Being a mother is the very closest that I think you can come to time travel. Bear with me.
I’ve read and watched a LOT of sci-fi. And there are a lot of time travel tropes, but what pretty much everyone agrees on – from HG Wells to Dr Who, Michael J Fox to Audrey Niffenegger – is that time travel causes a certain degree disorientation, and distortion.
But maybe the reason we’ve never achieved it outside of fiction is that, maybe, that bit isn’t just a side effect of time travel – maybe it’s the gateway.
And there is nothing more disorienting – and distorting – than motherhood.
Being plunged into something so simultaneously amazing and awful and natural and alien and affirming and hollowing and real and surreal all at once leaves you gasping for air, grasping for purchase, flailing against the grey fog of sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations, and life alterations – and in the brief moments any clarity you get above the tumult is too bright and crisp, newly hewn, re-seen, ill-fitting – as you tread a stranger’s footprints across your own life.
Even as they grow, the small people, you’re never the same again. The footprints don’t wash away with time. And some of the tracks go backwards in it…
Because having a kid makes you remember being one. Only when you remember suddenly you’re looking at it not just through your childhood eyes, but through your mother’s eyes, too.
I remember a trip to the supermarket, aged about 9, where my mum couldn’t get out of the car parking space. She scraped the car along both sides trying to reverse round a caged lamppost. I remember her losing it. I remember her noise. I remember the pattern of the white scrapes on the red paint. I remember wanting it to stop and to go home and for her to just go back to normal and blocking it out and waiting for it to be over. I remember my own inconvenience and discomfort.
As a child I had little understanding, or sympathy.
As an adult I didn’t think about it much, other than feeling vaguely confused that someone so calm and reassuring in mine and others’ big crises could be so frenetic in her own, small ones.
As a mother, I am transported there and suddenly I AM her.
I can FEEL her frustration, the overflow of someone operating at the very end of their tether, managing two kids, a household, a dog, a cat, an absent husband working away, and a full time job, who just wanted to get the food in and go home and why can’t anything ever just be easy, and I can’t take any more, and that’s IT.
I don’t remember how we got home. But now I know she would have had to piece herself together. Put away the shopping. Put the kids to bed. Work out how to get the car fixed while still ferrying everyone around. Hold it all up and in and tight on a knife’s edge of functioning panic reliant on momentum and perpetual motion because sometimes that’s all there is and there are really no other choices and you can’t cry when there’s fishfingers to grill and dogs to feed and children to wash and bags to pack for the next day.
I remember sitting at the top of the stairs aged 6 or 7. And I wouldn’t go to bed, because my OCD meant I had to do my checks and my Mum had caught me and was angry, but maybe I could get her to come upstairs and help with my checks anyway. I remember my nightdress – it had a jungle scene on it. I remember the feel of the banister under my fingers. I remember how she stood. I remember the look on her face.
And now, in a rush of understanding, I know what that look meant.
She needs to get the house sorted and dishes done and lunches made for the morning, and she needs to go to bed herself but her smallest is still up and wandering round the house, and why can’t she just stay in bed, and how many times does she have to say it, and she’s exasperated, but also worried, because she doesn’t know what to do with her and is this normal? and are other kids like this? and how can I help and I’m SO tired and everything is harder than I thought it would be.
It was never really anger, it was fear.
It was never impatience, it was exhuastion.
It wasn’t a lack of sympathy, it was a lack of choice.
Memories are always time travel, in a way, but it’s in this DUALITY of memory, in the transference of experience, that time travel really comes true for women.
You need your mum, more than you have done in years, when you become one. You LITERALLY slip back in time in your craving for her. And you realise this explosion of love is how your mum must have felt about you – only you never really knew you just expected it and accepted it without a blink. And that disparity in love and sacrifice and gratitude is almost sad for her – but even sadder for you because you’re repeating the pattern all over again.
But that’s where you get to travel to the future, too.
Because one day, my daughters will look up with new, raw eyes, and it will be their turn to time travel. They will see their own past through two perspectives superimposed on top of each other, and they will stumble to make sense of their own memories and mine mixed up together.
They’ll know what it must have been like to be on you own with a 2 year old and 5 year old, trying to get everyone up and ready and out by 7.30am. They’ll know how it felt when they pretended to forget my name and called me by their Dad’s girlfriends name instead, like it’s the funniest joke EVER. They’ll know why I cried over silly burnt chicken dippas. They’ll know how much effort and love went in to the 8th hokey cokey of the evening when all you want to do is sit, and how tiring it must have been to do all the Harry Potter voices after a 15 hour day of rushing round and ticking off lists and keeping balls in the air.
They’ll know the good, and the bad, and the ugly of love for what it was.
There’s always a price to pay for time travel, though. That’s one of the accepted rules – alongside the disorientation thing. The protagonists are always caught up in the end in a causal loop or the ‘Grandfather paradox’ – the impossibility of going back in time to kill your grandfather and therefore erase your own timeline.
The price here is that you can never pass forwards what you’ve learned. It won’t be until your daughters hit the same point in their own timeline that you’ll understand each other on a new level. We’ve been having kids forever, but we’ve never, ever been really been able to pass the experience on through anything other than the experience itself.
In so much sci-fi, the time travellers are men. But the truth is, women cracked time travel generations ago. We just can’t meaningfully communicate it. And that, I suppose, is the Grandmother paradox…
Caught in it as we are, the best you can do today – if you’re lucky enough to still have her around – is to look your own mum in the eye, slip your hand into hers like you did when hers was smoother and yours was smaller, and say “Thank you”.
And possibly, “I’m sorry.”
At the very least, “I know now.”
Happy Mother’s Day.