Time travel hasn’t been invented yet. Just think of all the interesting opportunities that will open up once it has. We’ll be able to travel back into eras past and find out what they were really like. We’ll be able to see dinosaurs. We could head into the future and ride around on a hoverboard like Michael J. Fox. We could even travel and see ourselves in the future, or back in our own past. What would you say to yourself if you could do that? Don’t make this or that horrible decision? But perhaps using time travel to effect changes in our own lives would be too risky; after all, we have no way of knowing which tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions have led us to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe all we could safely do is give our former selves a little heads-up, to make them more aware of the things that are ahead.
As an example, I know what I would like to do. I would like to travel back to just before I became a mother for the first time. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I could have been more prepared for the atom bomb of change that detonated the day I entered parenthood. I would set the clock to August 2008, and the map to the Northern Tanzanian coast, a campsite aptly named Peponi (Heaven in Swahili). After running through the swirling black and white time spiral like someone in a 1960s TV show, I would fall face first in powdery white sand. Blinking and looking around I would spot myself, a little way up the beach, reading serenely in a roughly hewn wooden lounger, glancing up at sun dancing on water, hand rested absently on my rounded baby belly.
“You realise this is going to be the last time you read quietly on the beach for at least four years,” would be my opening shot to myself, and once we get past all the bewilderment etc, I will tell a younger, browner, far less tired me just a couple of the things she needs to know.
“It isn’t going to be easy,” I’ll say. “But labour and childbirth aren’t the kind of thing you can tell someone about. They must be experienced to be in any way understood. A lot of motherhood is like that; and you’ll sometimes wonder why no-one warned you about how hard it can be. But after a while you’ll find yourself doing the same thing to women about to enter the fray; you’ll realise there’s no point in telling them anything beyond generalisations and platitudes. She will experience it in her own way, as will you, and no amount of warnings would ever put someone off trying it out for themselves if that’s what they’ve decided they want to do.
“For years, you will work harder and be busier than you have ever been. At times there will be no rest. You will find it impossible to remember what you did with your time before you had kids, and you will not be able to imagine what your childless friends spend their hours on. You will need your husband to be your teammate, and he will be, and you will notice that the work doubles when he is not around, but you will still have to remind yourself to be grateful for him and remember that not everyone is as lucky.
“Though the whole idea of a ‘mothers group’ makes you cringe now (conjuring images of doilies and inane chit-chat), you will quickly become someone that belongs to them and even helps establish them. You will realise they have a value beyond words. You will be touched by the deep, gently unity between these women. Your fellow mums will move you with their honesty, and with their strength. It will surprise you how much it soothes you even in your darkest moments to know that you are not the only one who feels this way, who makes these mistakes.
“You will spend part of every day bored, part of it frustrated, part of it drained. You will battle, threaten and bribe; you will be filthy, smeared and puked on; you will sweat, heave and drag; you will be frazzled, grumpy and forgetful. But you will also laugh, you will also be amazed. You will sing, dance and tell stories; you will walk, talk and wonder; you will see the world the way your children do, and it will never be the same again.
“Then the day will come when you leave your children and go back to work. Using your brain this way again will be a challenge, but one that you will relish. In many ways, being back at work is the most rest you’ve had in years. And yet you will miss your children keenly. You will find yourself running through the streets on your way to pick them up at the end of each day, kissing their little faces greedily when you get to them like someone given a drink at the end of a trek across desert. They have been your constant companions for these last few years and you hardly know how to get through a day without them in it. They, on the other hand, will move effortlessly into the groove of spending seven hours a day doing their own thing, just as if they were born to do it. Because, of course, they were.
“So anyway, why am I here? What did I come to say? I’m not sure really, except that I wouldn’t tell you to turn back now even if you could. I suppose I just came to say: savour it, enjoy it, even on the days when you can’t. Because it all goes by so quick. Life begins to move at some kind of warp-speed, rushing past your ears in streaks of light. One day you’re wishing they would get a little older so they can hold their head up/sleep longer/walk/talk, and the next you turn around and they’re in their school uniforms, shrugging off your kisses, so busy playing with their friends that they forget to say goodbye. This is when you realise that this has always been a one-way street. Every day they are inexorably, irresistibly, moving away from you. And while that is what you want more than anything and it will make you happy and proud, it will also hurt a little. By the time your eldest is four you will already be crying at the end of Toy Story 3 when Andy’s mum looks around his empty bedroom on the day he moves to college. ‘I just wish I could always be with you,’ she says, and it slays you, every damn time, because you already know exactly what she means.”
And this is when I will walk away, off into the distance, all mysterious. Maybe I’ll take a little swim in the gloriously warm Indian Ocean before I leave, just for old times’ sake. And perhaps the old me will come after the new me, full of questions. But I’ll leave them unanswered. Hey, I wouldn’t want to spoil a single one of all the wonderful surprises she has to look forward to.