My daughter is chatting away but I can't focus on what she's saying. We're on the top deck of the bus and my mind is too flooded with thoughts, ideas and worries to listen properly to her. This makes me a bad mother. Because of everything I promised I would do as a parent, I knew listening was the most important.
Recently, there's been an itch beneath my skin. There is something so unsettled it sometimes makes me shudder. I'm like Elsa in Frozen II, standing on the balcony throwing 'aah-aah-aah-aah's' back to the forest as if something out there is speaking to something within me. Whatever it is - whatever the reason for my restlessness, it's been here for a while and it's driving me insane.
It's also created a fog around me. One so thick I can't see or hear anyone else clearly at the moment, including my daughter. Right now, I'm air. I don't seem to be able to sink into my own body and listen to myself. I'm flitting from one thing to another and I can't quiet my mind for long enough even to sleep properly. Some spirit version of me is flying around, exploring, seeking out anything which might ground me, or at least distract me for a while.
Whilst I am air I cannot be the still, strong and stable mother my daughter needs me to be. I can't even concentrate when she tries to tell me how her day has been. So, of course, now I'm worried about my daughter. I'm not listening to her, but my worry for her is overwhelming. Because what I need right now, is not what she needs right now.
Downstairs on the bus, there's another little girl from my daughter's school. My daughter has popped down to say hello to her. We're a lot alike, me and her - we look similar, we have the same tendency to daydream, we have overzealous imaginations and we're highly sensitive beings. Yet, she has her father's confidence.
Another thing my daughter has is my speaking voice. The way I speak is what other kids at my school would call 'posh'. I never dropped my 't's or my 'h's and my voice was clipped and clear. My parents, despite being from the midlands and London, spoke in what you might refer to as the 'Queen's English' and I was brought up to as well. For the kids at school, this was a fantastic source of amusement and resulted in much teasing. No, not teasing - bullying. So I'd try to speak like them. I wanted so much to be liked that I ached with the need. But it never really worked. I wasn't nearly as adaptable as my sister who said 'innit' at school and 'isn't it', in front of our mother. At various times in my life, I've tried to bend and all it's ever done is break me. It's just not something I am capable of doing. It's no longer something I feel I should be doing. I am air. Especially right now.
So I corrected my daughter whenever she used slang, knowing that I could be setting her up for the teasing I was subjected to. When she first went to school I had to make a decision. Was I going to help her fit in or to be brave? When I was little I was neither - I did not fit and I was not brave enough not to care. But my daughter has not had a problem. Some of the other kids at school speak the way she does and some don't. It doesn't seem to be a problem. Yet, I also know that she is more confident than me. More disconcerting than I was and if anyone is negative about the way she speaks she'll likely contemplate it for a moment then dismiss it and move on.
Back upstairs on the bus, having said hello to her friend and returned to sit next to me, she sighs.
"You're not listening to me today," she says.
"I know," I reply.
There's no point in lying to her, so I try to explain instead.
"Mummy is finding the world very loud at the moment and I can't hear myself. I'm trying to listen to me because only I know what I need to do next. Only I know why the world doesn't feel right at the moment. I've been asking everyone else and I've been exploring all the changes I could make but nothing feels right. So, I need to make the world quiet for a while. I need to stop thinking and start feeling."
When you're in the dark, directions can't help you. All you can do is reach your arms out and feel your way home. It's scary and it means trusting yourself but when you're there, you'll know. Still, my needing this means that I'm not really here for my daughter, not in the way I want to be.
Don't get me wrong - I'm making the dinners, I'm packing lunchboxes, I'm doing laundry and school runs and booking dentist appointments and re-learning long division so I can understand her homework. I'm a mother who is doing but not being. And, though I know that soon I will stop being air and will fall properly back to earth, I'm worried she'll be lonely while she waits.
Then her friend gets off the bus downstairs and she calls up, 'Goodbye Arya.' She pronounces each word clearly, emphasising each phonic, fixing her mouth with effort and raising her chin. This girl does not usually speak like this, which is fine by the way - there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way' to speak, but she's usually a consonant dropper who rushes through words. Yet, she takes care over her goodbye today, making sure it's clipped and clear and gentle.
'Goodbye' Arya replies and their voices match. My daughter's friend has adapted her voice to sound like Aryas's. And suddenly, though my head is still full of questions and worries, one untangles itself and floats off into the wind. I don't need to worry about Arya right now.
My daughter is water. She flows and she moves at the speed she needs to when she needs to, and along the way she gathers. She weaves around obstacles without thought and she takes in light as she goes.
This is not a child I need to worry about too much. She is both like me and altogether very different. She is the kind of girl for whom other girls adapt their voices. And she doesn't even notice.
I am usually fire, but right now, I'm air.
She is always water.