Friday, 19 December 2014

Adding a phrase

My singing teacher gave me a piece of wonderful advice.

Sometimes you're learning a song and the breath control is hard, because the phrases are long. Take, for example, the first line of Linden Lea, an English classic and grade 4 piece, I think:

"Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Even if you're taking the whole song at a bracing gallop, it's a long one, and because it's right at the start of the song you're not quite in flow yet, but it spoils it if you breathe in the middle. When I started singing this I'd always be turning a bit purple by the end, and "mossy moot" would come out as a hissy, last-bit-of-air-escaping-tyre, squeak.

How to get this better? Practise the phrase, not as it stands, but with an extra sub-clause at the start, so sing, again and again:

"Within the wood, within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed, by the oak tree's mossy moot"

Your breath budget now has to last a few syllables longer, and you get used to spreading it right to the end (with perhaps still a tiny bit of hissy squeaking at the end). Then, sing the phrase again with the extras cut off the start, and wonder of wonders, you've got loads to spare, you cruise through it easily and triumphantly, so much that you're not even having to take in a massive gasp before starting "the shining grass blades, timber-shaded, now do quiver underfoot" (another long one).

As with singing, so with life. When I had a small baby, who rapidly became a toddler, I thought my life was full to bursting. Meeting his needs was consuming every scrap I had to offer, aside from what I spent on work. Then I had baby 2, and more than double the demands on my time (surprisingly, the existence of a smiling, disney-eyed snuggly mother-magnet doesn't make a three year old less clingy), and gosh, these six months have been hard. But when Bonzo goes off to playgroup some mornings, my time sighs and stretches into the space, I revel in the slowness of life with the baby, we potter and chatter and burble and tickle and it is easy, so easy.

That was step 1, the first extension to the phrase, and it was building up my strength and skills at handling two. Then, enter the scruffy dog, a beautiful shabby needy lurcher, and now there are three warm bodies that all want to be touching me, three potential danger sources all of whom could hurt any of the others (and themselves - so there are nine different hurting combinations available, before you count one of them hurting several at once). The chaos levels have stepped up further, and the carpets are hairier, but the big blessing turns out to be the way that it's just drawn my breath out for longer. Now, when H goes to work and takes the dog with him, "all" I have to deal with is two children and there are "only" two sets of needs (mine don't count). I feel foolish at how well this mind-trick is working on me, but at the same time it's wonderful. I don't feel more overwhelmed with three dependents; I feel more capable at all the times I only have two, or one.

Of course all this sends me back to my terror in pregnancy about whether I could possibly hold enough love for both of my boys, whether there was enough of me to go round. It turns out that there is, that actually the "me" has grown (no, "I have grown" doesn't say what I want it to), and that my mothering muscles are strengthening with each day of (tear-inducing, soul-breaking, exhausting) exercise. 

Now all I need to do is work out what to use all that spare breath on...


  1. This is a lovely post Helen, and a good analogy too! Yes, I think there is something very empowering about the mad chaos of little beings needing us, and the fact that *most* of the time we manage to meet their needs beautifully. It really is wonderful to witness, and to be a part of.

    As I get older though (and my two get older) those chaotic times lessen somewhat which kind of makes me feel less 'practised' in managing the lovely warm fuzzy chaos that can still erupt from time to time. I do find myself wanting (and needing) greater periods of calm and quiet.

    When I look at mothers I know that have 2 children around the age of yours I feel great admiration for the way they seem to manage everything so effortlessly (toddler's needs, baby's needs, toddler's needs, then take a swig from a cup of cold tea, toddler's needs, baby's needs...), but honestly, it makes me feel exhausted too! I guess this is the next 'milestone' that I am meeting; the knowledge that the baby years are/have receded.

    As to what you're going to use all that spare breath on... well, how about fulfilling some of your own soul needs? That's always a good place to start :-)

    1. Hmm, yes, own soul needs.....I remember before I had children, reading the Guardian Family section and feeling this deep visceral envy of the chaotic families - I imagined myself in a kitchen full of noise and children, and wished I could be there. Of course we should be careful what we wish for! But it's such a special kind of chaos: when I'm feeling down about it, I despair, but when I'm feeling good, it's a joy I can thrive on.

  2. You're so right. When you have two children (or more), you look back to the "easy" days of having one single baby, and can't imagine why you found it difficult. I often think that mothers of twins (or more) must wonder why mothers of singletons consider it a full-time job.

    I like your mind trick. I use it at Christmastime. The year we moved to America, we arrived on December 7th. We stayed with a friend of a friend until December 20th, during which time we'd had to open bank accounts, pass driving tests, get social security numbers, choose schools, find shops, find a property to rent, and, oh yes, keep feeding and entertaining 3 children. Then we moved into our rented house on December 20th, and between then and the 25th, in order to "do" Christmas, we had to unpack furniture, unpack stuff, shop for presents, shop for a tree, get an internet connection so we could speak to family... It has made Christmas seem very do-able ever since. I mean, you decorate the house, you buy and wrap presents, and cook a big roast dinner, right? Everything else is an added extra, and if you don't get round to doing it, then that's ok.

    As your previous commenter says, once you are out of the baby/toddler years, it really is amazing to watch mothers at that stage. It feels exhausting just looking on from the outside, and I'm always overwhelmed with admiration, and unable to imagine how I did it myself!

    1. I'm ill just thinking about that Christmas of yours, Iota.
      And of course I see mothers of older children and wonder how they keep on top of all the admin, and all the worry when they go independent, and all the washing, and the pressures from society to be doing "meaningful stuff" once all their children are at school...perhaps I'll stay in the small-child bubble forever!

    2. And here's the thing... On that Christmas Day, my 10 year old said "this was the best Christmas we've ever had".

      As for the "mothers of older children" bit, well, of course we've all learned how to be Supermum from our time in the small-child bubble!

      Happy Christmas to you, and please keep blogging in 2015. I love reading your posts.