September 23, 2014

On Our First Birthday: A Letter to My Daughter. ~ Catherine Wilkie


Dearest Alannah,

Today you are one year old, which really means you spent one of our calendar years breathing on your own.

This past year I’ve been bound to you, as mother and observer, often too immersed in being mother to even consider being observer. But now you have taken your first steps, now you are starting to pull away and I can see that whole year for some of what it has been.

Me—catapulted into the role of mother—and you, from soft and helpless bundle to warrior of infant-hood.

Before these thoughts that seem so urgent to me now fade in the tiredness of the working week, I want to share a few things with you from my journey this last year.

I want to share a few things with you—sure, you’re way too young and far too blissfully unaware to want to know or even want to understand—but in time, maybe.

If and when you might have your own little angel to shake you into the sudden and utter awareness of the fragility and wonder of creating, and then sustaining life…maybe then you might linger over some of these words.

1. Nothing and no one can prepare you for being a mother.

Or a parent, a father, whatever.

Being of the female kind, I can only talk about being a mother and that’s more than enough for me. I thought I knew. I thought that by watching my brother and sisters, spending time with a few close friends, by looking on from the side-lines that I had it figured.

I thought that I knew what it would be like to be the one wiping the nose, changing the nappies, delivering the endless hugs and kisses and soothing the seemingly un-soothable cries when they came. And I thought that I knew how I would do it better. Wow. What an awakening.

Nothing, nothing…and I repeat nothing, can prepare you for being a mother.

So when you see a mother struggling with a cranky baby, or you find yourself saying—oh, I’d never do that, or the classic—Oh my god, did you see what that woman just did to that child?—slap yourself and please remember these words.

Until you are in it, never assume you know diddly squat about it. Instead, please watch and listen, empathise, help out where and when you can, and be ready to wait your turn, for when your turn comes.

2. Forget about your previous understanding/definition of a good night’s sleep

Ah, sleep. My old friend.

Get as much of it as you need, when you can, while you can. On those first two days of your life that we spent in the hospital, we (your father and I) wondered why you weren’t waking and wished that you would open those amazing bright blue eyes and share with us the story of your life so far—even though we knew more of that than you did, what with scan after scan and the solid kicking I was getting for the last month of our pregnancy.

Maybe we should have just slept as you slept instead. That first night home in the Holly Cottage was the first and only night I didn’t wake to your call. And that first night at home when I did eventually wake, I realised that my love affair with a good night’s sleep had been eternally dissolved.

You still wake at least once, if not three times, in the night—and you curl into me with your need for warmth and assurance and I am more than happy to respond and pull you into me. I know it won’t last forever, but I wish people would stop asking if you’re sleeping through the night, like it should be happening. Ah yes, there’s that word.

We’ll get back to the damming should later.

3. Be open to a greater awareness of your body

When you are pregnant and when you have a natural birth, your body is no longer your own.

It is working for two in those times and apart from the really important things day to day things like breathing, healing, self renewal, etc. etc., it is in the serious business of growing, forming, nurturing and stretching/squeezing to accommodate the smaller version of yourself—which is indeed a very precious cargo.

It’s absolutely amazing how it happens and for the most part you won’t be aware that you are doing anything. Life takes over. Stretching and squeezing can be alleviated—the body is more than capable.

My advice? Do pelvic floor exercises as often as you can. Do breathing exercises. Do yoga. Embrace the changes and embrace the challenges. Welcome every pain and moment of nausea. Go with it. There is no room for fear in this. This power, this magic—it is there in all of us, in you and in me. It’s been there since we started to walk upright.

Be in awe of the ability to grow life, deliver it into the world and the stupendous and miraculous healing power within you. And yes, you will want to do it all again. Even the bits you thought might never be possible again! But take your time. The body of a woman is a power house but it needs to recover. And maybe this power is the reason why in some cultures we are so feared and so repressed.

I repeat, your power is amazing. And to a small baby that is a wonderful thing. Rejoice in it. And if and when you feel tired of waking up for yet another late night feed, or changing a nappy from hell, try to remember that you are not alone. You are one of millions, and all power packs need recharging (see number 7).

4. Be grateful for the little things (they are not all that little)

Every breath you take is a blessing to me. Every day that you grow and change and develop and grow more is a miracle.

You have grown and changed so much in this last year I barely recognise you from the baby that tumbled out from me onto the labour-ward bed. From the first smile, to the first gurgles, the first steps and the first signs of growing awareness – pointing, recognising names and words—each moment has been a wonder, and I am grateful to still have one of the best seats in the house to watch you.

And when I think of all the things that might happen and could have happened I bow my head in humility and I give thanks. To the universe, for the wonder of it all. And these things may seem small to you now, but you will understand when you see it for yourself. As I watch you, you have this ability to scan the room and find the smallest grain of sand or dirt or rice cake or hair and you are enthralled by it. Enthralled by the smallest things of all.

5. Cherish the wonder of it all

Take stock as you go. Appreciate the moment as it happens. Time only goes one way—that I know of—and there’s no going back.

I look at pictures of myself at your age and it is a different person looking back. But that was me, the one who looked like you. The one in thumb sized socks and curls that mock gravity. The one who loved to be held in her father’s arms, to know the comfort of the smell of mother’s bread baking in the oven and the closeness of brother and sisters. Life is precious. If you ever doubt that, look at your own child and think on all the stars and planets and events and moments that had to align for that child to happen. And, sure, there were all the boyfriends and heartbreaks that had to be suffered, that you may suffer. But cherish even the most difficult of moments—those are the moments that you are most alive.

And so, I wish you joy and sorrow. May the depth of each be reflected in the depth of the other so that you understand and know the difference. Like when you lose someone you love—because that will happen.

6. Throw the word should out of your lexicon

I won’t bore you with examples, but when somebody—especially another member of the motherhood—even begins to form the word “should” with their mouth, close your ears, smile and nod if you have to, but don’t listen.

“Should” is the curse of well-meaning others. And just because they think they should, and they say you should, doesn’t mean it’s true. Close your eyes and think of a waterfall or a rose in bloom. Like the one that covers the back wall in autumn—the dusky pink rose that rambles there now—hat heralded your coming into the world this time last year.

7. When you’re exhausted, allow yourself to fall in a heap (preferably onto a soft bed)

Being mother, in my experience, is demanding. There are times when you’ll feel on top of the world, full of energy and full of readiness for what may come your way. This probably won’t happen often. Be prepared for being tired and be prepared to feel at sea from time to time, and by that I mean most of the time.

If, like me, you are somewhat used to being on top of your game,” please be kind to yourself. Having a baby changes the way we live and the way we used to live. Go with it. And when you need to rest, find the means to do that. Which brings me to the next bit.

8. Don’t forget those around you

My wish for you is that you are surrounded by love. But not just any love—the love that lasts.

The love that will carry you to the bathroom when you can’t carry yourself anymore, and hold you and mind you and take you for what you are, wherever you are. In the moments that matter. Don’t pretend to be too strong to need that sort of love, but don’t pretend to be weaker than you are to find it. That just leads to problems, and imbalance.

You have the strength of generations of women within you and you can move mountains if you have to. But in those times when you find yourself falling, don’t be too proud to call.

I will move the mountains to be there with you. And I am only your mother.

9. Follow your instinct

The more I live, the more I learn, the more I know that this is one of the strongest pieces in my daily armour. If you sense something is wrong, then you are probably right. This is something that you will have to learn to interpret and rely on for yourself. For instinct is very different from what you will see all around you, and what you will be told and what you will hear all around you. But remember, it is your movie, your experience. And everything is unique to you.

Learn from others but don’t underestimate your own understanding and knowledge. Everything you need is within you, you just need to learn your own language. To do this you need time alone, you need time in silence. Find the silence. Do yoga. Do meditation. Do breathing. Do hill walking. Do mountain climbing. Seek out inspirational people. Seek the ordinary. Find it in yourself first and then you will recognise it in others.

And when your small baby cries, trust that you will know what to do. And that may be as simple as a kiss and a cuddle, or a walk around the garden on a fine autumn day to watch the beech leaves fall, or a nursery rhyme sung for the 1000th time that never loses comfort.

10. Forever begin again

I would like to say that I will have the answers for you when you come—I wonder, will you come?—to ask me, and I would like to spare you some of the mistakes and tumbles that I’ve taken in my time of living, and my one precious year of mothering. But everyday you change and even though it may not be so obvious, I know that everyday I change with you. And for that reason, we must be ever ready to begin again.

Every time you stumble and fall back on your cushioning nappy, you get straight back up and you don’t look back. And I watch you and I draw strength and inspiration from the determined spirit that refuses to recognise obstacles like chairs, tables, doors, mounds of toys and blocking (yet well intentioned), cushioning arms. Don’t lose that spirit. You have no idea how it lifts those around you and those who will come to know and love you. When you do encounter limits, be wise, choose your approach and your strategy carefully. But don’t let fear turn you back. It is up to you to turn fear around into something of use—a stepping stone to the next level. Take the fear as a sign that the comfort of the level you are in is starting to stifle and the experience is becoming stale.

And there I will stop, for this year. 

My dearest Alannah, there is so much to learn and I see it in you with every breath. When we sang your birthday song to you the other day I fought hard to hold back the tears, not wanting to appear too soft, too motherly, and too enthralled by your innocence and beauty, and blissful ignorance to what was going on. Only once around the sun and already a blazing star.

I stand in awe, and I am honoured.




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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Charlotte/Flickr

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