Like a phoenix

Motherhood is strange because it can put us under the biggest duress of our lives then create a stronger, greater version of ourselves: happier, braver, glad in a way that we went through the hard parts and the exhaustion and the impossibly long days. But for this better version of ourselves to emerge, there has to be the opportunity to heal and grow - certain experiences and the right support to allow us to come back brighter.

In order to come to terms with difficult experiences we need to revisit them in various ways in order to process and recover from them. Like a broken record, I’ve written and talked about birth and motherhood in excess to come to terms with the challenges and changes to my physical and mental health it entailed. It’s my head dealing with it.

And then my body has had to process it too, in ways that don’t allow my head in – otherwise it would start comparing or rationalising or remembering. I know that mindful, physical movement has frequently allowed something to shift in my body memory, or my mind memory, or maybe both. There is a huge amount for us to still understand about the mind/body connection, and I hope I’m alive to understand the mechanisms of exactly why we sometimes get those revelatory or cathartic moments in yoga or dance or on a run or during a swim. How a certain type of physicality can release the stress and tension we’ve been holding onto.

I got one of these moment recently at the end of a yoga workshop for mothers. I was standing near the window and the afternoon sun made a shadow fall across my body, and I had a very vivid flashback to pushing my baby around the rec ground near where I live in November, in the dark, an hour or two before my partner got home from work. At the time I was exhausted and slightly stunned by the shift in my life from lie-ins and reading novels and working in a jolly office to pushing a baby round and round a square of 1930s semis on a stormy winter’s evening.

Fast forward three years and I felt a wave of compassion, love and empathy for that exhausted ghost pushing the buggy around a dark block. I felt sad for her in a way that I hadn’t previously been able to. I had completely forgotten the memory and had no idea that it was bothering me on some level, but what I felt in that moment was finally permission to have found early motherhood so hard. I had always felt I should be coping better, that so many people were worse off. But suddenly something moved and a voice was telling the old me that it was so, so okay to find it that difficult.

Another very clear image came to me of how the pre-baby version of me kind of went up in smoke. Perhaps it has to. It’s a metamorphosis, isn’t it? (Perhaps the biggest disserve we do for pregnant women is not adequately preparing them for the seriousness, the magnitude of this transition.) But this loss of one version is necessary to allow something else to rise up out of the ashes of what was before.

I think it would have helped me to think that all the hard hours and days were part of the process of the old thing dying off to make way for the new. That in the end you have to rise. That even if you still feel shaky and wobbly one day, a shift of a great degree has occurred, that there is a whole new strength you’ll draw on forever. Maybe this process is happening all the time in small ways. Old things disappearing. New ones taking their place. Shifting and growing and changing.

A few weeks later my friend invited me to a show called “I’m a phoenix, bitch”by the performance artist Bryony Kimmings about postnatal and relationship breakdown. As expected it was a completely brutal, completely brilliant piece of artabout the importance of processing suffering in order not to let it bed down for the duration of your life in your mind and body. Every night Bryony Kimmings gets on stage and relives her trauma: it’s almost unbearable at times and I don’t know how she does it, but I think I sort of know why.

In our culture we have to make our own rites of passage. Heal ourselves or help each other heal. Sometimes we think we’re ok because pushing things to the back of our minds works for a while. But life is better on the other side – the side where you’ve let go of old pain or learned something about it. You walk about with a whole new freedom and understanding about you and the space you fill on earth.