It turns out it’s pretty hard work, this being a mother of three and working full time. This should come as no surprise, because it was pretty hard work being a mother of two fairly independent, slightly older children. There was always too much to do and too little time. I always felt pulled in several directions, marking books when I felt I should be holding hands, planning lessons when I should be reading stories, working on my laptop when I should be playing games. I felt guilty often. I wished I had more time, a less demanding job that I could still love as much, more arms, more hours.
Adding a baby into the mix has meant at least quadrupling the work, the neediness, the organisation, and the guilt. Definitely the guilt. I start my mornings with infinite patience. I listen to spellings, make breakfasts, pack bags, remember which child has swimming and which has dodgeball, which child has homework due and which one has class assembly. I make bottles and write notes in planners. I plait hair and line shoes up by the door. And I hold the baby or stalk him, frantically applying make up and drying hair as I go, as he crawls around relentlessly pursuing things he can’t have. By 7.45, the patient, kind mummy has run for the hills and in her place is one who shouts all too often about shoes and teeth and being late. Afterwards, as I throw the baby and all the bags into the car, I feel guilty that I didn’t keep my patience. I run back and give kisses, hugs, love – but I never feel it’s enough. Guilt accompanies me all the way through nursery drop off – he always cries and adds another layer – and to work. After work it’s more hours of tasks, of logistics, of work, of splitting myself three ways and so often failing.
It’s easy to get taken up with all of that. All that work, all those tasks, all that guilt. Because being a parent – and at least attempting to be a good one – is getting to the end of the day and counting up all those tiny ways that you failed that day. The chocolate you allowed them to have. The time you didn’t spend with them. The story you didn’t read. The extra episode of television you allowed them. The times tables you didn’t make them learn. The patience you didn’t have and the fear that you aren’t doing enough.
It’s easy for that to become all that there is – for all those things that you don’t do and that you still have to do – to overwhelm you, to become everything about being a mother. Because motherhood is a hard, testing, guilt-ridden, sometimes isolating road. But this weekend made me feel differently. It made me remember that all that isn’t even a tiny part of the true story of motherhood.
I spent the weekend in hospital with the baby. He’s been ill all week with a chest infection, travelling that path that babies and children often take of ups and downs, of seeming better and then lapsing again. It’s been a frustrating week of logistics – of working out who takes time off, of seeing doctors, of forcing calpol and antibiotics into him, of nights of worry. By Friday night I was walking the floor of a tiny hospital room, unable to stop either the crying or the sudden, more frightening, deep sleeps. After a diagnosis of a severe chest infection and some IV antibiotics, I put him in his hospital cot and lay down beside him, thinking of all those parents for whom this is a daily reality. All those things I think about on a daily basis – those logistics, the endless tasks, the guilt – they fade to meaningless nothing beside the sight of a baby in a hospital cot.
In the darkness of that night, alone in the hospital as his temperature spiked and doctors and nurses came and went in the dim room with their charts and their whisperings and their jargon, I held his small, fever wracked body and listened to his laboured breaths and felt the greatest helplessness I’ve ever known. I cried in the darkness, looking down at his flushed little face, his perfect, rounded, naked limbs, this baby that we made from scratch. And when in the morning, when two hours before his temperature had finally come down and we had both slept, I watched him wake up, look around, and crawl two paces towards me across the cot, I was drowned in love and relief.
Of course I’ll still feel the stress, the guilt, the pressure of the to do list, the despair over packed lunches and dishwashers that haven’t been emptied and PE kit that I forgot to wash. But the darkness of those hours in the hospital and the desperation I felt – I don’t think they’ll leave me. Because being a parent is about all of those small, difficult things, those logistics and those lists, but it’s mostly about love. Love and a desperate desire to protect and nurture these beings, big or small, old or young, that we have been fortunate enough to bring into the world and who map, precisely and miraculously, our reasons for being every day.