words by Starr Meneely
This article first appeared in issue 61 (Nov/Dec 2013) of The Mother magazine. Starr Meneely is the editor-in-chief of The Mother magazine. She is lives in a quiet village in the South East of England with her husband and four children. Subscribe to The Mother magazine HERE
One mother, one journey…
When I was seven years old, my parents decided to try homeschooling. I left my tiny elementary school where I had spent one pleasant year as a kindergarten student, joined my siblings at home, and for the following 11 years I was a ‘homeschooler’. I enjoyed it. I had a wholesome childhood education. When the time came, I flew the nest and went to university to become the ‘homeschooler who succeeded’. I had children, and grew into the ‘homeschooled-homeschooling mother’. I read about home education, I wrote about it. I talked and studied and theorised. I was excited to teach and share education with my children, and daydreamed about someday helping my own children educate their children. But life has a funny way of shaking things around, and there is something about mothering that continues to catch me by surprise. I am learning that it is easy to not be what we seem, and surprisingly difficult to be anything else.
My mothering life has been spent on a different side of the world to where I grew up. My husband and I have never known what it feels like to have extended family support while we parent our very young and rapidly growing family. There have been moments when I have collapsed on the kitchen floor: pregnant, exhausted, holding a fussy toddler, and sobbed helplessly out of sheer frustration and tiredness. The reality of mothering has surprised me on an unprecedented scale.
Despite this, I tried, with every sliver of energy I could find, to parent consciously and wholesomely. My ideals soared above me; a mountainous cloud of expectations, until I finally felt like I was living two lives: one in my head, and one in real life. Perhaps this is a fault of our generation. Maybe it has become too easy to paint the version of ourselves that we want to be, and then publish it on the Internet. We are constantly surrounded by images of such perfect parenting that it is easy to feel like we are failing in uniquely individual ways. The truths of our mothering journeys are often difficult to find; hidden away in the fine balance between the beautiful things we photograph and our lives behind the lens.
In 2012 my mother passed away. Even though we had lived thousands of miles apart for many years, her passing sharply shifted my perspective, and I began to yearn for a gentle flowing life. But wasn’t I already living a gentle flowing life? I had been putting huge amounts of thought and energy into creating one. I began to realise that my thoughts and energy did not tell an entire story. A blatant truth began to stare me in the face and then shout at the top of its lungs until I couldn’t help but to take notice of the way things really were.
I would have days, sometimes a string of days, where everything was perfect. I parented perfectly. My house was perfectly tidy. We learned and talked together. We did projects. We sang, prepared healthy meals, and worked through disagreements calmly and sensitively. These were lovely days. I was proud of these days. These were the days I wanted to talk about and share. But as I started to have more children, and my children grew older and bigger, I started to have fewer of these days. Instead I was having these other days, misfit days where everything fell apart. Days where I was certain I just wasn’t doing it right. Frustratingly, these ‘other’ days began to outnumber the lovely ones exponentially.
My house was messy: disastrously monumentally disgusting. We couldn’t find things. We didn’t have clean dishes. We didn’t have clean clothes. My husband would get up for work in the early hours before dawn and be unable to find clean socks or matching shoes. Our meals slipped into a steady routine of pasta, and bread, and then more pasta. The children were wild, jumping and fighting and screaming. They had outgrown our tiny English garden like a puppy outgrows its first kennel, and took to running the house like a racetrack. I couldn’t scrape together the energy needed to take them for much-needed walks and rambles, and I resorted to snapping, growling and shouting. I shouted a lot. I couldn’t find time to do anything. I had four children under the age of six, and our life was mostly chaos, full of shouting, filled to overflowing with the disappointment of not living the ideal life. This was not how I had always imagined I would be as a mother. I was failing.
I have been fortunate in this life to be married to a man who can see through chaos and find clarity. He looked at me one evening and said simply “We could send the children to school?” I stared at him blankly, my soulmate suddenly speaking in Martian. I was a homeschooler. You don’t just stop being a homeschooler. I would be seen as a massive hypocrite. What would people say? The ones who always thought we were crazy to homeschool? Or the people who thought we should homeschool? What if it didn’t work out and we changed our minds again? Everyone would certainly say things like “See…” followed by something that equalled our failure as parents.
“But we aren’t homeschooling or not because we care what other people think.”
Of course, he was right, and I knew that. But somewhere lost in the enchantment of beautiful blogs and holistic parenting books, I had forgotten this; and as I looked around at our life, our life as it really was, I couldn’t help but just nod. I still believed all the things I had ever believed about human-scale education and wholesome learning environments, but my husband was right: something wasn’t working.
There is a story in The Continuum Concept about a father who builds a playpen for his toddler. The point of the story is that when the father put the baby into the playpen and the baby hated it, the father immediately took him out and destroyed the playpen. The message is: how important it is to listen to your instincts and respect your child’s needs. I have always thought of this story and wondered: what if the baby hadn’t minded the playpen? The father would have probably been quite pleased with his structure and might have continued to use it until it was no longer needed, which means that there must have been a reason he felt they needed a playpen to begin with. He was actually just a normal father trying to muddle through normal family life.
If I had a playpen I would be ashamed that my natural-parenting friends might come over and see it.
I have begun to feel a quiet, painful bitterness towards this phrase ‘natural parenting’. As I have slowly come away from my homeschooling self, I have started to see a side of this alternative point of view that leaves me feeling strangely sad and lonely.
I have read many times, on forums and threads, questions such as “when do you know that your baby no longer needs to be carried in a sling?” I can’t understand how we have come to a point, as conscious, mindful parents, that we ask this question. A ‘mainstream’ parent would never ask “How will I know when my child no longer needs to ride in a pushchair?” The answer is patronisingly obvious. A child will no longer need it when they no longer need it. We have circled around. As we strive to be parents who listen to our instincts, we have stumbled into a whole new world of just the opposite. I can only cringe and sigh as I see our well-placed efforts to be attached parents manifest in such detached ways.
Truthfully, many of the alternative, natural, attached, hippy things that are a part of my parenting, I do because it is practical for us, and when they stop being practical I stop doing them. In too many ways we wear these descriptions like badges, proud that they set us apart, happy to refer to everyone else as mainstream. The truth is that I have grown weary of the term ‘mainstream’. No matter how many alternative elements there are in my life, I never feel that far away from the main current. My life is a healthy collection of Mother Nature, Spirituality, Pop Culture and High Fashion. Labelling ourselves and then labelling each other has to be one of the most terrible things we can do as mothers and as women. How hurtful to create such division between ourselves. How painful it is that healthy, loving mothers ever feel like they are doing it wrong: that they are judged by those of us who should be lifting each other up the most.
Is this what we’ve really come to? Has alternative parenting become just an elaborate pageant and whoever performs the most beautifully is the winner? I realise that it seems to be our human nature to be competitive, but I find this particular strain of competition sad and destructive. Mothers need each other. We need encouragement. We need love. We need to hear: “you are doing a beautiful job”.
How often do we see brand new mothers as the perfect target audience for a display of our opinions and advice on natural parenting? We pass the suggestions amongst ourselves, whispering to each other our disappointed disapproval whenever we see a mother choosing to do things otherwise.
“Give her a sling!” we say. “Give her a breast feeding book!”
“Forward this link to her. Invite her to this group!”
I remember myself as a brand new mother: tired, emotional, trying desperately to perfectly care for my brand-new little person. Motherhood was an overwhelming challenge of balancing my own upbringing with my husband’s upbringing, while trying to raise our baby with deep understanding. I don’t remember wanting advice on how to do it differently or better. I hardly wanted to hear how to make it easier. I just wanted someone to bring me a meal or hold the baby so I could shower. I wanted to hear people say that my baby was beautiful and intelligent, and that he must be that way because of the attention I paid and the care I took. I wanted love, and that was all.
I can see that this has not changed even as my children have grown and I have matured as a parent. The topics are different but the words around me are the same. Parenting often feels like I am navigating through a dense fog. As I feel my way along, I hear voices around me clicking and sighing. Perhaps some of this is in my imagination, but how often it feels like this. The message we should share with each other should be a message of love and not of judgement.
I believe that the most important thing we can do as parents is love our children. This sounds simple, and perhaps it is this simplicity that causes us to think that we need to complicate it with all sorts of philosophies and rules. I don’t think there is much more we can do than just parent with love, because, no matter what we do, we are bound to make mistakes. We will choose things now that we wouldn’t have chosen before and wouldn’t choose again. We stumble and flounder as we grow and our lives and families grow and change. I do not believe it can ever be black and white: right parenting and wrong parenting. We ebb along, changing as our family changes, adapting and flexing as we need to. I want my children to grow up believing that it is okay to think outside the box: my box, that is. I want them to question and seek out the things in life that are meant for them and their happiness. How can they ever do this if all they ever see is me, boxing myself away with labels and unforgiving opinions.
Motherhood takes us on a journey of adventure and growth, but ultimately, my life is my journey, my child’s life is their journey, and the thing we share is love. If we parent from a place of genuine love, we are as close to doing it right as we will ever be. Everything else is just extra. Parenting with high intentions and high ideals for a better world is wonderful, but it must be balanced with common sense and flexibility. It must walk alongside us, and not lead us.
These days, I meet my children in a school playground every afternoon at a quarter past three. When I see my child, we exchange huge smiles, and I collect them into my arms, close to my heart, and immediately shower them with questions about their day. I talk to them. I listen. I hold them close. A school playground is a place I never even imagined I would be. But as I wait, I feel a little flutter of excitement. Allowing this change to occur in our lives has done what it needed to do: my days have indeed become gentler. My house is a little tidier, our meals are healthier, and I am more patient. I am beginning to feel like I might have a chance of being the kind mother I always thought I would be, just with different variables. It has been important for me to accept that my husband and I are really just normal parents trying to muddle through normal family life.
Despite the labels I thought I carried, and the person I imagined myself to be, I am really just one mother on one journey.
Liedloff, Jean. The Contiuum Concept. England: Duckworth, 1975. Print.
©photo by CIA DE FOTO is licensed under CC BY 2.0