Being Mum

Back to work tomorrow. And I don’t mind.

Today, of course, the sun is finally shining – a beautiful winter white shine. But I still don’t mind. R is his usual monosyllabic thrawn self – but I don’t mind that either.

I feel well. There is nothing – and this is a new experience for me – stressful about work. The kids and Mum are as healthy as they can be. The new cat does not pee all over the place. The chicken, sweet potato and coconut milk curry tastes better than I thought it would. And Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B Flat Minor is making me cry.

What more could I ask for?

It has been a mixed week. The school October holiday week here – and this new job’s 65 days’ annual leave means I get to be off too. I had a bit of a health hiccup but that has passed. Torrential rain and flooding curtailed trips out. The planned escape to York was scuppered by Ana’s suspect spots (do they get chicken pox more than once?) and Jamie’s projectile vomiting. But there was a trip to Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway to spend a day with my brother, Derek and his wife, Zoe and the children, Nairn and Mia. A chocolate factory workshop for pre-spotty Ana and pre-vomit Jamie. And then a log cabin in the wood; a hot tub dip in the rain; a rich fattening carbonara and lots of prosecco.

What I enjoyed is what I normally struggle with – and I say this knowing that it will probably surprise (if not shock) some and dismay others.

I enjoyed the domesticity of it all.

The making of food. The rhythm of my home. The children’s comings and goings. Their noise and nonsense and fighting and moaning and laughter. The older ones coming in late and flopping onto my bed to tell me all about what had just happened in their world. The loud raucous dinners with all 5 of them around the table – squabbling and shouting louder and loudest to get their stories told. I enjoyed long lies in the morning. Cooked breakfasts – even although I was cooking them. The smell of the laundry room and the hiss of the iron.

I have fought long and hard not to be defined by the too-handy descriptor ‘mother of five’. Maybe I have gone too far on occasion. In the process of convincing others, done too good a job of convincing myself – that the label somehow doesn’t fit.

People are fascinated by the ‘5 children’ thing. I have found myself in the middle of humdrum meetings – meetings where you are simply getting your job done – where you want to be visible only for the reason you are there. And then some idiot will mention ‘earth mother’ or ‘five’ or ‘want to know anything about children, ask Yvonne’.

They mean well. I think. And over the years I’ve become increasingly efficient dealing with it. A smile. A nod. And then a subject changed to business.

I know that my fecundity intimidates some. Challenges others. Puzzles even more. When you have 5 (I say ‘5’ – but it could be less) your fertility becomes a matter for public discussion.

In the beginning, the assumptions that were (and still are) made took the breath from me. I was (variously): procreating from a deep religious conviction (usually Roman Catholic in this neck of the woods – despite me being atheist); had no television in my house (cue laughter); was sex mad (more laughter); shouldn’t be working (said by the misogynists and by one infertile woman boss – to my face and in front of other workers); needed to work (because five children were expensive); was an earth mother (self-explanatory); had child-bearing hips (ditto); was overloading the planet and irresponsibly destroying resources (all by myself!); was wealthy (eh?); was poor (well… that would be the five wains then…); had them to different fathers (not true – but so what if it were?); was mad… I have been asked ‘why?’ (I have som many). I have been criticised for making that choice (aren’t there too many unwanted children – couldn’t I have adopted?).

I have had conversations which were completely unremarkable – until the other party discovers how many children I have given birth to. Women, in the main, feel intimidated. I can see it in their eyes. They shift away from me. They stop telling me their birthing stories or their son or daughter stories. Do they really think that I am judging them? That I am somehow holding myself out as a better mother just by virtue of me having 5?

Or – and this is clearly how some experience ‘me’ – that my fecundity is a statement that says something critical about their fertility choices. These are the mothers who suddenly feel a need to un-burden. To tell me how they always wanted more – but their partner stopped them; or there wasn’t enough time; or labour was difficult; or they just made a mistake and were sterilised without sufficient thought. To be honest, I am never sure with these ones whether the truth is that they feel I am so ‘odd’ that I must be placated and ‘normalised’ by their own stories of how they wanted to be like me too… It sometimes feels as though they are patting my head (poor demented soul that I am) and reassuring me that ‘your choices are not that odd – I wanted to have more too’. Or whether I really do touch some deep buried need they had to have more children.

And the childless – oh how they recoil from me. I have well and truly nailed my colours to the mast of ‘parenthood’. I must be rabid about procreation. I am obviously disapproving of their choices – or pitying their infertility.

What I am clumsily trying to explain is that there is no neutral reaction to the fact of the maternal me.

My fertility is always a signifier of something other; something more. It’s religious or political or it’s evidence of a warped response to the world or it’s just plain odd or it’s me saying something about other people’s choices.

The upshot? That I have spent a long working age hiding or ignoring the domestic me. And so it is that I find myself not entirely comfortable in my 5-children-ness.

This week I relaxed a bit. I enjoyed myself. I revelled in family – and in the fact that I am a mother.

Being a mother does not define me – or any mother for that matter. But it does form part of my identity. An important bit of me is ‘Mother’. Maybe the most important bit. I need to find a smarter way to bring this ‘mother’ out, into the light…

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23 thoughts on “Being Mum

  1. Well, well, well. Five = fecund? You don't know some of my friends then. Eight seems to be rather on the low side. Five's a mere starter course. And before anyone says anything about religion I'm an atheist too.

    I seem to have led a very sheltered life in that I've never come across the attitude towards apparent fecundity that you have outlined. Of course I'm not a woman so perhaps I've just been too far removed from it.

    The picture of domesticity that you have so warmly described almost made me feel nostalgic. Almost….. It certainly made me feel quite warm inside though.

    However it was the first three paragraphs that really made me feel happy for you.

  2. Five kids is one thing, but 65 days annual leave is positively obscene – it's almost as much I get in my job!

    I am always highly alert to the way that people (especially men, though at work women too) establish norms through banter and jokes.

    Good luck to you; plough your own and enjoy life for what it brings.

  3. Absolutely GB! When I was wee 5 wains was just an aperitif! 12 was not unusual. Funny how times change. I think this isn't my best post – I feel a bit unworthy having written it. It was meant to be about the feminism I imbibed. It turned a bit silly. And the reaction to 5 is usually short-lived – folk see and react to the whole person eventually.

  4. Speaking as one of five (all girls, as it happens) I got used to the odd raised eyebrow at school and college even half a century ago. But I enjoyed growing up in a larger than usual family and though we chose only to have two, it was just that, our choice, just as five was yours. For what it's worth, families seem to be getting larger again nowadays, from what I read recently.

    As GB says, the thing that really matters is that you are finding both work and family life satisfying and worthwhile, despite all the inevitable hiccups. That's great to hear.:-)

  5. Odd how people will refer to your family life at work….the old formalities precluded that, thank goodness.
    I have a feeling that because most women now have to work their fsamily situation enters the workplace too…unlike the days when the boss had a photo of his family on his desk and that was that.

    And why should you feel impelled to deny an important part of your life? You enjoy the family you have built around you…it doesn't define you.

  6. Lovely to hear about your soothing homely week. I love it when the brood are in too, and there are three different sets of music going and cars pulling into the drive. I still love their smells and drinking in the kitchen and putting on a coffee for Arrigo. Domesticity is a great narcotic – can I say that? A sort of fuzzy empowering state.

    I also smiled at your fecundity reactions. I laugh to think of the amount of times you must have had these comments tossed at you by people who can't be satisfied with their own lot – purely that. I haven't worked full-time for yonks so I don't get that. But if I am out there, at a writing thing for example, sometimes I like keeping all that history to myself. It is too easy to shock people into that stepping away thing, seeing the But How? on their faces, should you mention you have brought up four kids. I know immediately where the conversation will go because by some freak of nature I am still skinny, so that is held against me – that which is genetic!

    And as for birth talks I step back there too. I had my last in Ghana on my own practically – that just stops them in their tracks!

  7. Good for you, that you've made peace with the different parts of your identity. Being a parent is important, but it isn't (well, I think it shouldn't be) the only thing that defines us as people.

    I remember my reaction the first time I found out that you had five children – absolute awe! Children take time and effort and headspace, and the fact that not only do you have five of them but you've still managed to keep pursuing other goals in your life – well, that's pretty bloody fantastic, and it says to me that you're someone who lives life to its absolute fullest.

  8. Haha! 65 days IS positively obscene – and today I learned it is actually 67… Omg. I cannot admit that to colleagues who are working elsewhere!!
    It's probably laziness – but I suppose we all do a bit of the stereo-typing as a shortcut to 'understanding' someone.
    One of the biggest laughs I get is from the very common response: 'but you don't LOOK like you've got that many children!'
    Not sure what that many children is meant to do to you! Am I meant to look totally frazzled? Haha. If so I say it's the make-up!
    This post was a clumsy attempt to understand the tensions I often feel between my working persona and my home one. I didn't succeed to be honest. It's nobody else's 'fault' that the responses irritate me – and it's probably more about how I always feared that being seen as an 'earth mother' would be bad in the workplace. Then there's a wee bit impatience mixed in.
    I'm old enough now to know better really. At least I'm beginning to 'know better'.
    Thanks for the luck.

  9. I think you're right Perpetua. I have a couple of friends who have more than 3.
    I have noticed that many women my age chose (or it just happened that way) to leave child-bearing til now.
    I just started relatively young I suppose.
    I started at a time when my Uni friends were establishing careers and having fun. When I said I was pregnant the first time the response was a universal 'oh, that'll be your career over before it had even begun. That's a bit of a waste of a degree.' It wasn't true then and it isn't now. The limits that are imposed are sometimes external to us – we do what society tells us we can do. Of course sometimes we limit ourselves – when we tell ourselves 'I can't do that'. I know now that I was kicking back – rebelling really – when I decided that 'it wasn't over yet'. Bloody mindedness – it's what I'm good at!
    But life is better the older you get. You might not be healthier but a bit of insight and wisdom goes a long way toward peace.

  10. Such shallow answers, Yvonne, and quite wrong. We married at university and had our two by the time we were 25 and I've had 2 careers since then. It also means we had grandchildren while young enough to enjoy and do things with them, so win-win, really. 🙂

  11. Definitely a win-win! Mum and Dad are 68 and 71 respectively. I am really glad they have been young and healthy enough to enjoy my kids. They have taken them on holidays (without r and I ) for years. They all have fantastic memories of times spent abroad or down South with their Mamie and Papa.

  12. It's the old problem Fly. It takes a lot longer than 40+ years and some legislation to change ingrained attitudes. The covert discrimination is there – all around. And until you get to a position of relative seniority there remains that unspoken assumption that you'll be taking time off for the kids. That a mother is a liability.
    During my legal traineeship my female boss told me that (and this was in front of several male solicitors) she 'wouldn't work if she had children'. She would also criticise my clothes, my hair dye and anything else she happened to get her hands on. That was 1998. Not so very long ago.
    She met me in court several years after (2005) and apologised for effectively bullying me out (I left. I 'couldn't stand the heat of the kitchen' she'd explained at the time to anyone who asked 'why's Yvonne gone?' The implication being that I wasn't up to the rigours of 'the law' – because we know what a macho profession it is, thriving on the 'what doesn't break you makes you' type of mythology – obviously if you 'break' you weren't any use to the profession.). She had a list of reasons for her behaviour – some very good ones – I felt sorry for what she had been and glad that she realised her behaviour had been unacceptable. I still cannot forgive her. Bad me. Though it wasn't a bad move as it happens.
    There are two classes of lawyer in the provincial town offices – the 'part-timer' (always female) and the boss (invariably male or childless or hard-bitten and in denial of anything that smacked of weak womanhood). The part-timer is considered 'part-time' even if she actually works full-time hours – because full-time hours are seldom enough if you're going to prove you are a truly dedicated lawyer. I did a hybrid act – I took the slightly 'softer' Public route (though it can be just as bad) and chose to repell mentions of 'family' (until I felt secure enough).
    But work is just one bit of the equation.
    There is also a part of me that rejects the society-assigned 'role' which admitting you've 5 kids gifts you. Lots of assumptions are made. I've never liked assumptions.
    Maybe I am just thrawn.

  13. You are skinny!! You genetic miracle you!! Lol.
    This was a poor post from me Cat.
    Like you, I love having my kids around. And yes, domesticity IS a great narcotic – fantastic metaphor.
    I am just pissed off with the lazy assumptions that are made when people hear I've got 5.
    You and I need a birth talk of our own. I never liked the fuss of hospitals and machines; always preferred home (I had them too fast to be anywhere else) and I just love a funny birth story (so does GB! eh, GB?) I'm a freak of nature because I found it easy and fast. Even when they were 10lb plus. But that doesn't tend to go down well with a lot of folk who maybe would like to forget that birth doesn't always need to be medicalised.
    The truth is – we women are a whole load of things. Mother may be the best of what we can be and are. But it all goes into the mix. And ultimately it's the mix that makes us.

  14. You are spot on Yvonne. I missed my first child's birth because the hospital forgot to call me. Our second son was born at home. And yes there's a few stories arising from that! We also had a friend who, when the ambulance arrived, popped upstairs, ostensibly to the loo, and came down with the baby (and, no, she wasn't an 'earth mother').

  15. Sometimes Hell is other people.
    Why is there so often the rush to judgement by people? Often it is laziness I think but sod them Yvonne!

    Glad you had a great week. Domestic pleasures can be so fulfilling. Not all the time for me though.

    And I love Rachmaninov too. Have you heard Martha Argerich play him. She is stunning.

  16. Just looked Martha up. Wow. Absolutely stunning. Just listened to her playing Concerto 3 in D Minor.
    What would life be without music?
    You're right. Sometimes hell is other people. But you and I know that other people can be heaven too. It's a real bugger!

  17. Thanks to GB's latest blog post on Jaz, I have found your blog… and been enjoying a leisurely read of a few past posts too.
    Can relate to much of this one. As a professional working mother of four, always knew I wanted children, preferably five, and also to be a vet. I think I managed it all ok ( working in education with the 63 days holiday set up has been a huge help) – despite all the hurdles, prejudices, and I too revel in occasional bursts of domesticity. My son needed heart catheterisation this week and I spent hours at the hospital, then nursing him the next day. It seemed to be a lot of making him comfortable and cooking, but I loved a day at home playing Mum again…. and he is fine now.
    I am also filled with quiet joy that my youngest son is soon returning from a long OE…
    I am not an earth mother -but I need to work – financially and emotionally, but some deep inner part of me still wants to care and nurture.. lucky I have animals, and plenty of students around!

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