Originally published in issue 2 of I Hope You Like Feminist Rants
The pain was transformative: the contractions, each one folding my body and mind in half with its intensity. I don’t remember any pain as my son actually exited; I was so relieved it was ending I laughed as he emerged.
That first night I was blissful, how I had imagined it would be. My tiny human gurgled next to me in bed as my husband slept. At midnight I lifted my son to my breast and he latched on and I sank into his need of me and felt that everything was perfect.
But within a few days, all that had changed. My son cried a lot. He cried between feeds, he cried during feeds, he cried when picked up and cried when put down. I cried just as much. I felt trapped in my leaking, painful, stitched together body, and trapped in my home, scared to leave him for a second, but desperate to be alone. His cry set off something biological in me that refused to be ignored, that pulled at my mind so hard it began to tear.
There were nights he cried so hard and so long that he lost his voice. My tiny, weeks old baby screamed for help so much that his vocal cords gave up and I couldn’t fix it. I felt completely adrift. I was so sure motherhood would come naturally to me, that if I gave myself over to it, it would just work. But it didn’t.
And at the same time, I was desperately lonely. I have never felt so lonely as I did the first time I was left alone at home with my son. The love I felt for him consumed me. I needed to tell someone, constantly, how much I loved him. But my husband had to go back to work and there I was, pinned to the sofa, breastfeeding an incredibly unhappy baby non-stop, as he flailed and clawed at me, and feeling like the world outside was no longer mine. I felt lonely even when my husband was with me, and this is not any comment on his contribution, because he was wonderful. He did all that he could, all of the time. But he was not a mother and what I needed, more than anything, was someone who knew what this was and could tell me that it would all be okay, because they had been there themselves. Nothing else would do.
I’m pretty confident that things would have been very different if my Mum had been alive. I know that she would have been there, whether I asked her to be or not, to help me and to tell me when to stop, when I had had too much, when I needed to just let go and let someone else take over.
In hindsight, I needed to ask for more help. Not from my husband, who was doing all that he could, but from other women. I admit that, before pregnancy, other women scared me. I felt ill equipped for female friendships, like I was missing that innate ability to maintain the special relationships I saw other women enjoy. I’m ashamed to admit that the thing I feared most about motherhood was being initiated into this new club. I felt it a responsibility. I was an idiot. Since becoming a mother, my relationship with women has completely changed. I no longer feel disconnected or fearful, or ‘other’. I understand that friendships between women are important and that the friendships between mothers are vital. The sharing of knowledge, and the psychological support that come with sharing what seem like terrible experiences, is essential to your sanity in those first few months. Those traumatic experiences become humorous when shared with those who have experienced the same.
When thinking about life, I like to picture the small village, the ideal setup for human society, where we evolved to live, before industrialisation drove us past the curve of our evolution. In the small village, women give birth into a community, with their families close by and where the people around them are their friends. In the small village, a woman is not left, two weeks into motherhood, to do everything alone. She has people helping at every stage, people offering advice, people she knows and trusts taking the baby from her so she can wash and eat. This is how motherhood should be. It does indeed take a village. A new mother should not be left alone with her child unless she wants to be, and then it’s a delight to be holed up together, away from the world, quietly being in awe of your child’s existence.
I’ve heard many people tell me, both parents and non-parents, that motherhood is ‘the hardest but most rewarding thing you can do’. I balk at this phrase and I’ve not, until now, questioned why. I think it’s because this suggests something magical at play, or a narrative of self-sacrifice being honorable that, as a woman, does not sit well with me. This is the biggest issue I have with being a mother, this expectation that I should give more of myself than my husband; not that he believes this, but I know others do, and I even include myself in this, though that is strange to admit. It’s a deeply in-built belief that we don’t seem, as a society, ready to investigate. And that phrase, ‘the hardest but most rewarding thing you can do’, suggests to me that not being a mother means you will never be truly satisfied with your life, that you have not done the one thing that will bring you the most reward possible, and I don’t believe this is true.
Being a parent is hard. Being a mother removes you from life for a time. That time can be decided by you to an extent, but the level of control you have over it is much less than you anticipate. I thought I would fit my baby into my life, that I would be a relaxed and easy-going mother who took my son with me to do the things I needed to do and worked around his schedule. I didn’t consider that my son would come ready-made with his own personality and his own way of doing things, or that he might cry non-stop for months, or that he would scream and choke every time I took him out in the car, making car journeys so stressful I would get the shakes before I had to take him anywhere.
You can decide what kind of parent you will be, but you can’t decide what kind of child you have. And nor should you. Because my son’s early dissatisfaction with life turned into curiosity, single mindedness and strength of character. I would not replace a single day of his early life, because every one of those days helped make him the beautiful boy he is today.
Work is strange now. I am both less and more motivated, less and more confident. I’m not sure how to explain this. I know what I’m capable of now and I’m less concerned about the opinions of others, but at the same time there is a loss of belief in myself as a professional person, a feeling of deterioration of my intelligence that is hard to pinpoint, but ever present. Perhaps it’s simply being out of the world of work for a while, but it feels more like a shift of priorities on a cellular level, like my body and brain have re-tuned themselves to this new key of parenthood.
All of this has certainly given me new perspective. In my pre-parenting days, I was incredibly selfish, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. I had worked very hard to craft a life that suited me perfectly and I was a loner. I loved to be alone, to work alone, to dine alone. I knew what I liked to do with my day, so I built a career that allowed me to sit at my own desk at home and create things, or write in cafés, or travel and photograph wonderful things. These days, my work is crammed into one day a week, along with the snippets of time I scavenge during naps. The result of this is I’m more efficient than ever before and can achieve more in an hour than I ever thought possible; yet I don’t achieve more overall, because my time is so scarce. From 6.30am to 7.30pm, I am non-stop parenting, on high alert, completely immersed in my role. I can’t even answer a phone in case my attention is pulled away and my son decides to dive off a sofa, despite not yet being able to walk. My mind and body are not my own for those 13 hours a day. They are not mine to use. They are his. But as time passes, I get more and more of myself back and I can see this will continue. And of course, while that brings me comfort, it also makes me sad.
This is the paradox of motherhood. You crave yourself, the life and freedom you had before, but in no way do you want it back. You want to be a mother, completely and unreservedly, and you want to also have time to be yourself again. You strive for this impossible dream and you struggle with it every hour of every day. Am I paying enough attention? Giving enough love? Encouraging enough independence? Have I lost myself to motherhood? Am I now a bore? Is my mind as agile as it once was? And ultimately: do I even care if I am lost?
I’m a year into this now and I love my son more than ever. Parenting is getting easier, though it brings new challenges every day. I like to see him becoming a person and developing a personality and I’m excited to see the boy and the man he will become. In all honesty, I don’t know if I will do it again. I feel like one child is enough for me, though I do feel the pull of only-child guilt. I want to be me again, as well as Mum, and I struggle with the idea of putting that back another couple of years. Perhaps if I’d had an ‘easy’ baby, perhaps if my mother was around to help, perhaps if I’d been stronger…but none of these things change the fact that the first months are visceral and transformative, sleep-deprived and hormonal, brutal and beautiful.
Motherhood is consuming. Motherhood is a singly female experience that I feel honoured to be part of; but motherhood is not a definition of being female. I already knew this before I became a mother, but I don’t think I felt it in my core as I do now. It’s a strange thing to realise from this side of childbirth, but I know it, more than ever, to be true.