OPINION Hannah Engelkamp

NWR Issue r26


Photos by Rhys Thwaites-Jones and Hannah Engelkamp

Six months ago, in bleakest midwinter, I wrote this essay. My two-year-old was communicating mostly in animal noises and gestures – brilliant, hyper-intelligent animal noises and gestures, of course, but still. I was finding mothering hard, and aspiring but failing to find a place for myself in his world.


I made a to-do list, including learning to meditate, or just smoking weed in rockpools with someone else stationed nearby with a towel and responsibility. Instead I just seemed to spend a lot of time trying to get away from him; scheduling and ferrying and carving out time.

Six months on and I haven’t done any of these things. He changed instead – during the very few days I was finishing the article, he learned to talk, and hanging around with him became much more entertaining. On the whole. I still live at the end of my tether a lot. ‘Fffff…,’ I said this morning. ‘Fucksake!’ Osian finished off for me. Oops.

I still find myself being… well, not myself. I am definitely struggling with what’s written about quietly as ‘maternal ambivalence’. For starters it’s worth noting the real meaning of ambivalence, which I didn’t know. I thought of it as a kind of meh, uncertain, neither-here-nor-there feeling, which is definitely not how I feel about my son. Rarely do I get the luxury of that sort of mild, middle-ground these days. Nope: ambivalence (and apologies if you know this but it was a real surprise to me) comes from ambi, ‘both’, and valent, ‘strong’. To feel strongly about two things. To hold two opposing feelings at once, and in the case of maternal ambivalence it refers to the capacity to feel – or the incapacity not to feel – overpowering love and hate towards your child at the same time. Or on the same day at least; an exhausting battle with my own mind at the same time as the myriad exhausting battles about which shoes he’s willing to wear, etc etc etc.

More than that, ambivalence is just out of fashion at the moment, which isn’t helping. It doesn’t suit social media or soundbites or tit-for-tat politics. There is an excellent old episode of Radio 4’s Fourthought in which writer Mark O’Connell comes down pretty unambiguously in favour of ambiguity.

The state of ambivalence, of being in open conflict with yourself, he says, is creatively fertile but also frustrating in that it is ‘difficult to act on mixed emotions’. I have been finding it very difficult to know how to act, and even more difficult to know if my actions make any difference at all. I’ve considered starting to carry a dice to make decisions for me. Is it too late for fruit? Can I get away without suncream? Is he legitimately energetic or dangerously overtired?

Managing bedtimes to be fresh for nursery, that’s the worst. And the bloody sun is out until midnight, and the beach is full of people. Osian and one half of my mind are in agreement. The other half of my mind is a drag.

Outdoor Bedtime Routine

Last week we found ourselves still in Aberystwyth’s new sandpit after 8pm – watching ‘bedtime’ slither away again. But on this refreshing session we were in the sand with a local Chinese family and an Iranian family, who pointed out how rare it was to see a British toddler out so late. My fug of failure was immediately replaced by a kind of exotic, internationalist ticket-to-ride right out of my own culture’s rules. I enjoyed making castles like never before, Osian didn’t bash anyone, and we all left at 9pm on the dot (so they weren’t schedule-less at all, just not getting high blood pressure in a bright bedroom from 7pm).

Most of all, over the last six months, I’ve been getting scared of the impending summer holidays as his nursery breaks up for six weeks. As always, the fear of the precipice is so much worse than the freefall, and from one minute to the next I have stopped juggling. The mental load has fallen away. It helps that he is less rough with me this week, and I daren’t suggest that my new calm has brought that about – the flipside to that is to blame my stress for his bad moods, which is too big a burden.

Chico Laughing

We did what we do when we are suddenly free, and camped. We joined my partner Rhys who is walking our donkey across Wales, and slowed him right down, but we all needed that. I had feared being away from all the things that make parenting bearable – childcare, running water, screentime, cafes, boring but swiftly assembled meals. But suddenly all of the things I hate about ordinary life fell away too. Food tastes better outside and weird food combinations are allowed. Dirt is cleaner. Osian wanders further away and entertains himself for longer, and games are more easily made out of the new chores of the day – feeding the donkey, mixing up powdered milk, banging in tent pegs (‘pecking,’ he says). The basic unacknowledged drudgery of house life counts as achievements, outside. We fed some pigs, we found a slow worm, we all fell asleep when the moon came up.

My inner critic and striver are calmed, my mind is whole for the first time in ages, and I’m excited to see how we both fare, untethered from clocks for a while.

We stayed at www.pure-adrenalin.co.uk::Pure Adrenaline, who also do camping, and at Cwmcoedog Cottages, both of whom were very sweet to let an itinerant donkey and his entourage stay with no notice.

Hannah Engelkamp writes on slow travel and maternal ambivanlence in the current edition of New Welsh Reader, #117. Her debut, nonfiction title is Seaside Donkey.

Chico and Rhys go walking


previous opinion: Pushing The Boat Out: Letting Go of Writing What You Know
next opinion: Ten Million Chapters Are All the Same


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410 admin@newwelshreview.com
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.