So I just got back from a knackering but satisfying weekend with a good friend in the countryside. Normally this friend is someone I enjoy child -free time with, and when I have stayed with him in the past few years since having R, he has been an oasis. I love drinking whiskey, cooking, eating and talking poetry and god and psychoanalysis with him. We have known each other a long time and it has been so good to connect with someone who knew me before marriage or kid. I have always returned from staying with him feeling restored and refreshed and a little more myself.
However, this time, I brought R with me. I want my son to know this friend who has been so important to me. So we stayed in his gorgeous house and had a gorgeous time, going for walks and seeing lambs and exploring the house. And it was also knackering. R is always unsettled when he is away from home which means less sleep for me, and my husband was having a well-deserved break back at home, which meant I was on duty 24/7.
I think this was the first time for a while that I’d seen myself through the eyes of this friend while ‘doing mothering.’ The me that usually comes to visit him is very different from the tired, absorbed -in -my -son’s -play, interrupted, listening-to- big-feelings, limit-setting, early nights and leaping off the sofa mid conversation to re-settle the kid in the travel cot version of me. I loved encountering the contrast.
I’m three years into this mothering malarkey and sometimes I forget why I’m so spent all the time. It is so lovely, such a gift, when ones labour is made visible, when all the passion and daily acts of ‘ordinary devotion’ are witnessed or acknowledged. Of course my mothering-labour is reflected back by my husband but I’m used to being in that role around him, it is normalised. The contrast isn’t so sharp. What I appreciated was the collision of different Dianas, making it so apparent to myself what exactly I do all day. I got to step outside myself a little through his eyes, maybe get a little objectivity.
And I think this is useful as a mum. Having the reality of ones days reflected back. Because it is really easy to lose count of the hours and effort and forget how depleting intensive care- taking can be, to remember to make space for my own subjectivity. As I write this, I sit in the pub having stolen some marginal time before bathtime. I felt guilty and conflicted asking for it, and I think sometimes I have felt I need to build up credits before I’m allowed to ask to have some solitude. Or I’ve had to wring permission out of my husband by making him offer to look after R- perhaps I perform my exhaustion or sigh heavily, performing martyrdom- rather than taking what I need. If I am honest about what hard work mothering is, I can be honest about what I need to do it well and to keep my soul. I can look after myself rather than task other people I love with guessing my needs. Martyrdom and passive aggressive communication is the consequence of not voicing my needs directly, when my labour is so invisible that I am not even conscious of the toll it takes.
The labour of motherhood is beautiful and satisfying, but it also means I can barely finish two pints without a guaranteed hangover the next morning. I think motherhood has re-written my body.
Not to put too fine a point on it but I was conscious this was the same week Sandi Toksvig of the Women’s Equality Party told off the establishment for continuing to ignore the ‘non productive’ and unpaid labour that is childcare. I often wish my labour of childcare was, if not recompensed monetarily, and there are some good arguments for why it should be, was at least widely acknowledged as skilful and valuable work. It is labour that straddles that weird public-private dichotomy that Feminist Movement has been so good at deconstructing. This labour is often badly paid and poorly recognised. It is also allot like hard work.
And so I’m grateful for friends who honour the caretaking I do just by witnessing what I fill my hours with: walking up and down stairs again and again as I follow his little expeditions into strange and exciting new built environs, listening to his sorrows about the wrong colour cup, validating his feelings, offering choices instead of imposing my agenda, dressing, feeding, mopping up and risk assessing and holding. The endless micro decisions one makes about where to go next and how to deal with this situation. The myriad physical and emotional jobs that make up a day of doing mothering. It was so gorgeous, so affirming to have someone taking -in what I do for a whole weekend, a quiet, kind observer, who kindly, quietly at the end of the day handed me a G&T with the words, ‘gosh you do allot. That is hard work.’
Copyright 2018 Diana Smith
‘Ordinary maternal devotion’ is yet another fabulous phrase by Winnicott.