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…



With baby in primary 3 I realise with relief that I’ve just one last lap of competitive aspiring mumminess to endure.

Maybe ‘endure’ is the wrong word. I endured the first time round with rebel-eldest – when I didn’t know any better and when interrogatory assertions such as ‘what reading level is Meg? My (substitute the name of the precious – usually only – child) is just doing so well and is on level 4′ agitated me, making me feel that Megan wasn’t simply my daughter, but was really a signal of my worth as a mother. As if the worth of every remarkable thing she did – whether it was farting fragrantly or blowing her nose – was to be found in that competition between me and the other mummies. I was asserting my significance as a woman through the numerous qualities of my child. The ‘better’ the child, the more fabulous I could claim to be.
What utter bollocks.
What’s triggered this tirade?
Well…I’ve worked full-time for a long-time now. The down of this is that I get tired – and weekends are spent cramming the so-called ‘me-time’ and the ‘quality-time with the kids’ into 2 days.
The upside?
That I get to avoid the professional mummies. Those raptor-like companions of the school-gates. Hawkishly eyeing other women’s children for signs of weakness, inferiority. Consoling themselves that runny nose in P6 might be clever but really, she sniffs and snorts like a pig and is just so leadenly lumpish and fat (shock horror) for a 10 year old; that Oscar-Wilde-child is wonderfully theatrical but small, weedy, can’t play football. plays with the girls and is tres tres camp; that small-smurf looks like a hobbit and can’t count despite being 11yrs; that the beautiful auburn fairy child still can’t read and there’s no sign of learning support achieving anything with that one….
Occasionally, on a day spent working at home, I get to collect the wee ones from school. And I can feel the unspoken competition in every weasly word that’s spoken. Thing is, the little ‘digs’ at other people’s children are subtle. I’ve listened over many years and 5 children and can now translate the language of competition and envy:
Re runny nose for instance: ‘Gosh she’s just got so, well, so, big, hasn’t she’ (said with a benign smile and chilly darting eyes) ‘but just think, she’ll fit right in – being that size – when she gets to High School’ (said in a pruedo-comforting tone to runny nose’s mother who clearly, until that point hadn’t realised she needed to be comforted – implication being: runny nose is currently a misfit) ‘maybe she’s got allergies?’ (as runny nose sniffed again for the snorty millionth time) ‘well just think, the ugly duckling became a beautiful swan’…(very cruel when said about a girl – and by this stage, runny nose’s mum was clearly wrong-footed and puzzled by why she felt hurt).

Re Oscar-Wilde-child: ‘well, he’s soooo creative…but then that type of boy always is, aren’t they’ (said with same benign smile – recieved by O-W-child’s mother’s rictus-grin.
Anyway…I had the supermarket misfortune of meeting one of the competitive mummies yesterday. She decided she’d start with me and my black mini-skirt and my deliberately outre jewellery: ‘Yvonne’ (said with exclamation and dragged out over several imginary syllables) ‘Gre-at to see you! And you’re looking fab! You’ve got your legs out! My! You’re brave! I just feel too old for skirts like that now!’ (she’s younger and thinner than me). ‘Just love the earrings! Are they Megan’s?’ (mmmm no – their mine – Megan covets them, but the implication was: mutton dressed as lamb…).
The mummy then started on familiar lines. She didn’t know where time went to. She’d sooooo many after-school clubs to take little mitsy and bitsy to. But it was worth it, wasn’t it (rhetorical question as a) she didn’t pause for my answer and b) she knows none of my kids (at any rate, the ones who are the same age as her’s) have involved themselves in ponies or dancing or mini-theatre or …). The conversation moved to the contents of her shopping basket (she had fish fingers and a pizza) – she brought it up, not me – and she explained how she was ‘slumming it tonight’ they ‘usually ate organic’ and she ‘hand-prepared it all’ as it was ‘just so much better for the kids’…
The conversation stressed me. I wanted to sit her down and tell her to chill, take it easy, it wasn’t a competition. But reckoned that would have been as effective as a chocolate teapot.
Oh maybe it’s me.
Maybe – as Mum once pointed out – I intimidate other mothers. I work; have 5 children; qualifications; wear make-up; generally look non-plussed or relatively laid-back… Mum says I look as if I have it all…
But I’ve always thought that parenthood was more about making sure your kids were equipped to eventually leave you; childhood was to be happy, enriching, relaxed – a time of exploration and discovery. I don’t want to organise every moment of my child’s life. Aside from the fact that actually I’m too lazy to do that – I think they all need space to be children and to learn for themselves. That means making a den in the woods at the top of the garden. It means going fishing and hunting rabbits. It means learning to walk home and not expecting a mummy-taxi to turn up. It means writing. Making models from a variety of things they find in the house – themselves – and making a mess which they have to clear up. It means that they have to think for themselves and fill their own time. And when they express interest – music or football or rugby or theatre or…. – then they get to go do whatever it is that the interest demands (but only one interest at a time).
It’s the best I can do. I hope that they are happy. I’ve watched two of them reach adulthood – with some bumps along the way – and realised that, largely, my job is done. I’m proud of them. But they’re under enough pressure, finding their way in this life, without carrying the weight of my reputation, acting as some measure of my self-worth….