Saturday 21 September 2019

'Most parents are making it up as they go along' - Irish scientist charts the ups and downs of motherhood

Scientist Maria Boyle charts the ups and downs of parenting twins in her hilarious TwistedDoodles cartoons. Here, she reflects on how becoming a mum has transformed her - and pays tribute to her own rock of support

Twisted Doodles
Twisted Doodles
The Newborn Identity: Revelations from the First Year of Parenting by Maria Boyle, Twisteddoodles illustrator, is published by Transworld Ireland at €14.99

I wasn't sure if being a parent was for me; as I grew up it wasn't one of the things that came into my head. I didn't feel like I'd quite mastered being an adult. And as well as this was the burning thought that maybe I couldn't - I'd had cancer as a teenager and worried that the experience had robbed me of my ability to have children. And then there was the idea that maybe I shouldn't, because no one tells you that the cancer won't come back, they just tell you it's been five years, and then 10, and then you're wondering when your life starts.

I realised that maybe cancer hadn't robbed me of my life but my ability to live, and I needed to move forward. After I got married, I thought it best to get our lives sorted, get a house, better jobs, but all that really happened was time moved on. I worked as a scientist but also made a name for myself drawing cartoons - under the name Twisteddoodles, which I can't get used to people saying out loud - which I paraded through various social networking sites.

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I found out I was pregnant because I peed on a stick - mostly on my hand but also on a stick. When I told my husband, he was delighted, but I had mixed emotions about all the possibilities and tragedies that could emerge. At seven or so weeks I had a bleed and then a scan and the words, "There's one. There's the other," meaning I was having twins. Twins: the instant family, the buy-one-get-one-free, the follow-up to telling your friends that you're pregnant that makes them swear because they can't imagine what they'd do if it were them.

I think you can explain to someone what being a parent is like in theory but it doesn't really stick until you get to the practical segment. It is like reading a manual on how to get to the moon without ever really going into a rocket. Becoming a parent is much like the Apollo 11 mission to the moon: it usually involves two people trying their best not to ruin everything while a load of people shout instructions at them from the safety of their own smugness. Yet at the same time someone might tell you that "being a parent is not rocket science" and that the basic idea is to keep a child safe and happy, free from being chased by wolves or cuddling power tools. I found that I felt judged as a parent, the idea that my actions could be reported to some sort of secret parenting police who would deem me unfit. But I also recognise that most parents are making it up as they go along, and to hide this fact they pass off any knowledge they've gleaned so far on newer parents while also saying "it gets harder" or "enjoy them while you can". I now understand that parenting is hard and there are moments of active enjoyment but some of it is retrospective, looking at photos and remembering how small and cute they were while forgetting that they once cried for four hours straight.

I've realised that my notion that being a parent comes naturally is derived from watching my own parents, who no matter what the situation seemed to know what they were doing. My mother is a practical woman who I thought really enjoyed doing laundry, telling us to cop on while at the same time telling us things would be okay. I believed her.

My mother was and is a constant in my life, a steady spot to which I look on the horizon that lets me know things are going in the right direction. My children are now three and struggling to grasp that I have a Mammy of my own, mostly because they think their grandparents exist only for them. They insist that every card they make go to them whether appropriate or not, for example a card for their father's birthday. But Mammies need Mammies too, even now I still call my mother if I am sick to get that seal of approval that my illness is legitimate and that I should look after myself.

The front we put up that "everything is okay" as parents is learned. My having a brief sob alone as I packed a bag for my daughter to go into the hospital before coming back composed and practical. A memory of a 15-year-old me watching my mother have a brief cry in the car after they told us that my cancer had spread. "It will be okay, this will be okay. Let's go to Dunnes and buy pyjamas and slippers."

After I became a mother I felt a bit lost, I didn't know who I was, or what had happened to who I used to be. I used to wonder if that would come back or would my world be entirely babies and being incredibly tired.

Now I am me, I can't really remember who I used to be before this. I am now a mixture of parent and person. I cannot imagine my life without my twins and have no regrets about this incredible endeavour. After all, I am still me, I am still the person who isn't sure what she is doing, the person who wonders if she's adult enough to be a parent, the person who works, who is a friend and a wife and who draws strange cartoons online. When given the opportunity to pitch a book of cartoons I said, "I want to do one about being a parent" but it ended up not just being a book of cartoons.

Motherhood is one of these areas which is written about repeatedly, like every new mother and new birth is experiencing some sort of revelation, as if they're the first to do it. There's a whole lot of "You've had a baby? So what? Loads of people have had babies - I was a baby once." I am certainly no exception to this, I kept a diary where I wrote about what was happening because I was trying to explain it to myself, trying to make sense of it. Not massive pieces, small bits of writing in the quiet moments between one poop-related disaster and the next, trying to figure it all out. And that diary which I wrote for me ended up in the book too.

I still haven't figured it all out. But what I know is this: I am Mammy, I am to my daughters a constant who seems to enjoy doing laundry even if sometimes that just involves me lying on a large pile of clothes for five minutes before putting them away. I am the person who seems to know where everything is in the house, including their favourite things which they love as much as they lose. I am the giver of hugs.

I used to think Mother's Day was just an excuse to sell cards, that it didn't matter. Now suddenly it does - if being a parent is a job, it's like the annual review, the bonus, someone simply saying: "I see you and all you do." And what you give doesn't matter, it can be an illegible card or flowers or simply your time. It's just the idea of your role being acknowledged, if only for the day.

And someone telling you that you're doing a good job because you constantly question whether or not you are. But you are. You are doing a good job.

'The Newborn Identity: Revelations from the First Year of Parenting' by Maria Boyle aka Twisteddoodles, is published by Transworld Ireland at €14.99.

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