I’ve always been an over-thinker. I was the sort of child who developed a love of astronomy out of necessity – it’s important to be able to accurately map the sky and account for rogue stars, when logistically planning tactics to skirt impending alien abduction. The teddies who shared my bed were each kissed three times, in order, before mouthing a monologue of biblical argot that I didn’t quite understand. Then – and only then – would I get under the covers and consider the prospect of sleep. Often, there were far more pressing issues at hand than to entertain that possibility.
Fast forward twenty years, and I’m the mother of an equally apprehensive child. A brilliant child – but one who is often consumed by the machinations of her own nomadic imagination. She looks to me for constant reassurance, and as a trusted source of information. I know this is a just a matter of time. It won’t be long before she questions my judgement and explores other avenues of verification. Nine years in, I watch how she navigates her world, testing and asking with a fervent curiosity that time will likely tarnish. It strikes me that in this picture – I am the cartographer for her. The mapper of life as I know it. She’s looking for safe passage through the asteroid belt of misinformation, and I am the one who knows the way.
Except I don’t. I don’t have a f**king clue, and she’s not old enough to realise adulthood’s one, great ruse: none of us have a clue what we’re actually doing. We grow these small things, simultaneously incubating plans, expectations and parenting ethos, and then they fight their way out of you and into a world of confusion. What no one actually tells you is that parenting is just a life-long game of keepie-uppy – you constantly try not to drop them, all the time making it look like you’ve got it under control. Childhood seems to be a period inflicted upon parents to test your ability to bluff, make snap judgements and tolerate chaos.
Subconsciously, long before I fell pregnant, I think I’d imagined motherhood as a state of perpetual togetherness. I envisaged myself as some sort of modern Magna Mater, draped in soft fabrics, sitting in the pages of an Ikea catalogue, with my photogenic progeny, impossibly voluminous hair, whose lifetime of neuroses has melted away with the fruit of my womb. In truth, I’m just a bigger version of that kid, with a house, a salary and a silly haircut.
“Mum – where do babies come from. I just don’t understand how the sperm actually gets to the egg…” And there it is. The opening gambit in the ultimate game of child vs. mum. A game that I didn’t even know had kicked-off yet. In my mind I’d pictured this moment being one planned down to the merest utterance, and yet here I am being caught on the back foot by my daughter’s burning desire to understand the very essence of her being. It’s not the sort of thing that could wait.
Just like the conversation about periods while we were driving to the hospital with her bleeding brother, or the casual discussion about what transgender means whilst we brushed our teeth. Parenting has been a rather heavy bombardment of reality checks, and it cares not for my timetable.
“Does it go in through the mouth and swim down?”
I knew this was coming. After allowing the small person to watch what was in my mind, a seemingly innocuous episode of Friends, I watched as she giggled and squirmed at every innuendo. I suddenly became horribly aware of how PG-13 this episode was. We sat together, me in abject horror at the unrelenting wash of mild sexual references, her enjoying Ross’s dinosaur impressions.
In the days that followed, I could feel it hanging over us. I thought my back might crack at the weight of this impending conversation. The conversation. One that made me bloat with dread and fingered at the thick patina of lifelong Catholic guilt. The birds and the bees. Which annoyingly has sweet FA to do with either. At that particular point in time I could have waxed lyrical about flora and fauna indefinitely – anything to absolve me of botching this milestone and branding my lovely girl with my own neuroses.
“You do WHAT with it?!”
I’d grown up in a house where you didn’t talk about that sort of thing. My sex education arrived years too late, in the form of a fairly graphic biology text-book, clearly marked with the sections approved for my consumption. It may have seemed like the perfect delivery vehicle for an awkward, bookish child – but such life-changing conversations are probably best handled with a hug and a dash of honesty. As appealing as the sterility of a scientific text is when you’re yanking a child across the void of childhood innocence, it’s probably a good idea to offer up some kind of moral support. For me, it became a subject to be studied, memorised and then never mentioned again. It has jarred with me most of my adult life.
I’ve spent the majority of the last decade trying to distance myself from that world of difficult discussions. I’d done something of a number on myself, convincing yours truly that I was one of those uber-liberal euro-mums in life, and in mind. I imagined that I would be the perfect Scottish embodiment of a Dutch parent, casually glissading through chats about drugs, abortion and sexuality with effortless grace. In reality, it takes far more than a nose ring and skinny jeans to dissolve generations of handed-down familial unease. The thought of this discussion – the discussion that would set the tone for all of our future mother-daughter heart-hear-to-hearts – gave me the fear.
But I needn’t have worried. The beautiful thing about this is that we are not carbon copies of the past. I am not my mother, and she is not me. Together we have an undertone of silliness and frankness that has made even our most combustible interactions quickly dissipate into daft voices and mimes. And that is what happened. We sat cross-legged on the couch, she asked me questions and I replied with the same openness and honesty that is scary in theory, but cathartic in practice. And it was no big deal. We drank tea and high-fived, and then she sauntered off to finish some building in Minecraft.
Parenthood is a strange thing. Between us, we have the collective wisdom of billions, yet it finds us clueless and doubting. We’ve always done it, yet it’s a dance of glorious mis-steps – a constant social pantomime where you desperately try to cover up each trip with a seemingly intended run. At times if feels like you’re singing the wrong words and you pray no one was looking at your mouth. The important thing is to just keep singing, and if you can, sing together.