We hear the words, advice for new mothers
and give a rowdy snort of derision, usually accompanied by the mental phrase, ‘It won’t be hard for me because it just won’t.’
Parenting is hard. Everyone knows, but we don’t listen to those who try to warn us, rolling our eyes and assuming they’re the oracles of doom.
It’s 4am on a Saturday morning in February in New Zealand and I’m thinking about advice for new mothers as I sit here in the dark. You can take it or leave it, but I sure wish I’d listened to my mother more and especially those nuggets of truth which older women perpetually have on their lips.
1. Parenting is a job without end. No time off for good behaviour.
This morning I set my alarm for 3.45 am by pre-arrangement with my 21-year-old daughter who lives 5 hours away. She’s just flown back from a conference in Dunedin and now has a field trip which involves going back to the South Island for the second time this week and crawling around geological sites. It’s not my bag, but it’s definitely hers and I should have known that the first time she was stung by a bee. “I was trying to stroke it,” she sobbed, tears streaking her little cheeks. Those tears were nothing compared to the grief she experienced when the bee didn’t fly away in a huff. She’s one of nature’s special ones, always has been and always will be.
I didn’t have to get up this morning. She’s the child who inherited the ‘reliable gene’ from our ancestors and I expected to hear her sounding wide awake and full of beans at 4.02 am, which she was.
So why did I crawl from my bed at the first beep of my alarm and slink down to the family room, where I’ll probably be now until bedtime tonight?
Because that’s what we do. No matter how big they are, we need to be there until death takes our bodies or aliens steal our minds. She was worried about being so tired she’d miss the alarm and I helped make sure she didn’t.
2. Maternalism is not always genetic.
Mothers are a rare breed. We don’t think we can do it, in fact, most of us know we can’t. But we do. Somehow we do.
I wasn’t born maternal. For all women out there who worry about not liking their baby, not ‘feeling’ something when the child arrives and ultimately, just plain not-being-good-enough, please take comfort from this; I worried about exactly those things for the duration of my first pregnancy. I heaved my first baby into the world under the veil of unreality and then at about
this time of night after 3 hours of sleep, found myself alone on a hospital ward with a tiny, crying person. I’d changed one nappy in my entire life during babysitting duty and when my sister picked up her two-month old daughter afterwards, she gently informed me I’d put it on wrong. Having your own baby to put nappies on wrong every day, yeah, that’s a game changer.
My daughter’s head was tiny enough to fit in the crook of my neck and I cradled her as she fretted and wondered how on earth I would ever keep her safe in a world which even back in 1993, was already out of control. New mothers worry? Yep, someone stuck the label ‘worrier’ to my butt and I’ve spent 23 years trying to get it off.
3. We keep doing it.
Fast forward a very short twenty-one months and I would be in the same hospital ward having just given birth to twins. At 5’3” and carrying two babies over six pounds each, the obstetrician expected problems. After being induced twice over a twenty-four-hour period and walking up and down eight flights of the maternity wing at Lincoln County Hospital once an hour to stir up contractions, I no longer knew what to expect. But there was a moment in which the world stopped and I got a second to think for the first time in my chaotic, child rearing life.
It was 3am in the morning and, deciding the babies were imminent, the midwife set up two small incubators at the foot of my bed. My children, doomed from the start by midwives and doctors, managed to hold out until 38 weeks and seemed more than reluctant to emerge into the world; I can’t say I blamed them. But as I stared at the spotlights over the cribs, I had this sudden realisation that they were coming, the babies who I’d been told from fairly early on, wouldn’t make it past 28 weeks gestation.
I also knew I wasn’t ready because wonderful or terrible; I would be facing it very soon.
I remember laying in the semi darkness and wondering if I could just get up and run away. I wasn’t ready for whatever came next, but couldn’t see a way out. Carrying over 13 lb of baby, let alone all the stuff that went with them made it hard to get up and an epidural made face planting off the bed highly likely. I lay there and breathed through a wave of contractions and concentrated on reciting Matthew 10: 29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”
At 3.05 am everything turned to custard.
There were 2 obstetricians on standby just for me, because twins can be complicated and they deemed it necessary to call them both. But an emergency cesarean for another poor woman on the ward diverted 1 to theatre, leaving the other alone. The other pediatrician was pulled into a different surgery and the remaining gentleman sat on the counter top, swinging his legs and eating an apple.
At 20 minutes past 3 in the morning, my daughter arrived squalling. She was a sweet little thing at 6lb and 9oz and the pediatrician laid his apple down while he checked her over, wrapped her up and then handed her to my husband to hold. He resumed his apple eating and watched as my son was born at 3.33 am. At 6lb and 4oz, my son didn’t cry. He laid on my chest and fixed enormous dark eyes on me. He was so still I panicked, but then he moved his head and was claimed by the pediatrician, who was probably the calmest person I’ve met in my life. That man finished his apple and after checking out my son, left with a wave, chucking the core into the dustbin and moving on to deal with the next call.
The midwife told me later that the obstetrician claimed to be in awe. He’d never watched someone my height and build birth such big twins naturally and without making a sound. He repeated it later when he came to visit and I nodded politely. It wasn’t a skill I would require again so I smiled and concentrated on plotting my early release from hospital by being up, dressed and wearing makeup just before 9am.
4. There are no medals for ‘Perfect Turnout’. Ugly and messy are ok.
My twins shared their 21st birthday last week and it’s been an incredible journey. It wasn’t always smooth and it certainly wasn’t pretty – most of the time.
With 3 children under 3 it was something of a black hole in my life. Looking back, I think I was in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where. Probably buried under a mountain of washable nappies and making meals out of nothing. There was never enough money, never enough time and my poor husband and I shared the sanity button on alternate weekends. Hindsight shows me only chaos, despite all the uplifting quotes about it being able to give clarity. Nope. Still can’t see any of that. But we all got out alive and lived to tell the tale. Most days we were on time for things and occasionally we were late. There were lots of tears, often mine and a fair bit of shouting, mine also. There were accidents and mishaps and heaps of forgotten items left in weird places which unfortunately included my middle daughter on a few occasions because she had hearing problems. Yes, she was once left upstairs laying on her bed reading a book after being told to sit in the lobby because we were only calling home for something. It was fine. We did a head count before the end of the street and went back. It was a good job she hadn’t moved a muscle because the burglar alarm was on and she would’ve upset the street, not that she’d have heard it. It’s terrible at the time but later becomes the stuff of embarrassing stories.
5. Everyone tells you to enjoy it. Enjoy what exactly?
By April 1997 I had 4 children under the age of 4 and still nobody thought to gift us a TV for the bedroom. I often look at new mothers with young babies and wish I’d got to enjoy mine more. That was the key thing older women tried to tell me at the time; to enjoy those first weeks – months – years, because they’re very quickly gone. I would look at them with eyes glazed over from sleep deprivation and watch their lips move, whilst trying to telepathically communicate, ‘Help me, I’m being held hostage.’ When I look back, there was little time for enjoyment. It was purely about ‘getting through’ whatever was in front of me and many things passed me by in the general blur of not starving, not smelling and definitely looking like Supermum.
When I think back on my personal mantras, it’s actually quite sad.
– Cry inside the house but smile lots outside.
– Never let anyone find out how poor we are.
– Cleanliness costs nothing.
It’s stupid, I know, but I based my parenting around what others thought of me back then. My eldest daughter was 19 when I realised I needed to stop seeing my life as a series of terrible newspaper headlines. We didn’t do great but between us, Husband and I did just fine.
6. Write down 1 random good thing every day.
At the risk of reiterating a very old chestnut – and one I repeatedly ignored, I want to encourage all mums everywhere, not just new mothers; write down one good thing a day, no matter how small.
I began doing that when my eldest daughter was 13. It took me a long time to catch on and I missed a whole heap of opportunities to look outside of my dark bubble of despair. It takes nothing to write one sentence. If your phone’s often in your hand, create a Google Doc and then you can add to it from anywhere. By August 2006 I was living in a strange country, working out of necessity and trying to deal with all the children and household needs to free up my husband to financially provide for us. I was a mess. Every day felt like entering a war zone and opening my eyes each morning was accompanied by such pangs of dread, it would’ve been easier not to bother.
On 7th August 2006, I sat in my car outside school and missed England. It was my sister’s birthday and I couldn’t afford the long distance call to wish her well. We owned a laptop but the internet was sketchy and she’d never know I was sitting thinking about her. It was winter in New Zealand and colder than I expected. As I readied my face for tired, grumpy, post school children I realised I was out of reserves. I was empty and my happy all used up. As tears pricked my eyelids I heard a strange sound outside the car. I wound down the window and peeked out. What I saw was enough to hold onto and I pulled out a pen from the glove box and wrote on the back of a petrol receipt, ‘It’s winter, but the sun is shining. Two little boys are wrestling on the grass outside my car and I can hear them giggling.’
It made me smile and it still does.
But what a waste. Why did I not start this years ago and write down one great thing a day about my own children? I could’ve gone crazy and found one good thing about each child. What hindsight does manage to show me is that such an activity would’ve cut through the blur. I could have sat here thinking about almost 23 years of sweet sentences instead of just the hard times. The trouble is, my memory plays tricks and merges the bad stuff in with the good. Besides that, it’s human nature to always remember the bad. What will we be left with when it’s all over? I don’t want to remember feeling at the end of my rope. I’m better off reading the faded writing from 10 years ago on the back of a receipt and smiling about the memory of two little boys rolling around on the grass and chuckling like lunatics.
If I’d done it, by now, I would have something the size of a novel.
I could have passed it onto my children as a brighter record of their upbringing and earlier years.
It would’ve induced a heart of thankfulness.
I wish someone had told me to do it and bought me a notebook.
As I sit here I imagine what I would have written. My children often told me they loved me. They would slide onto my knee, give me kisses at unexpected moments and write it down in loopy handwriting on cards which have long since faded and slipped to the bottom of a drawer. We’ve had incredibly happy times but even photographs don’t always tell the truth. A sentence a day would’ve told an amazing story of gratitude and thankfulness and my memories might have induced a smile in my own children.
Advice for new mothers everywhere; most of you have phones and access to Google so do it. There’s no excuse. Open a Google Doc and call it ‘Good things.’ Run it until your eldest child is 1 and read back through it. 1 good thing each day, even on the days when it seems nothing good happened; there will always be something. It might be small and insignificant to everyone else, but it won’t be to you. If the list works, keep it going.
Then share it if you can. Share it with me, other mothers and eventually your own children.
Look back on it often and remember, it wasn’t all bad.
7. Listen to the older women in your life.
Don’t do everything they say because some things aren’t relevant. I remember my nana getting very upset about ‘the poisoned finger’ because in her day, you never put your index finger near a baby’s mouth. Of course you didn’t. The kinds of household chemicals used in the 1950s weren’t for consumption and life wasn’t as sanitary as it is now. But DO listen to their philosophies and perspective. They’ve been where you are and could save you a heap of trouble in the long run, especially in adjusting your own attitude to things.
Most of all, good luck. Try and smile through because as the old adage goes, ‘Fake it until you make it.’
K T Bowes is the author of the bestselling series, The Hana Du Rose Mysteries. Book 4, The Du Rose Matriarch begins with a new mother struggling with her baby and suffering all those familiar feelings of desperation and inadequacy.
You can check out other eBook retailers HERE and don’t forget that each of the first books in all 3 of K T’s series are FREE