Advice on motherhood

Dominique Cleary

Dominique Cleary




My grandmother

Not long after I got married, my Ecuadorian grandparents came to Ireland for a visit. They slept on a double bed that my husband and I had borrowed; it took up most of the space in the spare bedroom of our small flat. My grandfather’s morning routine required that I boil a kettle and fill a basin with water for shaving. My grandmother joined me in the kitchen every morning in her long flannel nightdress. She thought that at twenty-seven I was late getting married, and now she saw an opportunity to find out why I wasn’t yet pregnant. My body would not be fresh and young for ever, she reminded me. The longer I waited, the harder it would be to conceive. She held my hips or placed her hands on my abdomen as she spoke. Some mornings her eyes would twinkle as she enquired whether there was any chance it might have happened the previous night. This was over twenty years ago; she was in her early seventies, and she hoped I might produce her first great-grandchild before she died. She is now ninety-four. Seventeen great-grandchildren have been born since.


My doctor

On New Year’s Eve 1999, my husband and I walked into town and stood under the bells of Christ Church Cathedral. Our neighbour’s girlfriend had been picked to ring its bells to herald the new millennium. She had been practising for weeks. Our neighbour would become her husband and one of our best friends and he has since passed away, but that night he sat in his wheelchair under a thick hat and blanket beside us on the pavement looking up at the belfry as we counted down.

Later, on a bridge over the Liffey, we met my husband’s brother and his wife, who announced that they were expecting their first child. We passed around my husband’s hipflask and we all took a swig of whiskey – except for my sister-in-law, who declined with what appeared to be self-satisfaction. In spite of the buzz of the night and their good news, or perhaps because of it, my heart was heavy with uncertainty. I had been trying to conceive for over a year. From the day I stopped taking the pill, I watched months clock by, cycle after cycle. My husband and I hadn’t started to talk about it as a concern, but that night I resolved to buy an ovulation kit.

I finally got a faint positive line on a home pregnancy test, but had a feeling that the embryo hadn’t found a comfortable place to implant. I willed it to hold on, but ten weeks later I began spotting. I thought it was all over until I went to see a consultant gynaecologist, the man who had looked after my American grandmother when she first came to Ireland, and then my mother. He scheduled an early scan and I saw a steady little heartbeat. I had possibly lost a twin, he said. Best not tell anyone yet. Anything could happen.


My boss

I told my boss as soon as I started leaving the button at the back of my skirt undone. I assured him that nothing would change.

I had a woman in mind who set the standard, it seemed to me, of what was expected of someone in my situation. I had met her while apprenticing at a private law firm before starting my job as an in-house lawyer in a large institution. On her due date, she went straight from her desk to the labour ward. She delivered her baby and had files couriered to her bedside. Some of the other women in the firm were aghast, but I could see why she had made it to partnership. I believed she had figured out what was required of her to be taken seriously as a woman, and more importantly as a mother, in the workplace.

My boss adjusted his tie, swung back in his leather swivel chair and crossed his ankle over his knee as if to consider my words. He took a moment to look at me and smile. Then he swung forward, put his elbows on the desk and leaned towards me as if to let me in on a secret.

‘Everything changes when a baby is born. You’ll see,’ he said. ‘My wife gave up work. And if, like my wife, you are lucky enough not to have to work outside the home, why do it?’


A male colleague

A male colleague overheard another congratulating me at the photocopying machine under the stairs and punched the air as he passed. ‘Yes,’ he said, sounding pleased. ‘We get to see Domo with big tits.’

A couple of hours later he peeked his head into my office door tentatively, mimicked an angry face in jest, and raised his eyebrows as though to inquire whether I had taken offence. It was easier to laugh at his idiocy, so I acted as though I hadn’t given his remark a second thought. He then stepped into my office to give me some advice. Don’t wear your hair tied back like that, especially when you start getting bigger and you opt for flat shoes. You’ll only look like you’re about to clean your house. He pointed his index finger at me, winked and clicked his tongue in time with his thumb like he was taking a shot at me. ‘Stay gorgeous, alright?’


My boss’s secretary

When I started to get drowsy after lunch, I hid in a toilet cubicle so as not to get caught dozing. I closed over the seat, sat down and leaned my head against the dividing panel for a delicious few minutes of sleep. I never stayed away from my desk long, maybe only five or ten minutes, but a short nap gave me a necessary boost mid-afternoon.

The most difficult thing about the third trimester was my constant hunger. Catering staff wheeled trolleys through the corridors to serve executives their mid-morning scones and tea. My boss had an office beside mine and his tray arrived every day at about 10.30. The scones were straight out of the oven and I could smell the melting butter. He was often at meetings in another building when the trolley arrived and it would kill me to see his tray left untouched on a small circular table in his office.

One day when he was away from his office, I called his secretary – who sat upstairs in a space shared by other administrative staff in the department – to ask what time he was due back. I’m not sure how informed or truthful she was that day, or whether she thought it was any of my business, but she told me he had no plans to return. In any case, I sat down at his circular table with my back to the door and stuffed a large chunk of crumbling warm scone into my mouth. While flicking crumbs off my swollen belly, I heard a sound over my shoulder and turned to see my boss, watching me.


My husband, my boss, my father-in-law

I went into labour having read about all the benefits of a non-medicated and natural delivery, but before long I began howling for pain relief. I lost all composure; I didn’t trust my body to do what nature intended. I curled up on my side to allow them to inject the anaesthetic into my spine and was relieved when all feeling left my body from the waist down. Propped upright, I watched as my legs rolled off the side of the bed involuntarily every now and then, and my husband pushed them back up again. He called out clues from the Irish Times crossword to distract me from the dull sensation of a coconut-sized head bearing down on the base of my pelvis.

I phantom-pushed Robyn out to the cheers of the midwives, who had coaxed me to imagine the action in my head even if I couldn’t feel it. They placed her tiny pink body under my T-shirt, skin to skin. She was small but she was loud.

My husband told me that the baby I had carried throughout my entire pregnancy had been an abstract concept to him until he finally saw her emerge. He was startled at how grey-blue she looked before she drew her first breath and when she let out her first cry he felt an awe-filled surge of relief.

My boss came to the hospital that same day and brought flowers. My father-in-law came soon after him with a tray of six sugar-covered jam donuts and ate half of them while he sat beside me.


My mother, my aunt

All the books I had read on pregnancy ended at the point of delivery, so I had little idea of what to do with the baby in my arms. My mother was busy working, and she seemed nervous and evasive every time I asked her for help. It was so long ago, she said, she couldn’t remember how she had managed. My great-grandmother had bathed me, she added. The few times she held Robyn, so that I could jump into the shower or put on a load of laundry, she handed her back to me as soon as she started to fuss. What perplexed her most was my insistence on breastfeeding. She didn’t think I was capable of satisfying Robyn and put her constant crying down to hunger. She said I would ruin my figure. That my breasts would begin to sag before their time.

I became intensely self-critical. I felt overwhelmed by the possibility that my every action with Robyn had the potential for long-lasting effects. I was afraid to damage perfection. I was lonely and I paced the floorboards with Robyn in my arms, waiting for my husband to come home from work, comforting her with songs and rhymes in English and Spanish that I dug deep to remember. She wouldn’t let me put her down and I couldn’t bear her crying. I counted my steps and counted her heartbeats to pass the time, making the small space bigger by walking into the corners of the room. Every night, it seemed I had done something to trigger her wakefulness and ruin the prospect of either of us getting a restful night’s sleep.

I started emailing an aunt in Ecuador with desperate questions. How long until I revert to the person I used to be? How long until I can establish a routine I can live with? Can lack of sleep eventually drive a person insane? Her advice was to give up the fight against nature. She’s here for life, she said. To keep you awake. To teach you to be selfless. Embrace the chaos.


The public-health nurse

A nurse from the local health centre rang my doorbell, and it was only when I opened the door that I remembered I had been told to expect her for a regulation visit. It was noon and I was still in my pyjamas. Robyn was on my shoulder. On the advice of a woman I’d met in the maternity ward, I had stuffed chilled cabbage leaves down my bra overnight to relieve the swelling and the pain of cracked nipples. I smelled of sour milk and boiled vegetables. I left the nurse standing on the doorstep while she talked until she finally asked herself in. I was soon asking her questions that sounded more like pleas for help.

She made two suggestions. I should put my baby down and plug in a hoover or a hair dryer beside her. The hum would put her to sleep. Then, I should I have a pint of Guinness. It would be good for my nerves and would ensure more sleep for both of us. She could tell I wasn’t buying any of it; but her concern for my mental well-being brought her back to my door again and again until I was a little more in control and able to show her some gratitude.


The book

A well-meaning friend gave me a book that presented motherhood as a military regime. It charted every detail of daily life with exact times, to the minute: when to pump my breasts to fill little bags of milk to freeze for emergencies, when to feed the baby and how many ounces, when to wash bottles, when to put the baby down for naps and for how long, when to play, when to give the baby a bath. It suggested buying only white clothing for the baby, in order to streamline laundry.

I was due to return to work and I convinced myself that my success or failure as a mother and a professional hung entirely on mastering this regimen. For a few neurotic weeks, I battled hard against the chaos of nature. Robyn ate and slept and cried when she felt like it, and there was little I could do about it. I started to believe I was inept as a mother and it nearly broke me. Eventually I got some sense and threw the book in the bin.


The crèche

I left work at 5.30 on the button, cycled home and picked up the car. I avoided the obvious routes to the nursery, weaving my way down a maze of back streets. I parked illegally in front of someone’s driveway down a cul-de sac, ran to the crèche gate and rang the bell before six.

There was an extra charge for every five minutes I was late, to cover insurance costs and overtime pay for staff, but it was the judgement of the head nanny that I dreaded most. I, and a couple of other mothers like me, would arrive apologetic, red-faced and sweating almost every day, relieved that no one had locked the gates for the night and left our toddlers in their car seats outside on the pavement. Not that they would ever have done that, of course, but the threat felt very real. Inside the door, our babies were lined up in their car seats and I sometimes wondered how long they spent there. Robyn, already with an uncanny ability to read my emotions and to soak up the angst and guilt I projected, would burst into tears of indignation, her arms outstretched and hands grasping the air as soon as she saw me.


My husband

My husband did the early runs to the crèche, which meant I could go straight to my desk without having to negotiate the morning traffic. I don’t remember teasing out the consequences of our division of duties, but it was understood that he benefited from being able to stay at work as late as necessary. We were both convinced that a job in a private law firm like his was more cut-throat than an in-house job like mine, and that he couldn’t be seen rushing out at 5.30.

On the mornings of teething fevers, chicken pox, pneumonia (with antibiotics and inhalers), and the innumerable vomiting and respiratory viruses, my husband and I compared diaries to weigh up who, in economic units, was worth more at work. It was an artificial exercise that always produced the same result, because although I was earning a higher salary at the time, he worked billable hours, had financial targets to meet and was accountable to many clients, whereas my only client was my employer. I often insisted that my career was just as important as his, but there was hardly ever any real debate about who would stay at home. It was mostly I who made the mortifying phone call looking for another day off.

I think a part of me was resigned to the fact that a glass ceiling would eventually impede me anyway. Although neither of us held a conscious belief that the mother ought to pick up the parenting slack and shelve her own career ambitions if necessary, we both ended up behaving as though we did believe this. I never insisted on an open discussion about our shared responsibilities or a fairer way forward. I was so overwhelmed by the day-to-day reality of motherhood that I found it hard to imagine a future in which I could once again focus on myself and my career.


My American grandmother

My American grandmother suggested I hire someone to take the pressure off in the evenings. Come home from work when you’re good and ready, she said. Your nanny can hand over the baby and you can play with her while she makes your dinner. Don’t kill yourself trying to be everywhere at once. But I didn’t want a stranger in my house. Nor did I have any desire to see less of Robyn.


My mother

When I was a child in Ecuador, my mother worked full time as my father’s equal partner in their textile business. As a toddler, I was left at home with a housekeeper and a young niñera. I don’t remember being anything other than happy, but I do recall waiting for my mother to come home every day for lunch and how I felt when I climbed onto the bed beside her for a twenty-minute siesta before she left again for the afternoon.

We lived in a third-floor apartment, and my parents’ bedroom window opened onto an internal concrete courtyard. There was no view other than of our kitchen window across an empty shaft. As a result, the curtains were always pulled and the room was forever dark, day or night. It was easy for me to doze off in the middle of the afternoon curled into my mother’s warmth. I always held her finger so that I would wake up when she moved to leave. One day, she replaced her finger with the arm of my rag doll. I still remember waking on the vast empty bed in the dark with a pang of loneliness at the realization that my mother had more important places to be.


My obstetrician

The second time we tried to conceive, it happened on the first attempt. I continued to cycle even when my centre of gravity changed and my balance got a little wobbly: I was anxious that if I used the car or public transport to pick up Robyn, I’d be late. Sometimes I got dizzy and had to dismount and sit on the ground with my head between my knees for fear of passing out. My obstetrician, who didn’t know I was still cycling, recommended I sip water regularly to keep my blood pressure from dipping. I started carrying a bottle around everywhere I went.


The security guard at work

At some point I began to notice that the phone on my desk had a tendency to ring just as I was getting up to leave at 5.30. I often ignored the phone and sneaked through the shadows in the corridors that led to my locked bicycle in the car park. I recited a mantra in my head to dispel the guilt: Nothing here is a matter of life or death. Everything can wait until tomorrow. I justified myself to myself by counting the hours since I had left Robyn in the morning: nine wakeful hours, motherless.

One day, when I thought I had made a clean escape, I was stopped by the security guard at the gates of the car park. Someone had transferred a call for me down to his kiosk, and I wondered if it had been done out of spite. The security guard was holding the receiver out the window at me. He told me I had better take it. I considered making a final burst for freedom, but we had locked eyes, and it seemed impossible. I took notes on a pad resting on the handlebars. It wasn’t an important or a particularly long call, maybe just under ten minutes, but it was enough to set off my panic about arriving late at the crèche. I tried to get some momentum into my pedalling but I was breathless with choked-up fury and frustration. It was hard to cycle and cry at the same time.


The architect turned sexologist in Ajaccio

I brazened out a request for leave and we booked flights to Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace. Unbeknownst to us, Robyn was brewing a twenty-four-hour bug and it manifested itself in a fetid eruption at the departure lounge. By the time we touched down, we had changed her out of every piece of clothing we had packed into our carry-on luggage; she disembarked in a vest and a bare rash-red bottom.

The hotel looked promising. It had rotating sprinklers and palm and citrus trees. Purple bougainvillaea crawled along the walls of its three stories. My husband soon started feeling queasy, so I left him and Robyn napping in the cool shade of the room and went to find a deckchair by the pool. I sat beside a man with an unsightly brown stain on his leg. He had a newspaper over his face.

Across the pool from us, a hairy man lifted a small wriggling boy by his arm and dangled him. A moment later, he smacked him with a resounding whack. The boy screamed in rage rather than pain as he swung in the air with the force of the blow. The man beside me sat up and his newspaper slid to the ground. He spat out in Spanish something about the futility of brutish behaviour. The boy would only ever remember his own anger, he said, and not his punishment. Children remember how you make them feel, he said in English, as he turned to me.

I replied to him in Spanish. He took my hand and kissed it. He was from Argentina and seemed delighted to meet a fellow South American. Speaking with the ease of a long-time friend, he started telling me the story of his life. He told me he had a memory of his mother’s voice on the phone in another room when he was a little boy, not much older than the child we had just witnessed being smacked. He remembered the tenderness in her voice and also how he felt when he realized she wasn’t talking to her father but to another man. That emotion was still visible in his face as he recounted the story.

He told me he had been an architect in Buenos Aires, Japan and New York, and had trained with Frank Lloyd Wright. I made mental calculations – he must be in his seventies. He wanted to know what I did for a living, and looked impressed when I told him: ‘Ah, a professional and a mother.’ He pointed at my swollen belly. I nodded and faked a heavy dose of self-congratulation. He didn’t know the half of it. My inability to juggle was becoming as undignified as the five pairs of dripping-wet tights I hung on my radiator every Sunday night for the week ahead.

He told me he had been successful, if wealth was a measure. He’d had a beautiful wife and healthy, intelligent children, but when he reached fifty he realized he felt uneasy and unhappy. He said he had reached the top, but knew he had climbed the wrong mountain, so he went looking for a therapist. None would take him on. He said he didn’t present as a man who needed fixing. People saw only the risks involved in deconstructing his life when he should be settling down to enjoy its fruits. But eventually he found a good psychotherapist and now, twenty years later, having divorced his wife and become a sexologist, he claimed to be a new man.

I suddenly felt self-conscious. I spread my fingers across my bump and waved up at the hotel balcony, where my husband was awake now and trying to read. Robyn was on the balcony beside him. The Argentinian man waved up at him too. He told me he had seen us arrive earlier. I wondered just how much he might have witnessed.

Robyn threw a piece from her wooden jigsaw puzzle over the balcony railing. It fell into the rusting gutters along the awning above the restaurant. She pointed at it and her little face reddened as she cried. Then she stopped abruptly, looked for another piece and, without taking her eyes off her father, reached for it and held her hand over the railings, waiting for a reaction.

The Argentinian man smiled at me as we watched and said that it was nice to be as young and full of energy and hopes for the future as we were. But then, almost under his breath and in a premonitory tone, he quoted Carl Jung to me before excusing himself and leaving the poolside.


Wholly unprepared, we embark on the second half of life… we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step on the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before.

But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at the evening have become a lie.


My obstetrician

It took two epidurals to deliver John. My husband asked me whether I had noticed the obstetrician stroking my thigh during labour. I hadn’t, but I knew I had hugged his arm for comfort. When he placed John at my breast he said, ‘No more babies, you have one of each now and you’ve done enough.’ It was strangely reassuring to hear him say that. He restricted my visitors and arranged that I get an extra night’s rest in my overheated hospital room that smelled of rotting grapes and wilting lilies.

John curled up on my bare chest for three days and nights until he was ready to be swaddled and placed in his cot. He was a calmer baby. He cried less and slept more. Things would be different this time around, I promised myself.


Ana Alvarez-Errecalde

Birth of My Daughter (2005) is a photographic diptych by the Argentinian artist Ana Alvarez-Errecalde. The first image shows the artist standing, naked and bloody, with her newborn daughter in her arms, still connected by the umbilical cord. In the second, she is sitting on the floor beside a pool of her afterbirth. She is smiling, in control, unapologetic about the gore, discomfort, trauma and general messiness involved in bringing a new life into the world.


My boss and my husband

Getting from Monday to Friday was like swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool without coming up for air. I hated having to wait to see my children at the end of the day when they were tired and cranky. I was missing their milestones. First words and first steps were reported to me by the staff in the crèche, along with more perfunctory accounts of what they had eaten, whether they had napped and for how long, and the number and consistency of their bowel movements.

Under the Parental Leave Act my husband and I were entitled to eighteen weeks unpaid leave each for each child under the age of eight: seventy-two weeks in total. My husband didn’t want to avail of his rights. Men weren’t taking parental leave – not back then, anyway. He would lose traction at work, as well as income.

The leave was designed to be taken in large chunks, but it could also be taken piecemeal with the agreement of the employer. I sounded my boss out and made a formal request to take every Wednesday afternoon off, unless a case of mine was listed in the Four Courts on that afternoon. I could afford to do it this way, and it would ensure that I’d be present at my desk every day of the week.

My boss reacted with a low-grade vibration of disapproval. He cited ‘business exigencies’ and ‘inconvenience’, but in the end he let me take a small part of my entitlement in that way. I suggested I could take the rest of my entitlement in short blocks during court recesses. Months went by without a reply and I found the uncertainty stressful. Meanwhile, an employment agent called me out of the blue and offered me a job interview with a competitor. He made it sound like I was being headhunted, but I suspected that attempts were being made internally to move me out of the way. The thought of starting from scratch somewhere new was exhausting, so I declined the opportunity.

My boss then hinted at the possibility of letting me take an unpaid career break. He presented it as the pause I probably needed, with the promise of a job at the end. I had started taking some unpaid leave when the kids were sick. I’d run out of paid leave and my boss had told me that I had exceeded the few days of emergency leave that had been available to me. Then Robyn got chicken pox, and when she was finally well, John came down with it. I was out of the office for over two weeks. On a couple of occasions, when they were getting better, I tried to drop them off at the crèche so I could go to work, but the crèche nanny lifted up their vests to point out raw spots that hadn’t healed fully.

My husband encouraged me to apply for the career break. We’d figure out the money, he said. And it would be good practice to attempt to live on one salary in case I didn’t feel like going back. My boss had meanwhile never given me a response to my request for parental leave. I would have liked to have been fully informed of my options, but it was a stressful time and I was tired of waiting, so I signed the contract and was on my way.

When I met my boss a year later to discuss my return, he showed me organizational charts. He talked about the restructuring of the office, the new reporting lines, and the promotions that had taken place while I was away. I hadn’t been around to apply for the new posts created or to argue the value of my position within the department. I had been head of a litigation section and it now looked like I had been tagged on as an afterthought in the corner of the org chart. Technically it was the same job, but it was clear that in reality I was looking at a demotion. He wasn’t trying to entice me back.


The student

On my first day as a law student in Trinity College, I took a seat in the middle of a small lecture theatre. I wasn’t looking around at the time to assess the gender split, but I think it was fairly even. There was a seat beside me that was free, and a stocky fellow in a crewneck sweater and cords asked if he could take it. I introduced myself and he began to tell me what was on his mind.

‘You know you shouldn’t be here.’

I thought I might have mixed up my lecture theatres, so I started to check my diary.

‘You’re taking up a valuable space,’ he continued.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said. The CAO points threshold for the course had been high and I had just scraped my way in, but he couldn’t have known that.

‘Look around at all the women,’ he said. ‘For every one of you, there’s a man sitting home right now that didn’t get in. Most of you are going to get married and have children anyway. What a waste.’

I thought he was joking at first. No one would say such a thing out loud in the late 1980s, even if they really believed it. But he was completely serious. In a joking tone, trying not to show any rancour, I asked him what stone he had crawled out from under. As it turned out, his sexism became a bad joke between us; he continued to bait me and I smirked back every time I got a higher grade.


Doris Lessing

I resigned without returning to work. Talking to my boss had reminded me of all the mortification and anxiety I had felt in trying to keep my head above water. In principle, I could have still sought my parental leave as it was my legal entitlement, but I didn’t have the heart to face any more resistance. I no longer wanted to apologize for wanting to care for my children.

My practising certificate and insurance, which had been renewed annually by my employer, elapsed within months of my resignation. I considered paying the fee myself in case I found a way to work on small projects from home, or even just to swear affidavits; but setting myself up in private practice was too expensive and time-consuming to make it worthwhile. The hardest lesson was yet to come. I had let my job define me. My self-worth was unhealthily rooted in the ability to call myself a solicitor. I cringed at being identified as a stay-at-home mum and hated questions about my occupation when filling out forms.

After the incessant treadmill I had been on at work, I had found it hard to slow down during the career break, and now, having left my job for good, I kept up the brisk pace I’d set with my children. Walks, trips to the park, to beaches for shells, to every petting farm I could find, and to the public library kept the children distracted and the meltdowns at bay. I made cookies and volcanoes, finger paintings and origami. I prepared healthy meals and we ate early, leaving plenty of time to crowd up on the bed and read before bedtime.

My children were thriving, but I began to crave time in my own head without their constant interruptions. I started to try to write in fits and spurts while the kids were distracted. But the more I retreated inside my own head, the more my children pulled me back, whining, kicking up tantrums, clinging onto my limbs for attention. And so I would return to the cuddles and the play, giving them nothing less than the full attention they sought.

I didn’t know, at that time, that Doris Lessing had called motherhood ‘the Himalayas of tedium’ and said that ‘There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.’ Her words would have made me feel less alone in my conflicting instincts, and not any less maternal. After all, I had what I wanted: time with my children. But I also felt trapped.

Lessing also said, ‘I haven’t yet met a woman who isn’t bitterly rebellious, wanting children, but resenting them because of the way we are cribbed, cabined and confined.’ After she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I read an account describing how she had left her children in Africa to pursue her writing career in London. I was a little horrified but also a little thrilled by the thought of such a transgression against motherhood. Later, I realized that the account I’d read had been a bit misleading. She went to London not on her own but with her young son from her second marriage, Peter Lessing. Later, she looked after a troubled teenage girl, Jenny Diski, for whom she became a kind of foster mother and mentor.


My children

I have a room at the back of my house with a door I can close when I want to insist on my solitude. My desk has a black glass top and a steel frame. It shows dust, fingerprints and smudges, and holds the clutter of my daily life. A stack of half-used notebooks, opened mail, scraps of paper with random scrawls, an oversized calculator I never use, a dirty coffee cup, a hole punch I borrowed from work years ago and never took back, containers overflowing with rubber bands, paperclips, highlighters, pencils, a protractor, a compass, a ruler and a Pritt stick, printouts of the children’s latest school reports, a birthday card I bought and never sent, a wooden box with a collection of business cards handed to me by people I’ve long forgotten, a few books I started to read and left unfinished, the case for my glasses, a box of matches, two half-burnt sticks of palo santo balancing against an ink bottle, a yoga journal, a fountain pen, a pair of earrings I took off when they became heavy, a bracelet discarded for the same reason, and at the centre, my laptop.

There is a wood-burning stove and a low seat beside it. One or other of my children sits down occasionally knowing that I will listen, sometimes half turned towards my work and my attention seemingly divided. I think they like it that way.





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