Children: Emery, 4 and Xanthe, 2
Expectations of Motherhood:I have always known I wanted children, and used to be able to reel off and – I thought – empathise with, all the clichés of motherhood. But whilst I had a rough idea of the physical and practical demands, I had no appreciation of the emotional challenges which come as part of the package
Reality of Motherhood:Hmmm… impossible to define. For me, the reality of the first year of motherhood was very different to the phase I find myself in now. My first year being a mum was an intense bubble of amazingly happy experiences and huge adjustments. I’m really glad I indulged in all my favourite parts of ‘baby-dom’ because once your baby becomes a toddler you step out of the baby haze and the real world looms large once again.
Second time around we were looking forward to a smooth ride thinking that we’d already learnt most of the hard lessons. However, we found out when our daughter Xanthe was just two weeks old that she is profoundly deaf. We knew nothing about deafness, and had only fears in our mind about the future that awaited Xanthe and us all. I was busy trying to look after a newborn and help our son adjust to life as a big brother, whilst trying to come to terms with my sadness about the diagnosis. It’s fair to say that all of my initial fears (‘would Xanthe ever be able to speak?’ ‘how would she know that I love her if she never hears me say it?’) have since faded away as Xanthe’s personality has emerged and we’ve found our own way of communicating.
Xanthe had cochlear implants fitted just before she was 2, which allow her to hear almost all sounds. With lots of speech therapy and support from a fantastic team of professionals, she is learning how to listen and speak. We are aware from subsequent diagnoses that she is likely to face further challenges later in life, for now I find it easier to focus on the current challenges than dwell on ‘unknowns’. You don’t have to spend long in paediatric waiting rooms to realise there are lots of families out there whose daily lives are so much harder than most of us parents could even imagine. I feel like our eyes have been opened to another world which we were oblivious to first time around because we were so consumed with the usual new parent activities.
Taking your children home for the first time:With our first child it dawned on me before even leaving the hospital that there were just too many decisions involved in caring for a child, and I may as well give up on the hope of getting everything ‘right’. I’d just have to have faith that I was trying my best and hope that would be enough to keep him happy and healthy. The tiredness over the next few weeks made everything more intense, for good and for bad. It was a precious yet overwhelming time.
I was shocked when I was 7 months pregnant at the train station waiting for my train and I (discreetly) applied some lipstick. A male fellow commuter (who I recognised but didn’t know), said to me “You don’t need to bother with that now, you’ve already had your man!”. As ever in these situations, I’ve since come up with about 15 worthy responses which frustratingly I was too shocked at the time to use.
The hardest parts of being a mother:There have been days dealing with the almost constant stream of requests from my kids when I have felt like I have almost ceased to exist as a person in my own right: grateful if even my most basic of needs has been met, like going to the toilet or fitting in time for a drink of water. In the evenings when they are asleep, I pad around the house with no music, TV…. just enjoying the silence!
I remember feeling glued to the sofa in the early days of breastfeeding, and unable to put my baby down at all throughout the day. I had a favourite aunt coming to visit one day and I was keen for the house (and us) to look our best. Emery would not settle with anyone else, so I had to let others tidy up around me. I felt at one point like I might actually spontaneously combust with frustration as I sat there and watched others take an hour to do what would have taken me 10 minutes.
I think different mums (and children) have stages/ages that suit them more than others. I loved pretty much every aspect of the first year, and didn’t really mind the physical demands. I have found the toddler years much harder, with the constant emotional drain – the tantrums, tears, the continual need to have an ‘approach’ to behaviour, mealtime etc. Yet, I am fully aware that I will most likely look back in 20 years time and realise that these have been the happiest times of my life, because I have been most needed and in a position to give so much to my children.
During the ‘terrible 2’s’ I remember there being times when I could almost feel my patience growing. If you’ve got to stand while your toddler counts every brick on a wall, you may as well take the opportunity to relax and enjoy it, rather than wrestle inside with the memory of how you used to be able to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ or whizz through your ‘to do’ lists at your own pace.
Having a child who has additional needs can place an unforeseen burden on you as parents in many ways. You have to act as the conduit of information for your whole friends/family network. Everyone looks to you to let them know what the latest information is, what they can do to help, how they should communicate with your child etc. It’s fantastic they want to be involved, but it means you need to always be one step ahead. Xanthe had her first hearing aids at 6 weeks old, so I had to quickly get used to responding to strangers stares and questions. You also have to be organised and well-informed to question or challenge professionals while acting as advocate for your child at the many appointments. The NHS support has been fantastic, but I still have box files full of paperwork relating to the different teams we access, and we spend a lot of our spare time researching medical information and accessing support networks.
Finally, I do find it hard not having family close by. It is a choice we have made to live here, but I try not to think about how much easier it would be if we had family who could easily help out at short notice or where we could just call by for a cup of tea.
I’d like to also give a rare mention for one of the positive side effects of being so tired – you simply don’t have the time or energy to deal with stuff that you probably should’ve shaken off years ago, so I think I’m (becoming) more ruthless now and better able to prioritise who and what I spend my time on.
Hopes for your (growing) family: Well, since the birth of our daughter, Xanthe, I have revised my hopes for our family. Prior to finding out she is deaf I felt in control of most aspects of our growing family; we’d had the two children we’d hoped for without having to wait too long and were happy with our working and home lives. The diagnosis made me realise that what I’d thought of as all being part of a clever plan, had actually just been luck. It has been important for me to find my peace with the diagnosis so that I can accept it and get on with enjoying life as a family. I know that as full and happy life is as possible for Xanthe as any other child. It’s just that she has had a different starting place and will face different challenges along the way.
So, my hopes for my beautiful children are for them to feel happy in themselves and confident in accessing all that life has to offer. I would hope that they will grow up to be well-rounded citizens, who never stop listening and learning, and are appreciative of all that we have.
What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums:
In no particular order….
Get a decent camera – if you have any plans to upgrade your camera then don’t wait, you may as well do it at the start to capture all the precious ‘firsts’ from the beginning.
It is as well to anticipate a period of adjustment for you and your partner as you get used to life as parents – it is a big change, and there is likely to be some colourful language on the way.
Plan your ‘mum’ wardrobe while you have time before the baby arrives. Your figure will go through several stages before reaching it’s new norm and you’ll probably feel unsure of what flatters it. Bright scarves will help perk you up when you’re feeling tired and, along with some flattering shirts or cardigans to cover you, will make you feel more confident in your early attempts to breast-feed in public.
I have had to learn to be more aware of and assertive about my needs. Unless you are specific about what you need, your partner/friends/family can’t help you. Your children need you to be at your strongest, so if that means you asking for a Saturday once a month when you can go off and think about just yourself for a day, then do it. Similarly, it isn’t a crime to sort yourself out before you tend to your crying baby. You’ll probably feel a lot less stressed if you get your coat off and flick the kettle on or grab a quick bite to eat before you get your baby out of the pram for a feed after a walk.
Finally, don’t be tempted to stop at Tesco’s on your way to the hospital when in labour to pick up final snacks – the labour might just be quicker than you expect!