I was a kidult in my thirties. My God! I excelled at it. As I’ve said before, I spent at least some of my time cracking up. When I wasn’t doing so, I put the same sort of boundless passion into singing and related activities; I somehow managed to employ the relatively well-behaved worlds of folk and choral music as vehicles for boozing and staying up late in strange places. (And I’d never been all that much of a wild child.)
Needless to say, I was a terrible employee. As well as the odd day wiped out by hangover, there were a great many bolshie fights with people further up the pile than me. This was at a time when most of my colleagues were either caring for their children, or for their elderly parents. But this just made me worse. They, I reasoned, had laudible and unselfish motives to be good and avoid getting into trouble; with no such responsibilities, I was as badly-behaved as I liked. I somehow managed to hang onto my job… until I packed it in.
I dressed out of charity shops, cooked scrappy meals from random things in the fridge, and consoled myself for their shortcomings with chocolate biscuits and wine. My constant prayer, if I’d had one, might have been the traditional supplication: “Oh, Lord, make me good…but not yet.”
After all this, what better way to rehabilitate myself (in my own eyes, at least) than to become a Mum? To put myself, rather belatedly, in the next generation up, giving myself absolute responsibility for another person’s physical and emotional wellbeing? Wouldn’t I be a grown-up then? (And, hey, it’s an obvious manifestation of some Adult Pastimes.)
Perhaps it was when my mother was chasing me round a beach squealing “Come out of there, now!” that I realised it doesn’t necessarily work like that.
It turns out that a woman in her first pregnancy is in a curious in-between stage, part child and part adult. She is, as I’ve said, welcomed into the fold of mothers with many open, practised arms, but in that context she is a novice and is treated as such. Second-hand cots and baby clothes come packaged in advice and travellers’ tales. She is cossetted, sometimes almost symbolically. Are you cold? Are you comfortable? I think it’s time you had a rest.
Am I complaining? Good Lord, no. Occasionally it can be irritating. There have been one or two social occasions where I’ve felt that I’ve been irrevocably relegated to the Women-and-Children corner and nobody is ever going to talk to me about anything interesting EVER AGAIN; and, being a chronological adult, I reserve the right to disobey any recommendation that I disagree with. However, to be honest, I like the attention, and it’s generally such a manifestation of love and positivity that it’d be churlish to grumble.
Besides, being treated as a child in an entirely positive way gives you carte blanche to enjoy behaving like a child. Sandcastles. Ice-cream. Silly games. The tendency to reject things because they’re “so babyish”, which we develop when we’re really still babies, is, it turns out, as limiting as the adolescent tendency to reject things because they’re not cool. It’s completely normal, and perhaps we need to do it, but it’s liberating to cast it off.
So to return to being chased round the beach. We were on a family holiday on the west coast of Scotland. My nieces, who seem to be made of asbestos, had splashed into the sea, the previous day, grinning broadly as they immersed themselves in the bone-chilling waves. Out of bravado and a desire not to be outdone, I said I was going to do the same, and I put on my borrowed maternity tankini and waded out. Bloomin’ heck, it was cold.
I was up to my knees when my mother started shouting “Come out of there, now! That’s far enough!”
“What’s the matter?” I said, wading back (I did intend to go back in).
“The sea’s FULL of jellyfish! Just look at them!” And she tried to seize my arm and pull me back out.
“They’re harmless!” I said, skittering away from her and giggling, “they’re moon jellyfish. It says so in the Spotter’s Guide to the Seashore.” I doubled back. She was too quick; she managed to grab hold of me and, to avoid a full-on wrestle, I had to let her literally push me back up the beach away from the terrifying depths with their nameless, threatening creatures waiting therein, while the rest of the family laughed their heads off. It was much too cold to go in properly, anyway.
What, after all, is being childish? What is being a grown-up? One of the greatest things about growing older is that you realise how much you’re allowed to pick and choose the good bits from any situation you find yourself in. So – yes, not having got there yet, I’m led to believe that mothers can’t re-adopt all childish tendencies. Utter irresponsibility, for example, and – well, I was going to say, “wetting yourself” but I’m also led to believe you don’t always get the choice. Never mind. However, maternity gives you the latitude to embrace the positive childish side that you didn’t think you were allowed any more: being silly, and finding delight and amusement in simple things; allowing yourself to accept other people’s care and love. Living in the moment, even though, as an adult, you know it’s transitory. Maybe, it turns out, in order to look after a child, you’ve got to learn how to enjoy being one yourself.