Since I gave birth to my first child, I have felt this constant pressure to be a dynamic mother. To heal quickly after a Caesarean section, to carry on through baby blues, to manage intuitively throughout the first year, and to find my way out of postnatal depression and long-term anxiety. It was as though I was asked to stitch myself together with the pressured expectations of motherhood and hide the struggles that were birthed along with a new mothering identity.
I somehow expected my life, before nappies and Sudocrem, buggy choices and school possibilities, to merge with rocking it as a mum into one coherent “I got this sh*t” kind of life. Instead, it was more of a “where did all this sh*t come from?” kind of life, as I charted the contents of my babies’ bowels and kept track of whatever Google tried to teach me about its varying colour.
I dutifully sat in the passenger seat of motherhood, believing I had no influence on the navigation as I was driven too fast in the wrong direction.
The pressure to mother a certain way was as unrelenting as the round ligament pains that brought me into this world of kissing knees, sore hands, and wondering if beans on toast were all right for a Wednesday night dinner. From the beginning, I was in love with my new role as mum, but also lost. It’s the incredible juxtaposition of motherhood; a constant swaying pendulum of “I love it” and “I can’t do this”.
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Swollen and rotund with our first child growing in my belly, I was still commuting an hour on a stuffy bus, working nine to five, entrenched in my career as a medical librarian in the Rotunda, the world’s oldest working maternity hospital. I was also suffering intense hyperemesis gravidarum (severe pregnancy sickness) with no reprieve. Still, I barely missed a day of work, believing the myth that mothers, and those soon-to-be mothers, carried on, never complained, accepted their lot.
Mothers are born as quickly, painfully, and manically as their children. So many women, so much change, and so little conversation surrounding this transformation
I was wholly caught up in the world of pregnancy at work, conducting literature searches on pre-eclampsia and shoulder-dystocia. I could rhyme off the current trends in obstetrics and gynaecology while quoting from Mayes Midwifery. I knew the complications of pregnancy and birth but motherhood, the depth and breadth of the transformation, was not found in any textbook on the library’s shelves.
Every working day for 10 years, I walked by the gold-gilded frames of the previous hospital masters, all men, in the ornate front hall of the 250-year-old building. These imposing portraits of men who delivered baby after baby hauntingly reminded me of the patriarchy which upholds our very mothering system and the stereotypes into which we are born. There was an authoritative portrait of Sara Hampson too, the first lady superintendent of the Rotunda Hospital in 1891. A woman among men, among women, among newborns.
Our eldest daughter, Allegra, was born on a wet and dreary winter afternoon in 2013. In that year, 8,648 mothers delivered 8,841 babies, all within the same walls as I did. And in 2017, when we added our second baby girl, Devin, to our brood, 8,226 mothers delivered 8,409 babies. That’s a lot of women becoming mothers for the first time, or again, in just one hospital, in one county, in one country. Mothers are born as quickly, painfully, and manically as their children. So many women, so much change, and so little conversation surrounding this transformation.
My life and the inner workings of my mind were rocked by the pause of early motherhood, the absence of needing to be anywhere other than on the sofa under a breathing bundle of blankets. Postpartum seemed so alien, so empty, yet all-encompassing. That fourth trimester was a period of intense adjustment; learning to mother, heal, and everything else that comes with tiny babies swathed in soft cotton, with their erratically flexing pudgy limbs, and dangerously sharp fingernails.
There were times when the all-consuming calling of motherhood cut me down, and I wanted to run into the farmer’s field opposite our house, barefoot, and scream into the abyss of a dark night sky
This pause was one of the most critical times of my life; not the birth of my child, but the time that came after, when I became the woman I wanted to be, and took on this new persona of mother. But after the pause, life was confusing, scary.
Balancing work and home, deadlines and dust, I committed to figuring out how to pull off a work suit on a Tuesday and Lycra leggings on a Thursday, all the while carrying the mental load and fishing a Lego batman out of the toilet. I found myself incredibly organised with a baby bag always stocked and ready to go for those impromptu “get out of the house” moments, yet I struggled to put a foot out the door.
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I had four bottles of unopened Calpol in a lockable container at the back of the fridge, and I invested in not one but two first aid kits with Peppa Pig plasters. I was always clued in on when Aldi had their baby events. I even thought I was ready for round two when the baby morphed into a toddler and the rhythm of living seemed, well, manageable.
But there were times when the all-consuming calling of motherhood cut me down, and I wanted to run into the farmer’s field opposite our house, barefoot, and scream into the abyss of a dark night sky. Postnatal depression and a hefty side order of postnatal anxiety, which I tartly refer to as my Fricking Flamingo, shattered me to my core after Devin arrived. The flamingo ungracefully flew into my life, creating a personal sh*t storm at a time when I was constantly being told I was so lucky and must be so happy, and my God, can you stand the cuteness of it all?
I struggled to hold it together, losing it with explosive, unrecognisable feelings and reactions, and a tightness in my chest that attempted to burst through my rib cage. The flamingo manically flapped its wings and flipped my emotions, silencing any rational thought. I didn’t recognise myself. I felt knotted.
As I tried to be someone I wasn’t, I doubted myself 89 times in the day. As the kids fell asleep, I quietly apologised to them for being a grumpy mum, a tired mum, or a wrong mum
I was invested in developing as a mother, yet simultaneously hated the responsibility of parenthood. I was stuck between loving my kids so painfully, and wanting to disappear. I felt an urge to find my maternal groove but desperately wanted to revert to being the person I was beginning to miss. It was the mother-me versus the me-me that caused the crack in my mental health.
How could this period of my life be so challenging, off-centre, and alien to me when it was meant to be my dream, a wild new beginning? Wasn’t this what I wanted? What was wrong with me?
Like everyone else I kept going, aiming higher than I needed to, constantly feeling I was failing or falling or tripping up. I felt I was missing the mark as the Mother Earth who doesn’t need to think twice about how well she is raising her kids, or the super-mum who never complains and carries on tick, tick, ticking her way through the list, or the highly sensitive mother who monitors and balances the emotions and needs of everyone in the house, including the dog and Jasper the goldfish. I was exhausted by it all.
As I tried to be someone I wasn’t, I doubted myself 89 times in the day. As the kids fell asleep, I quietly apologised to them for being a grumpy mum, a tired mum, or a wrong mum.
It took me two children and three years of damaged mental wellbeing before I reconciled with mothering
There is so much more to mothering than I realised in those beginning years of parenthood, so much loss mixed in with the gain. It is not simply about mothering our children, but also ourselves, every single day. We are almost blindsided into simply accepting this intense change, ignoring the marks it leaves, and getting on with it because we are not the first to bear a child, not the first to find ourselves changed and confused and longing. We are not told that birthing a child is an individual revolution, a personal awakening, or reawakening, and we are not warned how savagely we will need to adjust, inside and out.
I needed to unravel my insides and stitch myself back together from my inner core outward. It took me two children and three years of damaged mental wellbeing before I reconciled with mothering. I was guided through counselling, mindfulness and self-awareness towards a pattern to knit myself back up, helping me mend those dropped stitches. There’s been quite a lot of sewing up, and there are some awkward knots which have yet to loosen because I’m still learning and changing and unravelling. I expect to continue this process for most of my life because motherhood is not linear. We will continually change as our children grow.
Unraveling Motherhood is the story of my own journey, with input from psychologists and parenting experts who help to unravel the more complex aspects of motherhood including Dr Mary O’Kane, Aisling Leonard-Curtin, Allison Keating, Dr Lisa Coyne and Dr Janina Scarlet, with a foreword by Dr Malie Coyne. I hope the toolkit will help readers to recognise how we are influenced to mother a certain way, to discern the outside influences that can alter our thinking, and to find an inner strength to listen to and trust ourselves, to care for and love ourselves.
I’m not a perfect mother. I don’t always get it right. I have made mistakes, but at the end of the day, when those eyes close and my children gently breathe the slow rhythmic song of comfortable sleep, all I need to know is that they are happy, that I tried my best, and that tomorrow I will try again.
Geraldine Walsh is a regular contributor to Health & Family in The Irish Times. This is an abridged extract from her new book, Unraveling Motherhood, which will be published by Hatherleigh Press next month and is available to pre-order from amazon.co.uk