Children: Leila, 3 and Asher, 9 months
Expectations of Motherhood: When I was pregnant with Leila, I had only the vaguest of expectations, as motherhood was such alien territory. None of my friends had children at that point, so I had no ‘blueprint’ of what to do/not do or how it would be. I did expect to love my baby intensely and for her to bring huge joy to my life. I adored being pregnant – it was a dreamy, indulgent time and I loved my bump. But towards the end I started to worry that I wouldn’t love the baby after all, and I had deep, secret fears about whether I would be a good mother – not of the ‘what if my organic purees are not quite the right consistency for baby’s delicate digestion?’ variety; more like, ‘what if I am capital B Bad, like shouldn’t have children at all Bad’. These fears haunted me through the last weeks of pregnancy, as I waddled to my due date and beyond, virtually housebound by the big freeze that took hold that winter.
Reality of Motherhood: Thank goodness, when she arrived Leila swept away my fears in an instant. I will always be grateful to her for that. The moment she appeared, pink and bendy and cross, my first words were gasped with amazement and relief: ‘oh I DO love you, I do love you, I love you’. She totally delivered on the intense love/huge joy front. However, those first weeks were a massive shock. Not in the sense that I wasn’t expecting it to be hard work – veteran parents are determined during your first pregnancy to drum into you that It Will Be Hard. But the reality of round-the-clock breastfeeding (three hours from the start of the first feed to the start of the next- the START! And the feed takes 90 minutes!), the grizzly newborn nights, and the mystery of what could possibly be wrong with the baby when she cried, proved to be very tough. More than that, the sheer weight of emotion I felt knocked me sideways and upside down. I remember one evening, listening to a CD of gentle ‘baby music’ a friend had made, holding Leila in front of me and just bawling onto her fat sleeping face.
Taking your children home for the first time: My labour with Leila was long, slow and slightly complicated, in the way it seems many first labours are: I was induced, had to have a syntocin drip to speed things up, lost some blood and went to theatre because of a retained placenta. I stayed in hospital for a couple of nights. By the time we were able to take her home, I felt, physically and emotionally, like I’d been hit by a train. We did the typical anxious, slow drive home, all the while feeling like we were bound to be pulled over by the Baby Police, as clearly we were not grown up enough to be left in charge of an actual human being.
The first few days were a blur. I was exhausted beyond anything I’d known before, anaemic and spaced out. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep; I couldn’t concentrate on the television, let alone a magazine or a book. I felt like a zombie, and was in bed for several days.
When Asher was born, the experience was totally different. The labour was 4.5 hours from start to finish, and he was born quickly and smoothly in the birthing pool. It was, strange as it sounds, the best experience of my life. The three of us chilled out in the birth centre for a few hours, I scoffed a family bag of jelly babies, and we were home before 5pm. I felt on top of the world, full of energy even, and ate fish and chips with the family before heading to bed for the first of many, many nights of madness.
Of course, the main difference bringing Asher home was that there was an older sibling there to meet him. Leila cradled his head in her tiny toddler’s hands and smiled a pleased smile. ‘Isn’t he wonderful’ she said. As time went on she would swing between this sentiment, fierce, slightly aggressive love, and irritation with her little brother (‘I want him OFF your nipple’ she said a few days later, swiping his head backwards with her hand).
The best advice: I bumped into a male colleague at the shops when I was heavily pregnant with Leila. He has a particular straightforward, deadpan way of talking. No beating around the bush. He said to me, without drama, as I glowed with excitement and optimism: ‘It’ll be like a bomb’s gone off, love. It’s brilliant. But it’s like a bloody bomb’s gone off’. Not so much advice, more a simple truth which I have found oddly comforting since.
The worst: Enjoy every minute. What, every minute? Every single one? Even the ones with the crying (mine) and the screaming (theirs) and the 3am whining? That’s just setting yourself up for feeling like a failure.
The hardest parts of being a mother: There are plenty of parts I find hard! It can feel like you crash from one transition to the next; just when you get the hang of one phase (weaning, potty training, tantrums), another kicks in. When you have two, the logistics of managing the very different demands that each age and child presents are pretty mind-boggling. Meanwhile each new phase is so consuming that every bump in the road feels like the hardest phase you’ve been through. So right now, managing the behaviour of a 3 year old coupled with the physical demands of a 9 month old, feels like the hardest thing. But I’m well aware that in years to come I’ll look back on these as the glory days which, really, they are. The time before life got complicated.
Toddlers are their own special brand of challenging. Hilarious, captivating, psychotic and adorable. With Leila I have found Three more demanding than Two. It can be so hard to keep my cool at times, as she pushes with all her might against every boundary. And I am so desperate to be the calm, consistent parent I think she deserves, that the effort of disciplining in the ‘right’ way is exhausting.
By comparison, babies can seem like a doddle. That is, until they try to finish you with the not sleeping. Asher is and has been a very easy baby on many fronts, but not when it comes to sleep. At the height of his reign of terror (between 3-6 months) I really felt at times like sleep deprivation would break me. Some nights still drive me to tears. I read threads on Mumsnet from mothers perplexed that their four month old has ‘stopped’ sleeping through. They’ve what now? STOPPED? My 9 month old never started.
The best parts of being a mother: Basically, everything apart from the hard parts is the best part.
Holding, cuddling and stroking them is the best. There must be some mummy-catnip in those babies. I wonder if one day they’ll ban me from fiddling with their hair, running my fingers up the nobbles of their spines, squeezing their cheeks between my thumb and forefinger, and curling them back up into a foetal position to crush them gently in my lap. Maybe they’ll still let me do it when their work friends aren’t in the room.
Every day, a handful of moments are the best, happiest moments you’ve ever experienced. A friend who was in throes of new motherhood emailed just after Leila was born, and said ‘even the hardest days have their magic moments’, and that is the wonder of having kids. Though one moment I can be driven to tears of frustration, the next I’m sitting there thinking ‘yes. This is it’. The happiness can just surge up through my body and threaten to burst out of my throat at any given moment.
Has becoming a mother changed you? I’m somebody whose mind is rarely at rest. I’m forever mulling over the past or fretting about the future. Having Leila and Asher, I can be completely in the moment. And I’m more at ease. I know that if I never achieve anything else in my life – and I do intend and fervently hope to achieve other things – I have had them, and that is enough. There’s a peace about that.
Also, the body-surging happiness I described above is something I thought I wouldn’t experience again when my youngest sister died, several years before Leila was born. Having the children opened my heart to the possibility, and the reality, of utter joy.
Hopes for your family: I want them to be safe, happy and well. That’s what it boils down to. It seems so little, yet so much, to ask.
I hope that they (and any future sibling/s) gain as much from each other as I have from my brother and two sisters, and form as close a bond.
I don’t expect them to never experience sadness, but I hope they never experience traumatic loss.
I hope they love and are loved. The right sort of love.
I hope they like their parents as they get older. And that they outlive us.
I hope we have another child. I’m not done, as I told my partner (somewhat alarmingly, I imagine) minutes after Asher was born.
What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums: Don’t be smug. You may have the magical sleeping baby, the perfect eater, the most well-adjusted sweet-natured sociable kid there is. But if you are smug about it, it WILL bite you on the bum. If not next week, then next year or when the child is a teenager, or when you have your second child. (Or at least, you can be smug – all parents are – but don’t do it out loud).
Understand that babies’ sleep does not progress in a linear fashion. If your baby sleeps through at 8 weeks (as Leila did), don’t be disheartened when her/his sleep goes haywire later on. This will continue through at least the first year. But equally, if your baby still hasn’t slept through by nine months (Asher….), know that one day, he/she – and you – will get a full night’s sleep. I least I hope we will. WON’T WE? Also remember that the baby books which tell you that ‘most babies’ sleep through at two months, or that yours ‘should’ be, wouldn’t be bestsellers if this was actually true.
Make ‘mum friends’ (and/or dad friends, of course). I found playgrounds excruciating for many months, and found the idea of approaching other parents frankly horrifying, but once I bit the bullet and started talking to people, I made friends who have been a great support and, more importantly, a good laugh. It’s invaluable to spend time with people who are in the same magic, manic, sick-sodden boat. I have discovered, too, that most people feel the same – i.e. that they are a socially inept, repellant buffoon, and that all the other mums are confident and popular.