The Elephant Sisterhood

A strange erosion seems to be happening in the togetherness of humankind. I cannot tell you how many women I know who, over the last few years, have seen their relationships with their children’s fathers disintegrate between their hands, like some decrepit sacred document worried to shreds by damp and worms.

The circumstances are almost identical; she, horrified at the idea of mothering alone, relinquishes almost all sense of self, does baby night shifts with the devotion of Florence Nightingale, changes nappies, mops floors, makes meals, cleans dishes, shops for food (oh, that endless circular mill of work!), and barely has the time or energy to comb her hair. He, confronted with this ratty-haired woman, whose clothes smell faintly of breastmilk and whose youth seems to have been extracted from her by the chubby creatures her body has painstakingly produced, this woman who was previously so attractive (for which read, used to have so much time for him), suddenly loses faith in the relationship. In her.

But despite being spurned, these women sacrifice what it is that makes them them in an attempt to win back that love. Smiled are rigid, unbalanced by grieving eyes. They believe in healing the rift by offering unconditional love, or by complying with his demands, and abandoning all hope of whatever might fulfil her . And as the spark of who she is sputters beneath this wet canopy of longing, he turns ever further away.

Sometimes the rejection takes an absurdly cruel twist. One friend of mine, unable to support herself with her two small children, is obliged to continue living with her ex (and doing all the wifely things he expects of her), because he does not believe that men should have to finanically support the mothers of their children. (He’s a lawyer.)

Another friend, who had arranged to get married to the man whose child she was carrying, even gave him money to buy a suit for the wedding; he didn’t show up. Yet another has to endure her son’s father sending him incessant abusive text messages about her. And now that I am thinking about it, another friend told me that the father of her son (the son has Asperger’s) is so hopeless she has to send him money.

One close friend has recently separated from a husband (and father of her two kids) who had constantly criticised, nitpicked, and told her how unattractive he found her – whilst pointing out to her women that he did find attractive. Apparently he was not the marriage type; it made me wonder if this was some prehistoric nomad gene in him spurring his heels out of domestic life, or if, perhaps, it was just a very stupid, immature, self-centred gene leaping out of his DNA.

My mind is drawn back to the moments after my own bombshell. We were on holiday in Portugal, a whole month, and in the last week my (then) husband announced that we had to end our relationship. Done. Over. Sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? But there were still the trips to the beach with the kids – might as well make the most of the holiday time, eh – and the lunches with friends, so glib in their acceptance, and the afternoons spent lounging in the rental house, with the owner’s books to pore through to keep my head from spinning.

One of those books was about elephants. I did not know, before that holiday, that a herd of elephants is entirely composed of females, the head of the herd being the oldest (the matriarch). Males are born, and at about ten or eleven years of age they leave (or are thrown out?) of the herd to live as loners, only approaching another herd to mate before disappearing.

The young are raised happily by mothers, aunts, sisters and grannies, who never worry about when the child benefit will come in or if Daddy will turn up this weekend. Things are so different for us in the human world. I bet there are a few female invertebrates looking at us right now, saying, “Poor things. After mating we just eat our mate’s head.”

The trouble is – apart from the slavery of needing money and things to spend it on – that woman in industrialised societies cannot exist like a herd of elephants, without the necessity of a male figure to help with disciplining, making the odd dinner, helping out with the rent. We feel embarrassed asking a husband to pay for things, as though we’re spongeing. Time spent child-rearing clearly isn’t measured the same way as paid work when you are the child’s mother.

It seems impossible to imagine kids growing up in a community of women, without the nuclear family units that break humanity up into house-shaped blocks. And yet this is exactly how women have always lived all over the world, and even in Europe if we look far back enough. Even where segregation is not imposed, men and women will naturally drift into groups of their own gender; think of how stilted it feels to attend a formal dinner party with name tags on plates alternating chap and chick. Conversely, men who support sisterhoods are rewarded with cheerful, belly-laughing, radiant women who give back to their relationships the joy they nurture there.

Fortunately for everyone, sisterhoods are alive and growing. You find them in mother-and-child groups, in choirs, in yoga and bellydance and zumba classes and languages lessons and art workshops and crafting groups and writing groups and basketmaking courses and even doing karate. Then there are the events that do not find a slot in the local listings paper, the picnics and group missions up the mountains to get fresh goat’s milk, or pot lucks thrown together on the barest pretext. (“Kazoo workshop?” “Wicked!”)

I am feeling tremendously thankful right now to be living in a place where such a sisterhood does exist. We are united by our extraneousness, people of a mind-boggling number of nationalities united by this peculiar and beautiful place we live, by compost loos and organic veggie plots, by the desire to live without money (Orgiva has its own alternative currency, the Olivo), by a rejection of the crushing grip of consumerism. But we are not so different from women elsewhere. Whenever the urgency of needing to have a cup of tea and a natter whilst kids play together arises, gangs of women gravitate towards one another with a common interest: to know themselves through loving others. How do you love others? By knowing their stories and being a part of them.

We laugh. We shake our stretch-marked hips. We lay down our pretenses at the door, along with the all-weather wellies. And a wave is created between us, a spiral of storytelling and listening that encircles us subtly, bringing us close. We might be scattered between houses and towns and countries, but the herd exists, and it’s calling us home.

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Madre de Cueva, part 1

We looked at the lobsters, bobbing silently in their strip-lit tank, awaiting a quick boiling while their future eaters sat comfortably at neatly-linened tables, red carnations standing in elegant little vases. There are two kinds, I point out to him, noticing it for the first time myself; one has claws, the other is just like a big shrimp. Langostas y langostinos.

He was a little too grubby for such a chi-chi restaurant, I realised, my little 2-year-old boy with the grey gritty sand of Salobreña’s beach in his hair, dusted over his clothes, caked onto his sandals. Tom was holding Rosa Nour for a minute, watching the football – Brasil v. Argentina – ignoring the crashing waves on the rocks outside the window behind him. He exchanged knowing remarks with the manager, sitting at the till beside him, about this and that player’s season, who might win the World Cup.

The sun was beginning to set over the water. Waiters flitted about offering things to drink, the evening’s special, ever more complicated and expensive. The English couple at the next table cooed admiringly at our baby – 2 months old today, I say proudly – while Tom races about after Shamsie.

It is about now that I realise how peculiar and wonderful it is to be out at a fancy restaurant (something we do extremely rarely) with a rambunctious toddler and a tiny baby. Nobody bats an eyelid, even when Rosa starts crying and I end up squashed into a corner not designed for breastfeeding in, getting her to sleep before snuggling her up in the sling.

I wonder what the scene would look like if this were happening in England. Frosty waiters kindly requesting that we strap the child into a high chair while he eats the kiddie menu of chicken wings, peas and chips. Diners bristling at the sound of the baby’s tired mew. Quiet comments being made about my responsibility as a mother to have her kids in bed before 9 pm.

Imagined. Not real. I wouldn’t even try this scene if I were back home, if England is indeed home any more. People would be nice, cordial, polite. Maybe even relish the sight of parents so haphazard in their lifestyle.

But part of me is certain that I would be creeping about, apologising at every squeak, ordering little hands out of shelves and cupboards right now, lonely in my task – whether or not the world offered me such a cool reception.

So the flip side of that invasive Spanish bolshiness is the way in which they ruffle a cute kid’s hair, or warn him about running into the road, or berate him for knocking over a chair before giving him a lollipop and telling his mother how their own sons had had so much energy when they were that age. The weight is distributed over other people’s shoulders, most of whom you have never met.

They are a fabric of hands holding wrists, interlocking, making a mesh to catch the wild and the wayward, keep in touch with the touch organ of their neighbours, sometimes without ever saying a word to them directly. Not because it is a principle of theirs, a high-minded theory they found in a book, a movement growing online.

It is just the way we are held together, holding each other up.