Monika and Isabelle

Name: Monika  

Isabelle, 2 yrs (Schmoo2 is due in May 2012) 

Location: Manchester.

Expectations of Motherhood: I was really lucky as I have 2 younger sisters and also some very close friends who had babies a while before I did. As a result I think I was a lot better prepared for what was to come than many of my friends. I was expecting to feel exhausted beyond sanity and I was expecting to miss being spontaneous for example. I’m really pleased I did ‘know’ that was coming, as otherwise I think that would have been a real shock.

I always knew I wanted to be a mum but that I’d like to start around the age of 30. I never wanted to be a young mum, which some of my friends really did. I was very lucky to meet the right man when I did, which gave us the chance to be together as a couple for a few years without the added pressure of feeling the biological clock ticking. We both felt ready for parenthood at the point we decided to try for a baby.

Reality of Motherhood: I hadn’t expected pregnancy to be quite as hard as it was. With my first pregnancy I bled a lot in the first few months, and so had several trips to the hospital thinking I was having a miscarriage. The emotional exhaustion of this seriously took its toll on me. I was also sick every day for about 20 weeks, and I remember at times consoling myself when lying on the sofa with a bucket in my hands that the sicker I felt the more pregnant I must be! I remember being so dizzy that I couldn’t stand up in the shower, and wasn’t safe to drive anywhere. That experience made me wait longer than I perhaps would have to try for a second baby as the idea of dealing with all of that while looking after a child was daunting to say the least.

The rollercoaster didn’t stop there. At 16 weeks we had the blood test to check for downs, and I vividly remember the phonecall that came telling us we were ‘very’ high risk. Our ‘numbers’ came back as a 1 in 50 chance of our baby having downs, which was a real shock. I hadn’t expected there to be so few answers for us. I knew that I didn’t want an amnioscentesis, and yet that was all the midwife was able to talk to us about. There seemed to be so little information about how that statistic was arrived at and what might affect the numbers, or how they know the difference between the 5% false positive result, and what would be one of the 49 babies without downs. I felt very vulnerable at that time and unsupported by the medical staff because I just couldn’t get any answers to my questions. I spent a long time looking up local support groups, and it made me feel a lot better knowing they were there if I were to need them. I felt incredibly lucky that my husband and I felt the same about how to proceed and wanted to make the same decisions. I remember feeling very sympathetic to any couples who found themselves in that situation who disagreed with each other about what to do next.

So far my second pregnancy couldn’t be more different. I haven’t been sick, and the dizzyness hasn’t been as extreme. We’ve just had our first scan and all seems to be progressing well. We declined the test this time.

The reality of motherhood once Isabelle was born was in large part what I was expecting. Isabelle didn’t sleep through the night for about 7 months, and for a long time was feeding almost every 1.5 – 2 hours, including at night. I really was exhausted. The combined exhaustion and wonder of it all meant that there were days and days where I just looked at her, and studied her face when she was sleeping. I remember people telling me that sleep would be interrupted and to sleep when baby sleeps. People who said that made me want to scream by the end of the first few weeks. I just couldn’t put Isabelle down for about 5 weeks. I remember doing the ‘pick up put down’ thing and settling her and then popping her in her moses basket, but she would only sleep when she was being cuddled. She would cry and cry and cry otherwise. In the end my husband and I would tag team the night shift to try and make sure we both got some sleep. So I was up til about 3am and then he would get up. The time she first slept an hour in her moses basket I actually did a little dance. She didn’t have naps in her cot during the day until after she started nursery and they all did it there. Luckily she does now still have a nap, which means that finally I can sleep when baby sleeps and have an afternoon nap if I need one!

Taking your child home for the first time:
I gave birth at 5am and remember getting onto the ward at 7am, just when the curtains were being opened, breakfast started coming round and everyone was rising for the day. All I wanted to do was close my eyes, but a steady stream of people would come by, from the photographer to the ear test lady to the person asking what I wanted for lunch etc. I decided by about 8am that I didn’t want to stay in hospital and just wanted to get home as fast as I could. It took til 4pm for us to be able to leave and I was getting really impatient to get off the ward and into the privacy and quiet of my home. I remember wanting to sit in the back of the car with Isabelle on the way home to be close to her. We had said no overnight visitors for the first couple of weeks, as we just didn’t know how we would feel, but I really enjoyed having a steady stream of people popping in to see us. People were brilliant and brought us food, and did the washing up and just came and talked and offered company, which was perfect. I couldn’t really walk much for the first two weeks and so having friends come and entertain us while I sat on the sofa was perfect. I remember the first night being both wonderful and daunting, and we were in the middle of a heatwave, and I remember having no idea about how to make sure her temperature was right. Would she be in a draught if we open the window? Will she be too hot if we don’t? And the reality of what a sleepless night actually means. I was very glad I was at home, and very glad Tom was there next to me, rather than being on a ward by myself. 

The best/worst advice: Everyone offers an opinion. The most frustrating thing is those people who tell you things as fact. That something would work for every baby is nonsense, and so much of it is feeling your way and using your instinct and finding what works for you and also for your child.
I would say the main thing is to take help where it is offered. Or demand it if needed. If at the beginning people want to come and see you and meet the new baby, get them to bring lunch with them and if they offer to wash up – let them! It makes having visitors far more enjoyable. Everyone pitching in a little is so much better than you trying to juggle everything yourself. You have more important things to focus on.
My NCT group was a wonder, and we are still in touch and see each other most weeks now. It gave us all a group to share experiences, and often it was a relief to know other mothers were experiencing the same thing, or just to collapse on the sofa with a group of people just as exhausted as I was and completely understanding of what that means. The days could sometimes have felt very long without them.

The hardest parts of being a mother: I have found the hardest part came after maternity leave. I am a freelancer now but find my industry doesn’t lend itself well to being balanced with motherhood. This came as a bit of a shock to me, as I’ve always thought arts and charity work are so pro the work/life balance that it would be relatively easy to work part time. The trouble is that so many aspects of this work are festival and/or evening based, that having a child in nursery 3 days a week doesn’t give me the flexibility I need to make some of the work happen.
I used to go and see many live performances in literature and theatre, and go to talks and debates and networking evening. I miss the cultural offerings around Manchester, and I know I need to find a way to create a better balance with arts/culture and motherhood.

The best parts of being a mother: I love motherhood. I love discovering Isabelle’s personality. She is incredibly fun to be around and it is a delight to see her discovering language and to see her sense of humour develop. She is excellent company and I’m very excited to see how she responds to being a big sister when the time comes next year.
I enjoy discovering the world from a new angle myself too. In showing the world to Isabelle and watching her discoveries and her delight I find I’m inspired and filled with wonder again myself, especially by things I forget to notice now because they have become ordinary.

Hopes for your family: That we continue to enjoy each other’s company.
I also hope that I will be able to pay enough attention to Isabelle and the new baby next year. I want to feel that I’m giving enough attention, but also that I am experiencing enough of my children too.

What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums: Use your support networks, whether in person or online – find what works for you. Motherhood is wonderful but it is also extremely hard, and asking for help is a good thing to do.
Your instinct is the best tool you’ll ever develop, so make sure you listen to it.
Your child is an individual and so are you. You can have all sorts of ideas about the kind of mother you will be, but you may be surprised by how your child responds. Don’t be frightened of trying something completely different.

Monika Neall is a freelance community engagement manager in Manchester.

*She specialises in marketing, outreach and engagement strategies and projects.
*She provides corporate social responsibility consultancy for SMEs.

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