There are no shortage of long form pieces written about motherhood. Its like losing a leg and winning the lottery; it is a joy that sucks the joy out of everything else; you’re trying too hard and overthinking it and worrying and this is ruining your kids (not at all ironic, that one, is it?). And so on and so forth. There’s something about motherhood that brings out the prescriptivist in everyone around the fortunate new parent.
Here’s what motherhood is like. It’s like being taken away from every single routine, system, treat, hobby and higher level reward system you’ve ever had, and being handed the sole – or at least primary – responsibility for another person, with very little support. It’s like trying to do everything you ever cared about, including eating and sleeping, against the odds. It’s like being stuck in a game show where the most simple task has to be performed blindfolded, in three inches of mud, under the scrutiny of others.
It’s like a whole bunch of things, and the thing is that finding the perfect analogy for motherhood is not really very helpful. All these long form pieces, each with its analogy, are part of the problem, because they contrsuct motherhood as so unique, so special, so all-encompassing that it can’t be decribed or defined without reference to other things.
Which is bollocks, really, isn’t it? Motherhood is a state experienced by over 80% of women in Australia, and historically by well over 90%. There’s nothing mysterious or elusive about it at all. It doesn’t turn us into different people. It just turns us into people who are us, but who are doing something harder than they’ve ever done before. And a large part of that is only because we, as a society, prefer to waffle on about transformation and winning the lottery instead of organising babysitting swaps and petitioning for decent babychanging acilities in public places.
That is, it doesn’t have to be this hard. And a lot of why it changes us is because things that are hard for us do change us. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Usually both at once.
People in hard situations change their priorities and their coping maechanisms in order to try and fulfil at least some of their needs. Early motherhood takes up so much space in our lives that even the basic needs, like food and sleep, become scarce; self-actualisation is suddenly a distant dream. So we get petty, we get angry, or we internalise it and turn to sweets, or alcohol, or anything else at hand, for comfort. Suffering doesn’t usually ennoble us. People who aren’t having their basic needs met are not at their best.
This is not to say that working is the answer, or that breastfeeding is the culprit for increasingly-common post-natal depression, or that there is a right and a wrong way to do motherhood. It’s simpler than that. We take women who have found fulfilment in their jobs, who have balanced their emotional health with exercise and social interaction and quiet periods in whatever formula they find most effective, and we take all of that away. We take all of that away and we tell women to be happier than ever. Deprived of the ability to get out alone, to socialise with adults, to lock themselves away in solitude and recharge their batteries, to avail themselves of almost any healthy lifestyle mechanism, and then by the way we ask them to survive on inadequate sleep and rushed food.
And then we act as if those women are doing it wrong if they change their behaviour. It has been said that post natal depression is a very rational response to such a lifestlye change, and even those of us who escape a diagnosis are more likely to be grumpy, libido-less, lonely, surviving on the snatached chocolate bar and easy-watch television that have to substitute, temporarily, for a real life.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about the actual baby, in all of this. THat’s not to diminish the effect of mother love, of course. But too often, that’s all that anyone pays attention to. It’s as if one has moved to the other side of the world, to a tropical paradise where nobody speaks the language and every custom is different, and then having ones mood change attributed to too much sun. Sun is not the whole point. The fact of a baby is not the whole point either. Not when compared to the fact that one’s entire life has been ripped away.
So why are there so many of these articles, all of which describe, breathlessly, the all-encompassing love and the fact that everything else fades into the distance? Why are there so many motherhood memoirs and analyses of the state of motherhood which make it sound like once you have a child, that defines your entire world forever? What, really, is the big deal about a thing that almost everyone does?
They’re written by women who are still relatively new parents, that’s what. Women who are still mired in babyhood, sodden with the joys of chubby thighs and first words. Women whose hormones are still doing whatever it is that hormones do in order to ensure that they tie the care-giver to the baby; women who may still have more children.
Because its true that you’re not yourself for those first few years. Even once the sleep deprivation ebbs away to leave only nostalgiac tide marks on the sands, even once you’ve struggled back into your work clothes and headed to the office to remind yourself what a hot cup of coffee, drunk straight through, is like, even once you’ve clawed back an occasional evening to do something you love, you still reside firmly in the Baby Hood. For some women, this feels so right and so welcoming that they do anything they can to stay there, from having child after child to throwing themselves into school life and volunteering as local playgroup leader, and thank goodness that those women exist for they make our children’s lives easier and richer with their generosity.
But for the rest of us, who mourn our old selves and fear that we’ll never regain them, there is hope. And the hope lies in the very dearth of articles written by women with older children. They’re not writing those articles because they’ve moved on. They’re no longer spending their days contemplating motherhood and how the hell they ended up knee deep in shitty nappies like everyone else. They’ve gone back to their careers, or developed new ones. They have hobbies,. They’re runners, dancers, students, tutors. If they write, they’re writing about asylum seekers and the Brandis case and how to choose the right wall colour for a living area and the new iPhone and their favourite holliday destinations and the latest advances in linguistics. Don’t misundestand me; at first they’re doing it with small childrten tugging at themn, and used tissues in their handbags, and collapsing in the evenings with a bar of chocolate. But they’re doing it, because their minds are starting to work properly again, and their focus is widening.
And this is what I want to say. Under all the sleep deprivation, the hormones, the fact that your career has been on hold or come to a screeching halt, the fact that your old haunts are barred to you and your days of spontaneity are a distant memory, you are still you. Nothing has changed except your ability to cope and adapt. And as those restrictions lift, as your children grow, you’ll still be there underneath. Chances are that you’ll still be as passionate about human rights as you used to be, you’ll still enjoy a glass of wine with friends, you’ll still be irritated by reality TV. You’re you. You just had a baby, is all.