The Secret Map of Motherhood

Map of EuropeSome days I am not big enough for this. This unexpected battleground of “Please will you…” and “Eat this…” and “Where is my?” and “Don’t forget to…” and all before 8am.

Some mornings, I plan the whole route in my head; the Overland train to West Hampstead, West Hampstead to St Pancras, then the Eurostar to the solar plexus of Europe, Paris. From there, anywhere. Within hours I could be curled up in the boot of Italy or reading by a fire in a log cabin that overlooks a freshwater lake or dipping my white toes in the Black Sea, salt on my lips. Because some days, that is where motherhood sends me; to a hidden corner of an imaginary map of freedom I hold in my head like the teenage heart holds a kiss.

Some mornings, I plot my escape all the way back from school to my front door. But with each step, the colours of my Ordnance Survey drain away like anaesthesia. I pass a canopy of spider’s webs strung from window sill to boundary wall, a patchwork of flattened paper cups, spittle and shit, and then I am home again. What keeps me coming back to be the punch bag of my daughter’s growing. Is it duty? Is it love? Sometimes, on days when I am not big enough, I am not sure; but I always do, and I always will.

Take Me As I Am: Do you write ‘mother’ on your CV?

Tightrope Walker

More lady tightrope walkers required

You know that horrible twist of self-loathing you feel when you’re doing something you don’t really believe in? That sickening sense of the brick in the belly, the invisible snake that tightens around your throat and stops you from swallowing? Well I had it yesterday. Why?

Because I was writing my CV. My curriculum vitae should be my ticket to paid employment, my calling card. This mysterious document is meant to be a summary of my ‘relevant’ experience and skills; a list of the things that make me employable. Forty-four years whittled down to two sides of A4. And I’m livid.

Curriculum vitae is a Latin phrase which roughly translates as ‘the course of [my] life’ but what I just wrote on that ridiculous document is a load of piddling pish. It has nothing to do with who I really am or indeed, the course of my life. My CV does not mention the thing that really moulded me, the thing that gave me inner steel, forced me to perform immeasurable feats on little-to-no sleep, to be impulsively creative, a multi-limbed juggler of good and bad like Kali. I cannot say on my CV, ‘I am as real and persistent as a wasp in your pants’, but I am. It doesn’t say that I am a mother.

The thing that set the throat snake unravelling this morning was the moment I found myself trying to justify long periods of ‘absence’ in my working life. Gaps that mess up the linear trajectory of work experience that the majority of employers expect. I found myself writing apologetically that I had taken ‘career breaks’ around the births of my two daughters. I did not write in big, bold letters ‘Mother’ the same way I wrote ‘PR Manager’ or ‘Copywriter’. And the more I didn’t write ‘Mother’ in big, bold letters to explain the years 1996-1998 and 2005-2009, the more furious I felt.

There are no gaps in the ‘course of my life’, but there have been long periods of time when I have chosen something else over economic independence, my children.  Oh, how naive I have been to think this is allowed! Those gaps on my CV loom like huge, gaping mouths; monstrous voids where it is assumed I was brain-dead and milk-sodden, capable of nothing but talking goo goo la la and doing laundry. Women who have had children know that motherhood IS work. Motherhood is difficult work, it is valuable work. Some of us are shit at it, and if we could, we’d fire ourselves. When I’m working I feel like I’m letting my children down, and when I’m not ’employed’, I hear Emily Davison whispering in my ear about horses. Why does it feel like motherhood is a dirty secret we have to hide when we need to rejoin the sodding linear, patriarchal world of paid employment?

During those ‘gap’ years, those ‘lost’ years, those ‘breaks’, mothers learn a fuck of a lot of perfectly valid skills. We learn the depths and the limits of what it is to be human, resilience, sacrifice, persistence and grace in the face of many small defeats against nits and greens. The physical pain of labour is an agony that catapults you out of your body and your old life into an unknown place you both fear and desire. Mothers know how it feels to face their own mortality and have someone wholly dependent on their every breath. We tightrope walk between the old and the new, shapeshifting, crawling between all the roles we must play.  We can make 50p packets of pasta interesting, magically turn leaves and sticks into games that last for hours and placate, console, smile, enthuse, teach, nurture and heal even when we feel like we’re dying inside.

I  have worked, yes WORKED damned hard every day of those ‘gaps’ at bringing two daughters into the world who will hopefully contribute to this planet, not just take from it when they become women. I learned to love, to love, to love beyond measure and then love some more even on those tough days when I couldn’t feel my own heart. And I did all this for absolutely no renumeration. Imagine what I’d do if you paid me! I say the world needs more jugglers, tightrope walkers and magicians; the last time I looked, the old model of a single-track career path of ever-increasing pay and hierarchy until retirement ain’t working out for too many of us.

How about this dear reader of my CV: How about you don’t ask me where I have been all this time and I won’t ask you why so little has really changed after all these years? How about you take me as I am, caesarean scars and all.

How I Passed My Driving Test

Driving Test Pass

If you see this woman, drive away.

A wise woman with a French accent once told me, “Until you can drive a car, you cannot drive your life.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I scoffed through a mouthful of biscuits. “I am completely in control of my life!” Then I slipped on some cat sick and banged my head on a door frame. I had not only lost my keys again, but also my mojo, my waistline and, damn it, my sense of life-purpose too.

Perhaps she had a point.

I had recently turned 40 and two weeks before that, my dad had very suddenly and very shockingly died. It was my first experience of primary, knee-buckling grief, and it unravelled me profoundly. Part of my healing, was to finish the job my dad had started 25 years before on the summer heat- cracked roads of a New Hampshire mountain; I was going to pass my goddamned driving test if it killed me. Yes! In his name, I was finally going to grow up, grow a pair and drive my life.

So, for my 7th driving test attempt (yes, I know, but before you laugh disdainfully, unless you took your test  in an inner city on a budget of £50 in a stick shift, you can totally talk to my disinterested hand) I took myself off and away from my family for a five day ‘crash’ course (really bad name choice) culminating in a test on the final day.

My first day did not bode well. I was met by a Boris Becker look-a-like in a scarlet Ka that smelled so strongly of air freshener I immediately had an eyeball-popping coughing fit. For the entire 5 day course I wheezed asthmatically, although I actually have the lungs of a whale.

On Day One, I explained to Boris about my nervous wreck-ness; how I could sort of drive, but just couldn’t handle the test itself.  In the past, my exam nerves rendered me temporarily deaf and incapable of understanding the words “left”, “right” or “stop.” For the duration of the test, I would leave my body and look down on the proceedings like I was having a near death experience but without the angels. I didn’t mention this to Boris, but I was actually profoundly terrified that if I could drive, I would probably kill someone.

After pouring my heart out to Boris, I searched beseechingly his shell-suited frame for evidence that he might be my savior. A creeping sense that I was going to be disappointed  finally overwhelmed me and so I cried. By way of comfort, Boris told me about his recent divorce. This was going to be a long five days.

Turns out Boris’s ex-wife slept with his best mate. “Oh that old cliche,” I said empathetically as I scraped the Ka painfully into third gear.

“Yeah…I found them at it,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Oh… er… um…” I manage to impart wisely as I juddered the car into a parking lot at McDonalds (his suggestion for lunch). “I cant imagine why… er… how awful.”

I was starting to feel pretty uncomfortable by then, like I was having a last meal with someone whose wife didn’t actually leave him, but who was probably in a bag in the trunk of the Ka. Was my last meal going to be an acrid McVeggie burger with limp Mcfries and was I going to be McDead by the morning?

After five days of grueling driving lessons punctuated by soul destroying conversations, Boris’s endless narrative of woe and misogyny and twenty greasy food stops, I felt no more prepared to face the examiner than I had been before.

The night before the exam, highlights of the preceding days ran before my eyes;

  • Me, crying in the middle of a roundabout.
  • Me, abandoning the car at some traffic lights and sobbing on a curb.
  • Me, finding it impossible to poo due to the sudden intake of junk food.
  • Me, calling my husband and yes, sobbing while warning him not to get his hopes up.

Later that evening, deflated and dreading the test, I met up with a lovely old friend of mine who, over catch-up pots of tea, gave me this advice:

“Sara, it’s 20 minutes of your life. Just act. For 20 minutes, act like you know what you’re doing. All the examiner has to do is believe you. Make him feel safe even if you don’t feel safe yourself. For God’s Sake woman you are a MOTHER!  Do what you have to do every day. Pretend. Pretend you’re happy even when you’ve had bad news. Pretend the 3 1/2 hour music concert was wonderful. Pretend you’ve had days when the sheer breadth, scale and depth motherhood hasn’t threatened to swallow you whole. Pretend Father Christmas is still coming although you’ve been out of work for a year. Pretend daddy is coming home. Pretend you’ll never die. Do what you do when your kids are scared, pretend you’re not!”

So, the next morning during my test,  I gave an Oscar worthy performance. I made Ryan Gosling in Drive look like a boy in a GoKart. I pretended I wasn’t scared, and by some miracle, I passed.

Three years on and I’m still afraid of motorways. I have yet to attempt the Chiswick roundabout or the Westway, and I still have to plot out every car journey before I undertake it. The fact is, I conquered an exam, not my fear of being in control of things I perceive to be powerful. A reluctance to put my foot down on the pedal of my life, to whack it into fifth gear and GO ALL THE WAY UP TO ELEVEN still has a Darth Vader type grip on my core being. But I’m getting there. Dad would be proud.

5 Things I Really Should Know By Now: Notes on Growing Up

When I was a child, I assumed that by the time I was in my forties I would have achieved certain things. I imagined I would be living a life of sophisticated inner-peace as I breezed around my creative business empire wafting of Eau du Coutts and Cotswolds. Instead, I exist in a primordial soup of chaos fuelled by caffeine and crumpets and what is more, there are important things I STILL don’t know such as:

1. How to reverse park

Sorry, but I just I can’t do it. It gives me a hurty neck and I get all confused. I have parked blocks away just so I can do a fronty entrance.

(And yes, all the above also applies to sex.)

2. What I want to be when I grow up

I’m not sure whether the lack of certainty here is about not knowing what I want to do, or not being sure what the general signifiers are that one has ‘grown-up’ and I’d like to know. Is it about having your hair ‘done’ regularly and acquiring a mortgage? It’s certainly not about having kids because that’s sent me into some kind of potty-talk induced decline. Plop. You see, the word still makes me laugh and I know I’m not the only one.

So what is it? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A GROWN-UP if no one gives you a certificate in assembly to you show that you are? I am a big believer in having something to work towards like a badge or a small engravable trophy. So until the passage to adulthood is made clear to me and broken down into small, achievable goals, I’m not playing. *Folds arms, kicks over toy bucket and sulks.*

3.Which clothes suit me

This may be a natural consequence of  Point 2 above, but I have no idea what looks good or even acceptable on me any more. This is partly because my middle-aged body is a stranger to me (as I explain in this blog). I usually go out looking like a cross between Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton which looks something like this:

Britton Cotton Bran

My face, Britton’s boobs, Cotton’s pegs

I’d be on my own What Was She Thinking page every week if I were a magazine. I don’t have a little black dress that always works, my killer heels do actually make me want to die and the last time I wore something saucy in the bedroom, my husband got the giggles and did a tiny sick in his own mouth.

I used to know this stuff, but it seems that ‘the knowledge’ fell out of my croissant along with my children.

4. How to save money and be all sensible about investments and ploppy stuff like that

You’d think by my mid-forties I’d have some savings or own some ‘stuff’ but my net worth has about the same value as an actual tiddler-net from an actual garage. I have put aside exactly diddly, zilch, nada, not a sausage. I like to think that this is because I have chosen instead to invest in skills that I do not have to ever retire from like writing and having v. smart children who I have guilt-tripped into making sure they feel they owe me.

“You will look after yer dear old mum won’t you? ” I say to my talented girls as I drop my pants and show them my caesarean scar for the 6,000th time.

So, if all you own is one cardigan, a pair of unwearable shoes and a hair dryer, you are not alone my friends.

5. How to accept that my husband really does love me

I just assume that I irritate the hell out of my husband and that at some point he will get fed up and leave me. I press his buttons daily (no, not those ones) in a perpetual test of his love like my 6-year-old smears bogies on my living-room wall to test mine. Even after 12 years of his consistent, patient, steady loving, I just can’t relax. Perhaps I just don’t really believe that I’m that lovable, or maybe it’s because I’m a child of that dreadful hairy 70‘s era when men did what the fuck they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted while women were stuck somewhere between liberty and tradition. Why is it that women assume they will be left for a younger, prettier version of themselves, and men assume they will be abandoned for a richer, better provider? Perhaps the old adage is true, that until you truly love yourself, you won’t believe that anyone else can. Or perhaps learning to let someone love you is Lesson One in growing-up.

6 Vintage Children’s Books That Formed My Views on Motherhood

One of the things I love most about being a mother is rediscovering books from my childhood and enjoying them all over again with my daughters.

My childhood books were my dream catchers ~ my world view was woven from their threads. As we didn’t have a TV until I was in my teens, these vintage classics provided me with an entire cultural landscape. I still find the lithography and print styles of the 60’s and 70’s as evocative as perfume and the illustrations in these books are so familiar I could crawl inside them just as I did as a child. I realize that when I received stories as a kid, it was in an immersive way that I have since forgotten.

Make Way for Ducklings 2

Introducing my first feminist icon... MRS MALLARD

I love the poignancy of touching a crease made on a page forty years ago by the four-year-old me and the sense of continuity that comes when my daughter traces her tiny fingers over my name, the ‘S’ handwritten backwards in my childish scrawl, on the inside cover.

I adore my Kindle, but I know that the tactile world of books is leaving us and it makes me sad.

When I decided to compile a list of the vintage favourites my daughters and I have enjoyed, I noticed that every book featured a mother of some kind.

So while my own mother was reading Fear of Flying and the Female Eunuch, I was getting down with some of the greatest feminists of the era, many of whom had beaks. Here they are along with the notes I would have made to myself if only I had known how to spell at the time.

Make Way for Ducklings1. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Synopsis: One reviewer at the time of publication in the 1940’s commented on the pre-feminist tone of this story of Mr and Mrs Mallard who search all over Boston for the perfect place to raise their family of eight ducklings; Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

Favourite quote: ‘”Don’t you worry,” said Mrs. Mallard, “I know all about bringing up children.” And she did.’

Notes to self:

  • Mrs Mallard is in complete control in spite of having eight children, and was probably my first feminist icon.
  • It’s mothers who teach their kids everything important and husbands are a bit rubbish.
  • Give your children rhyming names for ease of communication. Think Jenny, Lenny, Lily, Billy, Gilly etc.
  • Don’t mess with ducks.

Blueberries for Sal2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Synopsis: Set in Scott Island, Maine, the characters Little Sal and her mother pick blueberries to store for the winter months. There is a parallel story of a mother bear and her cub who eat as many blueberries as they can to fatten up before hibernating. Sal and her mum and the little bear and her mum get all mixed up on Blueberry Hill.

Favourite quote: “Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk!”

Blueberries for Sal illustration

Mrs Blueberry: Fearless in the face of furry adversity!

Notes to self:

  • Mothers are supposed to know how to make jam.
  • Mothers are fearless even in the face of wild bears.
  • Your own mother could be easily mistaken for a bear.

the giving tree3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Synopsis: The metaphorical tale of a tree (aka mother) and a little boy. The tree gives and gives and gives to the snivelling, ungrateful (my interpretation) little boy throughout his life until she (the Giving Tree) is just a tired old stump. This tour de force of martyrdom versus self-centredness is actually one of the most moving children’s stories ever written. If The Giving Tree doesn’t make you weep at the end, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.

Favourite quote: “And the tree was happy…but not really.”

Notes to self:

  • Kids, they’ll suck you dry.
  • And if the kids don’t get you, age will.

story of ferdinand4. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf  (1977)

Synopsis: Ferdinand the Bull likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers instead of fighting like all the other bulls. His mum worries about him, but lets him be who he wants to be. Ferdinand caused controversy when first published as he was considered to be a pacifist symbol.

Favourite quote: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Notes to self:

  • Mothers, even if they’re a cow, know their kids better than anyone.
  • Don’t mess with bulls.
  • Or bees.

little runner of the longhouse

5. Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker (1962)

Synopsis: It’s New Year and The Basket Woman has come to collect gifts from all the families in the Long House. Little Runner wants to go and play with the big kids but his mum thinks he’s too little. Instead, he pretends to kidnap his Little Brother to try to trick his mum into giving him maple sugar.

Favourite quote: “It was cold in the longhouse…”

Notes to self:

  • Mummies always have a secret stash of sweets.
  • Mummies are weirdly telepathic and TOTALLY know if you’re fibbing.

Are you my mother6. Are you My Mother? by P. D. Eastman (1960)

Synopsis: Frankly terrifying plot where a baby chick hatches while his mother is out searching for food. The baby chick leaves the nest in search of mum and ends up asking all kinds of creatures and inanimate objects if they are his mother including a scary dog and a giant digger that snorts at him.

Favourite quote: Mother: “Do you know who I am?” (The baby chick does indeed)

Notes to self:

  • Your mother will quite possibly abandon you in favour of searching for worms and the journey to find her will be perilous and strewn with large vehicles.
  • Mothers are human and can make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, awful mistakes.
  • Mothers can be many things: scary, kind, neglectful, loving, forgetful; but we all had one once, even if they didn’t stick around.
Are you my mother

It's all about the headscarf for me...

So there you have it ~ my six vintage motherhood classics. I’d love to hear about yours.