Recently I realised that at last, after 10 months of motherhood, I no longer feel a complete sense of alienation from my previous life. From the moment of birth, a subconscious certainty has prevailed, an unacknowledged conviction that everything which had been important to me or possible for me up until the moment of having children was now irrelevant forever. I long ago resumed a lot of my pre-pregnancy activities, so I don’t think that has much to do with it. What I think is that becoming a parent, in my case at least, caused me to fall into a state of deep shock which is only now starting to recede.
This shock-state has been marked primarily by a complete lack of perspective; I have felt not only completely cut off from my own past, but also entirely incapable of imagining the future. I still feel this on bad days; a flinching away from the knowledge that this exhausting business, which I’m pretty sure I can’t stand for another minute, is actually going to go on until I die. At this point, with a little lurch of horror, I abandon this line of speculation and tell myself that tomorrow will be better.
But what seems to be happening is that slowly, this discrete, frightening period of early motherhood is starting to merge in my mind into the rest of my existence, to become just another part of my history, instead of a lurid technicolour experiment in Being Present (which, by the way, is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I’m glad that the narrative of my life is healing up like this, and wonder if other people go through this sort of period of severance on becoming parents.
Opening the Polish equivalent to the Good Weekend, I found an interview with the British writer Rachel Cusk, talking about the book (Aftermath) that she wrote after her divorce. It was bleak and sobering and presumably utterly honest – she was saying what nobody wants to hear, that there is no new life after divorce (or any other traumatic event). She flatly refused to pander to the increasingly desperate pleas of the interviewer, who wanted to hear a tale of rebirth after trauma, of rising shriven from the flames.
Interviewer: You constantly talk about the experience in terms of loss. Haven’t you gained anything?
Int: A better understanding of yourself?
RC: No. If anything, I understand myself less [……….]
Int: And you? Don’t you feel better?
RC: I don’t really feel anything.
She must have been a nightmare to interview, but it made me desperately want to read her earlier book about motherhood (A Life’s Work) which she apparently approached with similar cheerless truthfulness. Everything she said in the interview contradicted the evident need of the interviewer (and the reader) for some sort of narrative justice: she would not say that she had learned anything important, or that the divorce had improved her life in any way, or that she was freer or happier or materially or emotionally better off. She simply refused to tie up all the loose ends and hand over a glib little package of hope. I would like to hear more of what she has to say.
Most people do this when they are in the middle of their forced inactivity, but they’re better women than I am. I only dare to be overtly grateful now that the danger period has passed and I am up and about again. Apparently it has all sorts of mental health benefits though, so better late than never. Here are some of the things I had to be thankful for while confined to quarters.
1. The fact that I didn’t have any other children. I have no idea how people manage when they have other young kids, unless they can afford a nanny.
2. All the help I had from Marcin and my parents, especially Marcin, who miraculously stopped complaining about 10 minutes into the whole drama and hasn’t resumed yet.
3. The fact that I didn’t have to worry about money, even though I stopped working much earlier than I planned and expected.
4. A nice doctor.
5. Reasonable mental health which meant that I didn’t fall into a black depression, despite doing nothing for 10 weeks. I wouldn’t have thought this was possible, but I’m 35 weeks pregnant and still sane.
6. The internet.
7. My Kindle.
8. The discovery of meditation- it works on me, which I had also never thought possible.
9. The ability to sleep for most of the night, most of the time. It’s gone now, which is what reminds me to be glad I had it.
10. The fact that we managed to move house before I started having problems, and not after.
Ten things is probably enough, and in my defence I will say that most of these occurred to me at the time, not only in retrospect. I suppose the gratitude game is really just a variation on another favourite mental hygiene exercise of mine- the Someone Else Always Has It Worse game.
Since my parents arrived a few weeks ago, bearing wool and knitting needles, I have taken up knitting. This activity is simultaneously mindless and absorbing, at least for a beginner, which is exactly what my undisciplined mind currently needs. My mother, whose knitting career spans 60 years, since her earliest entrepreneurial tea-cosy sales to schoolteachers at age 8, is more adept, and can apparently knit a jumper while reading a book.
Knitting connects me to a long, female family tradition of productiveness. The narrow, tortoiseshell needles I use belong to my aunt (my father’s sister), whose initial joking suggestion it was that I take up knitting. The knitting bag is covered with the huckaback embroidery that my mother learned from her mother, and later taught us as children. While we work, we recall the crocheted blankets of my grandmother and great aunts, still in active circulation as our adult bedspreads, the closest we have to family heirlooms.
My mother tells me stories of clothes she has made (including her sister’s wedding dress, later worn by my middle cousin to her own wedding), in the days before sweatshops made home production unprofitable. She tells me about the patchworking craze that coincided with the birth of my youngest brother, so that she spent the week in hospital preceding his appearance pinning her little hexagons onto backing paper amongst the staphylococcus germs. My nephew too intrudes into this estrogen-bathed lineage- my mother also taught him to knit, though his resistance to instruction and lack of a final plan resulted in something more like lace.
Knitting, I feel my female ancestors gather round me, with their recipes and secrets and crochet hooks, their books and sparing wartime ways, their reserve, their religion, their politeness. On the other side of the world, about to produce my own descendants, I welcome their presence.
The weather outside doesn’t seem to penetrate the walls of our flat. I see what is happening outside- the warmth of late summer, then the turning of the leaves, the sharp gold autumn days, and on Saturday, the first snow. I can see a pair of busy, bushy-tailed squirrels preparing for winter in the tree outside the window, along with a woodpecker going about his gravity- defying business. Clouds of crows go beating purposefully by, black against the milky sky. None of it seems to have anything to do with me. When I go outside for milk or doctor’s appointments, the hydraulics of being vertical and the rarity of the occasion engender a sense of total alienation from the world I inhabit.
Inside, I generate my own emotional climate- a succession of mild, overcast days. Inactivity works on me like a mild antidepressant, depriving me of any emotional excess. I have two moods- weepy and not-weepy. Although as I get more gravid and bilious, I think that I am beginning to add irritability to my repertoire. This sort of extreme stability is something new for me, and in the current situation I have no objections to my limited range as I explore the land between faint hope and faint gloominess.
I am often comforted by thinking about how much worse things could be. At least I’m not having twins in Auschwitz, I tell myself, where Doctor Mengele is waiting to experiment on them after a starved and brutalised pregnancy. At least I’m not pregnant in an Indian village where I have to walk 4 hours for water and then collect firewood to cook my single paltry daily ration of lentils. And so forth. This kind of worst-case scenario imagining has a soothing effect on me- it induces the sort of smug feeling of safety that news of a distant divorce might, a that-won’t- happen- to- me sensation of relief. When bad luck adheres itself to someone else, it reduces the amount roaming the universe looking for a victim.
Unfortunately, this harmless borderline Schadenfreude doesn’t always work. This is because there’s one kind of misfortune which, when experienced by others, does not keep you safe.
It’s when people in the same situation as you don’t get their happy ending. This week I found out that one of my colleagues from the cervix forum lost her twins at 25 weeks, and I realised how much I had been relying on other people’s good news to build my own sense of hope. I took it personally and felt a horrible sense of grief, along with its companion- an urgent and impotent wish for things to be otherwise. Empathy showed its evolutionary purpose, its cautionary, chastening role in the world. This is not you, but could be, it whispers. It’s a terrifying thought.
In all the simultaneous drama and boredom of a difficult pregnancy, I have discovered that I am utterly shameless in looking for things that make me feel more confident about hanging onto my foetuses for a bit longer. Statistics are accepted or rejected on the basis of whether or not they make my prospects look better. I look at my ultrasound and see that based on my cervical length at 23 weeks, I have only a 1 or 2 % chance of an early delivery (before 36 weeks). Never mind that the chances of having twins, or a defective cervix at all, are about the same, which didn’t prevent them from happening to me. Never mind that those statistics are probably not for multiple pregancies (in fact, I purposely don’t ask. Why borrow trouble?). I have an insatiable appetite for good news, and selective application of statistics can give it to me.
The same goes for dreams. The dream that I have triplets and they all die and the doctor refuses to sew up my Caesarian cut is dismissed out of hand as a pure anxiety dream, with no predictive powers whatsoever. But I did have another dream, and this one I have chosen to regard as psychic. It goes like this.
I dream that our friend Kaśka can travel in time. She visits us from next July, and says to me ‘well, your pigeons have arrived. There’s two of them, and everything’s OK. You’re going to have a horrible time, though.’
I have to say that this dream comforts me. Partly for its content- all I hear is that everything will be OK in the end, ignoring the part about how awful it’s going to be. But it reminds me that at some point, this will all end; that next July will, in fact, come. Currently, I find this almost impossible to believe.