08 Mar

What Mothers Are

I’m reading a very interesting book called The Selfish Society by Sue Gerhardt; and while I really like where she’s coming from, it did get me thinking about the general assumption that motherhood is mainly defined by sacrifice.

The things you’re expected to give up, on becoming a mother, include your pre-baby figure, your sleep, your ability to concentrate, your social life, your sex life, and your peace of mind.

The counter-argument to this is always but motherhood is so rewarding; see various mummy-bloggers’ cute anecdotes about hilarious nappy changes, first words, adoring gazes at 4am, and so on. While this is all very well, it does seem to relegate the mother’s enjoyment of life to a second-hand experience.

There don’t seem to be many sources that acknowledge the positive changes that motherhood brings about, specifically for the mother (and I’m not just talking about the oxytocin high of breastfeeding). Motherhood (and arguably, we could say ‘parenthood’ but I’m just writing about me today) can bring about huge personal growth. Understanding and accepting that you are such a key part of someone else’s world is a huge responsibility, and might be impossible for non-parents to grasp in its entirety; but when you take stock of the resources you didn’t know you had, the range of functioning you can manage on limited amounts of sleep, and the sheer protective strength you can find, all this adds up to quite a superhero status.

Motherhood can bring about a growth in understanding and empathy, especially in our relationships with our own mothers. We find out things we never expected to know about our own babyhood. For me a lot of things slotted into place when my mum talked to me about how she had felt, aged 21 alone with a newborn baby and a husband who – I’m assuming – was as emotionally disengaged then as he is now.

I particularly notice the contrast in empathy from other parents, compared with childless friends. Of course these are generalisations, and I have some wonderful childless friends who have been supportive and fun and great with Bernard. Those are the ones I prefer to spend time with, rather than the childless friends who assume I want a break from being a mother (how can I get a break from my own identity?), and that I am bored of talking endlessly about how wonderful my child is. Seriously, that subject can never tire for me, so forget it. Do you want to talk about your favourite subject all the time? I thought so. The people I tend to take a break with are other parents, who can share that feeling of enjoying the sense of freedom, while simultaneously missing the little ones. They don’t expect me not to be a mother.

Nor do you see, from the superficial coverage that is widely available, that all those sacrifices are rarely black-and white. Some of us like our new bodies; there’s a reason for being a curvy mama beyond mere indolence and chocolate biscuits! I have a far busier social life than I had before becoming a mother; and those shreds of my pre-baby social life that remain, are the ones I really value. And who expects their sex-life to remain static?

I don’t think motherhood in its conventional sense came very easily to me. But as far as my identity is concerned, it has made me feel better-defined, more purposeful and more confident. I know this isn’t every woman’s experience of motherhood; I was and am exceptionally well-supported, and that makes a huge difference. What I’m saying is that motherhood can be these things, and perhaps on International Women’s Day we should be calling for motherhood to be valued and supported so that for women, it is these things.

Originally posted elsewhere on 8th March 2011

28 Jan

Nature is Clever

Towards the end of my pregnancy, I remember being advised by friends that it was very important to get out as a couple as soon as possible after having the baby. I know this was coming from a well-intentioned place, but I’m glad I’m grounded enough to know that that wasn’t for me. Talking to new parents, I encounter a wide spectrum of parenting styles, and if you will allow me a sweeping generalisation, the ones who are having the easier time tend to be the ones who don’t put themselves under pressure to ‘get back to normal’ or ‘show the baby who’s in charge’ right from the start.

It may sound deeply obvious, but having a baby is a massive life event. It impacts on the couple as a couple and as individuals. Anthropologists have observed some interesting stuff about how the behaviour of men and women towards each other changes following the birth of a child; new mothers have a deep evolutionary need to remind our partners that they are responsible for us (for example, compulsively addressing him as ‘daddy’). Sorry, Old-Fashioned Feminists, but evolution takes thousands of years, and human behaviour (and biology) still works as though we live in clans with defined roles. My point is that pressure on a new couple to behave as if nothing has changed jars with our instincts and with the reality of life with a new baby.

Consumer-driven Twenty-first Century Western society, of course, has all the solutions for this. New parents can buy whatever they need to help create distance between themselves and this utterly dependent small creature: mechanical rocking chairs, under-mattress breathing detectors, artificial milk; there’s really no need to be at the beck and call of a baby, and it doesn’t do it any harm, does it?

I hate to talk about benefits and disadvantages. I prefer to talk about normal behaviour, biological expectations, and so on. Nature is very clever. Here’s an example: skin contact stimulates the release of oxytocin. What is oxytocin? It’s a hormone that makes you feel good. Remember orgasms? That’s oxytocin. Touching releases oxytocin; holding hands, kissing, nibbling someone’s ear, that all releases oxytocin. When your child grazes his knee and you kiss it better, that releases oxytocin. Oxytocin helps a woman to labour, and releases milk to feed her baby. Cuddling a newborn baby releases oxytocin. For both parties. Wrapping him up in a blanket and leaving him to cry himself to sleep in another room releases adrenaline, which suppresses oxytocin. For both parties.

Last week a couple came round for some help with feeding. It took a while to get mum and baby comfortable, but eventually we found a way [no surprises to anyone with any breastfeeding knowledge: mum reclined, baby self-attached]. The baby fed. Mum said: why does it make me feel so…. good? That’d be oxytocin, along with relief from anxiety and a sense of satisfaction.

Originally posted elsewhere on 2nd February 2011

04 Feb

Welcome to The Motherland

New guidance from the British Medical Association recommends a change of language, from “expectant mother” to “pregnant person,” in order to recognise trans parents who may not identify as women. I confess that this is very confusing for me, and my confusion arises from how, then, we should define motherhood. There is also a conflict between my inclination to accept whatever terms people want to use for themselves, but also to value motherhood in a way that does not easily allow me to erase the “womanness” of it.

Please don’t imagine that my point of reference for motherhood is limited to floating around in a cloud of organic breastfeeding loveliness. In fact, I think that might be the core of the dilemma: this question of whether to use the word “mother” is just terribly reductionist, as though motherhood can be only one thing.

Motherhood emerges in so many different forms, perhaps uniquely for every single person who has – but there’s the problem – has what? Given birth? Some mothers adopt. Parented? Are women who miscarry or suffer stillbirth not mothers? The literature is at pains to emphasise that they are. Does that mean that women whose pregnancies end in abortion are also mothers? Some of them might feel that way; it was certainly the start of the journey into motherhood for me.

Clearly there is not one single event that turns a person into a mother. Motherhood is more like a place you go to, where you experience new things, which you may have expected or not, and which you may enjoy or not, and which change you, but do not turn you into a specific and new type of person. As with travelling, those experiences will affect you to some extent, but will be assimilated into your existing self.

A close friend tells me that she always knew she wanted to be a mother, by which she means give birth to and raise children, yet a decade in she still feels that this isn’t the real her, these boys aren’t really hers (this existential angst must necessarily co-exist with doing the laundry and preparing packed lunches). On the other hand, I never particularly yearned for motherhood (and I overheard my own mother, when I was six months pregnant, remarking “Karen was never very maternal.”) And yet I simply could not be the person I am now, and do the most fulfilling work I have ever done, without it.

It seems acceptable for other people to identify me as a mother, but I would prefer them to understand that I am not solely – or even mostly – that, while still being that to my very core. Yet having argued that neither being pregnant, nor being a parent, are intrinsic to motherhood, I think we could explore the possibility of having a term that isn’t gendered, to represent having travelled to this place, should it be necessary to reveal that element of one’s identity.

What of fathers, who now are expected to take on more of the nurturing role traditionally associated with motherhood? Up to 50 weeks of parental leave can now be shared in the UK, so dads can take on the majority of the parenting from very early in a child’s life (and technically a man can “father” a child without even knowing about it, so how can fatherhood then be part of his identity?). Perhaps the word “mother” is only differentiated by being the one who is expected to do the majority of the housework, whether he or she works outside the home or not.

[Cross-posted from Huffington Post]

02 Feb

Do our children want to be on social media?

I cannot help wondering how the post-millennial generation will incorporate social media into their parenting. Millennials are the most transparent, the most connected to social media, parenting in a world where not putting photographs of your children on Facebook, nor offering up a commentary on your broken nights and organic craft-filled days, seems downright antisocial.

But what is the downside of this transparency? And do other generations avoid this must-share tendency? You may not see quite as many baby photographs posted by proud grandparents, and let’s not assume that’s down to technical matters: my partner’s 92 year old grandmother is as IT-literate as I am, and my mother constantly invites me to join her in a game of Candy Crush. My father Richard Hilditch, on the other hand, has been a social worker for 45 years, and says,

“However much you may want to share the adorable cuteness of your offspring, grandchildren or friends’ children, however rightly proud you may be, don’t do it!”

In school IT lessons, children are taught important principles of security, including not to divulge personal information such as their birthday, their address, their school, or the names of their friends or pets. Meanwhile their parents may be posting photographs of beaming pigtailed children in badged school sweatshirts, standing outside their own numbered front doors. Scroll down a bit to find their friends name-checked at a party, and throw in the family dog, and you have everything you ever need to hack their future email and banking passwords, never mind anything more sinister. Today a photo in my feed shows happy new parents at the register office, clutching both baby and a fully visible birth certificate. According to the NSPCC over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew. Dad says: “So an ill-meaning adult “friend” could sound pretty convincing… If there is someone amongst your friends, or friends of friends, who is intent on stalking or harming a child, how much more gift-wrapped could you make the opportunity?”

Facebook offers some layers of privacy, but when you post a status or a photograph, you grant them the license to use and display it. There is no guarantee that those layers of privacy will always remain. Even the more apparently private messenger services may not be as private as you think. Even Whatsapp, popularly thought of as a more transient and less indelible service, shares data with Facebook.

Nor do our children get any editorial rights over the comprehensive archive we are creating of their eating and sleeping habits, their first words and favourite games, their embarrassing mistakes, tantrums in shops, and a whole collection of peculiar – cute – annoying whims. Have you ever googled someone you just met? Think what future partners, clients, and employers will be able to discover about this reluctantly transparent generation. Last year an Austrian teenager sued her parents to force them to remove posts about her, citing their violation of her privacy. Under French privacy laws, parents could be imprisoned for publicising details of their children’s private lives.

Social media can offer sanity-saving connectedness and support, particularly during the isolated early days of parenthood, but I implore parents to consider carefully what information they make public. It’s true we live in a world of constant scrutiny, but there is no need to make it easy for those who might use this information maliciously. And by definition, you do not know who those people are.

[Cross posted from the Huffington Post]

22 Apr

Modern Living and Mucky Kids

My reading material lately has been exhorting me to switch off my screens, talk to my child, and get out into the garden a bit more, to get my hands muddy. According to both Mama, and The Microbiome Effect, we are becoming physiologically and psychologically damaged by modern life.

According to Antonella Gambotto-Burke, mothers are damaging their children by existing in a society that doesn’t value motherhood. She longs for a time when children were healthier and happier, but doesn’t pinpoint exactly when that might have been. Recalling my own childhood in the 1970s and 80s, it’s true that I spent more time outdoors, but that might be because we lived in a Cumbrian village, not a Berkshire commuter town. I can also remember my mother working full time as well as running the home, and my father being far less hands-on and involved than my partner is in the home and in co-parenting our child. AGB claims that modern fathers are vanishing from their children’s lives, and an epidemic of divorce is ripping society apart. Again, my parents’ divorce when I was 15 was tough at the time, but the real tragedy would have been the misery of them staying together, especially if they had stayed together for the sake of my brother and me. I am certain that prioritising the children does not necessarily mean preserving the marriage.

Call me a hard-nosed bitch, but I can’t think of a time when children have been a higher priority both socially and within families. Look at the lengths some parents go to, to acquire them. We also have a wealth of knowledge about attachment and brain development, as well as a supportive network of health and social care professionals to help us use this knowledge. I’m not saying it’s adequate; the rate of closure of Children’s Centres is appalling; and there are countering social and financial pressures that keep parents at work more than most of them would probably like. But it is a lot more than my mum had. I wouldn’t say that society is failing mothers more now than at any time in the past; I would say that motherhood has never been a valued role, but to romanticise earlier times seems unhelpful.

Meanwhile in The Microbiome, Toni Harman tells me that now she knows what she does about the human microbiome, she aims to live a microbial life, getting a dog and doing the gardening, and eschewing the anti-bacterial in all its forms, because of the potential long-term effects on our health of a too-clean lifestyle. I discussed this with her for episode 13 of Sprogcast, and again it seems like modern technology is damaging babies, in this case by not seeding the gut with good bacteria at birth. Too many caesarean births and not enough breastfeeding means that the human race is gradually losing its ability to protect itself from disease. Scientists supporting this viewpoint make some strong theoretical arguments, but as yet the evidence simply does not exist. My fear is that a focus on speculation about damage to the microbiome distracts from the big issues around birth and breastfeeding, where we do have plenty of evidence about long term health consequences.

Having said that these books challenged me, I did find some points to agree with, and have tried to cut down on screen time at home. My partner and child indulge me but are less than thrilled about no-screen Sundays. The kid has disappeared off to play outside; I really must get him digitally tagged in some way…

25 Feb

Why are twins double trouble?

From conception onwards, having twins seems to raise the bar. Through pregnancy and birth, mothers having twins are viewed as twice as delicate, with their precious double burden, placing a pressure on babies and parents that impacts on the birth as well as the early days and weeks of the babies’ lives.

Google “having twins is” and autofill offers the options of “hard” “so hard” “a blessing” and “a nightmare.” It must be difficult to focus on the blessing when society is so hell-bent on telling you you’re in for double trouble. “The way the majority of people turned my twin pregnancy into a negative really surprised me,” says mother of twins Jen. Another mum Mally adds “It makes you feel incredibly isolated. People are incredibly arrogant to think that they are much better off with ‘just the one’ (at a time).”

Having twins is increasingly common in the UK, partly because the overall birthrate is increasing, and medical advances means that more twins survive when born prematurely. In addition, women tend to wait a little longer to have babies, and over the age of 30 the likelihood of releasing multiple eggs, and therefore having twins, increases. Assisted conception through IVF and fertility drugs is another contributing factor. And more twin pregnancies means more opportunity for little old ladies to hover over your bump or your pushchair, giving advice and telling you what hard work it’s all going to be.

Kate, who has triplets, says: “Apparently it’s perfectly fine for the first question out of the gate to be ‘are they natural?’ Or ‘How were they conceived?’. What difference does it make? But it always feels like a loaded question to me.” It is loaded: with the assumption that you couldn’t have managed this all by yourself, and therefore that you cannot possibly birth, feed, or generally manage these babies all by yourself.

Most mothers who are having twins give birth to healthy babies. Some complications are more common in twin pregnancies, and modern medical practices mean monitoring for high blood pressure (a sign of pre-eclampsia), gestational diabetes and anaemia, all of which can usually be managed. For the babies, the complications that are likely to arise are a result of prematurity or low birth weight.

Giving birth to twins without medical professionals hovering around like cats on hot bricks seems unlikely. Even in the most uncomplicated twins pregnancy, it can be a challenge to avoid being channelled down the high-risk route and straight into theatre for a c-section. The effect of this is that skills and confidence in giving birth to twins without intervention are gradually eroded, and this is self-perpetuating.

I had the lady serving me in the post office say ‘twins? Poor you!’ the other week. I was so shocked I just stared at her. She then said ‘so you’re done now then’. I thought about her comments all day and got more and more upset. (Marie-Claire)

Once the babies arrive, the focus switches to all the things you surely cannot manage to do with two babies: breastfeed, sleep, get out of the house, retain your sanity. Most of the time I talk to singleton mums who tell me that all of those things are difficult; I’m not convinced that they are twice as difficult with twins, and one thing I know is that twins mums are a little better at recruiting the help they need. Life with any number of new babies can be hard work, and it’s hard to define “more” sleep-deprived when you’re as sleep-deprived as it seems possible to be.

Society needs to stop feeling sorry for mothers of twins; it’s a judgement they probably don’t need, and they get twice as much of it.

Thanks to members of Reading & District Twins Plus Club for their input. We’re talking about having twins in the next episode of Sprogcast.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post.

22 Jan

Let Someone Catch Hold Of You

Relly is a writer, speaker and web content person. She lives in the Home Counties with her husband and their two small sons. As a result she thrives on country air and can be guaranteed to stand on Lego at least once a day.

I have a good life. I have a nice house which I rent. I have a good husband who I have been with for over ten years and 8.5 of them as a married couple. I have two amazing little boys who have both enthralled us and worn us to a nub for the last 6.5 years. I have a good brain that writes cool stuff for people, sometimes even for money.

I also have depression. I’ve had that longer than anything, around 17 years now, like the manky old sweatshirt that ends up in the back of your drawers – even though you’re sure you chucked it out last century.

I have seen depression described as a black dog, and a great comic book illustrating it as such, but for me a dog would be a comfort compared to depression. Depression, to me, is a dead weight that you must lug around from room to room, job to job, relationship to relationship. It feeds on you and your inner fears about yourself.

When my first son was born I had post-natal depression. I went to the doctor, practically dragged by my husband, two weeks after the birth and told him I was upset because our sink wasn’t working properly. The house was a mess after the baby. I was still heavy with milk and the midwife said I could get something to help with my sore skin. He listened to all this, with his head cocked to one side, and let me trail off to silence after I was done telling the carpet under my gaze all about my material concerns.

I looked up briefly. He asked me if I had bonded with my baby. I looked at the 7lb bundle sleeping jerkily in his carseat, fourteen days into our lifelong relationship. I was convinced I was not good for him. I was convinced I wasn’t even adequate. My husband was the most stressed I’d ever seen him. My body was an uncontrollable, lurching, leaking disaster after an emergency caesarean. My baby was uncomfortable drinking my milk, drinking formula, drinking reflux formula.
“No.” I said in a shaky whisper. “I want to give him away. I am not a good mother.”

I had fed my baby, rocked his crib for hours, researched ways to help him with his reflux, dressed him, changed him. But I hated holding him. If I picked him up he puked on me. Every time. So, I stopped. I sat at an arm’s length distance to him for around 72 hours. I tried to imagine telling everyone that I was giving him up for adoption – my husband, my parents, my inlaws. I realised that was not going to work. I started to plan running away but I had nowhere to go, and I was still so, so tired from the birth and everything after.

Then I stared at wall for three hours straight and wondered about suicide. I didn’t really feel suicidal but it did seem like a solution that meant both my husband and my baby were off the hook. These two people that I was not actually worthy of, who were being severely hindered by me. My husband made a doctor’s appointment for me during my three hours of quiet contemplation (I’m sure I was meant to have been napping really). I agreed to go because my husband asked me.

Two weeks later, I got offered a talking therapy session with a local counselor. I was really not into this at all but I went because, well, because the look in my husband’s eyes when he looked at me was breaking my heart. I attended a 35 minute ‘introductory’ session. The chap was very miffed that I’d brought my 4 week old newborn (who I was still part-breastfeeding), listened to me talk for a bit, asked if I was sleeping well (I remember my husband and I looked at each other for a moment with a look of despair – we had a four-week old baby, who was the only person getting any sleep round here!), and then declared I was not depressed – just ‘a bit of a worrier’ and I’d feel better when the baby slept.

We left the session. I cried a bit in the car park. I then refused to see anyone else for four months. I pretty much holed myself up in my house, bar trips outside to get nappies and milk if we ran out, and started running headlong into getting back into work of some sort. Our baby went to a childminder two afternoons a week so I could do baby-free chores and tasks, which was actually great for him and me, and this kept me buoyant (or at least in denial) for another couple of months. I was taking care of this baby. At some point, everyone would realise I wasn’t a good mother and then I’d be okay.

Except of course, inevitably, I did fall in love with him. He was my baby. We bonded. And then I was terrified. Terrified that people would realise I was inadequate. That I couldn’t face rhyme time at the library or making purees. That I hated NCT groups and mummy dates and baby swimming. My favourite days were the ones I’d pack him in his buggy and we’d take a train ride somewhere and I’d walk round parks and shops having to talk to no-one, save asking to use the baby change facilities. I could soak up human contact and conversation without having to be properly social. No-one would know I was an inadequate mother if I didn’t spend time with any other mothers.

That’s what depression does. It takes something that should be joyous and challenging and full of discoveries, and turns it into a time of loneliness, fear and a desperate feeling of not being good enough. Of shredding every last ounce of self-esteem and self-respect. It turns you into your worst enemy. It feeds off your inner self doubt.

Eventually, I cracked. I was so tired and so withdrawn and so miserable that when baby turned five months old, I cried for a week solid. My husband had to stay off work just to get me to eat, sleep and wash – and, of course, the baby needed the same things. I would be asleep from 3am-3pm, and then on the sofa as a burrito of misery, wrapped in my duvet and eating a single yoghurt, watching cbeebies and hating all the happy mothers and children.

My husband took me back to the doctors. This time they skipped the talking therapy preliminaries and prescribed an anti-depressant. It had some interesting side-effects – like yawning every three minutes, for five days – but it started to work. I began to come back to a more normal timetable, and a more stable mood. When I stopped crying, I realised that I was still as tired as the day after I’d given birth even though my baby was now a pretty good sleeper. I could barely lift my son in his car seat now. I went back to the doctors.

I had some blood work done and was told to call for the results in a week. The next day I had a message from my surgery, asking me to make an appointment urgently. I attended evening surgery. My thyroid had all but given up, probably in pregnancy, and I needed to take a thryoxine replacement immediately. For me, this was the last piece in the puzzle. The thryoxine and the anti-depressants worked together and I finally felt human again. Still vulnerable, still full of self-doubt – once you begin the self-sabotage of the depressive mindset it does not shake off easily – but getting better.

This story doesn’t have a ‘happy’ ending because, well, depression is a condition that has a habit of turning up and wrecking the kitchen at a party. But I made it through that time. Most people I met, not that I actively sought many out, would not have thought ‘that is a depressed person’ because if I was out of the door, I was able to wear my happy face that day.

And that’s still how it is today. Even if I’m feeling terrible, I personally can usually wear my happy face for a day or two – for important events, like my own wedding day(the year before my wedding I was heaving around the dead weight of undiagnosed depression) . The thing is, I pay for it later on. I usually get physically sick with an infection or virus, that forces me to stay inside and take up the duvet burrito position again. Sometimes I tumble down a metaphorical deep dark stairwell head first into misery.

Mostly I end up self-sabotaging – which is a bit like self-harming but instead involves somehow contriving to bring down your standard of work/output/creativity etc to somewhere around the murky mire depression would have you believe it exists. When I have days like this I am very conscientious not to charge my clients for work, which means I am both poorer than I should be and also sometimes miss deadlines. When I finally worked this out, therapy suddenly seemed both encouraging and financially cheaper than the alternatives.

I have recently started psychoanlaytical and cognitive behaviourial combined therapies to tackle the issues I have hanging over me from depression and its aspects as a mental illness. I describe myself as a broken doll to my boys, and they understand – at least a little – that Mummy is sometimes sick and that can make her not very happy.

If you are/ or think you might be depressed, or know someone that is, it does get better, mostly, for at least a while – and then you might slip and you have to haul yourself up again. You think you’re alone but so many of us are struggling and existing and improving and slipping and improving again. Screw up all your courage and put out your hand for help. Let someone catch hold of you.

Relly’s original post can be found here.

Get support:
Samaritans
NCT Information Sheet: Postnatal Depression
NCT Shared Experiences Helpline
Facebook: Berkshire Postnatal Support Group
House of Light Postnatal Depression Help