“Why are there cracks in your face, Mummy?” my three-year-old asks watching me apply my makeup. I stare at the image looking back from the mirror. This woman, with her crumpled appearance, is unrecognisable. She’s not the mother I thought I’d become.
“They’re wrinkles, darling.” I reply, forcing a smile.
What I want to say to my curious daughter is: I don’t know this face and wonder where that pretty picture is too, the taut façade, the vision of patience, understanding and frivolity.
My natural love of children has not translated to an earth mother who wraps my children in a warm hemp embrace, feeding them organic seeds and stroking their egos. That woman is strikingly absent.
“How do wrinkles get on your face, Mummy?”
“Life,” I answer, deliberately abstract. I’d like to tell her becoming a mother has contributed to those crevasses; many of them laugh lines but equally as many strained tracks crisscrossing my face.
The answers to my altered complexion lay in the everyday tasks of running a household, and safely caring for children. What multiplies them are the relentless scrutiny of my children’s psychological wellbeing, the paving of their future, the setting up of confidence and building of self-worth, the shame that I’m not doing enough, and worry of doing too much.
The love for my children is imperfect but boundless. With an oft-imbalanced mix of discipline, hugs and fun, I oscillate, as though bipolar, between serious, organised, busy mum and crazy, bum-dancing, Vaudeville mum.
“Are you filling them with that?” she asks, pointing to my foundation.
I chuckle at her innocence, if only the cracks could be puttied like a plasterer smoothing out a wall.
Her beautiful inquisitiveness is everything I wanted. Her mind is her gift, my mind is my enemy. Ludicrous expectations that my children will be funny and adorable, whilst behaving like mini adults demonstrating impeccable manners and reason. These are the conductors of my colossal downfall. I constantly remind myself the little people are children. My children.
“Mummy?” she prompts, “Why do you paint your face?”
“Good question!” I deflect.
Because I had no sleep, because I look old and worn out, because it helps me feel human and brave.
I’m desperate to tell her I don’t always need makeup, those incredible days when I could give Supermum a run for her cape. Times when I’m switched-on, calm, and tender, when I’ve baked not burnt, when I’ve listened first, responded second.
Then there are days when I’m an epic failure. The angry, impatient voice that escapes my mouth is foreign. I try to ignore my neighbour shaking his head as I bellow “hurry ups” from the front door to the car each morning. He doesn’t live my life; he cannot read the thoughts swirling around my brain. The layer of foundation is my defence against the perfect parenting brigade circling my guilt glands like sharks.
“Can I paint my face too?” she asks, skimming her palm over her cheek.
I gaze at my daughter with her porcelain skin, wide eyes and young thoughts. She’s three, she doesn’t need makeup she has no imperfections. She’s delightful in her rawest form.
This strange process of war-paint application intrigues her and she watches intently. I smile at her and place the foundation on the sink. One final look at that mirror image before wetting a cloth, I wipe my face clean, back to its original state. The lines reappear but I accept they’ve earned their place.
I lean in to her. “Maybe we’ll leave the face paint for today.”
She traces a finger down one of my wrinkles.
“I like the cracks,” she says.
I scoop her up and squeeze until she squeals.
A gaping wound of emotions has exposed me as a parent. I’ve experienced pure frustration and intense anger since having children, not expecting a tiny being could push a big glowing button depleting my levels of patience. I’ve walked a tightrope between sleep deprivation and insanity, barely balancing.
Parenting has also brought exquisite love. My heart has melted into a pool of gush holding the tiniest hand thinking, “wow we made that”. Sharing a cackle with my baby colours my day with happiness. Watching a child master the art of pooping on the toilet has me cheering and clapping like a banshee. More restrained smiles of pride and appreciation for a growing child who shows interest and compassion make me ever grateful to be sharing this road with these children of mine.
“Will I have cracks when I’m a mummy?”
“If you’re lucky.” I kiss her cherubic cheeks.
“Time for an icy pole?” She scrambles out of my arms and races down the hallway alerting her brothers to the treat on offer.
I’m a different mother to what I’d imagined. The tenderness, love, pride and protection exist, buried beneath the constant self-criticism.
Parenthood is not always glorious, and never glamorous. Some days my performance is a disastrous demise. Other days the sun shines out of my armpits. The cracks may reveal the flaws, but more importantly, they let the light in.
“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