I’m not ashamed to say it – motherhood cracked me wide open and hit me in the face like nothing ever has before. I have a fiesty, confident, clever and beautiful little girl who I’m so in love with and immensely attached to, it physically hurts at times. I wouldn’t swap motherhood for anything in the world and know how lucky I am to be her mama.
But actually, it didn’t always feel this way. At times, I would have gladly given her back. I would have gladly put my hands up and admitted failure, perhaps incompetency, perhaps selfishness, anything really, if only to have some level of autonomy and peace back into my life. Of course, that was never an option so I carried on through.
Women wanted an opportunity to have an experience as life changing as becoming a mother. They wanted to test themselves, explore their boundaries and ultimately come back to work a richer, stronger person
In the UK from where I write this, there has been a rise in women taking what has become known (controversially) as #meternity – a paid break from work but without the baby. The name was clumsy, the backlash was large, but some of the more thoughtful people who chimed in spoke not of new mums having an easy way to take a year off work and get paid to slack off for a bit (me rolling eyes) but rather of wanting an opportunity to have an experience as life changing as becoming a mother. They wanted to test themselves, explore their boundaries and ultimately come back to work a richer, stronger person – something any mother can relate to.
I look back now and realise how woefully under prepared I was, we were, for the incredible power of the change that sweeps through your life once you become a parent. I had spent time thinking about what kind of parent I wanted to be, I’d planned for our birth, I’d figured out our finances so I could take the amount of time off work I wanted. Looking back, I can now see that this was all logistical, not emotional.
When you read articles about early years parenting as a parent-to-be you feel like you get it. It’s full of moments of joy as well as moments of despair – the first smiles, first cute noises, days out, connections to other mums balanced by the lack of sleep, the difficulty of breastfeeding, the way you can bicker with your partner over who’s turn it is to do the dishes or hold the baby. We’ve had our own share of jostles to come to terms with all of this but, to me, this has been the easy bit, the type of negotiating I have experience of and can make coping plans for.
What I didn’t find and what I couldn’t see was people like me sharing how they were doing, how they were navigating this massive change, how their family was coping, how they had reshaped their identity after becoming a mother.
I vividly remember taking our 2 week old daughter out to our local park and there was a end of summer carnival on. I looked around at all the other families, people who were so like me and cried. I didn’t feel ready to be part of this parenthood thing and these didn’t seem like my people. To any outsider, we would have looked just the same as them. It would have been easy to assume that we were all in the same tribe. I imply no criticism here, but to me then, when I was still getting my head round it all and I didn’t want to be part of this gang. It felt suffocating and terminal, like I’d made an irrevocable choice.
This feeling of suffocation and of feeling like I had no choice continued for a long time. I wanted to be a mother and thought I was ready for it but when the visits to see the new baby stopped and reality set in, I was left grappling with my choices and how they were shaping me.
So what happened? I think it’s fair to say things got a bit real for a while. I’m super lucky – I didn’t suffer from any problems that couldn’t be resolved by a shower, a hug and a walk around the block. I also don’t mean to trivialise or undermine the experience of any other mother. I think everyone has a story worth sharing. In fact, I was almost reticent to write this, because really, what did I have to complain about? Not much, by most standards.
But, but. Having a baby I could never put down to eat, shower, clean or sleep wore me down. All those long hours with no adult company made me feel isolated. My post baby body made me feel bad about myself. Most of all, not being able to achieve anything and get stuff done was a shock to the system. I don’t mean ambitious things like pursuing a degree or keeping up training for a marathon. I mean managing to get to the shops to buy food, cooking dinner at a time I was actually able to eat it, watching a whole TV programme or drinking a cup of tea whilst it was still hot.
Around the 4th week of little girl’s life, I began to seriously consider I might not be the great mother I had planned to be. She developed reflux and spent whole nights awake, either snuffling like a mini dinosaur or yelling herself purple. Only one thing helped her sleep. Me, feeding her until she passed out, then holding her upright against my chest to keep the milk down. I continued this upright ‘sleeping’ arrangement until I was near delirious from lack of sleep and it had pushed me into a world of anxiety. Was she in pain? Had I done all I could? When she finally did sleep, I checked on her like a maniac, unable to relax and assume she was ok. I also never knew that, actually, a super fast letdown or good flow of milk could be causing the reflux. I could have taken the worries about not having enough milk off my shoulders.
Maybe mamas are meant to have a 6th sense, maybe the extra awareness is intended to help ensure the survival of the species.
I’ve never really had to consider that I might not cope, that I might not be doing it right, that I could be doing a bad job – or when I did have those feelings, I would be able to find a way to resolve them. It was all me and I could control every aspect of life that I needed to. I’d never known anxiety of this kind, this hyper awareness that keeps you constantly alert. Maybe mamas are meant to have a 6th sense, maybe the extra awareness is intended to help ensure the survival of the species. For so any nights after she was finally in her own bed, I woke up with a start, groping for her and pulling at the sheets, asking where she was and if she was ok.
Eventually, life got easier and I came to terms with my new reality. I found ways to cope that weren’t perfect but got us through. I still don’t prioritise myself over little girl or our family but I wash my hair twice a week and usually wear clean clothes. I feel less self conscious over talking to other grown ups and now don’t obsess over my toddler’s eating habits. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. It’s definitely not. I hope it can send a really simple message – all these big feelings are normal and it gets easier. Just like with everything else, sometimes, you just need to wait for time to move on. Sometimes, you have to accept your reality for what it is, find the good in it, go with the routine and hold your nerve. Life, just like the little babies we raise, changes constantly. The newborn stage is different to where we are now with our two year old and I’m sure the next year will change the game again.
As for us, I knew we were grownups when we went on our summer holiday and our little girl caught a stomach bug, meaning she refused to eat or drink. We spent 2 nights in hospital in Crete, through intermittent power cuts, each staying awake for two hours at a time to make sure our daughter didn’t pull out her IV or fall out of her adult style hospital bed. We complained a little, of course we did, but then we got on and came out the other side as slightly more mature people.
Interestingly, I only really finally felt myself again when I went back to work after my 20 months off. The change of environment, even for just 3 days a week, has reminded me who I am. There’s a new work me though which is very different to before. I’m at a new company but one filled with friends who understand and support me in my return to work. Let’s be honest: most jobs are easier than a day at home with a toddler.
So what am I now? Older and more tired – but more myself than ever. Probably softer and more emotional. Hopefully wiser, less selfish, braver, more patient, more determined, grittier. I care less about my appearance, worry less about what people think of me and I don’t sweat the small things. My thinking is more shades of grey than black and white now. I’m definitely kinder to myself. I’ve taken my multitasking skills to the next level and complain a whole lot less. I’m a woman and mama that’s excited for the future, proud of all that’s passed, determined to be a good role model for my daughter.
Perhaps we really do need to need #meternity for everyone.
This post was written for and first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Natural Parent Magazine.