First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes mommy with a baby’s carriage. Hmmm. If only life were that simple. Linda Shaw takes a look at the giant leap needed to transform a freewheeling chickie into a mother with chicks of her own.
Moving into motherhood
Moving into motherhood What being a mom entails Survival tips Some women ease into motherhood with all the aplomb of an owl on nightshift. At last count, there were 14 of those. Worldwide. For the rest, parenthood comes as the biggest shock since Santa fell off his reindeer. “But don’t you love your child?” they all gasp simultaneously in infant-worshipping horror.
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Of course you love your child. Although it may take weeks or even months for that love to take hold, once it does, your life takes on a meaning no-one can ever prepare for. As one mother of three graphically noted: “God knows, I love my husband. But my feeling for him is like dung on a cowpat compared to what I feel for my kids.” And that’s precisely as it should be.
Or is it? Is being a mother the same thing as loving someone so much you would step in front of a bus to save him a broken ankle; or give up a lifelong dream to take her to a coveted birthday party; or starve to death so your precious angel can have dessert? You ask around, wondering what is appropriate.
But in the loving/mothering question, there is just no help to be found. Instead, a new mom, desperate to get it right, finds herself engulfed by guilt, accusation, criticism, anxiety and, occasionally, sheer malice.
Not to mention cliché.
- “You’re making a rod for your own back, you know.”
- “There’s nothing wrong with a good smack, just to keep them in line.”
- “You’re not smacking that poor darling, are you? Someone ought to smack you.”
And my personal favourite:
“Well, of course, if you had listened to me in the first place, you wouldn’t be having this problem now.”
So here you’ll be, a new mother, so desperately in love with your baby, you’ll almost have forgotten what your husband looks like (assuming, that is, you have one), and not sure how to handle it all. Nearly all of us, meanwhile, also have jobs, bills to pay and – may the gods forgive us – dreams of our own.
What being a mom entails
Moving into motherhood What being a mom entails Survival tips Love, of itself, comes with the baby. But to be honest, love – even a passion so overwhelming it almost knocks you sideways – involves no effort at all. There’s a chasm of difference between loving your child and being a mother. Loving your child is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
Being a mother – fabulous or otherwise – is the hardest thing you will ever do.
“Your life will change,” they caringly note. But they’re wrong. Your life doesn’t change. It ends! The person you were, the things you did, the friends you had, the habits you cherished, the addictions you swore to give up: that’s all gone the minute your stomach begins to bulge. Because as of that moment, you become public property.
Suddenly – you are informed – you have ‘no idea what is best, what is right, what to think, eat or even wear’. Do you think you ought to drink that, smoke that, sit in that room, wear such a flimsy outfit, get on a plane, have sex, go there, drive alone, mix with those people… or generally jump until you’ve been told how high?
Tough stuff for a formerly independent gal who was foolish enough to imagine she knew how to live her own life.
But that’s just the beginning.
Because once you take your new child into your heart, you actually start listening to all these idiots. Because that’s how desperate you become for any advice, guidance or even escape from a world that has no remotely familiar frame of reference to cling to.
And the more you listen, the more neurotic you become: let the baby sleep with you – or he’ll never understand love; don’t let the baby sleep with you or your marriage will disintegrate.
Breastfeed or your baby’s bones will fall out; don’t breastfeed or your husband will never again want to touch those sagging mammaries; feed the baby every time he cries or he’ll grow up with abandonment issues; put him on a strict 4-hour feed or you’ll never have a life of your own.
Each issue is as terminally life-threatening as the next, and each new trauma inevitably involves a choice between your life-long happiness and the baby’s momentary pleasure. No choice at all, in short.
If you get it wrong, ignorance is never an acceptable excuse.
Neither is exhaustion, confusion, loneliness, depression, or any number of ailments your pregnant body has left you prey to.
So how do we cope? Well, obviously, we all find our own ways. But for those who can stand another piece of advice, take a brief glance at my own survival tips – garnered, I must confess, from only nine years of experience
Moving into motherhood What being a mom entails Survival tips I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s almost better to read nothing at all than every book on the market.
If you want something to read, ask a friend who (in your view and your view alone) has done a reasonable job. Stick as far as possible to one author or one school of thought – at least until you have sufficient experience to make some kind of choice.
Follow the advice given to me by one of a string of child psychologists I visited during my own desperate search. One said: “Stop trying to be the perfect mother – and work on being a good enough mother.” Believe me, that’s a lot more useful than it sounds.
Cool it with the guilt trips
Children have a nose for guilt – from day one – and will seize upon it like starving puffadders if you let them. If you must feel bad about something you’ve done or said – bearing in mind that this happens every 15 minutes – ask yourself what you could have done to improve the situation, apologise where necessary (not too frequently or your child will use this as a yardstick for further appalling behaviour) and forgive yourself. Let it go1
If you can’t, consciously place it into a gigantic guilt bag you keep somewhere secret. When it is literally bulging with misdemeanours, have a guilt cleanout and burn that bag. Set fire to it. And mean it. Then get a new bag for the next lot. See A mother’s guilt.
Make friends with people in the same boat as you
If you’re a single working mother, get similar friends. Same for a married work-from-home mom or whatever the details – and then force your respective kids to be friends. If you really can’t find appropriate friends – don’t feel bad, it’s not that easy – join some support groups.
Make peace with your family and tell them, very clearly, what you’ll be needing. Families assume if you want something you’ll ask. You, of course, don’t want to bother anyone. So the typical family wanders about in a state of uncommunicated rage, simply because no-one knows what’s going on.
Of course, if your family is the type that really doesn’t want to help – and there are many of those too – make sure they tell you upfront.
Motherhood is no place for polite waffle.
You need to know who you can count on. Give yourself one day a month – or better still, a fortnight – that is just for you. Get someone in your support system to take your child for the day and you do precisely what you want to.
Which means yes to getting drunk, getting laid, having a facial – anything about your life that you miss so much it’s giving you a headache.
One thing though: remember that tomorrow is coming with all its usual trauma. So if you’re getting drunk, make sure you have time to recover. Looking after a child with a hangover is a worse punishment than being covered with honey and devoured by bees.
Get as fit as you can.
Trying to keep up with your kid is a nightmare at the best of times. But when you’re collapsing in a chair, staring eye-level into that disappointed face, you’ll want to beat yourself to death for being a failure. Again. So do something. Run round the block. Jog up the stairs – anything to keep vaguely in shape. You have no idea what a difference it’ll make to your day. See Get your body back!
Remember that parenting is essentially about discipline – which is exactly why we resist it so much. Because that discipline is just as much for us as for our kids. We’re the ones who need structure, boundaries, guidelines, rules, plans and goals.
We are the role models
Yes we are – and as such we need to be worth modeling. Every time we mess up, our child is absorbing, breath for breath, our abysmal behaviour. So instead of trying to perfect the kids, we have to work on ourselves. Each time they witness our empowerment, it empowers them.
Annoying, but true
This is important: when in doubt, trust yourself.You’re the one who has to live with your results. So if you make the wrong choice, at least you can figure out how to fix it. But mostly you won’t. Mostly you’ll surprise yourself at your growing wisdom and strength.
And finally, just when you’re asking yourself whether you can bear another minute, that adorable little babe will put those tiny arms around your neck and give you the most magical hug.
And you’ll remember what it was all for. Most of all though, you need to know you’re not alone. If you don’t believe it, just open your window and yell for help. A thousand mothers will fling open their hearts – and immediately understand.