After arriving at the GP reception yesterday, weary with what would later be diagnosed as viral arthritis (yes, it is as unpleasant as it sounds), with the child uncomfortably along for the ride, I was forced to answer the inane questions of another waiting patient. She fawned over my daughter, whilst tearing out pages from the reception’s copies of Home and Garden with what seemed a rather brazen sense of entitlement.
Oh isn’t she beautiful, she gushed. Such a pretty girl. How old is she? She must be walking now. She’s shy. It’s a stage.
And on it went in this friendly though ultimately didactic fashion. To each question, I replied politely yet succinctly. Keen not to encourage further conversation – particularly as she seemed potentially bat shit crazy – I did my best to also avoid too much eye-contact. But on she went, nonetheless. And for her finale, like all women senior to me who have raised children, she imparted this little gem of advice: enjoy this time, while she’s like this.
I felt my internal eyes roll. Outwardly, I smiled, nodded and agreed graciously.
Sensing I perhaps wasn’t taking on the full gravity of her statement, she fixed her stare, narrowed her piggy eyes and looking down her rather large, Romanesque nose, repeated almost portentously: you enjoy it. This age, when they don’t answer back. Returning to her magazine and shaking her head ruefully, she continued: because then they become teenagers and it’s never the same.
I couldn’t decide whether she was threatening me or simply making a prophetical statement. Either way it made my insides groan.
What is bothersome about this particular form of unsolicited advice is the inference that –
a) a new(-ish) mother is somehow not enjoying her child.
b) that a new(-ish) mother is not allowed to not enjoy her child and,
c) that a new(-ish) mother is somehow unaware of the realities pertaining to the passage of time.
To the first, I would say that no matter how grateful one is that they have been gifted with a child (and I concede, it is a gift), there will be times where the situation inexorably pulls one toward throwing them out the window. No mother should be made to feel guilty about this (erm, providing of course they never actually do it), nor should it have any bearing on their ultimate “enjoyment” of their child. A corollary to this, which in turn is my response to the second, is that every parent is allowed to rue the day their child was born. The birth of a child is profoundly joyous but it is also stressful, physically taxing (I for one, remain deeply resentful of my deteriorating teeth) and marks a severe loss of autonomy. Some take this in their stride, others do not even notice it, while others struggle greatly to reconcile the shift. And to the third, I would say that parents are fully cognizant of how fast time passes, given each day in the company of an infant incorporates notable developments, from learning to smile and clap to hemorrhaging fistfuls of cash on clothes they perpetually grow out of. I’ve no doubt I will wake up one day and the Pookin will be packing her bags to leave for university and I’ll think “Gosh, I should’ve enjoyed my time with her more instead of sticking her in front of the TV so I could wash my hair.” Frankly that’s a regret I am prepared to absorb because no matter how much I love my daughter, I still want space for myself.
Unsolicited advice abounds throughout life but I have discovered, since becoming a mother, women with young children seem particularly prone to this predicament. Having a child seems almost like joining the Freemasons, where members across generations become linked by a common understanding qua motherhood. This can be enormously beneficial and comforting at times, with the free exchange of information, tips, suggestions and an implicit camaraderie. And at others, it spews forth an unwanted proliferation of counsel, persistent one-upmanship and a completely baffling presumption that one is, purely by virtue of having a child in-tow, open to conversation.
A few weeks ago I was on the train bound for Victoria, with the Pookin sitting excitedly beside me. Before I knew it, an overly exuberant mother with her own child (more or less the same age) was charging down the aisle toward me, a terrifying grin plastered across her face. She plonked herself and her child in the seat facing us and began to make excited baby chat, ostensibly to engage the two children in baby conversation. It was sweet up to a point I suppose, but also rather intrusive. She made the usual inquiries – how old is she? Does she sleep through the night? Does she walk yet? To the latter I responded, no, not quite yet. I caught the glint in her eye. That glint of tedious benefaction. I see it all the time in the eyes of mothers who clock that their own child is perhaps just one step ahead of yours, providing them with the much coveted role of bestowing advice. Is she in nursery? No. Oh they really do progress so much once they’re in nursery? Do they. Oh yes, my daughter started walking within a few days of going. How proud you must be. Now please, fuck off out of my personal space.
What has happened to us as people that we need to assert our relevance by bombastically bequeathing life lessons onto unsuspecting individuals? I say “us” because I’m trying to be kind, because intrinsically I find it a bizarre and a completely annoying compunction. I also say “us” because I’m wondering if it alludes to some deeper social condition which is reflected, perhaps in varying degrees, in each of us. Are these the effects of a modern society so brutal, so fast-paced that people clutch doggedly to any opportunity to make their voices heard and exercise the most pathetically paltry level of dominance over another?
I was a deeply insecure person before I was with-child. I thought that in becoming a mother I would simply have to become more confident, that something would kick-in, as it were and my character would become self-aware and clearly defined. Sadly, it did not. If anything, my insecurity has become even more pronounced, throwing every aspect of my character into a state of confusion, as it struggles to define itself maternally, professionally and psychologically. Yet despite this complicated internal dynamic, I try to refrain from projecting my personal vacillations onto people and avoid clutching at those tempting moments to exercise authority.
I remember sitting on the tube, perhaps five months or so after I’d given birth. I was watching a couple opposite me who were in loving possession of a freshly born baby – all alien-like and weird in its piglety newness. As I watched them I felt a sense of piousness wash over me as I considered alerting them to how ill-attired the infant was, given the ferocity of the winter weather. No blanket, no quilted pram-suit, no proper booties. Just a woollen cardigan and some socks. Cold though I thought the little creature may be, those parents would soon figure it out and it was their right as new parents, to be given the space to do so. I forced my momentarily pompous tongue to remain inside my mouth. Where it belonged.