Child: Maeby, 20 months
Expectations of Motherhood: Honestly, I thought I’d be pretty crap – or, if not crap, exactly, then I thought I’d find the transition a lot harder than I did. Which is not to say I’ve found it easy, far from it, but let’s just say I had (fairly justifiably, based on 30-odd years of prior experience!) low expectations of my ability to act unselfishly when I needed to.
I’ve also got a pretty chequered mental health history and I was fairly certain that would come to the fore in the form of post-natal depression and was somewhat bracing myself for the worst. Thankfully education around mental health issues in motherhood is very much better than it used to be and I was supported throughout my pregnancy and made to feel like support would be there if I needed it when the baby came.
All of that was coupled with a sense of fear about my ability to love my baby – I think a lot of people harbour secret doubts as to whether they will really be capable of loving a child – pregnancy feels so abstract and the testimonials of what comes after seem to veer so wildly between gushing and horrific it feels completely impossible to get a grip on what the reality will actually be *like*. All of that makes you wonder why on earth I wanted to have a baby…and honestly, I don’t know, reading that back!
I love my partner very much and we enjoy each others’ company immensely, I think we wanted to let someone else in to enjoy the fun we have, but all of the above should signal that I went into the whole thing with some serious trepidation.
Reality of Motherhood:As a caveat to what I am about to say I want to be clear that I know I have been very lucky – and I want to emphasise that I am aware it is pure luck – the vast majority of women don’t have the experience that I have had and that’s not down to anything they or I have done differently, it’s just the luck of the draw and for no discernible reason I came out of that well.
So with that said…it’s been the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. I was induced at term because of some minor, low-risk complications in the pregnancy and for me that translated into a short labour that was painful but well managed with medication and from that point onward I became a walking example of every cliche I had ever heard about birth and motherhood.
No post natal depression ever materialised and I fell in love with Maeby almost immediately and that love, mixed with some kickass hormones doing their thing for the first few months, meant that any abandonment of selfishness happened without me really noticing – all of a sudden I became utterly focused on my child and her needs. Of course there were difficult nights and utter exhaustion but it just seemed so completely inconsequential when set against the joy of her – seeing her grow, feeling her weight, watching my partner blossom into a truly exceptional father.
About three months into my pregnancy I posted on mumsnet (first mistake, right there) that I was irritated that someone had told me having a child would be, “the best thing you will ever do” (as opposed to my professional or personal achievements that didn’t just require some unprotected sex to get off the ground) and got an unsurprising amount of ire back in return. Now I get it. I have done and will do many more things in my life that make me proud but none of them will make me feel like this.
On the flip side of this parental bliss, within a few months of being on maternity leave I had also learned some truths about myself – namely that I am someone who needs mental stimulation in the form of work in order to be happy in the home – that’s a nice way to say I was climbing the walls and grateful at the end of my mat leave. That’s OK and it’s not selfish – I am a far better mother for being happy in myself and work is a big part of that for me personally (but not for everyone and not everyone has the privilege of being able to work that I do either).
Taking your child home for the first time:Because of my complications me and Maeby stayed in overnight after she was born so we’d already had a night alone together on the ward – which began in fine style as she filled her first nappy precisely 30 seconds after my mum and partner left to get some sleep and at the exact moment I realised I’d never changed a nappy. I think that might be a good metaphor for new motherhood in itself.
I muddled through, with the help of a kindly nurse who told me that, no, the tabs aren’t meant to have actual glue on them but promised me they would work anyway. I was dubious then and I remain so today.
Maeby was born at the end of May and overnight there was a big summer storm with thunder and lightening – she mostly slept and fed through the night but I was too wired to sleep so I watched it raging from the window and felt simply amazed at the world.
We were told we were ready to be discharged by lunchtime but there was a staff shortage and being the good middle class NHS lovers we are we kept telling the staff to take their time…we were discharged at 3am. Taxi home and my lovely mum had stocked our fridge with food so we took a picnic to bed and just stared and stared and stared at our little friend.
The best/worst advice: The best advice came from the many wonderful mothers in my life: do what you want. There is so much weight put on the importance of ensuring you’re doing the right thing at all times but every kid is different, every mum is different, every day is different, and everyone’s definition of “right” is different – if it works and you’re happy don’t beat yourself up about it. Also buy lots of biscuits and store up the box sets of stuff you want to watch for the post birth month – makes getting up at 3am almost pleasurable.
The worst advice is something I’ve heard pedalled time and time again – “sleep when they sleep”. The problem with that is that you don’t know how long they’re going to sleep for – I’ve always wished that babies would display some sort of digital countdown-to-wakeup clock once they’re asleep so you could at least decide whether to bother starting something instead of convincing yourself they’re just about to wake up and sitting on the sofa for three hours (not in itself a bad thing, but frustrating when you’ve lots to do).
When you’re truly sleep deprived the definition of hell is following the “sleep when they sleep” advice, closing your eyes for five minutes only to be woken up – yet again – by a screaming child. No. Just, no.
The hardest parts of being a mother:
The not knowing: not knowing if you will get a decent night’s sleep; not knowing if you will have a battle on your hands or a pleasant evening; not knowing if it’s worth spending thousands of pounds on a family holiday or whether you should stay at home because you’ll be miserable and/or ill; but most of all the not knowing – ever – if you’re doing the right thing by them.
To go back to the work analogy – if I have a work project that I am passionate about I will throw everything I can at making sure that I understand the implications of every action on that project, with kids you can’t do that and I am far more passionate than I ever have been about anything at work. It kills me.
The best parts of being a mother:
Seeing my little scrap emerging into this funny, interested, imaginative little person – nothing beats it. Something that’s surprised me is the camaraderie amongst parents, online and in person – I’m a member of several groups in both spaces which have genuinely helped when I needed it most.
Has becoming a mother changed you?
Yes. I am a determined person but having Maeby has somehow galvenised that determination and I am much more action-orientated. I am far more patient, by necessity, and I am far more driven to make things happen and do good work. I’m not sure how much of that is *for* her and how much is resultant from the experience of bringing her into the world and recognising that, despite my misgivings, I am actually very good at loving her.
Hopes for your family: Cliche alert: when I was pregnant I remember describing to a friend how I hoped she would be funny, clever, brave etc and my friend interjected with a gentle nudge “..and happy?”. I dismissed that because I didn’t realise how much it would come to mean to me – it’s all I want – for her to be happy – what we do as a familly is all motivated by that at it’s heart. In a way it’s given me a purpose I think I lacked before.
What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums?:
Oh my god, just do what works for you! If you want to breastfeed, if you can’t breastfeed, if you want to use disposable nappies, if you want to stay at home, if you want or even need to go back to work three weeks after they’re born: it. Is. Fine.
You being happy is going to have far more bearing on how happy they are than whether they eat organic food or not – just concentrate on that and the rest will fall into place. And remember that anyone who offers you advice only has their experience – their children (or not!) – to base that advice on – it’s not the law, it’s just what worked for them, if it doesn’t work for you it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means your kid is a glorious, frustrating little person all of their very own.
Helen is one of the founder directors of Levenshulme Market and for a day job work in communications for The University of Manchester.