Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Blame and Grief

Last week we were minding a baby, and from time to time she cried a little. It didn't bother me, except on Wednesday. On Wednesday, I felt angry; and when she cried, I wanted to blame somebody. I couldn't blame her; she's too little. So I blamed other things. For a while I blamed my own kids. If only they wouldn't play with the baby and make her so tired; if only they were a little more willing to walk another block or four while we settled her in the pram; if only they would just for five little minutes shut the hell up.

Then I blamed myself. Perhaps I took her out for too long; or held her upright when she wanted to lie flat; or lay her down when she wanted to sit up; or put her in the cot when she wanted a cuddle; or put her in the sling when she wanted to kick her legs on the floor. I blamed my floppy old body that is tired from hauling babies and toddlers around and resented carrying her in the sling all day. The previous day I had hauled her and a two year old and two backpacks for a mile; and on Wednesday I felt it, and I blamed my eco-pride that meant we walked not drove.

Meanwhile it's school holidays so my older two are home; and after a week of four kids at my side and a toddler with the runs and the baby in the house and cooking with my arms outstretched as she nestles in the sling, I also blamed my streak of perfectionism that drives me to make something nice for dinner and which makes caring for four children so difficult at times.

But late in the day, after all this angry blaming, I finally recognised my sadness.

Wednesday was my mother's birthday and because she died so long ago, nobody remembered. Tired or not, I waded through the day holding onto the baby like a life preserver. She cried for only a little while, but I was in such a hole that I played the blame game for hours; and still I held her close. As I breathed in her scent, hour after hour, slowly I realised I wasn't really angry. I just felt utterly bereft.

My mother and I fought constantly. We never really got along; even as a little girl I lived in opposition. Yet other children loved her. As I grew into adolescence and adulthood, I watched kids flock to her. They would crowd around her and tell her their secrets; they would nestle in and listen to stories; they would kneel beside her wheelchair, bumping against the footplates, and play with her shoelaces.

She died years before I had children of my own. She never met her grandchildren, and she never saw me become the adult I am now. A decade later, I find myself beginning to realise we are no longer in opposition, and I am no longer defined against her. I may not be her, but somehow I too have become one of those women children tell stories to, the sort of person who spends a party showing a four year old guest how the kitchen scales work, how to use the oven timer, how to make the apple machine spin. I know when a baby needs a feed or a sleep; and choose to spend days rocking a friend's little one who needs to snooze in this draughty old house that is not her own.

When this baby cried on Wednesday, instead of finding someone to blame perhaps instead I could admit the long-reaching tentacles of loss, and name them as the source of my anger. The baby, my kids, my own self: they didn't really bother me at all.

Instead, it was grief, pure and simple: my missing my mother's floppy grey cowl-necked jumpers and her tiny spotted hands; my remembering the way she used to run her fingers through her short thick hair; my yearning for her long-gone fisherman's smock, the pockets stuffed with crumpled tissues, the stub of a pencil and the little battered notebook in which she recorded the birds she saw; my recalling so many birthdays so long ago, and wondering which of her apple cakes she would have liked me to cook; and my slow realisation that perhaps the best present I could give her is this: to hold a friend's baby, to pat the baby's bottom, to pace the hall up and down, up and down, and to sing as she settles into sleep.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I'm enjoying a babymoon, dreamily in love with a little one. I'm drinking in the smell of the back of her neck, the sound of her trilling, the softness of her thighs. It's not my own, alas. But this fortnight, a friend is recovering from radioactive iodine treatment, which means she cannot spend time with her little one; and while her partner is at work I am caring for their girl. What a gift!

Every morning she is dropped off and has a cuddle in my arms. We go for a walk, and she sleeps in the pram; she wakes and chugs down her bottle, smiling all the while. Tummy full, she lies on her back and grabs her feet; she examines her toes, or chews something interesting. Later, I strap her into the sling and we hang out the washing, dust the house, or pick beans and figs from the garden.

This little one chuckles at every tickle and blurt. Lying in a pram under a shady tree, she stretches her arms to the dancing leaves and sings with happiness. In the sling, her body nestles into mine and my heart skips a beat in sheer delight.

I watch her and remember how much I have learned.

I struggled to love and make time for my first. I was the first of my friends to have children; I hadn't held a baby until I my own. I didn't understand that she needed to be near all day; she couldn't be left for hours while I did Important Things. Worse, I had no emotional capacity to offer what she needed; I was so drained that the very idea of holding her often made me cry.

But she taught me well. Slowly, I learned to hold her; slowly I learned to stay in eyesight and wait until she slept before hanging out the washing. With my second and third, I learned these lessons more perfectly; and my capacity for love grew vastly.

Paradoxically, it is only now I have three kids of my own that I have the time and energy to add a fourth. When I heard that friends were struggling to find a carer for their child, I offered at once. There is plenty of room in our lives for a little one – and the rewards are so abundant, as I knew they would be, that I feel almost selfish in offering.

So I want to say thank you, my sweet sparrows, for teaching me so well, and for showering me with gifts:-

The gift of baby time: I have learned that there is always time enough. We can watch a baby kick her legs, we can sit for hours and croon and sing. We are surrounded by great oceans of time, and all that needs to be done will be done; there is no need to rush. My children taught me to slow down and fall into the infinite universe of a baby's eyes; they taught me to savour it.

The gift of generosity: I have learned that love breeds love. Not one of my girls has uttered a word against this baby who has borrowed their mother's attention; instead, they have adored her and speak of her as their sister. Again and again they show me that love is expansive, generous, infectious; love generates love.

The gift of cuddles: I have learned to love with my body as well as my words; now I'll hold a baby close against me for hours at a time. For the most part, this is love enough for a little one; and their loving body close against mine feeds me no end.

The other morning, a friend and I took a walk with the baby. He held her up to little trees and ran her fingers through soft leaves; he paused under dappled light and talked about shadows. We stopped for coffee, and other patrons dropped by to admire and make eyes at the little one; she is neither of ours, but we took full credit and glowed with pride.

These two weeks have become a joyful holiday, a delightful break from the norm. And once again I find myself taking lessons from a baby, who reminds me that we have time in abundance; that love abounds; that everything is fascinating; and that babies need nothing but the world.

PS Years ago I read Annie Dillard's stunning autobiography, An American Childhood, in which she wrote that her mother referred to her children as 'my sweet sparrows'. The phrase must have stuck somewhere deep, because lately, perhaps a decade later, I find myself blurting it out at groups of children; it so perfectly describes a group of little people hopping around my ankles, cheeping frantically, and stealing the crumbs from my plate.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mrs Perfect, Slight Reprise

Mrs Perfect: As usual, someone said it better than you.

Me: At least I'm willing to admit it, and share the link!

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