‘I had been so lucky to be raised, to be loved, by a calm, uncomplicated mother.’
[American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld]
I dream I am at the beach. Portballintrae, I think. I suddenly realise my girls are napping at home. How long have I been away? 4 hours? 6? Much longer than a nap, certainly, and it will take me over an hour to get home. How did this happen? How are they there, but I’m here? Worst-case scenarios fill my mind but I can’t get home any faster.
I dream I am in a small newsagents. WHSmith, maybe, in a train station. I meet an old work colleague who engages me in conversation but I am trying to keep track of my daughter. I try to listen and follow her at the same time. For some reason I cannot leave the conversation, I am expected to stay, but floors keep opening up below us – one after the other after the other. Imogen disappears down spiral escalators, blonde curls getting further and further out of sight. I can’t keep up.
I dream I am at my friend’s kitchen table in what appears to be a dingy student flat. What has happened to her spacious white house? I ask tentatively if she has left her husband. “No, he’s here,” she says and he appears in a seat. “We thought this would be good for us.” Two more people appear around the table. Flatmates, I presume. My friend is standing by the wall pointing to a large reward chart she has drawn. She is talking through their targets for self-improvement.
I am lying in a kinesiologist’s office. This is not a dream, although I’m tempted to say that it is. She is talking about my small intestine and asks if I ever get a pain where she touches, on the right. I do, it’s one of the reasons I am there. She tells me the small intestine is connected to the part of the brain that analyses things, tries to get organised, tries to figure things out. “Maybe that’s your personality?” she asks. Yes, that’s my personality. And also, it’s my season of life.
My writer friend, Tory, organises a writers’ morning in a prayer house. I go eager to spend time with some creative chums, eager to snatch some time with my coloured pens and my yellow paper. I don’t expect anything more than that. But the house operates as a ‘retreat’. We are looked after with tea and pastries, with thoughtful cards written to each of us. There are beautiful, quiet rooms for us to work in, and women who pray for us downstairs. They tell us that the vision for this house is for it to be a mountainside – like where Jesus went to pray, where he went to get away. I realise I don’t expect mountainsides in my life right now. I expect frantic dreams and busy days and stress that shows up in my body.
When I was pregnant with my first child several friends asked me what kind of mum I thought I would be. I didn’t know. You’ll be laid-back, they said. You’ll be cool, you’ll be calm.
My girls are 5 and almost 3 now and although most people still believe I am calm, my mind chases them down escalators in my sleep. I haven’t been able to find the “off” button for the high-alert switch that got triggered when they were born. Stress shows up in my body. Stress shows up in my dreams.
It is ridiculous how much I want to be that laid-back mum my friends envisaged. How different I sometimes want to be for my kids, for my husband. Then again, I also believe what Glennon Doyle Melton says that: “They don’t need you bigger, smaller, smarter, richer, calmer, feistier, craftier, anything-er at all. They just need YOU.”
They just need me me, I’m committed to that. But I’m also committed to being the healthiest me possible, one whose mind hasn’t been over-taken with rewards charts and responsibility.
‘The mountainside’ keeps me healthy. ‘The mountainside’ for me is the same old things – time to read and solitude. I honour the first, but feel guilty about the second. Once a month I take a full day, and night, away from my house and my family. I want to keep it a secret. I want to be so laid-back I don’t need it. I want to be the kind of woman that does an activity instead, because that sounds more acceptable somehow. Sharon’s running, she’s shopping, she’s out drinking cocktails.
In the first of her podcasts Elizabeth Gilbert says that if we model martyrdom to our children they will grow up to be martyrs, but if we model creativity, they will grow up to be creators. She also says: “Mothers are the members of society who need to be given the most permission to be able to do the things that ignite their own souls.” I remind myself of that when my sub-conscious translates being alone on a beach into neglecting my children.
Like Alice Blackwell, in American Wife, I am lucky to have been raised and loved by a calm, uncomplicated mother. I want to be that for my girls, but I can’t fake it, so I find my little patches of mountainside where I can and give myself permission to be there.
What about you? Anyone else more highly-strung than they like to admit? What practices are ‘mountainsides’ for you?