Whatever else they have done or neglected to do since, none of us would be here without a mother carrying us for 9ish months and then birthing us into the world. That in itself is monumental, but what comes next is probably the biggest challenge we face in this life: for its complexity, its longevity and the impossibility of preparing or practising beforehand. When you become a parent, you’re basically learning a highly complex and skilled new job on the fly, while recovering from a hugely gruelling physical feat which usually involves some level of surgery (anything from a few inconvenient stitches to major abdominal reconstruction), in the midst of hormone hurricanes and sleep deprivation, and the consequences, should you fail, are fatal. No pressure then…
Let’s take a moment to reflect on a few of the inexplicable cruelties of birth and early motherhood (some of the strongest arguments against “intelligent” design, if ever there were such). There’s the physical recovery you have to get through – no need to explain how pushing a small-bowling-ball-sized object through an orifice that is usually only a few millimetres wide can damage you, and that’s the best-case scenario.
On top of this, though, you may very well be suffering with some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on how the birth went. I won’t reference the potential horrors (look up bad birth stories if you are morbidly curious, and prepare to be shocked), but neither do I need to: the recent birth of my son was about as positive and crunchy as can be – all natural, a fairly swift four hours, no cutting or surgical instruments involved, and my husband and a wonderful doula guiding and supporting me throughout… But I was not nearly prepared for the levels of pain I experienced and that took a while to process – as did the amount of noise I made. In the days afterwards I found myself thinking, does no one else feel the pain like this, and shout and scream? Or do they just not talk about it except with others who have been through the same? The answer is, of course, the latter.
Then there are all number of ills that can befall the baby. Without even getting into the territory of dangerous infections, deformities or heart problems (both more frequent than you realise and often requiring very early and terrifying, though generally successful, surgeries) you have colic, for example. Your baby cries for hours on end, and you’ve tried everything, literally, to stop it: changing the feeding regime, burping, comforting, bath, nappy change, going for a walk, a drive; and in increasing desperation, automatic bouncy chairs, magic potions, sleep training…
Nothing works. Baby cries. No-one sleeps. For those who haven’t been there, or have forgotten, a newborn’s cry is like a nuclear emergency claxon to its mother. When you break it down, these are two of the most referenced techniques for torture: sleep deprivation and aggressive, distressing noise at high volume. Add to that the very real psychological torture of knowing the tiny, defenseless baby that is yours to care for and protect is hurting, and you can’t do anything about it. And yet, you can’t break – you have to suck it up and continue to function through it all.
It’s small wonder that new mothers suffer with varying levels of depression and anxiety. I’ll even add that it no longer surprises me that they sometimes abandon their families. It’s still nothing short of tragic when it happens, and ok, some people are just shits, but I suspect there are many cases where it’s more a case of mum being sufficiently unsupported as to reach breaking point. The odds are stacked against us.
So today I salute all the mums who are doing their best, just showing up, fighting through the pain and the sleeplessness, struggling with a developmental stage of their child, or with other children’s cruel behaviour towards their own, fighting down their own demons to set a better example for their child. You’re doing great, mama. I see you. It’s capital-letter HARD. Keep up the good work.
And the upshot of all this apparent misery is that, through great adversity, great bonds are made: not only with your child, but also with fellow parents, especially other mothers. I gained a new perspective on my own mothers once I had a child myself, and I send a planet-sized thank you and fist-bump to all my mum friends, home and away. You’re amazing and I am so thankful to have you as my friends, to share the good, bad, horrific and hilarious episodes that child-rearing provides us with, and to know we are not alone.