Greetings Villagers. I am so pleased that we have arrived at this topic. I wanted us to be fully in the flow of these weeks before we approached it, but then on day 1, as we all introduced ourselves, it quickly became the topic of conversation. Zoe wrote ‘I really lack the language to talk to others about how radical the “work” of mothering feels to me’, followed swiftly by Aimee E: ‘I do find it hard to articulate the motherhood experience’. Naomi too – in your writing and teaching, I have often heard you describe mothering as the most creative act of your life. It is hard to put into words how big, profound, and complex this thing is that we are doing every day, and that our society at least here in the UK seems to expect us to carry out quietly in the margins, or for each brief public moment – in London at least – apologetically.
When Ella was 6 months old, I confessed to a friend that I had started working again. I didn’t really know why it felt like a confession, but I suppose it was at odds with the blissful, timeless year off (lol) that I had imagined, as well as being difficult – practically speaking – to achieve alongside breastfeeding. She nodded and said, ‘well of course: you’re not thick – you need to use your brain!’. This was meant as a compliment from a very wonderful person, but the way it made me feel instantly illuminated the reason that my news had felt like a confession. In those first few months as a mother, bubbling beneath the surface tedium and monotony of the same toys, the same gurgled conversations, the same failed buggy naps, the same night wakings, and the cups of coffee cooling just out of reach, I had stumbled across something huge and vast, wordlessly rich and deep. Put simply, mothering felt like the most important thing I had ever done, and – to respond more directly to my friend’s comment – the most I had ever had to use my brain in my entire life, in endlessly strange, challenging and new ways. By going back to work so soon, I realised I felt as though I was betraying this discovery, conforming precisely to this common interpretation of the situation – that motherhood is brainless, and that I needed the faster-paced cerebral existence of work. This is partly true, and if I’m honest becoming a mother has shown me just how much I need work in my life – days with a tiny babe are often long, lonely, and single-note, punctuated by the occasional rush of love or discovery so overwhelming that a week of boredom dissolves in a second. But there is another bigger and more powerful current of energy humming beneath it all, as we shape, steer, and nurture the hearts and souls of the future.
During covid, each time we plunged back into another lockdown with Ella, at 9 months, then a year, then 18 months, I was reassured by those around me: She won’t remember any of this, don’t worry. But I did worry. In those early days, it isn’t memories that we are building; we are fostering the conditions for happiness, teaching a fledgling brain how to love, enabling a mind to knit itself together and helping a personality to develop, all in an environment of safety. I found it troubling that Ella saw nobody and nothing beyond the neighbourhood cat, a dog in the park – all moments that I strung out, desperately looking for things that might qualify as ‘an experience’ in her young, blank, lockdown life. To our children, as babies, but for the rest of their lives, we are an anchor, a secure tether that allows for exploration and discovery. We are building, neurologically and emotionally, the next generation. How tomorrow’s leaders, politicians, activists, and citizens, behave and treat the world and each other, is a direct result of how we parent now: To mother, is to craft the future.
And what of that creativity that Naomi mentioned? There is a reason that I use the word ‘craft’, and that is because the actions we take as parents are the subtle and gentle brushstrokes of an artist. I speak as an inexperienced mother, with a three-year-old and a four-month-old. I welcome thoughts from the more seasoned mothers amongst us! With my daughter though, we have had to draw on our creative resources to navigate complex and intense behaviour, from her year-long rejection of her dad, to frequent ear-splitting, throat-curdling levels of rage. For me, the creative work that Naomi mentioned, lies in crafting a response to difficult behaviour that stems from a combination of understanding its origins, and focussing on a clear desired outcome. In other words, a more delicate and intelligent steering a young mind than simply ‘telling her off’.*
As an everyday example of what I mean: I am at home with Ella trying to get her ready to go to the playground. She is lying face down on the ground screaming the word ‘no’ over and over at a volume that sounds as though she may soon require surgery on her vocal chords. I could make a beeline for compliance, and bully her into doing as I am asking. The thing is, I am very much a people pleaser, and ‘because I want you to’ has always felt like a fairly reasonable justification for anybody asking me to do something. I love working for someone, I have loved working for some not-all-that-nice people, I love rules, I love doing what I am told, but I also know from experience that in the end compliance doesn’t necessarily make me feel good or happy in any lasting way. For this and for many other reasons, I find it hard to consider simply ‘making’ Ella do as she is told, a parenting success on any level.
In these more complicated situations I try to understand the cause of her behaviour, and use that knowledge to consider how I should manage it to achieve the desired result. This ‘desired result’ is not her ‘doing as she is told’, but rather her feeling able to communicate with me more calmly as she gradually learns to regulate her emotions. It is likely that before these tantrums materialise, Ella has been socialising, on a play-date for example, with somebody of a similar age. In these situations Ella’s tendency is to conform, to agree, to be polite, and shyly to bury her own agency. I watch as she hands toys over, allows them to be snatched from her hands, and agrees to play how the other child wants her to play. Later, when we are alone and she is yet again being asked to do something, this time by me, her frustration erupts and she violently reasserts herself. LUCKY ME.
Ella is now at an age where we can talk about what it was like to spend time with a friend who isn’t yet very good at sharing, or how it feels when somebody insists on her playing in a certain way. This, coupled with long periods of play at home where I allow her to take the lead (and remind her that it doesn’t feel nice to be bossed around when she experiments with imitating the behaviour she has observed) is slowly helping her to tell me when she is tired or sad or feels overwhelmed. To have my only-just-three-year-old come over to me for a cuddle at a friend’s house and tell me that X is not sharing and it is making her sad, that feels like a parenting success for me. And on the days when Ella has been able to articulate some of what she is experiencing, there have been markedly fewer tantrums.
Although it may appear to be a slower process, if this sort of approach achieves the desired result, it is incomparable to one that simply breeds compliance. If we understand and meet our children where they are, at the point of understanding of which they are currently capable, instead of viewing them crudely as half-formed adults who cannot yet fully do the things we are asking, we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking, and new ways of seeing the world. In these small moments, we incrementally layer up the paint, engage with the art in child-rearing, and put ourselves in an interesting position of simultaneous student and teacher. This isn’t the daily grind of a downtrodden buggy pusher, this is intellectual work equal to managing a company or a packed e-mail inbox, and our ability to do this constantly without a break, on little sleep, and frequently with an utter absence of personal space (!) is something we must remember to recognise proudly, creatively, and with a steadfastness of spirit.
*Of course there are simpler situations where poor behaviour and boundary-pushing most certainly requires a telling off, but being able to differentiate between simple rudeness and a more complicated emotional release, is where our detailed knowledge of our children comes to bear. I also find that by managing the more layered situations gently, I have the confidence and self-resolve to exert firmer discipline when that is required.