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My grandma turns 90 in December. To celebrate her life, the family is gathering her life into a photo album. As one of her 17 grandchildren, I, along with her 7 children, other grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, was requested to send in photos that can be compiled into a book.
My mum started to compile some photos on behalf of our family. She sent them through to me on email and we caught up over Skype to laugh and reminisce over them. At one point, Mum said jokingly, “There’s only ONE photo of you because you’ve only managed to produce one daughter.” I laughed along with her. It’s true. I have only one daughter.
Later that day, walking that daughter along a dog-poo infested street in a dodgy part of Brussels, I got to thinking about what Mum said. I realised it actually really, really annoyed me. I felt unseen. Disappeared in the wake of my gorgeous daughter’s presence. She didn’t mean to, but my mum had managed – in one sentence – to reduce my entire life to only one item of value: my daughter.
My daughter is precious. She’s the apple of my eye; the light of my life. Her smile breaks my heart. Her laugh makes me giggle till I cry. I don’t want to say she’s my proudest achievement- to borrow a well-used cliché. She’s not an achievement, she’s a glorious, hoped for child who happened literally on a wish and a prayer. My daughter is a blessing. I get that. But she’s not me and nor is she the sum of my life.
Although I’ve gone through horrible times of self-doubt and crippling depression, I actually quite like myself. I’m proud of what I’ve done, proud of what I’m capable of. I’m hopeless at maths, have a terrible habit of finishing the sentences of people who speak slowly, have to work much harder at saying ‘I love you’, but throw me in the middle of a disaster-affected country or a civil war and I’ll float. Give me a recalcitrant petty tyrant and a nepotistic foreign government and I’m pretty good at rolling my sleeves up and making things work.
I looked through my photos and grinned at the one of me sitting on a tank at the top of a hill on the outskirts of Kabul, posing under Saddam’s crossed swords in Baghdad, trailing Tony Blair in Palestine; remembered with horror the stench in Banda Aceh, felt the sadness well up over the shot of child soldiers in Sri Lanka. Sunk my head in my hands and cried when I got to the album chronicling 15 years of a marriage now failed. Smiled at wild shots of my partner and I so clearly, obviously, freshly in love and high on G&Ts in a Red Cross bunker.
Then I started in on the 497 shots of my 7.5 month-old daughter. The progression felt right, natural. But these newest photos don’t cancel out, don’t erase the previous 37 years of my life.
I think about the last 7.5 months and how my conversations with my mum have moved from “Now, which country are in you in again, darling?” to “Is she sleeping ok?” Now when we skype, there are periods of long silences where both of us are just watching my daughter, both revelling in her joie de vivre.
Conversations dry up as I get to the end of the litany of her latest achievements: touching her finger-tips together, rolling over, smiling when I say ‘butterfly’. When my mum brings me up to speed with my sisters’ news, it’s not actually about my sisters at all, but about the latest thing their kids have done, or said, or not done.
Where did I disappear to in the past 7.5 months? Where have my sisters gone? Their thoughts, fears, hopes, highs, lows and just survivings?
And then I thought about my grandma. She is a phenomenal woman with a prodigious memory. She has her hair done every Tuesday and always notices if I’ve had a manicure or not. She can tell you about her Europe trip in the 1950s like it was yesterday, down to what it cost her to have her hair cut in Harrods sixty years ago. She adores the Australian Cricket Team, never missing an opportunity to coach them from the sidelines of a broadcast; knows all the names of the Crows’ line-up.
She married young, to the love of her life. Lucky for her – the only love of her life. She has never ever taken off her wedding ring. She gave up drawing and painting because my Grandpa didn’t like her having hobbies that interfered with her time with him. Didn’t matter than he went off to war for the first 9 months of their life together. She smiled at his side through years of frustrating deafness, his stubborn streak that would make a mule shy, hid her own breast cancer for two years as he saw out the end of his life. And in celebration of her, I can’t help but feel, even though it’s clear she loves her children and their children, we have managed to erase her, capturing her life only in the outputs of her children.
Do you remember that awful tradition, not so long ago, of addressing letters to married women as Mrs. Insert name of the woman’s husband: Mrs John Smith? Do I now become by default Ms. Insert name of daughter’s mother? We see it all the time on Facebook, women’s headshots replaced by ultrasounds, by tightly swaddled squashed looking newborns, by grinning toddlers, by graduating teenagers. The ‘I’ getting lost in ‘mine’.
Is this what happens to we women? We become, not reduced, but kind of re-focussed, by our ability to produce? Am I destined always to have a byline added: “And she managed to raise a daughter as well”?
I’m glad, privileged to have a daughter. But I refuse to swap lives with her. In about 12 years time she won’t allow that anyway. I sent my grandma four photos in the end: half and half. Balanced, not all-consumed.
Having just deleted her email signature block in lieu of full-time motherhood (tossing in international politics for Playschool), Steph is passionate about personal responsibility at a global level. Professionally, she (used to) works helping to set up governments in countries emerging from wars; privately, she sings with Maria Callas and dances with Michael Jackson.
Do you feel that your kids’ lives start to take over your own?