My first ever outing with a newborn baby was to my husband’s family’s holiday house in Karrebaeksminde, Denmark. Apparently I had an ‘easy’ baby, though nothing about caring for a newborn felt easy to me. She barely slept, was constantly hungry and kept filling little nappies with large, mustard-coloured poo bombs. Yes, she was sweet, but the reality of the job horrified me and filled me with a kind of panic and dread nobody seemed to understand. It could be that I’m missing a gene, or maybe other women lie a lot, but really – what is even a little bit enjoyable about a cycle of endless fatigue, breastfeeding and nappy-changing? As far as I’m concerned, nada. I must definitely be missing a gene.
So, when the family started passing her around and oohing and aahing I was thrilled to have some respite. Yes! I thought. Take her, people of the village! Because this lady is fucking exhausted. But then, through some weird baby instinct, she seemed to figure out that the person rocking her was not the person whose uterus she had rented. She went red in the face and started yelling, and to my horror my sister-in-law (who had three children and was a professional) gave her back to me to make her stop. As if I should know how. And I wanted to say, don’t be mad, why are you giving her to me? Find a real mother! But I didn’t because one can’t. And that is how I feel still on bad days when the job of parenting feels overwhelming beyond the singing of it.
When you are constantly improvising (as one is as a parent because god knows they don’t come with a manual) you’re bound to get stuck sometimes. But what I do wonder about is whether other people find it as challenging as I do. And if they do, why don’t they say so? Who are we trying to fool, and is there a large Louboutin voucher at the end of it all? I don’t think so. Mostly I find it hard (if not impossible) to act one way when I feel another, so if good mothering is about martyrdom and fakery, I lose hands-down. I don’t know how to put on a big, game smile when I’m on the verge of a panic attack in Pick n Pay because the girls won’t stop bickering and I didn’t get enough sleep and my husband is overseas and they still don’t have Hellmann’s mayo.
So, I go down on my haunches and grab each one by the arm and tell them in a Rosemary’s Baby voice that if they don’t stop right now I’m delivering them to the nearest orphanage on the way home. And then as I stand at the till clutching my little blue Smart Shopper card and they’re all subdued, I’m consumed with guilt at my badmotherness and we get in the car and I start apologising and explaining how much I love them but that it’s not always easy, this job, and I’m feeling like I can’t cope so if they could please just go a little easy on me today that would be really great. And they do, and they’re amazing like that. And maybe it’s wrong to be this ‘real’ with your kids; maybe you’re supposed to pretend to always be in control and on top of everything. But then maybe it’s also cool that they know you’re human and that you have limits and that sometimes you also feel sad and scared. I don’t know the answer to this.
I guess the best you can do to gage how well or how crap you’re doing is by how your kids seem to feel about life (because for now you are their life, after all). If, for the most part, they’re happy and self-confident, I guess you can’t be failing completely. Sometimes I watch in astonishment as my girls talk to adults with complete self-assuredness (I would never have dared as a child), and I realize that this is probably because I speak to them that way and value their opinions and try hard never to dictate what they should think or feel. I’m crap at some stuff, but what I am good at is letting them be who they are, even if this means wearing bizarre outfits sometimes and saying things I don’t agree with. And maybe, after all, this is wherein the lesson lies – if we were all allowed to be who we really are – including less-than-perfect mothers who feel safe enough to tell it like it is – we’d be a lot better off.