The drama of birth: a subject fit for literature

I wish the drama of birth was a literary subject. A few days after giving birth, when I was stitched and bleeding and bruised and weeping at two pm on midwives who would come and peer at my wounds and talk in gentle, encouraging tones about my milk coming in, I googled famous birth scenes in literature. I found a few rants about the lack of serious, literary writing on the subject and a paltry list of authors who had attempted it. Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Atwood.

I understand all the omertàs. Birth stories are still something we joke about, that are often confined to typo-ridden confessional comment threads and forums. Our stories are fissured into tribes and corralled into the ghettos of the anecdotal. Not until we try and read universal truths into any birth story we come across- the way we generously read men’s stories of war and love and death, the way we step into their shoes and try and extract meaning about the human condition from their very particular, gendered experience, will we succeed in taking the subject of birth seriously enough to write good fiction about it. We have to get better at generosity. At dignifying every sort of birth with the sort of lavish attention that makes meaning-making possible. When there are hierarchies and moralities (and pregnancy and birth are absolutely structured by all sorts of dogma about natural birth and breast feeding and idealised madonnas instead of good enough mothers), then there are codes of silence and shame instead of a rich field of experience to write from. In psychoanalytic terms, until we collectively integrate all of our experience, the good, the bad and the ugly, we will be forced to write very one-dimensionally. As I write this, I am listening to a chorus of judgmental women in my mind: memories of voices who have dismissively told me birth wasn’t that bad, maybe I’ll forget it, that a c-section is a violent way for a baby to enter the world. As if all birth isn’t violent, as if it were possible to peacefully, innocently give birth. Not until every kind of birth is validated and we de-manacle our minds from high-horse madonnas looming over us and chiding us into giving birth ‘the right way’ will we be able to claim our own material.

One of my friends who had an elective C-section evocatively described her experience as feeling like she was a washing up bowl being reached into and rummaged around inside of. Such an extraordinary image. If we choose to pay attention- not to the manner of birth and how close or not is measures to some ideal notion of birth- instead, if we turned our focus to the quality of the woman’s experience, the descriptive possibility, the words she uses to describe the minutiae of felt, embodied experience, if we turned our focus away from the ethics and towards an acceptance of the drama of it all, I think we would be astonished. I think everyone would stop reading about war and death and love. I think no one would be able to tear themselves away from the drama of birth.

All the elements of great literature are available. The joy of waking up at midnight, soaked from my own waters breaking. The violence of my fractured tailbone, the agony of contractions, my inability to speak or make anything but gutterel, animal braying. The moment they all rushed in because his shoulder caught inside me and they weren’t sure he could breathe. The excruciating stitches after and the torturous fantasies of messy scarring and bulging organs and unhealed wounds. Passionately pumping every few hours so my milk would come in for him; weeping with the midwife as she reassured me that I WAS indeed breastfeeding if he was latched on, even if I had to supplement with formula. The strange, cancerous molar pregnancy I suffered before R came into being, when they scanned me and there was nothing but some sort of fertilised growth in my womb, not even an embryo but a kind of tissue that made pretty patterns on the sonographers screen but would need to be sucked and scraped out of me. This is such rich, fertile material, and so many of us are not free to draw on this as a proper literary subject. And it is a shame because there is so much to say, so many paradoxes and violences and euphoria to lay out and examine.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

The delicacies of tasting guilt

I love feeling guilt. It isn’t an easy feeling to taste; I often compare feeling ‘difficult’ feelings like hatred or jealousy or shame to sampling complex wine. Or a delicacy. Something you only take a little mouthful of at a time, let it roll around on your tongue before you swallow, try and discern the textures and notes before it is gone. I think of guilt via Winnicott as concern for the other. He illustrates this with an example of an infant biting the breast of his mother, and because she doesn’t retaliate but ‘survives’ the attack, the infant moves from feelings of aggression to feelings of compassion- he understands he caused her pain and regrets his actions. Guilt happens when I’ve done something to hurt someone I love and I feel- not shame which is entirely self-centred- but compassion for the pain of the other and regret for what I have caused. It is a feeling that is nothing but concern for the other person, that focuses entirely on their suffering. It is really hard to stay in this place of witnessing the suffering of the other- particularly if I am the perpetrator.

I haven’t always been able to welcome guilt. And I think this is a product of having to take far too much responsibility for the pain of my mother at a young age. I felt chronic guilt for not being able to make her happy, for not being able to heal her, to make her feel loved. My sisters and I were bred to alleviate her suffering- she remarked once that she’d never felt unconditional love till we loved her. Perhaps most parents would have reversed the direction of the declaration of unconditional love- from herself to us- but she sought redemption through our adoring gaze. She is a deeply wounded human being, and she mistook the devotion infants and children have for their parents as unconditional love. She laid her wounds at our tiny feet and asked us to make her feel worthy and give her meaning. It was an impossible task- I feel like Hercules has nothing on me. If you think slaying hydra is hard, try lifting my self-loathing mother out of her existential crisis.

It took acquiring some boundaries, shedding my own messiah complex before I could latch on to my feelings of concern when I do harm. It is too much to be responsible for relieving the whole tome of someone’s suffering- it is just impossible to feel it 24/7. Guilt in those quantities numbs – it is a place to stay in only temporarily. Small mouthfuls, not the whole plate, not the whole pantry: I can just about bear my own wounds and the ones I occasionally inflict on others with my inter personal violence. There are things I can make good, and things I cannot mend.

To inhabit guilt, to own it, I’ve needed to get a sense of proportion. I can only apologise for what I am actually responsible for and it has been a long walk, beating the bounds of what is mine. What can I own up to? Where do you start and I end? Is this a historical wound of yours or is this a fresh scar that I have inflicted? I can’t heal stuff that happened twenty years ago; I can only feel convicted of my blunders and apologise for the harm I have personally caused. And that small, personal, portion of remorse is a far more satisfying meal than trying to eat the whole platter.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Make this slipper fit: Shame, nervous systems and the past

Sometimes if you’re used to feeling something 24/7 it takes a while to name it. The first time I realised that maybe the awful, stomach-churning anxiety I can find myself drowning in is shame was after a friend emailed me about meeting up. I had misread the email and jumped to the conclusion that it would be a burden for them to pick me up from the station and I panicked. I couldn’t breathe and I felt dizzy and preoccupied with keeping the love of my friend. These moments are rarer and rarer now, but I am grateful when they occur because they are often an invitation to witness the suffering of the neglected little girl I was growing up. I see shame as something that happened in the past- it is almost never a reflection of what actually is these days. I don’t think I have any friends who shame me- A huge part of being mindful or cultivating emotional intelligence is trying to parse apart what actually is now, what is in the past and what is passing.

Maybe when I got that email and felt so awful, I went to being the eleven year old girl waiting, lonely and frightened and bored in a driveway, spending the afternoon worrying about where my parents were and if they were going to remember to come back for me. Maybe I dipped into a memory of sixteen year old me hobbling to the pay phone ringing my dad from the bottom of the hill, explaining I’d just dislocated my knee on a lurching Costa Rican bus and I couldn’t walk and I needed him to get in the car, do the five minute drive down the hill and bring me back. I learned early on that asking for favours risked the relationship- I remember my dad being very annoyed that I’d made the request of him and as usual, he did the dutiful thing but I paid for it in loss of connection, in his silence and withdrawal from me. Or perhaps my nervous system remembers trying to talk to mom after her naps, trying to gauge her mood -would my loneliness and desire for company be met with sighs and irritability and snappy snippy comments, or would I be welcomed? Sometimes it was impossible to tell until I’d unknowingly tripped a fuse. I always felt bad for not knowing where the line was- I felt shame for being so awkward and insensitive and needy.

Some children experience themselves as a burden- as too big, too needy, too annoying. It took a long time to learn I was not objectively too big- that I was used to trying to cut myself down to size so I wouldn’t upset people. In the original fairy story of Cinderella, the stepsisters tried to cut their toes off so they could fit into the slipper and win the love of the prince. My drawings speak to the emotional truth of this story, to those of us who try and lob off bits of ourselves to please the other and remain in relationship.

Oliver James, a psychoanalyst, writes about how our ’emotional thermostats’ are set in childhood- feelings that we feel often, chronically, become the water we swim in. I think my emotional thermostat was set to ‘shame’ but it was so insidious, so background, so quietly humming away that it was almost indiscernible.

Through talking therapy I learned he wouldn’t sigh heavily if I needed something, if I expressed a desire or a preference, if I spread out and asked for more than I thought was reasonable. He just received me and validated me and over time I learned I didn’t need to tread quite so carefully, I didn’t need to shrink or cut myself down to size or people please to keep everyone on side or regulate people’s feelings to get my needs met. I could just be. I could live and let live. One of the things I say is therapy re-wired my nervous system. I went from being chronically anxious, jammed into fight-flight-freeze frenzy, outward-looking prey wildly eying up the enemy and trying to placate them by saying the exact right thing to being in rest-and-digest, ‘it’s ok for me to exist and be who I am and move through the world exploring and not upsetting people is not my entire purpose in life.’ Psychoanalyst Sheldon Bach and neuroscientist Dan Siegel both describe the effects of a constantly activated sympathetic nervous system, a kid who is always jammed into prey-mode. Siegel described how the sympathetic nervous system is activated when we are confronted with limits. This is fine and good, it is good to have boundaries, unless you are constantly shoring up against your parents harsh, controlling, punitive limit setting and rejection. In those cases, the free-fall into shame is experienced as excruciating by the child, theorises Bach. He says that is what causes the awful lurching nausea and anxiety I feel when I experience this state. I felt that plummet so often as a kid that I didn’t even have words for it. Once I was a bit more stable, I could differentiate between feeling well-regulated and anxious.

And when I suddenly plummet into the depths of shame I’m able now to talk to myself about it. It is not 24/7 these days, thankfully. I know I won’t be there forever, I know the architecture of the feeling, its arc and ebb. I remind myself that what I went through as a kid was awful, but now I am allowed to ask for things, express limits and desires and ask friends if they can meet me at the station and they probably will still be my friend even if they say no. Sometimes, if the shame is accute and I can’t talk myself down and I’m seriously in the throes of a full on nervous system frenzy, I do some yoga that I read is good for calming down nervous systems. While I’m doubled over in the snail position, I bear witness to the suffering of the little girl who had to sidestep so many parental land mines and felt so much shame for existing. And then I come to the end of that feeling and I’m free to be who I am: shamelessly.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

Sheldon Bach’s book on narcissism has been incredibly useful to me on a personal level: ‘Getting From here to there: analytic love, analytic process.’

Oliver James book, ‘They fuck you up,’ is a useful and insightful read for those of us trying to work out just exactly what the fuck happened to us as kids

Dan Siegel talks about nervous system responses and mindfulness in his book Mindsight.

Five more scummy ‘spoon dates with Blake

Last year I made a commitment to take myself seriously as a writer. I protected a bit of space to write in- usually Sunday afternoon in a scummy Wetherspoons near Blake’s grave- I often light a candle and pray to him and then sit with a half pint of Punk IPA and try and thrash out my thinking. I love the process of writing -and that space, in the seedy ‘spoons around the corner from Blake, has been sacred ground for me. I feel like I have written myself into a better writer this year because of that weekly date with my soul, but I have also been read into being a better writer. Thank you to everyone who took the time and did emotional labour of reading and commenting and talking to me and thinking-alongside me. I have a handful of devoted readers who helped me develop my craft and I am so grateful you- I think tiny-but-devoted audiences might be my literary kink.

I feel restless though now. I feel like I’ve walked myself to the edge of this particular writing project. I feel like I’ve developed a voice and mapped the contours of my own logic of mothering. Perhaps I’ve plateaued and I want to keep exploring- I don’t want to repeat myself. I need a fresh arrow from Eros. I’m hungry to keep growing as a writer and push myself into new territory- I’m not sure what or where that is but I have some instincts and I’m going to follow my nose. One thought I have is perhaps figuring out how to get these accumulated essays published in ‘book’ form. But maybe not. I’ll follow my nose and appetite and see where that takes me-

following my instincts has led me to some pretty gorgeous landscapes this year and I have higher hopes for 2019 too. I have five Thursday publishing slots left till the end of the year and I’m going to think carefully about what I haven’t said yet, what is still burning in me to say. Five more scummy spoons dates with myself and Blake. 📸 @khayletts

Thinking in the marrow bone

One of the stories my mom used to relish telling me was that, as an infant I would gaze at the light and ‘talk to the angels.’ That was her first (delusional) inkling that I was in possession not only of an above average intelligence but a supernatural gift.

I drew this memory in response to a chilling chapter in psychoanalyst Margot Wadell’s book, Inside Lives. In the chapter on thinking she describes children who have to adapt to environmental failures by finding ways to hold themselves together- she movingly describes an infant who stares, blank faced into a light as means of creating a skin or a ‘cohering presence.’ When a good enough carer is not available to knit our experience of reality (and therefore the child’s ego or self) together with their attention, we, as infants will find a way to do this for ourselves – but at great cost to our developing personality and capacity to think. It might be staring into a light, or developing a precocious intelligence or slavishly mimicking some aspect of parental personality – it’s an impoverished means of stitching together what is otherwise a fragmented, frightening, non sensical existence. I can’t actually talk to angels, it turns out, but I can definitely identify with the little girl who is trying to hold it all together by busily cobbling together a thin skin made of words. I stitched and stitched and theorised and read like my life depended on it and learned to glibly smooth-tongue my way through.

I have always been considered smart, but the quality of my intelligence has changed over the years- a change I attribute to the growth of my personality through therapy. I’m not so one dimensional now. To begin with, I was all head and no heart. I tried to solve emotional problems by reasoning my way out of them, by acquiring facts and knowledge and philosophising instead of feeling. This made, as Waddell observes, for a thin, ‘adhesive’ texture to my intellect. I was all talk. I was great at chat but there was an underlying emptiness, a hyper-verbal, densely packed quality to the way I interacted. I imagine I probably talked as if the whole world might unravel before me if I stopped trying to clickety-clack knit knit knit with my words and whirring brain.

I imagine meeting myself now, as I was in my early twenties- I think I’d enjoy my company but perhaps find being with me not very restful- having to frenetically pack a whole human being into a just a head makes for an exhausting personality.

I’m not nearly so clever these days. My intelligence has been re distributed to the rest of my body- as Yeats would say I don’t just think in the mind alone. I discern with my nervous system: my sweaty palms and breath and stomach and pulsing veins. I know things with my heart now: I rely on the vibes I get from people, the feelings I feel around them, first impressions, my dreams, metaphors and imagery that pops up in my speech and thought. I rely on my appetite and instinct too: I try to ditch the rules as often as possible and surrender to what I crave. I think thoughts in my marrow bone these days and I don’t worry so much about having a coherent intellectual answer for everything. I’ve stopped trying to hold myself together with mere words.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Margot Waddell’s book, Inside Lives is a fascinating exploration of the development of human psyche.

She quotes Yeats’ poem, ‘A prayer for old age’ from which the title of this blog is taken

All I ever learned from love: Mom and obedience

For those of us who don’t enjoy our ‘relationship’ with our parents there is the compensatory thrill, when we have kids, of watching the ‘rents try on the grandkids the same fuckery they tried on us. This sort of gladiatorial bloodsport is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but it is one of the few meaning-making opportunities available to myself when I have to endure the (occasionally necessary) meetings with my estranged mother.

Her visit in the spring was full of her typical power hungry fuckeries. But the moment that I mull over often is when she watched me set a limit with R. He was clambering onto some benches in Borough Market and the security guard wandered over and asked me to take the kid off them. I explained all this to R and helped him down off the wooden seats- being the cheeky, curious lad he is he immediately tried to climb back up. I started to tell him I couldn’t let him climb on the benches and started to pull him off—

‘Your mommy is going to win,’ my mother interjected with animation. ‘You can try and disobey her and you can cry but you’re not going to win this one kiddo.’

As I write those words, my skin crawls. What was more disturbing than her words was her looming frame towering over him, the glee in her voice, her eager face. She was enjoying the power trip. Who gets off on holding power over a three year old? My mother. My mom does. One of my favourite lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is when he sings, ‘well maybe there’s a god above/but all I ever learned from love/was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.’ I know exactly what he is talking about: sometimes when people- like my mother -say they love me what they really mean is I want to have absolute power over you and I find your independence threatening. Love has, in the past, meant either killing off my authentic self to please the other (I famously ‘weaned myself’ off the breast at three months and it’s been downhill from there) or not letting anyone in lest they tame me. Neither of these relational options is particularly satisfying: these days I aspire to stay true to myself and stay connected to people I love.

Setting limits is one of the most sacred things I do as a parent and I see it as the opposite of a zero-sum game where there is a winner and a loser, where the only choice is whose will be done. To me, limit setting is an opportunity to treat him with dignity and affirm his agency and selfhood even though I’m using my authority to mark a boundary. There are myriad ways to show respect to a three year old in these moments: make room for his (often dissenting) feelings and validate them, speak from the ‘I’ not from a place of objective moral truth, offer choices, explain why, choose carefully which limits are important to enforce.

All of the above mentioned relational options build relationship and minimise the need to coerce my kid. I don’t want him to be blindly obedient to me, I want him to know there are limits (particularly in relation to other people or public spaces) but not shame him for bumping up against them. I want him to learn how to be-with others, how to negotiate difference and boundaries and consent.

This last trip my mother made to London in the spring, I wouldn’t engage in the usual power games she speaks. And because she only speaks the language of power, because she only feels safe if those she ‘loves’ are saying and doing her script, there was much silence between us.

For me there are only two real relational options: choosing to control another person or choosing to see who they are and then authentically turning up to take a stand in relation to them. My mother always chooses power at the expense of relationship: I was a very obedient child. We don’t talk much these days.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

The different love lessons I’ve learned- of limit setting rather than obedience- can be found in the books How to Listen so kids will talk and how to talk so kids will listen, Dibs: in search of self and Janet Lansbury’s excellent podcast series, Unruffled

On cultivating a sense of ‘aliveness’

A few nights ago I woke up in a cold sweat, convinced I was about to die. It was one of those awful 2am panics, unfounded, irrational, impossible to ignore. Not even my husband’s kind, sleepy words and heartfelt embrace could calm me.

The next afternoon I re-read a collection of psychoanalytic essays entitled ‘The Dead Mother’ a smorgasbord of case studies about patients who analysts experienced as psychically dead. Reading these essays, I felt relief. Thomas H. Ogden’s words particularly grabbed me- he remarks in his essay, ‘I believe that every form of psychopathology represents a specific type of limitation of the individual’s capacity to be fully alive as a human being.’ No wonder I’m experiencing anxiety. I am afraid of going dead again, and perhaps stopping therapy has made me wobble. There was a long period at the beginning of my life where I merely survived, and I never want to go back to that place again. One of the projects of psychoanalysis is to re-vitalise those of us who have numbed or gone dead inside, and many times I have compared the work my therapist and I did together as a heart transplant or some kind of reconstructive surgery. There is some part of me that is worried I will have to give the heart back or that he was more like an iron lung and I’m not sure I’m capable of sustaining life without being in his presence.

I need to remind myself that I can and will choose to go towards the thing that makes me crackle with electricity. I am committed to organising my life around whatever it is that makes me feel alive. Often these things aren’t Instagramable or pretty acts of self care or particularly nice or uncontroversial. Often the stuff that makes me feel alive has an edge to it – it’s something I’ve had to battle some demons to claim. I’ve had hang ups about these things, I’ve thought but mums shouldn’t… or nobody else wants this why am I weird or I’ve battled a sense of betraying my family or god. My guiding light is the question, ‘am I even allowed to do this?’ And if I’m asking myself that question, I know I’ve sniffed out my next move. Here’s a list (very specific to me!) of cheap thrills that remind me I’ve got a pulse:

My weekly pilgrimages to Blake’s grave and my stupid little dissenter prayers to him

Watching Supermarket Sweep with Dale Winton. I don’t do this often enough

Loving my friends excessively. I sometimes feel guilty for how much they mean to me

Scummy pubs. The seedier and cheaper the better.

Planning excessively romantic date nights for my husband. I’m insanely romantic and if I don’t have an outlet I’m prone to various pathologies

Wearing pretty frocks and lipstick

Rubbery nachos

Dancing to power ballads and sentimental cheesy pop with non sensical, tasteless lyrics

Eating a whole pack of Oreos

Writing pointless, lengthy emails or texts, usually to friends I see on a regular basis

Scrolling through my Instagram feed, feeling nothing but the ludicrous question, should I ‘like’ this or not

Smelling freshly licked cat fur, especially if its still damp

I love bluntly saying no to things. Like ‘nope. No. Nah, not my thing.’ Cheap thrills every time.

Cooking alone by myself

Drinking whisky in the green chair and listening to Leonard Cohen album, also alone

Solitude on a sexy bike enjoying lite post-industrial urban cityscape

Late night grocery shopping

Scheming gifts to make for birthdays

Going to church. Every week I think what the fuck am I doing here and I also, confusingly, thoroughly enjoy myself

Drinking apple cider out of a champagne flute, a thrilling practice my friend Tilly put me onto. Just any fancy glassware I am generally seduced by

Feeling all my feels including rushes of hatred, puddles of guilt, spikes of anger potholes of shame and all the baddies, not just the ‘nice’ ones of love and peace and happiness

Eating elaborately cooked meals

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Thomas H Ogden’s essay ‘Analysing forms of aliveness and deadness of the transference-countertransference’ can be found in ‘The Dead Mother: The work of Andre Green.’ Also enlivening is when my friend Kat texts and says they have a stack of psychoanalytic books in their used bookshop and do I want them? and I come home with a hoard

📸 Asha Panesar Bourne a good friend I love allot

Freakin’ out: Freud, The Uncanny and motherhood

Often when I have a quiet moment to myself, my mind wanders to the freaky fact that I grew a whole human being inside of me. I mean, he spent 9 months nestled among my vital organs. I grew him cell by cell, one sausage sandwich at a time. I spent the better part of a year amassing a human body inside me. And in those tender months just after his birth when I took him to the weighing clinic and the midwife told me he was growing and thriving and gaining weight I was shocked every time that he was becoming more baby and more body and more himself just from my milk. I kept expecting her to say, nah, just kidding, you can’t actually grow a baby just by boobs alone. It seems weird in this day and age that you grow a body with another body. It seems unhygienic or kind of backwards- like homeopathy. The first eighteen months of body -from fetus to weaning- his bones, his teeth, his skin- his substance- is me. And this is a weird thought but it is not the weirdest. Parenting has, so far, invited me to many uncanny encounters.

Today, for example, I was just thinking, oh I must remember to ask my friend Robert if I can borrow his phone charger. No sooner had I thought this thought than the the three year old turned to Robert and asked for the phone charger. This happens all the time. I think about my husband and suddenly R is asking when daddy is going to be home. His little mind-reading shenanigans are never a product of our chats together – it is always after a silence. Ever since he learned to talk he sometimes voices my unvoiced thoughts. I don’t know if there is some unconscious communication between us or if maybe we spend way too much time together talking about the same stuff over and over or if maybe we’re just really attuned to each other. I don’t know how to explain it but it freaks me out every single time.

Or a few months ago I was clearing out some baby stuff and I came across my breast pump. As I opened the box to inspect the contents, I felt a surge of – what? A let-down reflex? Milk ducts firing up? An oxtytocin party in my boobs? Whatever it was, my body- which hasn’t produced milk for years- was suddenly that of a nursing mother. The sensation of it was a visceral momento- all triggered by glancing at my old breast pump. This is more understandable, maybe, though I didn’t know it was a Thing. I was suddenly propelled into mammal memory.

Or I find it really weird when I wake up suddenly in the night a few minutes before R wakes. Just as I begin to think oh, I’m lucid dreaming or maybe I’m sleeping lightly, he calls to me from his cot down the corridor. Are our bio rhythms in sync? Has my ‘sleep architecture’ shifted because of hormones or something? Do I just startle in my sleep at the same environmental noises he does? I don’t know the answer but I do find it strange that often when he cries in the middle of the night I’ve woken up a split second before- he hardly ever wakes me from a really deep sleep.

Freud’s notion of the uncanny is a useful frame to interpret these encounters. Motherhood brings me cheek-to-jowl with my reptile self, the ‘strange yet familiar’ mammal life I could easily disregard in my waking 9-5 post- latte, sitting down and talking targets existence. The gift of the uncanny is that when it rears its head I am reminded I am not in control: I am subject to unconscious processes that both delight and bewilder me. When my kid eerily asks me why I am sad when I’m walking along silently, absorbed in processing a bit of grief, it is a treat to feel astonished. I am suddenly an outsider in my own life, controlled by forces that I sometimes experience as totally other.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Freud wrote the classic essay ‘The Uncanny’ in 1919 which has dazzled art students ever since

I won’t pull him close and s-mother him

My mother told me don’t read Virginia Woolf it is depressing and dark and worldly. And I was obedient so I did not pull those books off the shelf, alluring as they were, till I was nearly out the door, ready to leave at seventeen. Also off limits was pop rock, tight skirts above the knee that might make men sin and television. There was so much to be frightened of. When I finally plucked up the courage to read a Room of One’s Own I didn’t know what my mother was talking about. I experienced Woolf’s writing not as a force of evil but as a tool of emancipation. I eagerly, guiltily read as much of her writing as I could lay my hands on in Latin America. I scoured the local ex-pat run secondhand bookshop for her work. Her writing made me feel alive.

Next autumn, R will start reception at school. We’ve been going to open days, discussing our local primary schools, looking at OFSTED reports and outside spaces for recess. I have fantasies of walking him there and waving goodbye at the gates, but then my heart goes cold. Who will he be spending his days with, I fear brutes and bullies and well-spoken pedants, correcting his unruly syntax. I feel the ache in my chest. And I feel the impulse to pull him close, too close, and s-MOTHER him, to keep him with me. I know I’m dreading separating from him. This is another birth, another pushing myself out as much as I’m pushing him out. I know I need to let go so I can grow, let go so he can grow, I want to set us both free, to let him become and me become. But that doesn’t mean it is an easy labour; I anticipate one long night of vigil and sweat and contractions.

The stirring in me is, I imagine, the same fear that stirred in my own mom and maybe my dad when they decided to unschool us. There is a whole world outside the nuclear family that could be unsafe and unholy and is certainly outside their, locus of control, my locus of control. Better to keep her close, hide her in long, ankle-length denim skirts and never face the sorrows and fears of separation.

But I know the buck stops with me- this is the end of that worldview. This weaning out of the family and into institutional life is an opportunity to heal a generational curse- he will go to school in all of its unholy lunchbox wars and charlatan headteacher nonsense and terrible influences. We will relinquish one another again and again over the years and discover what is so beautiful to both of us about the ‘worldly’ world out there.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

The sniffles: where psyche and soma collide

I had a minor cold last week. When I feel weak and tired and achy and can barely stay awake, I bump into this knot where psyche and soma collide. I hate being ill.

The combination of stale cigarettes, oily sheets and milky, un showered body still make me nauseous. It is the scent of neglect and depression, the scent of a human being composting into their own bed. To me, despair is a smell. Its sickly and sweet like greasy hair. It is the smell of chronic illness, of an immune system that is propped up with naps and pills and endless offerings of coffee from an eleven year old daughter. My mother’s illness was both an absence and a presence: she was absent in her daily stretches of sleep but her sickness was tentacled, slithering into me, gluing me to her, suctioning onto my guilt and my pity, sucking me further into her pull.

And my conflict when I’m ill is: do I become the needless young carer, the invisible good girl who does endlessly for others and is never a burden. I have been known to power through kidney infections and check myself into the hospital without telling my husband so I don’t worry him. I can very easily find myself quietly, stoically ‘getting on with it,’ and erasing myself. This martyrdom is infinitely preferable to becoming my mother, the other possibility when I feel like shit.I experienced my mom’s sickbed as just another outpost of my mother’s imperial quest for total devotion to her- in her desperate thirst for love and care. Will I become a grandiose despot, calling the shots from my sickbed, weaponising my victimhood to control my intimates, to pull them into the orbit of pity. For many years these were the only two relational options open to me- both were unbearable to inhabit. At least the first didn’t hurt anyone else.

I’m still haunted by my past as a young carer. But. I am learning how to exist, to not erase myself. I think maybe I’m able to do what my mother never could: take responsibility for how bad I feel, check in with myself, own it, figure out what to do about it instead of making others shoulder the guilt and responsibility of making care decisions for me. If I feel up for it, as I did, I walk to the shops and lavishly treat myself to posh orange juice and Belgian chocolate Champagne truffles and some nice food and then I tell my kid I’m going to be on the sofa for the rest of the day. And I accept offers of help. And I asked my talented sister for a massage, trusting that she would say no if she didn’t have capacity. I am learning now that there is a difference between asking and demanding. The first one comes from a place that believes in relationship and generosity and the second is the language of zero sum games and power struggles and is the grabby, greedy love-child of fear and woundedness. I want nothing to do with that mode of relating.

Although my history is unique, I don’t think I am alone in grappling with these questions. Infirm bodies always put us in touch with our dependency fears. And everyone has to negotiate inside themselves how they behave when they need support or care from intimates. Is care something that can be requested open-handedly, respectfully, trusting in the abundance and generosity of the universe? Or is care something that is scarce, that needs to be milked out of others?

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch