The push and the pull

by Charlotte Duff


My son is the joy of my life.

I have moments with him, when it’s just the two of us, at home or in the garden, when I am purely and completely happy, in a way I don’t think I have ever been before. I sneak into his room when he’s sleeping, just to cup his cheek in the palm of my hand, pat his back as I smooth down the covers, kiss his forehead. I tell him he’s tasty and I just want a little nibble. Maybe just to eat his ears.

And yet.

And yet, I run from him as well, when I get the chance. I hand him over to husband or carers and race like the wind. To squirrel myself away, hide in corners and behind quiet desks, to find a space for myself, a time for writing.

My son is lining up his toys, insisting on pairing them up before we can leave the house. The big fire truck becomes the ‘mummy’ fire truck, the little one the ‘baby’ fire truck. We find a little digger at the op shop and he can’t wait to bring it home, to reunite it with its mummy. He puts on voices for the reunion. “Mummy!” he makes the new digger say. “There you are! I’ve missed you soooo much.”

When I’m with my son, he takes all of me. All my energy, all my mental space. And I give it gladly. I’m happy to answer all his questions, to follow him down the rabbit hole of his imagination and help him make up adventures for his toys, for the trucks that pass us on the street, for the dogs next door who sometimes bark at us as we pass. (“No doggies today,” he says. “They must be on holidays at the beach.”)

But it seems it’s all or nothing with me. I need my space, too. And to get it, I have to cut myself off, lock myself away. First remove my body from my son and my mind then follows. I go to libraries, empty and cold on weekends, and fill notepads and Word files. I stare out the windows at the trees that scrape along the glass, letting my eye drift through the leaves to the sky above, and breathe.

When my son was still quite young — maybe six months old — I started meeting friends for lunch. Snatched between feeds while my husband looked after him. Uninterrupted conversation. Giggly after the heady pleasure of one glass of wine. I always returned reluctantly — not content with my few hours, I was always greedy for more. A whole night. A whole weekend. I returned to work and rejoiced in the long stretches of time I had to myself, where what I did at each moment was completely up to me.

My son is at that age when, if awake, he’s rarely still. But if he does quieten for a moment, next to me, while listening to a story or if something I’m doing has caught his eye, his body closes in on mine. Feet burrow in, under or between my legs, his head nestles in closer, or his hips lean against me, totally trusting me to take all his weight.

And I’ve become that woman who smiles at stranger’s babies on the train or at supermarkets. Makes funny faces so the babies stare and the parents get embarrassed about the staring. I hear a child’s laugh or a cry and my head flicks. At a distance from him, removed from him, I see my son in these strange babies and want to eat them up, too. Cut adrift, space stretching, I feel a longing that’s like nostalgia. (Nostalgia, from the Greek. A longing to return home.) Just as the separated son returns to the maternal body and finds comfort there, returning to my son feels like coming home.

I’m walking up my street from the train station, headed home, anticipating one of my favourite parts of a day away from my son. One of the little sparkling stars of motherhood. I know my son is already home and that, when he sees me open the door, he will shout, “Mummy!” And come running towards me with arms outstretched. That I will be able to drop to one knee and gather him into my arms and he will squeeze me tight. It won’t last long. He’ll want to push away and go back to what he was doing. But the moment will be there.

I know it won’t happen forever. A time will come, probably in not too many years, when my reappearance will hardly cause a reaction at all. Or no reaction. (I’ll still hope for at least a wry half-smile, a slight softening around the eyes.) So I lap it up while I can.

The push and the pull. The push to get away, to find a space for my mind to dream, to run into corners and down alleyways, discovering new ventures, twists and turns, flights of fancy, for my story. The pull of him, my dearest heart, to come back, for skin to return to skin. The constant struggle.

But I do know this. I know I am a better mother for sometimes being absent.


© Charlotte Duff

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem