My eldest girl was ten last weekend. Her birth was, hands down, the best day of my life. (I was equally thrilled at her little sister’s birth 6 years later, but the day itself was somewhat compromised by the whole epidural-stopping-working-mid-caesarean section thing). I was 28 when she made me a mother, and it felt like that was what I had been waiting my whole life for. And I was right. Having my children has made me complete. I can’t imagine my life without them, and I feel in my bones that having them, loving them, raising them is the greatest thing I will ever or could ever do.
It’s not that I think women should be mothers if they don’t want to, or that they should want to, or that being a mother is the most important thing anyone can do, it’s just that’s the way it is for me. I remember being about 15, and having one of those intense conversations about the future you have at that age, with one of my closest male friends. He said that he didn’t really want children, couldn’t see the point and felt that life as a child could be so tough he didn’t want to deliberately inflict that on someone else. But then he looked at me, and said “I’d have kids if I ended up marrying you, though. It would be cruel not to – you were just born to be a mum”. Reader, I didn’t marry him. But I remember that statement as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, even though I don’t think he even particularly meant it as a compliment.
Despite this sense of maternal vocation, I don’t want to fall into the trap of living my life solely for and through my children. It’s not healthy for them, and it certainly wouldn’t be good for me. Last week was International Women’s Day, and the theme was balance. That is something I am striving for in my life, although I’m not sure I always manage to achieve it. I am a mother. I love my girls so much it hurts, I would do anything for them, and they will always be my first priority. However, I am also a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a citizen, a woman. A woman who wants to go for walks without stopping to pick up every stick, walk on every wall and listen to a constant stream of chatter. A woman who loves a long lunch or shared bottle of wine with a friend, or a theatre trip with her husband. A woman who would like to earn some proper money of her own. A woman who wants a place in the world unprefaced by the words ‘A’s mummy’.
The jump from one to two children skewed the balance for me. I haven’t published a book since my youngest was born, and I feel that the very differing demands of a 10 year old and a 4 year old often threaten to squeeze me out entirely. Finding the balance is elusive, and the moment I feel I might have achieved it, one of them suddenly has a high fever or a medical appointment or a workshop at school, and my carefully contrived house of cards collapses around me.
Ten years out of the formal workplace feels like a bit of a wake-up call to try and assess where things are going for me for the next ten years. In another ten years time I will have a 20 year old and a 14 year old, and be heading for 50 myself. I’m no longer naive enough to imagine that parenting will be magically easy by that point. Although some aspects of mothering a child who now (generally) sleeps through the night and can wipe her own bum and fasten her own shoes are undoubtedly much easier, there are new issues all the time. My big girl is intelligent, creative, loving, thoughtful, sensitive, and all together delightful, but helping her cope with the challenges presented by being neuro-divergant (she has dyslexia and dyspraxia) in a neuro-typical world is far from easy, and I regularly have to put myself outside my non-confrontational and people-pleasing comfort zone to play the role of Mama Bear and fight for what she needs.
I am lucky that, at the moment, I don’t have a financial imperative to work. I know that makes me immensely privileged, but the downside to it is that anything I take on has to be sufficiently worthwhile to ‘justify’ time away from family life. The balance I am seeking is between being able to always prioritise my children and their needs, and enjoying them at the ages they are, whilst also clawing back some kind of independent life. It’s a work in, very slow, progress. Ten years in I can see that being a mother is everything, but it isn’t necessarily enough.