If I had to describe my mental and emotional state at this juncture, I would have to say that I have been comprehensively humbled. Almost every illusion I have ever held about myself has been shattered. That my relationship is stable. (It has shaken like a leaf this year). That I am patient. (That I ever held this illusion is laughable. I lose my shit an average of twice a week, sometimes horribly). That I am fair. (Whoever’s not screaming, that’s my favourite. It’s that simple.)
Gone are the days when I can comfortably think to myself that other people’s children are annoying because they have raised them specially that way, or have neglected to take simple steps to prevent them from being annoying which of course I myself would take. Also gone are the days when I can tell myself that I will not be one of those people who is consumed by their children- not in any psychic sense, but in terms of pure logistics. I really did think to myself that I would just pop them in a corner with an old stick to play with and hop back on my bike. I can never, ever judge another parent with that satisfying sense of complacency again.
I expected to love them, to be fascinated by their tricks, to feel a strong urge to protect them. Nothing surprising there. What I didn’t expect is to feel so furious so often, to be prey to my own infantile tantrums. I also didn’t expect the significant cognitive impairment that comes from an ongoing sleep deficit combined with an overwhelming focus on one particular thing. There are still days when the idea of feeding them for the third time and cleaning up afterwards fills me with a kind of paralysis, and when the thought of planning my lessons for the week makes my mind go blank.
Compared to the very early days, though, I would have to say that I am well adjusted. Crossing the footbridge to the shop for some flour after the babies had fallen asleep yesterday, I had a strong, physical memory of these expeditions when they were very young; of being frozen with shock, and getting no relief from leaving them for a moment, because I knew I would have to go home and get back on the merry-go-round again and I felt utterly unequal to the task. I can enjoy it, now. The insane and constant feeling of guilt is long gone, the panic has faded. I am someone’s mother, and saying it no longer makes me feel like an imposter.
Because I’m pretty sure I’m not. When I try to work out what exactly it means, I get the impression that it can be taken quite literally- that you keep your baby attached to you for as much time as possible, either suctioned onto your breast at all hours of the day or night, or dangling off you in its Baby Bjorn.
Mainly, when I hear ‘attachment parenting,’ I hear ‘getting up at night’. I have surprised myself with my need for schedules, regulation, knowing what will come next. There is no way I am able to sit back and just respond as the need arises. There is no way I want to co-sleep- in fact I sleep as far away as possible from my children so that I don’t get woken by every whimper in the night. I have sleep trained. Etc.
I tell myself it’s because there’s two of them, that I don’t have the physical and emotional resources to spend all day (and a goodly part of the night) responding. This is probably part of the truth. But I think I also want to be in charge. They are so unpredictable, these children, that it panics me sometimes. I am not joking when I say that I consider it a catastrophe if they decide not to nap, since this is the only time of day I have to inhabit my own head completely. I have trouble losing myself in motherhood, trouble convincing myself that this is the most important thing I will do in my life.
But probably my main problem is lack of patience. Where do they get it from, these attachment parents? Where do they find those great wellsprings and reservoirs of patience? Is it even possible not to feel irritated when somebody screams their ear-piercing scream at you for half a day?Is it even possible to find the mental clarity to think about what they might want, rather than just wanting them to be quiet? How do you practice a nurturing touch on a small and inconsolable human who is drumming its little feet and howling in fury, and has a kick like a high-tension wire? I would not be lying if I said that I lose my composure on a daily basis, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have the most challenging kids on earth.
So I tend to steer clear of AP literature, which often makes me feel my own advanced unsaintliness, or to read about ideas that apply to older kids, because I can delude myself that in a couple of years I will have it all together and will meet all challenges with my unbreakable Zen mien.
My attitude to snow is evolving. The first year I lived in Poland, I couldn’t wait. I took a photo of our frozen socks on the balcony the day the first flakes fell, and texted my father with excitement. Last year, as I lay around the house waiting for my foetuses to mature, I wanted the snow for the extra light it sheds, and for the magic it works on the naked grey days of early winter.
This year I am back on my bike again and have practical reasons for hoping it holds off as long as possible. I ride to work, the entire length of Warsaw, across the bridge to Praga Południe, down to Ursynów, and back again. I highly doubt I’m tough enough to do it on frozen slush, leaving me the steamy, wet-dog option of hours in the bus. Now I am joining a select club of Polish friends who have had plenty of time to become jaded with the whole winter wonderland blah blah blah- what is the point of snow, unless you want something to trudge through during your three hours of watery grey daylight?
Having babies and deciding never to leave home again has not dimmed my interest in reading about other people’s travel experiences. It’s a counterpoint to my own ironclad routine, to the tyranny of naptimes and feeding times. In the last few months I have devoured Ed Stafford’s book about walking the length of the Amazon and a book by Wolf Kielich about Victorian women travellers.
I don’t feel any longing for my footloose days, or envy them their journeys. In fact, I don’t see a huge difference between what I do and what they do. They get up in the morning and do the same thing , over and over ( swim through the swamps, assuage the suffering of the lepers, give out bibles to Russian prisoners, save West African twins from being murdered as the devil’s spawn, etc). There are better days and worse days. They get sick, lose faith, can’t go on (but do). They are held on their course by religion, by sheer stubbornness, by the desire for fame and fortune, by an inability to conceive of other options.
When I was broadcasting the news of Maja and Janek’s birth far and wide, a friend wrote to me that I was starting a different kind of journey. I didn’t like the metaphor much- it sounded a bit glib, a bit high falutin. Now I have different reasons for thinking it doesn’t fit. Journeys end. You depart, you travel, you arrive. But this, ladies and gentlemen, never ends. I still can’t quite get my head around it.
By the beginning of November, whatever is left of the summer foliage is thin and diseased-looking. The sun can barely make it above the horizon before it collapses again. After the time change, it’s completely dark by 4:30. There are brief flares of brightness in the house, where the naked trees let the low light through into the living room, and a few sharp blue days which are just as sad as the iron-grey ones. It’s a time for hunkering down, escaping into books and friendship, building some fat reserves. There is an outburst of panicked activity among the local squirrels, but for everyone else, the slow descent into winter torpor has begun.
This will be my third winter in Poland, and as I am going through my late-autumn reckoning, it gradually becomes clear to me that I am more or less at home here. This means that I can conduct any business I have to conduct in Polish, as evidenced by a recent successful call to Polish Centrelink. It means I have stopped seeing everything around me with that painful sharpness, and allowed my surroundings to fade into a sort of backdrop. I no longer find social occasions a trial for which I need to prepare three days in advance (though at a party I still do a lot of nodding and pretending to have understood). I am girding my loins to apply for a permanent residency.
So- an ideal time to go back to Australia and see how I feel there. I am looking forward to it.
My Polish is much better than it was two years ago; so much so that I have gotten lazy about looking in the dictionary. If I can’t say what I want elegantly, at least I can come up with a competent paraphrase, which in my current state of intellectual torpor, is good enough for me. But lately, as I read my book about Victorian women travellers, so agog that the language became transparent and I forgot that it wasn’t my own, I was gifted with a word which I have wanted and needed for a while- doszczętnie.
Comprehensively. I use it all the time in English, and have often felt its lack as I try to exaggerate my way into being interesting in Polish. With great satisfaction, I slot it into my matrix. It’s so necessary to me that I don’t forget it, even though I’ve only seen it once.
I share my great revelation with Marcin, who rises to the occasion and, after fiddling about for a second on his phone, gives me the etymology of this word. Sczęt is an old Slavic word for children, which finds its echo in the modern word szczęniak (puppy). These olden-days Slavs, he tells me, used to kill their enemies along with their children. Doszczętnie means something like ‘down to the last child,’ most often used to talk about degrees of destruction.
Not since his research into the mating habits of bedbugs has he acquired such a bloodthirsty piece of trivia. We both feel a strange satisfaction with this etymological revelation.
I cruise the feminist blogs and the mummy blogs as a sort of tabula rasa, propelled by a strange new intuition that there is something about being a woman which just isn’t fair, and that now that I have children, this not-fair applies specifically to me, but utterly uncertain what to make of it all. I see that you can have the same discussions over and over again (about inequality in the workplace, about the division of labour in families, about the economics of reproducing, about mother-blaming for all social ills) and that they are always important but always a work in progress. But mainly I am amazed by the certainty of all these women about what they think. I don’t know if it’s because having babies has cognitively impaired me for life, but I have trouble being so certain, and difficulty deciding (and articulating) what I think. I am trying to build my ideas from nothing, and it requires gargantuan effort- like trying to decide who to vote for based on merit, rather than some vague inherited prejudices.
I am not sure if I’m up to it, intellectually. I don’t even know what’s true. Do I really do almost all the housework, or is this just a narrative to justify my constant resentment that there is just so fucking much of it to do? Am I really being constantly judged for my mothering, or am I just projecting my own insecurities about whether I’m doing it right? Have I ended up in the tenuous and not very lucrative field of teaching because I am a woman and so never thought I could be an astronaut, or do I like it? Am I trying to be fair when I ask myself these questions, or just being an apologist for the patriarchy?
And so on. There is something to be said for the comfort of platitudes and easy opinions, held because I belong to a group of people who also hold them. I know it’s lazy but it’s so convenient.