I’m supposed to be writing about joy, but I’ve just been crying my eyes out. Nothing major, just the physical aftermath of illness, sleep deprivation and a baby whose Celtic roots are manifesting themselves in an extreme hatred of hot weather. The thing I am learning about parenthood is that the lows can feel very low, but they are also transient because the joy, oh my God, the joy! It carries you through.
The cult of motherhood, of course, needs no more cheerleaders. The fact that we are all supposed to be so happy-clappy about child rearing has been the source of much maternal unhappiness and frustration. Several women have confessed to me that they didn’t feel that powerful, golden oxytocin high you’re supposed to feel after giving birth. Instead, the joy grew and grew as they got to know their babies, but still they felt guilty.
The trouble is, I am happy-clappy. Literally, I am happy and I am clappy, because I know it, as the song I’ve been singing to him endlessly would have it. The baby is a delight at the moment; having learned to laugh, he is doing these big, wide-mouthed gurgly giggles. When he’s not a delight, he’s a challenge, but the delight makes the hard parts survivable. It can be hard to feel sorry for yourself for long when a baby is giggling at your silliness.
One of the few things I wasn’t told about babies before embarking on this journey was that you are supposed to pump their little legs in a bicycle motion to make the wind come out. That was news to me. I do this while continuously chanting “pumpy pumpy”. It is silly and ridiculous and admitting this probably means I will never be considered a writer of Serious Intellectual Importance. But I have come to realise that any parent worth their salt can only maintain a very low level of gravitas in the face of a small child who demands to be entertained. I speak “motherese” now, as linguists call baby talk. It’s a term my own mother despises, and she still hasn’t forgiven Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker for giving mothers little credit for a child’s language acquisition. But, as I said to my son, because I was changing him while his grandmother and I discussed this: “They are men, so they would say that, wouldn’t they, Mr Poopypants?”
I suppose that’s the trade-off you make when you have a child. Some people will cease to take you as seriously, especially if you’re a woman, but in exchange you also get to not take yourself so seriously. And there is so much happiness to be found in that. I’m still using my brain (why do I feel the need to say this?) but I have found a new freedom in lightness, too.
I have written before that I could have done with a bit more joy and a lot less fearmongering and negativity during pregnancy. I put this down to an overcorrection of the historical taboo of expressing discontent with the demands of mothering. But I think parents are sometimes circumspect about joy for other reasons, too, especially around people who do not have children but want them. In her 2015 book, Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes: “My life felt full before becoming a mother, but I’ve found that trying to say that I prefer having the baby sounds aggressive. In fact I’d felt affronted, before I was a parent, when parents told me, even in the gentlest terms, that they preferred having their children to not having them.”
When I wanted a baby so much that it felt as though the longing for it would suffocate me, other people’s joy could feel like a personal slight. It is a very difficult thing, to want a baby and to not have one. In Claire Lynch’s memoir, Small: On Motherhoods, she writes of the “slow agony” of being unable to conceive, “the stinging blows, the unexpected shock of other people’s happiness” and then “the guilt of getting what you always wanted”, followed by a failure to be discreet about her happiness despite promising herself she would.
The other problem is that care work is work. It is some of the hardest work that I have ever done, and I have prior experience, so it was hardly a shock. But it is also love, and with that love comes joy. The two are so tightly bound together that to highlight one is, in the eyes of some, to detract from the other. It’s bizarre, because you wouldn’t be expected to do any other job for free, even if you love it. Yet to do the work of mothering, and to find joy in it, but to also want recompense for it, and societal support, is often framed as an unreasonable demand – despite our economic reliance on all that unpaid labour. And so the joy gets dampened down, as we make our political demands.
It is only relatively recently that I learned to square the feminist in me with the carer in me. The latter is a role I played for much of my adolescence and, though I have never seen it as unfairly foisted upon me, I never truly appreciated how fulfilling it could be. There is beauty and grace in caring for another person, in tending to their body and their needs. I always saw it in others but I never appreciated it in myself. Now, when my boy is crying and I reach for him and hold him in my arms and see him settle into sleep, I take pleasure and validation in that. And, yes, joy.
I’ve given him his first newspaper. It’s a crinkly sensory cloth book called The Nursery Times, and all of the stories are about dinosaurs, but you have to start somewhere.
I’m still angry about the offensive suggestion that the government tax people without children as a response to the declining birthrate. I’ve been monitoring such natalist rhetoric for a while now, but it’s becoming increasingly disturbing, not to mention reminiscent of the policies of fascist states. We desperately need more women in the conversation.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author