Early Days (and reasons to be grateful)

I’ve been writing notes on my phone for years now. They read like a strange sort of diary, interspersed with to-do lists and shopping lists and passwords (hopefully cunningly disguised amongst the other junk). Today, I found the one below. I remember writing it: I was sitting alone a on bench, overlooking a beautiful sunset. I was crying. At home, my husband was playing computer games and shaking while the little man screamed. Controlled crying: the worst and best parenting decision we made in that first year.

Reading this again made me sob for my former self, for that confused, lonely girl, too cold to be out but too scared to go home. It’s no secret that I’ve been having a tough few months, but reading this also made me feel grateful. Work’s a bit shitty; me and the little man are emerging from a dark time; but being a mother feels pretty amazing. I have four days in a row with the little man every week, and on those four days I’m absolutely smashing it.

Early Days

I have no skin. My nerve endings are on fire, and every last tiny one of them is exposed and pawed at and used. 

I want not to be touched. I want some space and time, for cooling air to wrap itself around me and smooth these raw endings. 

I want nothing but to touch, to stroke his hair and skin, to marvel in this warm, floppy, light and yet heavy weight breathing on my chest. 

Anxiety has replaced my blood, it pumps through my veins like adrenalin; I watch for tiny chest movements, I panic at every splutter.
 

I did not know it was possible to exist on so little sleep. I did not know it was possible to feel this much love. 


In the darkest hours I yearn for the time before my family description defined me; it is still recent enough that I can remember the taste of that utter freedom. In those hours I simultaneously pray for this never to be taken away from me. This way of existing is so new, and yet I would already be hollow without it. 

I am an all powerful giver of life. It took two to create; but I alone have grown, carried, protected and nourished this life. It was torn from me and me alone. My body is amazing. My body is strong.

My body is not my own. It is battered and bruised. It does not support the weight of my stretched and distorted bones, the weight of my worries and my expectations. For nine  months I did not recognise myself in the mirror. I do not recognise myself still. 

I am giver of life. I am still all this new being needs to survive. I hold him and create food. Every ounce of growth, every inch, is mine. My breasts have purpose. They are beautiful. 

My breasts are chains, shackling me to this chair, to this pump, to this crying and always awake glorious lump of life. I must not break them, but in the early hours of the morning they are so heavy I think they are drowning me. 

My sister turned to me years ago and told me I shouldn’t have children. That we had a lovely little life without them. How could she not have told me that my life would get so small? 

Instructions. Please. 

I am good at following instructions. It’s a pretty boring skill, but it helps navigate through this complicated life. I can negotiate opaque beurocracy, fill in forms, pass exams with ease.

But sometimes it lets me down. I’m not great at cooking or baking. I can follow recipes to the letter; but they need a bit more, a bit of inspiration to know how much beating is too much, what “season according to taste” should feel like. Back in my clubbing days I always wished for more choreography, less freedom of expression.

And now, in building this life, I cannot find any instructions. The big man and I don’t have a template for a working couple with a young child to follow. Neither of our mums worked. Mine had particularly strong views about mothers who work: I know, in retrospect, that these were a line of defence for a situation she felt she had little control over. But at a tearful drop off it’s hard not to hear your mum shouting at women on daytime television that if they wanted to work, they shouldn’t have had children. That the balancing act is selfish. That I am selfish, an unforgivably awful mother.

So I try to talk about it. But I can’t find anybody who is, or admits to being, as torn in two. The mums I know who are progressing work harder than me; see their children less; have no hobbies or free time, just work and children. They don’t seem to be weighed down by self doubt and suffocating guilt for every hour their child is with somebody else. Or, they work less hard than me, but throw themselves into home life with a contentment I cannot copy.

Maybe this is the point where I accept that I’m just not willing to work hard enough. That the sacrifices you need to take are a step too far for me. I’ve done well so far; I could just settle here, with my lovely little man and reasonable career and happy husband. I am lucky. I know I am lucky. But I cannot get this life to feel as though it belongs to me. I don’t want to battle to define what my happy is: I am tired and I want somebody to tell me what to do.

Flexible lives 

I’m generally against men joining in the “What about me?” whining brigade. Particularly middle class white men, the least discriminated against groups in the history of time claiming that false allegations of rape are as the same problem as piss-poor prosecution of sexual offences (yes, they are immensely damaging, but the scale of the issue is so different as to be utterly and completely incomparable). Or positive discrimination somehow pushing men into a second class citizen at work: as if board quotas don’t mean that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove she got the job on merit rather than statistics. Or any other whining complaint; as though they can’t bear being left out of any club, even one which offers nothing but frustration and disadvantage.

I’ve written before though about how our language towards working parents needs to change. My husband works a 4.5 day week, and we are doing the sums to see if that can become 4. He wants to do this: it’s how he gets to know the little man better. He will never get this time back. It supports me in my career. We’d both like to handover the little man a little bit less to the wilds of nursery. The advice he gives to his friends who are about to become dads is to work out seriously think about positioning themselves so their career is such that they can take a break. Or downshift a little bit.

And the response from these dads, or dads-to-be, is a pretty consistent no. Not across the board; but close. A lot of it is financial. For various reasons, the men in our group tend to be the main breadwinners. But a lot of it is cultural. We expect mothers to need flexibility at work; more and more companies are doing their best to meet that expectation. The same doesn’t apply to fathers. At all. Nobody asked the bigger man whether he would be returning to work full time after his (brief) paternity leave. There aren’t part-time roles or workers around him, or job share fairs in his very male dominated industry.

This isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for mothers, who have to shoulder the majority of the childcare burden. But it also isn’t fair to fathers. Why shouldn’t they be able to flex work around their life? We cannot consistently break the glass ceiling for women unless we make it possible for our men to support us at home.