I am feeling drained at the moment. Sleeping badly; feeling physically creaky; eating all the wrong food again after five weeks on a healthy eating blitz: it is no wonder that my emotional reserves are in the human equivalent of the little red part of our vehicle’s fuel gauge. Every stop at the lights, traffic hold up, or emergency brake to avoid an idiot feels as if breakdown is imminent.
I have the most beautiful kids. To be honest they are young adults; but we are always our mother’s children aren’t we, however old we are? At the moment, and in their different ways, they are testing my emotional strength. Neither has an insurmountable problem in their life, they love me and both are happy. But whereas they live through their pain and recover quickly, I have absorbed their recent hurt and frustration and it affects me long after they have, as horrible modern parlance would have it, ‘moved on’.
As I get older it seems to become harder to ‘let it go’, to recover. This may be because as adulthood looms (for them, not me – although that is open to debate) I can sense that the least stressful years of their life are behind them and my role as protector is now a redundant one. They have to go it alone. I have to watch them fledge and just be there if they ever need tips on nestbuilding. I need to be ready.
I was in this mood at my reading group last night. We read a short story by J.G. Ballard – ‘Having a Wonderful Time’ – and then turned to two poems. One, ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, was wonderful, but lost me for two verses and required the reader to work hard to appreciate complex images. The other was thus allotted just five minutes. We read it and left; but in it’s simplicity it stayed with me in a way that Sylvia did not.
For a Five-Year-Old – Fleur Adcock
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there;
it might crawl to the floor, we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then that a kind of faith prevails;
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are. I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.
Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934 but has lived in England for many years. Her poems are conversational and witty. However, familiar themes – family, childhood, identity – are approached with irony and such accurate psychological insight that the stab of recognition is almost a physical one. However harsh we know the world to be and however brutish we consider some of the things we have done in our lives, our instinct is to protect our children. We know though, that in that moment we have created a very fragile truth.
Here is another poem by Ms Adcock, on a similar theme:
For Andrew – Fleur Adcock
‘Will I die?’ you ask. And so I enter on
The dutiful exposition of that which you
Would rather not know, and I rather not tell you.
To soften my ‘Yes’ I offer compensations –
Age and fulfillment (‘It’s so far away;
You will have children and grandchildren by then’)
And indifference (‘By then you will not care’).
No need: you cannot believe me, convinced
That if you always eat plenty of vegetables,
And are careful crossing the street, you will live for ever.
And so we close the subject, with much unsaid –
This, for instance: Though you and I may die
Tomorrow or next year, and nothing remain
Of our stock, of the unique, preciously-hoarded
Inimitable genes we carry in us,
It is possible that for many generations
There will exist, sprung from whatever seeds,
Children straight-limbed, with clear inquiring voices,
Bright-eyed as you. Or so I like to think:
Sharing in this your childish optimism.
Parenting is so tough. We often don’t give ourselves enough credit for the great job most of us actually do. That is what I am finding such an emotional challenge I think. Believing that the ‘childish optimism’ I helped to foster can survive what is becoming a very difficult world to live in. And hoping that they never challenge me on the fantasies I created for them.
To find out more about Fleur Adcock and her work see her page at Bloodaxe Books