On, er, motherhood

Iman Rapetti tells it like it is as she unpacks the true and unfiltered meaning of single motherhood. (Photo: Daylin Paul)

Iman Rapetti tells it like it is as she unpacks the true and unfiltered meaning of single motherhood. (Photo: Daylin Paul)

I don’t want this to be a lamentation. I don’t want this to be a rant. I want to write a celebratory, glowing piece about how wonderful the single mothering life is.
I want to say, yes, you can have it all! But I don’t want to be a liar. And I don’t want to Kumbaya-rise the hell you go through doing it alone, because I don’t want to mislead sisters who think, “wow, she has it all, if she can do it so can I.”

Then they sit there, baby in arms, alone, side-eyeing the motherhood cheerleaders! By the way, while I’m here, let me bust the myth of drugless, natural delivery being “the best pain I’ve ever felt!” It’s brutal, it hurts like shit, and you can get really damaged down there. Again, let me find the sister that told me so and accidentally grind my stiletto into her foot while hugging her and smiling. Now that’s a beautiful pain!

You can do the single mothering thing, but at a price, girl.

The world is not set up, not yet anyway, to respect, accept and be conscious of what it takes to have your body occupied for nine months at a time, to push out or have a child cut out of your womb, to be their source of food and comfort (breasts and arms), to change them, burp them, sing and read to them, lie to them (Tooth Fairy), not cry in front of them when you are betrayed, to not be brittle when disappointments set in, to raise them as best you can and to hold down one successful career, if not two with bosses (includes female ones) that at times seem determined to make it harder than it needs to be. Like making you feel you are taking on too much and perhaps your work may suffer (even though it never has), or waiting for you to fail so they can tick the box that says “It’s better to hire a man.”

Or doing this fiercely everyday, while an ex-husband or partner criticises you mercilessly because you travel for work, or didn’t leave three months’ supply of healthy food for the children (erm, didn’t we both bring these kids into the world, isn’t what goes into their mouths OUR responsibility?) I hear this from sisters who work outside the office a lot.

The one mainstay I have as a working mom in a divorced household is that my children love me, they need me, and I love them and I need them. And that is all the giving and taking I need. But it requires mothering of a different kind. The kind that doesn’t keep society’s hours. A mother whose job keeps her at odd times will read a bedtime story in the day instead of at night. She will do a spontaneous ice cream run, perhaps an hour after it’s officially time to sleep and teeth have been brushed.

She will allow her little ones to creep in next to her, contrary to the world’s decree that they sleep in their own beds after a certain age. They will have unexpected adventures and sneaky days off school because life cannot be compressed into neat and tidy packages.

She will sit in the ER holding a child with a fever, panicked he may die, and as the clock edges towards 1am, will not fret about sleep and being on point for the conference she is chairing the next day. In fact I think that is a woman’s super-power: being an elite super-athlete on the inside, with matrix-like abilities to not let a single ball fall, and showing up early, hair done, intellect locked and loaded and no one the wiser about the night from hell.

Her kids may not always look like they stepped out of the pages of a kids’ apparel magazine (but they sometimes might); their curls may have some knots near the scalp (detangling potions are a miracle cure); and their shoes could do with regular wiping. But if they are happy, confident and loved, no picture-perfect fake-family-photo-engineered smiles can ever compete.

Let me tell you a story. This happened the other day. Small event. Major implications.

It was the usual Sunday evening affair. After a day of whisking kids through a busy shopping mall, lunch-ing here, grocery shopping there, feeding, spending, listening, talking, the welcome darkness of my friend’s backyard was a chance to settle down, breathe and future-scape the week to come. It was a chance for women to be girls, not ladies, not mommies, not employees, not anything but three chicks having a giggle, a glass of wine and lamenting over our still single state and the yet unevolved nature of men (not all I believe, but we haven’t yet met them).

The phone rang, a wrinkle crossed my one friend’s brow and the illusion was being threatened. It was her ex-husband asking about pyjamas for the boys, whom she’d only recently dropped off. It was not the question itself, but how it was asked, with accusation. The question pointed fingers and sneered. And like slow toxin after a snakebite, guilt started to creep through her veins. As I witnessed her shoulders slump, and the usual inadequacy set in, I became militant! “No! Not on my watch! No!” I spoke rather too loudly and too harshly about the man getting off his arse, making a damn plan and leaving her with a few hours of grace to not deal with the very thing he was encroaching on her special time to deal with. One night sleeping without PJs was not going to scar the boys for life.

It might seem like a tiny thing. But if you’ve had history of being criticised for your mothering skills or shortcomings — God forbid your child has a crusty pathway leading up to a snotty nose — you know just how far into you the chipped nails of criticism reach. Society, (read men, especially exes) have two traditional sites of attack on women. Their wombs and their vaginas. Either you’re a shit mother or you’re a whore. Attack a woman in these places and you’re almost guaranteed to get a deep, self-indicting reaction. Somewhere in our evolution we forgot how to really insulate ourselves from accepting the blows and letting them scar us.

So I made the girls stand up and vow to remind themselves of the following: “We are strong, we are perfect, we are enough.” As the glasses clinked, our armour was buckled, and our psyches weaponised to sustain another attack. We are doing the best we can, if we could do more we damn well would! Mind you, the worst attacks often come from partners who barely hold up their end of the bargain in terms of actually providing for their children physically and materially.

As we stood around the merrily crackling fire, it became the perfect moment to invoke the Indian Goddess Durga. She is spectacular. Beautiful. Strong. But it is her 18 arms that really capture my attention. In each of her hands is an object of either practical or spiritual significance. A female deity who is able to create balance and harmony while literally holding so much. In Sanskrit “durga” means a fort, a place that is protected or difficult to reach. She is also known as the divine mother, a protector of mankind.

It is for these reasons that in my mind, she’s the icon for working mothers. Oh, to have so many arms, I muse. And beyond that to become a safe haven, self-contained and impervious to hurt and pain.

Look, we don’t have the Goddess Durga’s appendages, but we certainly hold down a lot. Never mind that, besides the label of MOTHER, we are also LOVER, FIGHTER, INTELLECTUAL, SPIRITUAL … (feel free to add your own labels here). So as we channelled the Goddess, and the warm grapey glow held us just right, we whispered an affirmation into the air for women everywhere who need a break, and a reminder that they are strong, they are perfect and they are enough.

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