Friday, 16 December 2016

Unexpected Loneliness of New Motherhood

There's that lovely moon again, a kindly face watching over her sleepy brood. Awake for another nocturnal milk feast, I treasure these simple moments of just baby, moonshine and me, but those first months of motherhood were tinged with loneliness - a surprising predicament that I hadn't prepared myself for.  I associated loneliness with the elderly and the bereaved.  What right did I - a healthy, mobile person, with a family and a home- have to complain of loneliness?  Encouraged by similar experiences shared on social media (see Channel 4's special loneliness season). I finally feel able to share my thoughts on this wonderful and challenging chapter.

Photograph: Amal Hirani
Why was new motherhood so lonely?

1. The Monologues.  I went from teaching full time in a secondary school, talking with hundreds of people a day, to being alone with my newborn, nine hours a day, everyday.  Sure, we 'chatted' in our own way and those delightful smiles and gurgles went a long way, but I would yearn for my partner's return, that wonderful moment of hearing the key in the lock.  Of course, I have a phone, but people weren't always available for that rare window when I wasn't feeding, changing, bathing or settling him to sleep.

2. Physical Discomfort.  My partner's paternity leave flashed by in a pain-killing haze of stitches, engorged leaking breasts, haemorrhoids and post-birth bleeding.  I dreaded his return to work; I still felt so broken.  For me, breastfeeding didn't really become comfortable until the fourth month.  Staying at home in greater comfort, attempting the perfect latch was the better option.  Loneliness was the price I paid.

3. Mental Anxiety.  I'd like to think of myself as outgoing and confident.  New motherhood found me lacking in this self-assurance and I hadn't yet learned to trust my instincts. I dreaded social occasions, becoming panicky in large groups.  Having always been a confident speaker, I was now rather sullen and if I did say something, I would usually regret my contribution.

4. Exhaustion.  It's hardly a news flash, but the regular night feeding is tough.  Everyone tells you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but it's not that straightforward.  For the first week, my adrenaline was so high, that all I wanted to do was to stare at this tiny human, this miracle of life.  He'd only really properly sleep on me, or my partner, which is lovely, but after the SIDs warning, I was petrified of squashing him.  This new level of tiredness made socialising impossible.  Again, it was better to be lonely than face the world.

5. The Mission of Leaving the House. My parents visited when they could and weekends usually brought family and friends.  But in the day-to-day, fresh air and conversation were the best remedies for loneliness, but that meant taking everything necessary for nappy changing, feeding, leaking, soiling, thirst, hunger, cold, warmth, rain and sun.  I would have preferred to use a baby carrier, but I quickly developed mastitis if I walked too far with our little one pressed against me.  We did have a pram but to avoid the crying, I usually ended up carrying him and pushing the buggy one-handed.  Our local station had too many steps to take a buggy and the 'Mind the Gap' warning suddenly provoked real fear.  The tradition of confinement in some cultures seemed like a good idea.

6. Fear of Rebuke. I cared too much about what people thought and wanted to be regarded as a 'good' mother who had her shit together.  If my baby suddenly started crying in a shop, I'd quickly want to soothe him, but also not to attract negative attention.

7. Isolation. Few of my friends had children and my family all lived a train or plane away.  Because of numbers 2-5 above, making new mum-friends wasn't easy. I really wanted to meet other mums. I was astounded at what all mothers had endured to bring new life into the world and enraged anew at how maternal strength had been dismissed by the patriarchies of history.  I wanted to know their stories and share my own. Playgroups or baby classes were good options, but could be very hit and miss. Some were very unfriendly and didn't even ask your name, some were brilliantly led and gave you tea and cake.  In the early days, the few I went to were rather rubbish where I paid £8 to feed and change my baby amidst the chaos of a baby sensory disco, next to nannies who stared at their phones.

8. Routines.  I did make some lovely new mum-friends, but hanging out wasn't always possible. Their babies actually slept in stationary buggies; my little one would need walking outside in a sling.  My spirited wide-eyed baby would usually be too distracted to feed out and about; my friends mostly bottle-fed and could feed and pause without their rejected leaky boob hanging out.  Conversation would go between how much milk the babies drank, sleep times and weight percentiles.  I never really knew and would often return home feeling like I was doing everything wrong. 

My experience was very mild compared to other new mums.  Moreover, it was only when I was alone with my baby that I truly got to know him.  By the time my first baby was six months old, I was more confident to mix with the world. I've now got two little boys and despite moving to a new area, I've not experienced that same intense loneliness again.  I've regained my self-confidence and have learned to trust my instincts.  I've made new friends at playgroups and playgrounds and it's my chatty confident toddler who now makes the introductions.  If I see a parent who's also braved leaving the house, I try to make the effort to say hello as it's far too easy to ignore everyone else once you've found your clique.  But sometimes, we don't leave the house, or my only adult chat is with the check-out cashier, but that's ok these days because it's the price we pay and we'll soon hear that key in the lock before bath time.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Winter Lethargy and Advent Joy

We had almost given up on winter.  The heavy artillery of chesty coughs had begun its offence.  Sore throat patrols left no tonsil untouched; runny nose gangs rampaged in their wake.  The eldest was dosed up on Calpol and the baby's chest smeared with snuffle-balm.  It took a ninja's speed and a pianist's dexterity to wipe the snot streaming from the little noses.  "No, Mummy.  No wiping.  Put it back."  After a few indoor days to recover, it was time to emerge into the world again.

Leaving the house with two tots is challenging enough, but by winter, the effort is near-impossible.  It takes a whole morning of ebullient positivity, chattering about all the fun things to do in the cold; precision timing to ensure the baby is fed, changed and layered up; expert persuasion to will the toddler into woolly layers and waterproofs; a scout's preparation to have pockets stuffed with snacks, drinks, tissues, gloves and keys... where are the keys..?! And then I've missed the narrow 'get out the door' window: baby needs feeding/changing again and playgroup will be finishing soon anyway.

Hibernation seems like a better idea, curled up and snuggled down for weeks on end: safe, warm and cosy. The depressing daily news and shaky political climate make indoor time a more attractive option anyway.  The world seems hostile and I gather my little ones into the warmth of the sofa-den.  The elder echoes my mood: "stay at home, stay at home," his rosy nose glistening in the electric light.  We're lucky to have a warm home to enjoy, I think, with food, toys, books, TV.  I'm feeling so tired too, yawning just on cue.  Okay: maybe just one more day at home.  One more.

Then Advent begins and with it a renewed duty to my family to get out the house.  Having failed to get an Advent calendar, I need to think on my feet.  We've got a little Christmas tree but it's fairly bare, awaiting hand-me-down decorations.  I imagine that pine cones might look ok, so I scribble a note behind a big number 1, cut from an old Christmas card: collect and decorate pine cones.  Sealed in an envelope and dropped on the doormat, he discovers it the next day- in spectacularly dazzling sunshine, fit for this magical month: "look Mummy!" And then the miracle happens, he gets his boots and his coat and his hat and his gloves and with our little baby bundled to my chest, fed, changed and layered-up, we set off on the hunt.

Each step on the crunchy frozen grass shakes off our lethargy.  We look up at the various trees, peeping above the rooftops and try to find some green amongst the spidery barren branches.  After a morning of cheerful marching, my boy attempting random conversations with any passer-by and pine tree spotting, we locate our bounty and spend the afternoon with PVA glue, glitter and ribbon.  Inspired, I scribble another note for day two: find some holly and we become arborists, locating the spiky trees, laden with toxic-red berries.  We even make a wreath from a coat hanger, to display proudly on the door.  Day three receives a special visit from Granny and Granddad who give our Advent quest to find a donkey more energy than a double caffeine shot, braying and singing all the way to the zoo.  Day four's draw a robin forces us out again for red cheeks and stomping, singing and searching. By day five, we've become an outdoor family, living in muddied boots and chunky knitwear, with permanently rosy cheeks and wild woolly hat hair.

And then it's day six, find sticks to make a star, and disaster looms: "No mummy.  No more numbers".  We just about manage a little stroll in the fog: a mini miracle that we left the house at all.  I end up having to carry my two year old on my back with the younger in a carrier on my chest.  Just enough twigs are harvested in a desperate act of determination to make this count.  A few hours and tantrums later and I'm sat at the kitchen table, still struggling to tie the dank crusty sticks into a star shape.  The baby's getting bored in the Jumparoo while the older one finishes off yet another 'Andy's Dinosaur Adventure', having lost interest ages ago.  This wasn't the plan.  I momentarily rest my head in my hands and can hear my toddler rummaging in the cupboard.  I look up as he leans on my leg, to see that he's put the yellow cone part of a lemon squeezer on his nose: "I'm a pelican.  More numbers on the door mat?"  By bedtime, he's gone off to look for more envelopes four more times.

I'm glad I forgot the Advent calendars, otherwise we wouldn't have a chain of festive numbers ascending along the fireplace, the vacant string promising more: outdoor treasure hunts, crafting and random acts of kindness.  Advent has ushered us out into the world again.  A little blast of fresh air in the morning makes our cosy afternoons more relaxing, albeit making, baking, being a pelican or bingeing on CBeebies.  The runny noses seem to have magically cleared up too, a white flag in the face of Christmas: the season of possibility and joy.