My baby girl wears odd socks. Right this minute, beneath red spotty leggings and little legs, are a pair of odd socks. Ask me any day what her sock style is and I’ll know, with three miles between us, that they’re odd. I may not know what style they are, having scrambled one from the floor and one from the drawer with my eyes closed, but I can tell you absolutely that they’re odd.
She wasn’t born with odd socks, (though wouldn’t that be cool, if they came with their own clothes and you didn’t have to puzzle over labels like ‘newborn’ and ‘0-3’?). But she brought only her feet, tiny, exact, and spanning the length of my thumb. At some point we were given socks, lovely, scalloped with unexpected designs: a duck here, a tractor there. And they matched. But somehow she became an odd sock baby.
See, I’d gone from being a uni student who stockpiled clothes until the Christmas vacation, to a uni student with three people’s clothes to wash. J did the cooking, and I dragged a Three Bears hotchpotch of our jeans and leggings to the laundry room when the mountain grew too high for safety. And I hated it. Heaving that basket about, the machine which swallowed the pounds and spat the pees, the dryer which made our clothes wetter. Weirdly, my extreme dislike of it relates to perfectionism. And yeah, there’s no natural link between perfectionism and a pile of clothes. But I suffer from a type that’s not so much perfectionism in practice, but an ideal of exactness which I hold in my head before every task and hardly ever achieve. Because it’s impossible. My instinct is not to line it with small steps or give myself a space to breathe. I somehow assume the image will translate to reality. And, when I inevitably fail to meet the standard, I punish myself with a long-standing despair.
I’m not a fan of the middle ground. I want either blazing success or the pure emptiness of non-participation. As a kid, I quit piano because I hated the plonk plonk of my mediocrity. As a student parent, that complex wormed its way into my laundry basket. Returning to Oxford after E-B’s birth, I carried a pre-emptive terror of failure. Nothing would give, I would do it without a struggle, without a flinch because one blink would send the scene down like a pack of cards. I had tunnelled through my ‘young’ pregnancy and now wished to emerge as though it never was. As though too much noise would attract its stigma.
The laundry, after a run-in with the airer and its spindly spider legs, became the thing that gave when nothing else would. It was so patient. It just sat there, in need of neither urgent breastfeeding nor writing. It would age on our radiators, sometimes falling to mingle with its unwashed counterparts, and that was annoying but still on the fringes of my desperate schedule. I hadn’t yet swallowed the wisdom of those small investments which save long term stress, couldn’t believe that if I stopped hair-tearing about Moby Dick for a second and put the clothes away there might be a clean space to soothe my brain. I couldn’t break down my obsessive focus on work to think that it would be okay, even for a moment, to consider this stuff.
And then of course, the guilt. I was a mum who wished my daughter would sleep so I could keep chipping away the failure I felt sure surrounded me. I loved her so much, yet felt I’d cheated my way into her baby moments, as though they belonged to a mother with a job, house and stable income. It was reality versus the unevenness in my head, which said the baby who sucked her fists and said ‘mama’ wasn’t mine until I rushed us into a socially typified state. That somehow, by my studies, we were in transit.
And all that time, E-B wore odd socks. Smatterings of red and green which I’d snatch from the clean clothes pile and place on her feet. Two worlds sat before me, one which ticked away the time until nursery closure, another where I suffered shame for not providing my daughter with an even pair of socks. To appease the ‘work’ image, I’d have to rush us through the door, our shirts on back to front. To appease my fear of the nursery workers (who commented on how young my baby was) I’d have to cycle back my laundry habits several months to produce a competent pair of socks. Yet, in time, God spoke to me and soothed my spirit. I learned to let the idols go.
In faith lay my freedom. I had to learn faith too, a concept which previously held such small meaning to someone living in permanent fear of failure. The anxieties that crossed my mind, fuelled by the social vilification of young mums and my own self doubt, that I wasn’t a ‘natural’ mother, that I was somehow doing it ‘wrong’, slowly found their end. I learned that God has loved me from the beginning of time, a love so radical that I have nothing to prove beyond it.
And guess what? E-B still wears odd socks. The difference is, odd socks grace her feet and I know I’m a good mother.