As the birth of my first child approached, I knew I had it.
I had it nailed, motherhood. I had read every pregnancy and childbirth book I could find. I’m a journalist – I read constantly and research things for a living, and this was no different.
I’d researched my birth plan (gas and air first please, epidural a last resort, try to avoid an episiotomy); the right equipment (the bouncer, the play mat, the Baby Bjorn and the buggy I didn’t yet know how to fold); and the strategies (at all costs, avoid rocking your baby to sleep – shush, pat, shush, pat in the cot ad infinitum instead.) I was clearly onto a winner.
And yet, twenty four hours after my son had been delivered by caesarian – that section in the back of What To Expect on breech deliveries had come in handy – I felt like I was on the losing team.
Despite my detailed examination of breastfeeding diagrams, I had completely failed to get my son to latch. He lay in a cot next to me crying, and the nurses said he’d probably need to be given a bottle.
All of the depictions of childbirth I’d read about and watched were a million miles away from an operation I’d found frightening, and post-operative pain worse than any I’d previously experienced. I’d almost fainted trying to sit up, and my husband and a nurse had pretty much had to carry me to the toilet. After which, they’d fanned my face as waves of nausea gripped me and refused to let go.
When friends visited in hospital I pasted on a smile and I look reasonable in the photos of the event, but I know the truth. I was drowning in what I perceived to be my failure. I was not ecstatic and full of the joys of my new-found motherhood; I was petrified, out of my depth, and finally facing up to an unavoidable truth – my life had just changed absolutely, and there was no way back.
I remember feeling very angry with the mothers I was close to. Why had no-one told me this was how I would feel? The books I’d read focused largely on the pregnancy and the birth, but stopped abruptly after the delivery. I realised I knew loads about growing a baby, but pretty much nothing about how to keep one alive. Or, when it came to it, how my life was going to change, and how best to deal with it.
Recently, a close friend in her 40s told me she was expecting her first baby. I was delighted for her, of course; almost six years on from the mind-fog surrounding my son’s birth, I know that motherhood is a glorious gift, one I’m incredibly lucky to be experiencing.
But I also decided to tell her the truth. As she sat opposite me in a restaurant, eyes sparkling with delight, I made a choice to be honest. And she’s still talking to me, luckily.
So, here it is. Here’s what I wish someone else had said to me before I became a mother. If they had, I’d have realised that I wasn’t alone, and that’s a powerful thing.
It’s ok to be a bit crap
Some mothers just look amazing. There’s a woman who drops her child off at my son’s school every day, whilst carrying another one in a baby carrier, and pushing two more in a buggy. Four kids, and she still wears nice clothes and manages to look like she hasn’t got dressed in the 60 seconds between nappy changes and cleaning breakfast from the floor.
Meanwhile, I know my clothes are often covered in child-detritus, our buggy is covered in mud, and my brain is so addled that I regularly forget things and have to return home to get my son’s gym kit, despite the fact that he needs it on the same day every week.
Letters from school asking for costumes for assemblies and plays make me come out in a rash (I feel sufficiently guilty to still attempt to make things rather than buy them, but I’m not sure how long my son will continue to tolerate this – my last attempt at a beard was an airline eye blind with cotton wool buds stuck on it.) And then there are birthday cakes. I try to make these too, and I have cried Every.Single.Time. Mostly with laughter.
The thing is, most mums feel like this most of the time. That mum with four kids probably feels the same, and Lord knows, she definitely has an excuse. Be gentle with yourself. Love your kids with all your heart and they’ll forgive you most things (hopefully.)
Breastfeeding is very hard for some people
Both my mother and mother-in-law were breastfeeding advocates, so I felt an enormous pressure to feed my baby myself. And of course I’d read the books and knew the significant benefits. But Lord, I found it so hard.
I know women who’ve sailed through the whole thing. I guess they have nipples that point out perfectly to help the baby latch, a baby without a tongue-tie and a lot of support in the beginning stages.
It turned out that my journey was a hell of a lot more complicated, though. It was only with the help of a dedicated midwife, silicone nipple shields and a breast pump that I managed to keep it up for nine months. I also turned to mix-feeding – supplementing with formula twice a day – and it worked for us. Sometimes it’s reassuring to see the milk disappear from a bottle – either formula or pumped – and absolutely know that your baby is getting the nutrition it needs. They don’t say that in the books, but there you have it.
Your career will probably to take a knock
I remember thinking that having a baby would be a great break from my career. I know! How bonkers is that. I had a very demanding job working shifts, and I was tired and stressed. I believed that having a baby might give me a new calling, and a reason to step off the treadmill. Little did I know that I’d actually miss it. I discovered that my job had defined me far more than I thought; I’d worked hard for years to get where I’d got to, and it really meant something.
By contrast, I realised my new job was motherhood, and that I really wasn’t very good at it. It’s a 24 hour job, seven days a week, which you can never resign or take a sick day from. It’s poorly paid and it’s pretty thankless until your little one begins to interact with you, so that’s quite a few months of mopping up sick, poo and wee without so much as a giggle.
The realisation of all of this made me want to return to my old job quickly, but I also realised that motherhood had made that tricky. If you earn less than your partner (and of course individual situations differ), it’s natural that you will probably be the one who has to find a job that works around childcare.
One of you has to, at any rate, and in my case, it was me. You’ll need to find a job that allows you flexibility for kids’ sick days and school holidays, and that works around childcare options. Often, those jobs are not as well paid as your previous one, or as high-ranking. On the plus side, stepping off the career treadmill can turn into a blessing – you get an opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that can be lots of fun.
Your night life is dead for the foreseeable
When my son was a few months’ old, I ventured out to a mums’ coffee morning. Everyone else seemed to know each other and they were densely packed together in tight groups, but I managed to perch on the end of a table and the two mums nearest to me gaily asked if we were planning to have another baby. I looked aghast. One of them laughed and said “Well, my life was ruined already, so the second one was easy”. She and her friend roared with laughter. I didn’t find it funny.
Now of course I wouldn’t say my life has been ruined (reader, we had a second baby, and I still have friends and a job) but golly, my social life is unrecognisable.
To give you an idea – we just went to the cinema for the first time in FOUR YEARS. In order to go out after dark, we now need to kid our five year old son that we’re staying in (he has the ears of a bat – he can detect a babysitter from miles away) AND justify the cost of someone coming. Plus we can’t leave until the children are in bed, because they are very fussy about who does their bedtime routines. So anything that starts before 8pm like, you know, concerts and plays – they’re out. For years.
Anti-depressants are not an admission of failure Motherhood is the biggest adventure of your life, but like all adventures, it’s full of highs and lows, and for some, those lows are intense. The muddy cocktail of hormones you experience immediately post-birth causes many women to weep, but if it lasts longer, seek help. Several months after my son was born, it became clear that my baby blues were something of a permanent feature. A doctor put me on a low dose of an anti-depressant, and while admitting I was struggling made me feel like a failure, the pills themselves made me feel hugely better, very quickly. I was a better mother because of it, and I now strongly advocate more provision for mental health support for young mothers. Post-natal (and ante-natal) depression are both very real, for many women. Don’t feel embarrassed. Please.
So there you have it. That’s what I’d have like to have known before I embarked on motherhood. It’s certainly true that some women, the lucky ones, find only joy in motherhood, and that is a wonderful thing. But this is for the others, the ones who stumble a bit, who trip and fall before finding their feet.
Two very important things I’ve learned: Motherhood is a constantly evolving skill that cannot be learned from a book, however much you read.
And it’s also an incredible gift – but one that may just take a little longer to unwrap than you imagined.