Five Days, Five Turns
My motherhood journey told through a few difficult U-turns
The route to my daughter’s day-care centre is fraught with U-turns. On the days leading up to our orientation day there, I mentally rehearsed them every chance I got. In the shower, while cooking, in Boxing class — I vigorously played out all the scenarios.
The toughest of those many turns was right at the end of my street. It was on a narrow part of the main road, with parked cars always blocking my line of sight. Additionally, there was a railway crossing, a traffic signal and a hip bakery all within a 100 meter radius. For a few days every morning, I put my daughter in her pram and lurked on the sidewalk; trying my best to learn from other U-turners — the valiant heroes with a rare mastery of a buttery skill.
When I pictured myself making the turn though, I would think of vengeful cars coming at me, passersby judging my turning radius or holding up the traffic of an entire town, eventually being air-lifted off the road. Each day my mind would throw up fresh scenarios that my nervous system would anxiously metabolise.
On day one, Monday, I strapped my daughter into the car seat and threw her bag in the boot. It was packed with spare clothes, a water bottle, a hat, a puffer jacket, a beanie, her sleeping sack and Tony the pony. All of the items were labeled with her name, Sufi, in permanent marker. This was the first day, the first 8 hours, that she would spend with carers who weren’t family.
I had had Sufi 16 months back, one month earlier than her due date, and I didn’t quite feel like I caught up for a long time. When they placed her on my chest after an emergency C section, my anaesthetic Birdsong at my left shoulder, my confusingly scrubs-clad husband at my right, the first thing I noticed was the soft coat of down hair that was still covering her. As they weighed her and checked her, my husband’s butt blocking my view, I felt suspended in a silent film.
She was underweight and severely colicky, and a lot the nights of our first few months were spent on the bright orange couch out in the living room, where one of us would’ve rocked her to sleep after hours of trying. My large exercise ball would be close, since we would’ve been bouncing her on it, the motion somehow calming her nerves. Gradually, weeks turned into months and slowly her reflux softened its acerbic grip and the exercise ball was deflated and brought cross-country to Melbourne, were we moved to when she was 6 months old.
Right up from that first night when she was about a month old, and she screamed for 4 hours straight, she’s always felt special, delicate, but I suspect that’s how all babies feel to all parents — colicky or calm, underweight or chubby. We have a fierce, gurgling urge to keep them safe and structure our lives around things like their naps and meals, playgrounds and flu shots. Even for someone who feeds off independence and a certain languid space within which to create and preserve my own identity, it’s been a surprise, the instinct I have to ensure she is at her most comfortable, even if it means that on most days I’m weeing with her at my feet.
On a trip to New Zealand when she was just over a year old, we hiked as a family to a place called Lover’s Leap. We were tramping in the middle of wild tussock fields on biblical mountains and pointy cliffs that looked straight down into the expansive, boisterous ocean. A diaper bag on our backs, we marvelled at the skittish sheep and thick webs of wilderness we found ourselves in. As the sun began to dip, so did the temperature, and that was when we realised we had somehow forgotten to pack Sufi’s puffer jacket. The car was a 30 minute hike away, and within minutes the breeze was strong enough to be blowing tufts of wool off the backs of startled sheep.
I may have been freezing myself, hair blowing in wild patterns of exclamation marks, but there I was, peeling the jacket off my back and zipping up Sufi in one deft, thought-free movement. She found her new evening gown hilarious, eyes lighting up in a full-body laugh, but what just happened surprised me. This complete absence of an instinct for self-preservation was foreign, unexpected.
While the world seemed to think selflessness should come to you naturally when you become a mother, I had always found the expectation audacious and misplaced. I assumed I would never be compatible, I wouldn’t fit, like I hadn’t with many other moulds before this. But that simple act in Lover’s Leap, and many more simple acts like it, give me a clue about where mothers get their reputation from. I can now comfortably imagine roaring like a banshee if Sufi was ever wronged or heavens forbid, a tad cold.
On Monday, when I got to the turn, it was surprisingly quiet. Suspicious of the good fortune, and waiting for the other shoe to drop, I carefully completed the 3 point turn while checking the rear camera a million times. But soon enough, I was on my way, completely intact. The one close to the daycare centre was similarly anticlimactic, I parked and took Sufi in.
I was instructed to stay close as she familiarises herself with her new environment. We would just be there for an hour today, 2 hours the next, in attempt to slowly break her in. I sat in a corner in what appeared to be the living room of a family of eclectic teddies, and fashioned myself into a human safe house for her to return to from her exploring. First she left for 10 seconds to grab a ball, then 30 seconds to examine a colourful container before zipping right back. By the end of the hour, she went a few minutes without me in her line of sight, babbling sweet nothings to other little children who were far from their families, but still trusting and thriving among strangers, toys and weetbix.
I messaged my best friend Ankita that evening. It was six pm for me and one in the afternoon for her. Sufi was crawling all over me as I lay outstretched on the floor. It so happens that her final hurrah before bedtime theatrically lines up with the last remains of my composure this time of the evening.
“Im exhausted,” I texted; no context, no pleasantries.
I told her about watching Sufi in a room full of children, suddenly aware she wasn’t the most special one in the room. Just another baby, she was fending for herself among other babies. She was just another baby in a circle of high-chairs, double-fisting fruit into her mouth, and she was just another baby having her nappy changed when it was her turn, tubs of personally-labelled nappy rash cream in a basket by the changing table. My once-premature child, while well looked-after, wasn’t a heavyweight like she was at home here. This was her first day out in the real world, as a true plebeian, and I sat surrounded by teddybears feeling weepy and proud and exhausted.
On Day 2, Tuesday, there was chaos near my daily U-turn. People were jaywalking with their keep-cups, the railway crossing was screaming and the traffic signal was clogged. But something in my chest had loosened up to create more space, and I felt my mind inch to a slow crawl. Everything fell inside my circle of awareness and I put my indicator on and occupied my space without apologising for my presence. It is what it is, I felt myself saying — this is the space you are meant to take, the space you deserve.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University Professor who studies motivation and success, says that operating in a space just outside of your comfort zone is the key to improving your performance. Effort and difficulty are not futile, in fact, they serve an important function — they put you on the path to mastery. So instead of avoiding the things that makes us feel uncomfortable and inadequate, the key is to cultivate our comfort with them. Instead of declaring that you’ve failed after one unsuccessful attempt, it might be beneficial to rephrase — you haven’t succeeded yet.
Once at the centre, Sufi played out in the sun while I walked along the periphery of the sandpit, a cup of coffee in hand. She seemed to be warming up to the other babies and I clicked photos of her getting in and out of plastic tunnels and pushing along a small shopping cart, suddenly impressed by her own potential. Her tiny wings were creaking out of their folds and attempting small spins in the sky above. After playing in the cool winter sun for close to an hour, we went in, where she gobbled up an oats loaf and then rolled around on the carpet with her belly button out, and it felt like her own personal ritual to mark this place as safe.
Back when Sufi was 3 months old, I had gotten into the car one evening to collect her Losec prescription. It was about 7:30 pm and getting her acid reflux medication was actually a break for me from listening to her wails. I parked outside McKenzies, right under the board that proudly said 9:00 am to 9:00 pm in bright neon, and I called my grandmother thousands of miles away in Bangalore. I sat there on the phone with her for a long while, then picked up the medication and went home.
Postpartum depression affects at least 1 in 7 women that give birth each year. Some of the textbook symptoms include feeling inadequate and as a failure as a mother, having a sense of hopelessness about the future and feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless. In the thick of my symptoms, both textbook and personal, I went back to therapy every week, I made the time through my zombie-like deprivation, and put in the work. As I got back home in the early evenings, I would keep my ear out while entering the driveway, hoping not to hear Sufi’s wails, but almost always, I was crushed that that wasn’t the case.
Day 3, Wednesday, was going to be Sufi’s first day at day care. Unsurprisingly I had worked myself up into a sweat about the U-turn. But at the junction, I could feel myself trusting that I would make the right decision in the circumstance I found myself in. A multitude of things could happen, yes, but it wasn’t something that I could not predict no matter how hard I studied.
Maybe I would have to wait for many minutes in the discomfort of being the only one choosing a different direction. Maybe I would take a different route because I was so overwhelmed. I might even get delayed by a whole hour or two; maybe I just wouldn’t make it to the centre. I allowed for even the ugliest fears to exist, I said it out loud, and their pleading grip seemed to loosen. And even if that did happen, even if I never made it, that wouldn’t be a declaration of what I had suspected — that I was a bad parent who did not deserve what she had. It wouldn’t be the thing that did me in, the last straw that revealed my incompetence and my grand masquerade. It would just be, and most importantly be, a portal to my growth.
I dropped her off at the centre about 7 minutes later. The tears that sprung to my eyes bellied the fact that I was so tired, stretched so thin, and that I regularly fantasised about being alone for a day.
Our day apart was wonderful — I went to the gym in the middle of the day. I spent quiet sunlit hours in the library browsing books at no one’s whim but my own. I went to the toilet alone. I ate a banana in my car, music playing. I drove myself to lunch, where I was able to cut my food up with both hands, and look around at great leisure. I saw a man with a dull green jacket and a chipper bowtie eating his midday meal. My neighbours were two older couples on a small circular table, their wine glasses at the same level, talking about life and empty nests. I saw the waitress with the gradual fade of green-to-black hair glide about like a food fairy bringing people their jammy eggs and hot coffees.
I was tempted to tell the people who crossed my path, “Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter like mad”, but it seemed preposterous that a mother would need to accompany her rituals of self care with that overused caveat. My daughter, small 16-month-old Sufi with her paintbrush eyelashes and ready grin, was made from me — physically and poetically both. Like dough, I was kneaded and watered until a small section was carefully portioned to create another small dough ball, which was then rolled out to have a life of its own. This ball then started to live separately of me, growing in independence everyday. Smiling, then rolling over, eventually crossing streets and flying across oceans someday. And like a limb or a ear that’s now magically living its own life, I feel anything she feels like I would a hot match or the cold ocean water.
I repeated everything on Day 4, Thursday, like I was riding a bike through the park of my childhood. Sufi was adjusting well; she would spend the entire day in adventure, but also seemed ready to crawl into the safety of my arms at pick-up time. Day 5 came, and it was a Mother’s Day. We both got into the car, no bag, on our way to a celebratory afternoon tea at the centre. The staff had put out trays of finger sandwiches, French Madelines, miniature Lamingtons and tiny custard croissants. There was also tea and an overall air of buoyancy in the air. Mother’s socialised, toddlers stole treats.
For me, it couldn’t also help but feel like a graduation day. At High Tea, surrounded by snotty babies and proud mothers, I had a secret celebration of my own. I had reached this far despite the impossibilities of the U turns, despite the past 16 months. The crippling feelings of ineptitude, while important in my journey, were not true. They were just quirky cheerleaders telling me to keep going, that I had more to learn. Effort and difficulty didn’t mean that I was dumb, it just meant I was getting smarter.
I realised that I didn’t have anywhere to catch up to. All I had to do, was I be present right where I am.