Yesterday I took part in one of Writing Motherhood’s final events, the brainchild of author and poet, Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Over the past year this Arts Council series has been touring at various writing centres and festivals across the country, offering inspiration to women and mothers who write, and who recognise that creativity is a necessary part of their lives.
The event, with Nuala Casey http://www.nualacasey.com and Carolyn http://www.carolynjesscooke.com was at the Dylan Thomas Centre, and was a full house. After two hours, we left feeling that we’d only just touched the surface of this huge emotive subject. We each did readings, which sparked an in-depth Q&A, and then followed with a workshop around the idea of ‘Firsts’, starting off with a reading of Sharon Old’s poem, First Weeks: http://acupofpoetry.tumblr.com/post/83472917583/first-weeks-by-sharon-olds. Some members of the audience read out their writing, which was heartfelt and moving. People generally followed Old’s lead and wrote about those early days of motherhood, giving birth, or, in some more tragic cases, an early death. I too went back to both my children’s first moments and remembered how different they were.
On first becoming a mother
My first child was born into water. The midwife scooped her out as if she were a big salmon and laid her in my arms. I first noticed her ear, which was as delicate as a pearl; it was undeniably the ear of a girl. I had envisioned a boy growing inside me over the past nine months: everyone had confirmed it, from the shape of my bump (sort of conical and high), my cravings (basically marshmallows), my mood changes (which were violent, like pendulums). ‘What do you think?’ my friends had asked, and I’d closed my eyes and seen him there. But I had a name for a girl, not a boy. One night in the darkness it came to me, right out of the blue: Dora. When I looked at her beautiful profile my heartbeat quickened.
My son’s entry into the world was different. While his sister, first born, paved the way, twisting and turning through my resistant body, head-butting my closed cervix until it eased and opened, millimetre by millimetre, over hours, days… her brother, shot out of me like a rocket (as he now proudly tells his friends), straight onto the hard bathroom floor. While my daughter had an easy transition through water, into a darkened, scent-filled room, staring up at her parents with peaceful inquisitive eyes, my son bawled, as if the cold January air was too harsh for his new skin.
I’ve watched them since, aged eight and six now, and I’ve seen how my daughter still sails through change, unfazed, while my son clenches his fists and refuses to move from my bed to a cot, my breast to a bottle, through the door into his first playgroup. He still looks to his sister: ‘Dora,’ he calls out and she stops mid-skip and thrusts back her hand, which he takes, to happily follow.
That first night, with my daughter between my husband and I on a sheepskin, I didn’t sleep. I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, she might just disappear. I kept checking the tiny flicker of her heart beneath her new white baby-grow.
The first night after my son was born I was desperate to sleep, but he wouldn’t let me. His cries got louder and louder until my mother knocked on the door and asked, gently, carefully ‘Is he hungry?’
My daughter hadn’t fed for her first three days. She was plump and full of endorphins still after our marathon labour, too tired to think of food. I was dreamy, out of touch, and each time I rested her against my breast neither of us had the energy or urgency to persevere. On the third day, the midwife brought a syringe with her. We tried more seriously this time and my daughter looked up at me with a mocking expression as if to say: ‘It’s easy. What have you been waiting for?’
When I put my son to my breast that first night, he fed all night, and barely stopped until he was about three months old.
The first time I had to change my daughter’s nappy after my son was born was a deal breaker. She was suddenly a giant. On breathing his first breath, my son had inadvertently changed her. He’d made her a sister and he’d taught her that she was no longer a baby.