Firsts, revisited

Last night I reread something I wrote a few years ago, when my third born P was a newborn baby. You can download it here for free, if you feel like it. The story was called Firsts and it was published by The Kindred Collective, an online magazine started by Caitlin Dyer (and perhaps a friend, from memory, apologies if I have missed someone!). I’m not sure why it didn’t continue as it was such a sweet collection of stories. In Firsts I describe giving birth, long days and nights mothering tiny little people, and daily cold cups of tea. As I read I remembered that part of myself: the mother who typed notes ferociously into her phone in the thick hours of the night, with a baby attached to her breast, the soft glow of the phone lighting up her face. I remembered those elongated days moving from activity to activity with babies and small children and the yearning I felt for adult conversation. Endless cups of tea and coffee being made, and cooled; rarely consumed.

In the story I wondered about those “capital M mothers” who launched children in and out of cars, who marched kids around and barrelled through life, parenting confidently with chins held high. I suppose now I am in the phase of motherhood that I imagined back then would come with this elusive capital M status. But I know now that such a thing does not exist.

In some ways, I look back and see myself as more of a mother then than I do now*. Now real life has begun to slip back in, to creep around the edges. I am no longer cocooned by my small babies. When you have babies, you can’t do anything else. You’re utterly consumed by it, and rightly so. At times in those days I felt a sense of desperation, of wildly clinging to ‘myself’, of feeling these small beings were stealing, wrenching me away. I would cry in the middle of the day, bury my head in my hands as a baby screamed for me. I would stomp my feet and tug back, demand to keep certain parts of myself for fear of losing me forever to these little creatures. At other times I would lay with a sleeping baby on the couch for hours on end, marvelling at her soft downy skin, her feathery breath forever linking with my own. The softness and contrasting brutality of days alone with babies and small children is something I will never forget. This is all part of the path and now that it is slipping away I long for it deeply. And forgive me for being slightly daft but it has only just begun dawning on me that that phase of parenting is virtually over for me. P is three and a half and while her moods can be murderous and I (still) very rarely get the chance to sit down when on duty, that physicality, the intensity that comes with being responsible for a baby has slowly faded away without me actively realising.

I held my four month old niece on the weekend and my body remembered. Afterwards, my own babies felt like giants in my arms.

As I move into this next chapter of motherhood my life is opening up in front of me again. I have been back at work for two days a week for over a year and when I’m there, I walk to get a coffee and eat lunch with my colleagues. I occasionally go out for dinner with friends and I don’t have to worry about expressing milk or getting a baby to sleep before I leave.

But this concept of firsts is still following me around (I hear more seasoned parents laughing, laughing). I might be better at hurling the kids in the car and getting-shit-done, but I still flail around constantly, deliberating over countless things: how to discuss reality and disappointment with an eight year old asking difficult questions, how to explain to a six year old that I’m only a human despite her biggest hopes, how to carve out time for a three year old who has spent a lot of her life trailing around after her big sisters’ school routines. I think and worry about the future – phones and high school and broken hearts and rebellion. Now I know just how fleeting their babyhood was, I try not to cling to these younger years, to just relax and enjoy and not worry about the next chapter ending.

Tomorrow I’ll be at home all day with my eldest and my youngest who are both fighting colds and sore throats. We will take the middle to school and come home and make ourselves cosy. I will deliver drinks of water and tasty plates. I will read books and decide what we’re having for dinner. I’ll put a wash on and spend the rest of the day telling myself I should hang it out.

And then I will make myself a hot cup of coffee, and I’ll sit down and drink it, in remembrance of my first chapter.

*Which I realise is completely ridiculous.

Gender + Motherhood

I discovered something last night: audiobooks. The only time I’ve really heard about audiobooks until recently has been my Gran telling me which murder mystery book she has been listening to on tape from the library. The thought of it always made me sneer a bit… I didn’t feel like it was *real* reading. But good on her, because she can knit while she listens and that seems like a better use of time than watching TV – WAIT, hold up – doing craft + reading at the same time?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a little bit thick.

Suddenly I’m seeing audiobooks being plugged everywhere: on my favourite youtube channels, on instagram, on advertisements. Every hipster I know is listening to an audiobook. Is this the new podcast? I looked into it, and the only reputable looking audiobook app seemed to want to charge $14.95 per month PLUS the cost of books… this seems a little steep to me, particularly when you don’t get a hard copy book to shelve lovingly in your bookcase; it’s just an audio file. I gave up and decided to go back to netflix and podcasts (of which I have a number now I totally love… perhaps a discussion for another post).

It was late last night, I was getting into bed to work on a hat and suddenly I was thinking about audiobooks again. Wouldn’t it be great if I could crochet and listen to a good book at the same time? I had a sudden revelation: I can borrow audiobooks from my library, for free. A few fast taps of the thumb later and I had an app which is linked to my local library, and was listening to this.

I listened to the whole essay last night, which finally brings me to the topic of this post, gender and motherhood.

Before I had kids, I didn’t believe that girls and boys were different in any way. I thought any differences in behaviour or attitude were purely due to parental influence.

A few years into motherhood, and having seen my friends raising boys, or boy and girl combinations while I’m raising girls only, I have changed tack a bit. I realise fully that boys and girls are very different. However, I still believe that stereotyping is alive and well, even in those of us who have the very best intentions not to change the way we parent based on the gender of our children. I am beginning to think of it as invisible stereotyping. That is, invisible to the perpetrator, perhaps not so much to the outside eye. Gender stereotyping is so ingrained within us that, without careful reflection, it is carried out with little notice.

I was at the house of a very dear friend yesterday who has three boys, around the same age as my three girls. We have been friends for a long time, well before we had children. We have always laughed at how different the boys are to the girls and vice versa. But then there’s this extra layer, the invisible stereotyping layer, that I have been noticing more and more.

The example that comes to mind is this. We’re at the coffee shop with our kids. A rubbish truck drives past. My friend looks at her boys, who are staring at the truck and says, “Look! It’s a big rubbish truck!” The boys get excited and watch the truck driving off down the street, maybe saying something like “Truck! Truck!” Later that day, my friend, seeing the boys’ interest in the truck, takes them down to the fire station to look at more trucks. She buys them a t-shirt each with a truck on the front. Their enthusiasm builds, and at home they all draw pictures of trucks. In addition, at their birthdays, they are given a variety of toy trucks as gifts (including one from me…).

Rewind, back at the coffee shop, I’m on the other side of the table. The rubbish truck drives past. I look at my girls, who have also turned to look at the truck. I might say, “Oh yes, look, a truck!” The girls watch the truck driving off down the street and say, “Truck! Truck!” Later that day, I take them home, set them up at the table and get out a stamp collection that someone has given us as a gift. It’s a fairy set, they absolutely love it. We draw pictures of the fairies in their houses and talk about what fairies might eat for dinner. It doesn’t occur to me to foster their interest in the truck in any way.

This is just a small observation, and as much as I hate to admit it, variations of this example have happened numerous times over the years. My friend told me yesterday that she had taken the boys down to a busy corner to watch some trucks drive past. I had also been walking through a carpark with the little yesterday and she had pointed at a big truck saying “Tain, tain!” I said, “Actually, that’s a truck!” and kept walking. I didn’t mention the truck again.

What does this say about us? My friend and I are both well educated, modern women (we like to think). Neither of us are particularly girly, or boyish. We’re both into human rights, and believe women to be strong and independent. But even if we don’t want to admit it, we are raising our children in different ways, and those differences are largely based on their gender. Neither of us are right or wrong and I’m not illustrating this to make a judgement in any way, merely to voice my observations.

Being one of four girls, having three daughters of my own and a niece, having gone to a girls school, I have grown up in a world of girls and women. I don’t know a whole lot about boys. I also personally have zero interest in trucks, which of course are used in this post simply as an example of something that is typically viewed as masculine as opposed to feminine. How can I make sure I am allowing my girls to express themselves freely, in a world where even I am shaping their perceptions and ideas towards a version of an outdated stereotype?

I tell them monthly, weekly, daily: they can do and be whatever they want. But do their toys, their clothes, their school uniform, my guided topics of conversation and interests – do they express the same message?

These are questions I don’t know the answer to. But it feels good to have a conversation about it, I think. I’m inclined to agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we should all be feminists. What are your thoughts?