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.