In the spirit of writing this whilst two kids are napping, I’m going to say: Hi, I’ve missed writing, I’ve missed connecting with you all in this way, I hope you know how flipping brilliant you are, today of all days, as conflicted or not as you may feel about it all: International Women’s Day (I unintentionally timed this well, didn’t I?)
And that’s it by way of intro. I’m diving in.
Things I have worked on or realised over the last 6 months since having Leila
Three kids is going to stretch me more than two did (and two more than one did), so I can’t compare my previous return to work dates or form to my current reality. There are more children, therefore, less time for anything else, including paid work. I will go back but it might take longer to get back to my previous time fraction (and I am aware I am privileged for this to be possible). Having said that, I need to have a sense of hope about ‘What’s Next’ for me once I’m less intensively needed by my kids. Exactly what it will be doesn’t have to be locked in, but I need faith that different aspects of my identity will be able to come back in and that I will fulfil other roles again in the future, rather than just abstract platitudes that ‘I’ll get back to it’. Not clear enough for me. (Did I mention I have a preference for control and certainty?)
My partner is not the patriarchy. The contrast in our circumstances since having kids feels so specifically unfair that I tend to transpose structural gender inequality onto him, but it is not his personal fault. Having said that, it is important I voice any difficult feelings as they arise so we can work through them rather than stay in the space of ‘martyr’ (which feels more comfortable and which is what has been more commonly modelled for me in my own childhood but which is not going to serve either of us in the end)!
It is complicated when you and your partner’s personal freedoms become a ‘zero sum game’. Negotiating what is fair and respectful of each other’s needs is going to be an ongoing part of our relationship in a way it just wasn’t before multiple kids. BUT - if I don’t prioritise my own pleasure, even when it doesn’t seem strictly necessary, or I don’t even know exactly what brings me pleasure, or I feel guilty…. then I will in fact feel worse in the long run. For me, finding things I enjoy and ensuring I fit them in is a process of giving myself permission for it to be messy (not always others will approve or encourage me – including my kids!), but I will always be glad I took the time away from the family and it will make me less resentful of the time Dylan takes. (Are we noticing a theme here? If so it’s cos he went skiing in Japan for 10 days for his 40th bday. So, yes.)
Intimacy and fun / humour are connected. Where one wilts, so will the other.
Not everything is as important as everything else. Not all important things are urgent. Not all important things look important (see Playing Trucks). Housework is not as important as mental health. I am continuing to build the muscle of ‘triaging’ what really matters, when my tendency has been to just go harder to meet the external demand. This is painful at times when it means I need to tolerate the discomfort that comes up when I have to let something go that I previously would have been able to do/manage/squeeze in. But, as one of my yoga teachers has taught me, just when you think you’ve grown so much you can’t grow any more – you can. Just when you think you’ve softened, there is always more to soften. Go deeper. Go quieter. Listen closer. You always can.
Accepting help isn’t straight forward. It’s not my fault I’ve been socially and culturally conditioned to believe the children and house are my responsibility. It makes sense I would develop a need for control that it might be challenging to slowly ease my white knuckled grip of. My love language is details and relinquishing this to others means I have to accept details matter but are not always crucial. Equally, the kids typically want / need /prefer their mother to anyone else. This is tiring, and deserves recognition – I do an awful lot of the emotional heavy lifting and this is invisible but very significant work.
There is not one way to do sleep, feeding, settling etc. Different babies meet you in different stages of life and ‘what works’ will also change. Consulting too many external voices and ‘experts’ can lead to further self-doubt. The only person I need to check in with is me (and maybe my babe and partner) - and if it’s working ok for us today, then that’s all that matters.
If in doubt, do a Yoga Nidra or take 10 deep breathes rather than having another coffee. (Do as I say not as I do, since I am rarely responsible and generous enough to myself to do this. But I know I feel so much better when I do.)
The incredible inaugural M/OTHER at The Wheeler Centre last weekend was an example of me choosing to ignore all the challenging bits about getting out of the house and instead prioritise what fills me up and Just Do It. It was full of bright, clever women, warmth and intimacy stemming from shared experiences both good and bad. It also introduced me to the beautiful music of Claire Tonti and her album Matrescence, which she told me just poured out of her after recovering from the birth and early months of motherhood of her first child. I so recommend you give it a listen.
The festival achieved the aim of organisers Bec Kavanagh and Jamila Khodja: to bring together all those already having interrelated conversations in very different sectors/contexts that involve mothers: being one, choosing not to be one, being unable to become one, having others limit your choices once you are one, +++. (Sidenote: attending also made me beam on the inside with pride for my little 27 year old self who similarly conceived and birthed (pardon puns) two Wheeler Centre events sharing women’s stories: TEDxWomen conferences in 2011 and 2012, featuring guests such as Clare Bowditch, and how in awe I am at the endurance of the messages I was trying to share there, about self-determination and honest conversations.)
The main message I took away from M/OTHER was that one antidote to the harmful ‘flattening’ of the experience of motherhood, mothers and mothering, and the imprisoning effect of stereotypes and the pressure they put on women, is to continue talking, about everything: our experiences, our shame, our pain, our questions. To de-flatten and to legitimise diverse experiences through their being articulated, spoken out loud (or whispered if need be), claimed.
The program’s conversations, guests and topics also showcased the increase in acceptance and prominence of women expressing, individually and collectively, ambivalence about their reproductive potential, and choices (or lack thereof). The contradictory ambivalence at keeping the patriarchy alive by ‘choosing’ to be a primary carer, and yet, finding real meaning and fulfilment in (some) care work. Fascinating stuff!
In a panel on perinatal mental health expertly facilitated by Eleanor Jackson (whose arresting book of poetry I picked up and am thoroughly enjoying dipping into), I nervously punched out a meandering question on my phone in Notes whilst jiggling Leila in the back of the room. It was something I’ve been turning over and over in my mind since my psychiatric stay with Jonas:
How much of the extreme emotions I felt/am feeling are a completely normal human response to a profoundly challenging experience (parenting multiple children alone in a pandemic and in a way that causes me to reckon with many of the core beliefs of the individualistic capitalist society I was socialised in and which I internalised?) (ie. ‘Relax your standards’, ‘Go with the flow’, ‘You won’t get paid for any work’, ‘Your kids always come first’, ‘Your KPIs are vague, very long term and thankless’ etc.)
Is my response the ‘pathology’, or is it the society and structure (or lack thereof) around mothers that has a lot to answer for?
I may meet the diagnosis for certain mental health labels (anxiety, depression, some OCD traits) but am I solely responsible for doing the work to find this all a bit easier, or is society a bit responsible too?
Image courtesy of @weirdmomart
Amongst her questioning guests and commentary, Jackson made a searing observation that just about made me punch the air: Why is there not an existential gravity and merit to female depression (particularly complex emotions in early motherhood) as there is prescribed to similar episodes in men? Why is matrescence not more widely known about, taught in school, revered for the powerful impact it can have on a women’s capacity?
Motherhood is so undervalued. And for me, becoming a mother has revealed our society for just how flawed it is. How unfair, how cruel, how corrupt, how bizarre.
And yet. And yet. Mothers give me such hope.
Case in point: a fellow mum approached me after the M/OTHER session to thank me for my question and to say how deeply she related to the relevant internal struggle. She then shared a piece she has written for RMIT that presents a compelling argument for workplaces to more readily and seriously recognise parental leave for the up-skilling and professional development season that it truly is, which reminded me of my clever friend’s LinkedIn update after her second bub, see below.
Reconciling my Desire to Improve Things (see related desire, Control) with Acceptance of Things Just As They Are is another theme I have written about and which my yoga practice and spiritual journey (cringe) have returned me to time and time again. But I was struck just today by a breakthrough I wanted to share: I can be someone who wants a lot out of myself and of life, and yet not suffer in pain throughout that desire when it is not always possible to achieve, if I start from a place of Already Enough. If my starting perspective is: I am Enough. I Do Enough. I love Enough. I am there Enough. And I really practice saying that to myself in the mirror and with a hand on my heart and reprogramming my automatic thinking whenever my brain says ‘You didn’t do enough. You aren’t enough.’ Really feel into it being true that I am, and have been, from the moment of my own birth, completely Enough. From there, I can move forwards, stretch out in aspiration, yearning or desire but it is not in response to a deficit. It is from a place of nothing to prove, no explanation needed, no fatal flaw to make up for.
If any of this resonates, or if you try it and wanna let me know - I love hearing from you. Just hit reply.
A Heartfelt Micro Retreat proposal
It is my intention to bring together a group of about 5-6 of us in Byron Bay from 6-9 July 2023 (for 3 nights, with the choice to come for only 2 if you prefer) to share in each other’s excellent company, practice some intelligent movement (yoga, pilates) hike up to the lighthouse (the most easternly point of Australia), eat delicious food, have a facial or massage and enjoy having to organise exactly NOTHING (except book flights). Zero mental load. Great circle chats. Hopefully some sunnier weather than Melbourne (if that’s where you’re based - all are welcome!)
Cost is dependent on numbers but my intention is to book a really beautiful house (below for the vibe) that will provide enough space for us to practice together for 40-60 mins in the morning in a common area, and for us to be able to have some alone time when we choose. It is likely to be between $1000-1200 all inclusive except flights.
Please hit reply to this email to let me know if you are interested, definitely in, or have any questions. It will be the first 5-6 names.