Motherhood: A Get Out of Jail Free Card?

One of the things that I find most fulfilling and enchanting about motherhood is that in a world where selfishness and narcissism are all too common, it is a truly selfless vocation. It is the dedicating of one’s self to another human being, wholeheartedly and forever, and I think that’s really beautiful.

For many parents, though, I think this selflessness can often feel limiting. When caring for a baby, it can seem as though one’s autonomy has been taken away. Many of the choices one used to have are gone. This can ring particularly true for mums who have the opportunity to stay at home with their babies. Taking even one year’s maternity leave can unfortunately often equate to one hell of a step back in terms of career progression. Personal interests and passions can also be a natural sacrifice along the parenting voyage. When your life suddenly centres on someone else, it can be hard to stay focused on and dedicated to the things that matter to you.

But since joining the mummy club, I have noticed a pretty cool trend. Many women I know are using the experience of becoming a mother as a chance to take control of their lives, change direction and start pursuing what it is they really want. So maybe, just maybe, modern day motherhood can be liberating rather than limiting, rejuvenating rather than restraining and inspiring rather than stifling. Maybe, it can actually open up new and wonderful doors instead of closing them.

For me, this has certainly been the case.

I have been a high school teacher for six years and have loved it. I get huge satisfaction from working with children and love helping to instill in them a love of reading and writing. I have met amazing people and made life long friends but most importantly – and apologies in advance if this sounds incredibly cheesy – I truly feel like I may have actually made a difference in other people’s lives.

But, over the past couple of years I have been having doubts. I have been plagued by the thought that while teaching has been a wonderful part of my life, it is perhaps not something that I can see myself doing forever. I have not been able to shake the feeling that there could be something better suited to me, something I would enjoy even more than teaching and find even more rewarding. Whether this is actually the case or whether these feelings simply stem from my typically short ‘Gen Y’ attention span remains to be seen. Nevertheless, these thoughts have been there, in the back of my brain, bugging me for a while now.

Then I had my little girl and embarked on 12 months’ maternity leave. I should say here that I feel incredibly lucky to be in position where this was an option. I know that many women simply do not get that luxury and must return to work despite wanting very much to spend time at home with their child. I hope one day that all women have the opportunity to do so if it it is what they want. But for me, becoming a stay at home mum made me feel enlightened and freed and not just in the traditional sense. It wasn’t just that I felt spiritually changed, as I’m sure all parents do, but I actually felt liberated in many other aspects of my life. Aspects that really have nothing to do with my daughter or my role as a mother.

I am only 6 months into my year’s leave and already my whole outlook on the world, and my position in in it, has changed. Please note that I have not called my maternity leave a ‘holiday’ or ‘time off’ because, funnily enough, looking after an infant is bloody hard work, something I desperately wanted to tell a few people back in January when they said they hoped I enjoyed my ‘little break’.

Over the past few months I have been able to think very carefully about what I want out of my life and career. I have considered exactly what I think I can offer the world and what my true strengths are. I have found a new sense of courage and confidence that has led me to explore old passions such as acting and writing. I actually feel as though I have a number of options in front me that I did not have before having a baby.

Had I not gotten pregnant, I would never have just quit my job to ‘discover’ what it is I want out of life and explore the things that make me happy. Not only would I have been terribly embarrassed telling people about my journey of self discovery but factors like money, my professional reputation and the opinions of my friends and family would have slapped me over the head before I could even say the word ‘blog’. In short, I would have felt like a self indulgent fool. But having a baby has given me a ‘get out of jail free’ card, an escape route of sorts. A way to take a step back from the daily grind and reassess where I am and what I want to do, even if I’ve done it while in a perpetual state of severe sleep deprivation.

And interestingly, many other mums feel the same way. A good friend of mine, who is mother to two beautiful babies, put it this way: “Having a baby and being able to take some time away from my job gave me the feeling that I could do anything.  I suddenly had the space to think. I felt like I could change paths and explore new avenues without feeling any judgement”. For her, maternity leave was the perfect opportunity to go back to university and study in a field where her passions had always lain and she is very much aware that it was an opportunity that she would not have had otherwise.

Another friend of mine agrees. She discovered very soon after having a baby that her fast paced, high stress job, at which she was incredibly successful, was just not for her. After returning to university and deciding on a very different professional path, she not only feels more personally fulfilled but happier and better equipped to be a committed parent as a result.

But for some, the change in direction comes preemptively. A friend of mine, who has recently given birth to a beautiful baby boy, took on a new role in anticipation of becoming a mother. She moved from a job that she did not see as being cohesive to motherhood to one that was more child-friendly. She still agrees, though, that having her son has most definitely allowed her to reflect on what it is that she wants. She told me that taking time off with her little man has reaffirmed for her just how passionate she is about her chosen field.

As wonderful as this all is, though, almost every mother that I have spoken to has alluded to the overwhelming pressure that they feel to be doing something other than looking after their children. As one friend put it- “I often feel like being a mother isn’t enough. I’m glad that I can say I’m studying because it makes me feel like my lifestyle is more acceptable or worthwhile. I’m not just a mother, I’m also a student”. It seems that a lot of mothers are not comfortable with ‘just’ being a mum. God knows we’ve all been regularly served questions like ‘when are you going back to work?’, ‘how long do you have off’ or the unbelievable doozy ‘what on earth do you do with yourself all day?’ I wonder whether the social expectations that are placed on us to do more than raise our babies is perhaps one of the less positive reasons we go searching for something more while on maternity leave. Because we feel like we need something else to do.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Once upon a time, motherhood was considered all a woman could or should do while nowadays we feel like it isn’t enough.

Or maybe it is just that we need stimulation. Something to think about that is a little more intellectually challenging than ‘when did she last feed?’ or ‘how many nappies have I got in the baby bag?’. That is certainly why I have turned to blogging – to simply focus on non-baby stuff for a while.

But regardless of the reasons behind this phenomenon, it is certainly real and it certainly gives me hope. Becoming a mother no longer has to mean that the other areas of our lives become stagnant. Motherhood can give birth many new and exciting adventures.

Now all I have to do is focus on becoming an Oscar winning actress or a super successful blogger so that my hubby can one day have a similar experience to the incredible one I’ve had this year.

A Letter To My Mum Upon Having My Own Daughter

Dear Mum,

I know it’s been a whole 5 hours since we last spoke on the phone, but how are you? Learned to use Facebook yet? Decided to put punctuation in your text messages? How many strangers have you shown a picture of my baby to in, say, the last 5 minutes?

We’ve always been the best of friends, you and I. We talk every day on the phone and share everything with each other. But now that I’ve had my daughter and you’ve become a grandmother, there are a few important things I’d like to tell you.

Firstly, thank you.

Thank you for wiping my bottom one thousand times a day, and for finding the bizarre colours and pungent odours that resided in my nappy endearing rather than horrifying.

Thank you for the sacrifices you made for me. I know that you gave up many, many things that were important to you in order to give me every opportunity that you possibly could. I really do appreciate it.

Thank you for putting me first, always and to this day.

Thank you for being so protective of me. I understand now that the thought of me coming to any kind of harm was enough to make you cry and twist your stomach into knots.

Thank you for loving me unconditionally.

Thank you for instilling in me the belief that I could achieve anything I put my mind to and worked hard for. For teaching me that there is no such thing as the easy way and that my worth is tied up in so much more than the way I look or the clothes that I wear.

Thank you for leading by example. You are a strong, passionate, kind and generous woman and I continually aspire to be like you.

And thank you for never putting me in those ridiculous baby headbands. Even though I excitedly bought some before my daughter was born, I now realise that they really do look stupid.

Secondly, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all the times I said mean things to you. I now appreciate how painful that must have been. Thinking about this makes me sad.

I’m sorry for not believing you when you told me that riding in cars with boys was a bad idea. I totally agree with you now.

I’m sorry for getting a tattoo.

I’m sorry for slowly torturing you by waking up so many times during the night. Sleep deprivation really is a bugger, isn’t it?

I’m also sorry for then, ironically, never wanting to get out of bed as a teenager.

I’m sorry for complaining about being an only child. I know now why you didn’t go back for a second.

I’m sorry for begging you to let me get my ears pierced. You should have never let me do that, by the way.

I’m sorry for the times when it seemed like I was taking you for granted. I realise that being a parent is tough, that it doesn’t always come naturally and that you had to work on it every day. I know that at times you were scared, confused, stressed and ridiculously tired. Thanks for thinking that I was worth it.

And lastly, congratulations.

Congratulations on doing the most challenging job in the world for the past 27 years. You have demonstrated endless patience, uncompromising commitment and real, real love.

You’re amazing. I should tell you that more often.

Love,

Me.

Mother's Day 2013

Mother’s Day 2013

Sending My Inner Perfectionist Packing

I have always been an insanely organised person. I mean, bordering on OCD. My desk at work is a thing of true beauty. My paperwork housed neatly in colour coded, alphabetised folders, my stationary perfectly arranged in boxes, trays and any kind of divider-y thing one can get their hands on at Howard’s Storage World. Ah…it makes me happy just thinking about the order of it all. At home it’s no different. All surfaces are habitually kept free of all mess or clutter. Something my husband very quickly learned of, and found irritating, when we first moved in together. And planning. Oh my, is there anything more enjoyable or satisfying than planning something…anything?

So, when I found out that my husband and I were expecting our first child after a very long and emotional 18 months of trying to conceive (something that my inner control freak found particularly difficult to deal with), I began to approach pregnancy in my typically vigilant way. Within a week of learning we were pregnant I had made a detailed list of everything that would need to be purchased and accomplished during the 9 months leading up to our little one’s arrival. The nursery was painted and decorated, the baby clothes washed, ironed and arranged and the house baby-proofed with weeks and weeks to spare. I had attended breastfeeding classes, Calm Birth courses and Mothercraft seminars all in the hope of being as prepared for motherhood as I possibly could be. Unfortunately, the one thing I failed to realise on my perfectly programmed pregnancy journey was that there is nothing in this world that can truly prepare you for becoming a parent.

Routines? Forget it. Newborns don’t follow them. Expectations? Please. Babies have a remarkable ability to exceed them and fail to meet them at the exact same time. Oh, and the perfectionist within? You better send her packing now because there is absolutely no way to be a perfect mother.

I’m sure anyone who has had a baby will agree with me when I say that becoming a parent requires a huge amount of adjustment. For me, the biggest and most difficult of these adjustments has been forcing myself to let go of the control and competence that I had become so used to enjoying. Before becoming a mother I was happily and proudly in charge of every aspect of my life. I made the decisions, I called the shots. I was also used to being a competent teacher, a good friend and wife and a person who could succeed at the things that she put her mind to.

And then came the happiest day of my life: the 11th of March 2013. The day my husband and I welcomed our perfect little princess. From the very second she was placed on my chest and I felt her warm body against mine and looked into her big blue eyes everything faded away. The ridiculously long and painful labour I had just endured and our heart wrenching struggle with infertility no longer mattered one little bit. We were complete. We were finally the family we had longed to be.

But the indescribable joy that came with motherhood was, for me, mixed with occasional feelings of fear and sadness. I was fearful because in those first few months I truly felt as though I was just keeping my head above water. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing and was unsure if I was turning out to be the ‘good’ mother that I so desperately wanted to be. My baby wasn’t sleeping for longer than 30 mins at a time. Ever. And feeding was problematic at the best of times. My mum moved in with us in the early days and I can’t even begin to describe how much of a help she was. But it was strange to once again feel dependant on her  at 27 years of age. It’s hard to feel like you’re succeeding when nothing is going at all like you planed. I was sad because all of the things that I loved about my old life had seemed to have disappeared. Catching up with friends for a coffee felt too difficult, I missed the intellectual stimulation that my job provided and managing some alone time with my man was impossible. I loved my daughter with every single inch of my heart but I also wondered when I would feel like myself again.

Then I made the conscious decision to let go. To go with the flow. I stopped trying to make motherhood into something I thought it should be and began to enjoy it for what it was. I stopped wishing for my old life and began to embrace all of the wonderful parts of my new one. I said goodbye to my inner perfectionist control freak and tried to adopt the mantra “what will be will be”.

When my daughter was about 6 weeks old and we were in the thick of severe sleep deprivation, we paid for a Mothercraft nurse to come to the house and give us some advice with feeding and sleeping. Something she said has really stuck with me: “Leah, it’s always the organised ones who are hit the hardest”.

Motherhood is hard. There is no doubt about it. I am sure that it is the most challenging and rewarding thing I will ever do. But looking back I now wish that someone would had have told me to just chill out a bit. To enjoy the ride and relax. If anyone ever asks for my advice regarding motherhood, that’s what it will be.

Now, excuse me – I had planned on writing another paragraph but there’s a baby I know who has a different plan.

L. x