The Second Act
I thought I would share a little part of what is probably my favourite essay in The Therapy of Puppy School. The Second Act is all about the recalibration one undergoes as a parent, as little chubby pre-schoolers become fully-fledged kids and I have chosen two passages to pull out and publish here.
It struck me, as I looked down at her that night, days out from her 7th birthday, her lovely face tipped to the night sky, that she’s a child now. She’s a kid. Bear with me. This wasn’t so much shock, as if she had morphed from a crinkly newborn into a gangly kid on that very dance floor, but acknowledgement, dragged from the depths of my person. Acknowledgement that the parenting landscape has changed for me. The terrain is different now. I think what is interesting, or at least what I am finding, is that as your children get older, one’s ego is quietly yet soundly removed from the picture. At some point, as their shoe size veers sharply away from adorable and their language suddenly possesses ‘well actually’ and ‘it’s understandable’, children cease to be solely about you or, at least, you cease to be their frontwoman. I know you’ll all say, ‘children are never solely about the parents’, and perhaps ‘about’ is the wrong word. But, when you have a baby, it’s almost like possessing an extra limb for a time. That baby is very much from you, of you, on you, presented to the world by you. People search its face for you and find you in the nose or the chin or the ears. You carry that baby everywhere, it requires your voice because it cannot use its own, it requires you to feed it, hold it, bathe it. You choose the clothes, you summarise the personality traits, you tell the baby where it’s from, who it’s like. Have you noticed how easily we can put things on babies because they cannot refuse them. ‘Oh, that’s so typical! She does that all the time! Such a stubborn little thing! So independent, so feisty! So affectionate! Such a dreamer!’ All the bog-standard baby things that billions of babies do every day take on meaning created by and inferred by you. You are the context; the historian, the playwright. And then one day, there’s a child that comes up to your waistline, who doesn’t like those leggings, nor that skirt you think is adorable, who recounts stories revealing a lens that isn’t yours, who occupies time and space in a world that now belongs to them in a manner entirely independent of you. That little girl with starry eyes on the makeshift dance floor at that garden party, was making a memory that belonged entirely to her and I was but a bit-player in it.
When they were neatly tucked up in my uterus, curled and fattening, it was clear. They were in there – in me – and what’s where it all fit. The love, the worry, the hope. The fear. It all squeezed into my insides, as though it had nowhere else to go. I didn’t know how far outside of everything I would stretch, how much control over all of my ideas and expectations I would lose. Then it felt exciting and yet containable. Even when they were born, I simply popped them on the boat and we kept sailing, together, a little package. I fed the package, I kept it warm, it slept with me in my bed, safe and loved. But now they’re so unwieldy and gangly, I can’t wrap them up and tuck them into a small space, keep them safe and contained, they don’t fit. None of it fits, the worry, the angst, the thrum of uncertainty.
You would imagine that their leaving my body created a space big enough to fill with the anxiety, the squeezing love, the lessons and language and wisdom and foolishness and sadness, to fill with the feelings that keep coming like soap bubbles. But when they came out, my organs simply returned to where they always were, before my uterus – now tiny again – muscled them all out of the way. My spleen – does it hold all of the worry? Will they be good humans? Can they stand up for themselves but also for others? Will they learn when to hit back and when to walk away? My lungs, do they hold the hope? They can expand, can’t they, blow up with anticipation, push it all out into the atmosphere. What is in my tissue – the fear that they’ll meet bad people, that they’ll be taken from me? And my tendons, do they hold that bendy frustration, that wild brand of fatigue-driven fury that means we snap the fifteenth time we ask them to put their pyjamas on and yell and slam a door and feel guilty about it later. My liver must hold the guilt, the viscous stuff I lose myself in some nights, when I am certain I am making a mess of it all. My liver’s weighty enough, it self-cleans.