My friend Daisy said something to me recently that got me thinking. We were checking in with each other during lockdown as we do most days; we both have baby girls the same age and in this strange time it is a relief to share the sort of shorthand that is only possible when somebody’s current challenges and experiences match so perfectly with your own. Daisy told me she was feeling – as we all are right now – such a mix of things and said ‘it’s weird to flit from one emotion to another just like that’.
I’m not suggesting for a second that motherhood is as hard or as frightening as a global pandemic, but Daisy’s comment put into words an experience that – for me at least – is at the centre of being a mum: the exhaustion of cycling at speed through powerful, contradictory emotions.
I’m sure we have all had uncomfortable moments in our lives when we have had to sit with conflicting feelings – the magic of falling in love alongside the reluctant discomfort that somebody is no good for you; the career you cherish alongside a daily resentment of your work; the family that holds you with a love so deep it feels uncomfortably binding at times; the friend’s advice that leaves you feeling supported yet challenged.
Before having Ella, I found these periods of internal indecision a challenge, but for the most part temporary and easily reconcilable into whichever of the two (or more) emotions my logical brain ultimately deemed to be dominant. These days though, I live in a state of almost constant duality, consumed simultaneously by multiple emotions. These opposing thoughts don’t exist as partial states taking up a proportionate position in my head: each is loud, detailed, fully-formed and jostling for space. I feel them entirely, completely, as two perfect wholes.
There is conflict in the low-key everyday, in the rush of both joy and disappointment when Ella wakes up from a nap – in a single instant I cannot wait to hold her, and am sad that my brief alone time has come to an end. In the hours of playtime that stretch deliciously, transporting me into that rarest of flow states as I watch her put the same toy in and out of a box, while simultaneously feeling a dragging boredom, a sense of itchy anxiety at all the parts of myself that are forever on pause. In the moment I leave the house on my own for a break, to go for a walk and clear my head and find myself with four feet: two that want to skip dizzily towards the horizon, and two that want to turn round and run back upstairs.
There are these fleeting everyday contradictions, and then there are bigger, weightier ones, things that lift me up and pull me down with equal force until I am stretched so thin I go numb. Over the past month, Ella has gone from breastfeeding every hour and a half, to having a quick feed or two if she is relaxed enough after her nap. In a few short weeks the beautiful oppression (there’s that conflict again) of constant breastfeeding has begun its inevitable evaporation. There is a whole world out there for her to explore. I love watching her independence blossom, and sensing that she needs the deep physical anchor of nursing less and less. My body is more my own again. I feel intoxicating freedom rising in my chest like a song.
And yet. In the same breath, this winding down of breastfeeding has been the most painful part of motherhood so far. It is bone-deep grief, that this utterly miraculous period of life-giving is so finite. I don’t feel sadness at our changing relationship – that feels entirely right and natural, and our bond evolves in new ways every day. My sadness is more selfish than that, and confined to my own physicality: from the day I became pregnant, my body has been this thing of wordless wonder, first as her home and then as her life source. When her milk is gone, it will be gone forever, and my body will be just my body once again. It will never again be for her, in this unquestionably deep way. So there it is in the winding down of feeding: a Freedom and a Loss, side by side, holding hands.
Living in two minds is exhausting. I think as mothers we often forget the emotional toll this takes – we look to broken sleep or constant carrying as the cause of our fatigue. For me, I think much of my tiredness is rooted in riding these endless waves of duality, constant like the sea.
The past ten months have taught me that this conflict exists everywhere, that it is the nature of things, of the world, of relationships, of existence. I needed motherhood, with the unavoidable intensity of its infinite contradictions, to teach me this – I’m sure many others work it out in other ways.
It is more uncomfortable than saying that life is many shades of grey; life is often black and white, but it can be both black and white at the same time. This is why our days in lockdown – especially if you are at home with children – are high-speed and stagnant, joyful and sad, loving and lonely. It is why I would discourage anybody from signing up to a belief system or religion that urges vast thorny subjects to become small and neat. It is why, after many months of trial and error, I have concluded that while it is tiring to live in two minds, it is far more tiring to keep up the constant fight required not to.
These days I am actively practising two-minded life. Ella is asleep right now. I miss her, and I hope she doesn’t wake up for hours!