Poppy is two now! She is one of the greatest joys of my life. I never thought I would meet anyone else who loves swings as much as I do! We spend hours on this little swing in our back yard, or bigger swings at the park. ‘Higher, Mummy!’ She sings to herself on them, her own complicated versions of Twinkle Little Star or Indy Wincy Spider, concluded with giggling. Sometimes like yesterday, she stays on so long so rocks herself to sleep. Her little head droops and eyes close. I gently bring the swing to a stop and gather her into my arms, soothing the storm of tears about wanting to be back on the swing until she calms back to sleep.
Most mornings we share breakfast together in the back yard. Porridge, cereal with banana, eggy toast, and tea. Under the tree my heart expands, wakens more softly and looks at the day with a hopeful spark.
All my life I have so deeply wanted to be a parent. I am so grateful and so fortunate. She is glorious. And over the past month, I’ve learned to my surprise that I love and am well suited to being a stay at home parent. When both Star and Rose needed great care I quit work and felt like my life had ended. A sense of fatalism and despair. But I also felt something I didn’t expect. Joy, relief, new hope. As I match my days to Poppy’s needs and rhythms, a life emerges that is splendid. There’s peace, and fun, and connection. So I keep building on it. I find that my ideas about work are deeply poisoned. I am trying so hard to understand and recover from them. It is slow, painful, frustrating. Full of flashes of insight (work is my punishment for being on welfare) and such profound shame and self loathing I cannot understand anything or progress anywhere. I sit in front of my shrink sobbing until I want to throw up and there’s no understanding.
I’ve quit work. My work now includes peace and connection. There’s moments I simply sit and look at the sky. There’s tickling Poppy while she shrieks and tickles me back. There’s holding her as she falls asleep and feeling my heart expand and burst softly in my chest. A hundred invitations to be present in my life in a way I haven’t been.
Softly softly, the carer counselor tells me. We lose connection with ourselves and want to change everything, make it all right, now. Little changes for carers drained to the last drop. Choose what I want for lunch. Sit in my favourite place. Don’t always offer to do, eat, watch what the other person wants. Undo the impulse to destructive self sacrifice one tiny decision at a time, a few times a day. Tuning back in to my self and owning my own choices.
Rose and I realise that I’ve also stepped back from her pain in a way that’s blocked me from connection. She’s vulnerable, as the non gestational, non biological parent. Even more so with a terrible history of losses. I am sensitive to her fear, her desire for closeness to Poppy. When Rose is around Poppy, I fade into the background, unobtrusively. I cook or clean and care but I do not play or adventure or adore. I don’t step into the place that makes Rose sad or afraid. And in this way, for the best of reasons, I step out of my own life in a tiny thousand ways. My own relationship with Poppy. I become a caretaker instead of a parent. Rose has always seen this and been puzzled by it. She would try to cue me back in touch, help me notice when Poppy was trying to get my attention, encourage us to spend time together. I would read her buried anxiety and unthinkingly step back. Love as sacrifice. A vicarious life. My needs last. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone so out of touch with themselves they are barely in the room.
Rose emerged from her breakdown to find what she’d been hoping for has happened. Poppy and I sing to each other, snuggle, connect. She invites me back in, learns to celebrate alongside the little wince when I’m connected. I pay attention to my pull off course, the inclination to fade back and make small course corrections, a hug, eye contact, a few shared words. This child has two parents.
I am discovering the power of limits as well as nurturing. That a deeply loving yes must be bounded by the capacity for a deeply loving no. A willingness to let the other hurt in pursuit of their own growth. I adore Rose but should never have withdrawn from Poppy to make her more comfortable. Nor would she ever have asked that of me! There’s a kind of nurturing that is life giving and a kind that stifles, incapacitates, infantilises, wounds. I have mixed them up together and not been wise in my caring. Those I love and tend have grown both stronger and weaker in my care. I did not mean to harm but I have harmed. Stripped of agency, responsibility, the belief in a person’s capacity, they drown in their own vulnerability. If we never hurt we are unable to learn or choose. My love and caring has set people free and eased loneliness and suffering, but also created a kind of institutionalisation I did not foresee, and trapped me in a dungeon alongside them, also being tortured by their demons. Most carers know these places, these dilemmas. They are deep and difficult.
We are taking many steps a to a new life. Small errors are turned by time into routes way off course. The power of leadership, parenting, caring amplifies our weaknesses and impacts those we’re responsible to. Growth is a lifelong process, and sometimes tiny changes have huge impacts. Poppy takes me by the hand and asks ‘Swing, Mummy?’. We go swing.