Helen, Blythe and Stanley

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Name: Helen
Children: Blythe, 9 and Stanley, 6
Location: Gee Cross

Expectations of Motherhood: I felt like I had a good idea of how hard it would be – my sister had three children in five years and I saw how hard it was – I wasn’t particularly broody and under any illusion of how idyllic it would be. I knew I wanted a family but have never been one to obsess over brand new babies, so I thought I was ready for the hard slog. I don’t think I really thought about the day-to-day in detail because until you’re experiencing it you never really see it. I was apprehensive in the sense of being unsure if I would be any ‘good’ at it and to some extent I just focused on each stage of being pregnant rather than look at what could be an overwhelming big picture.

Reality of Motherhood: I think the idea of maternity leave is often a bit rose-tinted – you’ll have time to go to lunch with your friends and your house will always be tidy, you and baby will be bonding and having all these adventures together, you’ll get so much done. In reality all your ‘old’ friends are at work during the day, your house is a constant tip and you stumble from one feed/mealtime to the next and often stare at the clock willing your partner home just so you can have a wee in peace (forget about the shower) and hide away on your own for ten minutes.

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I knew I wanted to breastfeed but I didn’t have any concept of how hard it would be – how often they would feed, the length of time they can feed for (I had no idea), dealing with other people’s embarrassment when you need to feed them in public, mastitis no matter how diligent you are. It is a very emotive subject and you need to be confident to do it your way – I remember having a little pad and writing down what time they fed at, which breast, for how long etc … I felt like if I kept note of everything it would make sense and I could show it to the health visitor and pass the test … then I’d fall sleep feeding them in bed (shock horror) and not remember which breast I’d fed from last time – it was a very freeing moment when I threw that pad away and just got on with it. When I was a new mum I remember wishing each breast or your baby’s belly had a little dial on it to tell you when it was full – another example of the never really knowing if you’re doing it right!

I was confident that I had enough friends, I didn’t ‘need’ any more and didn’t need to make friends with people just because they were also ‘mums’ – this was naive and a bit silly – you will never need this more.

Another of the trickiest things about parenthood is balancing friends – I know that I have disappointed some of my older friends who aren’t at the same point in their lives as I am for one reason or another, and I admit that I have had to ‘step back’ from lots of relationships where I simply don’t have the time I used to, to devote to prioritising them. And this isn’t just a  parenthood thing – we’re all at a point in our lives where we have so many demands on our time – home, work, caring responsibilities and that’s not just children – my dad was ill for the whole of my second maternity leave and died about eight weeks before I returned to work. Balancing a new baby, a three-year old who still wants to know you’re devoted to them and a gravely ill parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through and I still feel now, five years later, that I have a lot of unresolved feeling about that time.

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On a practical level, you need to get out of the house, your baby/child needs stimulating – I made sure we went to a playgroup both mornings I was off work when I returned to work and we had a real routine. We still have friends now we made through those groups and we’re still connected to the groups themselves – they really were the mainstay of our time together. Some different toys to play with, a bit of messy craft (not all over your own kitchen table, always a bonus) and a lukewarm cup of tea with other parents really will become the highlight of your week. Same with getting outside and letting them run about – as much as you might be desperate to slump on the settee, and as hard work as it often is getting everyone to put their shoes on, trips to the toilet, snacks packed etc – getting out to the park for an hour can transform the day. Or at least make you feel like you’ve ‘done something with your day’.

I was the first of my friends to have children so I did feel lost. We had the odd lunch date and there were offers to babysit, but if I’m being totally honest (and they would say the same) it’s never the same. The only people who really understand what it’s like day-in, day-out to parent are those who are going through the same grind at more or less the same time. And I think this is one of the things I’ve found hardest – and some people manage this balance better – I admit I have prioritised my kids and family life over my social life so I shouldn’t complain but it’s only natural to feel ‘left behind’.

Maternity leave is a bit like being in a bubble – stepping out of your real life for nine months or a year. But for most of us that time has to come to an end and I remember vividly the feelings of guilt and worry as I took both of my children to settle at nursery. The last month or so of maternity leave is completely subsumed by those worries and in some ways it’s almost a relief to get it over with and get started on your new life and routine back at work and baby at nursery. Having said that, you’ve never known multitasking and organisational skills like the ones you’ll develop when you start this phase of your life. There’s an almost daily list of things to remember or forms to fill in/outfits or permissions or information needed – and that only expands when they start school and you add homework, after school activities and friends round for tea. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a treadmill of constant parent-admin.

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Taking your children home for the first time: I was lucky to have pretty straightforward and relatively short labours – I was worried beforehand as I had no real idea of what to expect. Obviously I knew where the baby was going to come out having been mentally scarred by the sight of a doll with a massive head being shoved at a model of a vaginal canal at a birthing class – but to this day, despite having experienced it twice I could not describe a contraction. I knew the best way to approach it for me was to just do what the experts told me, and this served me well until the point where your body just seems to know what to do. My main fear going into childbirth was that it would be undignified, I would lose control and (horror of horrors) I might poo myself in front of my husband and other people. I’m not sure what this says about me that instead of worrying about the health of my baby or myself in labour I was preoccupied with something I found mortifying!

Coming home from hospital was a mixture of feelings – the first time around I stayed in an extra night to get some help with breastfeeding but the ward was busy so I hardly saw any midwives or nurses and I vividly remember feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt, and crying, just wanting my husband to come and take us home.

It’s a scary feeling taking that tiny baby home and knowing you’re responsible for every aspect of their care FOREVER from that point on. Nothing prepares you for that. There was a massive feeling of disbelief in a way that you could just walk out of the hospital and be left in charge without someone actually making sure you knew what you were doing. But as with most aspects of parenting, you’re soon busy with the million and one tasks that need repeating every day. The second time around you almost don’t have time to worry about all the little things you did the first time – I left hospital seven hours after giving birth because my priority was getting home and introducing him to his big sister so she wouldn’t feel left out. One of my clearest memories from that day was us all getting into our bed together that first night for a bedtime story and thinking, wow, this is it. We’re a family of four.

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With the second the worries were more emotional – dividing attention between the two and making sure my little girl didn’t feel left out. There’s a sense that you more or less know how to keep them alive on a basic level, having done it with one already, but the pressure you put on yourself in emotional terms can be massive. I remember being so exhausted but forcing myself to stay awake while the baby napped to have some one-on-one time with the eldest.

The best/worst advice: Any advice really – people love to tell you how they did everything and what it was like for them – I find myself biting my lip now talking to friends who are pregnant or have younger kids as it’s a natural instinct to want to say ‘well just wait til they get to this age …’ but that just belittles what someone is going through at that point.

The best advice I ever read was, ‘Remember that no-one else has raised your child’ – it’s easy to say what worked for you or ‘swear by’ a routine but every child is different and no-one else knows your child the way you do. Stick to your instincts and find what works best for you, never expect too much. As depressing as that sounds nothing is worse than having your hopes dashed, whether it’s the expectation of a good sleep or a ‘perfect’ day out. Never allow yourself to think you have it sorted – the only real parenting truth is that you will never have it all in hand.

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The hardest parts of being a mother: I definitely understand now why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. The lack of sleep is hideous – and sorry to say this (and again, it’s only my experience) but it doesn’t really get much better as they get older. There will never be another lie-in again. Undisturbed nights are also rare, they still need comforting, or the toilet, or generally just ‘keeping company’ at various points in the night. I almost find this harder to deal with now because the days are so much more physically demanding. There’s no sitting on the settee feeding for hours with a five-year old (never thought I’d miss those days!), in fact there’s not even ‘sitting on the settee to watch a ten minute programme’ as someone always needs a snack/activity/interaction.

The constant demands are draining – there is no real time for yourself and it’s hard to make plans. I definitely remember feeling ‘over-touched’ when they were very little – that feeling of always having a little someone pawing at you or needing to be next to you can be overwhelming and in a real physical sense suffocating at times. Never being able to decide when you want to get up – that’s hard to accept, everything is driven by someone else now. I know some people might not parent this way but for me I can’t see how else to do it – they can’t (or won’t) amuse themselves for long periods of time and need supervision and care, and that’s how it should be.

I’m not sure I really understood how all-encompassing having children would be – it is literally at the forefront of everything I do and think about, even when I’m not with them. When I’m not with them I’m thinking what I can fit in without being late being back for them etc, and always in the back of your mind is the worry that the dreaded nursery/school number will flash up on your phone and you’re called back to collect them.

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This might make me sound like a terrible person but I also find the demands of positive parenting quite draining – deep inside I can’t help thinking how fake I must sound when I congratulate them and praise them for the fiftieth time each day for the most mundane of achievements! But I can see the effect it has on them and how good it makes them feel and I know it’s the right thing to do. Being tired always makes it harder to be patient and not lose your rag when something gets spilt or shoes are still not on after the tenth request but I hate the way I feel on those times when I do raise my voice. I don’t mind that I am the ‘bad cop’ in our house – my husband is completely the fun parent so I don’t try to compete – someone needs to be the boring one and keep track of when they’ll need a snack, how long it is since they went to the loo etc. Fun fun fun!

It amazes me, the gamut of emotion you can go through in a short space of time – children are so emotional and volatile, dealing with two and meeting their individual needs, together, is a constant challenge. I love seeing them together – they have a really strong bond and I love that. They include each other in everything and they are always in each others thoughts, and I’m probably more proud of that than anything else – they are really caring little people.

The worry is constant – physical, emotional, big and small. As they get older there’s a whole new array of things to worry about, especially when they start school – they have their own little world now and for six hours a day I’m not part of that. I hate the thought of them feeling sad or left out, that someone might say something hurtful to them. My son is quite clumsy and with him I definitely feel a sense of dread unless me or my husband are with him/watching out for him … no-one can keep them safe all the time but he is often in the dreaded accident book or coming home with a new bump or bruise. I find that hard to deal with and often have to fight down my anxious tendencies.

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At this point in parenthood, with both kids at school, I think the hardest part is always feeling like there is never enough time, rushing from one thing to the next and craving some downtime. I’m probably guilty of over-organising our free time (especially in the school holidays which I immediately see as needing to be ‘filled’) – finding activities to go to and friends to meet up with but I do cherry pick the mums I like to spend time with too. You will find your tribe. I’ve just become Chair of the PTFA at their school and my husband has started coaching Stanley’s football team so the ‘freetime’ is getting less and less, but I have to remind myself that in ten years time this won’t be the case anymore and I’ll miss these times – apparently!

One of the challenging things about parenting is having to work as a team – I still wonder, where do you go when you fundamentally disagree on something about how to handle a situation or parent in a particular way? It is a compromise, and even though we share the same values and attitudes in most respects it’s still two people with different personalities having to agree on a response and back each other up in that.

I still feel amazed that I am in charge of these little people – I don’t feel grown up enough to be the one in charge, but I have dealt with stressful situations I didn’t think I would be capable of. Being a parent is the biggest responsibility, and all-encompassing, it’s a cliché but it’s 24/7. There are deadlines and pressures in work situations but it’s a special kind of stress when you’re running late for the school run and need to deliver on time!

The best parts of being a mother: For me, it’s the family we’ve created – being part of a team. And of course the fact that not much is funnier than the things that kids say or do.

The day they can wipe their own bum is a real life-changer! Now all I need is for them to be able to get themselves a snack and be trusted to not wreck the house or maim each other while I had an extra hour in bed – that will be a day to rejoice! But it does get easier – I know the day they don’t need me for everything I will feel sad and a bit lost – but not lost enough to not savour that five minutes peace!

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Sharing the things that I liked as a kid and getting to revisit those things is great – we’ve counted down the days til we can show them the Goonies and ET and seeing them dance to the ‘Superman’ song at the school disco takes me right back, and I love that. But also learning about new things from them – they get so excited to share what they’ve learnt about and I constantly astounded at the things they are learning at such a young age – I swear I didn’t know what a consonant was in reception or fractions in year 3.

Being a mum at this point in time also has a lot of benefits – for example with Instagram I follow a lot of mums who show real parenting with a sense of humour. As long as you realise that we all (and I include myself here) only show the best or funniest bits of life as a parent and don’t fall for what is essentially a filtered version of real life it does help you get through the day when you’re in the thick of witching hour or chasing your tail on the commute to get back to see your kids after a day at the office. I’m not sure if people just share more of a realistic view of their experience now or if it’s more prominent because of the different platforms but it definitely feels like you can find an example of someone feeling the same way you do about most aspects of parenting these days.

Has becoming a mother changed you? I like to think I’m more patient, more able to put others first – I was never a selfish person and have always liked caring for people or making them happy but being a parent takes that to another level. I’m definitely more organised, and able to get more done in a short space of time – I look back now and genuinely wonder what I did with my time. Being a parent is like fulfilling ten different roles at once – entertainer, chef, educator, nurse, manager, the list goes on – and you have to accept you can’t excel in every role every time. There’s a lot to be said for just making it through the day sometimes, and often it’s the little things that you thought of at the last-minute or a simple idea that makes the biggest impression on them – sometimes I am guilty of overplanning and creating unrealistic expectations in my head which only lead to disappointment and I need to remind myself of this often.

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I think me and my husband have a true co-parenting balance – the three days I’m in the office he does the school run, and I know I am lucky that this is the case – but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it. Although I know I shouldn’t, I still have that nagging feeling that it should be me doing all five days yet still able to work in that dream job where you can be there for your kids and still have a fulfilling job where you get to do something creative and satisfying. This is a total pipe dream – I can only speak from my own experience but I have definitely compromised on what I could have achieved in my career to be there for my children. And that does play on my mind – not just for me but for my daughter – raising a daughter I am conscious that I want her to have all the opportunities, challenge herself academically and go to university if she wants to, have an interesting and challenging career … but also to have a family if she wants one and that’s the eternal issue. Work hard and make a career for yourself, but the reality is that one day you will have to compromise on that to have a family too.

When I had my first child I went to three days a week – it was never an option for me financially to not go back to work and in a way that took the pressure off me to have to consider whether I would want to stay at home anyway. For me, working but still having that time at home with them when they were little and now to do the school run and have proper time with them after school is the best balance.

Although I’m lucky that my employer agreed to my request to go part-time I don’t feel that there is a true respect in the workplace for anything less than the full-time, ‘9-5 and then some’ employee. I know I miss out on working on the more creative projects and make do with being overlooked in terms of responsibility – and I can’t lie, this is frustrating, especially when I rarely ‘log-off’ when I leave the office. There is still a long way to go in terms of a true flexibility in the workplace – and initiatives like the ‘flex appeal’ campaign have never been more important.

Hopes for your family: I am very much a person who never wants to tempt fate – for example I’d never remark on a decent run of sleep or no-one being ill for a while – it’s just asking for it to fall apart! For that reason I shy away from big expectations and to be honest I don’t have massive ambitions anyway. I just want them to be safe, well and happy – everything can be summed up in that. I want them to be themselves and never let anyone make them doubt themselves or wish they were something ‘better’ – I hope they are confident and creative and never lose the sparks they have now – they are never boring. Travelling with them and introducing them to new places, being able to show them different things, and being able to support them in what they’re interested in. I hope they always know how loved they are, and always have a close relationship with each other and their cousins.

What advice would you offer to new and expectant mums? It’s simple – do what feels right for you and don’t be afraid to ask for – and then accept – some help.

Choose your battles.

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Try to keep hold of who you were and still are. Even though you will never be the same again you won’t wake up with an extra head and suddenly like marmite if you didn’t before – you’ll still find the same things funny and have the same outside interests and one day you will get back to those, or find a way to still enjoy them in a different way. Life will be the same in many ways but it will never just be your life anymore – there is always someone who comes ahead of you now – and that’s hard to accept sometimes.

I’m not the most important person in anyone’s life anymore, these little people take priority over me and my husband now and as mature as I am I can’t deny that sometimes I just want to shout ‘what about me?!’ You need to be strong and have confidence in yourself and your abilities and decisions – and in some ways having a little person looking up to you and always expecting you to have the answer and provide whatever they need, whilst a massive pressure, also means you have no choice but to just get on with it. The mantra ‘fake it til you make it’ goes a long way in this respect.

Extra info:
I work part-time in marketing for a university and for my husband’s design company.

 

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