I was halfway to my parents’ this morning to celebrate my mother’s Mother’s Day when I suddenly remembered I had a baby in the back seat.
Double checking to see if it was mine (turns out it was), it dawned on me that this was my first Mother’s Day: this day was also for me!
With that realisation came an awareness that I’ve been through a lot over the last 7 (plus 9) months, and my first Mother’s Day provides a nice mental checkpoint to reflect on those experiences and insights with the hope that they might be of some comfort and humour for others.
Motherhood is a death and a rebirth
Motherhood, like the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, blows such strong desert winds at you that you can almost see bits of both your past self and idealised future self crumble and fall away. I guess it is the death of a loved one (your identity) and the end of a relationship (with the world as you knew it). If I sound a little dramatic it’s because it’s the aspect of motherhood I hadn’t anticipated. I thought it would be a swifter, softer and more glowing, honey-hued transition to madonna status.
Those first few months, the ‘fourth trimester’, is in many ways a fight against being burnt down to (allegedly) begin anew. The real burning of course is your nipples, being yanked so far back they look like stretched chewing gum, by a baby pissed off at your slow flow (my little one also then strummed the stretched skin like strings on a carcass double bass).
Like all transitions, there is upheaval of normal thinking and time. Lactation hormones sluggify and sedate your once perky mind so you'll sit and feed your baby. My doctor really helped me by pointing out that it is no longer useful thinking of life as night and day. It's now, she said, ongoing 4-hour cycles. An old friend, a mother of three, instructed me to go to bed at 8pm, at least for a couple of months.
At some point, around the 5-8 week mark, I finally began to embrace this death. Like countless women before me, I hugged my former self and accepted the inevitable, like those characters in Rogue One who hug each other and embrace the oncoming blast of a Death Star.
It's not a rebirth at all
The rebirth to motherhood is in fits, folds and spurts. There's no decisive ceremony to mark the changed status, not even Mother's Day can hold that weight. I think you have to build yourself as a mother, paint on your own initiation stripes (in between all the other parts of life that continue on). There's no officially-appointed elder to do that for you.
I should say there are the four free community centre sessions offered to each new mum run by a government nurse and designed to give us a mothers' community, a group of peers. Hugely valuable, but it’s not quite enough.
Actually, it’s obvious some new management review adopting psychological, efficiency and anti-litigation logics has ripped through the program to establish a mother-centric, facilitator-not-teacher approach. The unintended consequence is panic and resort to Google. A common interaction at these meetings begins with a bleary-eyed mother asking something innocuous like "How do I settle my baby?" The response, an Oracle-esque response from the Gov nurse: "How do you settle your baby?"
Listen: Shelly Craft talks all things about the unexpected challenges of motherhood on I Don't Know How She Does It (post continues after audio...)
This continues for half an hour until we’ve arrived at post-natal quantum mechanics, with the nurse pondering, “Is it you who is truly the mother, or the child?” This is where the once-inquisitive mother in question finally breaks down, declares herself a fraud, and hurtles into the nearest bush.
My husband and I are largely guessing and learning as we go, reading up when we can, learning from people and from her, making jokes with her - and it's nice to see that she has a sense of humour already. They're not the best gags, but she laughs at them till her shoulders shake and we laugh back and it goes for minutes. It's the best! But it's also normal life, right? These attitudes and skills of mothering are those needed and expected in many domains. I'm not a 'natural', whatever that means, and at the same time this isn't a complete renewal. Mothering is something done by many people in many ways.
The feeling of motherhood emerges when you have to choose between childcare options or whether to take your child to the doctor, that is an uneasy feeling which tends to weigh more heavily on the mum. My head spun looking at day care places and my daughter then pulled a massive toy on top of her and fell back onto her head. I keep thinking someone else is going to make the decision -- and not just my Mums’ Group WhatsApp.
It’s a sh*tshow
The sense that this is all a bit of a joke isn't just my personality or latent uncertainty about who is in control of or responsible for my life (I am the bossier twin but also a highly-bossed middle child with an authoritarian father and lawless mother and I’m a woman so I am very confused). It's also structural. It's capitalism, it’s consumerism, it's Sydney house prices.
I officially went back to work part-time 4.5 months after 'birthing' and actually earlier because: academia, but even in a progressive workplace (eg all new mothers in my Faculty are entitled to some extra research funding to help them get back into it) it's just working as normal but you're looking around like someone please give the ironic wink that they know this is funny and brutal that mums have to ‘compete’ in the same race with extra saddle bags, metaphorically and physically - under your eyes, on your thighs and chest. You get more focused and ruthlessly efficient, sure, but you're always on as a working mum.
We’re lucky in Australia to have some help. Admittedly not quite on a par with the Swedish model in which parents can split 98 years off however they like. Obviously we need different forms of support for different family arrangements and circumstances. And before you say, “But I'm choosing not to have kids so I don't want to support any such schemes!”, children are not some offshoot of humanity against which you can barricade yourself. Adults aren't grown in fields. Your boss, the chap who cuts your hair, your partner, your nurse: guess what? They've all been children. There's no adult that has not been a child thus (and I've practised this) it’s in your interest to make sure children grow up in a sound environment and parents have the resources to nurture them.
It's not a sh*tshow at all
There's a weird dual movement going on in the online world of both presenting motherhood as perfect - fetishising baking, crafting and children's clothes and interiors (I'm personally very badly affected by nursery envy). At the same time and in a somewhat refreshing reaction to the pristine and monetised version of motherhood (these ladies are selling!), there's an extreme counter-version of casual chaos and cute alcoholism and neglect. There are photos of babies in onesies with the words: “I'm the reason Mummy drinks gin every night and cries about her shattered dreams and constructive dismissal at work.”
It's a competition for who can appear to be the least safe, most shambolic mother, but still functioning. But it’s all a rather feigned performance that conforms to social media’s rather one-note purpose of getting attention. A mum-themed humblebrag. No one's actually taking genuine photos of their babies covered in their own shit napping on a bed of exposed wires.
It's actually important to be a mum (and parent) and show others you're trying to do it sensibly. It’s ultimately ongoing, not controllable and looks like it'll involve a lot of heartache too, but there's a lot of joy and practical mastery in it, which should be shared. In a way, it's a relief: mothering a very present, day-to-day focused and purposeful activity that allows you to streamline all the BS you didn't have the confidence or time limitations to filter in your 20s. Plus, it's a source of endless wonder.
The paradoxes of a rite of passage
I hadn't realised 'til now that the presence of paradoxes of new motherhood - birth/ death, mundane/sublime, nipples - are typical of rites of passage (or actually how they used to be thought of in the 1960s). These contradictions are supposed to make you so dizzy you'll let go of your old you and not notice you've embraced the rules and values of your new position.
At this very early stage for me, motherhood seems to be a constant unfolding and an exercise in tolerating, even enjoying, uncertainty rather than a decisive state. There's no stage at which it will settle, right? It's one new frontier after another. I just hope I can approach it with a sense of adventure and a healthy measure of not thinking about it too much, except perhaps on Mother’s Day.
How was your Mother's Day?