Thursday, 20 November 2014


This morning we pulled on our wellies and went for a walk in the sparkling dew laden grass. Autumn has finally arrived; though it is still mild there is a sharpness in the air that feels fresh and vital. The trees, confused by the unseasonable warmth that has stretched from summer right into November, have finally received the clear signal to turn and treated us to a belated shower of gold. As we trudged through sodden leaves Felix pointed and made an exclamation of pleasure. ‘Oooh’ he cried, pointing at the shimmering grass. A sole summer daisy raised its white and yellow head to the morning sun, petals trembling with the weight of water. As we went over to examine it he carefully knelt down and picked it very gently, kissed it and held it out for me. I couldn’t help but wipe a tear from my eye as I held the daisy safely in one hand and his little hand in the other. It is moments like these that make motherhood what it is, a patchwork of wonder and struggle and elation and frustration, and it is for this that I am prepared to sacrifice almost anything, even a dream job….

The return to work is a huge fork in the road for a mother. When to return and for how many days, perhaps whether to return at all. For me the decision was rather different as there was no job to return to after the birth of Felix. My career in art was impaled by an unexpected arrow in the same week as discovering my pregnancy, bringing my professional life to a distressing halt. Post birth I found myself on an indefinite maternity leave, leaving me free to absorb the asteroid impact that is new motherhood. I quickly learned two things; firstly that no job, apart except from perhaps rebuilding the pyramids with your bare hands, is as relentless and exhausting as being a new mum, and secondly that after a while you start to crave a return to work. The professional part of your brain, the one that has gone walkabout while you cope with night feeds, colic and god knows what else, suddenly pipes up. 'Hey, remember me? I'm your work brain. You might have forgotten me but I've not forgotten you. One of these day, sunshine, we're gonna have to have a chat'. As you stumble from sore nipples to shitty nappies it grins at you inanely, a distant reminder of who you once were. And then all of a sudden six or nine months have passed and for many it is abruptly, shockingly, time to go back to work. 


Motherhood is transformative; it takes a woman and changes her permanently and in ways that may be unexpected. From what I have seen it generally makes people better; kinder, more resilient and patient, less selfish, which is all well when it comes to baby but perhaps not so good when it comes time to return to the hard edged world of work. I have seen stoical and determined women brought to their knees by the process of settling their baby into nursery, unprepared for the crying and the heartache and the guilt. Is this OK, should I be doing this, is this the right thing for me/my family/my baby? All questions to keep even the most resolute mother awake at night. Happily the babies in question have settled in to their new routines in time, but it has brought up a lot of questions in my own mind about childcare. We are very lucky in that my mother and doting grandmother of Felix lives a stones throw away, providing endless hours of grandmotherly care from day one. This however does not negate my wish to return to some form of work, to immerse myself in the cloistered, idiosyncratic world of art. Not to mention the urgent need to get some extra income into our cash strapped household. Early on I had a kind of false start, an opportunity so perfect it was like a wish being granted. In the event in turned out to be more of a soap bubble, an iridescent mirage that burst as soon as soon as I grasped it, leaving me with a sticky residue and not much else. 

And then an offer came along that made me question exactly what I value and forced me into a decision. A very fine gallery that I had been temping for had a permanent opening, was I interested? My heart leapt with joy but as the proposition was outlined a blot smudged my ardour. The role was full time, five days a week, no weekend days in lieu possible. The gallery is fabulous, centrally but discretely located, well established and successful, the kind of place I dream of working. But how could I even consider accepting, what would happen to Felix? Full time nursery was out of the question financially and my mother was already hard pressed to manage two days while I worked part time at a dull showroom. I arranged to go in for an interview anyway, formulating my proposition with fervent hope. A job share, three days a week, flexible working….but in my heart of hearts I already knew. As I left the gallery I was heartbroken, knowing that the job would go to someone who could commit to the role in a way I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t. I was like a sailboat steaming along on full sail suddenly finding every breath of wind had dropped, now drifting helplessly on a dead calm sea, no land in sight. 

But I had realised something in the process, something beautiful and vital. No job would ever be worth giving up Felix for. A week has only seven days; would I really want to be apart from him for four of those, let alone five? The answer, for me, is no. The soul searching had defined my own thoughts as clearly as the sun striking a sun dial, had made me appreciate my time with him in a way that only sacrifice can. In the week or so between being offered the job and realising I would have to turn it down I realised just how much I value the everyday interaction with Felix. I want to be there on his daily journey, to help him make the tricky leap from walking aided to running free, to teach him the colours of the rainbow and the words for happy and sad and cat and dog. I want to be the hand that steadies his as he learns to draw, tie his shoelace, to eat his own lunch with a spoon. Every day a tiny piece of the mosaic that is his forming personality is forged, and I have realised I care more about the emerging picture than about my career. You only have one chance to raise your child and my job, the most important I will ever have, is to be his mother, whatever sacrifices that may entail. Any work would have to fit around that, not the other way around. Three days a week maximum or bust. 

And so I found myself back at square one, hammering the phone while Felix had his morning nap, sending CV’s and speculative emails aplenty. For some time I was convinced I had turned down the ideal opportunity but I continued nevertheless, as dogged as a gambler ploughing coins into a fruit machine. And then one afternoon a perfect conversation happened and I allowed myself to dream again, buoyed by hope and renewed determination. Weeks passed and nothing materialized but I dug in, biding my time and issuing gentle but persistent reminders. In the meantime I made the most of every day with Felix and strove to appreciate the work I was doing, trying to find within myself the higher qualities of patience, faith and gratitude. Just when I thought the soil was barren, that the seed I had planted had rotted under an overenthusiastic torrent of water, a green shoot burst through the brown mud. One day a week at a wonderful gallery, an opportunity to prove myself and make myself indispensible. I was simultaneously cautious and overjoyed, fortified with the knowledge that resilience had triumphed over despondence. More so than this I am armed with the understanding that the deepest river that flows through my life is motherhood, and the realization that sacrifice is part of the bedrock on which great parents are forged.

Friday, 7 November 2014


On the South East coast of Cornwall, where the River Fowey meets the sea, lies the tiny and unspoilt village of Polruan. Artfully spilling over the steep hills that stand sentinel over the river, Polruan faces its more famous cousin Fowey over the sparkling silver estuary.

Cornwall is a long way from London, both geographically and in spirit. Crossing the bridge at Plymouth you enter another world - the mysterious, piratical land of Kernow. I love coming into Cornwall this way, over the river Tamar that forms a natural barrier between Devon to the East and Cornwall to the West, the bobbing boats and tiny houses so far beneath they look like a toy town. Cornwall is the jutting foot of Britain, poking out precariously into the wide blue Atlantic, with only the Isles of Scilly between it and America. They say you can’t escape your troubles and you can’t outrun your feelings, but a change of scene and a break from routine is just the tonic that the soul needs every now and then. I had been craving the wide open spaces and bracing air, the wild and rambunctious sea. I needed to let all the juggling balls drop and roll away and just be me for one weekend, not the many women I am and have to be. And thus it was that I found myself on the five hour drive to the land of Kernow, accompanied by my fellow adventuress and lover of nature. 

Our place of refuge was a converted loft, a beautiful, minimal space that was the very embodiment of the simplicity we were seeking. Stargazer, as it was called, quite rightly let the views do the talking. To one side only a single house stood between us and the open sea, to the other the panorama of Polruan tumbling down to the river with the lights of Fowey sparkling on the other side. We arrived in darkness and rain, tired from the drive and a busy week. We awoke to a brilliant morning with the clear Cornish light streaming through our windows. The vista was breathtaking in the morning sun; the river as blue as the arching sky above, boats already hard at work on the water and in the distance the car ferry making its repeat journey back and forth. Our mission that day was a long walk along the South West coastal path, our destination the beautiful Lantic Bay. After a hearty cooked breakfast we headed out, armed with doorstop sandwiches and the fervent desire to see absolutely no people for a few hours. The rugged coastline provided the perfect backdrop to our solitude, and we stopped every now and then to let the vigorous wind buffet us. 

We reached Lantic Bay in record time and decided to continue onwards, making our way down to a tiny rocky beach to eat lunch and watch an intrepid boy of about ten risk his life on some rocks while his parents looked on, seemingly unconcerned by his impending death. He was armed with a long stick which he used to beat the waves from his vantage point on a rocky outcrop, and as we watched he was soaked by the crashing surf. ‘Hiyaaaa’ he screamed lustily as he battered an oncoming wave and suddenly I was seized by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. His mother finally made her way over to her errant son. ‘Now he’s for it!’ we exclaimed but not a bit of it. After scrambling over the jagged and slippery rocks to where her small son sat prone, still locked in his fierce and futile battle with the ocean, she took a seat beside him. I was seized by a fresh wave of laughter as I watched them doused with briny spray, and as they huddled in together felt the tenderness and understanding between them. ‘That will be Felix in a few years time’ I remarked, wiping the tears from my cheeks ‘Jumping around trying to kill himself’. ‘Yeah’ said my companion, ‘and you’ll be right there with him risking life and limb’. My heart soared with the vision of my baby grown into a strong ruddy cheeked boy, limbs covered with the bumps and bruises of adventure, and I knew that the magic of Cornwall had seeped into my tired soul and revived what had been flagging, restoring colour where it had faded. 

‘Fancy a cream tea?’ my mate enquired as we neared Polruan, legs quivering with tiredness. ‘God yes!’ I replied with the hearty hunger of the walker. We had concocted a plan to hop over to Fowey and find ourselves a tea shop over on the other side of the estuary, but as we boarded the small boat that served as ferry the ferryman had other ideas. ‘You wont get a cream tea over there at this time’ he intoned mournfully ‘Everything be closed down now’. We glanced at each other in dismay. ‘But it’s only four thirty’ we protested. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of defeat, then added ‘Best you can hope for is a pint of Rattler in the pub’. We exchanged glances, ‘We’ll take the chance anyway’. ‘Your lookout’ he muttered curtly and set off for Fowey. 

Twilight was gathering and the brightness of the day was ebbing, dark clouds roiled and gathered in the sky above, promising rain and maybe a storm later. He glanced up at the sky and over at us. ‘Might be the last one today at this rate’. ‘What do you mean?’ we exclaimed in horror. ‘Storm coming in’ he said briefly as if that were all the explanation required. ‘But we’re staying the night in Polruan, we have to get back!’ I said, anxiety starting to wind its net around my heart, ‘The ferry is supposed to run till seven’ ‘Times it do, times it don’t’ was his only answer and we finished the crossing in silence. Suffice to say his pronouncements of doom were unfounded and we found ourselves a very charming tea shop where we devoured a delicious homemade cream tea washed down with a gallon of fine Cornish tea. Racing back to the harbour we feared the worst; peering out into the dark water it seemed certain the ferry would never come and we would be stranded, but after a mercifully brief time its lights came into view. It was a crossing I will never forget, the small boat cutting through the silky black water like an eel, the ferryman guiding it amongst the moored boats with the casual precision of experience. As the twinkling fairy lights of Polruan harbour came into view I sighed with contentment, and as we struggled up the steep hill home, legs aching with exertion, the first drops of rain struck our wind-burned faces. ‘Storm coming in’ I muttered and we collapsed with laughter.

Is there anything more relaxing that soaking in a hot bath while a storm rages all around you? That evening as the weather turned and the promised storm arrived we found ourselves cosy and tucked up in our loft, the wind screaming past the windows and rain lashing at the toughened glass. We drank wine and ate roast chicken and baked potatoes with the gusto that only a day spent outside in the elements can provide, luxuriating in the simple pleasures of being clean and dry and safe indoors. Later, as we lay in our beds listening to the tempest I was reminded of being on a boat, rocked to sleep by the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves. ‘Stargazer would make a great name for a boat’ I thought sleepily, the satisfying tiredness of hard exercise making the bed seem the most comfortable I had ever slept in. The prospect of a drive over to the other side of the Cornish peninsula in the morning for a surf in
Watergate Bay seemed almost too good to be true, and I smiled to myself in the darkness. There were no stars that evening; the storm completely occluded the majesty of the heavens, but when I awoke during the night and looked out I saw a cornucopia of stars piercing the velvet blackness of the sky. Stargazer had live up to its name, delivering everything we needed and more, and as I gazed at the distant planets I gave thanks for all the good in my life. Sometimes all that is needed is the perspective to see that in fact all is well, that life is wonderful and that there is so much to look forward to. The spirit needs to be restored, the batteries recharged, the heart gladdened. There are no short cuts to healing, but at that moment I felt certain that eventually time, and at some point down the line another child, would wipe the pain from my memory. All in good time.