Child: Leo, 6
Expectations of motherhood:
Low. I was a student and single and skint and it was a complete shock. I wasn’t keen on babies and didn’t know much about them, apart from the usual screaming, smelly stereotypes. I’d known the father for a while, but we weren’t together and he wanted nothing to do with it. I was absolutely mortified.
I was and still am pro-choice, but when I was faced with that decision myself, I found I couldn’t have an abortion. I spent eight months feeling very scared and angry. Had I known how things were going to turn out, I would have been quite excited, but at the time it all seemed pretty bleak. People kept telling me the baby would be the best thing that ever happened to me, but I thought they were just being kind. I went through a lot during my pregnancy; working long hours, having to fight to save my job, saying goodbye to the people and lifestyle I loved. Despite the weirdness of the situation, through all that, I did begin to feel like my baby and I were a team. I spoke to him when he moved and he became more real to me when I found out he was a boy at 20 weeks. But I couldn’t really see very far past the horror of giving birth, which terrified me. Beyond that, I knew I was signing up to a life very different to anything I’d ever imagined and just hoped it would all work out.
Reality of Motherhood:
Overall, a pleasant surprise…
The birth was atrocious, but that’s what I expected. There was no earth mother idyll for me; I knew it was going to hurt and I knew I wanted every drug I could get. My predictions came true: thirty-odd hours of back-to-back labour, loads of gas and air, two shots of pethidine, an epidural that I had to beg (scream) for, followed by an emergency Caesarean (it turned out after all that, he wasn’t even engaged and never would have come out the conventional way.)
I didn’t get the bolt of love people go on about but I did think my baby looked beautiful – and weirdly familiar. They put him in the crook of my arm in the recovery room and I knew I wanted to protect him no matter what. Happily, one sunny afternoon when things had calmed down a bit, I got the famous rush and it was as good as everyone says. The late nights and bodily fluids take over for a while and you get on with it because you have to.
I love Leo immensely. I am so pleased that I was miles off the mark when I thought parenthood would be crap. We have great adventures together, he’s endlessly entertaining and loving, friends love spending time with him and that makes me proud. Leo can remedy the worst days with a drawing or a cuddle or a pun. He comes out with wise stuff way beyond his years, but then he’ll still ask me to do a puppet show with his teddies at bedtime. Leo gave me the determination to get stuff done, too: I went back to university and finished my degree, then forged a career. So it is a cliché, but all those people who said he’d be the best thing that ever happened to me weren’t wrong.
I’m not going to say being a single parent is perfect or ideal: it is hard on your own, but because it’s just been us two from day one, it’s all both of us have ever known. I am also incredibly lucky to have a lot of practical and emotional support from friends and family and I am extremely grateful for that. I love being Leo’s mum and I am so happy he came along when he did.
I stayed in hospital for a week, overhearing the other women on the ward begging to go home and thinking they were mad. OK, the food was abysmal, but who wouldn’t want to be able to buzz the nurses for more morphine or help changing nappies? Then I realised it was because they had partners waiting for them and were actually excited about what lay ahead.
I’d moved in with Mum in the late stages of my pregnancy. After she’d driven us home (really slowly), I put Leo down in the car seat in the middle of the living room floor. He looked out of place. I stared at him, wondering what the hell I would do with him when he woke. Not long after that, he did and I didn’t get a second to worry about how I’d cope again.
On one of those early, blurry days, the crying was relentless. I kept forgetting to eat, my Caesarean wound was hurting, I had greasy hair and I really needed a shower. I remember sitting on the loo sobbing with Leo strapped to me in a sling because I didn’t think I could put him down while he was crying. It was exactly how I’d imagined motherhood was going to be and I didn’t like it one bit.
I rang Mum on her lunch break and wept. She said, “If he has a clean nappy and you know he’s not hungry, just try putting him down and seeing if he’ll go to sleep.” I took her advice and a few minutes later, he did. Obviously, if he cried for longer than ten minutes (which he did during the colic stage), I picked him up and comforted him, but nine times out of ten, he was crying because he was overtired and just fell asleep. I do realise this isn’t the case with all babies and apparently it’s quite controversial, but it worked for us.
The hardest parts of being a mother:
For me, breastfeeding. There was this natural thing that was going to give my baby the best start in life and I couldn’t bloody do it. What a start. I didn’t get the skin-to-skin contact I’d requested after the Caesarean and when I put him on my breast in the recovery room, he just ignored it. A few hours later, the ward staff told me he was hungry, he’d have to eat and I should try him with a bottle. I asked them if it would jeopardise my plans to breastfeed and they said it wouldn’t. I was shattered and worried so I agreed and that was a big mistake. Bottles give babies milk instantly, but they have to work for a bit to get it from the breast. After that first bottle, he would pull away from the breast screaming because no milk came out straight away. He just wouldn’t do it. Breasts only produce milk when they’re stimulated, so I was running low on supplies and in a bit of a Catch 22. Instead of resting when Leo slept, I tortured myself with the breast pump. They’re vicious machines; growling and dragging your nipple unfeasibly far down a clear plastic tube. I’d be plugged into the mains for an hour, exhausted, all for a pathetic trickle. I never quite mastered it and ended up doing half-and-half. I got daggers at the mother and baby groups when I took out a bottle and felt guilty, but I’d been through a heck of a lot and I know I did my best, so I wish I’d have gone easier on myself.
God, the loneliness gets you in the evenings when you’re on your own. You want someone to summarise the day with, talk about your child’s achievements, put the bins out, muck in with the washing up, maybe pour you a glass of wine and give you a massage (or whatever it is partners do.) I’ve learnt that the best thing to do is to go to bed and wake up in the morning to the best company, even if he does think my bed is a bouncy castle.
Nits are a horrible business. Big decisions are tricky, as is the anxiety.
Being the sole wage earner is a lot of pressure. Nursery lulls you into a false sense of security with its long opening hours. When they start school, you’ve got 13 weeks a year of holidays, 3pm finishes, assemblies, plays, inset days, sports days and massive guilt to contend with. But you know, it might be trite but all of it is worth it.
The best parts of being a mother:
There’s a lot of ephemeral pain, theories, processes and paraphernalia involved in having a baby. It can be chaotic and slightly traumatic, even if it all goes well. When all that’s over and you’ve chucked out the last nappy sack and the safety gates and the buggy, it’s just you, a really interesting person and their toys. That’s when things start to get exciting. I didn’t dislike having a baby, but I loved the magic of Leo learning to talk, draw and trying to understand the world. Other notable good parts include: smiles (especially the first one when all you’ve been getting before that are dirty looks), contagious chuckles, massive fat thighs (theirs not yours), general pride, getting back into stuff you’d forgotten like metamorphosis, swings, space, dinosaurs, trick-or-treating, wobbly teeth and Father Christmas. Also bedtime stories, colouring in, nonsensical chats and crap jokes, copious hugs, bonkers drawings, endearingly misspelt cards and cute mispronunciations. (“Please may I have something from the offending machine?”) Finally, feeling a part of a bold team and having loads of regular laughs. A rubbish day is quickly picked up when I go to collect Leo from after school club. I can be walking along a grotty street getting battered by the wind and rain, but if I’m holding his hand and listening to him telling me about his day, it’s a joyous stroll.
Hopes for your family:
Everyone says it but all you want is for them to be happy. I hope Leo will always be as confident as he is right now and that the teenage years will pass without too much drama. Before he grows up and buggers off, I hope I can afford to buy us a house. If it had a garden, a trampoline and maybe even a treehouse, that would be perfect. I’d also like to go on a magnificent adventure with Leo somewhere far, far away but I think that might be pushing it a bit.
What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums:
Pessimism pays! If your pregnancy is unplanned and you think that having a baby is going to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.
Don’t bother with a birth plan – you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. It is going to hurt and if it’s your first one, it’s probably going to take ages. Gas and air is good stuff.
If you really want to breastfeed, insist on skin-to-skin contact as soon as possible after the birth. Don’t be tempted to give your baby a bottle in the first few days, even if you’re off your face on morphine and you’re told it’s hungry. Your real milk doesn’t even turn up until day four or five and until then, nature makes sure colostrum does the job. If you are knackered and in pain and you’ve reached the end of your tether and you do end up giving them a bottle, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Talk to your baby from an early age – they take in more than you realise and will shock you with what they pick up.
Don’t buy CDs of kids singing nursery rhymes (unless you want to send yourself under.) Listen to whatever music you’ve always listened to and they’ll grow up loving it (or at least having an opinion on it.)
A Nitty Gritty nit comb, tea tree oil, gallons of conditioner and lashings of patience will serve you well when the head lice move in.
Make videos: that funny squeaky noise they make when they come out, the dance they do when they’re eighteen months old – they’re all just phases.
Read to your child every evening, unless you’ve had a long day out and it’s a late night, or you’re in a tent with a wind-up torch.
If you’re on your own, Gingerbread (http://www.gingerbread.org.uk) offer brilliant advice and support. Also, I’d have been lost without my Homestart volunteer (http://www.home-start.org.uk) and the wonderful SureStart Centre and services (which have very sadly been drastically cut by the Government, but do still exist in some areas)
(https://www.gov.uk/find-sure-start-childrens-centre.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Babyhood is surreal and chaotic, but it passes and calms. Your child keeps you focussed, amused and strong. Always.
Don’t forget your non-parent friends. Don’t forget yourself.
And tell your child just how much you love them, every single day.