I’ve often reflected that if anyone had outlined exactly what becoming a mother entailed, I might have thought twice – or at least been a little better-prepared. Emerging from the intoxicating fug of happy-hormones that I’d been under the influence of for the best part of three years, the realisation that the hard graft was only just beginning hit me like a ton of bricks when my daughter was about six months old. This sense was especially heightened given that I’d made the unilateral decision that I would stop at two babies. My mental and physical resources were low but even my scrambled baby-brain knew it made sense.
Having been at this game for some time now, I’ve caught myself marvelling at Mother Nature’s stealthy machinations. I was lucky that I immediately bonded with both my children and instantaneously adored them. This is just as well, because there have been a few occasions since when they’ve demonstrated remarkable similarities to the demonically-possessed child in The Exorcist. Sucker that I am though, I always come back for more, because despite everything, to me, they are imperfectly perfect. I believe it’s called unconditional love.
Aside from anything else, I came to motherhood in a number of key ways that I hadn’t expected. Firstly, I hadn’t anticipated that I wouldn’t become a mum for the first time until I was 35. This wasn’t necessarily intentional, but that’s the way life happened. I genuinely have no idea if being an “elderly primigravida” (such a delightful medical term) adversely affected my energy levels, but suspect that even if I’d given birth at 25, I would have spent exactly the same amount of time postnatally slumped and semi-comatose on the sofa in my pyjamas. The years have flown by and I barely recognise the chubby cheeks in photographs from the early days – and that’s just me. I cannot decide if eleven years of motherhood, or just eleven more years on earth, have taken their toll on me.
Secondly, I contrived to have both children in Portugal and far from family and all things familiar. At the crucial moment prior to number one’s arrival, I was home alone while daddy-to-be was at work. Realising that things were moving and in total panic, I couldn’t reach my husband and was completely unable to recall the number I needed to contact the Portuguese emergency services. It later transpired that my partner had helpfully put his phone on silent because he was teaching. I ended up hammering on our neighbour’s door. Despite a significant language barrier at the time, it was pretty clear what was going on. The neighbour advised me to “respire fundo” (breathe deeply) and kindly phoned for an ambulance. It all became a bit surreal from thereon in. My husband arrived home in headless chicken mode, while the neighbour’s wife attended to me, resplendent in her nightdress and curlers. To cap it all off, once the ambulance finally arrived on our one-way street, I emerged from our building to be greeted by a traffic jam and the entirety of the local elderly female population having a good old gawp. En route to hospital the ambulance driver then became lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets surrounding our home. My husband, having recomposed himself, ended up guiding the ambulance out of our neighbourhood on his motorbike, in the style of a police escort. Birth is always miraculous, but given the farcical circumstances of my initial foray into these matters, I’m amazed we all came out of it as well as we did.
I went back to work after both babies, another eventuality I hadn’t foreseen or imagined when envisaging my future self as a mother. Initially it was out of financial necessity, but later I realised it was sanity-preserving. At least this way I managed to leave the house regularly to commune with the outside world, even if my clothes were smeared with dubious substances such as Sudocrem, Weetabix or worse, while out on manoeuvres. Added to which, as I rationalised at the time, being an English teacher that lived abroad and then failing to teach English as a foreign language made no sense at all.
I’m not sure if having children in a different country has impacted my parenting philosophy in an age when the cult of motherhood has got a bit out of control. I wasn’t into attachment parenting per se, but often co-slept if it meant we all got a reasonable amount of sleep. I like routines, but I’m not a slave to them. I hope I’m an example of what’s pleasingly called the “good enough” mother in psychological parlance. So while I obviously attend to their basic needs, I hope to add a little extra too. My son once called me his “silly, funny Mummy”, although this could just point towards me being a slightly ridiculous person. Just as I was adamant that no child of mine would use a dummy and then proceeded to cave in on day two with my firstborn, my expectations have become more realistic over the years too. I’m at the point now where I’ll be satisfied that I’ve done my bit if my offspring can eventually survive in the world independently and don’t grow up to be axe-murderers.
I also remain undecided vis-à-vis Nature versus Nurture. While I’m certain that my son’s soulful brown eyes and manly monobrow hark back to his Latin genes, who can be sure where his fiery temper hails from? My daughter, who is persistent, loud and wonderfully vivacious would probably have been a bit gobby wherever she was brought up. In order to gain reassurance that I’m not doing something terribly wrong, extensive reading has confirmed what I hoped was true. Genes and environment do play their part, but, surprise surprise, kids are individuals and ultimately self-determining, just as we as their parents are. Any hopes of cloning all the best bits of yourself when planning a family are sadly in vain.
My son is approaching 11 and my daughter is now 8 and my role in their lives has changed. Endless nappy-changing, puréeing and hands-on bathing are behind me. The work of motherhood is less labour-intensive in some ways, although facilitating their sporting and social calendars can be just as tiring. And now they’re bigger they eat for Britain and Portugal combined, so working remains a financial necessity to manage the supermarket budget alone. And this is the point. They’re physically active and socially adept. I feed them, they grow. I’m doing my job and the rest is down to them – apart from all the other jobs, which are down to me.
Just call me mother.