Having A Baby Changes You Irrevocably, So Why Do We Pretend Otherwise?
By Christine Armstrong Posted 30 days ago
In our weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?
We tried for years to get pregnant and Nick and I were ridiculously happy when it happened. We made our spare room into a nursery and had a ‘bump’ photoshoot and a 4D scan, did hypnobirthing and my mum bought us a great buggy. But then the morning sickness came and it was like being permanently hungover but without the good night out. People pushed past me on the bus because I was too slow. The actual birth was…. traumatising, for me and him and the baby… everything went wrong and I totally lost it but the midwives were amazing – at least they knew what they were doing… I couldn’t understand how I could be going into this and not having a clue? Now I feel lost, alone, isolated and completely incompetent with no idea what to do next.
Alice, 37, producer
I interview so many first-time pregnant women who, quite understandably given the pull of One Born Every Minute, are terrified of birth. Who can blame them when you consider stories like Annabel’s description of her first birth “naked on all fours, bellowing, with my head in the loo and my bum in the birthing suite…”
We cope with that fear in different ways. Some of us largely avoid thinking about it and say “Just Give Me The Drugs” every time they see a midwife. Others, like Alice, obsess over the details and try to take control. They read about birth, attend classes and visualise a good experience. Which may or may not change how things work out on the day. I could go either way on the best approach: I started in the ‘give me drugs’ camp and was persuaded into to the ‘breathing and squeezing’ tribe at month seven for baby one. For the next two I barely thought about the births before they happened.
But each time the baby arrived, I found myself exhausted, bloodied and bruised holding a teeny newborn that who depended on me utterly. Ironically at the very moment I felt so childlike I wasn’t sure how to do anything: not even get to a loo or seek out lunch. A friend vividly remembers the first time her her partner popped out in the car, just as she desperately needed the loo. She carried her screaming, angry baby, holding her on her lap while using the other hand to press her stitches and keep them closed while she pissed over her own hand and then looked up expecting to see a leak splashing from the ceiling. Only to realise her tits were leaking milk over her, the baby and the floor. She said “The bewilderment of not knowing my body at all filled me with utter terror.”
Some cope with moments like these better than others. Those who have a good birth, know about kids and are well supported, often adjust well. But for many of us who have spent the previous ten years working in a one-generational group, focused on work and having fun, it can come as a brutal shock.
Looking back, what strikes me is that it’s worth paying more attention to the bit after the birth than the arrival itself. Because, for all the traumatic birth stories out there, there are at least as many stories about the anguish and post-natal depression of new motherhood. The loss of control. The sense that you are not who you have always been. The realisation that all the reference points that you had about yourself – your relationship, your job, your home, your social life – don’t matter so much in a world dominated by milk, poo and sleeplessness. The sense that Alice expresses of not having a clue what to do next. The feeling that another Alice - Alice in Wonderland - captured perfectly when she said “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
Descriptions of this change in who we are range from ‘no one warned me about the endless servitude of being a new mother’ to ‘I felt like a non-person, an invisible being pushing a pram, someone no one paid any attention to’. But also include, for many, moments of wild, hormone-fuelled joy. The obsessional love. The tears of joy just looking at your baby. The staggering pride, as a group of old ladies surround you at the bus stop and tell you your baby is the most beautiful child they have ever seen and tell you how very, very clever you are.
It was during this phase with baby one that I had my first public fight involving the C-word. (There was one other after baby three, in organic vegetables in Waitrose. I know, shocking, no one expects to be called a cunt in Waitrose, I’ll save it for another day). But the first time was with brand new baby, when I bravely ventured out of the house alone and tapped my Oyster card to tap into the local DLR station.
As you may know, when you tap in and don’t then tap out again at the other end, your card is charged the maximum possible fare for any journey. Approximately the price of a penthouse in Mayfair. After tapping in I went to the lift to take the buggy down to the train and found a biro-ed A4 note taped to it saying the lift was broken. I asked the man at the station to help me downstairs with my buggy. But the guy said – in these exact words, using the fabulously patronising tone beloved of authority when speaking to a very stupid child – ‘We do not help mummies with their buggies down the stairs because of health and safety’. He refused to budge and I completely lost it as he simply repeated this mantra many times. I resorted to yelling obscenities at him – see above – and then dramatically hoiked up my giant newborn buggy and stormed down four flights of stairs while he hollered ‘I just don’t understand why you are so angry’.
The thing is that, at the time, I didn’t know why I was so angry either. But I do now. I was being confronted with the revelation that I had lost agency, the ability to be in control. I was tired and vulnerable, I needed help and this bastard didn’t think I mattered enough to provide it.
But if that all sounds scary and awful, it need not be, because we can prepare. Dr Rebecca Moore, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist at the Royal London Hospital advises having really good and honest conversations about the realities of parenting before you are one. She suggests people map out things they will do, the friends they will meet, activities they will take up and classes they will join after the baby. She finds that people who do this benefit hugely. Gay adoptive dads I interviewed agree: their adoption agency made them answer questions and write thoughtful essays about how they would parent and make decisions. They credit this process with a smoother transition into parenting than many of their heterosexual friends.
Unfortunately, neither of these approaches will change the way others see you, and you’ll still have to deal with the fools like Mr DLR. But the good news is that, in time, you’ll probably find that birth created not just a baby but also a new version of you.
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