Arlo recently knocked out one of his front teeth. It had become loose from, well, an incident at kindergarten. Back home he tried to climb off a stool, lost his balance and fell straight onto the wobbly tooth. At least that’s what we think happened. We hadn’t been paying attention for three seconds. Now our three and a hald year old looks like an Irish rugby player.
The feeling that anything can happen in the three seconds you’re not paying attention is a feeling I only became familiar with as a mother. Just like the feeling of two small hands clutching my neck while I’m trying to wipe away the blood to see if we need to make a trip to the ER. Again. In this past year, the year he turned three, he also broke his collarbone. We had been paying attention then, but I guess you can’t watch out for accidents in which another cyclist knocks over your bike while your child is strapped into the kiddie seat. I wish I hadn’t gotten to know the feeling of pinning down my son to a gurney because he doesn’t understand the pain and is so scared of the X-ray machine that he’s wreathing in my arms. Although it’s also one of the feelings that have affected me most in these past three and a half years: I would rather go through any pain myself than see my child suffer. The need to protect him has only grown stronger since the day he was born. I sometimes think that if it keeps up like this, James will have to go through Arlo’s teenage years by himself. I won’t be able to handle it.
Then again, the feeling of letting go has grown since he was born, too. See, what also happens in the three seconds you’re not watching is this: He suddenly climbs up the monkey bars. Just like that. Without help. After he’d been scared to do it for months. And when you next see him, he’s at the top of the bars, grinning down at you. The moments I realise what he’s capable of? Phew. Phew out of pride. Phew out of surprise. Phew out of relief.
Perhaps this „phew“ is a universal maternal feeling. I can’t be sure. I’m only the mother of this child. A child that the past three and a half years have shown needs more support than other children. I’ve thought very long about how much I wanted to share about that here. On the one hand, his special needs are part of our everyday and it would feel strange to omit that important detail of our lives. On the other hand, it’s personal, for him as well, and frankly difficult to write down. Putting it in words like „fine motor-skills deficit“ or „delayed speech and language development“ puts me right back into one of the offices where we sit across from more or less empathic people, whom we try to explain our child to in 30 minutes. I’m glad that those offices and the people in them exist, grateful for the support he gets and relieved to have met such thoughtful and attentive therapists. But the things I think about when I think about Arlo are not what’s considered important in development charts. I think of his unequivocally English sense for slapstick. I think of how caring he is and that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Of his energy and enthusiasm, his unbelievable drive and how unafraid he is to approach just about anyone. I see him like only I can. And this, perhaps, is a universal feeling after all. Every mother has a complete unique experience of her child, but my ups and downs, my worries and exhaustion, my joy and questions aren’t so different from yours. This has been one of the defining and most encouraging discoveries of motherhood: Nobody is alone in this.
So perhaps some of the other feelings that motherhood has taught me will be familiar to you, too.
The feeling that it’s not at all fair that there’s no warning how pathetically you will love your child.
The feeling that everything is just a phase (and when will the phase end in which he eats week old rice waffles that he finds under the sofa?).
The feeling that everything is just a phase (does that mean he won’t always grab my hand and laugh as we run through the autumn leaves together?).
The feeling of being in a Hollywood movie. Grabbing hand, laughing, autumn foliage, etc.
The feeling of not being in a Hollywood movie. Usually sets in shortly after the aforementioned running through foliage when you’ve made a quick stop at the supermarket on the way home, where your child promptly decides to go off list and proceeds to fill the shopping cart with ten tins of green olives, two chocolate Santas and a gift card for the DIY store. Then, while you’re trying to put everything back, he runs off and when you catch up with him in front of the fruit smoothies, he will have an epic meltdown because you will not buy him a fruit smoothie. Epic! I have simply left the supermarket at times. Without the shopping cart. Not my child. Yet.
The feeling of unconditionally loving him and thinking he’s a total shit at the same time.
The feeling of reading a newspaper in peace because he’s happily playing in his room, by himself, for over half an hour, occasionally giggling.
The feeling of discovering that the reason he’s been happily playing in his room, by himself, for over half an hour whilst occasionally giggling is that HE HAS TAKEN HIS CRAYONS AND TURNED THE FLOOR INTO STREET ART.
The feeling of unexpected competence when you suddenly remember that you bought one of those magic sponges at the DIY store months ago and it turns out that they clean crayon drawings off wooden floors. Mother of the year!
The feeling when first the author, then her own mother, start wiping after your muffin eating child at a party for a book for mothers, which children had been explicitely invited to, and you decide to just leave because you’ve learnt to say: Fuck it. Mother of the year is not an award you should ever have to, want to or must prove to anyone else. We all have different ways. Our way is littered with muffin crumbs.
And, by the way, child of the year is not something that’s of particular interest to anyone either. So stop comparing. Difficult as it may sometimes be.
The feeling of stepping on a piece of Duplo with bare feet.
The feeling of acute pain sensitivity. I find it hard to watch any movie or read any news in which children are hurt or harmed. I also cry like a baby when I watch „Toy Story 3“. Christ, the ending of „Toy Story 3“! Or that ad for diapers the other day. My God, Arlo used to be that small. Or that „Calvin & Hobbes“ comic strip in the paper recently that was so funny and so Arlo and I was reading it all alone at the airport and fuck I need a tissue again.
And yet. The feeling of a being away long enough to really miss him.
The feeling of every night that James and I are both home and we go in to his room before going to bed ourselves, tuck him in and just stand there next to him for a quiet moment.
The feeling of us three.
The feeling of watching Arlo dance to „Giraffenaffen“ for the 576th time, moving in small circles around the living room and jabbing his arms in the air in a move that I last saw at a techno party in 1999.
The feeling of „Giraffenaffen“ for the 576th time.
The feeling of patience. Be patient. Just a little more patient.
The feeling of waiting for the next step in his development for so long that you begin to think: Not gonna happen. And then it does and feels like a seven foot leap straight up in the air.
The feeling of him looking back at you with one raised eyebrow as if to say: Sure I can do that. What did you think?
The feeling when he sorts things out for himself.
The feeling of seeing him as he is in these pictures, which were taken in Denmark last summer, in a place that makes him feel happy and safe, and to hope that he will keep finding that feeling of belonging in himself and a sense of his place in this world. And that, if he loses his way, he’ll always know to come home.
The feeling of needing him as much as he needs me.
The feeling of a full heart.
The feeling of every day. On this day I: get up, probably late. Depending on how late, take a shower, then find something hopefully clean to wear, drink half a cup of coffee while getting Arlo dressed in something hopefully clean and high tail it to kindergarten in an effort not to miss morning assembly. Return home to finish my now cold coffee while looking for an outfit that says „competent journalist“ while remembering that we’ve again forgotten to stock up on a change of clothes for Arlo at kindergarten and hoping that they will not have tomato soup for lunch today. Oh, please don’t let it be tomato soup. Never mind. Keep going. To the other side of town for an interview, make smalltalk, be pleasant, act professional and do a really not at all bad interview. On the way back through town answer five emails on my phone and delete 1088 unopened emails because the thought of having to read them is even more unbearable than the thought of deleting them unopened, while thinking that I’ve been meaning to cancel at least 57 newsletters. Back home, I will remember to pay the fee for Arlo’s gym class, but looking at the calendar have evidently forgotten to cancel my dentist’s appointment two days ago. Never mind. Just keep going. Do a few more emails, start listening to the interview recording, ring my grandfather to congratulate him on his birthday and congratulate myself for finding a satisfying answer to the daily question „what’s for dinner?“: Hot dogs at Ikea. Kick of „competent journalist“ loafers, put on sneakers, high tail it to kindergarten to pick up Arlo before they shut for the day, relieved that they did not have tomato soup and still take half an hour to get him dressed. Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. Drop Arlo at home with James and high tail it to Ikea because I need buy this particular rug today. Nobody knows why. Make it to Ikea, buy the rug just before they shut, get it to the car balancing a hot dog. And then, as I relax for the first time that day, I start to cry.
Apropos of nothing. Apropos of everything. Because at the end of a normal day, even a particularly good day, I am exhausted. Because it’s overwhelming to always have to function. Because the worries about Arlo can weigh heavy sometimes even though he has gone through his life on very light feet so far. Because I try to do my best and still think I should do more. Because I feel so porous sometimes. Because it helps to have good cry. Even if I’m not afraid to ask for help from others.
There’s a series I love on Manrepeller that asks women how they keep their shit together and one of the women answered this: In order for her to feel like she has her shit together, she needs to get up early to write, run with her dogs and spend relaxed time with her kids. Everything else feels tolerable. How little that seems and how much at the same time. I’ve thought a lot about that as I’ve spent the past week in Denmark, working on my next book. Being there alone was so important and necessary, even though I missed our togetherness. In the quiet a few things suddenly seemed loud and clear. How important it is for me to write in solitude. How happy the happiness on Arlo’s face makes me, even when it’s only on Facetime. How good it is to hear my man’s voice when he simply asks: „How was your day?“ As I’ve come back to the typical chaos of our everyday life, I want to ask myself that more: How was your day? It seems so little and means so much to feeling that I’ve got my shit together. Here’s something else that helps: Once in a while, not just when you’re alone in a summerhouse in Denmark, or especially then, turn up the music and dance through the living room by yourself in small circles, jabbing your arms into the air. Instead of Giraffenaffen I recommend Janelle Monaé’s Tightrope.