Some reflections on the birth of a mother, and what it means to be a mother… by Teika Bellamy
The other day (22/07/2013) my mum called me late in the evening and left a message on my answerphone, “a boy has been born…”. Now I admit I’m not the most news-aware person in the world but even I knew what she was talking about. (My mum, bless her generous heart, is a big fan of the Royals and gifted the Duchess of Cambridge with a copy of Musings on Mothering a while back, but that’s another story…!)
Anyway, I was glad to hear that the Duchess of Cambridge’s son had safely arrived in the world, and as I went to bed that night I couldn’t help but wonder how the new mother (indeed, every new-born mother) was feeling. I looked back to the night, about six years ago, when I gave birth to my own first baby and the strong emotions I experienced after the birth.
I was in hospital and recovering from a post-partum haemorrhage and second-degree tear to my perineum. I was sore but happy; hungry and tired. It was good to have my husband around; it was good to finally meet my baby and hold her in my arms.
The first time I put my daughter to my breast I felt as though I had reached the culmination of womanhood; my womb and placenta had provided for her for the first nine months of her being, now my breasts and arms would continue to keep her well fed and safe.
However, when my husband had to leave the hospital, and it was just my daughter and I together, I couldn’t help but feel a little worried. It was just the two of us now – would we be okay?
I put her in the bedside crib for a moment, bundled in her NHS blanket, and I lay back in my bed and closed my eyes. I wasn’t really expecting to sleep – the lights were still on and there was a lot of background noise in this strange, clinical place, but I was tired. I must have dozed a little, because I very clearly remember being jolted awake and immediately, instinctively, looking to my baby. She appeared to be completely still, not breathing, and my heart almost burst with fear. My hands flew to her chest to find her heartbeat, to make sure that her chest was still moving up and down, and when I knew that she was okay – simply asleep and peaceful – I cried. This was the moment I really knew what it was to be a mother: for the rest of my life I would know joy, pure, wonderful joy in being a mother to my children, but also the fear, the very primal fear of knowing that something might happen to them.
Mothers throughout the world live with these two powerful emotions every day. We long to make sure that our children are well fed and safe, and sometimes, in the early days our fears for their safety may seem overwhelming. Certainly, our anxieties about them being well fed are common, particularly in the west. It can be of great solace to a breastfeeding mother to meet with other breastfeeding mothers to discuss weight gain concerns in the early days. Speaking with a counsellor from a breastfeeding support charity like La Leche League can be invaluable too, especially for a mother who needs some reassurance and good information about how often to feed in the early days and weeks.
I still remember how it took many months, years even, for my fear for my daughter’s safety to ease off. Even now, I like to go to my children’s beds and stroke their heads when they’re fast asleep. It’s an extra way for me to re-connect with them – to again check that they’re okay – when we’ve been extra busy during the day.
Obviously, as our children get older our fears for their safety lessen, although of course they can be replaced by other, new and perhaps more complicated fears.
Just the other day, I lost sight of both my children in the school playground. I thought perhaps they’d walked home together already (we only live about a minute’s walk away from the school) so I rushed out of the school gates and down the road to find them… but they weren’t there. I ran back to the school (ultra-aware that I was the only parent there without a child – my heart almost bursting with fear again) and then I spotted them. Tears came to my eyes as relief at finding them washed over me.
This is the mother-burden: the fear that allies itself with joy, and no amount of money, possessions or status can remove it from a mother’s heart. Yet this is what it is to be human: to know our own mortality. Sometimes our fears are irrational, sometimes they are very real and rational; they are nearly always a useful way to connect with our inner voice, which can swiftly impel us to make necessary adjustments to our everyday lives so that fear can be avoided for future scenarios.
It would certainly be less of a burden to not feel fear for and on our children’s behalf, yet let us not forget that fear is a powerful – and sometimes urgent – reminder of how much we love and value our children. And I firmly believe that our ability to love unconditionally is our strength.
As it’s Fathers’ Day I’m publishing a dad’s perspective on mothering in today’s post. This article was first published in the La Leche League Members’ magazine Breastfeeding Matters (May/June 2013 issue) and although I’m biased (it’s by a certain Tom Bellamy!) I hope you’ll agree it’s worth taking a few minutes out of your day to read.
The next interview in the Mother’s Milk Books series of guest posts about creativity features the truly gifted Cathy Bryant, who contributed to Musings on Mothering. I greatly admire Cathy’s determination. To go from dreaming “of being able to write well enough” to international recognition for her writing and a whole host of publications is quite a feat. She’s certainly an inspiration to me. Thank you Cathy for taking part.
Cathy Bryant lives in Manchester, UK. Her first award came in 2010 with the Marple Humorous Poetry Prize. She won the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for the worst opening line of a novel, and is a former blogger for the Huffington Post. Her stories and poems have been published on five continents, so her ambition is to break into the Antarctican market. Also in 2012, Cathy won the Sampad ‘Inspired by Tagore’ Contest, one of the Malahat Review Monostich Contests and the Swanezine Poetry Contest. In 2013 Cathy won the M.R. Jordan Writing Contest. She co-edits the annual anthology ‘Best of Manchester Poets’ and her collection, ‘Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ was published recently. See more at: www.cathybryant.co.uk
1. Have you always considered yourself to be a creative person?
I wanted to be creative, but I didn’t think that I had any talent. But I read so hungrily and tried to write, and dreamed of being able to write well enough to be published. I just didn’t think it would ever happen.
2. Has there been any life-changing event that enhanced your creativity? If yes, can you tell us more about it?
Yes, and for me it was all about confidence. I’ve always been very lucky in my friendships, and one day my best friend Neil Bundy changed my life for me.
On 1st January 2007 I asked if he had any resolutions.
“Yes,” he said. “My New Year’s Resolution is for you to get your poems and stories published, and if you don’t even try then my year will be a failure, and it’ll be your fault!”
I laughed a bit nervously, but he looked at me and said, “I’m dead serious. That’s what I want this year. I want you to send your work off to magazines and things.”
Well, I was furious at such blackmail. And I knew that no one would want to publish my stuff. So I sent off half a dozen different pieces to various magazines and anthologies, just to prove to him that no one would want them, and got rejections. And then two acceptances…. one to an Australian magazine that sent me a free copy and paid me actual cash! Could it be that I had a touch of real talent, and that my writing wasn’t a selfish indulgence? Maybe I should let myself do it a bit more?!
After that I let myself be much more creative. A little confidence goes a long way! And Neil is the best friend in the world!
3. Do you have any tips on how to find time for your creative work amongst the everyday busyness?
Yes, absolutely – prioritise it. People tend to sideline creativity as if it isn’t necessary – like exercise they’ll try to fit it in with “more important” things like drudgery… I recommend setting aside a time each day (or each week, if you’re really time-poor) for writing, and keeping to it unless there’s a fire or similar emergency. The dishes in the sink will wait. No one died wishing that they had been more prompt with the washing up. And it’s setting an excellent example to your children to show them that even a grown-up is allowed a little of their own time in which to play and create. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes. You can write a lot in fifteen minutes!
4. What does breastfeeding mean to you?
Not being a mother, I hadn’t thought about it much until I worked with children. I sort of fell into childcare when my sister had premature twins (who are now grown-up – one is married and an actuary, and the other is a biologist – yet I used to carry them both with one hand in a tiny carrycot!) and I helped her with them, as her husband had to work away a lot. From there I dived into the happy world of childcare, and came into contact with breastfeeding – and the strange attitudes towards it.
I’d always assumed that breastfeeding would be welcomed and celebrated everywhere – I mean, what’s more natural or important? So when I was with feeding mothers, and strangers would be disapproving, unhelpful or even hostile, I was horrified. There also seemed to be a prevalent idea that breastfeeding stops very early, which seemed odd and arbitrary to me – and possibly just another case of hostility towards women. Yet some people said that babies shouldn’t be breastfed after four months, or six months, or whatever. It made me angry, when it was so obvious that breastfeeding was a beautiful thing that helped both mother and child and was the summit of both love and practicality.
When I heard about Musings on Mothering I didn’t think that I should submit anything, not being a mother – but the poems kept coming, particularly those based on my conversations with other child abuse survivors and their experience of motherhood. I asked some fellow writers who are mothers what they thought, and they said, go ahead! Supportive non-mothers are definitely part of the picture!
5. Were there any pieces in Musings on Mothering that spoke to you particularly?
Loads of them. Too many to mention. The quality of the content is breathtaking. I will say, though, that Angela Topping’s work always strikes a chord with me. She can touch the deep places and yet does it without any fanfare or pretension – after reading her poems I always feel moved and enlightened.
6. Are you working on any particular project right now?
Oh yes – I’m always messing about with something. I wrote a very rough first draft of a novel during National Novel Writing Month in November 2012, and it’s currently getting its second full edit. It’ll probably need at least one more full edit and then it’ll be off to start collecting rejections – and maybe an acceptance, as Neil would remind me! I’ve also just finished putting my second poetry collection together (PLUG ALERT: My first collection is available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Contains-Strong-Language-Scenes-Sexual/dp/0956581919/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1369299111&sr=1-1&keywords=contains+strong+language+and+scenes+of+a+sexual+nature)
and a book of genre short stories – fantasy, science fiction and horror, with a dash of comedy thrown in. So now all I have is the easy task of finding a good publisher for each of them… oh for that magic wand…
7. Is there any one piece of work that you are particularly proud of?
I’m horribly proud of everything. It’s still all so surprising to have work published and to perform my pieces, and have people laugh and applaud rather than throwing things and leaving. I’m like a child with a birthday cake whenever I get an acceptance.
Winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in 2012 was wonderful – I gave loads of interviews and was mentioned in the international press! I received a fair bit of fanmail too, which is always lovely.
One stand-out memory is of performing in Waterstones recently. I’d had a poem published in an anthology called She’s the One, a celebration of personal heroines. So many ‘50 Great Women’-type books tend to be celebrity lists, whereas this was a book in which people wrote poems, stories and memoirs about those who really meant something to them, whether that person was a war heroine or their sister. I was thrilled to be in it, and performing at Waterstones for the launch was a dream come true. If you’d gone to me just ten years ago and said, “In ten years time you’ll have a book out, be published in hundreds more and be a veteran performer,” I’d have thought it was a cruel joke.
8. Is there any one person (or persons) that you consider to be a true inspiration to you?
Again, too many to mention, but here’s one very special one. Dominic Berry, the performance poet, used to run cheap (or free to those who couldn’t afford it) writing workshops which were both friendly and helpful. He taught me how to appraise a poem in a constructive way – “How attached are you to that ‘and’?” I remember him asking once, and I realised that after one’s burst of creation, one really has to look at every bit of a piece of writing to see what works and what doesn’t. He’s also the king of performance poetry and very friendly and supportive of other performers, and he gave me my first performance gig (and I do over-use the word ‘and’). With his talent it would have been easy for him to concentrate purely on his own career, but he has injected energy, commitment and love into the Manchester poetry scene, and he’s an all-round good guy. He showed me and taught me so much, and never asked for any return. I recommend heartily any book or performance of his – he’s converted many a dubious person to the delights of the written and spoken word.
9. Is there any one piece of art or music, or writing that has influenced you, or inspired you to continue creating?
The writing of Tanith Lee for prose and Sylvia Plath for poetry. Those are the two I keep coming back to, who seem to have a hotline to my inner self and can charge and inspire me any moment.
10. What would you to say to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a creative person, but would like to try their hand at something new?
Oh, have a go! Why not? And (there I go again with ‘and’…) let yourself write crappy first drafts – don’t paralyze yourself trying to write a bestselling classic from the word go. Don’t worry too much about quality at first – just do some writing exercises and write anything you fancy. The more different things you try, the more you’ll find what works for you and what doesn’t. Then join a local writing group. Be polite to everyone, but you’ll soon find out whose feedback is worthwhile and constructive, and you can learn an awful lot. If you’re a poet, try an open mike night or two. And whatever you write, when you have about ten pieces, send them all off to different magazines or anthologies and see what happens. Proofread them carefully and always read and follow the submission guidelines, and you stand as good a chance as anyone. Expect rejections, and throw a party when you’ve had 100. Incidentally, on the first day of every month I post a list of calls for submission and writing competitions, all free and with easy, electronic entry here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Write-Out-Loud-Community/260122457345775?fref=ts – so do have a look and a go.
And always enjoy yourself. If ever it starts to feel a bind, then take a break and remember why you wanted to have a go in the first place – play with words and have fun!
I am delighted to be able to welcome Zion Lights, one of the fantastic contributors of Musings on Mothering, to the Mother’s Milk Books blog. Zion has kindly taken part in my interview about motherhood and creativity, and I think her answers are deeply inspiring and thought-provoking. Many thanks again for taking part Zion!
Zion Lights is a journalist with a passion for life. She has had articles published in The Ecologist, Permaculture Magazine, JUNO Magazine, The Green Parent and more, and is a regular contributor at One Green Planet and The Huffington Post. You can read her articles at zionlights.co.uk or via @ziontree.