Jacinta Tynan with her boys Otis, age three, and Jasper, five. Photo: James Brickwood
I had been under the assumption that it would be me, the mother, showing my children everything I know, using all my resources to make them feel secure and happy. In fact, they were just as much showing me. From the get-go. There lying next to me, as each baby was born, were my little gurus, bringing their innate wisdom in what matters most.
Love was the first lesson. So much love. No searching required. That one came straight away. As we lay eye-to-eye in those first few hours of my baby's arrival, I was overwhelmed by love. The unconditional kind. Love for love's sake. Not just my love for him but his right back at me. We stared for what seemed like ages, enveloped in a reciprocal loop of love, and I understood right there and then that this is what I had been longing for. I never knew it was possible to love with such depth, so much that it hurts.
I had kept a gratitude journal in the year before my first baby was born and some days, it took effort. You know what they say – if you can't think of anything to be grateful for, be grateful for the sunshine. Or the trees, or an umbrella on a rainy day. There was a lot of that. Now, every day, I am bursting with gratitude. It's my overwhelming emotion, getting about with my beautiful boys, my reason for being. Surrender
In the weeks and months that followed, my life lessons crash course continued. Piles of endless washing, plates stashed in the kitchen sink, a house that looked like a bomb had gone off: my call to surrender. Take a deep breath and let it matter not. I was forced to surrender on other fronts too: my stalled career, not expecting to get anywhere on time or look any good when I got there, friends I rarely see, several hundred unanswered emails, and that thing I used to do called yoga.
I am trying (when I remember) to be there. Not just physically. To get on the floor and make that Lego garage, and take my seat in the cushion helicopter. To climb onto the trampoline. If I don't I'll regret it, all the moments missed. I know a mum of five adults (the beautiful mother of my first love), who says if she had her time again she would do less housework and "play more". It needs to be done, sure. But to what degree? And why now? Already, I look back at photos of my little two and am awash with pangs of longing and remorse. For the times I wasn't with them. Worse: the times I was but wasn't really. Obviously, we can't put our lives on hold to be at their beck and call. It's good for our children to learn that stuff needs to get done and that hide-and-seek might have to wait. (I've been known to fold clothes while counting to 10.) But I am trying to keep them short, those things that take me away from them. It's a conscious effort, but one I won't regret. I am trying (really trying) to be present.
I can no longer read news stories about children in distress or danger (an occupational hazard in my job) without losing the plot, because now I can imagine (although I try to stop myself) what it might feel like to lose a child, and it takes my breath away. With that insight comes appreciation, relishing even more what I have. Every second of it. Hugging my babies just a little bit tighter. Our children help us appreciate life. They also garner a much more acute appreciation for detail than most of us do. As early childhood educator Jill Bergman said to me: "Children will notice the raindrops going down a window, they'll notice the light, they'll notice a rainbow, they'll notice little things all the time – 'Oh, there's a bird call.' They really are wide awake. Their sensors are open and receptive and as adults, we've tended to shut down, so to be in the moment with your child, you suddenly learn to live all over again, actually."
With my first baby's arrival, I was instantaneously able to let go of my past. Well, a great chunk of it, anyway. Because I was aware that every piece of my past had led me to this point with him in my arms. In that new light, it was all worth it.
Compared to my hitherto all-about-me perspective, I now have compassion and empathy in spades, stepping up for two little people who need me. The sound of my babies' cries makes me cry and I am prepared to do anything I can to bring them comfort and to keep them out of harm's way. I have never cared so much about the welfare or wellbeing of anyone else but these two. I have been opened up.
I am also, amazingly, for the most part, keeping things in perspective. Motherhood is a master class in that. There's simply no time now to get overwrought about happenings (real or imagined) that once tipped me over. And I really couldn't give a toss about anything much (especially in the early weeks and months) except being there for my baby. The rest of the world could have faded away and I wouldn't have even known. Or cared. My own mother was right: you aren't able to wallow if you have a child. What's more, I have no inclination to.
Children don't judge, not when they're really little. They have no preconceived ideas about anyone or anything. They love and accept what is with wild, uncensored abandon and get about in a constant state of curiosity and awe about the world. Their innocence and spontaneity rubs off, if we are up for it. They can bring out sides of ourselves we have long ago buried: playfulness, timelessness, unselfconsciousness. I sing in the car now and laugh more often than not. More than once, I've found myself crawling along the floor wearing a tiger head, or spinning a little boy around the room like a helicopter, or heading out to sea in the toy boat at the park.
Less profound and more on the practical side, yet just as welcome, my babies have compelled me to get proficient at time management. With so few hours in the day that are not dedicated to tending to the needs of a small child, it kind of forces you into it. What used to take me days, by necessity I can now do in minutes. I used to while away entire days doing not much: sleep in, a bit of a stroll, catch up with a friend, dither. Now, I honour time. I cherish it. I use it well. My emails are banked up to the point of rudeness and I have scant social life and I can't imagine getting to yoga ever again, but I am a mistress of functionality, primed to take on anything: thank you, baby.
Those things I was so apprehensive about pre-baby I am no longer fazed by in the slightest. Me time, I have learnt, is overrated. I would so much rather be building a Lego garbage truck with my little boys than having a massage. I would rather read to them than read myself. The sleep deprivation hasn't beaten me yet. Somehow I am able to roll with it, because the benefits of waking up are worth it.
Parenthood has given me purpose. It's not like that for everyone, of course. But that's how it is for me. For the first time ever, I feel like I have a real reason to be here. I am not just needed but required. Thank heavens.
I like myself so much more than I ever have since I became a mother. I see myself through my little boys' eyes and I'm proud of myself. I feel loved, adored and appreciated, just for being me. I heard psychologist Robin Grille say to a bunch of new mums, "The script we all carry: 'I'm not enough …' Our baby looks at us with none of anybody's script. No matter what we think of ourselves, our baby looks at us like we're the most glorious being that walked the earth. Who else looks at you like that? Who's feeding who here?"
Most importantly (well, perhaps not quite as important as the unconditional love bit, but close), motherhood has driven me to self-reflection. Yes, more of it. Not in the critical something-wrong-with-me way of before; but these days, I am wont to monitor my emotions even more because I am conscious they are having a big and possibly irreversible impact on my beloveds. I want to be the best version of myself I can be. My children are giving me no option. "If you want to choose a spiritual pathway, have a child," paediatrician Dr Howard Chilton told me. "Motherhood makes all of your conditioning naked. A child will press all your secret psychic buttons."
As mine were doing. Babies are like mirrors. They shine a light on our deficiencies, just as much as they lure us into our purest potential. They show us our fear of loving too much by loving us regardless of that. They highlight our impatience, self-centredness, control-freakishness, drama queen-ness, and the chaos we have created and carry with us everywhere. They show us our rigidity because they don't have any. They urge us to surrender, and make it clear we are not, as we had believed ourselves to be, the centre of the universe. And with that comes an invitation to grow and heal. Our children, if we let them, are the best therapy money can buy.
Edited extract from Mother Zen by Jacinta Tynan (Harlequin Australia), out this Friday.