All posts by The psyche geographer

Reveries of London based mum on the psychoanalytic couch

Hail Mary, hold the baby

The most recent walk began at Crossbones cemetery. There is a Mary grotto in the graveyard dedicated to the ‘Winchester Geese,’ the sex workers who are buried there, outside the boundaries of the city. Into the metal grating, for her, I tucked a cheap plastic baby Jesus I pinched from a nativity set. Hail Mary, please hold this baby for me so I can roam and feel free. I know in my bones, this thing. That someone always needs to hold the baby so I can experience release. There has to be someone who, sometimes for us, can hold psychic babies, the screaming infants who are all hunger and un-metabolised feeling, someone who can connect with us in the throes of our human struggles. (Sometimes I just need someone who can hold the real, literal baby so I can leave home. I guess historically women have done this for men). I imagine what it might be like to walk the city ‘like a boy,’ enjoying their privilege. I walked Maiden lane (now the primly named ‘Park Street’) and the old stews, imagined the brothels and playhouses. I wondered, as I stood in the the narrow cobbled alleyway still called Stew Lane, where you could get a boat to ‘The Clink’, what it might feel like to cross the river in search of adventure. No responsibility or ties, nobody’s mother or wife, anonymous. Just a ferry to the Southbank, and then another boat back home, crossing back again when I have gotten my fill of thrill.

Tentatively, I have started sharing with my husband the stuff that I don’t have answers for, the knots I have gotten myself into, telling him about my restless heart and all the stuff I can’t figure out by myself. When I am feeling restless and angry and claustrophobic or anxious or too crazy to think. I tell him when I need to roam. I call this telling surrender. It brings relief.

We can all do this labour of holding and witnessing for one another. It takes strength and an open heart but it is one of the kindest gestures I can think of offering and one I appreciate receiving. I grew up telling myself I had to have my shit together all the time. That was how I survived childhood and it is a good tactic. but I don’t want that identity anymore. I want to let go sometimes and be the person who doesn’t always have the right answer. I want permission to be a mess, to be all running mascara and claim the space to fall apart.

Last weekend I took some time to walk the city and (literally!) stumbled across a sign advertising the ruins of the old Rose theatre on Park Lane in dodgy Southwark. I took a photo of the dark, jauntily lit ruins. The Tudor playhouse smelled of Thames dirt and rust and damp muddy wood. I felt a little more human, a little more grounded after my roam. It felt good to claim the space for my soul.

I can seek holding when I feel the need for surrender welling up in me, but my son doesn’t have words for this need yet. I interpret his erratic behaviour as a bid for connection. When I do this labour for my son I call it, ‘containing his behaviour,’ when he squeals and leaps like a wild colt after a day at school and he can’t sleep or sit still or regulate himself, I try to offer him a little of what I have craved, the sense of letting go. Of letting someone else do the thinking and metabolising for a little while so he doesn’t have to be good all the time, so he can fall apart and know that I will be present for him. My deepest hope is that when he is older like me he can ask someone else for this labour without shame and that he will open heartedly offer it to people he loves without embarrassment. He sleeps most soundly after he has picked some fight with me and howled at my limit setting. Often, maybe he asks for something he knows I will say no to and I can tell he is on the edge of tears, he needs to get it off his chest, he needs me to say no so he can cry and wail and shout and be angry and have someone catch him. And then hold him close once all the sobs are out.

Today I instinctually said a Hail Mary under my breath and I said it feeling all the longing. I said all the words but I know she understood that I meant hail Mary, hold the baby because I need someone strong enough to catch me.

 Copyright Diana Smith 2019

Slipshod mountain over Blake

I discovered ‘mountain’ pose by accident, I landed into it, slipshod, when I fell out of ‘tree’ one morning and now it’s maybe my favourite position to pray or meditate in. It felt so delicious to stand like that, catching my breath after a series of haphazard warriors and a wobbly tree and some wonky downward facing dogs and I reckoned it must be a ‘real’ yoga pose it felt too good not to be- a quick google afterwards gave me the word for it. I am all lengthened spine and firm sole when I take my stand in it.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of endings and beginnings. I started work again full time for the first time since he was born and he started school. This is end-of-an-era stuff, I am not so needed, my identity is shifting again and I feel unsteady, shaky, a little tense and kind of exhausted. He is tossed at sea too: his SOS in a bottle washes up at bedtime and when I leave the flat and at the school gates and anywhere he can assert himself, anywhere there are limits or thresholds. Bathtimes, mealtimes, goodbyes. His instinct is to throw his weight around, push the (shifting) boundaries to find out where he still holds power. He has not chosen any of this and he is trying to find purchase, a grip, where does he exert control, where the limits of his autonomy begin and end. I respect his process: he is deft at thinking his way through problems in his play. After the tears, the superhero cape comes out and the plastic power tools and the boats get bombed in the bath, sink and then bob back up again. He plays at omnipotence and mending things and resurfacing after the blast and it looks so satisfying.

And my instinct is to play too. I find myself at Blake’s grave again, I offer him a single stem of crimson and sunlight petals that looks like one of his etchings. I find myself taking my stand in ‘mountain’, astonished by ground under my feet that is sacred ground of lunatic dissenters. In front of me, Blake, behind me, Defoe. There is a place here for the ones who don’t quite fit, the crazy misfits who wanted do their own thing, who were not cowed by convention or institution, who chose to stay uncomfortable. There is a place, it is called Bunhill fields and it is just outside the City of London, this is the place where they buried the ones who stood their ground. They did not like being told what to do or how to live. I said a prayer for the soul of my fierce son, wished him some dissenter’s courage, hoped he would keep a hold of his soul and assert his autonomy when faced with challenges that are not of his choosing. I breathed a few breaths for myself, prayed to keep touch with my soul during this transition. And standing there, I could breathe again, I could feel that ground under the soles of my feet and I feel it is my ground too, it connects us all.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019

The slinky of devotion

In an astonishing gesture of extravagance, we missed our flights. Or skipped them. Normally I can talk him down from his particular insanities and he from mine, we’re nicely codependent in that way. But when he remarked the night before our romantic getaway to Rome that he felt weird about leaving the four year old behind in a different country from us, the unease that had been politely coiled in my chest all week loosened and spiralled out. Once it gained momentum, my devotion collapsed over itself, moving haphazard down the steps like a stupid, bobbing slinky obeying some dumb force of inevitability. And this is what a fired up attachment system feels like when it gets going, an unhinged, out-of-control, runaway slinky. So we didn’t go to Rome in the end. We didn’t see the Colosseum or drink wine or watch the sunset together. Instead we left the kid in the flat with my sister (as planned) and booked some a cheap Premier Inn room in the same city as our kid and ate trashy snacks and read and napped and went to the pub. I’m not proud of our behaviour.

Devotion is costly. It is crazy. It runs its own course. It writes its own rules. I really wish I was not the sort of mother who has the urge to raid the laundry hamper and smell her kid’s clothes when he goes to nursery but I am. It’s weird and reeks of compulsion. I talk endlessly about needing more headspace and time to myself and then when I get it because the kid is finally being looked after by paid professionals, I walk into the silent flat, sit down on the sofa and do not write or read or do anything productive. I weep and open a bottle of prosecco, partly out of celebration and partly out of sorrow that he is growing up so quickly. In the same vein of over the top gestures of unhinged devotion I think I might have become vegan out of grief this week. He’s going to school the first week in September and it suddenly occurred to me that mother cows and baby cows are being torn apart all over the UK by industrial farming. Suddenly I can’t bring myself to eat cheese or put cream in my coffee. It feels wrong. In some kind of gut, panting -Labrador heart logic, the same limbic system that makes me sweat and pulse with cortisol and metallic tinged palpitations when I contemplate leaving the county without my kid is the same limbic system I share with all mammals. It’s weird to think the thing that I reckon makes me most human is the thing that paradoxically is my most animal self. I’m kind of in awe of it actually. I like how at odds with myself it makes me, what a stranger I become. My logical self that wants a romantic holiday with my husband to explore Rome is at odds with my devoted animal mother self who probably wants to curl up in the laundry hamper with some jam stained t shirts. I don’t know how to reconcile these parts of me so until then I’m just going to drink tinned cocktails in bed like the trashy mad bad sad lady I am with my husband in a hotel room no more than 3.5 miles away from my son and call that a romantic weekend away.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019

Not to shine in use

Rewind two or three weeks ago to Russel Square tube station, me fighting back tears as I accused my husband of a thought crime and he responded to my mad.bad.sad lashing out by generously offering to spend the afternoon with the kid so I could connect to myself. Sometimes his goodness kills me.

I said yes but I felt guilty for not checking in with myself before I took it out on him. I should have acknowledged how frazzled and crazy I felt. I have been doing allot of childcare (standard- it’s summertime) but I had also had allot of time for myself. I’ve recently started taking boxing classes which I adore and I have had quite allot of evenings of meeting friends for drinks and time to read in bed and nap and go wild swimming and do yoga and cook elaborate meals. I’m not running on fumes or living on scraps and yet I WAS STILL IN A BAD MOOD

But maybe one thing is missing from that list. Which is writing. I stopped writing for a few months because I wanted to goad myself into doing something with my psychegeographer content. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to write anymore essays till I’d done the slog montage of finding agents and carefully reading through and editing and writing cover letters. I thought maybe that would motivate me to slay the hydras I’m scared of: boring admin and critical editors and rejecting agents. All the usual monsters encountered when on personal Odyssey.

It turns out writing keeps me sane. When I don’t make time to write I suffer. I feel like a jammed photocopier. I feel like experience is souring inside me. I swallow life and then it just sits in me, unthought about and plugs/clogs/numbs/builds like residue. It’s gross, it’s ugly, more than once over the last few weeks I’ve mumbled to myself (pretentiously), ‘how dull it is to pause/to make an end/to rust unburnish’d not to shine in use.’ Rather than the narrative of artist as mad, I am finding evidence that I’m writer-as-sane. I shine in use. I am a better mother and lover and friend when I make time to write. When I finally let myself sit down and put some words onto a page a few weeks ago, I felt relief. So in addition to setting sail on a little publishing odyssey to see far away isles and discovering whether someone might want to bind and print my lunatic ravings about motherhood and psychoanalysis, I’m going to keep writing my essays and publishing them regularly on my blog. Maybe not once a week but often enough. I don’t want to make any money- I don’t need or want to make a living off my writing. I have a job I adore and a little flat in the ‘burbs and I have a room of my own and enough space and leisure time to think and I have a voice and lots to say- but what I do need is audience. Good readers make me into a better writer but mostly I love the intimacy of autobiographical essay writing, the way it opens me up and connects me to others, the way I shine in use.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019, Thameside PAUL London

The title of this post and the poem I’m quoting from is Tennyson’s Ulysses

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

Tomorrow I’m ending therapy with the man who gave me a soul

Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time after time’ has just come on in the café I’m writing in- its the song I’ve sung to my therapist recently as our nine year analysis draws to an end. I’m bawling into my hot chocolate and wiping the tears as I write, thinking yes. He looked and he found me time after time. And I’ve fallen and he’s caught me time after time. A suitcase of memories… I’m a soppy, sentimental foolish girl but also the power ballad speaks to how I have experienced my therapist’s relentless search to find me. I was buried alive when I first entered his consulting room, crushed under the weight of my solipsistic self-recriminations, suffocated in apologies, mummified by inhibition. There was no way I was going to bust open the coffin by myself and scoop the earth out one fistful at a time till I reached the surface. When I first arrived on his couch all I could do was lay there, supine, helpless, entombed in embryonic silence without any hope he even knew I was down there. I think if I had died, they wouldn’t have found scratch marks on the lid of the coffin- I’d given up on anyone reaching me, any chance at human connection. I didn’t even know I was slowly asphyxiating. I’d gotten used to my shallow breaths that barely took in what I so desperately craved: attention, presence, kindness, compassion, the company of others.

Well folks, he found this zombie. Dead-then-undead. Here I am. Over three evenings a week, over and over again, time after time, he kept digging till he reached me. The reason I can weep in my therapy sessions over the last month is because he kept going till he made contact, till he clasped my hand and pulled me out: I emerged, shallow breaths, wobbly legs, blinded by the sun, stunned at the rhythm of my pulse, astonished at my capacity for heart.

I don’t know if everyone experiences therapy as sacred. I have grappled with how much he has meant to me, how much I owe him, how deeply I have loved him. I’m aware I pay him by the hour and he has been professionally trained- this is a weird paradox that I can’t untangle. For those of us who needed more than just a kind ear and a bit of compassion to heal our childhood wounds- for those of us who were left for dead psychically speaking- those of us who were hopelessly damaged in ways that would make even the most experienced therapist balk- enlivening us is a heroic act. I have used him in ways I could never use a friend or a partner. Partners and friends require reciprocity, some giving in addition to taking. I needed a deeply unequal relationship. The kind where one person was doing most of the heavy lifting for a long while, the way parents do for babies. I urgently needed someone to run and grab a shovel and start digging. I needed an intensely consistent, attuned relationship- the kind that, if you’re lucky, you get offered once as an infant and then never again- one far beyond the scope of what could be sanely asked for from the usual channels of relating. Sometimes I think it is even more than what I could ask of a therapist: it would have been very reasonable of him to throw up his hands and say, too hard. I can’t reach you, you are too wounded. Especially in those first few years when I didn’t turn up to my sessions or turned up drunk or turned up silently absorbed in my own internal thrashings, unable to ask for help. He spent allot of time waiting for me to turn up in every sense- and when Cindy sings ‘I will be waiting,’ I erupt into more sobbing. It gets me in the gut. What an extraordinary thing to do for another human.

I have never trusted anyone as much as I have this man, I have never leaned on anyone with all my weight in the way I have relied on him. No one has ever seen me so skinless. He holds my whole history, and by taking all of me in he has made it possible for me to claim my story. I am more alive with him than I am anyone else: I crackle with humour and intelligence in front of him. He was the first person to call me into being, to invite me to exist as I am. He was the first person to see who I am when I am unashamed and ‘unleashed’ as he calls it, the way I am now most of the time, the way I move through the world now.

I feel so tender at the moment. In the sense of being both a little bit sore and also with a staggering capacity to be affected by cheesy pop on the radio or something beautiful someone says. I am weepy and grateful and a little shambolic but alive. So alive. And I’ll say goodbye to him on Friday.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Choose your own apocalypse: On walking Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

Those of us who have crazy parents don’t get to choose the apocalypse we are born into. Whatever it is our parents fear- be it bombs, the middle-classes, nuclear holocaust, public transport, germs, bad table manners, being shown up- gets transmitted to their kids, and we, as their children are forced into living their perception, their as-if existence. I lived the the jungles of Costa Rica and in the suburban, homeschooled deserts of Arizona where my parents could feed their schizoid worldview in peace. Keep the kids away from schools, from churches who didn’t have the right theology, from brain-dead institutions, from ignorant neighbours who didn’t agree, from the spying government, from supermarket loyalty cards that might track our canned bean choices. We never choose which delusions and paranoias will be our inheritance: our parents get to decide who we will be frightened of and how much we hate the outside world, how armed we shall be when we leave the (sometimes literal) bunker. If we’re lucky, if we choose to do the work, we might slowly come to realise we can disarm and there was no need for (the sometimes literal) bunker and rifles and (sometimes literal) self-defence lessons by ex-Chilean army officers. At some point we might come blinking out into the sunlight to discover that the apocalypse never really happened- but what do we do with the rifles, the memories of the bunker, the synapses that can’t be pruned, our reptilian knowing. What do we do with our unchosen apocalypse.

Choosing to walk an apocalypse is maybe a weird decision for someone who claims to have lived through her parent’s own personal one, and who generally hates that genre of film and writing. I can see that. I have chosen to read and re-read a text and walk particular bits of the city that bear an uncanny resemblance to the textures of my childhood. But maybe it is that quality in the writing that draws me to it, the voice that masquerades as journalistic reporting although it trades more in fantasy than in facts. I want in on Defoe’s hysterical, fevered apocalypse, saturated as it is with screams and boils and melodrama. I infinitely prefer it to the pared down, austere one of Mcarthy’s The Road. Defoe gives me permission to play- the Plague of 1665 is mine to take, because he made it his, first of all: the crazy religious language in Journal of a Plague year, the descriptions of infected houses having a foot-long Red Cross painted on their door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on our souls,’ painted, in my imagination, in scarlet and maybe over a lintel or something. I imagine the claustrophobic screams of terrified plague victims who are quarantined to pest houses and their own rooms. That was the word my mom used to use when she would send us to our rooms. ‘Quarantined.’ ‘You are quarantined to your room girls until you apologise.’ I love the long, internal theological debates the narrator gets himself into about providence and should I stay or should I go with spurious capitals and labrynthine syntax and no punctuation for miles. The indignity of mass graves and plague pits, the despair, the evacuation of the city, the isolation and mistrust. My mother would pray to god before we drove to the air-conditioned supermarket to buy packets of pasta and mincemeat and bags of apples, pray for protection, for a safe journey and successful shopping, addressing the angels to keep charge over us, especially Michael the archangel, and then she’d smoke a cigarette or two at the steering wheel to calm her nerves.

When I walk the narrow alleyways described by Defoe with others like I did on Sunday, I get some control over the apocalypse. I get to choose this one and how I interact with it. I’m not a victim of circumstance anymore, I get to have a little bit of control, I get to make some decisions. And I got to do it with friends, as an adult, on my own terms, one foot in my own imagination and memory, playfully. And maybe this is the logic of play therapy, when I practice psychogeography like this. The thing that I fear is the thing that is transformed, through play, into something that I can use for for the development of my own identity-to add psychic weight to my soul. Because this is a way of claiming my own past, of stepping into the heart of pain rather than denying my history or disavowing that story or numbing my feelings about my upbringing. Walking the plague allows me to go back into the trauma but at a safe distance. I did not get to choose the flavour of apocalypse my parents put us through- and it changed and shaped my psyche and palette for melodrama and language and religious fervour in ways that are still surprising me. But perhaps I could have some say in how I choose to play with my history. This is grown up play. This is proper make-believe for thirty somethings. And I love walking the city like this, and I’m grateful other people want to come play with me.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I’m deeply grateful to Anna Hart who transmitted, through her walking practice, how valuable reverie and dipping into internal, subjective space is during a walk. Before I joined her weekly Kings Cross walking club in 2015, I thought psychogeography was largely a fact-saturated affair, consisting mainly of turning attention outward toward the city in an frenzy of objectivity. Her monthly silent walks cured me of this notion and taught me how rich, how satisfying it can be to pay attention to imagination and not just buildings and shared histories.

I’m also deeply grateful to Michael who asked on Sunday’s walk, ‘So, why do you want to walk the plague?’ Great question.

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of The Plague Year is published by penguin and is a cracking good read

If you fancy coming on my next walk, you can find more information here

📸 Photo credit: Kat Haylett

It took me to the edge: one kid is enough

I made this drawing a few days after R was born. I wanted to capture a profound moment of being seen and understood- the neonatal nurse’s simple statement of acknowledgement, ‘it pushed you to the edge of what you were capable of,’ when she found me fighting back tears, attempting to feed my newborn son on the maternity ward. Something about her manner released something I didn’t know I was keeping inside and my whole birth story had come pouring out of my mouth as she held R. I’d been trying to hold myself together and contain all the fear and shock of birth in my usual avoidant, mutant way. Her words gave me permission to own what I could barely admit to myself: I have an edge, and all those contractions and pushing for all those hours brought me to some paradoxically sacred-profane threshold of euphoria and pain. It was almost unbearable. Something as ordinary as birth could have undone me- I might not have been able to assimilate so much suffering into my personality and use it for my own growth. That I endured the pain and was able to symbolise it to myself afterwards is a miracle. I wrestled with a bear and came back revenant-style, over the horizon on a white horse.

The edge is a risky place to go- it is necessary for me to mark it and stay well away from it most of the time. Its great for rites of passage and initiations into new lives and identities, but a terrible place to set up house. I’ve been here, in varying distances from it, for three years. It’s time for me to start packing. Some people are great in a crisis. I am not someone who thrives on adrenal thrills and frenetic, overstretched living. The edge is a sacred-profane place I go to be transformed, but then I must retreat.

I recently decided to give away all of Rs baby things in recognition of my limits. I’ve been storing his old babygrows in the loft for ‘the second one.’ Other people choose to have two or three kids, I am not other people. Growing a baby inside me and pushing him out and doing parenting has been one of the most intense and weird and glorious experiences of my life and I’ve become all kinds of strong and deep and found parts of my soul I didn’t know existed.

But I’m ready to grow different parts of myself and learn new stuff about me now.

I don’t have another kid in me unless I sacrifice more of my psyche and soma than I’m willing to relinquish. It has been a relief to admit this to myself, to fold the washed sleepsuits into plastic carrier sacs and give away the fantasy of the second child, one bag at a time. A second kid would make me stay here, on the cusp of what I’m capable of, the knife-edge of nearly too much.

The resources a child absorbs – psychic, economic, environmental, relational- are enormous. How many women go mad with motherhood and lose themselves in the welter of care giving? I made a list, spanning early pregnancy to toddlerhood, of what, both in body and in soul, has been necessary to give up or risk or ration to make room for my son’s emergent subjectivity – I want to welcome many of these things back in, gradually, as R becomes more independent and needs me less. To make it clear, I chose to have a kid, and I have willingly entered into this adventure. This list is not laced with threats of guilt tripping or martyrdom. Living on the edge has been fruitful for me too. I guess this list honours the shape of my identity, it is a way to beat the bounds and mark where I start and finish. These are the pleasures that make me, me (I’m very aware other parents probably have different lists!) and when I have to make do without them for too long I’m in danger of not turning up to my own life and living for someone else.

Booze, stinky cheese, cigars


Being not-needed


Really deep chat, the kind that is sprawling and investigative and leaves your soul glowing with satisfaction. The kind you need several afternoon hours alone with a good friend or a whole weekend and lots of whisky to do properly.

Uninterrupted conversations

Leaving the house without too much thought or preparation

The meanings of my non-maternal body

My body belonging to me, not sharing it with another human first for nine months then for the duration of the breastfeeding relationship

An un-colonised mind. Falling in love with a tiny human obliterates other kinds of thinking

The risk of prolapse (estimated to be 1 in 3 women) I escaped this tragedy last pregnancy and birth, but there are no guarantees and every pregnancy puts an strain on the pelvic floor muscles. We rarely talk about this issue

Leisurely application of eyeliner and lipstick

Showers either alone or without someone shouting with strong, emotive expression outside the door that they wish you were not having a shower alone

Ditto with the toilet

Time to think

Time to lie on the sofa and just be

A reasonable amount of washing

The risk of birth injuries. I broke my tailbone pushing

The risk of postpartum depression and PTSD after a difficult birth

Fitting into all my lovely clothing

A martial relationship without the inevitable strain exhaustion, bewilderment, in depth discussions about purée and overdraft use puts on it


Walking the city

Money from two incomes

Time to myself

Effortless emotional equilibrium

Normal sleep and wake patterns that don’t involve being woken at 2am or falling asleep at 6pm

Time for reading or writing or creative life

My internal attention focused exclusively on me instead of being locked into vigil and keeping-in-mind

Late nights

Energy to watch a film


Doing things on a whim


Abundant solitude

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Get thou back into the cot: meditations on mutuality 

R at the age of nearly three, has learned how to climb out of his cot. Vault would be a better choice of word: it is hard not to admire the elegance, the economy of movement, his physical prowess as he springs up and over and carefully lowers himself to the floor, beaming, still in his sleeping bag. There is no scrambling or heaving or slipping.

My heart sank, watching him. I took- in the realisation that he knows what he is doing, it was no effort for him nor an accident.

Nap time is sacred. It is 90 minutes of me time, it is solitude when I read or write or sleep or daydream or paint my nails or have a friend over or think or occasionally write an email. This new development spelled disaster, the end of life as I know it.

I haven’t experienced this feeling of helplessness since he was a screaming newborn and I didn’t know what to do with his screaming newborn body, how to make it stop. Hold it? Put down? Sing to it? Rock it? Feed it? Change it? My son again, momentarily, became a problematic body to solve, not a relationship I’m in.

It took two hours to put him to bed that night, he kept climbing out. Then he didn’t nap the next day or the next as I kept putting him back over and over again for two more knackering hours. In one of my darker moments I indulged a fantasy of cling filming his whole cot and poking air holes in it like a sort of toddler bio-dome. It had become a battle of wills, a zero sum game, his desires pitted against mine. So ugly, so boring, so unnecessary. But I had momentarily forgotten that truth in my panic, and I slipped into the old relational grammar, my mother tongue of a sadomasochistic** dyad. I tried to coerce him with my mood, showing my displeasure- to be clear I think it’s important for R. to experience me as emotionally congruent and that means expressing my authentic displeasure sometimes, but not as a tool to control him, to get him to do something I want him to. I felt myself wanting to make him comply. I felt so helpless. It is these moments of self-made disempowerment that I am painfully aware of my capacity to enact relational violence: I feel my desperate urge to snuff out his budding agency. It feels like being trapped in a b-grade western: this town ain’t big enough for the both of us, its either you or me kid. Cue a showdown.

One of my most hard -won adult capacities is having a mind of my own. I know how I think and feel most of the time, and I spend allot of time and effort cultivating emotional congruence. I try to be frank, I prize authenticity in myself and my other relationships. And one of the most joyful experiences of motherhood for me has been watching my son’s sense of personal agency emerge. I have delighted in his physical acts of daring, watching him clambering confidently down hills. I have delighted in his finding of no! his asserting of his boundaries. I have loved playing audience to showing off a mind of his own, when he says the surprising thing, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments. And I have trusted him to know his own appetite, when he was an infant and he wanted to gorge or fast at the breast, or as a toddler when he wants three spoonfuls of yogurt and a slice of bread for dinner. I more or less trust him and he more or less makes pretty sensible decisions. My trust of his burgeoning independence, my trust of his appetite and validity of his feelings is what makes it possible for me to differentiate what are limits and what are just power struggles waiting to happen. As Janet Lansbury quotes Magda Gerber, sleep is something you can’t make another person do.

On the third day of our sleep stalemate, I bought a Groclock and explained that we were going to have quiet time every afternoon. I had resigned myself to no more blissful, solitary nap times, but I told him I needed to be able to do some reading and writing and nail painting. The essentials. So he could play quietly or read and I was going to do my own thing ‘by myself’ and his new clock would tell us when quiet time was done. After about ten minutes of quiet play R came and put his head on the sofa where I was reading. He told me he was tired and asked if he could go into the cot for a nap. I was stunned. He asked if he could take the clock with him, which I unplugged for him and he fell asleep clutching- he even had his own sense of how he wanted to use the clock, too. I was astonished at the whole sequence of events.

I’d forgotten that I don’t need to force him to do what comes naturally to him. He doesn’t need me to restrain his body, he knows when he is tired and what to do about it. In my panic I had forgotten to trust him, to ‘take my stand in relation to him,’ as Buber would say. What R needed most from me was not a battle of wills but a genuine offer of a choice so he could work out what to do. He needed me to twist the release valve in our deadlocked dyad by opening up a vista of possibilities in response to his shifting appetite for sleep. By climbing out of his cot and not napping he was telling me he is sometimes in the mood to sleep and sometimes he is not and we needed to find a more flexible way of using that time that reflects his developmental age and capacities. I get it now. He was trying to assert himself, trying to show me he is ready to take responsibility for yet another part of his life. I am so grateful to him for reminding me that controlling another human is never the answer. That trust is always the better relational option, even if you don’t quite know what the outcome will be. That opening up the triadic space in between us by offering choices is always the answer to the riddle of dyadic power games.

When I feel the need to grasp and control and force or wield power over someone, it is normally because I have momentarily lost my faith in our mutuality. By mutuality, I think I mean both of our felt experiences being simultaneously valid, even if they are opposed, and perhaps a faith in the ability to communicate and empathise with one another. Although ‘quiet time’ has looked a little different every afternoon since we began doing it a week ago, and he has tested the limits, trying to work out where the edges are, I have regained my faith in us. We will work this out together. That is the difference. Mutuality is a totally different mindset, a completely different way-of-being-with another person. Nobody likes being told what to do, everyone, whether they’re 3 or 35 prefers to make up their own mind, prefers to creatively find their own way. And I’m grateful to my three year old son for having the confidence to grapple this tricky relational dynamic out with me. I’m lucky to have such a strong willed kid.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

For a gorgeous philosophical- poetic exploration of mutuality read Buber’s classic, ‘I and thou’

I am indebted to Janet Lansbury’s thinking about sleep issues and respectful parenting. This is one of her great articles on sleep here:

**I am also indebted to psychoanalyst Sheldon Bach’s thinking about sadomasochism and triadic space in mother baby dyads which I hope to write about more in depth over the year. His book ‘Getting from here to there: analytic love, analytic process,’ has been so important in forming my understanding of these issues.

I see, you picked up a stick: play as soul- making 

I sat down and made a list, a sort of homage, to my son’s play. He plays with his whole being, and it is astonishing to witness. It is a privilege to see someone grow a psyche from scratch. Play is a soul-making activity. In his essay, ‘Creativity and the search for the self,’ Winnicott conceptualises play as the ‘an expression of I AM, I am alive, I am myself. From this position, everything is creative.’ I love how seriously Winnicott takes play, how he sees it as the basis for a meaningful existence. It is a deep, soulful act ‘involving the whole personality,’ he famously says in the same essay. This is the state of intense aliveness where even breathing, or rolling out pastry seems like a sacred act of being. Where everything is surprising. And it feels like you’re discovering the world for the first time.When R. is absorbed in these activities, I sort of wander along behind him narrating what is happening, in a state of trustful curiosity. I think this might be called ‘mirroring.’ Mums and therapists do allot of this sort of emotional labour for us. It’s like high octane validation for every tiny thing you have ever thought and gestured. It is a very intense form of attention. It is completely electrifying to be on the receiving end of: it makes you feel alive. And like everything you think or do matters and is completely gorgeous. It makes you feel like merely existing, just being yourself, is extraordinary. It’s the same high you get when someone is totally into you and can’t quite get enough of everything you do: that feeling of being a special snowflake. Gorgeous, unique, with something to offer the world. Eventually, if you’re lucky in the parent or therapist roulette, you internalise this affectionate, curious gaze which has been directed at you, and even crossing the street or feeling disappointment seems significant, and you just feel radiant, incandescent. And it makes it possible to pay attention to your own life in a particularly intense, creative sort of way because when you’re in this frame of mind, every little thing you do is magic. Virgina Axline’s moving account of working with a child called Dibs in her play therapy practice is a testament to how powerful it can be to be seen when we are at play. What is at stake when we play is no less than selfhood.

I think my therapist does pretty much the same thing for me, following behind me, nattering the equivalent of, ‘ah, you picked up a stick. I see,’ while I’m on the couch as I free associate and talk about what is on my mind. Whatever takes my interest in the external environment (such as pastries, the works of Winnicott, Thamesmead, desire lines, a pocket of grief I felt last week, the décor of his consulting room…) is followed, taken in, reflected back to me, validated, and then I get to make meaning from. This took a long time for me to learn how to do. I have spent allot of time lying on the psychoanalytic couch in paralysed silence, wondering what he wanted me to say. The scars of neglect and over invasive, controlling, critical parenting run deep and make almost impossible to be spontaneous, to pick up a stick and feel like that was a significant gesture. It is a long road back to one’s soul, the ability to be fully alive and present to oneself in an ordinary way. I learned at a very young age, maybe an infant, definitely by toddlerhood, to be compliant, a good girl who did what she was told: even my imagination was colonised and I found it difficult to know what I thought or felt. Many of us have learned to be organised by the presence of another, to wait and see what they want from us rather than feeling free to potter around the shores of our psyches, picking up what we find and examining it and trusting that the other (be it friend or partner or therapist or ourselves) will be quietly attentive and interested in whatever truths and pebbles and treasures we find there. To do this for another human is a pleasure and privilege.

Below is the list of astonishing acts of play I witness on a daily basis, as I follow behind my son, wittering, ‘ah, I see you have picked up a stick.’

Opening and closing gates

Putting laundry in the basket and taking it out of the basket

Sitting on the train floor

Asking to stand in front of the yellow line on the train platform, not behind it (*obviously I said no)

Beeping Oyster cards

Stroking cat faces in the cat aisle at Sainsbury’s

Peering at strangers from behind a seat

Asking for ice cream when he knows I’ll say no

Dropping groceries deliberately out of the trolley whilst shopping

Making wet tracks with his bicycle tyres through puddles

Walking, not riding his little cycle. Generally using his cycle for anything but actually riding it.

Ringing cycle bells

Making the wheels go round on EVERYTHING

Spitting out orange peel

Singing a little chant he has made up while squatting on the floor, ‘I’m a little strawberry, Im a little strawberry.’

Turning switches on and off

Licking yogurt lids

‘Cuddling’ snails

Throwing all the cushions off the couch and ripping the sheets off the bed

Pressing his face against glass surfaces: windows, pot lids

Dropping to the pavement and crawling while singing ‘I’m a wiggly worm! I’m a wiggly worm!’

Kicking and banging on the table (*obviously I put a limit on this.)

Sitting in puddles

Riding on/plugging in/ the hoover

Belly flopping in the bath

Plugging and un plugging appliances from sockets

Climbing on park benches

Lying on park benches


Pressing buttons on lifts and pedestrian crossings and buses and washing machines

Running up and down hills

Rolling down hills

Turning knobs

Posting leaves and twigs down gutters and drains

Listening to water in said drains

Fake coughing for dramatic effect

Dropping pebbles in puddles and streams

Zipping and unzipping a coat

Pretending to be a human harmonica

Hiding in my hair when I’m carrying him in the sling

Route spotting buses: there’s the 181 and the 356

Holding two pieces of pizza at once, one slice in each fist

Holding onto the handrail of escalators


Picking up pebbles

Walking up and down staircases

Smearing. Ketchup, jam, yogurt on the table (*obviously I put a limit on this, outrageous fun though it is.)

Opening and closing umbrellas

Cracking eggs

Checking for cracked eggs in the supermarket

Luring the cats with foodstuffs and varying degrees of success

Hopping/crawling/bouncing/galloping/slithering/ tip toe-ing/ spinning

Climbing on my back when I’m doing yoga

Watching the automated car wash in Sainsbury’s petrol station

Screaming on public transport. Whispering on public transport. (*obviously I put a limit on the former. Well, I tried..)

Tearing books (*obviously I put a limit on this. He’ll have to wait till art school before he shreds books.)

Squishing bags of coffee

Paying with a contactless debit card

Sitting under tables

Sitting in someone else’s chair

Drinking someone else’s water

Walking under bridges

Picking up sticks

Pointing out objects of mutual interest: cats, bins, cranes, brown doors, cake

Performing Contentious tooth brush objector

Performing ‘noisy drinking’

Finding his balance

Thinking through how to climb a chair or pull himself up, onto the sofa

Going down the slide ‘like auntie Ariel’

Pulling all the books out of the bookshelf

Drawing on walls and tables (*obviously I put a limit on this behaviour. Another one for art school. ‘Walls aren’t for drawing on, unless you win the Turner Prize’)

Eating mark making objects such as markers and paintbrushes

Flushing the toilet

Washing his hands

Writing s grocery list (mad scrawling whilst saying, ‘we neeeeeed…milk’)

Licking a sieve

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I am deeply indebted to the following thinkers on the subject of play:

DW Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Virginia Axline, Dibs: in search of self

Janet Lansbury has fleshed out much of this theory in her online articles and podcasts in an accessible and practical advice for respectful parenting: