A few weeks ago I read Mothers Grimm, a collection of contemporary fairy tales about motherhood written by a wonderful Australian writer called Danielle Wood. There is a line in one of the stories which has stuck with me. A woman has recently given birth and is lying in hospital with her new baby alongside her.
“This night was the beginning of her new way of listening.”
It’s so true, isn’t it?
Motherhood is all about a new way of listening. Part of the exhaustion in the first weeks is from learning which cries mean hunger, or tiredness, or the need to be held. It’s about coming to understand which middle-of-the-night whimperings are likely to escalate, and which will settle and silence themselves.
There are sounds at first, which only you understand. But you listen to the sounds as they become words, and the words as they become sentences, and the sentences as they become stories.
You smile as you listen to nursery rhymes, sung not-quite-correctly in the room next door. Later, you can pick one little voice out of twenty in the school concert, and one out of a hundred if he falls over and calls for you at the playground.
You learn to hear, even from upstairs, the click of the gate. The postman has a parcel and he’s walking up the path. It’s a race to the front door. You run to open it, to shush him gently, to stop him ringing the bell and bringing naptime to a premature end.
You learn the most important sound – that particular hum of silence that means something, somewhere is not quite right.
But it is not just listening that changes, with the arrival of motherhood.
It is all the senses.
You are the taster. You hold a purple plastic spoon and use your bottom lip or the tip of your tongue to check for heat and bitterness and spice. You lick the last sticky dregs of Calpol off the spoon, before measuring out another, carefully, in the dark. You become accustomed to kisses that taste of strawberry yoghurt and warm milk.
“Mummy likes her coffee cold,” he says. You don’t, but it’s how you usually drink it.
Your sense of smell heightens; every scent suddenly saturated with feeling. You draw him close to you, and glare at the people who leave clouds of perfume or cigarette smoke in their wake. You wince at the smell of nursery coming home on him – unfamiliar cleaning products and other people’s cuddles. And then, at the end of the day, you bury your nose in some soft, sweet crease of neck and everything is okay.
There is nothing that you do not see; every new bruise and graze and freckle; every expression of joy or uncertainty. You scan every room you enter and every road you cross. You never stop looking for potential dangers, and only when you are sure do you let him skip on. At the park and the docks and the market, you know that you must start to foster independence, so you drop his hand, but you never, for a second, let that bobbing blue hat out of your sight.
Your touch is more powerful than you ever knew. It can fix anything. A cool hand on a hot forehead. A squeeze and a rub of a recently bumped knee. When he is poorly he likes to sleep on your chest, and you rise and fall together with every breath. Your kisses contain magic, and there is not much that a hug cannot soothe.
As the years pass – four, or five, or six – some of your new senses start to feel less necessary. When you reach over to brush hair out of his face he often pushes it away now. The sweet baby smell is long gone, replaced by more earthy, salty things. There are fewer tears in the night, and at dinnertime he blows on his own soup to cool it down. You have to ask permission for kisses.
But you cannot turn it off. The seeing. The tasting. The touch.
The new way of listening will never end.
Photo credit: Cocoa Rose Photography