The beauty and tumult of a very big family

By Jodi Bartle

Lying in my own drying blood, I balance my puffy little baby on my alien, ruined landscape of a body. I lay him on my stomach, so recently vacated but still swollen, my bloodied thighs splayed, my nipples grown huge and dark in sacrificial readiness for the eager razor-mouth of a fresh babe. My vulva is bruised and my vagina cut, my uterus still bleeding from the rough removal of a stubborn placenta, a cannula bent awkwardly under the thin skin of my hand. I am at my best, in my favourite place and favourite state, high on oxytocin and tea.

I love motherhood. I love the animal sounds coming from other rooms as women strain to meet their babies. I love the smells and gushes. I am addicted to the rush of pregnancy tests and late-night visits to the labour ward. I love looking out for the mucus plug in my knickers at 40 weeks, the attention of midnight midwives and the feel of rock-hard boobs. I recall the sleep deprivation as a kind of lucid dream state – walking through the world as if through water: slowly, still bleeding, with a baby in my arms whose skin smells of biscuits and yeast. Downy heads and tiny toenails and milk-sour crusty crevices behind little furry ears are my catnip. I could drown in those babies.

I came to motherhood by way of reluctance; my husband nagged me about having a baby for a while and so I eventually said, ‘All right, then.’ Not for me the Sheila Heti-style angsting over the pros and cons, the should we or shouldn’t we, the fretting over the financial implications and probable career suicide. We just went ahead and had a baby and it was much better than I thought it would be. I had, I suppose, imagined that a mewling infant would be the death of all my highfalutin ways. I wanted to be different from all the women who had come before me, and all of them had babies. I had seen the way women chopped their hair off into manage-able bobs when their babies came along, gave up on the gym, made peace with their natural hair colour, stopped reading books, started to wear comfortable clothes and lost heel height. Motherhood looked like a boring club to belong to. But that was fifteen years ago; I had one baby and then another, and now I’ve got six of them.

I did it again and again, filling up our flat with double, then triple bunks, increasing our capacity for noise, mess and chaos as we went along. It used to be quite the funny joke when we told people I was pregnant again, but then it got a bit tired, and friends became mystified. Some are openly hostile when I talk about having more. I get that; it’s really odd to desire this life, and bad for the planet and obviously all my children will end up in therapy because they don’t get enough individual attention. My career, such as it was, hasn’t got very far and when we come around to your place for a party the children will steal all the Ferrero Rochers and might well break a table leg (true story). Where do they all fit, I hear you ask? They don’t, really. We just have to move around a lot to let them get past.

Each time I’ve had another baby, it’s been a boy. That fact leads to its own mythology; I am That Woman With All The Boys. Do I want a girl? Yes. Whatever. Shut up. There have been miscarriages – four in all – and people say to me that perhaps I cannot make girls. That once the sperm meets egg, and the X and Y chromosomes tentatively fuse to become my Eliza, my Goldie, my Violet, then something grows wrong. That my womb, open and welcoming to little boys, suddenly becomes hostile: refusing, rejecting and repelling all those little baby girls who would have grown up and come shopping with me, or perhaps saved the world. I don’t think so. Other people say it’s my husband’s fault. I tend to agree. Whatever. I do penises now.

I also do frequent conjunctivitis, threadworms, the occasional bout of nits, athlete’s foot, eczema and verrucas. The pregnancies gave me vermilion tiger stripes all down my stomach, which have faded into soft, silvery scars. I have thinning hair with an irritating fringe of regrowth that circles my forehead like a halo. You could probably chart my post-partum recovery through the reappearance of that halo over the years, like counting the rings on a fallen tree. My cervix often feels as if it is falling out of me, and my bladder leaks, coyly, and sometimes quite ferociously. I can’t wear most of my clothes because I am still breastfeeding and need easy access, and I am a little bit fat. My bosoms, however, are magnificent.

Throughout this jagged, flawed trip through motherhood, I have fallen foul of the current thinking towards child-rearing best practices. I’m a fan of the Benign Neglect school of parenting. For me, this means that I love my kids but don’t make a lot of fuss about them. It means baby-led weaning because purées are a bore – why mash things up when gums do a perfectly good job? It means letting your baby cry it out because you know that he is tired and it is bedtime and you want him to learn to sleep without your help, even if other people think you are a monster. It means never skinning grapes, because – hello – that’s what a gag reflex is for. It means letting them climb up high on things and leaving them to explore, and outsourcing the bedtime story to an older brother who reads for cold hard pocket-money cash. It means that sometimes you leave them sitting on a circus elephant in an Italian seaside town at midnight because you did the headcount wrong when you left (another true story). It means letting them get dirty and take risks, entrusting them and empowering them. In the end, it means doing yourself out of a job.

When people marvel at the size of our family and my appetite for more, I swiftly reassure them that it only works because I don’t care too much. With six children, you learn to spread anxiety thinly over everyone until it ceases to have much impact. Each kid has emerged so utterly different and so completely himself that I know I am not entirely to blame. Despite the lack of room and the fighting for attention and the constant bickering in the morning over cereal portions and whether someone mouthed ‘dickhead’ while my back was turned, I know that they will all turn out OK in the end. Motherhood tethers me to these people – they are my people. I knew them when they were fresh and pink and covered in vernix and I know them now they have armpit hair and need money all the time. It is divine and banal, infuriating but the most grounding, deeply satisfying thing: to be their mother.

Excerpted from The Best Most Awful Job, edited by Katherine May, courtesy of Elliott & Thompson. Essay copyright © 2021 by Jodi Bartle.