I have just read a piece by suffolkmum about attending a christening. She talks about seeing other women apparently making other choices about how to live, how to work, how to be a mother. It is the huge unanswerable question: how to live? Not just for women, for men too, but women are brought up against it by childbirth in a way that men often aren't until later in life. That might be it's own strait jacket too, the assumption that men will work and support and be relied upon whether they like it or not.
I stopped work when the first of my children was born although I was young and hadn't really got a career to leave. I loved my children passionately, lost myself in the smell and feel of them, marvelled at the chance to see the world through their eyes, but struggled too. Some mothers seemed to have houses that hummed around them, warm and bright and covered with children's pictures. Their children played with playdough and sand but the table was always covered with a bright wipable cloth, both boys and girls had bright wipable aprons and, when they were finished doing and making, their children had dilute apple juice and homemade biscuits. I felt often that I was walking in treacle, constantly putting my hands down in sticky stuff, suddenly and unexpectedly falling into a day of delight with my children and then back into the confusion of missed appointments, broken nights, lost socks, full washing baskets.
I found some part time work out of necessity when the younger was three and that was both harder and oddly easier. My marriage had come to pieces around me and the job was money, competence, self respect somehow, not to be wholly dependent. And I was better at slightly older children. I never knew this before I had children, that you could have a propensity for different ages, like a mastermind specialist subject. I loved reading to them and with them and watching their difference: my daughter reading before school, becoming the kind of child who hoovered up books, who read so fast she was always clamouring to go back to the library, who loved the books that I had loved and who introduced me to all sorts of new ones; my son much more physical, although thoughtful, the amazement of the mother of a boy at producing a creature so other, strong, skilled at ballgames, delighting in roughness.
When the younger was about eight I went to work full time and remember the constant sense of failing to do anything well, of choosing a week of focussing more on the children followed by a desperate catch up week at work, of having practically no social life. Have you read Allison Pearson's "I don't know how she does it"? That catches it so right. People were always asking me in that way which pretends to be admiring but holds within it the silent possibility of criticism, the belief of the full time mother that you couldn't be doing a very good job, as not just a working mother but a single one.
"How do you manage?"
"I just have very low standards."
The questioner would laugh as if I had made a joke but I was deadly serious.
And then teenage children and remarriage and oh how much easier to be sharing it all again, although my children's father was always a big part of their lives. But four children now and the building of a new home and a new family from two with different histories and traditions and different unspoken unassumptions. Is it all right to leave your schoolbags in the hall? not to lay the table? to leave a wet bathmat on the bathroom floor? not to send a thank you letter? One family's sin anothers normality. Leave it, leave it, leave it. Focus on the positive, the laughter, the mutual support, the joy of a full house and as for the other stuff, let it go. And all the time working harder and harder, hooked on the adrenalin of work, the buzz of approbation, the joy of cracking something difficult, of playing with the big boys.
And now the children are adult and making their own way and I am working less and wondering what the next stage of my life is for. It is extraordinary to have grown up children while still feeling about thirty four. I look at what mine have coped with - full time mothering from me, part time care, holidays with my parents when I was working, the break down of my marriage and the forming of a new family - and there they are clever and kind and strong, there for each other and their stepsiblings, making their own way in the world but still rooted in family, forging their own relationships and preparing to make new families. Maybe it matters less what choices you make that how you live day to day, loving them, being there, being reliable, trying as my husband says, to give them roots and to give them wings.
Let them fly now.