Earlier, I read a post on a Facebook page dedicated to the politics of breastfeeding. It was asking the question whether people felt that a large barrier to breastfeeding is a modern mother’s expectations of maintaining a social life after pregnancy. It really got me thinking, not just about breastfeeding, but about first-time motherhood in general.
Somehow the reality of becoming a mum has become a little warped. Yes, it is beautiful, it is wondrous, it is awesome, and there is no love in this world like the love a mother feels for her baby. But it is not always easy, and the woman who spent nine months nurturing and growing this beautiful baby will almost definitely not be the same woman who leaves the delivery room. Life and you and everything you ever thought you knew before are different with the arrival of a baby.
When I was pregnant with The Princess, I’m not sure what I thought about motherhood. In fact, I’m not sure I thought about motherhood at all, so preoccupied with pregnancy was I. I immersed myself in books and magazines and articles, drinking in the information about what was happening to my body, my hormones, my baby, and what fruit they were the size of at any given point. My quest for knowledge did not extend beyond the early stages of labour; the later stages of labour made me clench every muscle south of my hugely rounded abdomen, squeeze my eyes shut, stick my fingers in my ears, and pretend it would never have to happen to me.
But there’s another strange phenomenon – the conspiracy of silence that mothers enter into when it comes to labour. On the one hand, some mums are only too pleased to regale their traumatic, near-death labour experiences, detailing each millilitre of blood lost, each agonising contraction, each medical device used to extract the baby from their mutilated vagina, all the while revelling in the agony and horror plastered all over your face. Horror stories aside, no-one really talks about labour, about what it is really like, what the pain is like, how frightening it can be, and what to really expect. Even midwives join in with this silence. When I was 38 weeks pregnant, unable to walk without crutches due to SPD, taking iron supplements for anaemia, weighing ten and a half stone having never reached eight stone before, and the midwife who was writing my birth plan told me that I would get through the first stages of labour with only paracetamol for pain relief, I believed her. When she told me my body was designed to birth my baby, that there were plenty of small-framed women who have naturally birthed large babies and that I was no different, I believed her. My mum attempted to prepare me for labour by telling me this midwife was talking utter rubbish and that I had never, and would never again, experienced pain like that of labour, yet I was still taken by surprise at just how painful it actually was. And how exhausting the whole process is. Then again, that was just my (traumatic) experience. The SPD definitely made it worse. I am sure many first-time mums have a more positive experience than I did. But I’ll bet it still hurt. A lot.
I digress. This transition from ‘woman’ to ‘mother’ is exactly that; a transition. Life changes with a baby, the creation of this tiny, dependant bundle of loveliness brings with it responsibility, a change in priorities, a change in thinking, a change in life as you knew it. While I was pregnant, on the odd occasion I did allow myself to think about life with a baby, I think I imagined it would be exactly as it was, just with an extra little person around. I never imagined it would take an hour just to get the baby ready and the bag packed for a trip out, or that it would take me until midday to get myself together for the first three months, or that sleep would be such a problem, or that this baby might want to feed every single hour. Not only that, I really never expected to change so much in myself. Depression and anxiety aside, I became more risk-aware, political issues suddenly became important as I realised that I am an advocate for my baby’s future. My own health became important, actually that happened once I found out I was pregnant, but I had never really taken good care of myself before – I ate rubbish food as I never had a problem with weight gain, I smoked, and I drank way too much alcohol. Nights out drinking and dancing with friends or The Boyfriend or my sister used to be my main focus of the week, suddenly I couldn’t imagine anything more meaningless. Things that I used to get so much enjoyment from – devouring fashion magazines, searching for the perfect pair of jeans, discovering new amazing bands – no longer felt important. What was important was that my baby was feeding, that she was safe, secure, her needs were always met, she was never left to cry, that she was bright and hitting developmental milestones. I would choose to read a copy of Juno over Grazia; to buy babygrows and books and Jellycat toys over jeans; to sing Row Row Your Boat over listening to my favourite CDs.
Some mothers describe this transition as making sacrifices. Sacrificing time alone in order to feed their baby, or rock them to sleep, or take them to a baby massage class. Some mothers class this as losing their identity, that somehow becoming a mother makes them less of a woman. Admittedly, I struggled with this at first. I wondered where I had gone, what had happened to the me that I had known for thirty years, but eventually I realised the birth of my baby also signified the birth of a new me, me as a mother. It is senseless to think that life won’t change with the arrival of a baby. Everything changes with the arrival of a baby.
Which brings me back to the question posed on the Loquacious Lactator’s page about a social life being a barrier to breastfeeding. My answer would be yes. Somehow the reality of motherhood, that it not only changes your life but it changes you as a person, does not get portrayed by society. Our obsession with celebrity culture must have some influence in this; TV presenters, actresses, singers, all expected to be back in the spotlight weeks after giving birth, back to their pre-pregnancy size and shape, not a leaking boob, blob of baby sick, or indeed baby in sight. Back to work, back to career-woman, back to how it was before. This is how motherhood is portrayed in the magazines and tabloids, get pregnant, look glowing while retaining unique pregnancy style, give birth, return to normal. This is not real life. The more mums-to-be who understand that life changes irrevocably and eternally, that skipping out of the hospital in size 6 skinny jeans and into the pub for lunch for a catch-up with friends is highly unlikely, and not really the ultimate aim of becoming a parent, the less these changes will be viewed as sacrifices. They are just changes.