Sunday 18 March 2018

Birthing pains of a perfect mother

Alison Walsh offers an adroit account of the maternal struggle down three generations, says Rosita Sweetman

Rosita Sweetman

In My Mother's Shoes

Alison Walsh

Macmillan, €14.99

Yay for Alison Walsh! The first Irish woman in four thousand million years to produce a book which is not chick lit but an adroit, and honest account of having babies (in the UK, and here), of bringing up babies (ditto), of being a Celtic Tiger mum, working all the hours God sends, to being a-stay-at-home mum, plus all the messy compromises in between.

Charmingly, she also writes about the two key women in her life, her grandmother and her mum, comparing their experiences with her own. It gives her narrative a long and interesting perspective.

The descriptions of "Nana's" life down the country -- with a patriarchal husband who decided his (much beloved) wife, who from aged 16 up till marriage had been supporting her entire family, didn't even need to learn to drive since he could "do all that" -- are woven into the Walsh's own story along with an account of her mum's life, 30 years later. In a Dublin suburb, happily married to a husband who took the baby out in his pram to the neighbour's amazement ("only the English did that"), Walsh's mother looks nostalgically back to her heyday as an air hostess for Aer Lingus (she had to resign on getting married), her adult life overshadowed by the early onset of autism in her eldest son (after a difficult pregnancy and a horrendous hospital birth), and her outsize, eccentric mother.

By comparison, the author was going to be a Perfect Mother. Living the high (literary) life in London, her husband a chartered accountant and part-time writer, her first birth was going to be an all-singing, all-dancing, all-spiritual, high. The first pregnancy ended, suddenly and brutally, with a miscarriage. But, mostly undaunted, she checked in a year later, still in London, for the birth of their eldest son, "the worst, and best" experience of her life.

The bad part was the indifference -- at every level -- to the birthing mums. While the hospitals talk the talk of "choice", "birthing pools" and "midwife-assisted, mother and baby-centred" experiences, the reality for most mothers, particularly for terrified, first-time mums, is the exact opposite. Natural-birth midwives worldwide (an endangered species) question why mums need to be in hospitals at all, and see the whole "business of birthing" as a gigantic scam. Alison Walsh doesn't go quite that far, but contrasts the chaos of her first hospital birth in London, with a "community midwives" scheme back here.

Of course, when the baby does arrive, the fun begins. Yes, having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a relationship; yes, first-time breast feeding is really sore, really scary and really really difficult to persevere with; and yes, after the high of birthing comes the knee-watering realities of no sleep, raw nipples, stitches and your very own, pint-sized Yoda whose needs you must put before your own if he/she is to survive.

After a re-location back to Ireland, to a seaside town where everyone wore hoodies and/or was on heroin, and all her friends were either yummy mummies in gigantic four-wheel drives, or just yummies in gigantic, high-powered jobs, she and her guy finally decided to swap roles: he would stay home, write and push the baby buggy along the seafront, she would go back to a job.

It was progress right? Unlike her Nana whose only outlet was the ICA, and her mum whose "frustration at the narrowness of her horizons was palpable", she was a liberated woman. A working mother. Huzzah!

Except it wasn't huzzah. It was staggeringly difficult. Rush the children out of bed. Rush them to school. Rush to work. Rush home again. Rush through supper, homework and rush through a few hours sleep before it all started up again. She admits she was subtly horrible to her husband (Oh, the power of being the breadwinner) and after the birth of their third child realised she didn't mind if she never went back to "work" again.

At an early morning editorial meeting in a London it struck her that she was, thanks to the exhaustion of it all, "cynical and burnt out", a "blubbing, leaking, mess".

She came home, handed in her notice, and picked up the reins of full on motherhood for their now three offspring while hubbie went out to work.

Has she ever looked back, like her mum, and wished for the "good old days" when she had her own career? Not really. It did take her time to "bed down"; she now happily survives on "the Ryanair approach to housework" -- no frills and no extras -- and part-time editing. I like it.

She has also come to terms with mothering; accepting herself for the "good enough" mother she actually is, as opposed to the Perfect Mother of her imaginings. She finds herself, somewhat to her surprise, enjoying the routine of school, homework, swimming, supper, stories.

And she begins to understand what seemed inexplicable in her own mother's and grandmother's behaviour. Life, long-term family happiness, is about compromise. We can't actually "have it all".

She is loath to pass judgment on other mums. If they work, she remembers only too vividly what that was like; if they don't, she knows the value of that too.

She marvels at how lucky she is; with her good marriage, good husband (with job), three great children whom she clearly adores and freelance work she can do from home. So what if the shining white desk lovingly installed in her home/work office is instantly inhabited by Star Wars figures, a ceramic boot, a broken water gun?

And while I don't entirely agree with her conclusion that "equality is shunned for domestic stability -- in marriage as in life, we can't have it all", I think the discrepancy is societal: it is the norm to value paid work, careers, salaries, over the unpaid, "hidden" work of caring, and the incredibly important work of rearing the next generation.

Changing that norm, bringing the vital things in life back to the centre -- love, parenthood, and rock 'n' roll -- is what the next stage of our evolution as a species is, hopefully, going to be all about.

Well done girl.

Vive la Evolucion!

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