I have held back from this conversation for fear of being judged, of being deemed ungrateful or whinging. I suspect a lot my comrades feel similarly to me but are reluctant to tell you how it really is. What I now know about you, nearly two years on, is that you are a tricky beast and every woman has a unique relationship with you...
I find you difficult a lot of the time. For a type A, controlling, perfectionist personality you can be a struggle. Before becoming a mother, I was used to writing lists of jobs (and crossing them off gave me the greatest satisfaction), working my butt off and reaping the rewards. I was used to “Preeya – great job” or a medal if I excelled at something. I was used to being in control.
Then you came along – and you brought the wonderful Miss S with you. The first eight weeks were fairly horrific I have to say – I was sleep deprived, trying to master breastfeeding and dealing with intrusive ruminating flashbacks after an unexpected emergency C section. I was suddenly at home with a newborn, an unwanted scar (and its associated pain) and a truckload of emotional baggage. Whilst breastfeeding was fairly easy for Miss S and I, like most mothers and babies we did have our rough patches. I wasn’t used to trying my best at something, using all my knowledge and still struggling. I wasn’t used to failure, and those first few months were tough as I wrapped my head around the notion that not only did I not have control anymore, I wasn’t excelling despite trying my best.
I often wonder if being a GP and helping women with similar issues (breastfeeding, emotional trauma post birth) made me more conscious of my failures –I would try and tell myself to snap out of it, I knew what to do – but my own advice and knowledge weren’t working; in fact, my expectations were making it all harder.
I found that despite preparing home cooked meals for my small family, managing a somewhat tidy home and having done a 30-minute walk with Miss S, I could still feel like a mammoth failure when Miss S rejected the left breast for her afternoon feed. My day could come crashing down because of a single breastfeed that went wrong or because I felt incompetent to settle Miss S at witching hour. I became very aware of the fact that I could write long lists and have ambitions for the day and tick none of the jobs off because Miss S refused to be put down in her rocker. When she was older I would spend time preparing meals in the thermomix only for it to all end in tears (for me!) because she rejected the mush I was offering her.
Because of you, I have found myself sobbing uncontrollably multiple times over the last 22 months. Sometimes the tears are due to feeling incompetent or underprepared for the breastfeeding challenges/toddler tantrums/stresses of balancing a career and you. Sometimes the tears are because I feel utterly grateful for our beautiful little girl – I can be reduced to tears because she pats another child when they’re upset or seeks me out for a cuddle. Somehow motherhood, you bring me my highest highs and my lowest lows.
As a GP I am aware that when it comes to you women can be very hard on themselves. I’ve had women come into my consulting room devastated that they are failing their child because they can’t breastfeed despite having tried everything. I’ve seen mothers who have blamed themselves for every single illness their child has struggled with, thinking it is somehow their fault. When it comes to you, mothers are their harshest critiques. When it came to me, I was no different. I would constantly expect more of myself– why wasn’t breastfeeding working as I had envisioned? Why couldn’t I get all the jobs done I had planned for the day? I could always do better, according to me.
And then I encountered the competitive aspect that you incite in some women – the “competition” of motherhood. I had heard about this phenomenon from my patients but when I saw it first hand, finding myself slowly taking the delicious bait in front of me multiple times, I was horrified. Mother’s would boast that their child could sit at 5 months and “oh can’t Miss S sit yet?” like we were lagging behind in the race. Later I encountered mothers at swimming and music lessons who would tell me that their child could speak in 4-word sentences – “oh are you still on 2 words are you?” And the competition didn’t stop there -suddenly women were happy to judge each other on how they had birthed their child. The badge of natural birth was often worn proudly, and loudly, and those of us who had been forced down the C-section path were made to feel like inferior mothers. If you couldn’t birth your child naturally, how were you going to do the rest of it was the sentiment. I very aware of the fact that if Miss S and I had been in a third world country we would have died given the events of our labour and so to me, the birth a woman had is irrelevant as long as both parties survived. What I have learned is that when it comes to you, motherhood, women can become competitive about the most trivial issues, and the key is surrounding yourself with mothers you who roll with the punches, admit to the struggles and compare stories for comfort, not competition.
It was at seven months that my mum told me all about you – she concisely wrapped you up for me and my outlook on you changed. “Preeya you’re too hard on yourself, you’re a wonderful mother but no one is going to give you a medal for this job darling.” I actually felt myself take a deep breath- a real breath where the air fills the bottom of your lungs. It was my glorious epiphany– much like when Cher on Clueless realises she loves her step-brother – this was my moment in front of the fountain. I finally had your measure of motherhood. I wasn’t going to “win” when it came to you or “succeed” – there was no race or battle, it was a journey and everyone’s was different. I needed to take things less personally – Miss S’ rejection of her lovingly prepared puree or the left breast at the afternoon feed was not her way of telling me she hated me. It wasn’t personal.
Some women adore you – some relish being a mother so much they have five children and “can’t get enough of babies” as one woman told me. That isn’t me though and for a long time, I’ve felt ashamed to admit that, fearing that I am somehow less of a mother. Truth is, I find you challenging because I have very high expectations of myself and I bring that baggage to motherhood. I choose to work part-time because I love my job and I enjoy the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction that comes from a hard day at work. But, the 3 days of work can be tricky with childcare drop-offs, packing bags, getting us dressed and out the door–but that is a choice I’ve made and so far, it works for us. I am sure my experience of motherhood is significantly shaped by the fact that my husband is a training plastic surgeon who is studying for the biggest exams of his life – I often find myself looking at my friends with husbands who work 9-5, envious of the help they get at bath and bedtime as I battle the dinner, bath, bed beast alone for 7th night in a row. And perhaps that’s why I think I am not ready to join you again for a “second” as they say – I’m content sitting on the sidelines for now. Give me a year or two, and a husband who isn’t training anymore, and then we can talk.
What I have learnt is that you work differently for different women. To find you a challenge (and admit that) should not be something to be ashamed of. Miss S is my soul – and whilst I knew love before, I didn’t know it to this degree until I met her. When she smiles my soul smiles with her and when she touches my face and says “Mummy pat pat” I know that I am the luckiest woman in the world. So, I am grateful for you, for the journey you provide, for the growth and self-reflection you have forced me to do. Whilst I am still a type A perfectionist I know now not to apply all my standards when it comes to you – I try to go with the flow and let the small stuff go – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Whilst I may not tick all the boxes or get a medal I’m at peace with you now– I’ve learned there is no “right way” of doing all this and that realisation gives me a great deal of comfort and confidence. I’ll curse, praise, hate and adore you many more times in the years to come – please don’t take any of it personally motherhood, I certainly don’t anymore.