“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”
Maya Angelou (American poet, writer and civil activist, b. 1928)
Yesterday I was sitting with mothers and they – oblivious to the twitches within me – were generous, calm and thoughtful on being a parent. They passed the cake and biscuits, and as they talked, I thought all this is ahead of me.
One mum, taking a chocolate biscuit and a tissue, told us that last week she went to her local park. It was the first time since her son had been born that she felt ready. It had been seven, long months.
She had rugged him up, layer upon layer to brace against the sharp wind, but knew as she pulled his woolen hat onto his head that she could not shelter him from everything.
A woman with two small children was watching them. The sky above the playground was motionless, the clouds frozen and grey. The mum buttoned up her jacket, pulling it tightly around her. She could feel herself raising her shield, preparing for an encounter, determining whether this woman was friend or foe. The woman eventually came over, unapologetically curious.
“They’re such happy children aren’t they? But did you know before you had him? Did you have the test?”
I feel the hairs on my arms rise, as if a cold breeze has passed through the room.
“I didn’t know what to say to her,” the mum told us, her face reddening, colouring in the outline drawn by the woman’s question. The other mums were still, biscuits half-raised to mouths, and teaspoons paused, their eyes dark and wet.
She said nothing to the woman. She just shook her head.
She didn’t have the test. Some of the mums here knew. Some didn’t know. Some things you can’t test for. Nothing made it easier. Except this.
Except this small group of women, carving away an hour or two every few weeks to come together and lower their shields. To tell the untold stories that they carry each and every day, that will never have an opportunity to be re-written. And in their narratives there is the unearthing of things they never knew, about themselves, their partners and their children. They take off their armour and tell the slender and fragile stories of the challenges and blessings of having a child with a difference. Stories that run like secret rivers for miles underground, cool and dark and winding their own way through the chasms.
The life these mothers expected to be living has stepped into the shadows, and another has come forward. A life that most never expected or imagined.
When I hear of epic feats I think of these mothers here, sitting together and being witnesses to a different type of daring. Their accomplishments may not be reported on the front page of newspapers but their days are filled with the quiet courage that opens the front door, and goes out and faces a world that sees their child as different.
The mum put down her cup of tea. “I’m only starting to recognise that sometimes the things we would choose are not the things that choose us, and although I’m pushing up against my grief every day, I realise that un-chosen doesn’t mean unwanted.”
I haven’t told them yet. I haven’t told them that when I first knew of you, you emerged as the second line and I could barely breathe. I was carrying around a secret that had no bulk, no stretchings, just two streaks on a plastic indicator and a promise. But you will never break your promise to me, because these mothers have taught me that there is no guarantee of just what is to come or of what will shape you. As they talk to each other, your small tremblings inside me are a reminder that you and I are joined, but that the threads of your life are already being woven and that I can’t choose what the tapestry will look like.
I have been blessed to hear the stories and the journeywork of women, mothers, and parents who ended up somewhere quite different to where they expected. But I also prickle with the awareness that things happen, that life can change in an instant, that all the waiting and planning has been replaced with something unknown and unexpected.
These are the stories of being a parent. Of bringing a child into the world and wondering whether you should be trying to change the child or the world. Whether you should be trying to change anything, or just trying to accept.
I left the mothers yesterday as they were picking up their armour ready to go back out into the world.
I have heard their stories and I am cautious. More than many I expect. I come home and as I feel your soft twitches flicker through my skin, I know the possibilities.
I think to myself, all this is ahead of me.
“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.
* Gloria Steinem