My part in my downfall

I wondered how long it would be before the lure of autobiography became too strong to resist.  About three weeks. Hmmm. But there's a difficulty here in that I don't think the story of my downfall is tellable; it doesn't meet the criteria of narrative. 

Eleven years ago my son was born and I began my PhD. Any one of those events would have stretched my resources but together they were psychic dynamite. If I look back as objectively as possible I can see that I was just a hopeless first time mother. I was too anxious, too ready to be alarmed and too much of a child myself. I loved my son the way that all mothers love their children, no matter how they may look from the outside. I would have walked through fire for him, I would have given him my last breath. But what I was not expecting is how supreme babies are, how absolutely they take control. Up until that point my life had been about me; if I felt ill or tired, I went to bed, if I had work to do, I did it, if I wanted relaxation, I took it. Suddenly I was dispossessed of my self, because a baby always comes first. No matter what you feel like, the nappy has to be changed, no matter how tired you are, the baby has to be fed. If my child allowed it, I could work. Relaxation was a thing of the past. And it seemed to me that rather than the charming idealised images I had of child rearing, in which I rocked cradles and sang lullabies, I had walked into a charged, steamy boxing ring where I was expected to punch above my weight. It was certainly not a fair fight. As I struggled to my feet, a sleepless night would send me sprawling, a lunchtime tantrum felt like a brutal upper cut. Where was the referee? I wondered. Surely there ought to be time out? But no bell ever rang, and in some dark part of the soul I thought I recognised that this was what love was: learning to roll with the punches.

At the same time I wanted to work. Very badly. I came to associate work with a kind of self-indulgence. It was for me, so by definition it was selfish. To give up work and abandon the PhD would have been an admission of defeat; I felt I would have been accepting that there was no role for me beyond that of mother, at which I knew I did not excel. But academics at that level is not a carefree, relaxing activity. I liken it to mental gymnastics, spiralling concepts round and round, stretching ideas into extreme shapes. It needs head space. It requires you to be centred. Not easy options with a small child. I felt I had only the smallest box room in my head for thought, and at times it shrunk to the size of a torture cage, in which no dimension is sufficent to allow the prisoner to stand upright.

And that was my situation for three years. That was how it stayed with no rescue on the horizon and no revelation on my part. My family just looked at me with disappointment in their eyes; they had expected better of me. I felt honour bound to cope but I was making a right hash of it. And everyone else said, how wonderful to have it all! How lucky you are!

Of course now I can make a long, long list of all the things I should have done. Hindsight is a precise science. Embarrassingly I still find it hard to do the things I should have done then; like say I wasn't coping and ask for help. I think that when you are a child one of the things on which your sense of security rests is the belief that if you fail, someone will come and put you back together again. It is one of the great unheralded changes of growing up, that when you fail, the rescuer can only ever be you.  It's a tough lesson to learn. But its counterpart is that whilst the child must learn to accept that it has to go along with things, the adult must learn never to drift along on passive submission. Be responsible for yourself first and foremost. 

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