I have never cried so much, or so deeply, over a book as I did last night finishing Maggie O’ Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine.
Devastating. Haunting. Unbearable. Unmissable. All of these things.
My own worst nightmare described so vividly that I feel tormented even now – and yet, as if I had watched a Greek Tragedy, strangely glad of the opportunity to play out – or maybe feel out – my worst fears. Grateful, perhaps, for the opportunity to meet my demons while they are still in imaginary form. Because often the known is less terrifying than the unknown, and now I have acknowledged my deepest terror, my most vulnerable self. I have come face to face with my own sense of powerlessness.
In essence, this is a book about motherhood. In all its guises. The loving kind and the less loving kind. The absent kind and the overly present kind. Mother-daughter, mother-son, adored and abused – it’s all in this book.
And this book also deals with death – a mother who drowns – caught in a too-strong current swimming in the sea.
Impossible and unbearable, because,
‘You know that no one will ever love them like you do. You know that no one will ever look after them like you do. You know that it’s an impossibility, it’s unthinkable that you could be taken away, that you will have to leave them behind.’
A desperately insecure baby and child myself, I know what it is like to feel this fear – of abandonment, of feeling like my world is constantly on the brink of collapse unless I fight every moment to hold it all together around me.
As a mother-to-be, I promised myself and my unborn child that s/he would never have to feel the way I have felt. That a long line of unhappy, ill-equipped, reluctant and, ultimately, under-supported mothers stopped with me. No more traumatised mothers; no more traumatised babies and children.
Which is why this book made me cry the way that no book has ever made me cry before.
Because it turns out that there are too many things that one cannot control. I am powerful enough to create – with the help of my husband albeit – a whole new, beautiful human being. I am powerful enough to birth her. To feed her so she grows crazy, exponential amounts.
It’s like having power over, or of, Life.
But I do not have the power of Death. I have never felt as vulnerable as I do now since becoming a mother.
And it’s funny, because my husband does not share this new sense of vulnerability the way I do. And it’s also funny, because I know I’m not the only mother who feels like this. Obviously not – Maggie O’ Farrell has clearly felt the same.
What’s also funny (but not in the ha ha way) is that when my daughter was just three months old, we went away to Cornwall, and I got this urge to rush into the mid-winter sea in just my underwear. And there was a moment when I, too – in real life – got caught in a strong current. And back on the empty beach, holding our baby, my husband saw it too – me starting to be carried away. And in that same moment – me way out at sea – we both knew I’d pushed it too far.
But I’d also heard a voice say let it carry you – don’t fight it. And, luckily, I know the sea and it’s strength, and I know you can’t fight it. That one’s best chance – in trouble – is to go with it. And I was ok. I let it carry me where it wanted – and then I got the hell out.
The love we feel for our babies is so huge, so overwhelming. It makes us so vulnerable. It has forced me to acknowledge my human frailty as much as my power. It has never felt braver to be human. To choose this life, this body, this love, this vulnerability.
And it feels as though there is something very powerful that, as a woman and a mother, I can learn here. Something to do with letting go. Letting go completely.
And I can feel myself resisting – because it’s human to hold on – to try and control and keep safe. Because I have spent my whole life holding on and holding together.
But motherhood, the sea, this life which is also a death, the love I have for my child, which is almost unbearable at times – and now this book – all point the same direction: where the wind blows.
They teach me that I must – and if not now when? – let go.
Maybe the current has got me. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
New mum, old soul... Finding beauty, wisdom, spirituality, and opportunities for learning in the everyday (hopefully)...