I thought I was doing parenting wrong – until my mum told me the truth

I thought I was doing parenting wrong – until my mum told me the truth

Motherhood hit me like a freight train.

Within days of my son’s birth, I developed insomnia, alongside a prickly panic in my chest that was telling me to run out of the front door and never look back.

I feel compelled to say that my son’s birth was genuinely the happiest moment of my life. I was very lucky to have a gentle and — dare I say — enjoyable birth, and every single inch of him was and still is perfect to me. I feel joy every single day that he exists.

But nothing could have prepared me for the weight of responsibility that bears down on you once you have a child. That quick and very intense realisation that your life as you knew it no longer exists, and that you will never be the person you were the day, hour or even minute before they took their first breath.

And yet, when well-meaning people tried to warn me ahead of time — as well-meaning people so often do — what this might feel like, I wasn’t interested.

In fact, I proactively pushed back against their efforts. I didn’t want to hear anything other than a sugar coated ideal of what was to come.  

I first described the reality of becoming a mother to friends as having walked through a door that slammed behind me.

Put plainly, overnight my sense of identity had shattered like a cheap glass, and there were too many pieces to even begin to think about putting it back together.

It feels naive of me to say, looking back now, that I really just didn’t get it. I didn’t get that parenting is a relentless, day and night commitment — that you can never just walk away from. Not if you’re tired. Not if you’re sick. Not if you’re in a mental crisis yourself. Not ever.

I didn’t get that I’d broken off a piece of myself by having my son, and so even in the sparse moments away from him, I’d never feel whole again — or at least not for a long, long time. 

I didn’t get that, even when things were horribly hard, and when I felt I couldn’t cope — that I had to, because he needed me. I didn’t get that any semblance of control I’d previously tricked myself into thinking I had, was long gone.

Everything now was unpredictable. Rapidly changeable.

If all this sounds really negative, I should also say there are thousands of positive aspects of becoming a parent that I hadn’t had the emotional dexterity to even imagine before having him.

Like the way my heart jumps out of my chest with pride when he accomplishes something new, or how hearing his little giggle is an instantaneous mood fixer that is totally infectious. Or how he has recently learned to snuggle in for cuddles and the feeling of him pressing his little body against me for relief brings a lump to my throat.

The highs inched higher than they’d ever been before. I now experience joy much more often than I ever did in my pre-baby life — it is a daily feeling rather than something that occurs now and then.

The problem is, though, that this crush of expectations produced a profound shame in me in the days, weeks and months after I became a mum. Suddenly I felt bad that things weren’t happening as I had predicted they would, because my son was a human being and therefore subject to changes of temperament, routine and desire — just like I was.

I blamed myself for not being able to enjoy it more and often questioned what was defective in my character that made me find it all so hard — assuming that I was failing, rather than that my expectations of parenting had been unrealistic.

And yet, I still don’t think anyone could have made me understand before I became a mother just how it would feel — or perhaps helped me to set my expectations to a more realistic level. 

I remember a conversation with my mum days after my son was born in which I asked her what was wrong with me. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ she replied. ‘As far as I can see, the only problem is that being a parent, especially of a small baby, is very hard — and you didn’t think it would be’.

She was mostly right. The only thing I would challenge is the idea that I didn’t think it would be hard. Theoretically, yes, I had acknowledged that being a mum of a baby would be difficult. I’d done hard things before. 

But until it actually happened — until I had a screaming newborn looking up at me demanding food that my body struggled to give him, until I closed my eyes for respite, weary from three days of giving birth, and heard wails from the cot next to me, demanding my attentiveness, until my body bled and ached but I could not rest — I didn’t understand what ‘hard’ meant within this context.

This was a new type of hard, one which I had absolutely no experience of, and for which I could never have prepared.

Worse still, the prevailing narrative from others undergoing this often profoundly difficult metamorphosis is still one that refuses to acknowledge that any part of the experience might be considered negative.

Such behaviour comes in part from a feeling of gratitude — those of us who want kids and can have them are incredibly lucky — but also from a culture that has historically silenced our emotional struggles, especially in areas that mainly affect women.

And so, of course it makes sense that people who have been shocked to discover that the realities of parenting don’t quite match up to their expectation may want to warn those in the waiting room. Perhaps they want to help others to avoid any disappointment or not to be surprised in the way that they were.

However altruistic such efforts may be, in my experience at least, they are futile. Because, as I have described, the ability to truly understand the realities of parenting cannot really be grasped until you have confronted them. So why even bother?

All that we do in trying to warn people is to make them fearful of what is to come, when instead we should be reassuring them that hard as it may be, they are more than capable of adapting to their new reality. 

Reminding them that, although there may well be some unimaginably hard moments, there will be others that are more joyful and beautiful than they have experienced before.

And telling them that it’s OK to find it really challenging, and that it doesn’t make them a bad parent.

In the hours I’ve spent staring into space since my son was born or trying to keep myself awake until he falls asleep, I have often wondered what I would tell my pregnant self if I could go back in time and speak to her.

I would tell her that she is strong and that she can handle this. I would tell her that, though parenting will push you to your limits in ways for which you cannot prepare, that she will bend but never break.

And that the joy is coming.

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