I am not a big fan of cliches. I usually find them a bit of an awkward intersection in a conversation to mask not knowing what to say or to bridge a ‘gap’; a bit of a ‘pat-you-on-the-head’ validation. At best they are a bit cheesy, at worst a downright lie or an ‘excuse’. Don’t get me wrong – I have used cliches many times myself; said them flippantly and without thinking or knowing what the implications are. But, on reflection, I have hopefully seen them for what they are – a bit of wordy nothingness.
Here are four (I struggled to narrow them down to four) cliches about motherhood (I am saying motherhood because I am a mother, not to exclude fatherhood), that I have learned to find particularly ridiculous. Some I have heard other people saying, and some I have said myself.
1. “Being a Mother Won’t Change Me”
I can remember saying this so many times when I was pregnant with my first child thirteen years ago. I said it flippantly and defiantly, I said it happily and I said it with complete belief. Err hello….what was I thinking? How can loving something so completely with every fibre of your being not change you? How can loving anybody not change you? My flippancy, of course, was referring to my ability to hold my pre-baby personality intact after I gave birth. And, while I don’t think (much) that my pre-baby personality fell out of my vagina with my first-born, I am not naive enough to think that motherhood hasn’t changed me at all. I was so incredibly idealistic in my first pregnancy. Idealistic dreaming, is, in fact, the best part of being pregnant for the first time; imagining how much of a perfect parent you will be and how your perfect baby will reflect your perfect parenting. I was so busy and so consumed with my lovely baby fantasies (oh how I loved my pregnancy baby fantasies), that I didn’t even notice that pregnancy got in first and changed me before motherhood even had a look in. Pregnancy is a rather narcissistic endeavor and especially for women; you become consumed by it, absorb it. How can you not? With your body changing by the minute, and your head riddled with hormones and fatigue, then you are fair game for introspection. The introspection helps you to become obsessed with ‘all things baby’; this is necessary – well it was for me; some of this is wonderful, parts are incredibly stressful. I worried constantly that my babies were ok in there. I counted kicks and I was happy to vomit because this was a sign of healthy pregnancy hormones. I cheerfully swallowed the god-awful enormous folic acid tablets that made me gag daily. The ‘changing’ process didn’t require a transition, it was natural. But, and this is a big but, the introspection wasn’t ever a permanent fixture. At some point, after each of my babies were born, I was reminded of myself again, I claimed myself back. This wasn’t always easy, leaking breasts, (frankly leaking everything), guilt and the constraints of ‘juggling’ can quickly suck your ‘me’ back into the void; it took time and it took effort. For me it involved going back to work (yes, that hot-topic!). My children were always, of course, my first and last thought; my conscious and subconscious absorption of them into my ‘me’ made that inevitable. But I also learned quite quickly through the fug of post-natal hormones, that a retention of ‘self’ was as vital an aspect of parenting as loving your child. I truly believe that this is an essential part of being a parent and I would hope and rather that my four children see a three-dimensional person (complete with flaws) when they think of their mum, than someone flat and unchanging. My pre-pregnancy personality wasn’t lost or gone forever, it had just absorbed my child(ren) and moved on with them. These days I like to think I have been ‘evolved’ by motherhood rather than being changed by it. Maybe this is my rather futile attempt to claw back some of that pre-baby personality, but I think it holds a grain of truth. Motherhood has shaped me organically; the love I feel for my children, my responsibility towards them, my protection of them; these have all entered into other aspects of my personality, influenced other aspects of my life. I have evolved and grown with them and I thank them for that.
2. “Your Body Is Doing What It Is Designed To Do” (pregnancy)
HAHAHA the joke is on us right?
There is nothing, in my opinion, REMOTELY natural about pregnancy! Your clothes don’t fit, your brain stops working, you hurt in places that you weren’t even aware had a nerve membrane and you actually start to leak. For the love of God, why didn’t anyone warn me about the leaking?
Oh I was SO disappointed in myself throughout my first pregnancy; I had spent almost my entire 30 years of life prior to my first pregnancy KNOWING that I would love it. I smugly anticipated growing a life inside me (admittedly that bit was always lovely): I was going to be such an earth mother, my hair would glow, my skin would be radiant and I would have boundless energy until the very end!
Ha – well that CERTAINLY didn’t happen! It felt with every week of pregnancy that there was a new ghastly indignity to come to terms with. Once I had got to grips with chronic fatigue and the horrors of morning-noon-and-night sickness, a random obsession with carbonated water, and a fixation with everything to do with going to the toilet (don’t ask!), after all of that, then there was the rest of it. No burgeoning beautiful bump for me…more a whole body explosion of cake and baby (but mainly cake). I retained water, my hair was listless and my skin was reminiscent of puberty (that would be the cake). Don’t even get me started on piles, veins and stretch-marks and the husband who looked at me with a “who is this monster, (in every sense of the word), I am living with and what has it done with my wife?” look written all over his face. I decided to power through the entire 9 months with moaning. I generally conducted this moaning from a horizontal position on the sofa (whilst eating cake) – but actually anywhere would do. I embraced moaning; moaning became my mantra for pregnancy – my supreme right, a logo. Please bear in mind that I moaned through pregnancy four whole times, that’s 36 months; three complete years of moaning, a veritable moaning marathon. I have absolutely no idea how I have retained friends and a marriage but I like to weigh this up against pushing out four actual human beings out of a tiny exit and various undignified moments in the process to justify it.
In his defence, he doesn’t put up many arguments!
And no I did NOT share my gas and air.
Best thing about pregnancy: giving birth.
Best thing about giving birth: not being pregnant! (And of course holding your beautiful baby).
3. “You Only Get Given What You Can Cope With.
This is one I hear a lot directed towards myself and my husband and my whole family. This is mainly because we have a child with special needs; the ‘partners in crime’ that are thrown out alongside this cliche are “your family is amazing” and “he is so lucky to have you”. These statements make me very uncomfortable for two reasons. Firstly, it bothers me enormously that there is an assumption that we have been ‘singled out’ to be his parents because of some divine patent in our parenting genes. This both places a very unfair benchmark on us as parents, and also undermines the way we parented our older children before he was born – undermines, indeed, the parents of any child within the mainstream spectrum. There is absolutely nothing special about us as parents beyond being lucky enough to have four terrific children. Our parenting is just as full of flaws as everyone else’s and certainly should not be held up as some kind of shining example. Like every family, our parenting has evolved and changed with our children and as our family grew its own unique dynamic. I have come to the conclusion that there is no (beyond actual abuse) right or wrong way to be a parent despite the many, many (often faddy) theories continually put out there for all of us poor parents to chew over and feel inadequate about. We have now learned to rely on only two rules: love your children and follow your gut instincts. These rules apply to all of our children and not just our child with additional needs. Our disabled son is firstly, and most importantly, a loved and valued member of our family – as are his three siblings who are equally loved and valued. When he was born we didn’t suddenly acquire a platinum set of parenting skills – we bumbled through parenting him in the same way we bumbled through parenting his siblings. We were thrust into the special needs world in much the same way as every other family in a similar position – suddenly and without warning, and with very little understanding of the road our whole family was now walking. Yes we have learned new skills – particularly in advocacy, tolerance and patience – but these weren’t bestowed to us; they were taught to us by HIM and if there is anything special about our parenting of a child with special needs it is just that we have been reminded about simple values. He has brought us back to basics in what we value in life and want to nurture within our whole family unit. He, not us, is the amazing one, and he delights us daily with his resilience, cheekiness and sheer determination. Having a child with special needs has obviously posed challenges for our family to juggle, and nothing can prepare you for that. The stress and grief and worry that come with this tiny and helpless (and poorly) baby brings out of you a fighting spirit that you didn’t even know you possessed. There were (and are) moments when providing an equal balance of attention for all of the children became an almost impossible task, frightening moments where questions needed answering about diagnosis and prognosis, but eventually this all settled into a plateau with only the odd moments of turbulence. Our child, our wonderful child, is one of four wonderful children; each one only defined by themselves and by the unit that they are together; each one an equal member of a family. A brother, a sister, a daughter, a son.
The second thing that bothers me about this cliche that ‘singles us out’ to be the ‘ones that can cope’ (it reminds me of Harry Potter unwittingly living the legacy of ‘The Boy Who Lived’), is the assumption that our wonderful son should live his life being irrevocably grateful that he was born into our family. Isn’t it bad enough that he was dealt the hand that he was dealt with, than to then thrust unnecessary gratitude at him for him to swallow?
I have no ‘expectations of gratitude’ for any of my children and least of all him. A family, by definition, is a unit of people bound together by love, respect and a mutuality; certainly not by an oppressive and rule-driven hierarchy. He has the same access to temper tantrums, hormones, misbehaviour, anger and sadness as his siblings as far as I’m concerned – as well as the same boundaries and behaviour expectations, the same opportunities, and the same access to achievement, happiness, success and love. I certainly don’t want him to be taught placidity in order to make his disability easier to swallow for everybody else, just as I don’t want to own the rights to his achievements by the false assumption that I am a better parent than I actually am. His progress belongs to only him, and only he has earned the right to that accolade.
4. “Being A Mother Will Complete You”
I have HUGE issues with this particular cliche – and on many levels, despite the lovely sentiment that it markets. Is it arrogant of me to think that I was a ‘whole’ person already, before I had children – that I already lived a fulfilling life? Had my own identity? Is it wrong for me not to think that my 30 years pre-mothering weren’t in every way only leading me up to that point; that what was driving me then was relevant in its own right? I am reminded of friends I have who either through choice or through circumstances are not parents. How very insulting would it be for me to suggest to them that ‘completeness’ only occurs through parenting a child; that their life is in some way less relevant. Parenthood, I have discovered since becoming one, is shockingly reminiscent of a members-only club on the best of occasions; the suggestion that somehow those not on the ‘VIP’ list are less than whole or are ‘broken’, or not quite as ‘real’ is a shocking lack of judgement and, frankly, extremely rude. Moreover, it is quite a sobering thought to become ‘complete’ so early on in your life; that there is no more scope for change; that the pieces of your puzzle are located and already inserted comfortably into position once you have birthed your last child. Where do you go with that for the next 50 plus years of your life if ‘your work here is done’ and you have slapped a situation closed sign over your brain? What happens when your children are grown up and your ‘completeness’ is shattered all of a sudden?
Each of my children were and are all very much wanted; they are all loved implicitly. As parents we try to nurture a spirit of individuality in each of them; encourage them to move forward and evolve their interests and personalities. How on earth can we expect them to absorb this philosophy if we don’t model it ourselves? Surely it is just as relevant for us as parents to pursue our own unique interests as it is for our children to pursue theirs? For them to see us being motivated by something that drives us is a good thing. It is human – it fosters a spirit of independence, encourages them to do the same. I am not for one minute suggesting that this should be done selfishly or without consideration for the needs of the family, but a time and a place to hold on to my sense of ‘me’, to give my children a glimpse of the ‘wholeness’ of me is, I believe, a more natural version of ‘completeness’ than just a total absorption of them. Another worrying tangent of this cliche that irks me is that it suggests that our children’s role in being born is predominantly to ‘complete’ their parents. I, for one, didn’t go through the gruelling effort four whole times to grow and birth a baby solely to plug a hole in my own ego. My children were brought into this world as free spirits; my role is to demonstrate through my own behaviour, through my parenting and through my love for them, the ideals, spirituality and morality that I value. But ultimately, their path through life, their achievements, their wonderfully different characteristics belong to them, and only to them. How incredibly narcissistic would it be for me to assume that my childrens’ birthright was in some way only to serve my own sense of fulfilment? That their own fulfilment was secondary only to mine? No, my children didn’t plug any gaps in my ‘incompleteness’, but their own ‘wholeness’, their own fabulous uniqueness fills me with pride every single day.
So, four cliches that I have rebelled against…and there are plenty more that set my teeth on edge. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a bit of Christmas-card sentimentality in its place, a bit of wordy cheese. But not used flippantly, and definitely not when it undermines something uniquely relevant to another person. I generally find cliches, and particularly those that pivot on certain central human values (parenting, relationships, faith) either encourage in me complacency, inadequacy or guilt; and what purpose do any of these responses achieve at the end of the day?