When I was pregnant, a friend whose baby had not long been born warned me: don’t worry about the birth; the thing you need to try to prepare for is afterwards. I thought she was ridiculous: I had no worries at all regarding my abilities as a mother, and was sure everything would be fine once we’d got the scary business of the birth out of the way.
Turns out my friend was more right than something that is really very right.
Since having S, everything has changed. My priorities are totally different. And I think all of these changes have been for the better.
The first, most immediate change was simply that I could no longer just pop out somewhere: wherever I went, S had to come too. From that very first day in the hospital, it felt wrong to be away from her, even if just for a shower in the next room. When she was in NICU and I had to leave her there overnight while I slept on the ward, I felt like I’d left a limb behind somewhere. The day after we came out of hospital, S’s father gave me some money to go out and buy some food, telling me to just pop out and leave S here with him. It was the shortest, most horrible shopping trip I have ever been on. It just felt wrong to be wandering around without S; the last time I’d walked around town was 2 weeks previously, and I’d been carrying her in my belly. Now I had no bump and no baby, and I rushed around the shop as quickly as I could in order to get back, convinced that something bad would happen while I was away. When I came home, she was still fast asleep and completely unaware I’d even left the room. Since then, I can probably count the number of times I’ve left her anywhere on my fingers.
There was the time I left her with my mother while I went into a salon: she cried the whole time and my mother didn’t come to get me.
I left my sister Z pushing her around town in the pushchair while I had my hair cut a couple of months ago, and spent what is normally an enjoyable experience hoping it would be over soon so I could get back to my baby.
Since then, I think the most I’ve left her for is playing in the living room while I go upstairs to the toilet, or stand outside on the balcony chatting to my neighbour. My friend tells me I have First Baby Syndrome; others tell me it’s not healthy and that I need some “me” time, that I should leave her with a sitter and go out with my friends. In all honesty though, I don’t want “me” time. In the evenings when she goes to bed, more often than not I come downstairs and after ten minutes I miss her. A couple of hours in the evening to read and study is plenty for me. I’m not interested in going out drinking or for a meal. Occasionally I wish I could go to the cinema of an evening, but I know that if I went I wouldn’t enjoy the film because I would be thinking about S the whole time.
I used to laugh at the cliché you always see on TV shows, where the parents go out and leave their child with a babysitter and a massive list of instructions, then spend their entire evening on the phone checking everything is ok – now I am worse than that.
When I fell pregnant I had not been in my job for long, and I only worked 4 days a week. I would often take on overtime working in another team on my day off, and sometimes on weekends too. I wanted to do well in the quarterly development meetings, to go on training courses and progress as much as possible. Although I knew I would be off work for a while when I had S, I figured I would go back and just leave her at a nursery or with her father or a family member. Now the idea of leaving her in a nursery, even the best nursery in the world, for that length of time, on a regular basis, terrifies me. While I was walking through town yesterday I overheard a lady with a pushchair telling a friend, “well my job will still be there if I want to go back, but I didn’t have a child so that I could leave it with someone else…” I have several friends who are returning to work after having a baby, and several of them have said to me that if they could find a way to afford being a stay at home mum, they would do it. On the other hand, though, I have another friend who suffered with Post-Natal Depression and knew that she had to get back out to work or she would be in trouble. She seems to enjoy her job and her children seem, if anything, brighter and happier than a lot I’ve met.
As for me, I’m still undecided as to whether I will go back to work. But if I do, it won’t be on the same hours as before; it’s likely to be considerably fewer.
Becoming a mum has made me more confident in myself, with the realisation that actually, I’m doing this on my own, S is doing well, I’m doing a good job. But it has also made me endlessly paranoid and worried I’m doing it all wrong. The other day while D, my Home Start lady was here, S was lying on her play mat and I noticed a mark on the side of her face. I was horrified: what could have happened to cause a massive bruise like that? I knew that if D saw anything in my home that gave her cause for concern she was obliged to report it to the charity, and to my health visitor (everything is confidential unless it’s something like a massive bruise on a baby’s face; then they are obviously obliged to report it). I sat there on the mat saying, “oh gosh, look at that, is that a bruise? Oh no where can that have come from, what’s happened, oh no…” Then S moved, and it turned out it was just a shadow from the way she was laying. D looked and said: babies will always get little bumps from time to time. She told me that when her son was little he was completely fearless but very accident prone, and eventually the staff at A&E told her if they saw him again that year they would have to call social services. That reassured me for a while… until I found a couple of scratches on her leg yesterday afternoon!
I have definitely become a lot more health conscious, and my diet has improved massively. For a few weeks after coming home from hospital, I was living off crisps, microwave meals and chocolate. I was only taking my supplements as and when I remembered, which was not on a regular basis, and I generally felt like crap. All the while, in the back of my mind, I knew that if I improved my diet I would feel better; years of experience of eating junk and feeling awful have taught me how much difference the old 5 a day can make. Then one day I realised that as S grew and started to take in what went on around her, she was likely to begin to think that all food came either from a crisp packet, or the white box that goes ping in the corner of the kitchen. That day I went shopping and had a salad for lunch instead. Since then, I still eat a lot of chocolate (like you wouldn’t believe!) and my eating habits are definitely not as healthy as they could be, but I try to always eat as much fruit and vege as I can. I also feel that I need to be healthy, not just to set a good example to S, but so that I can be as healthy as possible to be a good mother to her. After all, if I die of heart disease at the age of 50, where does that leave my daughter? When I look back at my childhood, one thing that stands out is that my mum and all her friends were always on a diet. They we either starting a diet or breaking their diet or talking about the next diet. My auntie had a fridge magnet that said, “I’ll start my diet tomorrow… tomorrow… tomorrow…” One time my mum did a sponsored weight loss for charity. In the eighties everyone was on about diets and weight loss; nobody thought anything of it. But I don’t want S to look back on her childhood and see the same thing
I saw a documentary on TV about foods that are marketed as healthy but are actually just as bad as many others, and when I saw a brand of drink that I and a friend both enjoyed featured on the show, I texted her: “oh wow, that drink actually has more calories than a can of Coke!” I was really surprised. She responded that she was completely uninterested in the calorie content or healthiness of any foods. This really surprised me; this friend has a toddler, and I had just assumed that she would have the same “I need to be healthy for my child” feeling I had. I thought everyone had it. It’s not like I have a blind panic of “must exercise, must lose weight” or anything like that, but the thought that I need to keep myself healthy is always there, in the back of my head. In the past I have been somewhat reckless with my health. My diet has always been questionable and I was never one to read the instructions on a pack of medication. Now I read the instructions, the list of possible side effects, check whether it’s compatible with breastfeeding, and more often than not put it back in the cupboard and make do without it. As my health visitor pointed out to me very early on, S is entirely reliant on me, so while she is my first priority, I need to be second on that list and ensure I am fit and healthy enough to do a good job of looking after her.
This is a weird one, but I feel like a grown up now I’m a mother. I’m 31 years old, I moved out of my mother’s house when I was 20 and have spent a number of years living alone, paying my own bills and fending for myself. I’ve had jobs where I was responsible for the financial affairs of an entire company, or where I managed several other people’s workloads. And I spent last summer playing house with my ex and his six children. But that’s exactly what it was: playinghouse. I still feel a lot like I’m playing house now; every time I do a load of washing it feels like a complete novelty to me. Having S has made me actually grow up and behave like an adult though. I can’t just not wash up (well I can, but only for one day); I can’t just not get out of bed if I don’t fancy it. I have to get up, prepare food, change and wash nappies, clean things, make sure bills are paid. Before, if I ran out of money part way through the month I would just make do with living off whatever was left in the kitchen or go hungry. Now I have to be careful with my money and make sure it never runs out, that there is always credit on the gas meter.
Every time something else for the flat is sorted out (painting a wall, putting curtains up or a floor down) I feel like I’m one step closer to being a proper, actual grown up, with a home and a floor and curtains and a loo brush and bins that have to be taken out. The fact that S has to have two lots of supplements every day adds to this: they have to be measured out in a sterile syringe, and given to her at the same time every day. She can’t do that herself; I am responsible for it. It’s not just me any more, messing about and maybe tidying the living room every other week. I am entirely responsible for another human being, who has nobody else to rely on and I take that responsibility very seriously. Oh good grief, I’ve grown up.
The way I feel about my body has changed. Before I got pregnant, I was constantly worried about how my body looked, whether I looked fat, whether this outfit made my belly look too big. I exercised a lot in order to improve the way I looked in my clothes. I used all manor of lotions and potions on my skin and spent a fortune on hair care products. When I got pregnant and my bump started to get bigger, there was massive relief that now my belly was supposedto be big, so I could wear tighter tops and let it stick out. After having S, I just wore whatever was hanging around; I’d moved house shortly before giving birth, and it was a long while before I sorted through all my clothes so I didn’t have much to wear, and I didn’t much care about how I looked. So what if my belly was sticking out, I’d just given birth. Now, six months down the line, I think I probably have a healthier relationship with my body. My belly does stick out, but so do most people’s, and really nobody’s ever looking are they; they’re too busy worrying about their own lumps and bumps. I like the way my legs look these days, but I’m more impressed by how well they can carry S and I around and up and down stairs all day without collapsing. I would like to lose a little more weight, but I doubt that will happen before I stop breastfeeding, and I’m not going to stop just for that reason. And these days I’m more likely to just use the baby shampoo that’s on the side of the bath than to rush to Boots to buy the expensive stuff I used before. Who really cares whether my hair smells of a rainforest? I’m just glad on the days it doesn’t smell of baby sick! I do occasionally have days where I’ll wear make up, but that’s mainly because I still have a reasonably bad (for a 31 year old) case of acne that probably won’t clear up until I stop breastfeeding. I’m too lazy to put makeup on every day though; it’s only for really special occasions, or days when the bags under my eyes are just that little bit too dark.
It’s a very strange experience, to suddenly be responsible for another being. Because S’s father is not in the picture, I am acutely aware that I am all she has. If I don’t do something, it won’t get done. When I first got pregnant my boss told me: “I think having a baby might just sort you out.” What he meant was: you can’t sit about all day navel gazing and pondering the futility of it all, if you have to get up and change a nappy and sing several rounds of Row, Row Row Your Boat. I hate to say it, but he was 100% right, just as my friend was when she told me everything would change after S was born.