Some things stick in your head over the years, lying in wait until later on, when they suddenly echo back unexpectedly and something clicks. Over a decade ago, after the first of my friends had welcomed a baby, we were having a coffee. Her little one raced around the room, knocking over whatever was in his path. Holding his flailing body away from the hot cups on the table, amid his rising cries of frustration, she calmly looked me in the eye and said: "I have never once regretted my child, but I often regret motherhood".
At the time I knew she was sharing something meaningful, but it's hard to fully grasp the significance when the rest of your own day involves tossing a bank card and your lipstick into a tiny handbag, donning some heels and heading to a networking event followed by… well, I didn’t need to think about that – because the night was my own. My only 'to-do' was to be up for my 7am gym class before work – and if I wasn’t, then so be it. There was always the next day. Oh, the time I had at my disposal!
Now, as a mother to a beautiful son, I often find myself thinking back to that moment, to those words, because it's a sentiment I completely and utterly connect with. As fulfilling as motherhood is, it also means a loss of one's previous identity. And mourning that is not something we're encouraged to voice, let alone talk openly about, in case it's viewed as selfish, or being 'a bad parent'. Or even not loving your child enough.
On social media we’ve had the picture perfect Scrummy Mummy, with her glossy children and even glossier hair, then came the backlash with a flurry of 'tell it like it is' influencers, presenting a tragicomedy of snot-stained clothes and messy homes. But still, no matter which camp they fall into, we still tend to view all these women through the lens of 'A Mum'. Motherhood is a game-changer, yes, but does it have to ultimately define us? Still, in the year 2022?
Saying goodbye to your 'old' self
In the last decade, the average age to become a mother in the UK has gone from late twenties to early thirties and in London it's even higher, with many waiting until their late thirties to start a family. Women are choosing to first focus on travel and work, their careers, homes and finding the right person to settle down with. This is all excellent in principle, but it can also make the sudden transition from independent woman to sleep-deprived caregiver a lot harder.
I loved my life before motherhood. I loved my freedom, career, and relationships, all of which I had invested time and effort into. I loved my home, which I'd spent years curating into my perfect space and, most importantly, I loved being me. By my mid-30s, everything was set and running well but, having never wanted children before, with a sort of unanticipated nostalgia, I suddenly found myself yearning for a family. My son's first cry will always go down as the most wonderful sound I've ever heard, but looking back now, I can see I truly had no idea of the enormous shift – in my whole being, away from my entire beloved life – that it heralded.
That's not to say there aren't moments of intense joy though, such as when a small warm hand reaches up to curl into yours, or when my son made up his first story for me. Often the joy stems from things previously unimaginable – former me would never have danced with delight at the successful use of the potty before rushing to show off the contents. Yes, to me my son is wonderful. It is motherhood that's a beast.
Before becoming a mother, I’d bought into the TV version. I expected to crave weird food combinations throughout pregnancy, have a few sleepless nights and then snap back like a celebrity – all while simultaneously thriving in my career, but with the added bonus of a loving family seated around the dinner table. Needless to say, this was not the reality.
My brain and body are both different, as well as my diary. Nobody ever warned me that fear is the flipside to unconditional love and devotion. Or about the waves of anxiety and guilt that hit on a daily basis. Having always been fairly gung-ho in nature, suddenly I feel the world is full of danger. The early months saw me sleep fitfully, constantly checking on my son. When we moved his cot into another room, I would wake throughout the night, shuffle in to touch his chest and make sure he was still breathing. My son is now three, but this new-found insomnia hasn't left me.
And, of course, shattered by this lack of sleep, the next day I reached for every carb I could to maintain the energy to function (again impacting on my mood and sense of self, no doubt). Exercise initially felt impossible to fit in too, and then guiltily self-indulgent, as there was always something 'more important' to be done, be it a work deadline as he napped, or a fourth round of laundry.
After having a baby, the body I had once attempted to take care of no longer felt like mine, having become a vessel for housing and then feeding – something that doesn’t always come easily, in both the physical or emotional sense. For instance, why does no one tell you that breastfeeding can feel like repeatedly jamming your nipple into a door hinge? The amount of shame surrounding this one, deeply personal act is truly astounding too, ranging from revolted tuts when breastfeeding in public to sing-song chimes of 'breast is best' when using a bottle. It can all leave you feeling like little more than public property and quite frankly, overwhelmed (when in reality whatever method you choose to feed your baby is the best option).
Even without the interference of others though, mum-guilt is real. It’s visceral and can hit like a tonne of bricks, whether you’re working full-time in an office, full-time as a parent or are balancing both. I still have not shifted the guilt of having 'me time'. There is no longer any real 'time off', either. It was one morning – after a late night when I was desperate to stay under the duvet and order a take-away – that I had a moment of lurching realisation that no matter how I felt, I had to get up because my son would need to be fed and changed. Every morning. For the next several years.
Lie-ins now come at the cost of negotiations with your partner or the privilege of paid childcare, and even on a rare night out your child's welfare is at the back of your mind. You can get a call at any time, as was highlighted on our first attempted date night in months; ten minutes in, the sitter messaged to say our son had vomited over the sofa, carpet and walls. We set the un-drunk martinis down and I realised starkly, time no longer belongs to me. Nor am I the central figure in my own story.
During moments like that, I desperately miss the life I spent decades cultivating. And it should be okay to say that out loud. To say I pine for the days when my decisions weren't influenced, or entirely dictated by, this little person I am raising. And that it's tough grappling with the fact they always will be. But sometimes we have to try and claw back parts of our identity that feel long-forgotten. Even just for a few days. And know that it is normal to wrestle with these emotions.
When my son was two, I agonised over taking a five-day work trip (it would be the longest time I'd have ever spent apart from him), until my neighbour, Emma, who travels with her TV work said to me, 'Far too much time is spent telling mums how they should be feeling. It's ok to go away and love your job. It doesn't mean you love your kids any less. My kids need to know that I'm enjoying my work and that it's ok to be apart. If you go and you don't miss him, that's fine.' And you know what? It was.
Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, today, I'm seeing more and more friends choose not to become parents at all. They're not grey, forlorn spinster figures either - as pop culture would have us believe - but vibrant, successful individuals, often in happy relationships, involved with relatives' babies and enjoying life on their own terms. And as a parent, I now realise how important it is to be honest about motherhood and the whole range of good, bad and ugly it involves – for those who are on the fence, as well as for those already on the other side with me. When people come to me asking about parenthood, struggling with idea of egg-depletion and closing doors, my reply is always the same: 'I don't recommend it.'
And that's because I am not going to recommend parenting as the greatest decision you could ever make - because I am trying to undo the assumption that parenthood somehow completes you or your life, or should become your only defining feature. Abstaining from parenthood may close one door, but it keeps a heck of a lot of the others open too. The possibility of travel, of smoother career progression, staying on top of your health, fitness and friendships. In an age where diverse lifestyle choices are being progressively accepted, the idea that procreating is fundamental to a life well-lived seems outmoded. That it is the 'right choice' for everyone cannot be correct because we are all so different – and that is why the idealisation of parenthood has to stop.
The truth is, although this unconditional love is beautiful, it comes with great sacrifice: of your body, home, time, sleep, friendships and even your mental well-being. There is no return policy for a life created, so you best be darn sure it's something you want.
It's possible to love your child fiercely, as I do, but to also mourn the loss of independent decision making and the freedom of the instant 'yes'. I miss having the ability to go for spontaneous drinks without having to plan childcare days in advance, to accept a promotion abroad, or even just head out for a run when I feel like it. My cavalier old life feels eons away when I leave a meeting early for nursery collection, or am sitting up all night, fraught with worry as I rock my sick baby. Raising a child can be a wonderful experience and an honour – but remember, it is also no guarantee of happiness.
Lessons I've learned from motherhood
Things that make it all feel easier - and are important to grip hold of...
Stop the judgement. Everyone. Stop judging others. Stop judging yourself.
Read the books and take the tips that work for you, but remember there isn’t a 'one size fits all' for parenting – if there were, there wouldn’t be so many different books.
Find local parent friends with children of similar ages who you can trust. A problem shared is a problem halved.
Make sure you schedule in some 'me time' when you can. Get that rest, see that friend, go for that walk. Nourish yourself to be strong enough to nourish others.
If you need help, ask. So many mothers suffer in silence from postnatal depression or loneliness. Reach out to friends, family and professionals - especially professionals as they'll have seen and heard it all before. However you are feeling, you are not the first and you are not alone.
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