OPINION

Motherhood and chocolate cake are quite alike

Motherhood is a bit like eating super-fine, super-rich chocolate cake.

Both are fantastic in moderation. But an excess of either leaves you searching for a quiet place to lie down, close your eyes and experience, momentarily, a desperate need to turn back time.

Chocolate cake, which is a lot like motherhood, according to Joanne McCarthy. Picture: Alamy

Chocolate cake, which is a lot like motherhood, according to Joanne McCarthy. Picture: Alamy

Not that advertisements for Mother's Day give a hint of the dark side - when you long for just a few hours of rest from the plaintive cries of "Muuuuuuum!!!!", or struggle to produce a nourishing dinner for five when you'd just as soon settle for cold dry toast and a glass of tap water if it came with 20 minutes of silence.

The world would be a better place if every politician and every powerful person was forced to care for a toddler - for example, an enthusiastic two-year-old - without any support for, say, a week. Just to feel the weight of responsibility that comes with being denied a choice on the matter, and under circumstances far removed from the subsidised lives of decision-makers - as is the case for millions of women around the world today.

I'm writing this from my office that overlooks the back garden with its pockets of trees, surrounded by neighbouring gardens that are also pretty leafy. We get a lot of birds.

A few months ago I arrived home to the desperate calls of a bird somewhere up high in the foliage. It sounded like it was in pain. My next door neighbour was out the back and anxious, trying to work out what was happening.

Not that advertisements for Mother's Day give a hint of the dark side - when you long for just a few hours of rest from the plaintive cries of "Muuuuuuum!!!", or struggle to produce a nourishing dinner for five when you'd just as soon settle for cold dry toast and a glass of tap water if it came with 20 minutes of silence.

The bird flapped from one branch to another, agitated and large, although it was a bit hard to make out. My elderly neighbour, who was born in eastern Europe and spent her early years in an orphanage, was nearly in tears at its distress.

Then a scrawny magpie appeared.

If you do a bit of research on mothering and the animal kingdom you'll find a few species that excel at being lousy parents. Hamsters and other rodents have a habit of eating their babies. Pandas have been known to kill one of their twins to ensure the other's survival, or to accidentally roll on their babies. Rabbits give birth and skip town.

But cuckoos take the cake by laying eggs in other birds' nests and flying off. Which is why an hysterical baby Channel-billed cuckoo was in a tree in my backyard and a scrawny magpie was desperately trying to feed it.

Every morning for a few days the cuckoo would appear, squawking and flapping from branch to branch across trees in three backyards as it waited for food. Then the squawks would hit a peak as the magpie appeared looking frazzled. The cuckoo kept squawking until a pause as it gulped down whatever grub or worm the magpie dropped in its gullet. Then it resumed squawking as the magpie flew off in the search for food again.

I felt for the magpie.

I felt for it even more a few days after they first appeared, when a second cuckoo took up residence and the one magpie serviced them both. Every morning and every afternoon for about a week the three of them did the food dance - the two giant babies and the parent bird who looked like he or she didn't know what had hit it.

My elderly neighbour was fascinated.

Her childhood in an orphanage was dark. She speaks a little about it every so often but shakes her head at the memories. Her face lights up when she sees my baby granddaughter or the baby twins from across the road. She calls them "the little angels".

Her Mother's Day is not the Mother's Day of the margarine commercials. Her family history is fractured and shattered by world events.

For quite a few years I had no interest in having children. Being the eldest of 11 children can do that to you. When the motherhood switch flicked to green it was almost an overnight thing. I went to bed not wanting children and woke up the next day ready to make babies.

My then husband was bewildered but not unhappy about the sudden change.

We were lucky. Three sons were born in quick succession and with little incident.

As I watched the frazzled magpie one morning I remembered times when I felt like it looked. I distinctly remember standing in the shower one day, leg propped against the glass pivot door to keep it closed, as three pre-schoolers sat outside, wanting to get in, wanting food, wanting to be picked up.

I can't remember now exactly what they wanted, but in the end it involved me and I just wanted a few minutes of hot water, soap and peace from being "Mum".

This day that comes once a year, where we honour mothers, is touched with sadness for many.

There are the one in six couples struggling with infertility, who have to smile as others celebrate birth, motherhood and new life. Some people have fraught relations with their mothers. Others are coping with recent, and not so recent, loss.

In the cemetery where my father and many relatives are buried are two plaques on tiny headstones that appeared not so long ago. They acknowledge the births and deaths of two babies in the same family. One, a girl, died a day after her birth in 1944. The second, a boy, died a day after his birth in 1955.

The headstones carry their names and the simple words, "Loved and missed".

I wander in the cemetery every so often with its beautiful lake views. Those little headstones placed many years after the deaths of two babies tell the story of motherhood - of parenthood - in a more profound way than the romanticised, and unrealistic, depictions in the Mother's Day ads.