Before I became a mother, I was able to use my body for specific and delineated periods of time. I would get it out for my morning yoga practice and my walk to work, before sliding it into the background for the next few hours, putting my mind in the driving seat as I answered e-mails, wrote film scripts and proposals, focussed on the challenges of each production I was working on. Later that evening I would get my body out again for the walk back home. I might use my body to cook dinner, to have sex, to go dancing, but I would use my mind and my brain to process the day’s events, to have a conversation with my husband, to anticipate the next day at work.
I knew, in some distant future way, that motherhood would be intensely physical. I was more apprehensive of breastfeeding than I was of the more acute challenge of labour. I expected feeding to be hard, physically demanding and depleting, and for the constant giving of myself with little sleep in my tank to be unbearable at times. What I hadn’t anticipated of course, was the potent surge of body-love and belonging, that flows throughout your being like many-fingered tributary capillaries from toe-tip to crown of head, as you feed your own flesh and blood with your milk and together you both become home. Neither had I anticipated that it is your body once again, not your mind, that feels these very best things about motherhood, and that holding all of this infinite bone-deep love within your skin can be almost as tiring as the sleep deprivation and discomfort. More than this, what I definitely hadn’t anticipated, was how I would do every single part of mothering with this same body, the body that was constantly craving rest, that I would be lifting my baby, carrying and rocking her, sitting her on my knee, playing with her, dressing her and changing her, soothing her to sleep, carrying her in the sling, pushing her in the pram, that I would never be able to put my body away, not even at night with my breasts filling with milk and my ears half-hearing every sound she makes.
The body is the mother’s territory. It is the constant vigilance of knowing you are another’s life source. It is the memory of pregnancy and childbirth that sits at your centre. It is the gradually receding space inside your abdomen that cradled their life. It is your lower back tensing and aching as you lift your child from their cot at three in the morning. It is the pain at the base of your skull because you always accidentally, insistently, gaze down at their face while they feed even though you know it is hurting your neck. It is crawling on the floor beside them to pinch their cheeks while you long to climb back into bed. But it is also where the love is, that deep well of joy that is bottomless and overwhelming, the love that you long for a minute’s break from, yet want to swim in forever. It is the strange sensation of having remained siamese even after the umbilical cord was cut: ‘This music is bothering her.’ ‘She’s getting overtired.’ ‘Her tummy is sore.’ ‘She wants to be held a bit more like this.’ How do you know? ‘I just know.’ It is your child’s home, their constant, their safe place, as your arms become their bed and your voice their lullaby. You cannot mother with the mind. Motherhood is a reflex, bypassing all analysis and landing straight in your gut. For somebody who relies on being able to pass the baton between body and brain – don’t we all – that can be frightening.
People describe motherhood as relentless, but to me that word is too aggressive for how mothering feels. I would describe my professional life as relentless, with e-mails arriving in the middle of the night, working at a permanently accelerated pace because the schedules require it, on my phone before bed and at dawn. Motherhood is ceaseless, borderless, cornerless: it just is. It is not a cleverly-worded e-mail at 1am. It is not a detailed conversation with a friend. It is not something you can steer, box, control, or think your way through. It is simply you; you are it, the never-ending circle that your body makes as your envelope your child. From the moment new life sparks inside you for the rest of forever, you are a mother. It is your flesh and blood, heart and soul, muscle, bone, and milk.