This post is dedicated to Fitz, my fellow pupae-bound friend…
Some time ago I read an interesting article about the caterpillar to butterfly life cycle. When the caterpillar goes into its pupae, the caterpillar itself starts to liquefy. It turns into a sort of nutrient-rich soup from which a butterfly slowly coalesces, hardens and breaks out to fly free.
This transformation is one of nature’s most extraordinary processes. The change is so fundamental that the caterpillar and the butterfly appear to be different species.
The incredible nature of this change has been used, to the point of cliché, by creative types to define spiritual and emotional, as well as physical, change in our own lives. Butterflies flitter about everywhere in art, from poetry and painting through to fashion and music.
Traditionally, a butterfly is seen as feminine and often stands in for the transition from young girl to womanhood, a transition both gentle and beautiful. No one tends to dwell on the melty bit.
This butterfly symbolism supports the worn-out myth that ladies are made of sweetly pretty and fragrant things (anyone who has ever changed their daughter’s nappies will know this is rubbish), and it denies the pain and the struggle that the move from one state to another requires. It is not easy and it is not always pretty even though that struggle might be considered as worth it in the end.
I’m sure that at times during my teenage transition, I resembled a dissolving caterpillar more than a nascent butterfly. For me, the teenage years were a fairly dreadful time where I literally felt uncomfortable in my own (greasy) skin. I knew I was changing but I didn’t know what to change into. Apparently, according to much of the media surrounding me and my friends, we should probably be attempting to look something like Britney Spears (in the video for Hit Me Baby One More Time) or maybe a Spice Girl (and that should date me pretty securely). Lacking the ability to do the splits or tame my hair into anything less than a fleece, I felt lost. I got the message that Girl Power (massive eyeroll) was about miniskirts and massive platform shoes though: that one was loud and clear. And possibly knocking back a straight whisky whilst enjoying a pole dance in a post-modern-ironic kind of way (thanks for that one in particular, Zoe Ball). So I fumbled my way from teenagehood to early twenties never quite feeling like I’d got it right. I was definitely still a girl, possibly a young lady, but not really yet a grown woman.
If any teenager or parent/friend of teenagers happens to be reading this and it strikes home, please recommend that your teenager reads some Caitlin Moran. Witty, wise and profoundly kind, she’s the kind of big sister or aunty we all wished we’d had to guide us through the horrors of puberty and beyond.
Recently I got the change to catch up with a very good friend from our university days who was visiting the shire with her family. We spent the night in the pub (like we used to) and got down to some solid discussion about all sorts of topics; the kind of conversation only possible when you aren’t attempting to prevent several tiny humans committing inventive suicide – or homicide.
Both of us, in our own ways, had gone through some pretty dark times in the early days of motherhood and neither of us had got much sleep for the last 6 or more years. We talked about the loss of what had gone before and how little we had appreciated the time, money, bodies and freedom that we had had. We didn’t appreciate those things hard enough; although we adore our kids, we had no real idea what we were letting ourselves in for. Where did those (relatively) care free people go? Would they come back?!
We concluded that having a baby is an atomisation of yourself: it blasts you apart. It’s you at your most elemental, with no corners to hide in. And when you come through the other side of it, it’s little wonder that you’ve changed in some essential way. It is still taking me a little while to get out the other side; sleep deprivation had me in its grasp for several years and still likes to revisit from time to time. I gained weight, cared little about anything except the babies and pulled that kind of exhausted half-life around me like a protective cloak against the outside world. I felt pretty broken.
So I guess it’s no surprise that sometimes mothers can be both weepy and ferocious: unwilling to put up with the daily nonsensicals that perhaps we would have just shrugged off before birth, like people commenting mindlessly on your appearance. I’ve got a tiny bit of baby sick on my jumper, have I? Frankly, you’re lucky I brushed my hair this morning, so you can naff off.
For a long time I’ve mourned my old self whom I look back at almost as at a stranger. And who was this new person? I could barely struggle around the supermarket on a bad day – how was this person who was once quite sparky ever to amount to anything again. Where had my brain gone? (Answer: it dripped out of my ear during yet another episode of Peppa Pig). Was this my new reality? Or was it simply another phase, the dormant part of a metamorphosis…
There was a further study about caterpillars carried out by a group of scientists in Georgetown University in 2008 (hello scientists!). They subjected a series of Tobacco Hornworm caterpillars to the smell of ethyl acetate (nail varnish remover) whilst near a certain food source and gave them a faint electric shock at the same time. The caterpillars learnt to stay away from the smell whenever exposed to it and, astonishingly, they remembered to act in the same way once they had climbed out of their chrysalis. They had retained their larval memory, despite becoming an insecty-soup in the interim. There’s something about those early experiences, something intrinsic, that can survive the most profound molecular change.
These days I’m getting the increasing sensation that the worst of the early days is over. The girls (occasionally) sleep well. They’re happy and settled where they are at school/nursery. I have time to myself during the day which is one of life’s modern luxuries, I now realise. I don’t have to hover over them quite so much when we’re out and about as they no longer put everything they find in their mouths (well, most of the time). So, what now? What career might I take up? What will I concentrate on once I have spare brain capacity? Can I do this?
What they don’t tell you is that when you are at your very lowest, you are changing. You are being stripped back to your most fundamental bedrock parts. Your atomisation can only break you down into atoms and no further. It can be no more painful than this. Once you’re there, the only thing to do is to start to draw together again, into something strange and new. The process has fundamentally changed you. You retain parts of what went before and will not forget the previous life but now you are something different. You are something that utterly encapsulates potential.
Can you make this change without motherhood? Certainly. Everyone faces their own unique situations that will challenge them to their core. Sometimes more than once. Motherhood has been just one of my challenges.
I’m still there, in my chrysalis, but I’m hardening up and starting to think about tapping away at my shell. What I will do when I get out the other side, I don’t yet know. But I will be a full grown woman at last, not a butterfly.
Hear me roar…