The multidimensional mother

Since Monday morning, I have been living through the peculiar conundrum of simultaneously missing our toddler yet being surprisingly content with the four-night break I’m on from being called ‘mama’. I was a mess on Sunday evening. I held my toddler close and couldn’t fathom not sleeping next to him for the first time since his birth. When I count my consciousness of him during the span of my pregnancy, the time of our togetherness feels even longer. And here I am now, finally on the other side of the anxiety. Tomorrow, as you read this column, I will mid-flight, on my way back to Milan. We will be reunited. 

I was lucky to be staying with my family in Dubai. It definitely helped to distract myself. Did I check in with my partner or video call my child? No. I have only been sending video dispatches. I felt it was best not to check in on his caretakers—my partner and my in-laws so that they didn’t feel like they needed to report to me. Returning to Dubai to meet my niece and nephew, who are now 15 and 14, was also a good reminder of the fact that these separations are small blips in their trajectories. Neither have any memory from their childhood of being without their mothers. The advice I mentioned last week, about anxiety stemming from lack of trust in people, has held me in good stead. Another calming text I read spoke about how, in the absence of the breastfeeding mother, the child simply will sleep with the father or the alternative caregiver. It is not that they need necessarily to feed to sleep, they need, really, to feel safe and be offered the right environment.

To anyone who doesn’t have children, it may seem strange to hear me talk about this first-time separation, but it is so bodily, especially when one is breastfeeding. It has something to do with experiencing one’s consciousness differently. Also, encountering very different levels of non-tiredness. Last night, for instance, I struggled to fall asleep because I was simply not tired enough. Even though it was midnight and I had spent the last two hours in a shopping mall (the joys of being in Dubai during Ramadan) and had spent the whole day first at the workshop I am co-hosting with the Sharjah Art Foundation at the Africa Institute, then to and back from Al Dhaid, an hour’s drive away from Sharjah city to see the Foundation’s exhibition of Palestinian art from their collection. Despite all of these intellectual and physical intensities, not taking care of a child leaves the body not quite tired, which, in combination with mild jet lag, meant I didn’t fall asleep as I normally would have. I woke up constantly as if my body was even rejecting the rest. 

There is a term used to describe the overwhelming experience of becoming mother. It is called ‘matrescence’. It refers to the complexity of suddenly inhabiting a dual consciousness and the very bodily experience of feeling like you are not your previous self anymore. Shopping is an odd thing to do because I don’t even know what my ‘style’ is anymore. I wear baggier jeans and like looser fitting clothes, but the wardrobe from my pre-maternal days feels somewhat alien to me. What I choose to spend my energies on when I am alone with myself has also changed. On my flight, for instance, I felt elated to watch the animated cartoon, Bluey, about a family of dogs living in Brisbane. It thrilled me because it captured so much of the joy and the anguish of parenting.

I think if there is one category of people who are most idealised but who never quite feel seen, it is mothers. Within this there is the category of the stay-at-home and the ‘working’ mother, both obscenely worded categories, because motherhood in and of itself is exhausting labour. Holding a job at the same time to me feels welcome because it takes me away from the drudgery of the singularity of the maternal identity. Being offered the chance to relate to other people who are not my children reminds me that I have other dimensions to my identity. 

Our toddler refers to my work as ‘Mama study’. It’s perfect because even when I am the one teaching, I continue learning. Working with students—mostly Gen Z—is something I have done parallel to holding a full-time job and being a mother, and it is, possibly, the most rewarding form of professional labour. I relish being in the company of these people whose sense of self is still in flux. Because I feel secure about myself and confident in my skills as a lecturer, I allow myself to bask in the feeling of awe I can see being directed towards me. I see their brains lighting up. I see their worlds shifting. I see how this form of labour, like intentional parenting, is another form of feminist activism. It fills my heart with joy and delight and hope. I feel complicit in gently altering the trajectory of the future.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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