When I became pregnant I had worked in media research for six years, so I took that approach to my impending motherhood and found out absolutely everything I could about pregnancy, babies, parenting groups and childcare. I felt that if I did my research I would be prepared for anything and this was particularly important because whilst my husband and I had lived in Manchester for quite a few years, we had absolutely no family in the north west at all.
I tried to enroll in NCT classes because my sister had made some really supportive friends at hers (who she continued to see post birth), but I didn’t even get a response to my enquiries so I ended up at the free classes provided by my local hospital. These ended up being a bit disappointing; not only did we not manage to ‘click’ with any of the other couples there, but the classes seemed to be mostly about giving birth and not much else. Despite this I was sure that even though I was intending to go back to work full time after six months I would be able to find a few other mums to be friends with.
I knew motherhood wouldn’t be easy. I was having the most fantastic pregnancy where I didn’t suffer from any morning sickness, and I had never felt so healthy, but I knew there would be challenges and so I tried to be pro-active and plan for any eventuality. I have a history of depression so I spoke to my midwife about post-natal depression and how we needed to look out for it, I attended a breast feeding workshop prior to giving birth and I filled out the birth plan in my NHS pregnancy book so my midwife would know exactly what I wanted (this was a great move; my ace midwife talked me out of having pethidine because in my birth plan I had said I absolutely didn’t want it, but then I started to request it in the middle of my labour). My feeling was that it was ok not to know everything, but that you needed to do lots of homework first.
Reality of motherhood:It sounds daft now but I think the thing that shocked me most was that after I had put in all this hard work preparing myself for motherhood and being surrounded by health professionals for nine months, I was pretty much on my own once I left hospital.
I gave birth late on a Sunday evening and didn’t really feel like I knew what was expected of me at the hospital once I became a mum. Not long after I gave birth I passed out in a bathroom, and after being found on the floor I was taken to what I thought was a side room with my husband and daughter (it was in fact another birthing suite). We settled down for the night, only to be woken up in the early hours in order for Effie and I to be moved to the main ward and Adam to be chucked out. Then when I woke early the next morning an imposing ward sister immediately told me how childbirth was miracle of God because the babies didn’t drown in the birth canal. Even as a church goer I was puzzled by this overtly evangelical approach and it just added to the confusion I was feeling.
It kind of went downhill from there. Whilst all the other mums on the ward were assisted with bathing their new babies, my nurse proceeded to bath Effie for me before taking the bath away and leaving me with my naked brand new girl who promptly did a sticky black poo all over the bed sheets. I panicked at the awful mess on the nice white sheets and asked for help cleaning her up; they gave me a small kidney bowl of water and some cotton wool balls. When my mother rang the nurses station to see how I was, all I could say to her was “Get Adam. Now.”
Any confidence I had started to seep away. I was finding it hard to feed Effie for starters. The intimidating nurse told me I should breast feed naked (and she meant me being naked, not the baby) and she told me off when I didn’t heed her advice despite me being on an open ward. Weeks before at my breast feeding workshop I had been assured that no one would leave hospital without having mastered the art of breastfeeding, but after two other nurses (including the lady from the breast feeding workshop) had simultaneously struggled to get Effie to latch properly I was quietly allowed to go home.
When I left hospital I was told a midwife would come and visit me at home that day, but she didn’t arrive until 5:30pm and only came when my Mum told me to ring up and find out where on earth she had got to. At that point I realised that Adam and I were very much in charge of our own destiny and no one outside of our family was going to help us much.
As it panned out I didn’t meet any other mums because I returned to full-timework after six months, and during my maternity leave I couldn’t find a local baby and toddler group that was open to babies under six months. Once I did go back to work Effie was at nursery full-time in a place based at my husband’s workplace, so I didn’t even drop her off or pick her up, and therefore couldn’t meet any mums at nursery either. It sounds obvious now, but I just assumed I’d get some support or help with finding some other parenting groups because the whole looking-after-a-very-small-person-thing was pretty much new territory to me. The reality was that I felt very much on my own and quite isolated and even now I don’t like to ask for help too much when it comes to childcare.
Taking your child home for the first time: Driving Effie home in our tiny lime green Volkswagen seemed the most perilous and reckless act anyone could have ever committed (even if I had read all the Which? magazine safety reports for baby carriers). Thankfully, once I got home I was quickly joined by both sets of grandparents and I was able to tackle important questions with the two matriarchs such as, ‘Do you think I will ever be able to go to the toilet again?’ and ‘Do you think I should have gone upstairs instead of trying to breastfeed in the living room in front of my father-in-law?’.
My mother stayed for a week which was just completely amazing. Her only advice was that we should get into a routine as quickly as possible (just because we would be on our own most of the time) and she spent the rest of the time cooking and cleaning for us. Her continued mantra of routine, routine, routine seemed ridiculous at the time but was probably the reason we stayed sane during those first few months.
Effie lost more weight than she should have due to my dire problems breastfeeding and the midwives visits were infrequent because I looked like I was ok, so I had no one I could talk to about if face to face. I had had it drummed into me right from the start of my pregnancy how very, very important breastfeeding was so I didn’t want to give up even though my baby was failing to gain any weight and each feeding session ended with both Effie and I in tears. Eventually my GP sister got on the phone and told me to get in the car and go and buy some formula. It was absolutely the advice I needed. It was the moment when I started to not only love feeding my baby but also to love being a mum.
The best/worst advice: I was genuinely worried about giving up breastfeeding. When I told my midwife what I had decided to do she instantly told me that she had never been able to master it (well now you tell me!) but I was still convinced I was going to get dirty looks when out bottle-feeding. That didn’t happen, but I did find myself trying to stop breastfeeding without being given any proper advice on how to do it, something which appalled female friends from my mum’s generation. I had absolutely no idea how you stopped producing milk and the midwife just said to go cold turkey and take ibuprofen, and on no account release any milk to ease the pressure. I didn’t entirely manage this but at the suggestion of a friend of mine, I did end up buying several savoy cabbages so I could pop the leaves down my bra – which were bizarrely wonderful in easing the pain.
It’s stuff like this that makes me incredibly frustrated. Sometimes in order to get an important message across we can end up alienating people and making them feel guilty if they can’t meet those demands. At my birthing class we were told that bottle feeding would not be discussed because, “if you want to do it you just need to read the packet” but when I started bottle feeding I didn’t even know you could get teats with different sized holes because no health professionals felt they could discuss it.
The best advice can be the worst advice, and my advice to friends who have got pregnant has always been, try what’s ‘best’ and if that doesn’t work for you then look at other options, but don’t beat yourself up about what you can or cannot achieve. It applies to a lot of things in life, and parenthood, if nothing else, is all about compromise.
It’s finding what’s right for you that’s hardest, because everyone does things differently and has different support networks and priorities. I think finding your own pattern is the biggest challenge for most of us.
The best parts of being a mother: It sounds like I’ve moaned a lot when in fact I have never regretted for a second being a mother. I still remember to this day the moment when I looked at my daughter and thought “Oh my God, I never realised how much my mother loves me”. I can’t say I particularly miss the baby years because I mostly love the interaction I have with my child which obviously develops more and more over time. I love sharing stuff with my daughter. We read lots together but I also like to share art, archive telly and music with her too. I refuse to believe that you have to bring your child up on godawful music (there’s a place for Bob the Builder records, but don’t let it dominate your car journeys) and I do feel a little bit proud that my seven year old has a genuine love of Mazzy Star, Ivor Cutler, Richard Hawley and The Dutch Uncles.
The other thing that makes my heart swell with a warm glow is seeing my daughter enjoying spending time with her friends (although this may well change in future years if they all stay out late without telling me). I don’t want to not be needed but I love it that Effie has her own little network now and she has her own interests and priorities. I am hugely aware that in a minute she’ll be all grown up and going to gigs on her own (please not One Direction) and that maybe she won’t want to cuddle me any more so I am making the most of her childhood. It’ll be gone in the blink of an eye, I’m sure of that.
Hopes for your family: Without wishing to sound morbid my hope is that we stay a family for a very long time. A family friend lost her life to a sudden illness a few years ago leaving behind two young children and it is incredibly heartbreaking to think that she is going to miss seeing them grow up and become adults, and they in turn have lost their lovely, kind mother. I think of her a lot and can’t really get my head round how life can be quite so cruel. I can’t bear the thought of not seeing Effie grow up so with that in mind I try and cherish every moment.
What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums: Well apart from my mother’s “Routine, Routine, Routine” (it’s hard but it does make life easier in the long run, especially if you don’t have much of a support network.) I’d say just try and find your own path and don’t be too disheartened if you’re finding it hard to do what other people seem to be doing easily. Everyone has different challenges in their lives and no child is the same. On a personal note, I’d also like to add that it’s ok to give your kid a proper telling off, even in public or in front of friends and family. We were quite strict with Effie when she was little (why have a naughty step when you can have a naughty corner? Every shop in town has a corner) and we now have a child who can politely sit through a restaurant meal or a long church service without legging it and doing five laps of the building. I’d love to be her best mate, but I’m her mum and I think it’s important to act like that (sometimes). I think not always being chilled out pays dividends. Although of course, I’d prefer it if you didn’t quote that back to me when she’s a stroppy 16 year old though…
Emma can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/Missus_IP