I’ve seen a few post-birth pictures and I’ve been totally blown away by how radiant and glowing some of the women look. That’s not my reality. This is me after the birth of my second. I strained a smile as I came to grips with my new reality and tried to recover from the shock of an incredibly fast birth. I really did try to muster a smile for the camera but like Michaela, I was having some real feelings that couldn’t have been masked. We both just needed a moment to be in our feelings and there are a lot of feelings to be had when you’ve just had a baby.
Okay so this blog may hit a nerve, or two, or a whole bucket load, but I’m passionate about the topic so here I am going out on a limb. Perhaps there are people out there who are a bit sick of hearing mothers whinge about the hardships of motherhood. Personally, I’m a bit sick of the over romanticised nature of motherhood.
It’s true that nothing prepares you for motherhood. I remember people desperately trying to warn me when I first got pregnant. Later on, I also tried my best to explain the unimaginable life change to mothers to be. For many of us, it’s what we imagine being hit by a truck might be like and we want to soften that, somehow. Even though we know the inevitability of the impact, we still try to give some warning to new mothers.
People tried to tell me about all the getting up in the night etc and I listened, I’d close my eyes and imagine. Yes, yes, I can see it. I’ll hear the baby’s soft and adorable cries. I’ll stretch and yawn a bit but being filled with love for my bundle, I’ll happily slip on my bathrobe and float gently down the hallway towards the cot. A soft night light fills the room with a loving glow. Baby’s cries are soothed as soon as they know I’m there and we snuggle down peacefully into my plush rocking chair as I nourish my bubba and she gently drifts off back to sleep. With a little burp and a quick wrap in her blanket, she’s back sound asleep and I saunter back to bed and drift off to sleep easily myself, feeling content that I have once again met my baby’s needs with ease and grace. Opening my eyes I’d look into their worried faces and say “oh yes, of course, I’ll be getting up. I’ll manage”.
I had no idea that I would have to be induced 3 weeks early because Charlotte was worryingly small inside my womb. I think the delightful term they used was “failure to thrive”. I wasn’t a mother yet and already the word failure had entered my life. I didn’t realise that having a small/prem size baby meant she would be lethargic and unable to latch. I didn’t know this meant my colostrum would need to be extracted by hand. I didn’t know that I would have no friggin idea how to squeeze that stuff out of there. No matter how I squeezed and pinched my nipples, it just wasn’t coming out. A string of nurses came in day and after day to grab my tits and painstakingly extract the clear goop into a syringe that was treated like unicorn tears. I didn’t know that having a prem size baby meant she would have to be woken up every 3 hours to feed and that she would be impossible to keep awake. Even though she was too tired to latch I was compelled to try and then we’d move to syringe feeding her colostrum before putting her back to bed. By then I only had another 1-2 hours for more boob squeezing and a bit of rest before both her and I would need waking again. I was too tired to sleep. I was a shell of a woman and what was worse, I was not feeling love for my baby. I was too much in a fog, daze and trying to work out what the hell was going on to even comprehend how I felt about this bundle of pink.
Days went by in the hospital and I still felt nothing for my baby. I listened to the woman in the bed next to mine tell her birth story over and over again. She professed her love for her boy constantly. She apologised profusely every time he cried. I was still too lost in working out what the hell had happened to me to respond to her much. Finally, my midwife noticed I was in bad shape and arranged for me to have my own room. In the solitude, I found quiet but was left alone with my thoughts. Horrible thoughts about how I’d ruined my life and the life of this small baby. As if things weren’t bad enough, out came the double pump as it was decided that while Charlotte was still learning to latch, I needed to pump my milk so we could syringe feed it to her. As soon as I connected myself to this god-awful machine and the milk started flowing I entered a new hell. Deep feelings of shame, horror and sadness filled my body. Tears and milk flowed. I was told to pump for 20mins and I watched the clock tick waiting for salvation. It wasn’t until Charlotte was a toddler and I was preparing for my next baby that I learned that what I had experienced was Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. I had just assumed until that point that I was just a horrible human being.
Eventually, after some rest, I was able to share a snuggly moment with Charlotte when she was having a brief wakeful moment in my bed with me. We looked into each other’s eyes and I felt it. Finally. The rush of love through my body and I even remember saying out loud to her little face “oh! I do love you”. I’d heard of the ‘baby blues’ before and it’s likely I was experiencing that but nobody ever told me that I might not bond with my baby immediately and I think a lot of new mums are in the dark about this. So let me put this out there – if you were a new mum who thought you had screwed up, made a mistake or that you’d have to give your baby away within the first few weeks of birth, you’re not alone. This is much more common than people realise.
Once life settles down and you get home and begin your journey as a mother at home, there can be new grief that surfaces. Women who were connected to a lot of friends might find themselves feeling quite isolated, especially if those friends do not have children. Going out can be a bit of a nightmare so many stay at home and stare at the four walls of their home all day. Women who had busy jobs, careers, skills and passions find themselves feeling unmotivated and undervalued in their new role. Grief is a response to change. It’s the recognition of loss and it is a time when sadness is felt before accepting situations and moving on. People experience grief differently and I think it’s important that mothers be allowed to grieve openly. There can be a lot to grieve in such a momentous life change. The loss of friends, loss of career, loss of a birth going to plan, loss of a social life, loss of freedoms, loss of confidence, loss of identity. Many mothers find themselves unrecognisable even to themselves.
There is also the loss of the dream of motherhood when it isn’t what you expected. Even though I had imagined negotiating and sailing through getting up in the night to my baby, I didn’t know that when I got home after 10 unexpected days in the hospital, I’d actually need to keep waking her every 3 hours. She didn’t cry to wake me up like I had expected, I had to set an alarm. A dreaded alarm. I wouldn’t stretch and yawn, I’d groan and rue the day. Then I’d stumble down the hall putting my bathrobe on inside out. Struggling to find the light switch I’d then spend a good 20mins trying to gently wake my tiny baby up from a deep slumber. I’d spend a good hour trying to get a bottle into her while tugging at her arms and tickling her feet to keep her awake. I’d burp her, unsure if she’d finished because she fell asleep so deeply. I’d put her down and stumbled back to bed to hear her piercing screams once tucked snuggly under my blankets. She hadn’t got all the burps out. Back down the hall I go, staggering now and forgetting the bathrobe altogether. Then when she was finally properly burped and back to sleep my stomach would drop as I’d remember that I needed to pump my milk now to keep up my supply. I’d look at that double pump torture device with a sense of fear and loathing. Then I’d sit down and cry for 20mins while the milk was extracted, almost crawling back to bed knowing that the alarm was going to go off again in another 1-2 hours. Now – there’s something they didn’t put in ‘What to Expect When Expecting’.
I can only imagine how hard it must be for the women who have endured miscarriages or IVF before being blessed with their babies. They are the hardest of all on themselves for not being eternally grateful for every sleep deprived, poop and puke filled moment. All they ever wanted was this baby and some find themselves living in a nightmare. To these mothers, and all mothers, let me say from the bottom of my heart that despite being told to love every minute because they grow fast I don’t love every moment. In fact, I have downright hated being a mother at times and I’m not ashamed to say it because it’s been bloody hard and I do my best.
And really, that’s just the early motherhood stuff. Later on, there are more grieving moments, like the absolute torture of having to go back to work when Charlotte was just 10months. I wasn’t ready but we weren’t ready to be homeless and I was heartbroken. Then there was the grief of having my second child who was a completely different baby and shattered my illusion that I knew what I was doing. There was even less support for me as a mum to a second baby, even though it was my first time breastfeeding. I was consumed by guilt and grief as my Charlotte struggled to find her feet in the new family dynamic and with Michaela refusing to sleep for more than 2 hours at night and only 20mins at a time during the day, I slipped into post-natal depression.
And even though we struggle, strive and sometimes curse motherhood, we feel the grief of our growing babies. Shedding a tear as we pack away baby clothes now too small to wear, wave our babies off to school or find that they no longer creep into our beds at night. We are proud and joyful to see them grow and also feel the heart-wrenching tear as they move into new phases of their lives.
I’m sorry to the mothers who haven’t been able to have children. I suppose these sorts of blogs make you want to scream at our lack of gratitude for the gift of our children. It’s not that I don’t adore my children and I enjoy being a mother MOST of the time. It’s just that for many of us the road has been hard and in today’s world where we live isolated from each other, support can be lacking. I think being able to openly grieve for the change in our lives on entering motherhood and all the grief-laden experiences that come with it could well help mothers to feel less alone in their circumstances. I don’t want to normalise motherhood as hell on wheels, in fact, I’d like to see the romantic and joyful experience of motherhood become the norm. In the meantime, though, while we learn to reach out and support each other – allowing mothers their feelings, vulnerabilities and safe places to share their darkest thoughts and emotions is very much needed. I encourage every coffee group out there to see if you can put the nappy brand chat aside and create an agreement to share deeply with each other. Allow tears, anger and frustration to pour out and hold each other in grace.