It seemed clear that where there was a baby, things were right enough, and that error, in general, was a mere lack of that central poising force. (Middlemarch, George Eliot)
I went to a party once – a long time ago, once upon a time – and it was fine, but fairly boring. (Parties had started to get more boring at around that time). There were lots of my friends there – some of the same ones as now, but thinner, then, and less tired – and we talked about the things we talked about at that time, and we drank wine (your mother, it has to be said, drank steadily more than the others), and we laughed and made jokes. But when some of the jokes, or perhaps just my smile, had fallen a bit wan, I finally played the old excuse card, and went upstairs to the loo.
As I walked up several flights of stairs, the occasional wooden board creaking softly under the carpet, I heard a gentle, but troubled wailing. I followed the sound, and as the lame uproar of the party diminished into a muffled warmth, the startled notes led me to a door, slightly ajar. I pushed it gently open. There was a baby, just like you, lying in a cot on the floor. In fact there were two. There were two little boys (are you a boy, I wonder?) all wrapped up in their cots. One of them, the one I had heard, was crying, and the other one was stirring – making irregular little starts – just about to be woken up. I bent down to the floor, and kneeling in front of the crying baby, looked into his questioning, quietening face and picked him up. It was a natural thing to do. But I still felt a bit like I was pretending. As I walked around the darkened room, bouncing this soft body on my hip, and singing into its ear, I felt like a bit of a fraud. No, not quite a fraud, that’s not quite right. More like an impostor. No, that’s not quite right either; a surrogate, the shepherd who finds the changeling: I’m not this child’s mother, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I will try to teach it other things.
After its little body had stopped shaking, after we had travelled the moonlit room in slow, conspiratorial circles, I laid him down on his blanket, and we stared into each other’s eyes. For what was a very long time. And I am absolutely sure that we had a conversation. Of secrets, and inklings and smiles. And I was terrified.
You see, to that child, I could be the one who taught it strange things. The eccentric aunt, the fairy-godmother, the snowman who vanishes into the night. But not to you. To you, my very unborn child, I have to be a mother. And that’s an awfully big thing to be.
I am worried, you see, that that you will steal my soul.
You’ll want: love, structure, calmness, routine. You’ll want to be the first thing I think of in the morning, and the last thing I think of at night. You’ll want to climb into the spaces in my head where no one else has ever been let in and stay there forever. And you will deserve all these things in honest, animal need.
(I am sure that once you have stolen it, I will be more than happy to have seen it gone. It’s brought me quite a lot of trouble, in any case, and frankly, I’m quite bored of it. But sometimes in the odd moments I have of successful solitude, I am a miser for my own loneliness. My own own-ness.)
Sometimes, I hope, you’ll just want to have fun. And I can imagine that: the silent games of eyes, and sound and touch, the animal improvisation of love. I like the thought of that. Because it’s not that I don’t like children. I prefer them to adults, most of the time. Lost in their (not so innocent by the way) curious, limber play.
What I can’t imagine is you. I imagine … being desperately in love with an utterly irrational man (terrible – I’ve tried it); having a funny, delightful, irrepressible friend that can’t help projectile pooing into your hair; or having acute insomnia for 40 nights straight where an unknown but deeply felt sense of responsibility makes you run around a house in which all your belongings have been upturned in terrifying chaos; and I take all of that, multiply it by a biologically galvanised n to the power of everything squared, and the thought of you still feels as far away as the moon.
And maybe that’s where you should stay. There is quite a surplus of little crawlers in this once upon a time, lots of whom I already have a real and deep affection for. Reproduction is certainly no good thing for the planet or for the poor recipients of its force. You certainly DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN, words you will no doubt hurl at me some distant day in horrified accusation, when I have become a mother – a person who is always awake at breakfast time, who has to learn her timestables and the Tudors all over again (are they still teaching that?), and careers (not herself but) a trolley around the frenzied aisles of a supermarket while you sneak fizzy drinks and biscuits into its hold.
Because even if do you steal my soul, what will become of yours? How will I protect it from the horrors outside the door? Or even harder, how will I protect it from the horrors within? Will you be made to carry the family baton in this long endurance race of grief? Will there be that first night where you sit awake till dawn, with terror pounding through your unfortified heart, aware in sudden and new clarity of the absolute futility of it all? Will falling in love, or the spring light as it falls on a tree, or just a pull-your-socks-up-common-sense of your luck in the general scheme of things make it all worthwhile? Or – god – will you not be lucky in the general scheme of things? Will you be prey to earthquakes, and fuel wars and violence and mistrust?
If Larkin had his way, you would be ordinary. In fact, he’d have you dull:
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
Yeats would have you happily married off. I am trying to summon all my strength just to not want anything for you. Not to hope you have all the things I didn’t, and all the things I did, nor to frame your being with the stiffened angles of my own regret. Not even to hope you will be able forgive me, for all my many trespasses. (Forgive me, your not yet mother, for I know not what I do).
You are of course a miracle. A common, but no less miraculous, thing. You have hands and feet that are so small they make people remember an innocence they never knew. You are endlessly fascinating to me, even if I did sometimes find myself – in the slow, empty chaos of hours and days and weeks after you were born – torn asunder by fear and boredom and shock. Even if a genetic predisposition to not dealing with you at all well hovered in the shadows of the room as I held your hungry mouth to my breast. No. I love you, I am sure, more than all the love I have ever held in my heart.
But in this catching of happiness – if I am to be a good mother – will you make me dull? Will the patience and the calm and the safety I hope to god I will give you upend the glorious mess of my days? Will the stability you deserve constantly battle with my need to be free?
It’s the women I listen to. George Eliot ridiculing Celia in Middlemarch: that familiar figure of nappied inanity lost in a world of maternal arrogance. A pregnant Plath, having ‘boarded the train there’s no getting off’. But then Woolf, with whole houses and a mind of her own, howling, childless, in the night…
My very far away, unborn hope: of you I am as terrified as of an unknown child in a darkened room, whose clear vowels rise through the moonlight, asking only for love.