I didn’t enter motherhood until my 30’s. My 20’s were spent in a hedonistic mist punctuated by dark episodes of depression.
I had this notion that children could just fit into regular life and with a bit of effort women could “have it all”. (I was a bit of an idiot in my 20’s). However, I think subconsciously I knew this wasn’t really true so I kidded myself I didn’t want children.
Then I turned 30. In the midst of a deep, life threatening bout of severe clinical depression, it hit me. My cousin had just given birth to a gorgeous baby girl and as I held this tiny, perfect little human born only a few days before, I realised this was what I wanted, no, NEEDED. But it wasn’t a possibility. I had just got divorced and was trying to extract myself from another toxic relationship while battling to recover my mental health. Having a child just wasn’t going to happen.
Then BAM! Out of nowhere my life changed. I was well on the road to recovery when I met my husband and after a bit of a whirlwind courtship we rented a flat and started talking about babies.
Despite a history of endometriosis I fell pregnant straight away. I had just started my studies to become a therapeutic counsellor and my life changed forever.
Like most women, I was totally absorbed by the pregnancy. I bought all the magazines and read everything online. I researched my birth choices, read all about breastfeeding and poured over the best parent facing buggies and co-sleeping cots. I knew it ALL. Or so I thought!
You see, all the birth prep in the world doesn’t really prepare you for motherhood. All the focus is on giving birth with a bit of a nod to how tiring raising a baby is but that’s it really.
There is no real acknowledgement for the profound and deep change within the self that happens when you become a mother and that change keeps on. The “becoming” is eternal from the moment you know there is life in your belly until your dying breath.
Quite simply, motherhood changes us.
For me, I had already changed somewhat. Due to my illness I had given up my busy, responsible sales job in London and had been living a more simple life. I had traded long hours, targets and smart suits for working 9-4 four days a week doing admin for a local charity while studying part-time.
I embraced what I saw as the simplicity of motherhood. My role was to simply attend to my babies needs. This thinking served me well as now I see how so many women struggle with this concept and find the transition from busy, highly organised positions of “responsibility” to the unpredictable, unorganised, responsive role of mothering really hard. Plus the fact that you don’t get a business card as a mum so your position as a “productive” member of society is reduced to “just a mummy”.
It was the realisation that our reproductive lives are viewed by society as “non-productive” or even worse, a drain, that sparked something in me.
Although breastfeeding came fairly easily to me I found it wasn’t the case for many of the mums I met at the breastfeeding group in my local children’s centre. This made me want to help so I enrolled in the peer support training that was on offer and, according to the Daily Mail, a monster was created. However, in reality, supporting mums in establishing breastfeeding is nothing to do with wanting to “make mum’s feel bad” or about “mummy wars” despite what the media tells us. It came from a place of feeling great injustice and dare I say it, my growing feminism! So many of the women I met didn’t meet their breastfeeding goals either due to shoddy advice or because of the narrow, arbitrary limits society places on breastfeeding. Grown women who chaired meetings and filed sales reports or ran call centres or entire organisations were reduced to nervous wrecks at the mere thought of having to feed their baby in Costa.
It wasn’t just about breastfeeding either. Motherhood comes with a crazy set of social rules. Children are viewed as “less than” and mothers (hardly ever fathers) are held to account for any and all transgressions that their offspring may commit such as having a tantrum in public. Heaven forbid!
I listened to these women as they told me their struggles beyond feeding. I held hands, gave tissues and listened. I listened to their fears and hopes. I listened to their worries about returning to work to a job they once loved but felt was no longer so important and all they really wanted to do was stay home with their baby. Or the women who realised how incompatible their view on child-rearing is with their partner and how they struggled with them not understanding her need to keep her baby close and continue breastfeeding despite it being tiring.
Or how they had simply changed. Their relationship with themselves and with others had altered and it was DIFFICULT. People expected them to be the same person who loved weekends in Marbs or shopping in Westfeilds and couldn’t understand they had neither the energy or desire to do those things. I supported the tricky navigation of friendships when they explained they didn’t want to leave their baby for a child-free wedding and that they didn’t “need a break” from the most precious thing in their lives.
Now as a qualified counsellor and doula, I do this and more. I also listen to the dark stuff. The realisation that they themselves had a less than ideal childhood or the abuse they endured years ago that they thought was buried was no longer so easy to ignore. I listen as they whisper “I didn’t love my baby at first”. I give them the space to explore this because for many the transition to motherhood is painful and messy way beyond pregnancy and birth.
The metamorphosis from woman to mother is a unique journey for each of us. It is profound and irrevocable. We change on a biomolecular level. Our brain chemistry alters to provide us with the maternal feelings we need to effectively protect and nurture our young. This can be a source of great anxiety for many women because modern western society is just so incompatible with these base, animalistic desires and instincts.
In any other area of life when we undergo great change, we accept there is a period of adjustment and that people will react and adjust differently depending on their experiences and need for support. Be it bereavement, divorce, changing job, retiring or moving house, we accept help and acknowledge time, space and support is usually needed to accommodate our new circumstances yet this most profound change, becoming a mother, is not treated with much reverence. We don’t respect the enormity of what happens when we become mothers. We expect women to just get on with it, usually alone!. If she’s lucky she’ll have a supportive partner who will be at home with her for the first week or two at most and that’s often it. After then she’s expected to get on with this new life with very little in the way of counsel or reassurance from others. We mother in isolation away from the familiarity or our pre-baby life, work and friends with little input from anyone bar criticism or commentary from the media or the in-laws! It’s no wonder we have such high rates of post-natal illness.
What I have noticed over the years is the value in connection. Obviously as a counsellor I understand the value of human-to-human relationships and much can be achieved in a good therapeutic relationship but for most women they simply need to feel they belong. Peer to peer support is invaluable. It gives us a normative view of motherhood and as social mammals it is hard-wired in us to work in a tribe. Raising children in an insular environment is counter-intuitive and unhealthy.
We need to give new mothers the support and respect they deserve. Mothers need to be with people. She needs to be loved and supported as she finds her own way. She needs to be trusted and given the opportunity to trust herself. After all she’s doing a very important job!
So, the next time you’re with a new mother, don’t offer to hold her baby to “give her a break” offer her a cuppa and an ear. Listen to her, offer her reassurance and tell her she’s doing a great job.