I’ve never really thought of myself as a control freak, I’ve always thought I was relatively easy going and serene. But I guess, up until I had a baby I had never had to fully relinquish control about anything.
Anya with newborn Maurice
From the moment I was induced, any semblance of control that had been set in scribe in my “Birth Plan” was swept away in the rapids. My vision of motherhood had been one of calm contentedness, I thought having a baby was maybe a bit like having a cat – plenty of loving attachment but you could still make toast and have a shower without always holding them. Such a shock to the system that the reality was an oft-screaming unputdownable barnacle.
I didn’t realise – or rather ever need to acknowledge – that my mental state was nurtured carefully by different controlling practices when I felt under par. Time alone – I am an introvert who is recharged by solace and time to breathe alone. Too much solitude nudges me into self-critical thoughts and reclusive behaviours, but just enough keeps me charged and content. Exercise: Pilates, yoga, swimming… Pampering luxuries such as facials. Sleep…. But now, in the newborn chaos I no longer had this control of anything – I couldn’t keep my environment in a way that eased my anxiety in any way. I couldn’t control when I could do yoga, have any time alone, suddenly even having a shower seemed like a feat with an obstacle course in front of it. The detritus of a messy flat and lack of being able even to cook myself some lunch would leave me agitated, with an overriding sense of failure, particularly when Ione of my NCT group used to entertain us with a spread of home-baked goods and sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and I felt like a shambles in comparison.
Anya with Maurice aged 10 weeks
Being alone all day with a baby that would only nap on my chest. A fretful baby who cried so much that I once called NHS Direct as he had been crying for over two hours with no respite. I simply couldn’t cope with being so useless at this mothering thing. He was so tiny as a newborn that he fed almost constantly in the first 10 weeks, and didn’t ever sleep for longer than 45 minutes at a time, day or night. There is no “sleep when your baby sleeps” under these circumstances.
Exhausted. Feelings of failure. Lack of control. These are all, without the baby in the mix, legitimate reasons for being low or needing support around you, but when you have a baby there is still less sympathy for the idea that you might be anything but 100% delighted that you are lucky enough to have a baby in your arms. I remember texting a friend that I “now understand how women get postnatal depression”…and I didn’t hear back from her.
You give so much of yourself when you have a particularly fussy baby. With ALL babies of course, you give give give as a mum of this there is no doubt, but so much more so if your baby has a fussy temperament or issues with reflux or colic. Constantly pre-empting and meeting their needs; rocking, swaying, dancing, holding, feeding, walking, endless walking… Your needs or any semblance of “down time” or “me time” are a distant memory. Waking up feeling already so heavy about the prospects of the day ahead. what kind of meltdowns, how much crying the day held? As if walking with a sack full of rocks. An overwhelming sense of incompetence? It feels like everyone else is coping better. But does everyone else simply have a mask on?
Treasure every moment. Blessed. There IS overwhelming love. But there is unrelenting exhaustion in that moment too. And this chips away at your mental resilient and ability to see your own self-efficacy, the things that you ARE achieving brilliantly. I certainly didn’t feel like I was doing a good job with Maurice, I often felt utterly overwhelmed by his 24-hour needs, and this sleep deprivation seeped through all my experience and meant joy of motherhood was at times overshadowed by a sense of failure.
Being so physically connected and attached to your baby 24/7 – no long stretches of sleep from him for me to feel a physical space and boundary, to ring fence where I finished and Maurice began, you begin to lose your identity. All the pillars of self care that I used to adhere to without really thinking about it were kicked out from underneath me. Sleep, first and foremost. Exercise. Alone time. Space. Work – my career is important to me. Earning my own money, as a self-employed person my earnings have always relied on my scrappiness and determination, my constant feelers out for work. Suddenly work is fettered by your commitments elsewhere, and when you’re self-employed it can feel like you’ve been set adrift on a homemade raft into unchartered choppy seas.
Gradually, there was a mojo reboot with Maurice, sleep returned and so did my sense of identity – I could make sense of the Mum Me and the Pre-mum Me harmonising.
Having a second child, though, has challenged this ownership of who I am even further. Recent studies have suggested that symptoms of postnatal depression can peak 4 years after the birth of your baby. At the moment, with my second, we have never enjoyed a reliable good night’s sleep. That’s 3 years of relentless sleep deprivation. And I have never even remotely recovered my earning potential since having my first child, and at times it can feel frustratingly like I’ve fallen into a career confidence trough out of which I’ll never clamber. I know in my heart that this has stemmed from a good place, that I have tried to crowbar my career around being there for my children, but at times that doesn’t provide much solace to soften the feelings of career failure.
This week is. case in point and crystallises how I’ve been feeling over the past 3 years at times where I feel like I’m gathering a favourable wind in my sails, something comes to stop it dead. I was supposed to have a full day of childcare today: to plan, to research, to have some calm, solace, introverts recharge kind of time. And last night Freddie was sick and so couldn’t go to nursery and all my plans had to be sacrificed. Making plans and having to inevitably sacrifice them can be the real splinter in a Mum’s bottom.
So, I just wanted to extend a hand of friendship to any mum out there doing the mum juggle and feeling like some days you’re really not winning. You’re not alone. It is so hard to keep plates spinning, keep your children alive, thriving, happy, while also tending to your self-care and career and all the various facets which make up your identity. We’re in it together. Sending you love. And tea. And a child-free loo visit.