protector. Glancing in my rear-view I see her pull up at their driveway.

I’ve heard of folk returning to their former home-places unannounced because they happened to be in the area and fancied a nose-around. I’ve thought about knocking on the door with the offer of something, but I think we only exchanged hellos once by the milk shelf in the local shop. The thoroughly modern neighbourly relationship that could get you reported for stalking if you smiled.

I wonder what she’s done with the place. Moses basket or crib. Does the double-bill of Frasier herald the transition into normal morning time as she once knew it inbetween never-ending rounds of toast? If she’s not dressed by noon will she bother her arse getting dressed at all? If she isn’t dressed in another three months, will she make it out the door confidently by six? Who knows what goes on behind closed doors.

fridge

This fridge has no pâté. Quick! Call the parenting line!

Still, I’m curious if her best laid plans include trips to the cinema; whether she has friends and family nearby, and if she wishes everyone would just fuck off and come on over, at exactly the same time. Does she attempt a few selfies with the child for her mates overseas that won’t ever be sent but will actually look not so bad in hindsight. Will her hindsight rely on these photographic artefacts to jog her memory of these early days when she became a fugitive from certainty. Is she wishing she could sleep when her baby does or has she quit trying to grab hold of that mythical lifeline, and taking perverse pleasure in pâté and re-runs of One Born Every Minute by mid-afternoon instead. Does she wonder if she took a shit during labour and suspects everyone present protected her from the truth, or does she not…give a shit.

Might she, one day, a few years from now, recognise a half-hanging blind in a nearby house. Will she mentally push the door open and step inside to check what’s on the telly, anxiously note the room temperature reading, take comfort in the disarray, survey the contents of the cupboards, check the fridge door for photos of the baby’s Da at knee-level. Maybe run her eye over the CD collection to see how the child is likely to turn out. Will she scan the walls of the nursery for an infestation of animal stickers that threaten to bring her out in a rash. Will she baulk at the notion of calling it a nursery. Will she open the wardrobe to a dose of pink clothes that risk giving her diabetes unless she closes it again quickly? Will she at last be able to put a name on the feelings she felt back then and shake her head at the ruthless competition that ensued between them. Will she curse her inability to curate that phase from anything other than the splinters from mislaid memories?

And will she wonder if she’s the only eejit that looks up a house she’s never been in, longing to sit in it for just a little while longer.

The let down

Torch-bearers for breastfeeding are faced with the delicate act of balancing passion with purpose. Comparatively lower figures of breastfeeding in Ireland and the UK are frequently lamented and chin-stroked over. Likely reasons for these low rates are cited and fitted out with several column inches, more often than not by veterans of the game. And why not? No point drafting in a vegetarian to discuss the merits of a meat based diet.

Even so, I wonder about the quality of the debate on breastfeeding in this country in general. It is currently freighted with a lot of unequivocal assumptions that often transcend both purpose and passion. There is a tendency for the prevailing discussion to be fairly restrictive and pre-occupied with telling us what we already know, with the orthodoxy on the purported benefits going largely unchallenged.

The historical and cultural factors are probably a given at this stage, and we live in a world where women’s access to information (by choice or by thrust upon us) is unprecedented. Irish women aren’t beyond the reach of reason or reality of comparative scenarios elsewhere.

There is the over-arching assumption that if only women had more access to support, exposure to breastfeeding, and a better understanding of the “gift” of breast-milk, the current trends would be reversed. Mention is frequently made of the hangover of religious prudishness and so on. These are all valid concerns, and would undoubtedly lead to a more supportive environment, if eroded.

Few women, if anyone, would disagree with the underlying factors that contribute to historically low rates, but in making the case for the need for better support, and individual resilience, a more rounded and open discussion is required.

If the purpose of engaging in the debate is to facilitate the uptake of breastfeeding, then exposing the deficits in medical and community support, labour management, and calling out hostile societal attitudes is fair game. So too is speaking from an impassioned place of positive experience that too often competes with negativity on the airwaves of anecdotes.

However, openly making a judgement on the ability of women to currently withstand (or not) perceived pressures to give up is not. Nor is chalking low levels up exclusively to a culture of giving up. I’ve no doubt this is the case for some women, but not all, because I personally don’t identify with such a neat argument. Nor is over-stating the harm of formula and the far reaching benefits of breast-milk.

In walking this precarious trapeze, Zoe Williams of The Guardian comes closest to striking the balance for me.

“I could not have loved breastfeeding more if I’d been brainwashed; I experienced it as a kind of hallucinogenic experience. A bit like taking an E.

But I also had the strong suspicion that the claims made for its benefits – the higher IQ, the protection against obesity, the superior bonding, the warding off of disease both now and for ever, both for baby and for mother – were mostly bogus. A lot of the reasoning seemed syllogistic (babies born into low-income families end up fatter; low-income mothers breastfeed less than high-income mothers; therefore breastfeeding prevents obesity) or frankly lame. I knew a lot of mothers who formula fed; they didn’t seem to love their babies less. When I wrote a book about pregnancy, I included some of this lameness, while underlining the fact that, speaking for myself, I didn’t care whether or not the health benefits were real, I’d do it again even if it made the baby’s IQ go down.”

A year later, Williams attended a conference on infant feeding, which included a presentation from American academic, Joan B Wolf, who conducted a rigorous, close-range examination of the science behind pro-breastfeeding advice. She concluded the case for breast milk is hyperbolic. For more on this and other challenges of measuring benefits, and the questioning of current medical and scientific orthodoxy, see here.

We also live in a world where women are contending with busy lives and self-preservation comes in many guises. I know many women equipped with all the necessary knowledge who chose not to breastfeed, or gave up, for reasons concerned with vanity, convenience, mental health and so on. Each as legitimate as the other. We can assume that many women do not continue with breastfeeding due to frustration, lack of support etc., but I suspect that is not the full picture and until such time as the issue is unpicked more thoroughly, and credibly, the current cul-de-sac of chat will leave the majority (I jest) of us a little unsatisfied.

A rigorous discussion on attitudes and perceptions to breast-feeding in Ireland should address issues concerning entitlement, biases inherent within the health system and corresponding intimidation, the perception of breastfeeding as being a predominantly middle-class activity (having at one time in Ireland been associated with poverty), lack of support, affordability of resources, and the right to private choice versus the pressure from public health policy. Women need ownership of the discussion as much at the activity, but large swathes of them are missing. Advocates can’t presume to speak on their behalf, so an in-depth study in Ireland would be useful. And timely.

As Williams states: “In order for breastfeeding to have the no-alternative, liquid-gold status it enjoys in public health, its benefits would have to be so much more pronounced and demonstrable that you wouldn’t even need to demonstrate them. Furthermore, breastfeeding activists (or lactivists) shouldn’t have to borrow risk factors from the developing world to make mothers in Eastleigh feel breast milk is the only safe foodstuff for their children. …And maybe, for the public health effect the establishment is after, the inflexible approach is the right one, since it definitely keeps mothers plugging away.”

Meanwhile, all sorts of reasons will continue to be authoritatively cited including prudishness, vanity, and other cultural barriers. Non-breastfeeding women will continue to be excluded from the wider debate.

A few other unhelpful narratives not often highlighted: women giving expression to the awkwardness they feel about their bodies and its functions is just that, not a judgement of the successful and uninhibited breastfeeding habits of others. If there is a sincere desire to support women to overcome barriers to breastfeeding then ridiculing them with a basic biology lesson will probably only serve to undermine that objective. If they have an idea how they got pregnant, it’s likely they will have some understanding of the biological function of breasts. They’re not stupid. Support begins with hearing and understanding fears, not minimising them, or the challenges concerning the reconciliation of primal functions and sexuality, or modesty. Simplifying this with statements of the obvious has done little but patronise the very women requiring support.

Lastly, the desire to exercise modesty while breastfeeding is not always a response to societal pressure to do so, nor is it a reflection of less successful breastfeeding habits. In the context of breastfeeding, modesty should be exclusively in the eye of the breast-feeder. It is entirely up to individual breastfeeding women how they choose to define it, and it is their entitlement to apply it as they choose. It and breastfeeding are not mutually exclusive.

As someone who breastfed all my baby, I agree with the core principles of the pro-breastfeeding movement, and would share a lot of antipathy towards the wilful sexualisation of breastfeeding and hostility towards it. But it does the cause little good when diversity and the nuances of modesty, culture, and personal agency are totally abandoned and ridiculed and converted into receptacles for a certain form of righteousness.

On becoming a parent

My dodgy pelvic floor serves as a reminder of my status as a woman who has given birth. All genuflect. There’s also a child knocking about somewhere. Last time I saw her, she was gazing up at imaginary stars through the net windows in her little circus tent from the discomfort of a bed of Lego, explaining her version of the solar system to Ernie.

My version of this form of relaxation is to hide under the bed covers and gaze up at the light-shade wondering what possessed me to buy one that resembles a tumble-weed. Then throw my eyes up at its aptness. Next time, I’m buying one in the shape of planet Earth.  A safer distance all round.

tumbleweed

Probably the most apt image for this post

In the invisible space that is my heart, I feel privileged to be her mother in the classic definition of the term.  And frequently hope I won’t spectacularly fuck it up.  Last count, I had a list of 563 potential ways this could happen.  A future blog post draft perhaps.

At home, I am known mostly as Mammy, or Mama, when she’s indulging in a bit of regression to wrangle something out of me that’s on the list with the other 562 not-to-dos. Her Dad will refer her to her Mum when chickening out of saying no.  Lately, she has taken to addressing me by my first name.  At four syllables, this was one of her more impressive feats of speech until it was overtaken this week by Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.  She learned this at her childminders, where I am known as the colloquially hard-vowelled Mummy.  My own Ma refers to me as her Mam, while my best mate will order her into the frame with her Mom so she can snap a photo of us both.

To the rest of the world, I am known simply as A Mother™. In the modern media definition of the term. A word that has come to be hyper invested with the overbearing weight of responsibility and sacrifice. Imbued with guilt and heartbreak.  Burdened with agonising decision-making, and persistent re-shaping of a sense of self. Subject of ninth degree scrutiny. Growth topic within the comment and publishing industry. Heart of the fall-out of social and fiscal policies. Line in the game of tug o’war between feminists. Guardian of the supreme human bond. Secular saint. Unpaid hero. Doer of her best. Battler for choice.  Holding-it-togetherer. Journeywoman. Protagonist in the mummy wars. Judged. Juror. High-fiving keeper of the flame of camaraderie.

It’s so exhausting; it’d nearly have me reaching for a bottle of wine. Oops.  A mother self-medicating. Quick, Morag! Shoulders up against the flood-gates.

It’s not that I can’t relate to much of it, or have any desire to deny the common experiences of many. In reality, the common denominator of sharing similar genitalia is the first and last time women who have children are at one. The rest of childrearing and the experience of being a mother is beyond consensus, but not camaraderie. Camaraderie still allows for difference of opinion, and difference of opinion isn’t tantamount to judgement of another.  A clash of views doesn’t constitute a mammy war. Not all contested terrains can be classified as bloody battlegrounds. Grounds for having a different point of view doesn’t equate to a betrayal. When views are relative to individual experience, there’s going to be a few curled lips among the thumbs up.

So, I’ve decided to stop passively letting the enormity of such a word define me. To unmoor myself from its double-edged function of acknowledging my role while ascribing all sorts of assumptions, many of which I’m not altogether sure about. Instead I’ve decided to stick with being a…. parent. It works for her Da.

Stars Below

Friendly enquiries from vaguely recognisable school friends down at my old coming-of-age pub; the kind woman at the check-out at Sainsburys; curious new colleagues over coffee. It doesn’t matter the time or place, I’ll be right in there first with a pre-emptive joke about getting my last orders baby in, and hitched, in the year I turned 40. Maniacal laugh optional, from them or me. Sometimes that’s enough to foil the social touretted query about having another, sometimes it’s not. I’ve a few stock responses for the latter, just in case. Being on that Halle Berry diet is currently doing the rounds. Another round of laughter. Mine from marvelling at my own ability to bluff it as an adult long enough for someone to hitch their grown up wagon to mine to have ‘just the one’.

We won’t be having another baby. Sometimes I think that’s a bit shit, but we’re coming to terms with it in our own way.  We know our good fortune. If a day late, I no longer hatch the fantasy of telling our daughter the good news that she can ditch her imaginary friends (James and Molly) when the new baby comes, or solve our space problem with bunk beds. Yeah, right; as if I ever had to be late. Other people’s pregnancies don’t seem to go on forever anymore; I’ve started to share the names I had shored up, and don’t roll my eyes with the same speed at the openly stated fears from others at the (un)likelihood of their child being an only one.  ‘Any of my pregnancy’ is my new phrase replacing “all of my pregnancies”, which I still hear in a slightly whiney voice bordering on pride, depending on the person uttering it. Sort of like a 30-something Ann Widdecombe crossed with a young Joan Burton.

On the day of her birth, I kept closing my eyes trying to remember what she looked like if I had to pick her out in a line-up (you never know). For the first month of her life, I swore blind we would shelter her from the downpour of life, a promise I set about proving by singing Stars Above by Maria Doyle Kennedy on loop in the half-light until the words were indistinguishable from tears. For the first two years of her life, we wanted to give her another little one. She would’ve made a great sister, as evidenced by her care and attention to detail when nursing her furry friends to sleep, the inclusion of James and Molly in most activities, and her rip roaring laugh at herself when she messes up.

For the rest of my days, I’ll be poised and ready to break up any pity-parties held in her honour. Not for her any tilted heads of sadness, nor worry at not having anyone to fight over her parents’ meagre inheritance with, or slag them off. That’s our job, for which we’re beginning to forgive ourselves.