It has long bothered me that motherhood is so often framed as a tale of sacrifice. When I was working on my book, No Season but the Summer, the novelist Nicky Singer – who mentored me with such generosity and perspicacity that she became my ‘Book Mama’- informed me that mother-child stories always end in sacrifice. I didn’t want to believe it. I don’t like the idea that the experience must be defined in terms of what we have to give up, can no longer do, of everything we stand to lose: nights out; mornings in bed; time with a partner; time alone – to run, to read, or just to pee, without interruption. The list of loss is long but takes no account of the transformations simultaneously underway.
I went into labour with my first child on a Monday evening, in an apartment on the Lower East side of Manhattan. After four nights and three days- of surviving on seconds of sleep, of feeling my bones shift apart, of moaning till the light fixture fell out of the ceiling, of believing I was going to die, the baby too – when I finally held my son on that Friday morning, I wasn’t the same woman as I had been on the Monday. Whatever you undergo to find yourself with a child in your care – be it a long labour, a C section, adoption, or falling in love with someone who already has kids – there is a story of change within it. And that change, I believe, challenges, or at least complicates the notion of self-sacrifice. What self? Which one? Maybe I did give my self up when I became a mum, but not in an act of selflessness – it was more an act of radical self-rearrangement. Which is why – and I have written about this before – I object to the phrase ‘getting your body back,’ which is what postpartum mothers are supposed to do. I don’t want my pre-birth body, or self, back, thank you very much. Imagine, if at the end of Eric Carle’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the newly transformed butterfly started stressing about the loss of its slender, versatile, green pre-pupa form! Not that new mothers all feel like stunning butterflies, but you get the point. And if the level of transformation involved were fully honoured, I believe we might in fact feel a little more stunning, a little less stunned.
But there was one thing that didn’t transform when I became a mum, something I couldn’t change. It’s not one of the items listed above: time alone vanished. Time with my husband is still a struggle to find. Uninterrupted peeing is also pretty much a thing of the past. What I couldn’t let go of, what was left when the rest of me dissolved, was my wish to make stuff – bits of writing, shows, stories, projects. Because these creative practices are themselves concerned with change – how and why it happens, how to navigate it, the tools that help me redefine my-self/ selves. I couldn’t let these go, and as long as I had them, the rest did not seem like a sacrifice.
It turned out, however, that doing away with the story of sacrifice, replacing it with one of transformation, and continuing to create, was counter cultural enough that I needed to do it out loud, with other people alongside me to validate such a startling choice. Mothers who Make arose directly out of my stubborn refusal to give up my making, alongside my caring.
And, on the whole, it’s gone quite well. This approach that combines a mix of flexibility and stubbornness. Over the last ten years, it’s enabled me to found and lead a growing international movement of creative mothers and carers, write a novel and raise two children, both of whom happen to be the neurodivergent, high needs kind. It has enabled me to have more of a sense of gain than of loss. So, it came as rather of a shock, last month, when I suddenly felt I had to make sacrifices for my children- and I resented it.
I say ‘my children.’ Truth be told, it’s mostly been my daughter.
Photo: Viola Depcik
The first time it happened seems comically trivial now. But not at the time.
The house was a mess. I wanted to put on some music while I tidied. My daughter said the music would disturb her, because she was doing Minecraft on an iPad, while also watching a video about Minecraft on my phone (yup, my kids do two screens at once nowadays – my journey with that is another blog, but flexibility has been key). So, I said she could have my laptop to watch her video and I wanted the phone, because then I could use my headphones, while I tidied, and have my own private disco. But the laptop was the wrong size, she said- she couldn’t focus on both at once- so she wanted to keep the phone. I did not want to give it to her. She is now seven. My son is eleven. Over the last decade, I have given up countless nights, missed hundreds of events, foregone romance, solitude, a space of my own, without begrudging it, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t prepared to give up my phone for half an hour.
And that was just the first instance….
Why? What was going on?
Actually, I think I know:
I am peri-menopausal and I have the same raging hormones as a teenager.
My novel has been both a weight and a float – a ballast through my mothering years – but it’s done, so I am looking up now, and wondering what happens next.
My children are older. They are no longer at my breast, on my lap, on my back, pulling at my arm. They are never far away (we are home-schooling) but they are across the room, turning away, as well as towards me.
And my daughter, specifically, with full ND glory and unnerving precision, is busy revealing to me all my limitations – any sense that I know what I am doing by now, as a mother or a maker, undermined.
In other words, momentous change is afoot, and I feel again in the pupa stage of metamorphosis – i.e liquid. I do not want my pre-birth body back, or any of my old selves- certainly not the slim, green, individualistic, hungry caterpillar of pre-motherhood – yet there is still some kind of reintegration underway – too new for me to name – but it is, I believe, why the idea of motherhood-as-sacrifice has elbowed its way into my days. Why resentment is rife. The harder question is – what to do about it?
Because I am not particularly happy with the answer that the self-care industry wants to sell me, or that the aeroplane stewards want to tell me – you know the one: ‘Fit your own oxygen mask first, before attending to your child’s.’ Take care of yourself because if you run out of breath, steam, juice, then everyone in your care suffers. It may be true, but such a paradigm describes a kind of see-saw effect: in the short term I get what I want, and my daughter loses out, but long term she wins because she has a happier, healthier mother, and gets to feel held by some clear boundaries. I don’t like the push me, pull you of this. The binaries involved- me/ you; win/ lose; short term/long term; happy/ sad. I am, as it happens, quite comfortable with my ‘she/ her’ pronouns, but I find the either/ or-ness of discussions around care difficult.
Image by Zoe Gardner @zoelimberdoodle
As I search for alternative paradigms, my thoughts go to the ‘Wood Wide Web,’ which I learnt of through Robert Macfarlane, when reading his incredible Underland (research for the underworld of my novel). He describes it as follows:
“Individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure…now known to be ancient (around four hundred and fifty million years old)…The implications of the Wood Wide Web far exceed a basic exchange of goods…A dying tree might divest itself of its resources to the benefit of the community…or a young seedling in a heavily shaded understory might be supported with extra resources by its stronger neighbours. The Wood Wide Web… raises big questions…about whether a forest might be better imagined as a single superorganism, rather than a grouping of independent individualistic ones.”
This deep-rooted-ness, this ‘dazzling complex and collaborative structure’ is more what I am after. It’s not what it says in the how-to-raise-a-child books, but it might help me if I could parent like a tree. If I could be the woods – instead of feeling lost in them – I might have a better time of it, when my daughter refuses to handover my phone, or won’t leave the house, or doesn’t like the idea of me going for a swim on my own. And I love that it is ancient, this Wood Wide Web. We think we invented something new with our www hyperlinks and connections, but the trees with their hyphae got there a long time ago. We are only, slowly, catching up.
And this ancient-ness brings me to wonder too about an older understanding of the word ‘sacrifice,’ because I am sure a dying tree, sharing out its resources, doesn’t feel like a martyr – which is yet another term that has, over time, gathered pejorative connotations, has become a dramatic and dreadful act of self-denial. I looked it up and sure enough, in its roots, ‘sacrifice’ means simply to make sacred, or holy. An offering to the gods. A precious gift. Something passed on, or up. And an understanding implicit within this, that the act of giving is in truth more precious than the thing given. Which makes me think motherhood is perhaps, in this older sense, a story of sacrifice after all. A gift of life, offered onwards. And that making stuff – a book, a show, a cake, a painting – is also this: a sacred offering.
Then – in the middle of writing this – I received the news that Nicky, my ’Book Mama’ has suffered a terrible stroke, and is in a deep coma, from which she may never awake. I feel shaky, weak-legged, as if standing on a cliff edge – the sharp sense that life is fragile and perilous. Not a 450 million year old root network, but a sheer drop. And I feel the opposite too – a dull ache. As if the world will never be round or deep again. Hours of flatness ahead.
But Nicky used to sign off her emails to me with the word ‘Onwards’ – a flourish of encouragement, but also a quieter call for resilience and continuity.
Onwards. I always thought of it as an instruction to keep traveling, but I hear it now, in terms of gifting. And this helps. It helps with everything- facing my daughter’s demands, and with my sense of loss.
If I recognise Nicky, my ‘Book Mama,’ me, my actual mother too, as part of a vast network of gifting, then I can feel the roots of us, and others, extending under me and running through the lives of many. And this, now I come to think of it, is how my novel closes. It does end with a sacrifice, in the old sense of the word. An offering. A sacred gift. From a mother to a daughter. Giving life- Nicky was right – onwards.
So, here are your questions for the month:
How do you understand sacrifice?
What will you never give up?
And what will you sacrifice, as in, give onwards?
And how might you help feel and extend the collaborative structures of care, upon which we all rest?
P.S. This morning my daughter awoke with this question:
“Mummy, why can’t we just replace money with love? You could pay for stuff in cuddles, kisses, or kisses where you kiss your hand and blow the kiss to someone (if you didn’t actually want to kiss them) and in nice chats. That way no one need be poor anymore.” Which sounds to me, like a complex, collaborative system of care in the making…..So there is hope for the world yet.
P.P.S. And now, a week on since I wrote the above, Nicky Singer, my Book Mama, has died. I feel stricken and even more acutely aware of the ‘Wood Wide Web’ of us – the complex network of care that stretches between us, starkly revealed in such moments of grief. And – one more transformative gift- I shared this blog with Nicky’s eldest son, who in turn shared with me the old meaning of the word ‘martyr’: it means ‘witness’ – one who testifies to the truth of what they have seen. I love this, because it was the great and precious gift that Nicky gave me – I felt seen by her. And in doing so she also taught me something of how to see, and of how to bear witness to the truth of what I have seen – a writer’s, or any artist’s, job. And I love the unravelling of the word ‘martyr’, back to its roots, because language itself has an underground hyphal network under each woody word, and this one reaches from ‘self-denial’ deep down to the sharing of truth. Thank you Nicky and, once again, (though, narratively, you would not approve of my staging three endings to this post!) – Onwards…