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Pickle Me This

November 10, 2011

"I wrote two books watching her clothes blow on those lines."

Before I had a baby, somebody told me how she wished she’d played with her children more. That she’d spent their childhoods rushing from one thing to another, and never took the time get down on the floor and engage with what they do on their own level. So I decided that her experience would be a lesson for me, just like I’d decided that any sleepless nights with my new baby be an opportunity for me to revel in her nearness. And then my baby was born, an occasion I came to define as “the day I discovered all my limits within arms’ length”. The sleepless nights were an opportunity for me to imagine murdering my husband, more than anything else. And it would turn out that when it came to play, I wouldn’t do much better.

Now just being with my daughter, I can do. Ours is not a particularly harried pace. We spent a lot of timing talking over pancakes, and lying sprawled on the floor staring at the ceiling. I like our conversations, I love brushing her hair, I think that holding her hand as we walk down the street is perhaps the great privilege of my existence. I really do like to be with my daughter, but I find playing insufferably dull most of the time. It’s boring, and after about five rounds of “playing farm”, “making a cake” (which involves piles of crayons), or “playing doctor” (whose stethoscope is actually a USB cable), I tend to drop out. I find her play absolutely fascinating to watch, but not to engage with it. Which is a huge reason why I appreciate picture books and stories, actually, and why we read so many of them– it’s the one activity of which neither of us ever tires.

In a recent interview promoting her new book Blue Nights, Joan Didion notes that as a mother of a young child, she had been “totally wrapped up in keeping some time free for myself.” And I read that and thought, yes, that is precisely what motherhood is. Because once the baby’s arrived, she’s there, and there’s no fighting it– there’s no need to be wrapped up in that. How much I am enjoying the experience of motherhood has always been directly proportionate to the time I have to spend away from it. And to be totally wrapped in keeping this time free is not the same as being a bad or neglectful mother. To be so wrapped up is to be going against the flow, of course, swimming upstream, yes, but you’re still in the water. You’re always and forever in the water, which is precisely the point.

(I always think of the son in JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, whining at the bare silence of his mother’s office door. And I’ve always thought that the son was a bit of an asshole, since I read the book, which was long before I had a child of my own. I’ve always thought that learning from an early age that one is not the centre of any universe, let alone his mother’s, is probably a healthy thing for anybody.)

Love pours out from the pages of Blue Nights, for the difficult Quintana Roo from her even more difficult mother. Life is like this. Motherhood is also like this, as Didion examines old photographs of her daughter growing up in Malibu: “The clothes of course are familiar./ I had for a while seen them every day, washed them, hung them to blow in the wind on the clotheslines outside my office window./ I wrote two books watching her clothes blow on those lines./ Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.

We had a wonderful morning at our house today, a backyard buried in leaves presenting the greatest opportunity. To be outside together working on a project we would both equally enjoy, the best mix of practical and whimsical, and neither of us would be bored. We filled two big bags with leaves, and there will be much more of this in the days to come, as the tree appears as fully dressed as ever. And then we walked to the grocery store to pick up some milk, which is rare because we usually stroller-it everywhere. I am usually in too much of a hurry, but not this morning, this lovely, leafy, golden morning. And just when the walk home appeared to be taking forever and the end of my patience was in sight, Harriet demanded to be scooped up and carried, which was fine with me, however awkward in coordination with 4 litres of milk, but these are the things we manage. We got home, and made a batch of Carrie Snyder’s granola bars, which are delicious. The whole arrangement sort of glorious, because it felt like we were two people rather than parent and child, relating on a somewhat-even keel, in spite of the disparity in our heights.

But see, she’s sleeping now, and I’ve got a cup of tea, and the time and space to write it all down, and therein lies the key to my happiness.

10 thoughts on “"I wrote two books watching her clothes blow on those lines."”

  1. Sandra says:

    Beautifully, beautifully written. It so resonates with me as well as a mother of an almost 6 year old girl. We need what we need to recharge, to get away, to fill ourselves creatively. Then we can be fully present with our kids when we are together.

    One of my favourite parts of my day is walking my daughter to and from school. That 20 minutes provides the space for some fabulous conversations. And one of my other favourite parts of the day is saying goodbye at her class, knowing that I am moving on to my time – my music and my creating.

  2. Carrie says:

    I love this post. Love it.
    A being together morning. Infinitely better than a playing together morning.

  3. Lindsay says:

    Bang on! Thank you for translating my feelings and thoughts on motherhood into words!

  4. Kelly says:

    A marvellous post, and helps me to feel a bit less guilty about not particularly enjoying playing either, even though I really enjoy being-with. Recently I have discovered that I am really only a kind of decoration while playing school–the favourite activity in our house–and that it is quite fine for me to read a book, since however much they clamour for me to be involved, my active participation is only requied at about five-minute intervals. A serendipitous discovery for everyone, really.

  5. Jo-Anne says:

    I don’t have a daughter but I think it counts that I was a daughter. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your blog post. Absolutely beautifully written.

  6. Sheree says:

    YOU!
    Yes.
    Shush.
    Crunch. Crackle. Time flies.

    Your Harriet is so lucky.

    When I was mother of babies,
    I rocked them,made things better
    When I was mother of toddlers
    I helped them with… whatever
    When I was the mother of teens
    I prayed when they went wild
    Now I am the mother of men
    Helpless as a child.

    It’s not that sad, but almost. (:

  7. Rachel says:

    What a gorgeous post! Every stage of childhood offers new challenges and new joys, but like you I never found it easy to get on the floor and play for hours — and that often made me feel very inadequate. I used to take my kids on long walks in the pram so that at least I could be alone in my head for a bit. It’s such a trusim, for so many of us, your line: “How much I am enjoying the experience of motherhood has always been directly proportionate to the time I have to spend away from it.” I’m finding it much easier with school-aged kids, who can share thoughts and ideas. But I also now miss those long days at home with small children, just being together, muddling through.

  8. Great post, kerry…yes, Joan Didion’s work really brings alot of maternal queries /concerns into question for me too..In fact, its a work I am almost afraid to read for its intimacy on the topic (the bond -despite a child’s age – on the mother/child connection) .
    I can’t tell you how many times my own mother said to me in the early years of my motherhood: “Stop. enjoy each moment, each crazy-wanta throw throw the baby out with the bathwater moment…because in the blink of an eye, it will be gone” Transformed. Into something else.
    And yes, how easily those periods in our earlier motherhood lives-as chaotic as they are – do escape us so quickly and get transformed.
    I can still remember like yeaterday when I could not even leave a room/out of sight’s line-without my son screaming and crying. I also remember the cognizant feeling I had at that time-I can’t take this…I have no life…no space of my own..when will this end!..NOW,(my son is 10), I look back onto those precious moments in another way-albeit, I still honor my maternal ambivalence in that moment in time, but I wonder how maternal needs (both on behalf of the child and the mother) changes so fast.
    My mother knew this. Children do become more independant in ways you could never imagine in those early years. In fact, they may even start to push you away at a certain point in their middle years (all normal behaviour of course).
    And then when you least expect it-as I have experienced recently with my son (a person on the cusp between being a boy and young man), they creep back to you in unexpected ways-ie. needing your reassurance and love hugs (even a shared bed) when the thunder , rain, and wind o/s their bedroom window becomes scary and ominous, when they are dealing with some serious friendship snafus and they are questioning if they are agreeing in their silence to their other peers being bullied for being differnt”, and finally to u/s ther mom is perhaps a really “cool” (maybe they would say sweet or something else) person who is willing to really listen to them (and their friends), hear their truths, and also (as in my case as a writer and Engl Lit grad) be the best teacher to help them with their homework story projects.
    Last night, as has been typical lately, my son after reading together wants to snuggle with me in my bed to watch our fave shows before going to sleep- our latest is Recipe to Riches-pretty much anything on food network he loves – and I realize once again I am at the crossroads- he needs me still and I also have a life independant of him,
    Of course NOW (as opposed to before) , I just stop and breathe in these moments for their understood imp. quality….also- Kerry, one of our fave books to read before bed for years was mem fox’s Harriet you drive me wild….he loved that story because he knew (I belive) that children can be as “imperfect: as mothers…and that is OK!!!

    1. Kerry says:

      We love Harriet You Drive Me Wild!! And it all does change so quickly. I breathe in a lot of moments lately too– especially walking down the street with that little hand in mine. But I always struggled with the “Enjoy each moment” advice– some of those moments were so unbelievably shitty, and the point was just to get through them. I don’t think that (or almost never) anymore– toddler moments are pretty precious. But those baby days were so hard, and I resented the inference that on top of having to bear them that there was something wrong with me for not liking them. “Enjoy every minute” become the eye-rolling joke between me and a friend of mine who had a baby at the same time– I think that kind of thing is really only ever possible hypothetically or in retrospect. Anyway, the Didion book is wonderful, and she seems more ordinary in it (re motherhood) than in anything else I’ve ever read by her. In motherhood, whatever one’s circumstances (even if one is Joan Didion!) there really is so much that is universal.

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