Whoever told you motherhood is easy, is lying. I knew it would be hard, but the complexity of changes, both emotional and physical, is something none of us are ever really prepared for. Antenatal classes prepare us for labour, birth and how to care for a new baby, but no one ever really teaches you how to look after yourself. How not to lose yourself, your identity, when you become a mother. There are so many systems in place to safeguard our beautiful children and babies, but when was the last time someone asked you how you are? How you really are? Why is it that once baby is here, the mother is forgotten?
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mother, it’s the most rewarding experience I could have ever imagined. My mother always told me “you will only understand when you are a mother” and it’s true. No words can do it justice, but it’s opened my eyes to a whole new world. Where does the reality lie? Is it between the mothers I see, as patients, in tears at my door because they feel they are failing as a parent, that mother I once was, and the social media mother who has it all together, with the beautiful breastfeeding shots and the slim, perfectly recovered postpartum body? The pressure we put upon ourselves as women and mothers, the expectations we create unknowingly is the most unhealthy thing we could do to ourselves.
Being pregnant first time round I was surrounded by these beautiful photos of love at first sight between mother and baby after birth. There’s the perfect birth plan, or books full of advice on how to “sleep train” your baby, how much to feed your baby or pages and pages of contradicting advice like “cuddle more, but don’t cuddle too much”. When did we lose our innate intuition as mothers and replace it with “evidence based” books, by “experts” telling us how to raise children that we, as women, have been doing for thousands of years? I remember the exhaustion I felt after a 12 hour labour and I remember the relief I felt when the pain stopped and she was delivered, but what sticks in my mind the most is when they handed her to me… that expectation of overwhelming love and tears was met with nothing but fear. “I can’t do this, I don’t know how to do this.” Everything I had been taught, read, learned was leading up to this point, but no one can tell you what comes next. This wasn’t like the photos, the stories or the blogs. “It wasn’t meant to be like this,” I kept thinking to myself.
I will admit, I was caught up by it all even though I promised myself I wouldn’t be. But after having my first daughter I found myself hating what I saw in the mirror looking back at me, crying at pre-pregnant photos of me, questioning my mothering skills. My body wasn’t the same, the pregnancy glow had worn off, no matter how much I tried to “glam” myself back up, I ended up hating myself more. Why wasn’t my baby sleeping the recommended six hours in the day or drinking the exact 120mls recommended every three hours? I’d failed myself and my body, but why was I failing her too?
“Why am I not enough?”
Being told by professionals who were meant to be there for support in those difficult early days that I should supplement my breastfeed with formula because I had a “small” baby, despite her gaining weight, was a hard pill to swallow. I remember leaving in tears. She had just confirmed my fear:
“I’m not enough.”
Once baby was out, that’s all that mattered. The broken body hiding beneath the clothes was something no one wanted to know about or share. You were a mother now, 110% devoted to this tiny human you’d grown inside you for nine months. But where are you? The person you were before baby? That person isn’t what’s looking back at you in the mirror. I remember thinking “I don’t even recognise me anymore”.
Maternity leave was hard. I felt isolated, alone. The continuous sense of dependence from this tiny baby was terrifying and exhausting, mentally, physically and emotionally. You end up questioning yourself; “How did our mothers do it, our grandmothers, great grandmothers?” But we forget. Previous generations babies were raised in communities, by neighbours, by aunts, by relatives, friends and elders in a close-knit society. Not in this 21st century world where everything is time dependent, technology dependent, photo dependent, social media dependent. What we’ve achieved through the will to communicate is losing physical touch, losing communities for our children and ultimately isolating ourselves. Nothing can replace that, no matter how advanced the technology.
For me, I found myself, a new me, when I returned to work as a GP. I had a completely new insight, I understood mothers and babies, not in the way that my naive pre-motherhood me had mistaken me to believe I understood and empathised, but with a real connection. My practice changed. My first question to a mother and baby I would see in clinic was “how is mummy?” Instead of my previous “how is baby?” I remember wishing that everyone would notice me more instead of heading straight to baby. I remember wishing someone would notice the brave front I wore to the world instead of asking the standard questions driven by society’s expectations:
“Are you still breastfeeding?”
“Does baby sleep through the night yet?,
“Are they babbling, crawling, talking yet?
“Maybe you should interact with them more, take them to more classes.”
And yet we still wonder with all this pressure, demand and expectation society creates on new mothers, why the rates of antepartum and postpartum depression have risen exponentially in the last decade.
I discovered insight into my own headspace seeing these new mums as patients and seeing so much of myself in them. My ten minute consultations turned into thirty with me repeating “you are enough”; “fed is best”; “stop putting so much pressure on yourself, use your support network”; “take a break, go for a walk, alone“; “you are everything that baby needs”, over and over and over again. And it hit me - the words I wished I had been told, I had told myself, the words I wished I could have believed.
The Mum guilt is real, but it was created by the demands of society that envisages a devoted mother as one that never leaves their child, stays home and gives 110% of herself, 150% of the time. But taking time out to breathe, to take care of you, is not selfish, it’s the bravest thing you can do for you both. You need to be in a good place, to look after you, to be able to be the best version of yourself for your child.
You both deserve that.
You need to find your own identity, to be able to guide your child to grow and find theirs. They say put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others in an emergency, so learn to breathe.
Motherhood isn’t a picture, a book, a guide, or a staged photo, it’s a connection. A connection to other mothers, our children, our partners, family, friends, and the rest of the world. We are the real-life role models for our sons, our daughters. How we see ourselves is how they will learn to self-reflect. How we feel within ourselves will reflect in our interaction with them and teach the next generation to come. So Be kind to yourselves, to each other. Put 5 minutes aside each day to breathe, to notice the beauty in right now, in yourself. Your body may not be what it was, but each scar you see, every stretch mark on your wounded body bears a story, a life well lived, survived, an imperfect beauty that makes you unique from the monotonous social media “glam”. Create your own kind of beautiful. Embrace the imperfections, for that is real beauty.
And even as I say this, I have faced the same self-loathing again, if not worse, with my second pregnancy, albeit a very difficult one. But I will be kinder this time. I am different, I am stronger, I am still me but also a mother. I will embrace this change and be braver this time, because love needs to start within yourself. And yet I keep whispering to myself…
“it’s ok, I’m allowed to feel this way, this is real life.”
Courage doesn’t need to roar, it’s the tiny whisper telling me to keep trying, keep loving, keep believing. Because the only thing guaranteed in life is change, if we don’t embrace it, we lose the most precious thing we have in this world...Time. I want my daughters to look at me and see my scars, my imperfections, my stretch marks and to hear my stories.
This is real life. This is the everlasting beauty within us all.