In persuit of passionate life, I do backbends

80C44111-BCF5-4117-B4B0-CC3B072F99F1For various reasons, I don’t do yoga classes. I don’t have the time or money, but more truthfully, I love living instinctually. ‘Instinctual life’ is a phrase I use allot- it highlights yet another intellectual debt I owe to Winnicott. Having decided martyrdom and duty are soul deadening and often lead to boring ways of being in the world, I try to organise my life around appetite, pleasure and instinct as often as possible. It was a relief to realise, reading Magdalena’s book, that I didn’t need to go to a class if I wanted to take up a yoga practice, I didn’t need someone to watch me and instruct me. I found I could sense my way through the positions myself. It turns out daily practice at home makes it easier for me to turn my attention inward and tune in to my body. I often feel self conscious in classes, getting lost in the welter of words and (imagined?) scrutiny. Early morning yoga in the playroom makes it possible to dive inside, close my eyes, get out of my head and lean into the world of sensation and breath.

I love feeling my way through a pose and shoring up against my own limits. Where am I stiff today, when am I tempted to come out of a seat? Limits make me feel grounded because they remind me I have a particular body with a particular shape and a particular history and particular abilities. In contrast, I also love feeling my cravings for certain poses because they tell me where I am at the moment emotionally, what capacities I have for relating to others or myself.

For some months now, I can’t get enough of backbends. The sensation in the small of my back as I lower myself into Camel or Saddle or Sphinx is intense; sometimes it feels like my spinal cord is going to shoot through my abdomen. I love how these positions open my chest and shoulders and lungs. It has taken years and years of therapy, but I have begun to live increasingly open – heartedly, and I wonder if the deep desire I have to bend like this is a reflection of this shift in my psyche. So much work has been done to lower my defences so I can connect to others: I used to worry that anyone I was emotionally intimate with could see through me, that they would see all my faults and sins and pathologies. I felt exposed. Quite the opposite of moving through the world open-heartedly, I spent the first 25 years of my life being rather evasive or ‘sneaky’ as I came to call it in therapy. Nowhere was this dynamic more heartbreakingly present than the first raw weeks after birth, when my son was a newborn. I remember feeling relieved when he closed his eyes as he fed, or when we nursed in the small, quiet hours after midnight when it was dark and he couldn’t gaze at me. I was reluctant to gaze into his eyes, to linger too long or let him see my face because I didn’t want to contaminate him with my own grief and shame and despair which I was sure my face betrayed. I didn’t want to overwhelm him with whatever angel of death haunted my own soul.

Since then, I’ve traversed the badlands of my psyche. Now that I have walked those swamps and set up sacred caves in my own Saharan deserts of loneliness, I feel a little less guarded, a little less in danger of being exposed or leaching my badness into another. I know what is there. It is mine. Instead, I have the sense I have something to offer, something that is unique to me because of my radicalised soul. Maybe like the way a mutant superhero has a dark backstory.
I have decided to live a passionate life: perhaps having backbone is necessary for this project. I want to live wholeheartedly. I want to be frank and make slightly too much eye contact. (I already do this most of the time.) I want to take in my life the way I take in breath. I want to follow the contours of my desire and wear my heart on my sleeve. I want to be vulnerable and not guard against inevitable disappointments. Perhaps it is even more useful to have not only backbone, but a flexible backbone, the ability to bend, to tolerate or even welcome intense sensation, and most importantly, to stay open if I want to live passionately.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Serenity Yin by Magdalena Mecweld http://www.serenity-yin-yoga.com

Donald Winnicott ‘Babies and their mothers’

The hopes and fears of all the years 

It is Christmas Eve and I do not feel stressed or exhausted or elated or excited. I’m hostess this year. I have responsibility for cooking the bird and filling glasses and making sure the sink has been scoured and hand towels are out. I feel neither triumph nor failure. I feel sort of numb. Sort of dead inside. I will not get much personal meaning from being a great hostess or buying my son brilliant gifts or creating a cozy atmosphere. That is not what it means to me. I don’t feel Christmassy, whatever that is. Sometimes lines of poetry or snatches of power ballads visit me while I go about my day, and this is always a wake up call to my psyche, an invitation to look inward. I always pay attention when I am haunted by Rod Stewart. Or Diana Ross. Or the catholic poet, Franz Wright: ‘Day/ when the almond tree does not blossom/ and the grasshopper drags itself along.’

I am dragging myself along. Christmas is a reminder about a part of my soul I have dared not tread: I have gone numb rather than enter. It is littered with clay, plastic and fabric nativity scenes set up on TV stands and bookshelves and windowsills and carols and memories of candlelight and readings from the King James Version about virgins and angels. Christmas means that to me. It is gothic and creepy and weird and gorgeous. For better or for worse. Other versions of Christmas are lovely, and I have toured many of them: Santas, lights, gifts, booze, food, snow, family, but they are not home, they are not my soul. But I am in exile. I cannot quite inhabit the tradition I inherited. But, sometimes, when I can bear to be torn in two, I go to church, maybe on a whim, or because I had a particular dream or for a carol service, like I did a few weeks ago. I often try not to make eye contact. I often sit at the end of the pew, maybe next to a pillar I imagine might hide me a bit so I can immerse myself in my own reverie. I’m often afraid I’ll cry. I tremble during communion. I hate communion. For me it is a memory of scrutiny and union at the expense of personhood: it is a wound, my own personal everlasting stigmata. I tremble walking to church and I tremble walking back. And I also enjoy myself, I am in touch with a part of me I cannot quite reconcile or turn my back on entirely. I think of the line from O Little Town of Bethlehem: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. This rings true. I feel both. Going to church takes me to the edge of what I understand about myself. And the very place I long to be for Christmas, the place that holds the most meaning, is also, paradoxically, the very place I have escaped from so I could lead a life that was personally meaningful to me.
I do not know how to contain this mystery, how to live this truth in my own skin. 

Copyright Diana Smith 2017 

Franz Wright, The First Supper, Walking to Martha’s Vinyard 

On martyrdom and motherhood 

As I write this I sit in the Mcdonalds-open from 6am- 10 minutes walk from my house. The boys are at home together, and I have negotiated an hour of thinking before propelling myself into a busy day with my toddler.
The opportunities for martyrdom in motherhood are seemingly endless. The invitation to the cross, the disembowelling, the Via Dolorosa, the flagellations, the confession, the wheel, the stake, present themselves hour by hour, minute by minute. I’m well schooled in the taking up of the invitation: my subjectivity, my bloodthirsty tastes for masochism were formed in the gawping at macabre deaths of saints in my religious upbringing, the identification with the slain lamb of god, the reading of tragic greek heroes, the bindings of my received femininity. I realise I’m probably a bit more extreme because of the way I was brought up, but there is a question mark to what extent is everyone a bit masochistic? Maybe that way of relating drives us all to greater or lesser extents. There’s a great new books in Psychoanalysis interview in which Leo Bersani develops Freuds notion of masochism which might be developmentally inscribed in us. That we have a evolutionary, biological need in infancy to turn the relentless stimuli that is quite painful to the infant into pleasure for the purpose of survival.
This way of relating is inscribed in our Western imaginations, its been lovingly handed down from mother to child for generations, its inscribed in our figures of speech and some of our conceptualisations of female sexual practice.

I’m trying to choose martyrdom less often. 

It’s a dead end, a false solution and a boring way of relating. I’m over it. It hollows me out and distances me from my hunger and any sort of desire, so that I am disembodied, with only the outline of me looking after whoever I have martyred myself for. I’m not really there, and it makes it impossible for those I love to reach me, or for me to connect with them.

I know how to sigh and roll my eyes, or lie back and think of England. I know how to dull my appetite and survive on three hours sleep and half a banana whilst tending to the needs of others. No one is home because Atlas is on top of the mountain, holding up the world. No one is at home because I’m on the Cross, giving up my life. There’s a brilliant moment in Scorceses film, The Passion of the Christ, where Christ is faced with the choice of whether to remain and die or get down and make a home for himself in the world. That is the important moment: the split second before the martyrdom.
One of these moments presented itself in technicolor, ripe for scrutinising, frame by frame. There was a week recently where nothing was right for baby R. He was teething, he was mid-flu, he had a bit of nappy rash. He was waking early with discomfort, maybe even pain. He is learning to talk. He can’t stop moving. He had feelings of ambivalence when I picked him up: he wanted to cuddle, he wanted to go. He was awkward in body and soul and couldn’t stop crying and clinging and pushing me away. That particular week it was exhausting. By 9 am I could feel my limits. I’d listened to him all morning, from 5:30. I’d been a pretty good mum. I showed him sympathy, I was patient, we were taking the day slowly, one minute at a time. I could feel my desire for a shower, a lovely hot shower, by myself, 15 minutes of breathing, smelling nice soap and letting my shoulders loosen under the hot water. And I almost didn’t take it because I knew R. Wasn’t going to be happy about being chucked in his cot with some toys and a Rod Stewart playlist.
The moment before the martyrdom is a complex moment. I tune into the textures of it, the complexities- its dizzying. There are so many strands, so many histories embedded in it. Its not just me deciding to not take the shower, its millions of women before me, and my mum maybe and Jesus and all the heroes and saints. If it were a moment in a sci-fi film, what would be at stake is the extinction of the world, and the task would be a synaptic re-writing of the ship: She would be suspended beautifully in space, a few seconds before a cosmic absorption into a black hole or implosion. There would be a breathless hypothesis in techno-gibberish(‘this should work captain!’) a wrenching of wires- hopefully they pulled the right one.
I imagine, in the moment suspended is space, what will happen if I don’t have the shower. As Auden famously noted, ‘the dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. I know the feeling of barely suppressed resentment, the dullness, the impatient sigh, the enforced chirruping, the feeling of being well and truly cocooned. For the rest of the day, and if I continue the practice, maybe longer.
And the price, maybe, is connectedness? Or the message that the baby is barely tolerated. That’s the one that frightens me, at least. Or knowing that I’m so full-almost bursting- that I can’t possibly take anymore crying in, that he’s going to be on his own because I can’t be an ego support anymore, I can’t reflect him back to himself. And the one that really frightens me: I’m isolating myself too. From me, from him. I’m climbing up the mountain to hold up the universe. There’s great choice at the heart of this dilemma: hold up the universe or hold the baby. The price of perfection, of being a perfect mom holding everything together being eternally omnipresent is connectedness.
The worst thought of all is that I’m handing down this way of relating to baby R. I’m teaching him that if there are two people with competing needs in the room, in relation to each other, someone’s needs must be swallowed. There’s no way out of the bottomless, vacuuming black hole. There’s no negotiating the need to be alone and write for a few hours at dawn with a kind but tired partner who will need some time to himself later, in exchange.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017

WH Auden, Musée de beaux arts, http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/musee-des-beaux-arts/

New books in Psychoanalysis podcast http://newbooksnetwork.com/leo-bersani-and-adam-phillips-intimacies-university-of-chicago-press-2008/

On tenderness

Tender
1. Showing gentleness, kindness and affection

2. (Of a part of the body) sensitive to pain

The phrases ‘I wish I’d known’ and ‘nobody told me,’ and ‘nothing can prepare you,’ are so overused by new parents that they’re practically meaningless. In fact they are meaningless. The production of parental knowledge is bound up in the triggered-by-a-newborn-scream reptile brain, hormones, topsey-turvey sleep and waking cycles, and this whole he-was-inside-now-he-is-not-me crazy state of consciousness. The idea of a head-knowing before the Miraculous Birth is largely LAUGHABLE.
But actually there is a word that I wish I’d known right from the start. It’s a word I saw in the way other mothers ‘position themselves in relation to their infant,’ as Christopher Bollas describes. It’s a word I saw embodied in the way another mother held my newborn and I thought, ‘ah, that’s it. That’s how I want to touch him.’ The word speaks of both a wound and a set of emotional co- ordinates, a kind of psychic orientation towards the infant.
Many mothers emerge from the act of birth with wounds and a sense of interdependence. Some mothers, I’m one of them, came away from the experience feeling lucky to be alive. Certain biographies, maybe ones that didn’t mean much to me before, became poignant. The remote death of a literary figure I admired, Mary Wollstonecraft , Mary Shelley’s mother, suddenly became almost unbearable to think about. What seems implausible and abstract and nothing but a fact was startlingly un-dead. My particular birth ‘story’ would have meant certain death two or three generations before. Or death to both baby and mother somewhere else in the world now, or some degree of brain death to my son if we’d opted, as we might have done in our enthusiasm and naivity, for a home birth.
To deny this darkness, this not-so-distant possibility is to cut oneself off from the part that is still sore, that is still sensitive. To be tender is to be sensitive, to have the courage to admit that birth is a perilous and violent task, as perilous and violent as the ordinary task of growing a mind of ones own, of traversing development in the face of all of its inevitable deprivations, as Adam Phillips describes. I think being sensitive to this soreness in ourselves is also to know that babies can be wounded as well. To be tender is to be alive to how we affect one another, our own dependence, our own neediness. It is to gently wipe away the tears or purée or vomit from his face, to countenance his frailty and Otherness in that moment and make it as respectful a gesture as possible in those circumstances. It is to affectionately hold him while he sobs over a minor slight or injury, perhaps while compassionately keeping in mind the tears I’ve shed ‘over nothing’. To be tender is to choose to debunk the mythos of self reliance. It means staying open to the notion that, as I heard Kate Brown talk about in her Freud Museum podcast, ‘Attachment Theory and Psychosis,’ ‘we matter to one another ‘.
My heart was in my mouth for much of the first year of my sons life. I felt his fragility often, both physically and psychically. The way I offered him a breast – perhaps expressing a bit of milk from my nipple onto his lips, waiting, wanting him to find it in his own time, on his own terms- seemed more important than anything else. News, appointments, housework all came to a standstill while I waited, frozen in that moment, maybe even forgetting to inhale sometimes, wondering what would happen next, wondering how he might respond. I rarely put him down when he slept. Instead I would nurse him to sleep in my bed and curl my body around his little frame. Or I nursed him to sleep while I held him, smelling his hair as I read. I didn’t want him to think for even a second that I wasn’t thinking of him, that he’d dropped out of my mind: I know the suffering of being forgotten, and that generational injury was to end with me. I cultivated the sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating awareness that every decision I made would probably shape him, imprint a pattern of what to expect from the world, tell him how he could expect to be treated by those he loves and who love him. I hope I’ve wired him up to receive kindness, tenderness even, and I hope he behaves kindly towards himself, say, if he cries ‘over nothing’ when he is a grown man. Another thing I wasn’t prepared for before becoming a parent: I wasn’t prepared for my feminist politics to morph into a politics of tenderness, a call to ask the question of wider culture, ‘what conditions make it possible to parent well? ’ (Oliver James explores this notion much more fully in his books.) Having a career matters to many women, but also, mothering matters too, and the way we, collectively, choose to mother matters to us all.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017
Christopher Bollas, ‘The Shadow of the Object ‘
Adam Phillips, LRB, March 5th 2015, ‘Against Self-Criticism’
Freud Museum podcast, Kate Brown ‘Attachment Theory and psychosis’
Oliver James, ‘They fuck you up/ How Not to Fuck Them Up’

On eating octopus 

img_0310One of my most vivid childhood fears was the act of disembowelling. Images and stories of martyrs were a part of my literary diet growing up: I could almost feel the sharp hook the torturer would use to draw and quarter the flesh of some saint, and I feared the uncoiling of entrails, the slow gutting, the emptying, the ensuing pain and nausea. And perhaps it wasn’t an idle fear. Maybe, to borrow Winnicotts phrase, the gutting I feared had already happened. Maybe my psyche had latched onto this metaphor as a way of symbolising an implicit memory of chronic emotional gutting . Perhaps I really was gutless. Empty. Perhaps I had nothing inside me, no internal life. I certainly felt empty.

Half remembered episodes from my childhood speak of why I might have escaped into my head and avoided feeling too much: my knotted hair that would be combed out bi annually by a visiting aunt or grandmother. The roaches in the peanut butter and stacks of dirty dishes lining kitchen counters. The smell of smoke and rancid bodies. The years supply of tinned food in case of apocalypse. Not reading a parental mood correctly and being shouted at or tuned out. Regularly waiting somewhere for hours because I’d slipped out of their mind again. Being told often that I was the reason my mother couldn’t pursue an art career. Having to clean her c-section scar because my awkward birth was the cause of her infected skin. Learning my fathers favourite Kipling poems by heart to please him, to connect with him. Caring for my mother as she descended into her chronic illness. The years of silence in rural jungles and mountains and deserts, trapped in a xenophobic paranoid bubble of Jesus and homeschooling and nuclear family.

That was one long childhood. It was lonely and bewildering. I was not welcome in the world I found myself in. Worst of all, it was pretty meaningless. I couldn’t make any sense out of my own experience, it was too excessive to metabolise. I had no guts, no soul, no way to symbolise my own story to myself.

When I first began to desire, I was alarmed. There was a starving child in me, and I mistook that historic hunger for what actually is. I imagined myself a Medusa, a clutching, tentacled monster. I was too big, too greedy, too demanding, too intense, too hungry. I wanted too much. My emerging appetites: for food, for sex, for emotional connection, for time to myself were strange and unsettling. Running parallel to the truth of my desire is the notion, maybe a zeitgeist of late stage capitalism, that if I want something I should try and satisfy my desire. Perhaps it sometimes is couched in moral language: I owe it to myself to pursue what I want. If satisfaction is not just one possible response to appetite but an imperative, being a many tentacled desiring medusa can indeed feel pretty monstrous and out of control.

One of the great insights of psychoanalysis is that feelings of thirst, desire, frustration, wanting, needing, loneliness, loss, sadness, appetite, hunger, rage, disappointment – are not feelings to be avoided or soothed. They are feelings to be cultivated. They don’t always need satisfying.

I call this insight ‘eating octopus.’ Instead of conceptualising the many- tentacled monster of desire as a ravenous beast who needs slaying, I imagine eating the feeling itself, making room for her many tentacled majesty to expand inside of me. ‘My job,’ says poet Sharon Olds about her husband leaving her, ‘is to eat the whole car of my anger.’ My job is to eat the whole octopus of mine. I let my loneliness fill me. I lower anger into me to thrash around in my guts. Lust pulses through my veins and I love how it courses through my whole system, pumping through my heart and down to the tips of my toes. These feelings of lack are satisfying in themselves.I think of Franz Wright’s line, ‘thirst is my water,’ which articulates this paradoxical truth. I am a passion junkie. I crave intensity and these feelings I have just described are some of the most intense. I don’t need these emotions soothed away by lovers, snacks, soulmates, duty, martyrdom. I need them in my guts, in my bones, in my brains. These feelings are for me, they are what tell me who I am, they are what I gorge on, they are what make me full of myself. When I suddenly, as I did a few weeks ago, find myself lost in a Saharan desert of loneliness, it reminds me that not now, but decades ago, I had to live in that desert. It is a chemical memory, a feeling that goes so deep it is inscribed in the structure of my brain. It reminds me of my dark history, it reminds me of what I have escaped from and how raw and vulnerable I was. My story, told through spikes of adrenaline and heart twisting plummets into my parasympathetic nervous system is one thing that is really mine to have all to myself, the thing that is all mine to digest through symbolising it. My feelings are replete with meaning, and the more I can bear the full spectrum and intensity of them myself, the more guts and soul I have to feast on, the more internal world I have to enjoy and sustain me, the more material I have for reverie. I make a meal of myself now: I want to devour me.

I now view blame and projection not just through the prism of relational violences done to another, but as acts that alienate me from myself. It is only recently that I have come to understand that I could ‘feast on my life,’ as Derek Walcott describes in the poem Love after love. Before, I might have tried to twist the release valve on these intense feeling states by fantasising that if only I could find people who were emotionally available, I would never have to feel lonely again. Instead of feeling the feeling and recognising this pain as part of what makes me who I am, I looked to lovers and friends to erase my history and all the traces of my suffering. Every time I blame or idealise or project a wave of emotion, I miss a chance to connect with my authentic self. Feeling the feeling, all of them in all of their intensity, is the gesture of putting away the torturer’s hook and carefully folding my entrails back in and then sewing up my own stomach. I want it all back in, I want all of me for me, I want to feel full of myself.

Copyright 2017 Diana Smith

Poems

Sharon Olds, ‘Pain I did not’ from Stags Leap

Franz Wright, ‘Untitled’ from Walking to Martha’s Vinyard

Derek Walcott, ‘Love after love’

Miscarriage #2

My first miscarriage was devastating. It made me question whether I could hold a baby inside me, whether I was even capable of growing a life. I can see now that those fears of the embryo or foetus falling out of me me were probably fantasies generated by my own suffering as a child, and not to do with my body as I actually experience it. This fear haunted me through my first miscarriage, my pregnancy and into the first year of his life: it was my own personal historical ghost. I worried that I would drop him, that he would slip out of my mind, that I didn’t have the capacity to hold him well enough. Although I thought of it in physical terms, my own wound was psychic in nature, and I think I wanted to spare him the vast Saharan loneliness I experienced as a child.  Then came my second miscarriage, and its meaning is different. I know that I can carry a child to term and grow life inside me. I’m more than three years older and wiser and it turns out my capacity to pay attention- to him, to myself, to everyone I love- is vast. I am lavish with my attention. I revel in my capacity to take -in. It’s a superpower. It’s a gift. It’s a pleasure. And it’s the kindest start to his existence I could offer him. I know the pleasure of being held in mind by another, and I am moved by my capacity, bought through many years of lying on the psychoanalytic couch, to do this for him, for those I love. And the second miscarriage didn’t feel like I’d lost a baby through negligence, like before. I found, much to my surprise, a feeling of trust. That my body knew this pregnancy wasn’t to be. Amid the blood and the cramps, I cycled through the spirals of my frustration and disappointment and impatience, but I also registered a sense of pride. That this body I am in knew what to do. It wasn’t a viable pregnancy, I was sure, and it hadn’t stuck. I am lucky to be in this body, in this life, on this earth.

The other weird feeling, which I didn’t register immediately, was relief. Perhaps it’s still a little taboo to talk about maternal ambivalence, particularly after a loss. But in those short six weeks of pregnancy, I’d remembered what a big ask it is, giving your body over to share with another being, how it ushers you into vigil. I had cut out coffee and my beloved yin yoga practice: my hour of breath and backbends at 6am that keeps me sane. I’d started ordering soda water in pubs again instead of red wine or whiskey. The emotional labour of holding another in mind began in earnest as my attention turned inward. I began monitoring everything: potential toxins that might destroy the embryonic nervous system, toxoplasmosis lurking in uncooked meat, listeria glistening in my favourite mould ripened cheese. After I passed all the tissue and the pregnancy test came back negative, I took stock. Here is my body and my mind. I have only recently emerged from the deep, dark forests of early parenthood. I’m a year out from breast feeding and co sleeping. I’ve begun writing again regularly, seeing my friends, drinking, walking the city. Sometimes he even potters off to do his own thing while I cook now: I have remembered the immersive joys of preparing food. I find myself enjoying my own company, playing audience to precious trains of thought. I don’t turn on podcasts or the radio anymore. When the boys leave the house, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, I sit in the green chair and tune into myself. It’s like hearing my own heartbeat or pulse. I listen to myself think, and I am astonished at the pleasure I get from this simple act. I have had a year of (almost) unbroken sleep. I have been out dancing a few times. Dancing! I love dancing. I’m a whole person again, just.

And here I was going to ‘go under’ again for another few years having only just come up for air. We decided baby number two could wait- maybe forever. We talk often as a society about women’s lost earnings after she becomes a mother, but there are other costs -to her body, her personhood-that are just as severe. This second miscarriage was a different revelation from the first- instead of facing my fears from childhood as the first pregnancy loss had forced me to do, I took a step into the body I have, the body I live from. Instead I found myself giving thanks for the body I am in now, the one that miscarried when I was six weeks pregnant.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017 

Weaning

Yesterday was the first day I felt disenchanted in the course of my mothering-day-labour. I’ve felt tired and angry and ambivalent and impatient before but not the hazy, heavy lidded, walking –through- treacle feeling whilst making my way through the day. Where I have to wrench myself away from my daydreams to watch R dropping leaves into bins or jolly us along with bright, exciting nouns and flurries of rhetorical questions: “bubbles!” “Shall we read a book?” That sort of shit. It took so much effort to stay plugged in. Why? It’s Autumn, R. Is brimming with curiosity and babble and delight, my husband is emotionally available and supportive, there’s money in my account, I’ve made the decision to stay at home. Why does it all suddenly seem so hard.
I weaned R gradually, well over six weeks ago. I didn’t expect the reason I would wean after breast feeding him for 15 months was my self consciousness: I felt weird when he pulled my top down on the train and tried to latch on in rush hour. This was confusing, a new hydra. I thought I’d dealt with her, the spectacle of the lactating breast. I chopped off her head when I took on my in laws apprehensions about breastfeeding: ‘boobs are not just for page three you know,’I’d said. I battled her every time I leaked milk, bought breast pads or feared the ooze. I lopped several hydra heads when I first fed him in public, when I carried on conversations as he suckled in the sling, when I ditched the bra for a year to allow easier access. I thought I had tamed her, my monstrous female. Or at least, if I hadn’t tamed her, I thought our diplomatic relations were in good stead and we’d learned to live side by side in relative peace. But she is the hydra after all…   
 I felt weird refusing R the breast as we sat on the train, but I couldn’t quite make myself pull up my top and let him feed then and there. I phantatised that if I were made of sterner stuff I’d be able to do it, nurse a toddler in rush hour. Maybe whist quoting Marx on the horrors of the nuclear family or staring aggressively at young men in suits, daring them to challenge me. I wished for a moment I lived in a different time or place, where it would just be a bit easier to get by breasts out for my toddler in public, somewhere I wouldn’t feel the need to sound like a sociology textbook, somewhere I didn’t feel the urge to explain, spew World Health Organisation statistics and justifications at passengers. And in the midst of my own confusion, there was R on my lap who had given up tugging my shirt and was gazing out the window.
 I didn’t want my son to become embroiled in my mess, I did not want to drag him to the alter of Medusa and demand he perform his first sacrifice. There would be plenty of time for him to encounter her later. I suddenly understood that this was a decision I wanted to take out of his hands, make for him. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into if he continued to nurse into toddlerhood, the meanings of breastfeeding are myriad and require much negotiation. I feel my adult, in-therapy psyche is only just able to deal, and now the monster had reared her head again and if I did battle with myself I was also going to drag my son in with me. And that was what made me think I would wean him, that I wouldn’t wait for him to decide for himself when he would stop breastfeeding. He was not going to witness my ambivalence when he asked for milk, I was not going to burden him with my guilt and my culturally specific hang ups. I didn’t want him to feel punished if I felt too embarrassed to let him latch on in a train carriage in rush hour. This was my battle, not his. Funnily enough, it was this encounter with the many- tentacled mother of messy merges that initiated such a momentous separation. I am grateful that we had so many months of relative peace, enough peace to sink into some simple coupling. 
And it’s this simple coupling that I’m grieving now, the sadness I feel as I watch him toddle around in the autumn sun dropping leaves into bins. He’s gorgeous, but he will never be a newborn again, feeding to sleep on my breast, sated from gorging on my milk. When he cried back then I knew what was wrong: he was one of three things, maybe tired, maybe hungry, maybe he needed holding. Often all three could be tended to at once in the simple act of offering my breast. But now it’s different. There is a gap opening up between us and I feel it widening daily. I want it to widen too: that’s my job as a mother, to usher him into his own life. He needs less and less ushering from me. He doesn’t want me to cut his nails. He doesn’t like finger painting- my son! When we tried it he chose to chase the cat instead.He didn’t want to dip even one finger in, he wasn’t seduced by my offer of mucky paints. My Son! He prefers trains, apparently, even though he’s had the offer of model horses and tigers. Well, these are the emerging co ordinates of his subjectivity, and I don’t want to mess with them. They are his own. I’ll put away the model horses and rinse the paint off the plate: they were offered and rejected, and he is his own little person after all (although maybe were coupled once). As I feel us negotiating the distance between us, I think of Phillip Larkin’s poem, Afternoons. ‘Their beauty has thickened/Something is pushing them to the side of their own lives.’ And that is what is so hard: the push and the pull of separateness. His beauty is indeed thickening and he is en route to the side of his own life. Symbiosis, coupling, the moment of falling in love, the merge is so deliciously simple to be inside of. And I feel the loss of this keenly. My relationship with my son has joined the rest of ‘em, he’s part of that same struggle I do with all my other relationships, the one about closeness and distance, the one where I try and work out how far is too far to love, and how close is too close to love? It’s messy and survivable, but it’s a loss and it’s bloody hard work.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017

Post partum cyborg

One of the (many) intellectual and emotional tasks after having a baby is to unify all the different bits of identity into one body and psyche: career, post- partum body, sexual desire, split attention, domestic work, feminist, shifting interests. This is an extraordinary work that we ask women to do, and I’m not convinced that we as a society know how to help women do it well (if it is acknowledged at all).
There are useful metaphors that signpost where you’re meant to go with this armful of complex identities: you can strive for a ‘work life balance’ or try to ‘have it all,’ you can ‘be a martyr’ or a ‘yummy mummy.’ The urge to make all these identities play nicely together is enormous: attempting to contain a screaming baby’s emotional turbulence is considerably more difficult when you’re struggling to make sense of your own feelings and emerging sense of self.
This struggle makes myriad shapes: sometimes it’s a constant back-and-forth of career v domestic life. (That one is a familiar story in the press) Sometimes it’s a knot of obsession around feeding and eating, ‘losing the baby weight’ while trying to eat enough to lactate for the suckling baby and to complicate things, when will my vagina be whole again and how frustrating, if you identify as a feminist, to even care about my so called baby weight. Another struggle is the shift in the quality of attention, fleeting attention for subjects you used to debate from all angles are now skim over in favour of plunging into the smells of warm skin or thinking in depth about how this infant perceives that sun catcher. These are not easy things to struggle with, to make sense of.
An enormous task for me has been grieving my loss of interest in feminist texts- where did that voracious part of my identity go? And allowing space for the emotional life of infants to colonise my attention. I choose the word colonise because it is not neutral, because it is not, as Donna Haraway would say, ‘innocent.’Surely ‘baby brain’ is the enemy, isn’t this the oppression so many women have died to free me of? I feel deeply ambivalent about this shift in my interests. Is it allowed? I’ve given over space in my mind for this emerging interest. To what extent do my other identities need to budge up, cede synapses and other mental real estate for this interloper? Perhaps I’m letting feminism down, am I not simply colluding with patriarchy?
All these thoughts while I hold the screaming baby.
Another struggle I’m doing is the re-thinking of the natural. I was into natural birth before I did one. But I would be dead a hundred years ago after my birth, and so would the baby. There is no way the baby would have come out of my pelvis ‘naturally.’ In the ensuing weeks, he might have also been brain damaged from jaundice if we didn’t have access to modern technology- my milk took far too long to come in, and he was too tired to suckle. I’m grateful for formula, antibiotics, UV treatment, hospitals, catheters, midwives and whatever painkiller they used to numb me before the episiotomy. Nature was not best, natural birth, contrary to what I thought before, would have been a death trap. Its difficult, shoring up so violently against one’s beliefs. If I’d gone ahead with the home birth I romantically envisioned and ideologically wanted because ‘natural is best,’ my baby might have suffered brain damage from the shoulder dystocia he experienced or perhaps he wouldn’t have had access to the oxygen they pumped into his lungs seconds after he slid out. ‘Natural’ which had been synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ or ‘autonomous’ and ‘fuck the patriarchy and their unnecessary medical interventions’ had to be re-conceptualised as I winced, sitting and holding my newborn. My body was torn and so was my psyche: a difficult place to be emptied out from into motherhood.

Donna Haraway doesn’t exactly let me off the hook, but she does give me permission to forgo the peace talks with my psyche(s). I suppose one instinct of mine is to repress one or two of the conflicting identities, to silence my inner feminazi who is angry that I’ve given up my feminist readings, or no-platform my internal patriarch surveying my fat thighs and now lactating breasts with disgust. It would be easier to just reinvent myself in this way. Throw out the old self and usher in the new. However, I’ve been down that road and it isn’t satisfying. Its by- products are a constant, gnawing anxiety in the absence of other feelings. It makes for a rather two dimensional inner life which needs constant grooming.
Haraway gives me a metaphor to sink my teeth into: if I’m a cyborg, I can listen to all of these conflicting personas. I don’t have to violently disown the shrill, the demanding, the inconvenient and shameful parts of myself. I can be, in her words, an ‘illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.’
When I got out of hospital, I struggled to put my new sense of self into words. I had just been through an experience which was simultaneously the most awful I’d ever been through and which I was grateful for. I was fucking amazed at what I had managed to endure and digest- but it had come at a cost: I had gone to places in my soul I didn’t know existed. I emerged feeling like it was the best and worst experience of my life. Painful but replete with meaning. Something to be grateful for and also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Holding this dichotomy split me physically and mentally, and I didn’t know how to reconcile them. A few nights later, my husband was watching X-men and I walked (limped)into the room just as Wolverine was being pumped full of ademantium. Here was a story I could work with: a super strong mutant who was declared dead from enduring unimaginable, indescribable pain, who emerges from the experience as a mutant by-product of military patriarchal capitalism.
I had to replace my very naïve, single-visioned account of reality with the story of the cyborg. 

I’m a cyborg mother.
Copyright Diana Smith 2017
Donna Haraway’s essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ from ‘Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The reinvention of nature’, New York, Routledge, 1991, Pp 149-181

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch