It’s been a quiet few days. My son has been suffering from a bad cold and all he’s wanted to do is listen to audio books. So we have worked our way through Hercule Poirot and Paul Temple and Sherlock Holmes. Strictly speaking, I suppose I didn’t have to keep him company, but I find I respond unquestioningly to his urge to have me around when he’s poorly or troubled or just involved in another stage of growing up, and it is a sweet maternal pleasure to be there, armed with stories. The psychoanalysts have talked about the way that young children and babies are soothed by immersion in their mother’s world of calm thought. We can imagine a child dimly trusting, before it even knows what trust is, in its mother to make everything okay, one way or another. Some childcare theorists have suggested that one of the most important things mothers do in that early phase is to keep the child company while it feeds and struggles and cries and settles, thinking of solutions and things to try so that the child itself will eventually learn to bring calm, problem-solving thought to its own adult life. As children grow, the sense of their mother taking care of the bits of thought still beyond their reach never really alters, although none of this could be put into words by either mother or child. There’s a lovely passage in Peter Pan that describes it better than I could:
‘Mrs Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. […] When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.’
Funnily enough, I saw the advert for my old job go around on the email listings last Friday. I’ll admit it caused me a pang of regret for a moment. Rather as I imagine it would feel to come across one’s ex-husband in a bar, flirting with lots of other women. I had a ten-year marriage with that job and it was full of passion and drama. It was literally all-consuming. Cambridge terms are deemed to be short, at eight weeks each, but once you add in every evening and every weekend for working, you can see how it concentrates a more usual three-month term within its bounds. And then there’s everything that happens in the so-called vacations, weeks of admissions interviews, exam setting and marking, graduate examination, PhD students and of course, endlessly, research. Not to mention preparation for teaching, when the average lecture on a new topic requires about forty hours dedicated input. But I did it because I loved it and I still consider myself so very lucky to have had that experience. It was amazing, and I had a blast.
But the hardest thing was always juggling work and childcare. When my son was ill, it was a big problem. Even on a normal weekend I never had the time I wanted to give over to his needs when there was work to be done for non-negotiable deadlines. And I felt, probably most acutely of all, the uncomfortable wrench between different mindsets, between my academic thinking mind, and the dissipated, quiet, dreaminess that children respond to so well. It felt to me like changing time zones, and I was permanently jet lagged. Not to mention guilty. Researching this motherhood project, I’ve read an awful lot about women who give up on meaningful careers to care for children, and it’s curious (and to me frustrating) the kind of reactions its sparks. Women don’t really want careers, I’ve read, and once they give birth they find their true destiny. Women don’t have the stamina and the dedication to make it to the top. Women like staying home and being taken care of financially. This is just nonsense, and worse than that, a kind of insidious propaganda. Anyone who’s had a child knows that the minute that baby is put in your arms, you have just signed up to a lifetime’s job that no one else can do. No one else can be your child’s mother, no matter how good or bad you are at the tasks, no matter what mistakes you make or what else is on your life agenda. No one else will ever tidy your child’s mind away as efficiently or as efficaciously as you. Now that certainly does not mean that mothers cannot work. No mother need tend to a child’s developmental confusion twenty-four hours a day. What it does mean, though, is that while they are at work women need good childcare backing them up, the kind of childcare that allows them to work with a clear conscience and a serene heart and therefore return to their child with enough of that maternal firepower left to be truly present, in an attentive, healthy, vibrant state of mind, receptive to all that loving, amorphous thinking they need to do. In fact, if mothers can do that three days out of five, then that’s probably good enough. Perfection, where mothers are concerned, is only ever scary.
This weekend was the first one that I really noticed my new sense of spaciousness. For the first time, I had the experience of being healthy and employed and able to simply shelve anything I’d intended to do for some other, distant time. I didn’t have to sit with my child, calculating how many hours I would need to make up and where I would get them from. I didn’t have to try to be calm and unflustered about an everyday illness whilst furiously thinking up contingency plans for the week ahead. It was restful. Occasionally I would stir and wonder whether there was anything I really ought to be doing. And then I could think, with satisfaction, that there wasn’t. I might still miss things about my old job from time to time – people taking out notebooks and writing down what I say, for instance, although that’s probably not healthy for anyone to experience – but the madness of its overwhelming, exacting demands is not something I miss in the least. Finally, I feel I can just be me, in one place, rather than being pulled in conflicting directions by my responsibilities as a mother and as a professional woman. It was an exercise in tidying my own mind that I liked a lot.