Motherhood (cont’d), Guilt & Moth Balls

I have decided that the topic of the research proposal for my master’s degree will be guilt and shame in new motherhood, because my God if there are two emotions I’ve felt near-constantly since having my son 9 months ago it’s those. I was pretty good at the guilt thing before having a baby, particularly where pursuing my ambitions (writing, studying, going freelance) was concerned. But since the baby things have amped-up ten fold. Now, on top of kicking myself about not pursuing the ambitions, my inner monologue spends much of the day berating me for all the things it perceives I’m doing wrong as a parent. Whilst the rational side of my brain knows it’s wrong (or at least grossly exaggerating) and I’m doing the best I can, it’s a hard voice to ignore.

Since returning to London in January (how is it already March?!) we’ve started to settle into a routine, or at least we had started to, until the cycle of nursery-related illness started. In the past month alone I’ve had to keep C home from nursery three times (once for a full week). He’s currently on his second round of antibiotics and whilst he is livelier in himself he’s still coughing and congested. It’s felt like Groundhog Day for weeks; as soon as he starts to show signs of improvement he gets ill again. I feel bad for him but also for myself (and here’s a prime example of where the guilt comes in), because when I have to keep him home from nursery it knocks my schedule out of kilter too. Last Friday, for example, I had to miss a whole day of uni, and given that returning to my studies has been having a hugely positive impact on my mental health that hit me hard. As weekends are family time and Mondays/Tuesdays are time with my son, that’s meant not being able to do any uni work for several days, which is stoking the embers of my anxiety nicely.

But on the flip side, I’m trying to make the most of being with C on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’m conscious of the importance of being really present (the other part of my research project involves mindfulness interventions) and not distracted (still working on this but getting better). I’m also trying to make sure we have fun together, because I know this time will never come again. We now attend Zip Zap baby classes every Monday morning, which he loves, and this afternoon I took him to a free trial of the local Gymboree class (not so sure about that one – bit too ‘organised fun’ for my liking). Nothing makes me happier than seeing his little face light up when he experiences something new. He’s such an explorer and I want to nurture that as much as possible.

When I’m not guilting or attempting mindful parenting, I seem to be permanently preoccupied with a million and one things, from the important (booking summer holidays) to the exciting (organising my best friend’s hen do) to the downright mundane (moth balls for the wardrobes). It’s incredible how every spare second can be filled with so much stuff. Pre-baby me was not dissimilar, the difference now is that there’s even less spare time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like life is one giant to do list, by day it’s things relating to the baby and by night everything else. It was only last weekend, when my husband gave me the greatest gift of breakfast in bed and some time to read my dusty stack of magazines, that I realised how long it’s been since I allowed myself to just relax.

On the social front we’re managing pretty well. Now we have a baby we’ve realised that the best way to keep the social life ticking over is to invite friends round for dinner. Fortunately my husband is a total Masterchef so it’s working out well (for me, as it means I don’t have to cook..). I’ve been ordering cases of premium wine like there’s no tomorrow (in the guise of wanting to broaden my horizons, but in reality just wanting to get rat-arsed and have less painful hangovers) and our flat is perfect for hosting dinner parties in. We’ve also enlisted a couple of babysitters so we can have the odd night out too. I have to remind myself that a few months ago this seemed completely out of reach – it’s all about the small wins when you are navigating early parenthood, and this certainly counts as one of those!

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Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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The awakening

Wrote this as a way of getting to know Michael, one of the protagonists in my new story. This scene is from his childhood:

At nursery school Michael had been too young to understand why he was different. But today was his first day at big school, and his small world was about to change in ways he could not have imagined.

“Was that your grandma?” asked a small boy in blue dungarees and glasses.

Michael turned to the boy and frowned. “No,” he said. “She’s my mum.”

Now it was the other boy’s turn to frown. “But she’s so….old.”

Both boys turned to watch as Michael’s mother walked out of the school gates. Was his mother old? Michael had never really thought about it. Why would he? She was his mum, and that was all there was to it.

“Aren’t all mums the same age?” Michael said.

The other boy regarded him with a cool stare, and Michael felt suddenly like he was being tested, and, worse still, that he wasn’t doing very well. “No,” said the boy, his eyes rolling in their fat little sockets, “of course they’re not. Well, not exactly the same age, anyway.”

“Oh, right.”

“As in,” the boy continued, “they can’t all be born on the exact same day. That would be impossible. But-” – and here he paused for dramatic effect – “mums normally look the same age – even if they’re not. Only your mum looks more like a grandma than a mum. She’s even got grey hair.”

Michael felt a knot of something horrid form in the pit of his stomach. Before he had a chance to work out why the teacher began to round them up and lead them towards the hall for first assembly. As they walked through the heavy swing doors into the school, Michael cast one last mournful look over his shoulder. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he had the distinct feeling nothing would ever be quite the same again.

I took this photo in Cambodia in 2007 and have just stumbled across it for the first time in ages. I love the look on the little boy’s face – less so his dirty clothes and the packet of cigarettes tucked into his pocket 😦

There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ kid

I’ve just got back from my first afternoon visiting a Teens and Toddlers project at a nursery. Much as I’m ashamed to admit it I did have preconceptions about what the teenagers would be like. I’d assumed they’d be surly and uncommunicative, and that it would be difficult to engage with them, especially given that the teens on our programme are chosen precisely because they’re deemed to be more ‘at-risk’ (of dropping out of school, having children young etc.) than their peers.

But I’m delighted to say my experience was a total eye-opener and my preconceptions have been shelved. The six boys on the project I visited are all thirteen years old, and whilst they are typical teenagers who don’t always listen, aren’t all that keen on looking you in the eye and occasionally act up, on the whole they’re really lovely kids.

Classroom sessions aside, the real joy for me was seeing the way the boys interacted with their ‘toddlers’ in the nursery. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon which meant the toddlers were racing around outside in the play area. One of the boys had arrived at the nursery fuming about having had a personal possession stolen at school, and the facilitators were initially reticent about allowing him into the nursery to see his toddler, lest he carry his anger through to their session. Once he was out there, however, he was totally unselfconscious and behaved impeccably with his toddler. He even had a number of toddlers gathering around him to play because he was so much fun to be with.

Another boy, who had in the earlier classroom session refused to look any of us in the eye and acted bored, came alive with his toddler and spent ages lying on the ground play-fighting with them. I saw each of the six interacting with their toddlers in such a heart-warming way that it made me see every one of them in an entirely new light. When we returned to the classroom after the session with the toddlers they were alive with enthusiasm and keen to talk about the progress they had made with their toddlers.

At one point in the classroom we discussed what age would be the right age to have children. All the boys unanimously agreed that older than twenty five was ‘past it’ as far as they were concerned, which made me – a childless woman of thirty one with no immediate plans to have children – laugh. It’s been so long since I was their age I’d forgotten how old twenty five seems; like a lifetime away, though of course it’s really not.

Watching the boys – and the toddlers, come to that – today, it really wasn’t obvious that they have turbulent home lives. But I was reliably informed by the facilitator that some of them have an awful lot on their plates given their age. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having a host of problems to deal with in your personal life.

I’ve come away feeling more certain than ever that the work my charity’s doing with vulnerable children and disadvantaged teenagers is vital for the future of this country’s young people. No young person is inherently a ‘bad kid,’ it’s just that some of them need extra help to navigate their way through turbulent periods in their lives and stay on the right track. Shouldn’t every young person in that situation have the right to such help?

Meeting the boys today made me think of the boys I taught in Tanzania in 2007, some of whom were about the same age then as these boys are now. I wonder what became of them and where they are now.