Strange but instructive things about early motherhood

So much of what is written about motherhood aims to be helpful and thereby explanatory. But the things I have found myself thinking most about are the bits that feel strange, the things you couldn’t have calculated for and that you wonder what to do with. Over time these have gathered so frequently in my mind that I couldn’t do otherwise than write about them at this point. In the process of writing, I hope to find what it is that the strangeness might, at the same time, teach me.

  1. Being subject to your body

I don’t mean the bump, although that is an obvious manifestation, and the obvious does help to make it sink in. What I really mean is the way your body communicates with what you might have thought of as you. The messages are no longer advisory; they have become urgent, almost at times veering on threatening. Food and drink are no longer pleasant pastimes. I am more used now to the feeling: if I don’t eat something in the next two-to-five minutes I’m going to be sick. Similarly at the commencement of breastfeeding: food is no longer a joke to be taken or left. All of this can feel a bit shocking in a culture which, to me, encourages us to think we are in control of our bodies and can bend them to our own will. But on one such desperate occasion I had a thought (an obvious one) that helped me. Your body is not serving you alone any more; it is keeping someone else alive. It’s life and death; you suddenly understand that in the early days of a newborn. This is a bit more difficult to get your head around in pregnancy: it doesn’t look like much has changed except for the weight. But I’d like to think there could be a little more compassion and understanding in our culture, in place of the wry smiles, for new mothers at every stage even in their apparently incessant eating. Two years on, the memory of the kindness of the question: “are you OK?” still sticks in my mind as a group of us waited patiently for a typically long-delayed wedding reception to begin.  

…feeling a rush of milk, she hurried to the nursery. This was not a mere guess; her connection with the child was still so close, that she could gauge by the flow of her milk his need of food, and knew for certain he was hungry. (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)

2. Humans need daily adjustments

There is so much talk of the benefits of routine for babies, and step-by-step suggestions of what to do if you’re having problems – with sleep, naps, feeding and all the rest. But in moments of vexed frustration when I’ve felt trapped in a cycle that I can’t quite end, the one thing that has brought relief has been to remember that I’m dealing not just with a baby, but with a human. The recommendations and guides would have you believe a baby is a comprehensible, airtight thing, a concept that begins and ends. It actually gets quite hard to think outside of this box. And yet: when have humans ever conformed to such an idea about themselves? I don’t sleep to order myself – the time that it takes me to succumb can vary quite a bit – and I have had many nights as an adult (pre-baby) when I haven’t slept through, and have longed for company, a hand or voice in the dark. Equally, sometimes, somewhere to lie down is enough. We are as various as the world around us: the weather, the moods of the sky, the shifting winds and colours of the earth, not to mention the landscapes that exist often hiddenly on the inside. If only I could have the good sense to remember that this must be just as true in the early years. 

3. Expectations and loneliness

You know, of course, that there’s a risk of being lonely. In fact you probably plan for it. But when it comes to it, it never feels as simple as matching a solution to a problem, and I wonder if there is a key here somehow in how we address loneliness more widely. To begin with, it feels as though the need would be met if one could just manage to see some fellow mothers, people who are in the same rather topsy-turvy boat. But I noticed as time went on that everyone, by necessity, ends up fashioning their own boat, in their own distinctive way, so that that sense of being united by a common experience can start to dissipate. Similarly, I sometimes expect that once the right person is there, it will be possible to talk about the things that bewilder me when I’m on my own, the things that have built up in between. But then when we do meet, our attentions are often so crowded by mutual wonder at our respective babies, and the antics that come with them, that the present becomes enough to take account of. It’s good to talk, but conversation isn’t a magic bullet, and it doesn’t always reach the places we need it to. It’s one reason why I am so glad of mothers who have written about their experience, not just today, online, but also on paper, at other times. Though it can be easy to forget it in today’s media, and marketplace, motherhood is not a new, reinvented or modern concept.

The few words she has exchanged with this woman Frances, known only by sight after all from the nursery school queue, are the merest tips of icebergs. (‘Cafe Society’, Helen Simpson)

4. What distance can do

It feels as though she spends quite a bit of time hanging onto my legs, balancing on my hip, or with her hand in mine. That’s how physically close we are day to day, and probably how it has been for many of us especially recently in lockdown. But there’s a kind of loss of awareness that comes with this, and I am grateful for those moments when I am caught off guard, espying her across the room or in someone else’s care for a little while. It’s like a sudden aha moment: being able to see this person for who she is. Sometimes there is an element of suddenly being able to feel an emotion with regards to her that I almost haven’t had space to feel before, or at least for a while. In little ways, the distance helps, indeed feels necessary to the relationship itself.

5. You are still you

Discovering this, after what might feel like the loss of it, is supposed of course to bring reassurance. To allow ourselves such reminders is what we are encouraged to do. But when putting on what Liz Berry in one of her poems calls the ‘uniform’ of motherhood has involved such an apparent transformation, there can be a twinge of disappointment (at least there has been for me) in coming to the realisation that underneath it all, you still carry the person you started out as. The same habits are there: habits of mind and thought, and ways of doing things. I am a little freer from them – I can potentially choose to shut them off when needed, as I have had to do – but I am not free. I know, too, that here begins the story of the kind of mother I will become: one which I will try to direct where I can, but which also will unfold out of and beyond me. It will not just be for me, or for one part of me, to write.

Thinking about this post has made me realise something else. You have to find a way of working out what motherhood means in your head. It’s not just about the doing; it’s also being. The being is now and forever.

Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash


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