Exactly seven years ago, my life as a self-assured, fresh-faced, pert thirty-something who spent her weekends blissfully attending Friday night drinks followed by yoga and pilates classes on Saturdays came to a sudden, screaming, abrupt end. Oh, how I thought I had it together at that point!
Along came our very much awaited baby, Star, after a dream pregnancy. Apart from some horrendous morning sickness, I sailed through the rest of the pregnancy like some beatific goddess, posing for bikini shots at 22 weeks, running until 28, walking and swimming until the day I went into labour.
From the moment I heard her wail, and saw her tiny little face, everything changed. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past seven years.
I learned that I could love in a way I had never known before. A fiercely protective, at times obsessive love. And then I learned that I could love more than one child, even when I thought it was impossible – that I could experience the same tenderness with another little human being. I learned that the first love you have with your child is like an infatuation. You’re addicted to them. Is it the hormones? Perhaps. But intoxicating nonetheless. I learned that looking into your child’s eyes, seeing them smile, and having them kiss you is one of the most sublime experiences in the whole world. I learned about joy, bliss, and utter fulfilment.
I then learned that ambivalence is normal. This took me many years. I learned that you can love being a parent, and feel utterly and completely broken at the same time. I learned that postpartum depression can take many many years to surface, that the early months of sleep deprivation and self-doubt are nothing compared to the times spent sobbing silently in the car on the way to or from work when the babies are all grown up. I learned that you then get out of the car, wipe the tears away, and somehow let a bit of colour back into your life again. I learned that self care is so much more than the throwaway phrase “me time” – it’s not about massages and pedicures. Self care is about a commitment to allow yourself space to reflect, to prioritise what your real needs are, to make difficult decisions. Self care is most of all about creating a stronger self awareness, and being brave enough to do what needs to be done. It is about picking up the phone and getting professional help. It’s about saying you’re not coping instead of pretending you’re doing just fine. I learned that even though you think you’re being resilient by getting up, showing up, and pushing through that endless sleep deprivation or the work-family juggle, once you push the “dig deep” button too many times, the cracks will start to show. I learned that everyone has a limit.
I have been through more change and done more work in the past seven years than in the previous thirty-four. Every day I struggle to make sense of what I am doing. Every day I question what I do. Every day I look for ways to get closer to the answers of how to lead a good life, to be a role model, to not be an asshole. And I’ve learned that I’ll only get closer to this but I may never get there. I’ll always be trying. And that’s ok.
I learned about being flexible, that there were so many things I thought I would not do that I eventually did as a parent. Let the kids watch TV. Use disposable nappies. Let my toddler eat off the floor. (It was clean!) Use formula. Send my toddler to daycare. Work full time. And so I try to bring this flexibility and openness to the rest of my life. I try to remember that I’m not always right the first time.
I learned that being a parent is a lifelong journey of worry. Every new stage brought with it new fears, uncertainties, a sense of the unknown. It was frightening at times. And so I learned to let go. I saw our lives stretching out with challenges and milestones like an obstacle course – teething, sleeping, toilet training, primary school, puberty, sex, disappointment, failure, rejection, leaving home. And so much that I could not control. It was like a movie. I started crying a lot more during movies. And experienced the breathlessness of letting go and stepping into the void.
I learned that there is nothing quite like the friendship you can forge with certain mums, whether they be strangers or women who are already family or friends. I leaned on the warmth and support of so many other mothers – including those whose children were long grown up. I learned that a kind word to a confused, sad, fiercely protective and vulnerable new mother goes a long way, and that, conversely, a flippant comment can wound deeply. I learned that sharing each stage together created bonds that are stronger than steel. I learned about empathy, compassion, humour, and friendship in a way I had not experienced before.
I learned that guilt is a bitch, and you have to kick that bitch in the ass. I learned that unconscious bias is alive and well, and often perpetuated by women. I learned to tune out messages about the perfect mum in stock photos, with her perfectly coiffed hair, her smiling children neatly dressed in designer clothes. That mum never had grey roots or avocado on her blouse. Those children never had dirty faces or unruly hair. That mum never yelled at her children, drank too much wine, or spent too much time on Facebook because there was nothing else to do during the mind numbing hours between pre dawn wakeups and the first nap of the day.
I learned that so many simple things that I used to take for granted were actually so so joyful. Being alone, for example. I crave being alone, where before I would do anything to have company. But now, solitude is like the holy grail. I fantasise about plane flights and hotel rooms on my own. There are other things that a parent rejoices over that I would have thought bananas in the past. A poo in the toilet. Sleeping in until 7:30am. Sleeping through the night.
They say it takes seven years for the skin cells in our body to complete renew themselves. You’re literally a new person after seven years. And I feel like a completely transformed woman. There is still the old me in there – she comes out like a mischievous imp whenever we have a babysitter for the evening. She is charming, witty, carefree, funny and loves karaoke.
The new me has a sadness to her, as though she’s seen something she cannot unsee. But there is a depth and a richness to her. She understands the ups and downs of life, the tragedy, the inevitable grief. She cries with more intensity, she spends a lot of time in contemplation. She’s authentic. She has a grit to her, and a “scary mummy” voice that would make grown men stand to attention. She has a tenderness to her she didn’t have before, a real softness, strangely tempered with a razor sharp edge. Her knees no longer shake when she speaks in public. She understands her patients’ lives and their struggles. She looks toward the future with anticipatory grief, but also with courage. And most of all, after seven years of being a mum, she is finally learning that to be the best kind of mum, she needs to look after herself first. She’s finally, finally taking her own advice.
Dedicated to my beloved children “Star” and “Owl”. I am so grateful for the lessons you continue to teach me, your endless love and forgiveness for the times mummy gets cranky and shouty, and the way you make everything light up.
And to all the mums out there. Happy Mothers Day for Sunday. xxx