Sunday, 2 June 2013

One plus one doesn't equal two

When our second child was three months old, I flew from Sydney to London with him and our three-year-old firstborn. My husband stayed in Sydney to finish things off.

Without going into the details, the experience of flying, alone, with a breastfeeding infant and a toddler, for twenty-four hours, was almost exactly the same as labour.

I knew the pain would have to end at some point, and I also knew that I was completely on my own, while simultaneously surrounded by people looking at me, just as most women are during modern births.

The main two differences were (a) the lack of epidural on the plane, and (b) the fact that the stewardesses actively ticked me off, rather than telling me when to push.

Nothing could have drilled into my brain better the understanding that we had not added to the family in having a second child, but rather that we had gone forth and multiplied.

No one talks about what it is like to move from one to two children. There is no What To Expect book, with do-gooding and inapplicable advice for the neurotic to measure themselves against. You are expected to get on with it, to know what you are doing, by virtue of having had a first child.

Talking to an old friend last weekend, I was reminded about what I subsequently did. Both she and I responded to having a second child by immediately plunging ourselves into heavy and difficult projects, with long hours, while simultaneously either moving house or renovating a house. Both of us lasted around two years in this state of frenzy, literally running between activities, managing childcare as though it were a small business, before dropping out, completely exhausted. Both of us felt we had something to prove, that we were supposed to swim like swans, paddling furiously underneath, maintaining home and work fronts simultaneously, and smiling as we did so. The women's lot — and what a lot it was. We became military machines, hollowed out by stress, our children simply logistical problems to solve, to be ferried, fed, clothed, activitied, playdated, alphabetized. Husbands receded, and resented. And then both of us came to, and stopped. We both learnt to rebel against orthodox success criteria.

This weekend, I have been talking to my mother about her experience of moving from one to two children.

My mother moved from Holland to Iran in mid-winter, 1970, to an unfurnished house, in Teheran, with a twenty-month-old and a six-week-old infant. Within days, my father had been flown to a distant oilfield. All my mother had was a chauffeur, who drove her from market to shop, buying furniture. He was both husband and wife to her in those early days. After a year, she had to go back to England to 'rest' at her mother's.

How many more women behave like this after having a second child, I wonder? Do women successfully negotiate the changes involved in having one baby, think they've got it nailed, go for the next to satisfy their Baby Hunger, and because so many people have badgered them about the next baby, and because women have been having more than one baby since time immemorial (except in China), and then feel that they must conceal the consequences?

If this is what they are doing, then my question is why? Do they fear being judged as inadequate? To whom are they proving themselves? Is it to other women, or men… or is it to themselves — shocked and terrified to find themselves so much closer to not coping than they ever were with just one baby? What do they think they are trying to achieve? Success or sanity? To me, it felt like the moment when society at large finally got me, finally had its revenge on my ambition and drive for self-determination. Lean in? Just try not to fall over.

One of the worst memories of that post-flight time was one night when an old friend came for supper, while I was living alone with the children in our London flat, without our belongings, which were still in Australia. I tried to tell her how much I was struggling. She stared at me, and then said without emotion, "But you chose this." I felt physically winded. The gulf between us yawned.

Several years later, when she finally had her first baby, and then a second, she quietly said to me at a reunion, "I understand now."

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