Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The new you

Today I was standing in the toilets at my daughter’s dance studio putting on some mascara, in the vain hope that it would make me look more awake, when one of the women who works there stepped out of a cubicle.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, stepping aside so she could get to the sink. “One of those things I never seem to manage to do before leaving the house in the morning...”

“I know,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m not ready to have children yet, because I see all the mothers here and I know what it’s like. So hard to maintain your own life.”

“It’s still your own life,” I told her. “It’s just a different life.” And part of me believed me — in fact knows that this is life, real life, perhaps more real than I ever would have known it otherwise (in the best and worst senses of the word).

I sometimes find myself arcing up at this notion of “maintaining your own life”, perhaps because I feel its sting: the implied criticism levelled at women seen as losing themselves in mothering. Not that this was the tone of the woman I've mentioned — it wasn't at all — but I have felt that pressure to prove that I can readily separate myself out from my kids without missing a beat as if it shows some kind of strength of character, some self-respect.

But, at the same time, another part of me felt a little disingenuous with the “different life” comment — like I’d just trotted out one of those lines us all-knowing parents employ to hearten prospective parents.

I knew exactly what she meant about that struggle to do your own thing — and admit there are times when I feel completely absorbed by pointless imaginings of what I might be achieving if I didn’t have kids.

Last weekend I had one of those days when I had work deadlines looming, but the day was dominated by the kids' various activities. I spent the whole weekend feeling hamstrung, not quite able to get at the thing preoccupying me (workwise) and struggling to sink into just being present with the kids. Those are my most miserable days — the ones when I really feel like I’m failing on all fronts.

“Oh, I know I want to have children,” my dance studio friend assured me. “That it’s probably the most beautiful thing you could do in life…”

“You know, people without children have good lives too,” I said. It’s an obvious thing to say. And true. But also something I feel I can say with complete authority now, having been on both sides of the equation — before and after children.

As I’ve said before, now that I know what parenting asks of us, I have more sympathy than ever with the choice not to enter into what is an altogether more intense and intensive life.

But now that I’m here, I can’t separate my life out from that of my family in that convenient way that the modern world likes us to do. By that I don’t mean that I don’t relish spending time alone (which I do!), that I don’t value my time with friends or that I have lost sight of my own interests and career. It doesn’t mean that I want to talk about my kids all the time. It doesn’t even mean that I wouldn’t mind the occasional pedicure.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I refuse to pretend that mothering hasn’t changed me — which it has, entirely. In some ways for the better; in some ways, no doubt, for the worse. Whatever I do or say or think has, absorbed within it, awareness of this altered reality.

And so, yes, it is a different life. In some ways less free. In some ways more. The "most beautiful thing you could do"? Perhaps.


Damon Young said...

I had a very similar discussion yesterday with my sister-in-law (who doesn't have kids).

Ruth and I were talking about the anvil-juggling act of parenthood, work, marriage, and the like. Whine, groan, lament.

And then I added, quite sincerely: "Of course, it's SO much better than not having kids."

And I was right.

katiecrackernuts said...

Amen - as she bemoans the fact that even as I sunk into bed last night I was jotting notes down for coming Girl Guide programs, had just finished a load of ironing and put it away, done a wee bit of feather dusting - that absentminded kind where you're just poking things with the feather duster and hoping it looks cleaner - dinner, washing, etc. And you know, I was feeling rather smug because I'd managed to bucket the washing water out onto the garden (in the dark), gone for a run and wiped out the shower after the last person had used it. Small things. Small wins.

Anonymous said...

Last night my son just couldn't get to sleep, he'd had an uncharacteristic daytime sleep and it had completely thrown him out. Unfortunately his parents were both a bit under the weather and wanted to lie in bed reading. So he got into our bed between us, we took turns reading to him and reading our own books, and periodically he'd say "I lub you Muuum, I lub you Daddy, Mummy you lub Daddy? Daddy lub Mummy" etc etc etc. So while I really genuinely wished he get into his own flipping bed and sleep so I could stretch out and read my grown up books, I also really liked him being there, hugging his arms around my head and grinning at us, and I think the challenge of writing or talking about parenthood is explaining the both/and nature of the juggle.

Rachel Power said...

Isn't that it? It is a state of constant ambivalence. Kids cause you so much irritation, often for the very same reason they are causing so much joy. So difficult to describe, but that bedtime story does so beautifully!
I got into a taxi with this great Ethiopian driver the other day. He said: "You have kids?" He seemed very pleased with my answer. "Ah, what is life without kids?" he went on. "People get in my cab and tell me they don't want kids, I say 'Why? What you going to do with your life? You go to cafes, you go to bars. Then what? It gets boring!' Kids are life!" I had to smile, and admire his openness. It was kinda refreshing. We are all so careful around this subject -- and rightly so. But I also thought, jeez, that cab needs a sign that says "Beware non-parents!"
And Katie -- they sound like big wins to me. Big! You even got a jog in there? Phew!

Pia said...

It's an interesting topic, and the first of yours I've felt able to respond to Rache - and I won't say much as I'm supposedly writing a keynote conference presentation (AAARGH!) but - in the spirit of breaking down binaries... there is not just choosing to have kids/not have kids, there's the age you're at, there's the shifts taking place in your social world - your very existance, to varying degrees - when those around you are or are not aligned with your choices or circumstances, there's the fact that 'control' of 'your life' may slip easily away whether you have children or not, and there is the challenging swirl of emotions that surround the questions of whether you are actualy making choices you're comfortable with... and how you respond when you feel the choices are not entirely in your hands. Obviously there comes a point when it's not a simple conversation around 'have no kids = be able to have or do whatever you want; have kids = have restrictions but the wonderfully rich experience of parenthood'. And what do we mean by 'having kids'? Possibly sometimes that actually means something much broader, an experience of sharing or of being in the world not summed up by the idea just of parenting. I know that's not what you're saying at all, but I - because I'm sensitive around these questions at the moment, as you've so kindly and often lent an ear to - did sense a kind of oppositional construction in there that i wanted to respond to... now back to that conference presentaton... xxx p

Damon Young said...

I agree with the spirit of this.

But it's also important to recognise the transformative influence of parenthood; the curious commonwealth of experience, which those without kids can't quite grasp.

Of course, it's not unique in this. We might say the same of other profound experiences like love, violence, grief, illness, and so on...

Rachel Power said...

Yes, of course. I am always acutely aware that it is rarely just a straightforward choice around having kids/not having kids. And either way, we all suffer a sense of lack of control over the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes these blog posts read as simplistic because they are -- just conversation-starters dashed off and not always with the qualifications added that would indicate awareness of that broader context -- which is why the comments are so important. And it is all too easy to be smug from any position where we feel we might be attacked -- parent, non-parent alike. And also hard to avoid that oppositional construction, even if that's not how I want it to read (or indeed mean).
It's so lovely that you read this blog Pia, because I so often have your voice in my head when I write -- and because you are so generous in your thoughts.
I suppose I liked the African cab driver not because I agreed with his approach but because it can be refreshing for something just to be thrown up for debate, in that way Australians can be so cautious about. Perhaps he did see things simplistically, or perhaps he assumed that it was understood it is not always a choice or possibility -- who knows.
My response to him was to say that I do understand why some people (who could otherwise do so) choose not to have kids. But it is people who say they don't like children who bother me.
And in this way I think you're right, Pia -- that not everyone has to have kids to be part of a culture that delights in sharing and in care for others. Or one in which people invest that passion that might be reserved for children into other kinds of 'babies', to put it crudely.
Good luck with that presentation. xo

Home Girl said...

hello sorry i haven't dropped by for a while. love poping in and reading your thought provoking posts. this topic reminds me of one of the comments made in your book that has stayed with me. that of having children creating a counter irritant. that time becomes so precious that perhaps we feel a more intense desire to create that we would have without them. many moments of inspiration get lost but sometime when we get a window we grab some inspiration an run with it like our lives depend on it! i like to think that the irritation of having no time can be transformed into an insense urge to get soething done when the opportunity presents. something like that i'v got children need things right now so no time to re-read or ponder further!! see u soon xx

Rachel Power said...

P.S. When I mentioned smugness, I was talking about me, not you Pia...
And Claerwen, I completely agree--those constraints do convert to a whole new urgency when there's time to act!

little red hen said...

A few months before I left my husband he said to me "I can't wait for the kids to grow up so you can go to work and we can get our lives back," (our children were about 18 months and 3 years old) The notion that having children was not part of our lives stunned me...they were my life (actually I thought they were our lives up until that point or had tried to delude myself into thinking that was the case!)
You are correct, not the same life but a different one and a rewarding one at that and having just celebrated my eldest turning 18 and therefore technically an adult I will soon be finding myself having to get used to my own life again! It happens too quickly that you get your own life back as they embark on their own!

genevieve said...

The lovely old thing who built the house next door to me summed it up in three words once, whether we have children or not, whether we have lives without them or not (to me on a hot day, pregnant with a hernia, sitting on the grass watching two small children in a splashing pool):
"It's no picnic."
Bless Esme, wherever she is now. I often think of her.

genevieve said...

actually that is an exaggeration - I think of her occasionally, and smile.
And have just had a disgusting week waiting for my son to get well so I can apply for a job and send him to camp (the two are not connected, other than in timing), and camp is simply not going to happen. So I have enjoyed sharing these moments - thanks! Off to buy chips now.