This morning I went to Town. I don’t like going to Town. I’ve adapted to living next to cows and green fields so that in Town I feel claustrophobic. It felt crowded; there were students everywhere, making me feel old in their frighteningly fashionable clothes. There were roadworks and ambulances and runners and cyclists and lots and lots of mums. Mums pushing prams with baby toes peeping out. Mums pushing buggies with grumpy toddlers who’d rather be walking. Mums with young babies scooped into car seats, smiling because the sun was coming out and they’d managed to leave the house. One mum had a white faux leather pram; I thought it was hideous, then had to remind myself that we are all different and it is those differences which made the world so exciting.
Another mother, walking down hill in a residential part of town, was crying. I wanted to stop and ask if I could help but there’s never anywhere to park quickly in Town.
All the way home I thought about her tears. Motherhood can be so isolating. You so badly want to do it right which just makes it worse when you feel you are doing it all wrong. Everyone else around you seems to be laughing and coping. You hear nauseating clichéd comments “I wouldn’t have it any other way!” What does that actually mean? Is it realistic to love every minute of motherhood? Of course I love my children and live in constant fear of them being run over on the way to school, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when I wish they’d all go away and leave me alone.
I often wonder why we have children. Why do we put ourselves through these extraordinary years of relentless work and worry? In my cynical moments I decide we only have children so that we won’t be lonely at Christmas when we are old. I read somewhere that having a family is “life-enhancing” and despite my cynicism I can relate to that. I love the dynamic between my children (when they aren’t fighting) and enjoy the things they say and do with each other that make me laugh. But I still don’t think that enjoying and loving your children has to mean “you wouldn’t have it any other way”.
Having children is a tough choice, it changes your life. My life would have been very different if I’d committed to being a lawyer and strived for partnership. Over the years I have stood at crossroads and had to make decisions about which path to take. I feel that none of those paths have been right or wrong, they just lead to very different lives. When feeling down and finding things tough it's easy to pile on the self-blame thinking, "well, you chose this life". I've realised it's important to remember that just because you make a choice doesn’t mean everything about it will always be easy.
The scientific answer to why we have children is that we are biologically programmed to reproduce. Yes, I got to a stage in my life when having children felt like the right thing to do. Whether you stay at home with them is another difficult decision for a modern mother. In Town, stay-at-home mums were in abundance, striding across pavements with “I’m doing it right for my children” confidence. Last night on the news there was a feature on some research which had concluded that children of stay-at-home mums had healthier lifestyles. Or something, I wasn’t really listening, I was watching the pictures. A group of mums were at a music and movement group in a park, smiling ecstatically while their toddlers danced to Bob the Builder. I couldn’t help wondering how many smiles were real and how many mums were really thinking “I wish I was at home reading the paper”. Is this a dreadful secret that all mums carry? That very often we’d rather be using our brains than endlessly posting blocks through round holes? To my great relief, the Yummy Mummy who was interviewed as part of the news item completely dismissed the research and said “mums can’t win can they”!
It’s this solidarity of mums which has saved me – I am lucky to live in a fantastic community. My wish, for the sake of the crying mum who I saw this morning, is that we can all avoid the clichés and admit that mothering is hard. There are good days when you do love every moment and bad days when the trick is to just get through the day without yelling too much or crying. Yes, having children can be a wonderful and unique experience, even bettering - my life would be more lonely and selfish without my children and I’ve learnt a lot about myself and my less attractive traits by looking in the mirror of my children who reflect back what they see.
But motherhood can also be claustrophobic and utterly overwhelming. Children push us to our limits and attitudes of society pressure us to strive for perfection. “Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt stricken affair.”* These are all issues I hope Emmeline, my fictional mum, will explore in the book I am planning. This morning on Radio 4 I heard someone say “human life is now too hurried. We need to take the time to find special moments; they can make such a difference.” I missed the context but have taken the phrase and a mother’s tears as a reminder that I must always find moments for my “mum” friends when they are struggling.
*Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers