Not waving but drowning*

Me, I’m not even waving. Just kicking furiously, hands occasionally appearing above the surface.

Waves splashing my face. Spluttering to talk. Not fine. Not giving the appearance of fine. But possibly not obviously drowning either.

I am drowning, I’m afraid.

I’m a middle class white professional parent homeowner and half the people probably think, fuck you. Your life is easy and secure.

I can’t even argue. Yes it is. I have everything I want. But I don’t have time, I don’t have rest, I’m so fucking exhausted I can hardly speak. Nothing gets done other than keeping a child alive and healthy, and pedaling furiously at work just to stand still.

I am sad and living in a world that feels hopeless. Trump exists and children are lonely and dying. Grenfell happened. I’m not even young enough to change the world. All my effort just keeps my little sphere stable.

This cannot go on. I owe it to myself to find another way to live. I don’t know how, though, so I need help. Help please.

~

One week later and help came. It was actually the simple act of thinking, this can’t go on. This this THIS isn’t ok. A little wave passed over me and I remembered I cared for myself enough to care that I wasn’t happy.

Then getting home and bathing the boy and experiencing a perfect clarity, looking into his eyes: THIS is what matters. You’re it.

Then getting a couple of nights’ good sleep and, a few days later, going for my first run in two weeks.

Nothing’s changed but everything has. All that happened was realising I wasn’t ok and really feeling that it mattered.

And also, asking for help. Even in a blog no-one had seen. It said, I can’t fix things on my own by trying harder, or forcing myself to think differently. Like in 12 Step programmes where they turn themselves over to a higher power.

I’m not in control of everything. This means two things: it’s not all my fault, and I don’t know what’s around the corner. Things can just change.

The sea comes back in and it carries us with it, and I’m not drowning anymore.

* Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith 

 

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Getting life fit (lessons from my 10k training)

I’m training for a run at the moment – 10k, not so far, but furthest I’ve ever done. I don’t train well. Training, in my mind, involves consistency, repetition, willpower to overcome doubt, and a single-minded focus on the goal.

None of these come naturally to me. From the first jog, it’s a maze of doubt, anxiety and pressure. I do one good run and think I’m superwoman. Next day the shins tingle and I worry I’m doing too much. Or I won’t manage the race, colleagues will be let down, and people who sponsored me will be defrauded. Day after that, I’m gnawing over whether to run again, walking the fine line (in my head) between laziness and recklessness.

All very overcomplicated. But this time I’m getting there. I’ve got closer to the run date without giving up than I ever have before, and I’m dealing with mild injury but carrying on (on the advice of a physio).

It does help that I actually enjoy running. That singing in the veins when I hit my stride is worth all the self criticism and anxiety and, though I’m not proud of this, it motivates me more than a big goal or a fundraising target.

But the big difference this time is fitness. Training more systematically, in the same parks and on the same streets, has meant I’ve felt myself get fitter. Legs are stronger, posture a bit straighter, hips looser and breathing easier for longer. I haven’t really felt this before because my running’s always been haphazard, with the odd over-enthusiastic burst when adrenaline pushes me to I run further than I should. It’s a new and subtle experience – a gradual, building fitness – and it’s really nice.

And yes, you’ve guessed it, there are parallels with parenting. Bear with me. The biggest change you experience after having a child, the thing everyone talks about, is the work. How much time it takes up. It’s hard, hard, hard. You just work…more. More washing, more cooking, more dressing, more tidying, picking up from nursery, getting up in the night, playing endless games, picking up spoons and bowls and food from the floor. And my life hasn’t got bigger. The child stuff just fills all the gaps between the bigger pieces, like sand around stones.

At first, all this sand almost crushed me, but slowly, I got used to it. Then more and more. My life changed shape, sand rounding out the edges, getting where it shouldn’t. I did more in an average day than I used to and felt no more tired. I can stay emotionally stable for longer. I can take more deep breaths before getting cross. I can sleep less and survive (though there is a limit). I got a bit fitter at life.

Some of this is childcare-specific fitness, like the getting home, putting son in high chair, defrosting soup and slotting first spoon in his mouth before I go to the loo. This ability is only helpful with babies, not normal life. I also don’t recommend this too often – push too hard, too long, and you get injured. Basically, go to the loo first when you can.

But some of it’s life fitness. I’m a bit life-leaner, I think, doing less of some of the pointless stuff or enjoying it more when I do, for its sheer pointlessness. I’m a bit tougher. I’m stronger. Yes, sometimes it feels like you’re getting nowhere, but it also starts to feel normal-ish. And that’s an achievement as big as a 10k, I think.

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Call of the wild

I’m sitting in a café, taking a half hour away while my selfless parents look after the baby (toddler?). Reading a book by Stephen Fry that retells the Greek myths. As you’d imagine, they’re full of running, fighting, athletic, beautiful, glorious, capricious gods, with a dose of mountains, fire and Elysian Fields thrown in. I feel a little jump in my heart at the particularly vital moments in the story. A bit of sadness, too.

There are things I don’t do anymore, like hiking across a hilltop, spending a whole day faffing and having a lie-in the next day, or going on long holidays with a backpack and no fixed plan. I’m happier than I used to be, so it’s not a huge thing -being a mother fulfills some deep, gutteral part of me that nothing else could touch. But I have lost something. A bit of the wildness in my life.

Before, I was sometimes wild. I used to swim in the sea for ages, drifting back and forward between rocks and far away from the tourist boat. I’m thinking specifically there of my trip to India before I got pregnant. We’d talked just before I left and decided to have a baby, and I spent loads of the trip yearning to be home with Felipe, safe and ready to try. And yet, still, even though the trip was lonely and hot and less fun than I’d imagined, even though I realised I was definitely too old to enjoy sharing a hostel room of bunkbeds, when I look back, I remember the wildness. Walking over sand dunes to the warm sea before breakfast. The nerves of the solo tuktuk ride from the station to my hostel in Jaipur, tracking the route on maps.me all the way. Foreign smells in humid air that washed over me like a cloudy blanket. Sun, sky, and battling through culture shock and homesickness to get from town to town before the sweet relief of my sister flying in to meet me.

Wild me has no expectations and less to compare herself to. No-one’s on the same path or got a kid the same age. She doesn’t go to work every day. She might not put herself aside, push herself on for the sake of a one year old who needs dinner. She has lightning crackling from her fingertips and inhales sweet blossom when she breathes.

I love my Theo. I fit in my life. But I have to remember wild me sometimes. She’s still there, just dormant. I’ll be as wild as I can for now on dog walks to the park or lying down flat on my back on the floor, stretched out and doing nothing. Little doses of childishness and rebellion, keeping me ticking over until the wildness comes out of hibernation.

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The selfishness of love

It’s the worst, nastiest, wormiest feeling. Sad and ashamed for clinging on to my little boy, fishing for his love and smiles. I don’t think he loves me as much as before.

He’s more confident and content with other people – his dad, his grandparents, nursery staff – and this I should be happy about. But I’m not good enough to feel calm pride in this. I can’t shake off the pain. The hugs I’m not getting, the more muted delight when I get home, the cries I used to get when he’s tired or hungry or lonely that now don’t need me to quiet them. I was his one and only, and I completed him (and he me). That’s changed.

I know I’m so selfish. This is one of the shittiest parenting things I’ve done, wanting him to need me instead of feeling joy at his independence. I just keep remembering the picture of him at Christmas standing next to me, me kneeling on all fours, and him laying his head on me and just staying there. He was close to me and he was happy.

I keep wondering if there’s something I’m doing to accelerate the distancing. Partly I know it’s just growing up – though that it itself is agonising, because the future looks like less and less and less love, him getting more independent and me loving and clinging as much as ever but having to suppress it. 

Love isn’t like that for everyone, I know – some of this is my own demons. When I read these words back with a slightly wiser eye, trying to exercise the mindfulness and space I practise in fits and starts, I can see my knee-jerk response to being left (even in the most subtle degrees). While it feels agonising and shameful, because I hate my needy self, that’s not the whole truth. I am also bigger than that fear, big enough to contain both a grasping love and a better love.

But, still, my mind nags: what if it’s my fault? I’m back at work full time. People talk about the guilt and it’s not that I worry for him – I think he’s happy, doing well at nursery, getting closer to his dad and his grandparents. It’s just a little voice whispering that I’m not seeing him enough, and that he prefers to be with others who see him more.

Then, escalating, the voice goes, what if you’re not playing with him with as much energy as the grandparents? What if you’re not as funny, as firm, as challenging as his dad? Why don’t you look directly into his eyes enough? You don’t do it enough with anyone, but with him, shouldn’t it be easy?

Bad mother. Mother who is there for him less, who comes home when it’s dark and leaves him when it’s dark, who puts him to bed an hour and a half after coming in from nursery. Why on earth do you think this is enough?

Yes, my heart is breaking, or at least creaking, a little trampled. I want another child and I keep beating this down, focusing on what I have (because others have so much less and came by it so much less easily). But what I have will be never as perfect again as it is now, and is not as perfect now as it was then. The bond stretches and stretches over a lifetime. Being pregnant, giving birth, that tiny newborn face that looked up at me when I was his world. Baby smells. They’re gone.

I have no right, none at all, to feel this way. I have everything. I hope the sadness will pass, and I’ll be able to make space for my grasping love and a better love. I want to be bigger than this. I wonder if it’s just me or if all mothers feel this way. If it’s not just me, maybe it’s forgiveable. I don’t know.

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Fireworks are going off. This has been the year of years

Just over a year ago, when I started this blog, I called it Life On The Other Side. I wanted to be the traveller who journeyed to motherhood and reported back to everyone who hadn’t been there. Nobody else seemed to be able to do this. All you get from parents is a running loop of it changes everything/it’s the best thing ever/it’s the hardest thing ever/you won’t ever sleep again. This drove me mad – it made it impossible to prepare, and therefore impossible to control.

And yet here I am, exactly one year after crossing over to the other side, and I haven’t done it. I’ve tried and tried but nothing I’ve written really, really does it. I can’t describe what having children is like. The part of me that gnaws and itches at this is probably the closest I come to being an actual writer, because I want to do more with words than I’ve yet been able to. I want to stretch them further, give new sense to the concepts we always fall back on – love, fear, joy. I want to preserve the voice I wrote with before Theo was born, because she was the voice who saw parenthood with outsider’s eyes.

Ok. So I’ll come at this differently. I’m not going to write for anyone or anything in particular. I’m writing for me because it’s one year on and I feel like I’m back at the moment when everything changed. I must get this down. I must.

Being a parent. That’s such a useless phrase. I’m not a parent, I’m me, and I went through childbirth. Yes, hospital corridors, midwife saying I should walk one floor down to the birthing centre, hurt too much, stood with my forehead against the wall of the lift instead and moaned. In pain when pain gets worse and worse and you can’t escape or reverse the process, just continue to the unthinkable end.

On all fours on the floor of my room, terrified, and annoyed with myself because the book said fear makes the pain harder. Telling midwives I was not doing well when they told me I was doing well because they say that to everyone, and I’d been calling for an epidural since I got to hospital, and it was still only the start. Or maybe it wasn’t, because didn’t these contractions feel a bit pushy? Body taking over, me doing weightlifter noises coming from air deep in the lungs. Pushing. Pushing. Rubbing my back madly with each contraction to disperse the pain (NCT class ‘counterpressure’ somehow in my head). Gas and air like a diver, suck in, groan out.

Baby. There’s a baby. Oh thank fucking god, it’s fucking over.

Then I’m not going through childbirth anymore – though I am now always a person who has gone through childbirth – no, I’m a person with a son. This little creature is. He’s a Theo it’s Theo Theo is. I am and he is and I am still Clare but also his mum. There are things I must now do to keep a tiny thing alive and then happy. I’m a mum like my mum was a mum and I am as important to him as she is.

A year rolls by. I’m not a parent, I’m a Clare, and I learn about Theo and about babies while continuing all my ways of thinking and being that have served me well, and not so well, in the past. There are some very hard times in the beginning and not much sleep and no control, not one bit. This does improve.

I breastfeed. I love it so much. I feel like a female animal doing what she’s meant to do and I hold my boy and I LOVE LOVE LOVE him. His face when he sleeps after feeding. Still he has that face. I spent unnecessary minutes looking at it tonight when he fell asleep after his bottle. My love. I’ve never loved like this. Is this normal? I think it’s normal.

Still I’m me. I go back to work and behold, I enjoy it. More than before. I’ve got better at focusing and making the most of time. The quality of my attention has improved. I get to think and talk to clever adults about adult things, and I appreciate this more than before. Also I appreciate my lunch hours and walks to the station. Little things.

It’s nearly midnight. I am me. Yes, I am a parent. All that means is that I’m me, after going through some very hard shit, with a child that I love with an intense beauty who demands constant work and adjustment. I do feel more like a grown up and if someone in the street acts like a dick to me I don’t blame myself as much. I think, yeah, but I’m Theo’s mum, and I went through childbirth. And I’m his mum and I’d die for him. So fuck you.

It’s midnight. I love you, Theo. Fireworks are going off outside. A year, a year, a fucking year. Everything I am has been stripped away and put back together again. Happy birthday, baby. Happy new year everyone.

 

 

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The last time it was ever just me. Do I miss it? No.

Mind: I’m worried.
Heart: just relax.
Mind: but I’m totally lost right now.
Heart: just follow me.
Mind: but you’ve never been there before.
Heart: trust me, you’ll love it.
Soul: if you two would shut up I’d show you the map.

Facebook tells me I shared these lines almost exactly a year ago and seeing them again – well, it’s like a window to the past. I can feel myself then with complete clarity. It was the last time I was only me. The baby sat inside me and kicked but I was still just me, and saw everything in relation to me. I was the centre of my world and I didn’t even question that because it was so natural.

The baby wasn’t a baby and it certainly wasn’t Theo. It was a heartbeat on an ECG and a watery ultrasound form. It made my belly skin jump. It made my hips, back and pelvis hurt. It was practice contractions. It was also the preparations: small white clothes, a hospital bag, a half-assembled crib, breathing exercises while swaying on all fours. But mostly it was a cliff edge. I knew everything afterwards would be different but I couldn’t possibly imagine how, and mostly, I couldn’t imagine loving him as much as I was supposed to.

My perinatal psychiatrist wrote a letter to my GP recording my last session with her pre-Theo. She said I was worried about whether I’d love him enough and how soon the love would kick in, worried about postnatal depression, and worried about taking care of myself when the new baby was here. I’d said to her that I thought I might crash, and that I was worried bulimia might flare up, that I was already struggling not to comfort myself with food and feeling a blurring loss of control when I tried to stop eating. I didn’t know how I would be able to not sleep and looked at the space next to the bed where the crib would be in a kind of panic every night. I was afraid the baby might come between me and my husband, having read so many things about the pressure it puts on a relationship.

Some of those specific concerns did happen. I did have a short but very severe bout of depression in the first few weeks after he was born. I have been finding food hard, and yes, bulimia has crept back in at times, mainly when I struggled to deal with the lack of control over my time while I was on maternity leave. The lack of sleep was devastating physically but also mentally, mainly, again, because I had no control over it. I still furiously resist the fact that I can only sleep when he’s in bed (even if my husband sorts him out, I can’t get to sleep till Theo does). And the relationship thing is hard. It puts pressure on a couple like nothing else. You lose the ‘just us’ life you once had.

Thankfully – and I’m still stupidly grateful for this – the love for Theo was the one worry that didn’t come true. I loved him instantly. If I hadn’t, I honestly don’t know how or if I’d have crawled through those first few weeks. One particular memory illustrates this. About 10 days in, I hit rock bottom, sitting downstairs one morning while Theo and Felipe slept in the bedroom. I cried dreadful, wretched tears. I thought about going to hospital and telling them I couldn’t live my life anymore, that they needed to take over. I thought, this is it, I’ll finally be an inpatient. I thought I was finally, actually, mad. That this was it.

Then I thought about Theo and Felipe sleeping and I knew I had to stay and carry on. A voice seemed to say, come on, you have to push through. Get up, have a shower, go upstairs to your family. They need you and you love them.

I’ve never got through a mental crash like this before. The whole ‘pull yourself together’ thing was, and is, a stupid and dangerous response to depression. It doesn’t work and stops people getting the help they need. But just this once it was what I did.

Obviously, this happened alongside the medical help I was getting. That help was a non-negotiable part of me pulling through – and I got it much more quickly than most do because I knew what to ask for, something that isn’t the case for parents whose postnatal depression is their first experience of mental illness. But love played its part too, kicking me up the bum enough to get me back upstairs with my husband and my son.

Now I look back on the immediate pre- and post-natal period with a year’s perspective. I can see it with a clarity I haven’t had until now. What stands out? What makes sense that didn’t before?

1. Not being my own number one priority makes me happier. I tried so hard to make myself happy before, and my happiness, or contentment, had gradually crept up over the years, helped by a man, a career, a bit of yoga and some decent therapists. But still there were times when I felt ripped apart by emptiness. Afternoons off work when I’d plan to treat myself to a manicure or write a poem and would find myself sat uselessly on the sofa, eating or crying or running three different trains of thought through my head all at once. That happens less now. I am for Theo first and then for me, and it’s not a martyr thing, it just is, and I like it. Me time is more precious and more enjoyable but the non-me time matters more.

Which leads me to…

2. The emptiness has gone. I haven’t felt it since Theo was born. Believe me, I didn’t expect this. Having children has absolutely never seemed like the meaning of life, but somehow, for me, it kind of is. Or it’s given my life a fuller meaning, filling in the gaps in between the other meaningful things so that there isn’t any emptiness left.

And finally,

3. Fear was absolutely irrelevant because it didn’t take account of Theo. All the things I was worried about didn’t factor in Theo, and Theo was the answer to them all. The fear was real all right, but still. Everything changed when the baby appeared and that’s just how it is. That’s it.

 

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Presence

The wind moved in the trees as I listened to my breath.
The wind moved in the trees and I heard it because I listened to my breath.
The wind moves in all the trees and I was there to hear it.
My breath moved boringly in and out
But because it was boring I heard the trees.

The light is flat and blue over the playing fields, filtered through saturated air.
Today everything is muffled by autumn.
Green, brighter than it’s ever been, hangs from the branches
and falls brown like paper for our feet below.

If I believed in God, here he would be.
I feel presence in the sun and clouds.
Though I move, every successive moment is still
and in the stillness, everything arrives.

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