Lion luck and letting go

Some places instantly evoke a powerful feeling, one that never goes away. One of those is the view from the east of the Strijdom Tunnel on the R36 in Limpopo. On one side are the rusty cliffs of the Eastern Drakensberg; on the other is the broad, flat expanse of the Lowveld as it stretches all the way to Mozambique.


It’s a view I got to know and love when I was very young. For most of my life, I have been very privileged to visit my favourite part of the world regularly. It’s a world of screeching francolins and chuckling hornbills, of zebras and giraffes and, if we were lucky, lions and rhinos – and if we were very, very lucky, leopards too. Lion luck, I called it. Sometimes we had it. Sometimes we didn’t, and we only ever saw impala and steenbok and duiker. Still, no matter what, there was always the possibility that around the very next bush might be something amazing.


At night, the fire would flicker in the dark as sparks rose into a sky full of stars. The lions would call and we would try to guess how close they are, and whether they would let us catch a glimpse of their tawny selves.


I miss this place so much. After more than two years, I had made plans to go again, and this morning they fell apart. My mother reminded me, as I should have known she would, that RaRa is under two and it isn’t safe for her to visit an area where malaria is endemic, even in winter. It would be utterly irresponsible of me to take her, and because she is still breastfed and refuses a bottle, being apart for more than a day is unthinkable.


I had invested a lot in these plans. I had allowed myself to get excited about them. They were something I was looking forward to, and that mattered because I’d forgotten how to look forward to anything.


I was frustrated for a moment or two. Angry, even. That I’ve shrugged and let go and moved on so easily surprises me. It’s a good thing. It means that the depression is not as bad as it was, and that I don’t need to hold on to a stake in some future ground as I try to pull myself out of the current morass.


Now, all I can think about is how utterly impractical it would have been to take RaRa there. A more toddler-unfriendly place is hard to imagine: the unfenced pool, the monkey and baboon shit, lurking predators like leopards, an open fire, raised decks where a child could fall. She would have needed constant supervision. There would have been no quiet sitting, listening to the birds or gazing speculatively through binoculars.


The malaria is never not going to be a problem, even in winter. The camp is never going to be suitable for children. Maybe it’s time to accept that I will never go back. This place and my love for it is in my past, and it was nice while it lasted, but it’s over now. The memories will have to be enough.


A question I have to ask

This is going to sound like a strange question. Maybe it is a strange question. I will ask it anyway.

My question is this: What does it feel like to have a baby when you really wanted a child, and you finally got what you wanted?

It’s a question that occurred to me for the first time this evening, triggered by a FaceTime conversation with my husband, who is in Brussels visiting a friend. Tonight, they are going out to watch Arrival. Overseas travel and going to the movies: both of these are things I used to love and which I have now accepted are no longer within the realm of possibility.

This is what I do know. I know what it feels like to have a baby when you were convinced, for years, that you would never have a child, that for some of that time you were deeply hostile to the idea of having a child, and that if you came around to the idea eventually, it was because you let go of a part of yourself that once felt essential to your identity.

It feels like this: a lovely surprise. It feels like wonder that something that once – to be frank – you found completely alien can be so filled with joy. It feels like astonishment that you can love another being so much, a person who cannot speak or walk, though she can smile (and it’s the smile that gets me every time). It is the thrill that never stops thrilling. If I share so many pictures of my daughter on social media, it is because I am so astonished at how marvelous she is.

RaRa is the maybe who became the definitely. She’s the possibility, the let’s-see-what-happens-if made flesh. But she is not the result of hoping, or wanting, or trying.

Which brings me back to my question. For those women who wanted a baby, and then had a baby, what does it feel like? Does it make the complete change of lifestyle less of an adjustment? The inevitable sacrifices easier to bear?

RaRa was never part of my plans. Now my entire reason for being centres around saving up for school fees. Things I wanted to do are now very unlikely. And tonight – for once – I’m sad about it. Or to put it more accurately: tonight, I’m being honest with myself about how I’m sad about it.

What does it feel like? I want to know.

It’s back.

It’s back. Of course it is. It probably never really went away. I’ve staved it off quite successfully this year, all things considered. Health problems, the emergency c-section, NICU, all of that. I was always a very good candidate for postpartum depression and the fact that I didn’t succumb to it probably has a lot to do with the effects of the Eglonyl and getting enough sleep.

I’ve tried to pretend that it isn’t back. Being depressed when I’m so happily married seems horribly ungrateful. It doesn’t fit in with the narrative, which is that I’m supposed to have dragged myself through the swamp and climbed out, triumphant, on the other side.

But there it is. I sense it in my procrastination. In my inability to write. In that sense of failure that creeps up on me whenever I read of the success of others. I think back to last year’s quixotic ventures to overseas art fairs and marvel at how stupid I was to waste all that money. Those dreams have turned to dust and now I have other, more concrete realities to deal with. School fees will forever haunt me now.
Little things get to me. My inner voice is starting up again, the one that says you’re a useless piece of shit and you know it. Your mother is a piece of shit, RaRa, I told my daughter the other day. (I need to not do that. I don’t want to poison her with my self-loathing.)

Most of the things I used to love hold little pleasure for me now. Painting is a chore. The piano I bought is out of tune and gathering dust. I can’t concentrate on words on a page for long enough to read a book.

I don’t want to travel, don’t want to spend money, don’t want to do anything except be with the baby. I’m not excited about anything. There’s nothing I want to do. I drink too much, sometimes to slow my scattering thoughts, sometimes to stop feeling at all.

I don’t know if this will pass. Maybe it won’t. Maybe this is the way things are now, and I just need to get used to it.

I brought a child into this awful world.

Once upon a time, I had many reasons for not wanting a child of my own. I didn’t want to saddle another human being with my dubious genetic heritage. I didn’t want to add to the burden shouldered by an already overloaded planet. And I wasn’t sure that it was entirely fair to bring a life into a world where it’s all going to shit, quite frankly.

And now here is RaRa, born in a year we all agree is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad one. What have I done?

Today, November 9th 2016, we know that Donald Trump is the next president of the United States. Who knows what effect his administration will have on us here in South Africa, but the symbolism of an openly racist, sexist candidate endorsed by the KKK is hard to miss. The notion – one I held dear – that we’re gradually advancing towards a kinder, fairer world based on universal human rights is profoundly flawed, as it turned out. Yeats, writing all those years ago, was onto something.

Then there’s the planet we call home. The world inches ever closer to environmental catastrophe, regardless of what the “climate change is a hoax” crowd who will now be running America would like to believe. Wildlife is being wiped out by the rampant march of rapacious humanity. We spoil everything we touch and leave devastation in our wake.

There will be no end to war and suffering.

There’s little cause for hope in this neck of the woods either. The leader of our fastest growing opposition party has assured us that he won’t call for the slaughter of white people – for now. Our country is run by a venal, predatory elite. Poverty, unemployment and inequality threaten the rickety consensus of the  post-Rainbow Nation.  Crime is everywhere. The economy is tanking. Education costs are spiraling.

The world is changing in ways that frighten me, even if they don’t surprise me.

On this thoroughly depressing day, it’s hard to find anything to smile about. Yet there is RaRa, blissfully unaware of the world she has been born into. Her concerns revolve around Boob. She is surrounded by people who love her. Her next great challenge is to learn to sit on her own and start solids. One day, perhaps, when she is older, and she knows more of the world, she will ask me why she was born. I probably won’t have an answer for her except this: that I love her completely and utterly, that I am besotted with her, and love does not allow any room for regret.

I wanted the world to be better than this, RaRa. I’m so sorry.


I have a problem with anxiety.  The familiar acid tang at the back of the throat, the clenched heart, fluttering in the stomach, caught mid swoon. The tunnel vision too, which is a bugger when you’re driving.

This is nothing new; I spent most of 2010 and some of 2011 so tanked on tranquilizers that I wrecked my short term memory. Eventually I got myself more or less back on track, and the daily bouts of clammy palms and lurching stomach became a memory.

2016 has changed all of that. First I was anxious because my health went pear-shaped. Then I was anxious because I had to have my baby ten weeks early and I was worried she would die. After that, I was anxious about producing enough breast milk and whether she was gaining enough weight.

Then she came home and I was anxious because I had a new business pitch and combining that with a new baby and no sleep was a nightmare. Then I was anxious because I was at home with the baby while everyone else was working late on more new business pitches and I wasn’t a team player.

After I went back to work, I was anxious about going to my mother’s house to feed the baby, and anxious about abandoning the baby to be in meetings. I was anxious about breast milk and, when I could no longer cope with expressing, anxious about letting my baby down by supplementing her feeds with formula.

I became anxious about losing relevance because I’d been away for three months, and the office might find that they could manage without me. I’m anxious because things are not the same, and I feel guilty about not working the hours I used to, and guilty about not being there when my baby needs me, which in turn leads to more anxiety.

I’m anxious because I don’t feel as smart as I used to, and there are days when I feel completely incompetent or utterly extraneous and sometimes both at the same time. I’m anxious because I can’t focus the thoughts rattling around in my head. I’m anxious because I know I have to save for school fees, and I gave away a lot of money a few years ago and now I’m regretting it. I’m anxious because sometimes I’m not billable enough and someone’s going to look at my time sheets and wonder if I’m expendable. I’m anxious about increases in medical aid for next year, and how much will come off the salary I’m worried I don’t deserve to get anyway.

I’m anxious because the stakes are so much higher now. I’m anxious because if I slip up, it’s not just me I have to worry about any more. I’m anxious about being anxious, about whether I should change my medication, whether it’s the pill I’m taking because I read that anxiety is one of the side effects.

I am anxious because I am anxious because I am anxious and it won’t stop and there is no end in sight.

Throwback Thursday and thoughts on having children

It’s Thursday, so I thought I’d indulge in some delving into the past. My life today – happily married with a baby – is very different from how I imagined it when I was marooned in the middle of severe anxiety and depression.  Nearly six years ago, I wrote this after hearing of the birth of my ex-husband’s son:

Should I not crave the act of procreation? Should I not fantasise about nappy cream and gurgles and saving for school fees? Why is it that I always joked about how I’d only consider having a kid when my ovaries were screaming — and there hasn’t been a peep?

I couldn’t imagine having a child of my own. “I like children,” I wrote

but find babies faintly horrifying in their fragility and their otherness, and whenever other people bring theirs into the office I hunch my shoulders over my laptop and hope that I won’t be asked to come and coo over the child or — heaven forbid — have to hold it.

I’m certainly over my fear of babies now; nothing forces one to confront fragility and otherness like a premature baby less than half the size of the average newborn.

Back then, I also wrote that I regarded my books as my children. So I must be honest with myself, and you, and report that I failed to finish any of the several I started over that time. I would start with great enthusiasm, and my productivity would be astounding for two weeks over the December holidays, and then real life would intervene and the project would grind to a halt.

One of the reasons that I’ve gone back to my old blog posts is to jog my memory of the post-divorce years. I’ve been meaning to write a memoir of what happened when my life imploded, and h0w I managed, contrary to all expectations, to get an amazingly happy ending. It is a good story, I think. Many people have said that my experience gives them hope. And, as I’ve said before, “In the end, all we have are our stories, and all we can do is tell them as best we can.”

Here’s hoping that I carry this one to term.

A very happy unbirthday to you

RaRa 1

Dearest Raphaela Ragini Pillay,

Today, April 29, is the date that you were due to arrive in the world. It would probably not have been your birthday – your father wanted you to arrive on April 27 (because it’s a public holiday, and he likes significant dates to fall on public holidays) – and Dr O’Hanlon would probably have insisted on performing the c-section around 10 days before now. Also, there’s the awkward fact that my ex-husband would have shared a birthday with you, and that’s not the kind of coincidence anyone would feel entirely comfortable with.

Anyhow, that’s all academic, because, of course, life listens to our carefully detailed plans and laughs out loud. The record reflects that you were brought, crying in fury, into the cold bright light of a delivery room a little more than two months ago, on February 26. You were placed very briefly on my chest before being whisked off to an incubator and hooked up to probes.

RaRa at birth

You’re still a little too small for newborn clothes.

In the beginning, you were fed through a nasal tube. You looked like a sea creature, arms and legs waving like tentacles. Your colour was as changeable as a squid. Your father and I calibrated our moods for the day according to how much weight you had gained.

RaRa in NICU

In the early days, I was terrified that you might die, and I didn’t know how I would cope with weeks and weeks of NICU.

When you were inside me, and I could feel the fluttering of your first kicks, I couldn’t wait to get to know you. In two months of looking at you (and you looking back at me), I have watched you develop an entire a repertoire of faces. There is alabaster angel when you are sleeping and calm; angry tomato (self explanatory); also grumpy old man, Stephen Hawking and – this is the one I love the most – naughty elf.  Watching your face change from one to the other is fascinating and when it happens, time slips past unnoticed.

(I wonder whether the first hints of character I see in your face will emerge in the fullness of time, or whether I’m just projecting. But you do seem to be a funny girl. You’re already good at making your father laugh.)

RaRa being changed Mia

Your sister Aura calls you squishy pink thing. Mia sings to you and sketches you while you’re being bathed and dressed (cue the angry tomato). Your grandmother Diana, who had seen you every Sunday in NICU, was pleasantly surprised when she visited you at home, and said that you are beautiful. You have Facebook friends who love seeing updates about you. You don’t know about them yet, but I am sure that one day they will tell you all about what you were like when you were little.

You sleep with one hand resting on your cheek, as though considering the state of the world. (Perhaps you are.) The tiniest sound you make is enough to stir me from the deepest sleep. I listen to your musical chuckles and marvel at the power you have to move me. I try not to think too much of the responsibility, because it is huge and marvellous and also, frankly, terrifying. Instead, I gaze at you and tether myself to the present moment, which matters more than any moment before or after.

RaRa with Sarah

You are my magnetic north, a soft and urgent tug at my centre wherever I go. We have had two months to get to know one another, two months more than I imagined. I’m looking forward to our adventure together in the world, my dearest Ra-Ra.

I love you so very much. A very happy unbirthday to you.