I have a five-month-old baby girl, and winter is setting in. The dark November evenings are long. The sun is always low. I am indoors a lot. I am that strange kind of alone-but-with-a-tiny-baby a lot. Few things are quite so intensely ‘up and down’ as motherhood has the capacity to be. There is no pause and no coffee break; with little space to draw breath, the highs and lows grow vivid.
As I find my way around this new place, I wonder why, at a time when we – as women – are doing something so colourful and sparkly, do we often feel like fragile little sketches drawn in black and white. Of course, hormones and sleep deprivation are real things, but I have found myself crawling reluctantly towards the realisation that – for the most part – our societal structures don’t leave much space for motherhood. And so we find ourselves mothering in the margins, apologetically fitting this giant and wonderful thing around the better-understood parts of life.
Our bodies have borne witness to the closest thing to magic that there is. In fact, it is magic – to host and nurture the energy of new life, to grow it from a moment into a thought into a seed into a heartbeat into a soul; to deliver it from the centre of ourselves into the world; to feed it all by ourselves. It can be difficult to reconcile the glittering shapeless wonder of this triumph, when you are being asked questions about when you are going to go back to work, what sort of nurseries you are thinking of, or how much sleep you are getting. There is nothing wrong with these questions (except maybe the sleep one); it is simply hard and disorientating to find yourself back in this earth-heavy, fact-laden place, where few people feel moved to clap their hands to their mouths and say, ‘Well fuck me, you just grew new life. Do you want me to hold you for a moment? Can I stroke your hair? Are you okay?’ It is akin to the strange, cold shock of emerging from a truly transcendental piece of theatre, or music, and cramming yourself sweatily onto the Central Line at 11pm on your way home.
One of the reasons I have found the adjustment hard, is due to the strange, schizophrenic strength of motherhood, that it feels so different to how we are taught strength should feel. That it often feels like weakness. It is tender and yielding, fragile and open, and yet it is fierce and has claws and will fight. This duality is there in birth: the most powerful expression of strength expressed as a vast, full-body letting go. And from that moment on, letting go and letting go and letting go. We let go of knowing when we will wake up, how much sleep we will get tonight, when we will be able to eat lunch, how much we will get done today. All the little markers we are used to monitoring and assessing our day by, start to dissolve. We let go and let go and let go. But to stay centred within this letting go is not just the push and pull of motherhood, it is the entire encapsulation of female power: Strength that is soft. Power that can release. A will that is strong enough to bend, to accommodate, to fail and to fall, but never to break.
Our physiology as women is designed for this magic. Our pelvic floors are open. Imagine, for a moment, the taut energy of a masculine pelvic floor, almost entirely closed, compared to a female body with our immense capacity for a vast and total openness, big enough to allow another human being to pass through us and out into the world, soft enough to welcome our lover inside us. We are by our very nature porous, energetically open, vulnerable, but this openness allows us to create and deliver new life. It is the root of our power.
Motherhood begins with us being opened radically, whether vaginally or abdominally, and in a society where strength often feels as though it should be a boundaried, clear-cut, muscular thing, that can feel alarming. How do we gather back our borders, draw a line around who we are and where we stand, when the seas have been parted so widely? When we find ourselves back in an environment that is not set up to help us embrace the soft, pliable wonder of this experience?
Since carrying and birthing my daughter, I have found sound and breath so powerful. Each time I breathe consciously or make the sound of Om, it is a reminder that it is just me here now, physically. I send my breath to the farthest edges of myself and it is still all me. No tiny second heartbeat steadily galloping inside for the sound to resonate through, just me here in my body. It is a reclaiming, a separating. It is mildly painful but wonderfully grounding, and in this way I can rebuild a firm foundation, from where I am able to bend in the willowy way that motherhood demands.
This may all sound lofty and enigmatic, abstract and blurry, but it isn’t. It is only this: when you have had a bad day, and your baby is crying or fussy, unhappy or needy, you cannot put them down, you are tired and you feel there is no space to think, remember your strength. Remember that you were able to spark, nurture, grow and deliver this life into the world, that you didn’t have to think to do it, it was an unfolding within you. And if you needed a little help (the phrases ‘failure to progress’ and ‘assisted delivery’ both appear on my labour notes) then quite simply: that is okay.
Know your power. As women, as mothers, it takes a form that is not often recognised – not just by others but by ourselves. When you stop to consider the unique magic of the female body, all those scenes where culturally, politically, professionally, there is not a women in sight, begin to reveal themselves as the lopsided danger factories that they are, (but that is a topic for another post!).
If it were to take a form we were more comfortable with, your to do list today might read ‘Help my baby to feel safe and loved, and to discover the world’. Would we feel better knowing that we had crossed that momentous task off just by being ourselves? This is not an excuse to do nothing, but hopefully an antidote to that creeping fear that we have somehow not achieved enough, done enough, been enough, when we clamber wearily into bed and turn out the light.