You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Maya Angelou 1928-2014
The advantages of attending a writing class, or group, or having a writing buddy, are the support and encouragement received, plus the motivation and discipline to write.
You may be a writer who never suffers from writer’s block, but many writers procrastinate and find excuses to do anything, but write. (I’m enjoying the fourth cuppa of the day and have completed a heap of tasks, which could have been ignored, just to avoid putting pen to paper for this post!)
Mind you I have been writing all weekend – compiling and editing a class anthology, including my own contributions; also preparing the final lesson for the eight week course coming to an end. However, I have other partly finished poems and stories needing attention, which have fallen victim to my writer’s avoidance syndrome!
The part I love about lesson planning for my diverse classes is coming up with new triggers and prompts, researching ideas to be innovative, and then hearing the different interpretations writers share, after splurging or writing stream of consciousness for 10-15 minutes, or in some classes half an hour.
Words, ideas, concepts, sounds, smells, experiences, memories, music, books, films, songs, people, places, sights, anniversaries… so many simple and complex triggers to produce meaningful, entertaining, memorable and often astounding poems and prose.
Today, my oldest daughter turned 29. Childbirth and first time motherhood life-changing for me and I didn’t need much prompting to write about the experience, events, or my feelings.
However, as always with writing about motherhood,parenting, or similar experiences, there can be widely different connotations, interpretations and perspectives. Writers can always find a new angle, or reflect on an old piece of writing and wonder how it can be improved, or even rewritten. (Most of us are perfectionists and I for one find it difficult to ‘let go’ and declare a piece finished!)
Here is a poem I wrote while I was struggling as a new mother, a reflective piece written recently and some creative non-fiction from years ago that won the Wellspring Women Writers’ Award:
Fruits of Labour
The seed was planted
in love, warmth and joy.
A strawberry, an orange
I ached to hold the fruit –
to have the fruit taste me.
Suckling at the breast,
Then almost too quickly,
became a powerful force –
the controller of me.
Peeling me each day,
strip by strip,
Sometimes I am a strawberry,
then an orange torn apart –
in big thick slices.
My juice is squeezed,
drop by drop,
The growing seed must
Peeling, squeezing, nibbling –
unaware of the bruises.
Anne Courtney Neil – newborn 24/5/1986
The most definitive life-changing event I’ve experienced was becoming a mother. The miracle of birth, a cliche often written about in poems, romanticised or demonised in novels, and in memoir or personal essays, upheld as a must for every woman, or an experience to be avoided or fraught with peril!
My sister-in-law Cheryl, came to visit me in Jessie Mac’s a few hours after Anne was born on May 24th 1986. Cheryl produced, two boys, the first grandchildren for my parents, and whispered to me, ‘welcome to the club.’ I knew what she meant. I felt different.
The exhaustion of labour and the pain of the unexpected episiotomy overshadowed by the elation of holding a delightful, warm bundle of humanity in my arms. A gorgeous baby girl, with blonde fluff as hair and the same brilliant Paul Newman blue eyes as her proud father.
Awestruck, I wondered, how had I managed this? My amazement and shock heightened by Anne arriving three weeks early. Her premature birth meant I had only a vest and one nightie for her. My Mother’s Irish superstition insisted it was bad luck to have too many ‘baby things’ before the actual birth, and I had only finished working full-time a couple of weeks before and refurbishing secondhand nursery furniture took precedence over shopping!
Thank goodness friends and family arrived with baby bundles, many handmade, especially by my talented older sister, Cate who made nightdresses and knitted bootees, hats and jackets, plus a lovely white crocheted baby shawl.
Perhaps it was the shock of the premature birth, or my unpreparedness, but when I brought Anne home to Mordialloc, it was almost a month before I could say, ‘Mummy’s here,’ in response to her cries. Instead I said, ‘Mairi’s here’, ‘Mairi will change your nappy’, ‘Mairi will feed you now’. Life as a mother seemed surreal, the responsibility scary.
Only husband John, knew how uncertain I felt, the fear that I’d wake from this dream to find the wonderful miracle a mirage. Only John understood my lack of confidence – could I measure up to the expectations of my parents and others?
Married before, John had grown-up children. I appreciated his calmness and confidence. As an older dad with years of experience, he was more relaxed than me, despite so much of Anne’s birth and babyhood being a first time experience for him too. He hadn’t been at the birth of his other three children, but had been with me for Anne’s. He didn’t share much of his first wife’s pregnancies either because of being in the Royal Navy. Attitudinal change wrought by Women’s Liberation and feminism hadn’t filtered through either when he and Valerie were together.
My two sisters had spent their lives cooing over babies, wanting motherhood, assuming it was a natural progression once married. I never did. To me, motherhood was a choice not an inevitability or necessity. However, Anne was very much planned and loved. I even went on a special diet, to clean all toxins from my system, in an effort to ensure the best outcome possible for conception, pregnancy and childbirth.
I’m sure, the irony of me producing the first grandchild – and a female one at that – before either of my sisters was not lost on those who knew me. The sojourn into the nuclear family stakes at 33 years old made me a late starter – not for the McInneses though because my parents married in their late twenties (Dad, 27 and Mum, 28). The popularity of the contraceptive pill, meant women had reproductive choices they never had before and I wasn’t alone in delaying motherhood.
Sadly, my older sister, Cate would never experience childbirth as the day I found out I was pregnant she was told she’d need a hysterectomy after IVF had failed and her painful and intrusive endometriosis had spread.
Learning of her physical and emotional pain and the crushing of her motherhood dream, made me hesitate to share my joy. How could I be excited and chatter about the future to her? I’ll always be grateful for the magnanimous way she not only accepted my news, but was genuinely thrilled and happy for me.
Cate was one of the first to visit me in hospital and cuddle Anne, her future goddaughter and was as excited about my second daughter, Mary Jane, three years later. My sister married a widower with two young children, fulfilling her wish to be a mother and is now a doting grandmother – a border I’ve still to cross!
The rain splatters against the lounge-room window; soon a steady beat. Tears seep from the corners of my eyes to become a relentless flow. Powerless, I’m trapped by a tiny being, barely a month old.
My milk is faltering and daughter, Anne protests — a squeal of anger and frustration. Advice rattles in my head… relax, let the milk flow. The more I try, the less I succeed. Anne’s pale skin turns scarlet. She increases her efforts to suck. The pain in my nipple excruciating; I remember a stupid joke from high school, about crippled nipples. Tears almost give way to a giggle. Mum used to struggle between laughter and tears at times of crises – perhaps hysteria is genetic.
The rain eases to a gentle pitter-patter; I picture the nappies suspended from the clothes hoist, waterlogged. A resigned sigh escapes and my milk gushes. Anne’s sucking gentle; rhythmic. Dried tears lie hot on my taut cheeks, below eyes that feel puffy and gritty. I reach for a tissue to remove the huge teardrop suspended on the tip of my nose.
I was a supervisor at the office, BC (before children), coping with calamities, thriving under pressure, meeting deadlines. Now washing soaked by a sudden downpour of rain reduces me to tears. I hope that somewhere in the cupboard there is a packet of politically incorrect disposables put aside for a rainy day!
The telephone’s shrill interruption makes Anne jump — and me curse. It always seems to ring the minute I sit down to feed. Again I’ve forgotten to bring the contraption nearby yet I bought the extension lead to ensure minimum disruption to breastfeeding routine. ‘Mind like a sieve’ must have been coined for new mothers. With Anne attached to my left breast like a leech, I shuffle towards the telephone fastened to the kitchen wall.
‘Hello … We’re fine, Mum. I’m feeding at the moment. Can I ring you back? … You sound upset… If it’s important tell me now … Oh, God! Is there someone else? … Why has Cheryl left? … How’s Iain taking it? … What about the boys?’
Anne presses on my arm. I feel like I’m holding a house brick. She whimpers as I struggle to manipulate the telephone and hold her one-handed. The distraction interrupts the milk supply; tiny nails knead, hard gums bite.
‘Yes, please ring back later … no wait… I’ll ring you back, because I don’t know how long I’ll be…. Of course, I’m upset, but I need to know… We’re a family, we care for each other. … I love you too… ’
I sink into the armchair, stunned, disoriented. My loud curse not just because I’d forgotten to bring the telephone within reach again. Battleship grey clouds loom large floating past the window, darkening the room, matching my mood.
Anne suckles, content, winding down; her sea blue eyes now tightly closed. I stare at the fine golden fluff on her head, her soft creamy skin. From above the nose with eyes shut, her high forehead makes her look so like Iain’s eldest son. It wasn’t so long ago when I held him the day he was born. The tragic news takes on a deeper significance; inexplicable fear gnaws at my stomach.
Cheryl’s whispered, ‘Welcome to the club,’ at the hospital after Anne was born, still a vivid memory. Her acknowledgement that I’d entered the exclusive ‘Motherhood’ made me feel special and proud. I’d matured as a woman – belonged to the world my mother and others, trail-blazed. They could pass on accumulated knowledge and expertise. We looked at each other through new eyes, relating in a different way.
My sister-in-law produced the first grandchildren – two boys. She became my confidante; a reassuring voice during pregnancy, her experience more recent than Mum’s; saved me money by passing on baby paraphernalia and advice.
Where is she now? I relive the bewilderment in Mum’s voice, ‘Cheryl has left Iain and the boys. She said that she should never have got married; the children were a big mistake. She feels trapped, depressed; needs time to find herself.’
I think about my feelings, as unbidden, tears trail down my face.
How will Iain cope returning home to Mum and Dad with a toddler and soon to be preppie in tow? And what of Mum? At sixty-three years of age, Nana is going to be a full-time mother again. Papa will sacrifice his retirement chauffeuring children to kindergarten and school.
The rain drizzles; tears dribble down my face. This time, I cry for my nephews, for my brother, Iain, for my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and for my parents, especially Mum.
In a deep sleep, Anne’s mouth gapes. Her cherubic face presses lightly against my emptied breast; soft baby breath drying the moist nipple freed from tugging gums.
My eyes scan the room. I could walk away from this house. Renovated, with love and hard work, it represents unremitting toil now. Floors to vacuum and wash, benches to scrub, layers of dust to clean, relentless tasks, only noticed when not done.
I stare at my wedding photograph atop the display cabinet. I could even walk away from John, although he is understanding and loving, the only man I ever saw a future with and my best friend. Tears squeeze from my hazel eyes as I realise passion and deep companionship has been replaced by a daily struggle to keep on top of essential chores, and to get through the night with minimum disruption. Anne rarely sleeps, breast feeding on demand exhausting, life one traumatic day after another.
When John rings each evening from work to say, ‘the cavalry is on its way’ in a jocular voice, the words are appropriate. Oh, how I look forward, to handing Anne over – to be amused and bathed by her Dad, before she demands feeding. No one told me how to cope with a baby that slept in twenty-minute snatches during the day, lengthened to two-hourly dozes at night.
‘What did we do with our time before you arrived?’ John often asks Anne, while cuddling her lovingly. ‘Important weekend chores were cleaning the car and my shoes, ready for work on Monday – and ironing clothes,’ he confides to her wide-eyed smile. Adding, ‘tasks that don’t always get done now.’ Anne gurgles or giggles in reply. I flinch with guilt.
The struggle of changing nappies and trying to stay awake to nurse during the night lonely and exhausting. I often worry that Anne will fall out of bed if I fall into a deep sleep, or perhaps she’ll get hurt snuggled between us. John loves waking up nestled close to Anne’s tiny warm body, unaware that the sleeping arrangement is unplanned. The effort of returning Anne to her bassinette pointless when she wakes so frequently.
John sleeps soundly, blissfully ignorant of the battles in the middle of the night — and, like a martyr, I let him sleep while resenting his ability to sleep untroubled. His demanding job not a regular nine-to-five office routine. The two hours driving to and from work dangerous if he lacks sleep and I’d never forgive myself if he had an accident.
Last night, Anne screamed with colic pain, a depressingly regular occurrence. The breast failed to comfort and I fought an urge to hurl her through the window, or throw her to the ground. I craved silence, and sleep.
I stared at John comfortably snoring in bed and wanted to punch him hard. To make him share my suffering, to punish him the way Anne was punishing me. I shook him awake more roughly than usual, yet he jumped out of bed and took Anne without protest. Fleeing the bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table with head in hands weeping deep uncontrollable sobs. I cried from utter exhaustion. I cried because I couldn’t prevent Anne’s pain. I cried for lost patience, for having feelings of resentment and violence, for being inadequate, for lost sexual feelings. I cried because no-one had told me this was motherhood.
Anne’s screaming stopped. John came through to the kitchen with his tousled hair and boxer shorts, looking like a teenager woken late for school. Accepting my outburst as normal, he said, ‘Come on love, she’s sound asleep – come back to bed.’ He gently massaged my neck and shoulders. ‘Remember the infant welfare sister and all those books we read say that you must sleep when the baby sleeps.’
The words sounded so rational, yet sleep was impossible. I sat sniffling at the table. Without further discussion, John made me a cup of tea and returned to bed. When I finally collapsed beside him, fatigue overwhelming, I knew that in a few minutes the alarm would announce another day and I was filled with dread.
* * * * *
From the window, I see sparrows dancing and splashing in a puddle, their carefree flapping the antithesis of the exhaustion and worry taking hold of me. Oh, how I understand why torturers favour sleep deprivation.
‘What stops my soul being destroyed is your vulnerability and times like this,’ I whisper to Anne, placing a kiss gently on her soft down-covered head. ‘You are so beautiful asleep, so innocent, so cuddly, – I don’t ever want to leave you.’
I think of how she murmurs with delight at the sound of my voice, and John’s. Tiny hands playing with my face, searching for my breast, grasping proffered fingers. A fragile defenceless human being, who will selfishly suck my life-blood because of her in-built survival mechanism, yet my body explodes with emotion when she’s near. She triggers an all-encompassing feeling like no other; is part of me in a way that John can never be. She grew from me, and is forever attached, our future intertwined. The controller of me.
I stare unseeing, wondering why Cheryl has rejected the boys now. How long has she been struggling with her feelings? Will she, as Mum believes, change her mind? I shiver. What about me? I think of Mum’s workload – constantly nurturing, answering the relentless demands of six children. Was she daunted, did she want to run away? ‘I’ve never met anyone that rivalled your mother in caring for children.’ My father’s boast implies that somehow everyone else falls short in the parenting stakes. Did Cheryl feel that pressure?
How do you explain that parenting has changed without offending your own parents? Anne is the centre of attention for everyone in our circle of friends and extended family. John regularly telephones to say he loves me, but now begins with, ‘How’s my little princess?’ Is it normal to feel neglected and sometimes resent your own child?
Strangers offer advice; friends and family visit more often to see the baby. Did Cheryl feel resentful, or smothered? I place Anne in her pram before rescuing the washing. I’ll ring Mum later after talking with John. It’s important he knows the thoughts this news has triggered.
An image from childhood surfaces — Mum muttering while baking scones. Six-year-old me interrupts thinking she’s making conversation. I’m ignored and realise that at that moment I have become invisible. Mum is talking to herself.
During my childhood, mum often muttered to herself while doing some mundane task. It was her way of coping with stress. Perhaps, she too felt overwhelmed, found the drudgery; relentless work and incessant demands of children too challenging. Did she have other techniques for coping? What adjustments did she make to her dreams and desires? Did she feel her identity disappeared? I want answers to these questions rather than what type of formula she fed me, or when I was toilet trained.
Am I normal and will the person who is me survive motherhood?
I want to talk with Cheryl in case my journey follows a similar path. Perhaps we can help each other to enjoy mothering. I want parenting to be a positive experience for John and me and for Cheryl and Iain.
I stop in the hallway and glance sideways at the mirror. Are my lips moving?
Your Mother Is Always With You
Your mother is always with you…
She’s the whisper of the leaves
as you walk down the street.
She’s the smell of bleach in
your freshly laundered socks.
She’s the cool hand on your
brow when you’re not well.
Your mother lives inside
your laughter. She’s crystallized
in every tear drop…
She’s the place you came from,
your first home.. She’s the map you
follow with every step that you take.
She’s your first love and your first heart
break….and nothing on earth can separate you.
Not time, Not space…
Not even death….
will ever separate you
from your mother….
You carry her inside of you….