This is part one of a two part series that I have been playing around with in my head over the past few days. I have a tendency to balance thoughts out in my head, always looking for the grey rather than the black and white. We grow into ourselves over time, through experiences and through the influence of others around us, and I often think about all of the different people that have had some kind of positive or negative impact on my life over the years, playing a part in helping me become myself.
I was taking a long, hot shower yesterday (it sometimes happens, when the stars align right, maybe once a year) and suddenly an old friend and coworker popped into my head. Just before that I had been having a conversation with an aunt on strong women and the idea of just “getting on with it” despite everything, and for some reason Mary, amongst others, came up in my thoughts. I worked with Mary when I was in my late teens and early 20’s in a pub in Rutland, where I spent every summer. She was a tiny little Irish lady, with the physique of a bird and the mettle of steel. She was in her 70’s when we met, coming out of retirement because she couldn’t stand “doing nothing” at home anymore. Mary smoked Silk Cut after Silk Cut, told us stories of hardships and war, family and love, and doled out kindness after kindness, always making sure that everyone around her was happy.
I’ve been lucky in my life as I have often found myself surrounded by extremely strong women. Women who have or who had stories to tell for days, who accomplished the impossible despite everything, and who always get back on their feet again, no matter what. All of those summers spent in Rutland were also spent with my Nana whose legacy will live on forever. She became a mother so early in life, lived through divorce and husbands, more children, losing one child in the post-divorce post-war world, and one through death, reuniting with her firstborn 50 years later, saying goodbye to sisters, welcoming grandchildren and nurturing them as her own. And even after her knees gave out and her heart stopped working so well, she would still be found standing on the foot rest dusting the top of the fridge or vacuuming the stairs. Nana’s home always smelt of fresh linen, fresh air, and cleanliness. But a lived and loved in cleanliness. It always felt like home. She was the type of person to have a child one day and be standing in front of the stove cooking a full Sunday dinner the next, without even thinking that wasn’t normal. She was also the person who would tell you how her and her sisters would bike like maniacs down a hill in Kent when they were kids, flying over the handle bars when their brakes went out.
It’s not just the women born several generations before me, but I have always been surrounded by people who don’t complain and who just get it done. I remember coming home from school at the age of 9 to find my mother had given birth to our little (big) brother up there in that tiny bedroom, and just a few days later she was off back at work, taking the baby with her in a little bassinet so that she could continue to breastfeed on demand. A few months later she also took on another job at night so that we could make ends meet. My other half tells me stories of his mother, a single mother just like mine but across the world from each other, working three jobs around the clock to make ends meet. This is the norm for me, we remain strong because everything happens for a reason, and no one will save you except for yourself. And while there are certain downsides to this mentality, which I will explore later, I consider it a blessing. At the end of the day you will always be OK, because something will fall into place somewhere along the line.
I have no qualms about working any type of job. I may have been the first person in my general family to get a degree, it still doesn’t mean that I can’t get down on my hands and knees and scrub a floor. Actually, if I am really honest with myself I much prefer manual labour to working in an office. I was much happier bartending than I was ever working in a fast-paced NYC firm. I feel like a clown when I have to dress up in business clothes, a parody of myself, but put me in shorts and biker boots and I feel like a normal human being. My hands have been rubbed raw from scrubbing toilets with bleach in all types of different places, but I have better memories of those jobs than I do of sitting at a desk all day stressing out about clients and meeting deadlines and answering emails. Writing is my passion and also my job nowadays, but ask me to choose between working as a server or an account manager and I will always choose the former. But I digress. All that to say that I was brought up to believe that we can always figure things out, even when at rock bottom, and that going to work is a necessity and not one that you can skip out on when you are tired, hungover or bored. Years ago when I was 16 my aunt told me that I had a choice: either I went to school or worked, or I would end up relying on others for the rest of my life. I’m glad I chose the right way to go.
My mother did a computer programming course in the early 80’s, hoping that it would lead to better job prospects (as well as being really interested in it). She worked her backside off for years and years, taking us to different countries in order to raise our quality of life, and ended up making a real name for herself in the industry she helped build. And she’s still doing all that and touring the world shooting music festivals and concerts, spending time with her grandkids, helping her kids, and creating homes from scratch. Oh and did I mention working on our family tree, going back centuries through all of the branches? We haven’t done badly, coming from miners and farmers and ending up where we are. And I have a large conviction I come from a long line of strong women ancestors, and our family tree seems to show this. In any case, I get my work ethic from my mother and the other women in my family, and I hope to pass this along to my children. I hope that they will also learn how to be good, kind, gentle and strong, like their ancestors. The trait of strength seems to run straight line through the female lines on both sides of my family tree.
I think a lot of these thoughts on strength and life in general have all stemmed from the fact that I’ve been writing my last birth story, and it’s my toughest one to write to date. I somehow feel compelled to explain why I opted to go through another birth without anything to take the edge off; that even 34 hours in I still refused to ask for pain relief, even though there is nothing actually wrong with opting for a pain-free birth. While most of it comes from the fact that I know how much better I feel after birth when I do it unmedicated, another part also thinks that if my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers and so on did it there is no reason why I shouldn’t. And right at the very centre of it all is a place where everything is so primal, where your strength is tested over and over again, but where your heart is stripped bare and vulnerable – and that is the one moment I never wanted to miss. While, for all intents and purposes, I will never reach that moment again, it makes me happy that I did, and that I can tell the story. And anyway, I will continue to push the barriers of my strength from time to time, just to prove to myself that I am strong enough. It’s in my nature to do so.
I do feel like I am blessed with this trait to always stay strong despite everything, but all the same it can also be a curse, one that I am sure many women (and men) relate to. The next part will be more of a discussion on that side of the mirror.