This need to resist lethargy became particularly urgent once we’d had children. Babies can’t be left to fend for themselves. They would die. Not metaphorically, not spiritually: actually. Literally. Dead. Parenting is an enormous responsibility and it requires enormous effort: great barren wastes of sleeplessness, endless tolerance and patience; endless anxiety; vigilance, discipline, housework… For years and years and years.
You weren’t in control of their needs or their rhythms, so you never felt fully prepared. And it wouldn’t stop. You couldn’t knock off at 5. You couldn’t plod on through, clock-watching, until the klaxon went, then collapse on the sofa. Only in brief snatches of sleep was there any respite.
This is a wholesome and a psychologically healthy way to live. It is founded on love and nurturing and ought to be deeply rewarding. I believed (and believe) that, but the images that accompanied the conviction seemed, somehow, unsustainably exhausting. I couldn’t anticipate the sources of nourishment that would keep me going.
The birth of my first child was undoubtedly one of the two most important events of my life (the other being the birth of my second child). It felt as if huge sheets of feeling: terror, elation, agony, were flapping and snapping across the ceiling, above my head, shot through with strands of brisk, professional focus in midwife-uniform blue. If I reached up, their electricity would thrill down my arm for a moment, but they didn’t seem to be mine. Perhaps they were Jo’s. I couldn’t locate the self that was me to channel or place these emotions. I couldn’t even say I was detached, because that implies two very concrete locations: where I was and where they were. I felt as if I’d been injected with morphine and beta-blockers, discorporated, and had my ghost translocated to the surface of Mars in the middle of a sand storm. In other words, I didn’t know what to think. Or what to feel. I could recognise how important and precious was the little bundle of being that had sprung miraculously into existence in my arms, but I didn’t feel clear resonances inside myself. There was just turbid and agitated hubbub where I should have been ringing like a bell with clear, pure emotion.
I know this is a damning assessment of me, rather than parenthood. A few years later, when my most cynical, repressed and hard-nosed friend had his first child, I mentioned this experience, hoping to bond over how different the popular, sentimental vision of child-birth was with the reality, how love grows. He said, “oh? Really? Well, the first time is set eyes on my daughter I was overwhelmed with the most powerful sense of love. It was amazing!”
“Oh, how lovely! What a happy image,” I replied, thinking, “Right. That’s another thing I must never mention to anyone ever again. It can become another of my grubby little secrets.” I had hoped (I still hope) that I just wasn’t in touch with my feelings.
Maybe I’m not fully human. Phillip pointed out, in a recent therapy session, that I’d just said, “The thing about humans is that they…” I hadn’t noticed.
Caring for your children is the prime directive. There is nothing more reviled than a neglectful or abusive parent; there is nothing more saintly than a dedicated, self-sacrificing one. This was my greatest test. The other people I damaged: Lulu, Jo, my parents, my sisters: they were all adults: they could look after themselves, give as good as they got, but my children were wholly vulnerable, wholly dependent on me, and I was pretty certain I wasn’t up to the job. I was too weak and self-indulgent, too nasty.
I had to try, of course. I steeled myself. I moved into parenthood with trepidation, looking around wildly all the time, trying to anticipate fate’s next ambush, which would almost certainly be a trap I’d set for myself.
The struggle was constant, so I needed to make every minute count, be constantly vigilant, constantly maintaining the defences, always driving myself forwards, driving my legs to straighten and lift me out of chairs and beds where I’d temporarily dropped, or I might stay in them for ever; always driving me away from the lip of a complete and catastrophic collapse that would send me sprawling to the ground, all muscles loose, never to rise again.
Because, if you don’t make the effort, if you don’t contribute, you are breaking the social contract. If you aren’t caring for them, why should anyone care for you? or care what happens to you? You are a worthless git, “a tube for turning good food into shite.” If you don’t keep swimming, you drown. “If you don’t work, you die.”
And so will your children.
If only I could find some excuse for giving up, curling up and just enduring…
Yesterday, two young lads walked past me. One was saying, “…They’d all die, bruv: you don’t work, you don’t eat…”