One of the first linocuts I ever made, dabbling in a college art course way back in my twenties, was this African weaver and her baby.
I remember how deeply I loved the mother and child image. It filled me with romantic notions of squishy little babies, snuggled up to their mothers. Dreamily, I pondered how wonderful it would be to have a bundle of sleepy baby strapped to your body the whole time. I thought that, one day, when I had babies, I would ALWAYS carry them like this.
Then I had children.
Now, when I look at this picture, I think: Childcare.
And I think: Just what level of superwoman is she?
I also think: Doesn’t she get a sticky sweaty back and ferociously aching shoulders?
I remember my own return to work and try to imagine sitting at my calm and ordered desk, tapping at the keyboard with my six-month-old daughter strapped to me. The idea makes me giggle (although I know of women who genuinely had to do this during lockdown).
So I feel a little bad that this weaver had to take her baby to work. Didn’t he grizzle, get antsy from time to time? Didn’t she need to stop working to entertain him? Was he an angelic contented little cherub who never whimpered or cried?
Or was it just that he already had everything he needed right there, snuggled up close where 90% of his needs were met. If he grumbled for food, all she had to do was swivel him around. He had her where he wanted her.
To be honest, most of the time this is all my babies wanted too. And despite wonderful childminders and a job I loved, leaving my children to return to work came with all manner of logistical challenges, not to mention mummy-guilt!
As for bundling my baby up to me all the time, that didn’t quite work out as planned either.
When my daughter was born (around ten years after making this linocut) I shopped excitedly for baby slings. The longing to snuggle my baby close at all times had not diminished.
I will not forget our first outing. Having completely over-researched, we somehow ended up buying an engineering nightmare of a papoose, with straps the length of Rapunzel’s braids. It took 20 minutes and two pairs of hands to get it together, but I knew it would be worth it.
We walked to the shops and back, me cautiously cradling the air under the bundle of my daughter, not entirely trusting the sling to do the job.
I wanted so much to love it. I tried so hard to. I also tried hard not to cry, but I hadn’t slept for weeks. I was hot, sticky and uncomfortable and my shoulders roared with pain while my motherly inadequacies screeched at me. Why is it so easy for everyone else? Why can’t you do it right?
Which basically sums up a lot of early motherhood.
Bursting with love, we have endless plans for how we’re going to make everything perfect; to do the best we can. We see things that work for others and grasp at them, longing for our children to have it all; longing for the baby catalogue experience - that warm glow of having got it right.
However, when you’re a parent, things don’t always go quite to plan.
I’m way past the baby stage now. That first tiny bundle has just turned 18. But I still know those feelings. They just reapply themselves to new situations.
Feelings of wanting to do the best for your children and, most of the time, not quite making it. But perhaps the secret of motherhood is accepting the ‘not making it’ and instead, simply being what you can for them. It’s about finding a way ahead, finding ways that work for you.
And deeply hoping those ways don’t involve sweaty backs and shoulder ache.