Gemma and Joel

Name: Gemma

Child: Joel, 14 months

Location: Sale

Expectations of motherhood: I always knew I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t think we’d have a family until we were in our 30s. I was only 25 when we got married and although we planned to have a baby we also had big plans to travel the world. Then a few years ago I got diagnosed with endometriosis, I was quite poorly and was told that I might find it difficult to get pregnant. Suddenly my priorities changed and it seemed like the most important thing in the world. We talked a lot about it and decided that it was better to start trying earlier. 

It took us a while to get pregnant, but not as long as a lot of people and I’m now really grateful for that. However, at the time it felt like we were the only people in the world who didn’t just have to think fertile thoughts to make a baby. After a few months it became an obsession, I read every book and took every fertility test and it felt like it was all I could think of or talk about. I was scared it was never going to happen for us and felt so guilty that there might be something wrong with me. After more than a year, we arranged to see a fertility doctor and the day I got my appointment I found out I was pregnant. It was such an amazing feeling; I remember just saying those words over and over in my head ‘I’m pregnant’ just to see what it felt like. I loved how it sounded and felt such relief that we were going to get what we so desperately wanted. 

During pregnancy, if I thought about motherhood I imagined myself as a complete natural who would be back in her skinny jeans within a week, would breast feed like a goddess and would raise healthy brilliant children all whilst whipping up a spectacular batch of cupcakes and keeping an immaculate house. On other days I thought I would be a disaster who would raise delinquent children and never wear mascara again, but thankfully I think the reality is likely to be somewhere in between.

I was nervous when I was pregnant as I felt quite out of control, obviously I could control everything that I did and what went into my body, but I was terrified the baby would just stop growing or that I had wanted a baby so badly it was a phantom pregnancy. Because of this I don’t think I gave too much thought to what it would be like when he got here, I naively thought that conception and pregnancy were the difficult bits! 

Reality of motherhood: I was very lucky as I had a straight forward and quick labour. I had been very positive about it and didn’t feel scared as I just wanted him here and really thought as soon as he was, everything would be fine. I had imagined that I would have a relaxing, dignified water birth and they would pass me my beautiful child and all would be well. In reality, even the most straight forward labour is completely undignified. When I first saw him I was a bit stunned and I couldn’t hold him because I was horrified at the amount of blood and just kept asking, ‘Is that normal? Is everything ok?’ 

When I calmed down we had skin to skin contact and he fed straight away, it was pretty magical and I knew instantly that I would do everything in my power to be the best mother in the world. Unfortunately, the panic then came back as dozens of nurses and doctors all came in to take a good look at me. I had to go to theatre due to some complications and this burst that magical little bubble. It was rotten to be whisked away, but I was back with him within a couple of hours and we were both fine. 

When I got taken up to the ward the midwife made me a cup of tea and gave me a biscuit and I sat in bed and watched him sleep. It really was as wonderful as I’d expected and I felt enormous calm. Everyone had said I wouldn’t sleep in hospital, but after staring at him for a while I slept really well. I heard other babies crying and thought perhaps I’d got a really good one because he slept all the way though. I’m really glad I slept that night because for the next four months Joel did not sleep for more than an hour at a time!

To say Joel was a bad sleeper is the biggest underestimation ever. We became obsessed with sleep, I know every new parent says the same, and everyone will warn you about it, but nothing can prepare you for it. Someone once said to me that once you have a child, sleep is never very far from your mind, and this was so true for us. I used to meet up with friends and we would compare how much sleep we had the night before, the standard greeting became, ‘How was your night?’ At the time I genuinely believed I was the most tired person in the world and if someone told me their baby had slept for more than an hour I would be sick with envy. I breastfed Joel, and from what I know of mothers who haven’t, lack of sleep is the biggest downside. I thought there must be something wrong with him as he fed all the time, and for ages. I would sit up at night feeding him looking at articles on the internet about breast feeding and wondering what was normal. I realise now he was fairly normal for a breastfed baby, but I just was not prepared for it.

I think the reality of motherhood is quite different to looking after a newborn baby. Motherhood is terrifying, exciting, difficult, rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. But that first 6 weeks is like a boot camp before you can start getting to the really good bits. In the beginning, just getting out of the house is a small miracle. Our first proper trip out was when Joel was 5 days old, we went for lunch and I sat in a café whilst Steven was at the counter and just cried. It suddenly felt overwhelming to be out of the house with our baby. He looked so tiny and it seemed wrong that he should be anywhere near the real world. I was also equally terrified that he would wake up and I would have to feed him (god forbid anyone might see my nipple!) or he would cry and I wouldn’t know what to do and I would be found out as the incompetent mother that I obviously was. 

I was struggling to keep it together and a lady came over and asked if I was okay, she assured me, ‘It gets better,’ and said I was very brave for being out of the house with a 5 day old baby. It’s funny because at the time I thought it was weird to say I was brave, but now I see people out with tiny babies and I understand what she meant. At the time I thought I should be out and about, getting back to reality and showing the world what a competent parent I was. If I have another baby I fully intend to stay in my pjs for a month and demand everyone else comes and makes me tea. 

During the first couple of months when everything felt like a battle and I doubted myself and my instincts on an hourly basis, my husband and I would ask ourselves each night, ‘What went right today?’ Some days the best I could come up with was, ‘he’s still alive’. In hindsight, there’s not much that can beat keeping a small child alive.

After that first few weeks of feed, change, sleep, feed, change, sleep, panic, feed, cry, feed etc etc. Something clicked. I’m not saying I was suddenly the wonderful earth mother I fantasised about, but somehow it wasn’t all so terrifying. I could get out of the house in under an hour, I was a dab hand at feeding without exposing myself, and I could make, butter and eat a piece of toast one handed. I began to relax and actually enjoy this little bundle that I had been given. There was a momentous evening where we put Joel to sleep upstairs whilst we stayed downstairs and had tea and watched TV. I felt like we had really achieved something! It was a far cry from the early days where I would fall sleep without any dinner.

Taking your child home for the first time: I was so excited to get out of the hospital and take Joel home. After Joel had passed all his tests, I had eaten some fairly grotty fish and chips, had the best shower of my life and had been visited by Graham (the very handsome anaesthetist), we were given the green light. I bundled all my things into a bag, put Joel in his snow suit which drowned him and we got him into his car seat. As we walked him down the stairs and to the car I could not stop grinning. I felt like we were doing something naughty and half expected a mid-wife to come and say, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake, of course you can’t keep him; he’s too perfect’. But we must have slipped through the net because we got him to the car and buckled him in, this was all spoiled by a crazy lady in the carpark who kept asking us for money, but we shook her off and Steven drove us home. I don’t remember if we talked, I sat in the back with Joel and we listened to Noel Gallagher’s high flying birds. I remember thinking it was a shame that the first bit of the outside world Joel got to see was an industrial estate in Wythenshawe. When we got home we put his car seat down in the middle of the lounge and both just looked at him. He was asleep and neither of us knew what to do.

One thing that really sticks in my mind about the first few weeks was how insignificant everything else seemed. I remember watching TV and getting cross – they were making jokes and it all seemed so frivolous. It’s ridiculous but I just thought, ‘I’ve just had a baby, do you not know how significant that is?’ and I couldn’t think about anything else or anyone. If a friend talked to me about work, or a problem, I couldn’t concentrate and kept thinking, ‘this is nothing compared to having a baby, look at that baby! How can you care about anything else’? Of course, thankfully, this wore off and I am now able to hold a relatively normal, non-baby related conversation. 

Best advice/worst advice: The day after Joel was born and we were still in hospital I asked the midwife for help breastfeeding, she manhandled him and me to get him latched on, it was unpleasant and I felt like I wasn’t part of it whilst she grabbed my breast and shoved it into his mouth. Eventually he was feeding and as I relaxed into it I instinctively stroked his hair. She batted my hand away and told me not to do that as he would ‘enjoy it’. I immediately stopped and felt so silly that I had got this basic thing wrong. Looking back I should have slapped her. He is my baby and how dare she criticise me for touching him. Once I was home and got some perspective I could see that she was wrong to have said this and thankfully breast feeding went well for us, I went back to stroking his hair when feeding and still do it when I give him his bottle now. Who knows, maybe it’ll ruin him for life but it’s nice for the time being!

The best piece of advice was from a friend who already had two children when Joel was born. She told us to do whatever was necessary for us all to get some sleep. This did mean feeding him to sleep when he was tiny, giving him a dummy, letting him sleep in our bed and at about 10 months doing controlled crying. All big no no’s according to some people. I don’t think it matters, he now sleeps in his own bed every night, doesn’t need a feed to fall asleep and I seriously miss the days where I could bring him in bed with us in the morning for half an hour’s extra sleep! I’m sure there’s a cut off or maybe we’ve just been lucky (or thanks to controlled crying), but I think that as with most things, if you listen to your child and follow their cues, they will get in the end. 

Hardest parts of being a mother: The worry and anxiety, every minute of every day. I have terrible visions of Joel choking, stopping breathing, getting kidnapped, contracting a horrible disease, getting hit by a car etc etc. I lie in bed at night and will suddenly be overcome with terror that he’s stopped breathing and I’ll have to go in and check on him. I don’t know whether I’m more or less anxious than other parents, but the constant thought that something awful might happen to him is exhausting.

My emotions are now more powerful than ever and I react to things in unpredictable ways. When Joel started crawling I turned up at a friend’s house in tears because I felt unprepared. I’d spent that morning trying to get ready with him mobile and I felt I was going to unravel. I suddenly realised I couldn’t just leave him because he could move and so the logistics of getting a shower and getting dressed foiled me. I came up with the brilliant plan of shutting the bedroom door with him in the bedroom whilst I ran to the toilet. Inevitably he crawled over to the door and sat behind it so that when I tried to get back in I had to edge the door carefully so as not to knock him over. In hindsight, leaving a baby behind a closed door is stupid for many reasons and I felt like an idiot for not realising that at the time. The reason I was crying when I got to my friend’s house was not because I nearly hit my small child with a door, but because I felt guilty for being annoyed that his crawling made my life harder. I felt awful that instead of celebrating this milestone I felt resentful.

Although I have had amazing support from some of my friends and my sister, I often feel like I don’t have a role model and that I’m making it up as I go along. I don’t have a very good relationship with my mum and although I have some very happy memories of childhood and there were some things she did very well, she’s not able to be there for me now and when other mums talk about their mums coming over and ironing/cooking/babysitting/listening/giving advice I feel a bit sad. 

Best parts of being a mother: It’s lots of fun. Before he arrived, when I thought about being a mum I imagined this tiny person who was completely reliant on me and how that would completely change my life. What I never bargained for was how much I would enjoy hanging out with him. He is brilliant and he’s only 14 months old. I love seeing the world through his eyes and realising that there is so much that is exciting and beautiful out there. Experiencing all of his firsts is a privilege and I’m documenting them like I’m the first person to ever have a child – first foods, first time at the beach, first shoes, first tooth, first car journey, first steps, first easter egg, first day at nursery. It’s never-ending and brilliant. I love how he’s so enthusiastic about things, tonight he laughed with excitement and flapped his arms up and down because I presented him with a satsuma. It’s infectious and we both sat there giggling whilst we shared a satsuma. 

I loved being on maternity leave, that’s not to say that looking after Joel full time was easy because at times I was a wreck with how hard it was. But I pledged to make the most of my year off and do as much stuff as I could with Joel and I feel I did that. We were out and about every day, I took him to lots of groups, and we always had plans. If we’re at a loose end we’ll go to a café and share a tea cake and I’ll read him a book. I never realised that having a baby meant I would have constant company and would never be bored, I am so in love with my little family. Sometimes Joel will do something funny or new and Steven and I will just look at each other and smile, I’ll say ‘he’s ace isn’t he?’ and we’ll both feel very smug that somehow the pair of us managed to create this perfect little person.

Hopes for your family: I hope that Joel will always know he is wanted and loved. I hope that he continues to be the happy and funny, sociable child that he is, and that we continue to cram as much fun stuff into our free time as we can. I hope we’re able to move in the next year or so to a bigger house where he can run around in the garden and have a play room, and that we will fill the spare room with another baby who will be excellent company for Joel (I secretly fantasise about what good friends they will be and that they and their partners, and then children will always want to come to our house for Christmas).

In the longer term, I hope that we will be able to teach Joel enough about the world that he will go out on his own and have some amazing adventures. I hope that he grows into the kind of young man who gives up his seat on the bus, instead of the kind who smashes up bus stops. I hope that he finds someone wonderful to love who loves him back, and that he finds something to do for work that he is good at and enjoys. I hope he is the kind of man who calls his mum once in a while.

Advice for new and expectant parents: This is not so much advice, but an observation/warning. Becoming a parent changed my relationships… all of them! Some for the better, and some not so much. I have been amazed at the support of some friends. Of course the very fact that I was off work with a baby meant I spent time with people who were also off with their babies and in doing so I have made some amazing friends that I don’t think I would have got through this year without. But parallel to this, some friends have not been as supportive or enthusiastic as I needed, and that has been hard to accept. Probably most profoundly, it has changed my relationship with my husband. I didn’t think I could love Steven much more, but when I hear him laughing with Joel, or reading him his bed time story, it’s super cheesy but my heart just swells fit to burst and I cannot help but smile.

Advice – If someone offers you help, take it, get your visitors to make the tea and don’t let anyone in who doesn’t come bearing cake. Going back to work after maternity leave won’t break your heart (even if it might feel like it at the time), don’t leave a small child unattended with a toilet roll and boxes/wooden spoons/anything dangerous are much more exciting that the most expensive, top of the range educational toy.

Relax! I think I was too hard on myself with a lot of things, I cried over giving Joel a dummy because I thought it made me a failure. In reality it stopped him crying which gave us all a bit of peace and quiet, how can that be a bad thing? As long as he doesn’t have it when he’s off to university I think he’ll be okay. I wish I had really believed the advice that you can’t spoil a baby. I remember worrying in the first few days whether it was okay to hold him all the time, if I could go back I probably would have never put him down.

Everyone will have their advice (she says typing advice) some of it will work for you, some of it won’t. That doesn’t make you or them a better parent. We’re all doing the best we know how to do, and no one can be perfect all of the time. Mums can judge one another, I think we’re all guilty of it and some opinions are more acceptable to have than others and some mums have louder voices than others. If you surround yourself with people who support you, encourage you and who you can be honest with, you won’t go far wrong. 

Oh, and buy a hand held hoover.

Gemma chose to have her photos taken at the Bean and Brush, Sale because it has provided a baby and mum friendly haven for her since she’s had Joel.  

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