I've been musing about mothering this week. I did not immediately take well to motherhood. Did I have postnatal depression? I'm not sure and even if I did it was not profound but I did struggle with the sense that I did not know what to do. I loved my baby from the start but she cried and cried and I couldn't seem to stop her. We moved when she was six weeks old to a town where I knew no one and my husband was working long hours as a junior doctor. I remember vividly the sense of desperation and isolation and the feeling that I had given away a life I had been happy with in exchange for this relentless anguish. But by the time she was six months old things had improved. I had come to know how to care for her and made some friends. She laughed at me when I went into her.
With the second baby we had again moved just before he was born and his first few months are a blur of utter exhaustion in my mind. I envy those who have easy babies and settle comfortably into a milky world of early motherhood. That's not at all how it was for me.
But once my children were no longer tiny babies I loved being a mother (and loved escaping from it too). With every stage I have thought "This is the best bit yet". I loved it when they started to talk, adored it when they went to school and I got some time back for myself yet still knew myself the centre of their world. As they got older I loved sharing my favourite books with them, reading aloud from Swallows and Amazons, watching my daughter explore Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe, my son learning the Stanley Bagshawe books by heart, reciting nonsense poetry with them until we collapsed giggling. I loved taking them to the Science Museum, camping with them, walking and picnicking with them.
When they went to secondary school I loved seeing them grow and change, beginning to know things I didn't, becoming increasingly competent and incompetent. When I married again I acquired another two children and I always felt that this was very cunning. I had always wanted a large family but having discovered that I was not very good at pregnancy and having tiny babies I would not have gone on to have any more. This way I found myself with four children and having four altered the dynamic between my own two for the better, stopped them fighting and competing jealously for attention.
They were all teenagers this new family. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was hard. Sometimes I wanted to tear my hair out but more often it was rich and funny and satisfying. We felt our way to becoming a family and didn't all move at the same pace but we did it I think and now it is as impossible to imagine life without my stepchildren as it is to imagine life without my own. It has been extraordinary to discover you can feel just as much a mother to a child you have not borne. It's not always easy making a new family but it's good.
When they left for university I started working away from home, distracting myself I now see from the empty nest and relishing the chance to throw my energies at work. I liked the university years too but now again I find myself thinking "This is the best yet" with adult children.
Adult children are so interesting. In some ways they are like friends, you look forward to seeing them, like to do things with them, enjoy a chat about what is going on, but because they are family you know how they work in a very special way. You laugh at the same things, you share much of the same history. They have a perspective on their childhood which is like yours yet utterly different. They remember different things yet so often you find that the things you hoped they would remember when they were younger are indeed the things that made an impression: the campfire on the beach, the den in the woods, the holidays in the campervan (as well as the accident with the knife and the time you forgot to pick them up).
In some ways their lives are their own now. They may live miles away, they have jobs and flats and houses and they are not dependent on you. Yet the phone still goes with questions: When should seed potatoes go in? do I remember where the recipe for such and such is? do you need both buildings and contents insurance? And the connection is as strong as ever, deep in the gut. When they are happy you still find yourself smiling for them, when they are worried or stressed you still wake up in the night thinking about them. But you can lie in bed in the morning. You can read without interruption. You can wander quietly around the garden. You don't have to sit by the swimming pool watching them plough up and down for what feels like years. You don't have to talk to people with whom the only common ground is that you are both parents. You don't have to make lunches, fail to find notes from school, harrass them about home work, operate a taxi service. And that freedom makes up for the loss of the everyday closeness in a way that I would never have imagined, particularly as what replaces it is an attachment as powerful and enduring as anything you felt when they were younger. They remain your people, your tribe, the glue that holds your universe together. You would drive across continents for them and throw yourself out of the balloon to save them. But they don't generally wake you at five in the morning.