A Deduction: What motherhood takes away
THIS ESSAY WAS PUBLISHED BY MUTHA MAGAZINE.
Let me show you where Benedict Cumberbatch touched me.
He reached inside of me and restarted my heart. His long fingers wrapped around that organ and squeezed it back into existence. It was a bit erotic, because well, Benedict Cumberbatch is inside you.
I felt it. He looks like he’d be more gentle, but I felt it. I sat up. I had been lying down on the couch and I was propelled straight up. A sharp intake of breath.
The first two seasons of the BBC series Sherlock aired while I was living in Hanoi. The only way to watch the show there was to buy pirated DVDs from a little shop in the Old Quarter. They had a binder full of DVD covers that you pointed to, as if choosing from a menu, although this was a menu for burning, not cooking. Your selections were then served up in flimsy plastic sleeves.
During the three years I was in Vietnam, I wrote about exactly that kind of experience—the perspective of the foreigner, for whom even buying a DVD is novel—for a number of publications. At one point, I was turning in three opinion pieces a week. Every encounter I had was mined for noteworthiness, and every fleeting incident had inference potential, a broader meaning I could attach my opinion to. I liked it. I did not find it difficult.
It was at that time, during the first season of Sherlock, that I noticed Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the show’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes. We all noticed him. Your mother probably did too, since Sherlock went on to be one of the most popular BBC series of this century. His strange name. His strange face. My mother said he looked like the underside of a stingray. Every camera angle revealing a new, planed, angular surface of him, but you could never quite compose it into a whole, because it was a composition we hadn’t made before. The press said he was ethereal, exotic and other-worldly.
Over the next few years, those six syllables of his name transformed into sounds our mouths became used to putting together (but still a bit funny: he reveals his Harrow nickname was Bendy Dick Cum On My Baps and 30 years later, that’s still got legs) and, against the odds, he became the world’s sexiest man. His face is the sole piece of supporting photographic evidence on the Wikipedia page for the thinking woman’s crumpet. We worked out how to look at his face.
I moved to Canberra, less a city than the citation needed for the Wikipedia entry on the world’s least cared-about capital. I was married and pregnant. But I was genuinely happy to be back home, in a country where, while they weren’t of the thinking-woman’s variety, there were at least crumpets.
I had a baby. Then another baby. There were so many babies, and so many years seemed to pass. So many years that another series of Sherlock aired, an occasion which only comes about every two years. I watched it. I don’t really remember it. I’m sure it was fine.
I had nothing to say. Nothing about Sherlock, nothing about Benedict Cumberbatch. Nothing about the city I lived in. It seemed fine. I knew the exact nap times and feeding times of the children. I knew what was on special at the supermarket. Pretty good deal on crumpets.
When you’re about to become a mother, people tell you, all the time, “Ooh, you won’t know what’s hit you!” That makes it sound exciting. And so I entered motherhood in the brace position waiting for the dramatic crash landing, one where we’d get to go down those inflatable slides and then have a great survivor’s story to tell.
But motherhood doesn’t have a moment of impact. Instead, you’re stuck in an interminable holding pattern, circling the airport and dumping fuel. And the in-flight entertainment is broken. It just goes on and on, tediously. I was praying for something to hit me, just to break up the monotony.
“Why don’t you write anymore?” I would be asked.
“Why don’t you start a blog again?”
Because I have no right. No authority. Nothing interesting. No opinions. No stories.
That’s what John Watson tells his therapist in the opening minutes of the first episode of Sherlock, when he’s being encouraged to write a blog. And then the theme music starts, and the show is called Sherlock, so you’re pretty damn sure something is about to happen to him.
Being at home with small children is to exist in a world where great insignificance is imbued with great meaning. It’s a trap. You can think only of what you will have for dinner, of whether the weather is appropriate for two loads of washing or three, and it all matters so fucking much. Because there is nothing else, just you and the dinners and the washing and the children. There is no time for anything else. No mental capacity. No emotional availability. No Benedict Cumberbatch.
I write this as if I knew what was happening to me, or was even reflecting upon it at the time, but that is all hindsight. I did not see the absence of Benedict Cumberbatch. Then, it was just one day after another, tolerable only for not questioning it. I watched my best friend go through post-natal depression during the same period, and by comparison, I saw that I was fine. Functional, lucky.
For the four years I was either pregnant or breastfeeding, I was a hostage to my chemistry, the oxytocin and prolactin that kept me feeling permanently, steadily preoccupied. They directed my focus to the children at the expense of all else. Like, you know, independent thought. A free spirit. It was not until the second baby was finally weaned, and I discovered that the brand of tampon I used for the last time four years previous had gone out of business, that I realised I had been in captivity.
Well, I say, “realised”, but it was Benedict Cumberbatch who told me.
I set out to watch the Sherlock Christmas special with my now standard-issue unenthusiasm. Two more years must have passed since the last season, the one I had no opinion on. Benedict Cumberbatch was apparently a bona fide Hollywood star now.
And I couldn’t. Get. My. Eyes. Off. Him. Not because of the stingray thing, but because I was wildly, deeply attracted to him. It was a sensation I had not felt in literally years. Motherhood had induced in me the excellently descriptive condition of being “touched out”. Yet here I was, ogling. But it was more than the eyes, the cheekbones, the mouth (I say, unconvincingly, but it was). It was the man.
Sherlock Holmes invented his job as the only consulting detective in the world, because it is the only job he wants. He makes decisions in life based entirely on whether the matter at hand is, to him, boring or diverting. He does not have to be nice to people and has no responsibilities, beyond probably maintaining his hairdo. He is completely above the “the dull routine of existence”. He doesn’t eat or sleep unless it’s strictly necessary and if he can’t sufficiently occupy his mind with his work, he takes drugs to alleviate boredom. He can be like this because he is surrounded by a (literal) cast of supporting roles who look after him. They make him tea, they protect his delicate mental state, they shield him from emotional upset, and let him be himself.
To me, at that moment, Sherlock Holmes was as exotic as they come. He was speaking to me (and me alone it seemed) from another world, one where you get to do what you want. In fact, “Everyone always lets you do whatever you want,” is something John Watson says to Sherlock in that Christmas special, having spent the past ten episodes letting Sherlock do whatever he wants.
Little by little, over the course of that 90-minute episode, a little crack appeared in the carapace of dried-out, crispy play-dough that had formed around me, just enough for Benedict Cumberbatch to get inside. Maybe he didn’t squeeze my heart, maybe he shook me, rattled my bones. Tapping out a message in Morse code on my ribcage:
What are you doing with your life?
I never knew Kierkegaard was funny, but this is funny:
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”
Conversely, finding one’s self does not occur quietly at all. It’s like discovering an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. The process of becoming aware of your situation is both exhilarating and horrifying. The future seemed full of possibility, while the last four years immediately coloured a different hue. Like that time I answered, in all seriousness, my best friend’s question of what made a good day with, “Everybody has eaten, everybody has slept and everybody has pooed.” It wasn’t a joke. I remember feeling that very, very strongly. I was deriving satisfaction from my children’s bowel movements. Fuck that shit.
When Benedict Cumberbatch was a young actor filming some TV show you’ve never heard of in South Africa, he and two of his fellow actors were carjacked and kidnapped. He discusses the incident repeatedly in interviews, almost compulsively it seems, always with the epilogue that upon his release he went skydiving, drove his motorbike faster than before, and felt more, and differently, alive.
I similarly could not stop evangelising about my epiphany, but it turns out it’s less explicable when the catalyst for your revelation is not a near-death experience but the Christmas special of a BBC drama.
“So, you want to be Sherlock Holmes?”
“No, not like that. I don’t actually want to be Sherlock Holmes.”
I went out drinking. It’s like skydiving for mothers recently retired from breastfeeding. I traveled to Sydney, alone (alone!), and sat at the bar with a friend I have known for a long time, who has no children. I explained what had happened to me, what brought me here, to this bar which didn’t even exist last time I had the chance to go out. He didn’t need to ask if I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. He knew me, before the kidnapping.
“I thought I had lost you,” he said.
“I thought I lost me too,” I replied.
Is this what people mean when they say of motherhood, “You won’t know what hit you”? That it’s a meat tenderiser that pounds away your edge? That it’s a cleaver that deftly excises your personality from your very being? And you “won’t know” because you quite literally will not even know the savage operation even occurred until the haze of hormones, chronic sleeplessness and alcohol-free nights lifts?
In childbirth classes, they tell you to choose an image or visualization as a focal point during labour. Something calming and grounding, that you can bring to the birthing suite, like a photo of your dog, or a picture of a sunset, or a flower opening (like your cervix, you see).
They should give you another piece of advice. When you leave the birthing suite with a baby in your arms, chuck that image into the bin along with your bloody pads and shit-stained nightie, and then whip out the other visualization you’ve brought with you for this purpose: your self-image. Your total fucking you-ness. Keep it close, like a palm card in your pocket to glance at when you’ve lost your thread. No doubt you’ll misplace it a few times. Maybe it will even accidentally go through the wash. But just knowing it’s there will reassure you that one day you won’t even need to remind yourself of its existence. You will be yourself again.
I became obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. He was my ticket out, or rather, back. It was the lever by which I could prise open cracks, small points of re-entry into the world. It prised open my sexual attraction (thanks, Benedict!). It prised open my connectedness to the outside world, one populated with other middle-aged women obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch. It prised open my opinions, my actual opinions on subjects more absorbing, would you believe, than eating and sleeping and pooing. I started reading again. I started listening to music again. So long had my inclination for silence reigned that it transpired our household had switched to an entirely different music-playing system. I didn’t even know how to operate it.
I changed the wallpaper on my phone, replacing a photo of the children with a moody black and white portrait of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. I see the children all day, I think about them all the time, I don’t need further reminders to do so. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch looks at me whenever I pick up my phone.
"What," he asks, "can we deduce about this woman?"
I want him to deduce that I am both a mother, and I am me. That they are not incompatible. It is simply a process of re-seeing, of new composition, of putting together parts that hadn’t been together before.
It is not a process without frustrations. I have opinions now, and even opinion pieces— hello!—but one day, should I like to have some more opinions, about things other than Sherlock Holmes and motherhood, I shall need more free time, and not even Benedict Cumberbatch himself can give me that.
But I was given Benedict Cumberbatch. My husband and kids bought me a brooch from Etsy for my birthday, a silhouette of his strange face. I wear it almost always. When I bend down to put on little shoes or pick up Lego, I can smell it. It’s made from laser-cut wood and is exactly the smell of the woodwork room from high school, when you burned your name into your pencil box. A reminder of the other time in my life when I wore my self-identity on my sleeve for not quite knowing what it was, and for desperate fear of losing it.
My children love to point at it and say his name. “Batch!” my two year-old says, while the four year-old obliviously comes up with versions that would make a Harrow schoolboy blush: “Bent Dick Comely Gash!” Last week, as I was huffily bending over him to tighten the straps of his car seat, he pointed at the brooch again. We were late for an appointment and the two year-old was being particularly whiny and difficult, and I was demonstrably annoyed.
“Do you remember when we gave you that for your birthday?” he asked, and I knew exactly why he was asking. He has learnt from me the skill of hopeful redirection to better times.
“I do remember,” I said. “It made me really happy.”
I kissed him on his head and we drove off.
“Who wants some music?” I ask. And we all sing along.