Once upon a time my children put me on a pedestal, looking up adoringly – or so I like to remember. Today my teenagers eye me off in the kitchen, shoulder to my shoulder, a whiff of unspoken pity. Their pity springs less from knowing that, touch wood, they’ll be on the planet longer than me, than from a long-lost memory that once I was the founder of their universe, the moon above, whereas these days I’m just their mother.
What child doesn’t daydream of what their mother might have been had family life not clipped her wings? An opera singer? A fashion designer? A doctor abroad? A climate activist? A start-up queen? I know I once did. After growing up on a sheep farm, my mother was going to work for the Wool Board, championing natural fibres against the onslaught of artificial ones. She wasn’t going to work for charities, play golf, have her hair done and be at home for my sisters and me after school – which for years is exactly what she did.
I haven’t worked for charities. I’ve never played golf nor attended coffee mornings. However like my mother I’ve been around for my family. Not because I’m self-sacrificing. Ultimately I gave myself to my children, for as long as I have, because devoting myself to them – making them feel wanted, connected, solid – felt as good for me as it did for them. It gave me a lot back. I knew that loving my children unconditionally was to love them just the right amount, and that in surrendering to family life there’d be no sacrifice. I knew that I wasn’t giving anything up which wouldn’t be returned in kind.
Except that I didn’t always feel hopeful enough, secure enough, unanxious enough, to believe this. This was partly because my ambitions as a writer clashed with being there for my children. It meant squaring the circle, which for me was code for feeling stressed. Did I, I’d fret, love my children too much? Was I weakening their life force and robbing from my own? In doing my best for my children, in putting them first, was I failing to live up to the promise given me by my mother’s love?
Fed up of juggling work and family, and despite occasional fretting, eventually I surrendered to family life. There was no particular day on which I let go, succumbed. It just happened. Losing control in this way was scary. It went against everything my hard-won independence had taught me. Quite possibly I’d never have surrendered to family love if my daughter hadn’t upset the careful balance that I’d arrived at with my son. With just one child tugging at my trouser leg I could still focus on my work. With a child tugging at each leg I lost my balance. Their father was there for them too. However his work-life balance never went belly up. His surrender was never complete.
Even when we had chicken pox in the house I never stopped working. I always cared about ideas and writing. I always found time to sneak out of the house to write. And standing in line for the cash register at the supermarket, I certainly never thought that money didn’t matter.
In the end it wasn’t my work that carried me through, that made sense of the swirl that family life has been for me. Something else helped me stand firm. ‘The longer trees grow at first’, wrote Thoreau, ‘the stronger they are at the core. And’, he added, ‘I think the same is true of human beings’. With Thoreau at my side I felt hopeful that if I surrendered to family life my children would grow strong enough inside to one day let me go, at which point I’d be free.
Whatever fantasies my kids entertain about the woman I might have been had they not come along, I feel richer for spending a lot of time with them. And already it’s time for me to start letting them go. This is both a sad and glad thing. In letting them go, in letting them down nicely, with any luck they’ll be free to seek their own horizons. And while being a mother will always be central to me, I can now catch glimpses of my own horizon, which I trust I’ll be brave enough to surrender to.