Sunday Brunch with Colette Coughlin, Mama of Four

I first met Colette Coughlin at Studio Béluga in spring of 2009. She was working on her Intimography project, which redirects the lens of pornography into more intimate, personal spaces. I loved Colette's warm groundedness from the start; though we don't often find time to get together, she is a beacon of sanity to me as my world changes from that of a distracted artist-cum-curator to full-time wife and Mama.

This summer, over a meal of delicious Zu-made buckwheat crepes, she described some of the recent events in her son's life. "It's a really great relationship he's building," she said, "Although he has so many questions -- you know, he called me to talk about it from his girlfriend's house."

I had to stop for a minute to pick my jaw up off the floor.

I thought, Not only does he talk to her about his relationship, this otherwise completely 'normal' teenage boy is calling his MOM for advice? I asked her how she managed to hold onto such a deeply connected and respectful relationship with her son. To Colette it was nothing out of the ordinary. "Oh," she said, "I moved out when he was ten. Maybe that's it."

I knew I had to interview her. I had to know her real secret. Because although I don't want a trouble-free teenager -- long live adolescent rebellion! -- if my relationship with the older Sweet Baby James is a fifth as open and communicative as hers, I'll know I've done well by him.

In Part I of this heartfelt Sunday Brunch interview/writing, Colette describes the choices she made early on, and how they allowed her to develop the positive relationships she maintains with her kids today. Enjoy!

-- Svea Boyda-Vikander

* * *

I was 22 when I first started having kids and 28 when I finished. I started young because it just felt right. When I met their father, he was older and ready to start a family, and although I’m not sure I was ready, with him I was more than willing. We were blessed with uncomplicated fertility, and had four children in six years. Now they are now 22, 21, 18 and 17, a girl and three boys.

At 45 years old, I am just starting a full-time career in publishing. I maintained a part-time presence in the work world and participated in many volunteer projects when the children were little, but they were always our first priority. Later I had to learn to make myself a priority too, as I tended to give until it felt like there was nothing left.

Their father was very present and involved right from the time each baby was born, and even got up at night when he was working full-time. We both considered that the work I did at home was (more than) full-time too, so he shared the load and once took a 6-month leave of absence to stay home with the three oldest so I could accept a creative work contract while pregnant for our last son.

The children were teens and pre-teens when their father and I separated. I moved out temporarily, and he ended up maintaining the household, as he wished to create a blended family with his new partner and was financially better off to do so than I was. And as much as I loved my children, I needed space to discover myself, so we set off on an adventure of redefining our relationships while they were still fairly young. There have been bumps along the way but we have all grown immensely by working through them, and I am very proud to say we are as close as ever even if we no longer share a homestead.

My best memories from raising children are their questions and discoveries, the relationships between each of them and with each of us parents, the pancake brunches on weekends and the warm sense of being a team sharing the adventure of every new day.

If I could summarize my parenting philosophy into one word, or phrase, it would be LOVE, or unconditional love. Perhaps an ideal that many parents wish to attain, but to be honest, we learn it from our babies. Sometimes I wish I had known myself better before I had my first child, and yet at the same time I can see that because I was young and not really established in a career path, I was malleable, I hadn’t known much of life as an adult yet, so in some ways, I didn’t know what I was missing or giving up to be a parent, so I just did what had to be done.

My relationships with my kids now are an oscillating mixture of being very close and needing to allow each other space to grow, to experiment and to each discover life on our own. But knowing that we have each other to come back to for comfort and support is a joy I cannot describe. As they become adults, I sometimes feel even more helpless than when they were babies when trying to guide them along their paths, and yet in other ways I have clearly seen that my own life serves an example of what to do and what not to do. Watching them experiment, bloom, fall down, pick themselves back up and carry on is a spectacle I never get tired of!

I feel very fortunate that their father and I have been able to maintain a close relationship. We’ve been through growing pains too, but we’ve managed to continue nurturing what was always a very loving connection. The form of this relationship has had to change immensely since we separated, but over time we’ve been able to restore decent communication in spite of this enormous reorganisation our family underwent, and the benefits for our children has been obvious.

We have experimented repeatedly with each other and with every one of our children periods of letting go, backing off, respectfully observing and then moving back in to support each other, sound a wake-up call or consult on how to deal with different situations, socially, emotionally and practically. We do not call each other our “Ex-es” because we recognize that we can never completely cross each other out of our lives, nor do we want to. I am who I am, and he is who he is, and the fact that we share these four beautiful children has created a bond that we never want to lose sight of or stop feeding, no matter how busy our lives get or how uncomfortable dealing with each others’ new direction and new partners can be.

About New Motherhood in particular:

All four of my babies were born at home, in the bed they were conceived in. Before, during and after these incredibly special events we were accompanied by midwives, whose care was not only technically professional and efficient, but also extremely warm, caring, supportive and empowering for me as a woman. Although this choice involved a lot of research, soul-searching, financial commitment and a certain amount of social manoeuvring within our families, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing!

Staying sane as a new mother is not an easy task. The arrival of the first baby into a couple’s lives, and even more so a single mother’s life, has to be one of the most upside-down, inside-out-turning situations a human being can encounter. My advice to new mothers would be confusing; like listen to your elders’ advice (sleep when the baby sleeps, get outside every day, drink lots of water, etc....) and yet in the same breath, I would say don’t listen to your elders’ advice, listen to your own little voice, do what feels right for you and your baby. Experiment. Be curious and willing to start over again every day. What worked to calm a colicky bout one day may need to be completely reinvented the next. Read. Cry when you need to. And talk to and hang out with other mothers.

We’re not born parents... it’s a “make it up as you go along” pursuit that is nonetheless as worthy as any post-graduate endeavour. It’s life at its best and at its worst, but if you let yourself dive in and be fully touched by it, day after day, you will feel the wings growing gently underneath your shoulder-blades, and you will have your children to thank for teaching you how to fly.

-- Colette Coughlin

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