Friday, 1 December 2017

What being a mum is REALLY like...

I have always wanted to be a mum.

The moment that my baby was placed on me for the first time I immediately thought of the Christmas (1995, I think) that I was given my Baby Born doll. I remember so clearly that my mum was getting more and more exasperated because my brothers had opened all of their presents and there was still a big pile for me that I simply wasn't interested in. I remember thinking that my mum didn't understand. If I put the baby down, she might cry.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Baby Born circa 1995, there was no crying feature. But to me she was real.)

By 1995 I had chosen names for my children as well. Names I was convinced I would use. So convinced, in fact, that I named my dolls different names so that my real children wouldn't be named after toys.

(Fun fact: I haven't used my girl name because Dale thinks it's the absolute worst name in existence. But if he hadn't been quite so passionately against it the name I chose as a child would have been the one I used. It's still my favourite 22 years later.)

Anyway, I named that dolly Gemma and I loved her more than anything in the world. I looked after her beautifully, and I can still picture putting her into a little cradle every night even in the house that we moved into around 2 years after I was given her.

Fast forward twenty two years and I'm finally laying in my hospital bed with my very own and very real newborn on my chest.

The room was filled with people buzzing about doing their thing- midwives, paediatricians, doctors, healthcare assistants...(I think. I'm actually not completely aware of who was there or what they were doing), and a few of them, along with my mum and Dale, kept firing questions at me that I would vaguely brush away so that I could focus on my new busy and important job: staring at this baby.

Very much the same as 1995.

And so now I'm a mum. I have, at last, joined that coveted club that I've been desperate to be a member of for as long as I can remember.

It feels a bit like I'm fibbing when I say that.

I'm not really a mum because my baby is only seven weeks old. Perhaps I'll be a real mum when she's seven years old. But then I won't have experienced what it's like to have a teenager. So do I have to wait until she's eighteen before I can count myself a member of the club?

But of course not.

I am a card (or is that scarred?) carrying member of the mum club, and I spend most days staring at our baby (Squirt) completely unable to believe my luck that this huge dream has finally come true.

Having spent a lot of time working with children of more or less every age, in a wide range of jobs, I've spent a lot of time wondering how it will be different when I have my own baby.

When you work with children but don't have your own you spend an unfair (I feel) amount of time being told you don't quite understand because you're not a mum. 

And so I have wondered for my entire adult life what secrets I would be let into once I had my own bundle of joy. What would I finally know once I was allowed to join the club? What pearls of wisdom would finally be bestowed upon me once I had been through childbirth myself?

Well now I know, and today I am going to break all the rules and reveal The Big Secret to you: whether you have children or not.

The Big Secret is: there is no big secret.

In my now vast experience of being a mum to one little girl for seven whole weeks, two whole days and around ten hours, I can tell you that whatever the books, blogs, vlogs, and other mums in your life may tell you: nobody knows what it will be like for you. 

I've found myself reading/watching/listening and speaking to parents who insist they know the answers. I'll read articles called things like Four Things I Wish I had Known Before I Became a Mum. The entire article will then be written as though it's fact (e.g. 1. You will lose half your friends once your baby is born) and will exclaim things like we need to talk about this more- nobody talks about this stuff!

With all the things I have read and all the people I have spoken to, the absolute biggest lesson I have learnt so far is that everyone thinks they're an expert, and nobody actually is. If you believed everything you read about being a mum oh my goodness nobody would ever do it.

But so many of these articles will also say 'everybody likes to paint a positive picture of motherhood: focusing on the positives instead of telling the truth about what it's really like.'

Firstly- I think focusing on the positives about the biggest thing in your life right now is a fairly healthy way to live. Only talking about the negatives all the time cannot be good for your happiness, and definitely won't help you with keeping all those friends you're due to lose when you have a baby. (Just to be clear- I haven't lost any friends, but more on that later.)

Secondly- these lists always include lack of sleep, and when I was pregnant I can probably count on one hand the people I spoke to that didn't take it upon themselves to let me know I was never going to sleep again (including strangers who approached me in the supermarket at random)- so I'm not sure who these people are that are having babies and not realising that their sleep pattern is going to change.

Thirdly- nobody can tell you what it's really like. Because it's different for everyone. Because everyone is in a different position.

In my quest to make sense of the fact that the majority of the things I've been told/read about parenthood haven't been true at all, I imagined someone writing an article called 'What It's Really Like To Go On Holiday' with absolutely no context.

I went on holiday this year.

So I'm qualified to write about what a holiday is like, right? I could write that article, and write a list of things that you can and should expect when you go on holiday.

My holiday in May was for ten days. It was action-packed and non-stop. I went with my fiance. It was in California. I was twenty weeks pregnant. We went to three different cities and stayed in four hotels- some quite fancy and some that involved wonky flooring and questionable bedspreads. The weather moved constantly between baltic and balmy.

Similarly, my friend Jiminy went on holiday this year.

Her holiday in October was for five days. She went to Blackwood Forest with her parents, husband and one year old. They went to Peppa Pig World and the New Forest, and had unseasonably warm weather.

Now imagine if I wrote a list called 'Five Things You Need to Know Before You Go On Holiday' and sent it to Jiminy and insisted that my experiences in California were exactly what she would experience in Blackwood Forest, and if anybody told her otherwise then they were just avoiding the truth about going on holiday. 

She would, of course, know that my list is nonsense.

But if she had never been on holiday before, and was already a bit nervous about going on holiday, it might worry her if a) I had insisted that anyone who is positive about holidays is lying and b) everything I said would happen didn't.

It's exactly the same with having a baby.

So here are three things that I've been told and read about motherhood that haven't been true in my case... 

1) You will lose half your friends when you have a baby.

I haven't lost any friends. (As far as I know, anyway.) Partly, I think, because I tend to only be friends with nice people. Partly because I really didn't have any expectations of my friends (and they have therefore all surpassed anything I could have expected). And partly because my lifestyle means that my friends can still be friends with me.

I think perhaps that one is aimed at people who have come from a wild lifestyle involving being out drinking every night with friends who don't have their own children. Before I had Squirt I would spend Saturday nights texting my pal Lady Adelaide my up-to-date opinions on Strictly. Having a baby hasn't affected that. So it's been easy for me to keep my friendships primarily the same.

2) You will no longer be able to sleep. Even when your baby is sleeping, every little sound will wake you up.

Dale wishes.

Dale has to spend around ten minutes (or so he tells me, I'm sure he's exaggerating) trying to wake me up to feed Squirt in the night. Nothing wakes me. Never has, never will. I'm just a super sleeper.

3) The first few months are torture.

I entered into parenthood with Dale. We decided- together- that we wanted to have a baby, and now we are in this adventure very much together. He doesn't 'help' me- we help each other. My own parents are so excited and beyond enthusiastic about helping. Dale's mum worked out how Squirt most likes to be held within about five minutes of meeting her and that knowledge has been invaluable. In the first week after she was born we had people turning up to make us lunch and do our washing up every day- without being asked. In the morning after our first tricky night with Squirt when she was going through a growth spurt my phone rang. My friend was outside with a Sleepyhead (a sleep tool that we didn't have yet) and a Tesco bag filled with the ingredients for wraps- within half an hour of her being here Squirt was asleep, I had had the most amazing shower, and Dale and I were both on the sofa eating lunch. When I was suffering from the effects of the labour Dale's sister sent me a long text filled with genuine empathy and advice. Jiminy Cricket receives around 30 texts a day from me asking questions- I feel like she is guiding me through motherhood one ridiculous conundrum at a time. Squirt and I go to two Baby Groups where people are kind and warm and chatty and lovely, and I get to sip coffee and chat to them and hang out with my baby instead of being at work. When I'm not at Baby Club I'm either at home or wandering town in my own time, reading, and always looking after my baby. Which suits me very much because I'm a home bird and enjoy my own company, but I know that it's not like that for everyone.

Yes, I do have to get up a few times in the night. Sometimes she cries and I don't know what's wrong and I'm not sure what to do about that. I spend a lot of time smelling of her sick, and the thought of having her in the car makes me feel so sick I could vomit right now thinking about it and as a result we've been in the car around 5 times since she was born.

On the other hand I know plenty of mums who have been immediately confident driving their babies about, and wouldn't have given it a second thought. I know babies who don't really spit up, and whose mums don't have to spend their days smelling of sick.

But I genuinely love every single second- even the seconds that I'm trying to stop her from crying, even the seconds that I want to (and often do) swear at Dale for waking me up at 3am, even the seconds that I'm convincing myself I forgot to strap her in (I have never and will never forget to strap her in), because I am so aware that this time is going to go so quickly and am going to miss it all one day.

When I was pregnant, among all of the 'make the most of your sleep now' and 'it changes your life you know?' chats, I had two stand out conversations.

One was with a parent from work, and one was with my auntie.

The parent told me that she looks back on those early days- even the days when she ended up sitting and crying because her baby just wouldn't go to sleep- with real affection, and that I should enjoy them whilst I can.

My auntie told me that she was just so excited for me because I was about to embark on such a lovely time in my life. She told me stories about her routine with my cousins, and what she enjoyed about those days.

And I really think that it should come back into fashion to have conversations like that.

completely agree that mums should feel able to moan, and to warn one another about the hard bits and pieces that come with motherhood.

But I also feel that we shouldn't talk like experts (nobody is), we shouldn't be making women feel ashamed or guilty for enjoying it (which honestly so many of these articles do- it really isn't in vogue to enjoy being a mum right now), and we certainly shouldn't be insisting that we know what it's really like, because what is it really like?

The secret is: nobody knows.

A few mums have actually opened the conversations they've had with me since Squirt was born with 'I promise it gets better.' Before even saying hello.

And I always think how flipping exciting. 

Because it's so magical as it is. 

What I wish I had known before I had a baby?

That nobody would be able to tell me what it's really like.

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