Motherhood: the best kept secret there is?
“We have a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” – Laura Stavoe Harm
You have to laugh, don’t you? At the ‘news’ about motherhood. That new mothers (old mothers, tired mothers, all mothers) are the main reason why the gender pay gap hasn’t yet shrunk enough. That motherhood confers not only new human life, but a 33% pay cut compared to men.
You have to laugh. This is news? This is new? This is inexplicable? How can it be, when you remember it oh, so well?
So there you are. 1987. Business Titan of Thatcher’s Britain. Enormous shoulder pads. Decent car. Going Places.
But the clock ticks. And one day the alarm starts ringing shrilly. You are in hospital. Clutching your husband. In a small amount of pain.
And then, suddenly (how come this part wasn’t explained, quite?) in a staggering amount of new and stunning pain. And then, somehow, to your astonishment, you are handed a brand new piece of you. And the pain disappears – poof! – and you are changed.
You remain astonished. Joyful. Tearful. Groping through a fog. “Work?” you think. “Work?” You are already toiling beyond memory. You are with baby. You are immersed. You are your whole family’s baby trailblazer! And you variously waft and trudge, blinking, through an unfamiliar landscape.
But two days in (three, perhaps – day and night have lost meaning) your business partner/fort holder phones you. Muttering “bank”, muttering “overdraft”, muttering “client”, muttering “help!”. And you struggle to process this evil crime against your very soul, and another clock ticks, insistently, and ‘proper’ work beckons once again.
You cry then, bitter tears, because no-one explained that either. That leaving your impossibly tiny 8 week old baby will prove so herculean a task. The sledgehammer of guilt as he wails his desolation, the painful squeak and tug of your newly-minted heartstrings. The sheer physical effort – like being both a foot-soldier and general in your own personal war – as you dress your baby, oh-so sleepy, and gather baby-clothes, and nappies, and the special breast milk picnic, for ‘while you are away’, while a part of you screams ‘but you shouldn’t be!’.
Then commuting, by car, train and tube, to your office, and wondering how you are going to manage to do this every day without going insane.
Weeks later, you’re astonished to find you’re still sane. And the hated, fetid train is now your friend. The train gives you moments that you never thought you’d have again. To read, doze and study. To feel a bit more like the you that came before.
Yet you’re not. And the feeling is chargeable. It’s paid in guilt, when you get home and the childminder tells you that today – oh, so sweet! – he rolled over.
It goes on. The tooth coming. The shape fitted into the correct hole. The way he pointed. Said “doggie!”. The dark place, especially, when you come home to fetch him and he clings to her, sobbing, like a pale pink koala, and doesn’t want to come home. To you.
And so it goes, your new life, and you work it. Sponge the sick from your power suit before heading out. Mop the milk from it, later, when those heartstrings make you leaky. You in one place, your mind in another place, daily. But eventually you adjust. You make it work.
And the months pass, and the years pass, and you “man-up” to working motherhood – heck, mums do this everywhere, don’t they?
(And the odd father, sometimes, and they are cooed over warmly, a sweet curiosity in Girls’ World.)
But you live now on a knife-edge of necessary efficiency. A veneer of coping, as brittle and fragile as spun sugar. Which snaps in a heartbeat, when the system skips a beat. I don’t feel well. My tooth hurts. I need this for school. There’s nothing for packed lunches. A hamster dies. The dentist. The washing machine is broken. A friendship is shunned. A show’s on. A reading book is lost.
And you think – you can’t help it – that this is no way of living. The heartstrings, though stronger, still often twang and shiver. You rue the school holidays for their nightmare childcare logistics. You weep when you hear of trips enjoyed, outings had, memories made.
Without you. So much of it without you.
And you read about making choices. And how it’s mothers who mostly make them. To fit quarts of precious, precious time into pint pots. Is it any wonder you aren’t CEO of Glass Ceiling Smashers Ltd?
No. You are too busy being all things to everyone.
You’re a mother.
First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 27th August 2016