They're only young once. I'm never quite sure what that's meant to say. My baby, sleeping in the cot at my feet, will never again be as tiny and fragile as he is tonight, or so I hope. Every day is something lost but also something gained. And the truth is, baby- and toddlerhood is wasted on the person doing the actual caring, just as youth is wasted on the young and wealth is wasted on the old. Little ones are exhausting, frustrating, maddening. They're wonderful, too, but I'm always mistrustful of those who go overboard in their adoration of infancy. As one comedian put it (I've forgotten who) all it means is, you love the whole human race, but only very temporarily.
If I describe how I feel when faced with another day of bright smiles, love and fury just below my skin, a fury I don't notice until a cry reaches a certain tone, and I realise it's there, but still I hold it down, just - if I describe it, I know I will sound like one of the following:
- a pathetic, reactionary mummy martyr, revelling in self-adoration masquerading as self-abnegation.
- an over-educated loser who thinks she's too clever for dirty nappies and CBeebies but really just doesn't know her place yet, and implicitly looks down on any mother who does.
- a naive middle-class idiot who should have known motherhood was hard and needs to stop crying into her cappuccino.
But I really don't feel like any of these. How women feel about motherhood has become weighed down with clichés, crushing any impression of authenticity. And yet underneath, it's always so real and raw.
I will go back to work full time and once again, just as happened last time, everyone will be amazed, assume I won't last, since all mothers of small children go part-time or drop out. And they'll then decide I haven't lasted, regardless of my very presence. Several times a week the people I interact with every day will say "So which days aren't you in?" and I'll reply, like a corny end-of-pier comedian, "hey, I'm here all week!". I'll get defensive, slip it into the conversation that my partner has flexible hours so the children aren't in nursery every day, forgetting that he's male so it doesn't really count (he's just "babysitting", that's what they call it at the children's centre he visits). I'll get paranoid, wonder whether everyone's asking themselves how a career-mad monster such as myself could be so spectacularly bad at actually progressing up the career ladder.
Each evening, I will be surprised that I have not become totally rubbish at parenting, have brief moments of feeling like Superwoman, living the dream as I totter around in work shoes after my gorgeous little brood. Then something utterly normal will happen - my eldest doesn't like his dinner, my youngest hates being undressed - and I'll be wishing I was back in the office. Or my eldest will hug me and tell me he loves me, my youngest will start to giggle at nothing at all, and I'll be wishing I could be with them all the time. Childish, grass-is-greener nonsense. and I'll half-spoil the most beautiful moments by over-analysing them - is this what motherhood is meant to be?
A few weeks into work, I will forget the physical impossibilities of caring for more than one child, the misery of wanting so badly to make if not both, then at least one of them happy, yet failing whenever I am most loved and needed. I will forget afternoons of dragging despair in the bedroom of one child, a room crammed with toys which the other cannot touch so all I can do is limit the damage, talk about sharing while no one listens and start to hate the sound of my own voice. I will forget that on maternity leave I become obsessed with Facebook, with selling my worldly goods on ebay, becoming pointlessly thin, volunteering for projects I don't believe in or have time for, anything to make me feel as though I have a speed other than painfully slow, up the stairs a minute at a time while my baby cries and my toddler tries to reread his book on each step and I try not to shout at him because he's doing nothing wrong. He gets angry with me if I attempt to speed him up, take his book from him, Mummy no touch! And why shouldn't he be angry? We want the same thing, control of our own environments. I'm bigger and stronger, but at least this keeps me in check.
I will work, the weekend will come and I will not be able to visit the children's centres, which only open for dads' days, dads who work in the week and need "special time" with their children come Saturday. Rough play encouraged, male role models celebrated, bacon sandwiches offered to all, so different from the soggy toddler-munched malted milks "non-working" mothers make do with during the week. I can't join in because I am an abberation - I like bacon sandwiches, I work full-time, I'm a mother who loves her children without having to say how or why because it's unsayable. And I am not filled with regret, or rather, I know the compromises I make and I am tired of all the questions, tired of defending love and feelings, defending structures of living and caring which aren't deemed good enough, tired of allowing myself to cross over into anger, an anger which stops me just accepting this life as it really is.
And someone will read this and think it's up to them to decide whether I mean any of it at all.