I said yes to my college reunion dinner, and regretted it less than a minute later.
I said yes because I miss it, terribly: the old wood, the smell of books, the sense of my whole life glittering ahead. But as I messaged friends in between directing the pyjamas-and-teeth pageant that plays every night to a riotous audience, I wondered what I was letting myself in for.
I imagined sitting at a table with my graduating class (many of them lawyers, politicians, journalists) and being asked what I do now, and responding with a self-deprecating story about baby faeces. I was embarrassed about the worry: I felt that I was letting the side down, somehow. But all the same, I was afraid.
The next morning was different: somewhere between waving my sons into their classrooms and driving off with the baby to the supermarket, I settled back into my car seat and felt sudden peace. Deep, vibrant satisfaction. This is my life, I thought. I’m going to plan our meals, and fill our cupboards. I’ll wind us all up like intricate clocks, and set us all in motion. It felt good, and real, and true. The kind of work their universes are made of.
I get those little, burning moments of fulfilment every now and again, like tiny jewels glittering in a sea of petty frustrations. I wish we wrote about them more. I read another article this week, where the thirty-something author talked about moving onto the baby phase like it was the end of her life. From where I sat – in, what, the afterlife, I guess? – it did sting for a moment.
But in one way I suppose it was fair: society doesn’t value the domesticity of a parent. No one is going to clap me on the back over lunch for my accomplishments. No one will arrange drinks in my honour the day I finally change six nappies without getting any of it on my fingers even once. (See?)
I thought how deeply odd it is, hammering women with ‘are you thinking about having babies yet?’ questions until their eardrums blow, and yet, once they’ve done it, pushing them smartly off a cliff.
It infects me, though I wish it didn’t. A sneaking sense of inferiority that makes me swing between honest pride and ragey jealousy at my husband’s career, that makes me say editor first and baby-wrangler second, when people ask what I do. As I dig down underneath my frustrations I find it’s taken root there, lonely and secret in the dark. No one thinks this is work.Not even you.
I don’t know whether I’m fulfilled or ashamed, irreplaceable or irrelevant. What will my children think of me, when they look back at their childhoods? What will my daughter think? I don’t know how to tell my own story to myself, to them, without making myself a supporting character or wandering off the path into thorns.
I revolt against that, though, even as I write it. I imagine sitting round that impressive table and telling a different story, where I am the protagonist of something beautiful. I go into my daughter’s room and she lifts chubby arms towards me, hair damp and curly at the nape of the neck, and I shift her weight into mine and breathe her in. I listen to my four-year-old talk for a full seven minutes about his favourite pair of underpants, layering toast in peanut butter and sticky jam. I read from Prisoner of Azkaban while they jump around me like skinny monkeys in pyjamas, voice cracking in the sad parts, mangling Hagrid’s accent. We talk about bodies, and feelings, and respect, and fear. Not real, all this? The largeness of my little life stretches so wide I cannot hold it all in one.
I celebrate it. I have to, and we all should: the fact that we are essential to someone. The sacred spaces we make to hold them safe. The choices we’ve made that have made us in return.
Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, ‘Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new’.
Like bread, I remake my love, my life, by getting my hands dirty.
Like bread, I make it new, inhale the scent of it, and happily, greedily, cram it all in.