I love to cook and I love to bake and I love to buy cookbooks and most of all I love to eat. Unfortunately, this has consequences. In 2008 I had to admit that my weight was creeping up and I decided to diet. It worked, I forgot about it, all was good. Until recently, when my jeans started getting tight again and I thought how can this be happening to me? I honestly had no idea. And then one day I was feeding the children their lunch and I realised that I had eaten all of their crusts. And they have a lot of crusts. And then I realised that the night before, I ate a good few mouthfuls of their dinner to check it had cooled down enough for them. And the night before, the same thing. And again the night before that. What's going on? I asked myself. How did I become this person? How did I become the woman who thinks that second-hand bread is a good snack? Do I really have that little self-respect?
Apparently so. For while I was standing there asking myself this question, I grabbed a half-eaten slice of Blue's discarded pear and unconsciously ate that, too, because it was easier than walking across the room and putting it in the bin.
I guess that explains the squeezy jeans, then. And I'm horrified at myself. It's one thing to get overly Rubenesque on loving good food too much, but quite another to do so on table scraps, on fruit that has already been chewed once and is now covered in breadcrumbs from the highchair tray. And so I've begun to think about dieting again. And thinking about this has made me realise how similar it is to what I've been doing for the last year and a half. These are the ways that I think motherhood is like going on a diet:
It's all about saying no
When I was dieting, I felt like I spent my life saying no. Bad: no to cake. Worse: no to chocolate. Unbearable: no to chips. Unimaginable: no to wine. They became occasional treats, and I think that was probably the time in my life when I developed my extreme aversion to the word 'treat'. It's so mealy-mouthed. I hate the way it suggests pleasure carefully meted out. I hate the way it suggests that I should be pathetically grateful for whatever the 'treat' is, like a peasant being granted a favour by a king. I don't want to see wine as a treat. I want it to flow through my life like a rich ruby river, flowing over the chocolate and the cake and the chips that surround me in abundance. But that way lies heart disease, so I learned to say 'no'. I learned to count and ration and measure and weigh and it wasn't the end of the world.
What does sometimes feel like the end of the world, to me, is all the times I have to say no because I am the mother. No to them: no hitting, no scratching, no biting, no tantrums, no standing up on the sofa, no touching the diaper genie. No to other people: no, we can't come over because it's nap time. No, I can't take on another commitment because right now I'm barely keeping my head above water and my children clean. No, we can't travel that far in a day because the children are awful at being in the car. No, we can't come over for dinner because we have nobody to watch them unless we call in a huge favour. No, no, no. No to being the cool and competent mother I always hoped to be: No time to do all that I want to. No chance to recover from one tiny crisis before the next one hits. No way to keep one child happy for any length of time without upsetting the other. And of course: no to myself. Every day, trying to mother them well calls for a thousand tiny sacrifices, of which my three most painful are always no to sleeping, no to reading, no to writing. I feel like my life is spent saying no. That is:
Except when it's more important to say yes
I found that the hardest times, dieting, are when the food is out of my control. I might know that I have seven points left for the day, but if I am eating at someone else's house, they don't know that, and they also don't care. I had times when I was almost weeping because I had been so good - so good - and then I felt like all my efforts for the day (or in extreme cases, the week) were derailed by someone else's menu. Sometimes, the buttery creamy delicousness tasted like ashes in my mouth because I was only thinking oh nooooo, the caaaaaaloriiiiiiies! And yet, at those times, I ended up deciding that it was absolutely worth it to eat up, be happy, say thank you and ask for seconds. Food is how we show love, so it stands to reason it's how we receive love, too, and refusing to receive the buttery creamy love is a stunningly effective way to passive-aggressively hurt the hostess' feelings. If I go to someone's house and make a face like I'm sucking a lemon when they bring out dessert, then diet or no diet I'm not being a very good friend.
If it's not possible to diet and be polite at the same time, if it's not possible to diet and be a good friend at the same time, then the diet is going to have to take a hit. Manners are more important than my jeans size. Friendships are more important than getting thin as quickly as possible. And as long as I'm not using the friendships as an excuse (meeting someone for coffee doesn't mean I have to order a venti gingerbread latte with whipped cream, much as I wish it did, Starbucks does have other options) I need to prioritise people over food control.
I think the same principle applies to parenting, to baby control. Mothering is stonkingly hard work, and requires so much of me that it's easy for me to forget that I have other responsibilities too, as a friend, as a wife, as a human being. I remember very well how it felt to be on the receiving end of maternal de-prioritisation, when my friends had kids before me. I know I don't get the balance anywhere near right, but I'm trying to remember that sometimes other people's needs have to come before my children's immediate needs, or their routine. Sometimes a friend needs me more than my children do, and I need to get in the car even though it isn't the best thing for them. I don't do this enough. I'm working on it. The world does not revolve around my children, no matter how much I love them. They need to know that they are unutterably precious to me, but they are not the centre of the universe. I struggle and fail to get this balance right. My brain hurts. My body is tired. And so:
Some days, I don't really feel like doing it
No, really. Too much effort. For both categories. And yet:
It's such a good problem to have
When the babies were tiny, we were once stuck for an hour or so without formula. I can't remember why it happened, but I will never ever forget what it felt like to look at my babies and know that I couldn't give them the food they were screaming for. I knew it was temporary, but it tore my heart in half. For too many mothers and fathers across the world, this is not a temporary problem. Too many mothers and fathers know this reality daily. For them, I suspect give us this day our daily bread is prayed with more fervour than I can muster. I know this, I've seen this sort of suffering with my own eyes, and yet I feel sorry for myself because I have too much food to feed myself and my children? I feel sorry for myself because I get too many calories in a day? I feel sorry for myself because oh, it's so hard to say no to the butter and the cream and the delicious delicious pistachio macarons? Bored, with three hours until dinner, it is hard to say no. But honestly, this is such a good problem to have.
And so it is with motherhood. I know that there are so many women who are still waiting for this to become a reality, whether they are waiting for their first child to come home, or their second, or their seventh. Right now, I'm particularly thinking of those of you who are waiting for court or embassy or travel - those of you who are in that almost-but-not-yet stage of motherhood which is more painful than I can describe, which felt, when it was happening to me, more painful than I could bear. And I am painfully aware of the other mothers, too, the women who have had a child, but said goodbye. And I am reminded of how much I have been given. I longed for these children for so long, and here they are, safe and well and happy and in my arms. Right now, they are sleeping in their cots upstairs, with their heads buried in their blankets and their bottoms pointing heavenward and I could not be more thankful that they are there, that they are mine.
This job - some days it feels like too much. But I stroke their curly heads and snuggle their warm little bodies and watch them learn to say duck and car and cat and I know with all my heart that this too-much-ness is such a good problem to have. Of all the problems in the world, I am grateful to have this one.