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Leah McFall: No going back

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Leah McFall: No going back


Last updated 05:00, December 4 2016

It dawned on me that even on my wedding day, I was a mother first and foremost and everything else paled into ...

Alistair Hughes

It dawned on me that even on my wedding day, I was a mother first and foremost and everything else paled into insignificance. In sickness and in health. Forever.

OPINION: Don't you just love those articles about long-married elderly couples? There they are, Bert and Verna in twin reclining chairs, fondly leaning towards each other and clasping wrinkled hands. They've racked up 50, 60, 65 years together and of course the reporter always says, "You're an inspiration to our readers. How have you stayed married for so many years?"

Nobody ever tells the truth in these interviews. They always chuckle and reply, "Always eat together as a family," or "Never go to bed in a snit."

Just for ONCE I'd love Bert to crack his knuckles and say: "I'll tell you how. I didn't use enough strychnine back in 72. Verna just threw it all up."

*Leah McFall: Wake up and smell the con job
*Leah McFall: The grateful dread
*There's no shame in being a mother wearing many hats

I like listening to older people. Their advice is steeped in wisdom, like strong billy tea. They offer simple solutions to modern problems; they marvel at the contortions of our younger lives and how we tie ourselves in double knots over every little thing.

"It's only for a few years," an older woman once told me, pleasantly, about the exhausting daze of early parenting. It seemed soothing. What was five years in the scheme of things? What, really, would I miss? No job, no book, no experience was more important than mashing this apple and reading to my baby, after all. And yet, Verna, when did it hit you that the person you were – before you tied on an apron, had the kids – would never be coming back for you? Maybe you never expected her to. But I did; I thought she was coming back.

Girls Can Do Anything, said the posters at my high school. Admittedly there were competing messages on these bulletin boards; a pro-lifer (a teacher, perhaps?) had pinned pictures of a vulnerable-looking foetus beside the sports results, so I guess the real story was that Girls Can Do Anything, Except Have An Abortion.

Still, we all understood the mood of the campaign. Our choices would be manifold, there for the taking. We could be power-suited boardroom executives, happy plumbers, soap actors, engineers, doctors and florists. We could vote, drive cars, borrow debt, back-pack across continents; we could laze away our 20s (we did), slog our way to middle management in our 30s (we did) and then get married and raise children by the time we hit 40. Nothing fundamental needed to change there, right, after having kids? After all, it's only (overwhelming like this) for a few years.

It did seem a bit retro, getting married; we know we didn't have to, but we wanted to. It was a choice, like all the other choices, because girls can do anything. Take my wedding, for example. I bring it up because it was the best-looking day of my life. For one thing, I'd been worked on for three hours, first by a hair-dresser and then by a makeup artist. I had a year's worth of slap on my face and a diamante clip in my hair, and was two glasses of champagne better off before I left for the church. I felt PRETTY.

When you're the bride on the day of a wedding, you're all whipped cream on the inside. You get a feeling of woozy happiness, like you're a sponge finger heavily soaked in liqueur. At the same time you're strangely alert to everything, as if you've just had three quick shots of coffee and when you first appear in public, everyone ooohs in appreciation. You're not your usual self but a walking tiramisu.

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It was lovely. We first-danced to Frank Sinatra. I waltzed with my brother for the first time and my mate Wayne, bald as an American eagle from his chemo, for the last. My wedding was full of happiness, but the most intense burst of feeling I remember was one of shock. 

There we were, framed in the old-fashioned prettiness of a wooden Gothic arch. Our marriage was minutes old when our daughter began to sob. She was three years old, a mess of curls and tulle, and had just realised that she hadn't actually been the bride. That had been someone else and she wasn't married at all. 

She threw herself in my arms and wouldn't let go. So as I staggered around in my column dress and heels, trying to accept well wishes with an inconsolable child around my neck it dawned on me that if, on my own wedding day someone couldn't calm the child, give me a chance to straighten my dress, then being a wife, a skilled worker, a daughter or a friend paled into insignificance compared to motherhood. No other identity mattered as much as this one any more. In sickness or in health. Forever.

Verna smiles at the camera and squeezes Bert's hand. "Now there's a big question," she tells the reporter.  

 - Stuff

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