Speaking Shame

Today I am feeling discombobulated and out of sorts. Tiredness is making it hard to process my emotions, but I am trying to allow myself to feel them instead of burying them; to appreciate that, in this moment, this is how I’m feeling, and whilst it may not be that pleasant to feel this way, it’s okay, and it will pass. I have learned through my studies that acknowledgement without judgement and self-compassion are essential when dealing with negative emotions, so as well as doing my best to practice those I’m trying to rebalance my mind and body with gentle exercise classes like Pilates and Body Balance (particularly the latter with its mix of Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga).

As part of my Master’s research I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly by shame researcher Brené Brown, in which the author stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to become resilient to shame. In the spirit of this teaching, the following is a snapshot of the things currently swirling around in my brain:

  • I’m worried about the world my son is going to grow up in.
  • I’m worried I’m not doing enough to make it better for him.
  • I’m worried I’m not a good enough mother, that I’m too selfish to ‘do motherhood’ properly.
  • I’m worried about having another child, and whether I would cope.
  • I’m worried about having another miscarriage, or not being able to have another child at all.
  • I’m worried that sometimes I’m not a sensitive enough wife.
  • I’m worried about my ability and motivation to succeed in my chosen field.
  • I’m worried that this venture will fail like others before it, and that I will let this failure eat away at me until there is nothing left.
  • I’m worried about money.
  • I’m worried about (everyone’s) health.
  • I’m worried about death.
  • I’m worried that even when my life is damn near perfect (which it is) I still manage to find things to be worried about.

Many of the things in this list elicit feelings of shame, but as Brown herself says, speaking shame is the first step in defeating it. When we keep these kinds of emotions secret, they send us into a negative spiral, preventing us from connecting and empathising with those around us. They gain power over us, making our focus turn inwards and closing us off from the world. But when we shine a light on those emotions, admit to having them, share them with others, we realise that we aren’t alone in having them, and their power dissipates into the ether.

After writing my list I already feel lighter. What’s on yours?

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Once More Into the Light

Last weekend the baby got ill again. It’s happening so often these days it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet somehow it always does. This time, through careful following of the NHS wheeze plan we were discharged from hospital with a few weeks ago, we at least managed to avoid another middle of the night A&E dash. But whilst we didn’t go to hospital, two nights of sleeping in the baby’s room, feverishly listening to his breathing for signs of worsening wheeze and administering inhalers every four hours does take it out of you. As does having a soon-to-be-toddler who, despite being under the weather, still manages to push all of your buttons simultaneously several times a day (I realise now why babies are made cute. It’s hard to stay cross with the face of an angel, but by God behind those angelic features a devil sometimes lurks).

On Tuesday night I had a pretty impressive meltdown, the culmination of the mental storm that had been brewing for days. It’s hard to explain the maelstrom of emotions that happen in these dark spells. There is exhaustion. There is anxiety. There is worry. There is resentment (against my husband/people without children/the world). There is embarrassment. Shame. And there is guilt. A tidal wave of guilt, so oppressive it literally feels like I am drowning. Which as I type this sounds dramatic, but at the time it feels dramatic. The thoughts that go through an exhausted mother’s head are not pretty; in fact sometimes they are downright scary. In the more lucid moments you are able to grasp the olive branch of reason and talk yourself down from the edge. But other times you shock yourself with the levels of vitriol you are able to muster towards people you deem more carefree than yourself.

As I type this I am constantly resisting the urge to hit delete. Because it’s not socially acceptable for a mother to feel this way. Or at least to publicly admit it. I know full well how fortunate I am to have a baby. I know it’s all a phase. I know this too shall pass. But the fact of the matter is this: Parenthood is like being on a giant hamster wheel; you don’t realise before you step on it that once you’ve started running you’ll be running for the rest of your life (or at least the next eighteen years). And no matter how well prepared you think you are, that comes as an almighty shock. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt I’ve been mis-sold this parenting gig. That I just can’t do it. I’ve doubted myself and my abilities to the core. I’ve felt selfish, ungrateful and downright miserable. And you know what? I won’t pretend I haven’t felt those things, or that I don’t sometimes slip back into the quagmire of despair. I won’t sugar coat this pill of parenting, just like I wouldn’t sugar coat the pill of miscarriage. These issues are real. Maternal mental health is something that should be talked about, openly, by men as well as women. Because as wonderful as it is, motherhood can also be really bloody hard.

Sometimes, as a mother, you just need to hit the reset button. Fortunately I’ve been able to do that today. After missing nursery yesterday (for the thirteenth day since February), my son was well enough (just about – insert guilt here) to go in for the afternoon, so I packed my laptop in my bag and sought out an excellent coffee shop in which to spend the afternoon. I spent 45 minutes having a belly laugh-inducing conversation with one of my best friends (also a mum), which defused most of the tension of the last few days. I finished sorting out the logistics for my son’s first birthday party this weekend (no small task). I people watched (listening to a conversation about the forthcoming series of Love Island, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m rather excited about). I tried to get my addled brain back into study mode (this part has been harder. There’s always tomorrow). I drank a flat white and ate a sugary pastry. And with every sip and every bite and every breath I have somehow made it back to the calmer, happier version of myself who has made it to the end of this blog post. Praise be.

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Turning Points

No matter how well you know that life with a baby is one phase after another, it’s hard to think rationally when you’ve been woken up at 3am three days in a row and your normally sweet tempered baby has turned into a raging ball of fury due to teething. Off the back of weeks of illness the past few days have been a bitter pill to swallow, and if I’m entirely honest there have been moments when I’ve genuinely questioned my ability to do this parenting gig. Fortunately such moments pass quickly (everything is just a phase after all), and other moments come along to remind me what an amazing little person I’ve helped bring into the world, and why it’s all so worth it. Like yesterday, when we got out in the sunshine and went walking on Hampstead Heath, and C tried his first dairy free ice cream (damn allergies). Funnily enough the real turning point in this latest low patch occurred after yesterday morning’s horrific poonami episode as we were rushing out the door to the doctor. As I stuffed C’s poo-filled (I kid you not) trousers hastily into the nappy bin, deeming them too far gone to save (much as I consider myself to be these days) I realised in that moment I had the choice of laughing or crying. And as I’d done quite enough crying up to that point I chose the former. Turns out it was the best decision.

Since yesterday’s turning point I’ve felt considerably better. I’m sure the sunshine is playing it’s part, but what’s really made the difference is doing some exercise. When the baby is ill and in hospital/off nursery I go stir crazy being cooped up inside, although I don’t always make the connection with needing to exercise until I’m entrenched in another slump. Yesterday, thanks to various appointments, I ended up walking for two hours, and by the end of the day my mind was so much calmer and clearer. Today after dropping C at nursery (finally back to nursery! Praise be!) I went to my first spin class in what I worked out must be six years. I’ve been doing Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance classes semi-regularly for the past few months but have yet to bite the bullet and get back into cardio. Needless to say I was terrified beforehand and pretty close to requiring hospitalisation afterwards (God help me tomorrow when my body’s had a chance to process what I did to it), but there’s no denying the endorphins that have lain dormant for so long were firmly kicked back into action. Exercise is vital for keeping a balanced perspective, it really helps to prevent a negative mind spiral.

Another thing that has helped to lift my mood has been finally submitting my university extenuation claim. It’s been tough seeing my fellow students approaching submission day (which was yesterday), knowing I couldn’t hope to make the deadline. For a while I convinced myself that maybe I could, but last week’s illness and nursery absence was the nail in the coffin. I have therefore been vigilant in collecting all the supporting evidence that I could to give my claim the best chance of success. Now I’ve finally sent it I feel a weight off my shoulders. I’m still pushing myself to complete it way ahead of the September resit deadline, but at least now I’ve accepted I need more time and can relax a little and give myself a break.

All in all I’m worn down but not defeated. This crazy ride called parenting ain’t getting any easier, but somehow I’m finding the reserves to ride out the rough patches and keep my sanity (just about) intact. Every day that goes by I have more respect for my own mother and all the other mums out there, especially those with more than one child, and/or with children who need extra help and attention. Until you are a mother you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the task; the endless demands, the sleepless nights, the sheer relentlessness of the responsibilities laid out before you, not to mention the fact all of this is FOR LIFE, or at least until your child/ren leave/s home. Then there’s the constant fight for your identity, the longing for freedom and fun and carefree, lazy days. You could actually kick your pre-baby self for not appreciating how much time you had to do as you pleased. But on the flip side, having a child changes you in profound and meaningful ways. It makes you less selfish, more thoughtful, more organised, and it brings moments of such pure and unadulterated joy you could hitherto only have imagined. So, on balance, I’ll take the lows if it means I get to keep the highs. That said, I’d sell a kidney for a decent night’s sleep. Any takers for a sleepover with a nearly one year old tonight?

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Royal Babies & Mat(/Et)ernal Guilt

“He’s the dream. He has the sweetest temperament. He’s really calm.” I can’t be the only mother to read Megan Markle’s comments on her newborn baby this week and reflect upon the naivety of motherhood in those first few hours and days. I mean, I hope for her sake it’s all plain sailing from here on in, but experience tells me she may have some nasty shocks in store (or maybe not, given that she probably has an army of nannies to care for baby Sussex when it all gets too much. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. As you were)…

This week we had yet another middle of the night dash to A&E when C developed a sudden cough which quickly progressed to wheezing and breathlessness. Only the day before I had been thinking how great it was that we’d had two weeks of good health, which must be a record since the beginning of this year. But it wasn’t to be. So, just two weeks after his three day hospital admission we were back in an Uber to A&E – just me and the baby because my husband had to be up at 5.30am to catch the Eurostar to Belgium for a meeting. Almost four hours and three nebulisers later they sent us home, only for C to wake up two hours after I put him down sounding worse than before. By 10.30am we were back in A&E for another six hours. Fortunately this time it didn’t end up with an overnight admission, but it was borderline. The consultant paediatrician said we were right to take him and was very sympathetic. She also said she sees a lot of babies with this problem and it’s hard to manage. The jury’s out on whether any of the medicines actually work for viral wheeze/bronchiolitis (especially steroids which seem to have medical practitioners divided – all the junior doctors in A&E have told us to stop giving his steroid inhaler but the senior paediatric consultants tell us to continue. Needless to say the lack of medical consensus is frustrating and stressful, but on balance I’ll always go with the most senior advice). Fortunately our son is what they call a ‘happy wheezer,’ which means he usually presents as being better than he really is. I always feel a bit of a fraud when I turn up at A&E with a grinning baby, but when they examine him they are always shocked that his condition is worse than it first seemed.

I don’t mind admitting I’m struggling a bit at the moment. Not in a constantly-tearful-and-unable-to-cope sort of way (which I have been in the past), more in a tired-resigned-and-frustrated sort of way. I suppose it’s not exactly a secret that motherhood is hard, but until you experience it for yourself you really have no clue. Because us women are very good at putting a brave face on it. We don’t like to complain, less so to appear incompetent, or – God forbid – ungrateful with our lot. This last point is really true for me at the moment. I have friends who’ve had a bloody awful time of it this past year, from cancer to infertility and everything in-between. I hate to admit I’m struggling because compared to the things they have gone through this doesn’t compare. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes hard. And I’m trying to cut myself some slack for feeling this way, because sometimes the guilt is like a monkey on my back, it’s all-consuming.

Being a mother is a gift, and it’s wonderful. But the truth is there are moments when you wonder what the hell you’ve done. You wouldn’t trade your baby for the world, but my God you’d love a few hours to yourself, to just be, without worrying about everything to do with your baby’s welfare. And when they get sick it’s just the worst, there is nothing more heart-wrenching than seeing your baby in a hospital bed (even if you do have a ‘happy wheezer’ like us – and believe me I do realise how lucky we are that he doesn’t have more serious health problems. The one he has is hard enough). Then there’s the constant maternal guilt – ironically the focus of my Master’s research proposal, as I think I’ve mentioned before – which is beyond draining. Is baby eating well enough? Is he getting the right stimulation? I feel these worries even more keenly when he’s off nursery because of illness. What if I’m doing it all wrong? Will he suffer when he’s older?

And then, cards on the table, there’s the guilt about wanting time for me. With hindsight returning to studying ten months after having a baby was a brave decision. At the time of my re-enrollment it seemed perfectly achievable, because C would be going to nursery three days a week and I’d have all that time to study. In reality, he’s now missed four full weeks of nursery since the beginning of February, and despite my reluctance to admit I was falling behind, I’m now having to submit a claim for extension due to extenuating circumstances. The deadline for my proposal is next week and I’ve managed a paltry 750 words out of the required 5,000. There’s just no way I can achieve it. And whilst I know this wasn’t my fault and couldn’t have been foreseen, it doesn’t stop the guilt about not having done it. Or the guilt I feel every time I manage to grab half an hour to myself – something which is getting harder to do when, like now, C is off nursery and also inexplicably fighting every nap time – and I just want to sit down with a cup of tea and a magazine instead of returning to the 750 page textbook on qualitative research methods (although, in my defence, having spent the last two nights waking every 4 hours to administer an inhaler to my baby, my brain isn’t really coping with anything more taxing than reading Closer magazine atm..).

There’s also the (*speaks in whisper*) ever pressing issue of another baby. I can hardly believe we’re even thinking about it given how stressful having one has been (and again I reiterate how lucky we’ve been with him – he may have a lot of issues with his chest but generally he’s such a happy little chap, everyone comments on it), but I’m hyper conscious I’m not getting any younger (38 in October – how the hell did that happen?) Plus, after having a miscarriage before there’s an increased risk of it happening again, alongside the other risks associated with being a ‘geriatric mother’ (God I loathe that phrase). Hypothetically I love the idea of another child but there’s a (big) part of me that wonders how on earth I’d manage. I know people do, of course they do, but how much do they sacrifice to do it? Am I too selfish to have more than one child? There, I said it. I’m a 37 year old mother of a nearly one year old who would, quite frankly, like a bit more time to read, to study, to exercise, to set up my business, to drink wine, to shop, to gossip with my girl (are we too old to be called girls now?) friends, to have FUN. And let’s face it, another baby is going to put more of a strain on all of the above. But despite that, and the still-fresh memory of the somewhat traumatic birth (the nurses commenting he had the “biggest head we’ve ever seen” being a particular low point moments after finally pushing him out), I can’t ignore the ticking of this goddamn body clock. Actually, that’s a lie. I fully intend to ignore it ticking until after my girls’ holiday to Ibiza in October. I would say you’re only young once, but as that particular ship has now sailed I will instead say you only have one child once….

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Look at that face, he makes it all worthwhile… ❤

 

End of a (Breastfeeding) Era (see also: The Mum Guilt Chronicles)

My son, now 10 months old, was exclusively breast fed for the first five and a half months of his life, and has been partially breast fed since then. In recent weeks, however, my milk supply has dropped a lot, we’ve gone down to one feed a day and generally seem to be moving in the direction of stopping breastfeeding altogether. This in itself makes me feel emotional, but the recent confirmation that my son is allergic to cow’s milk has added a whole new layer of complexity and emotion to the situation.

We already suspected the allergy – when we moved him onto formula at seven months he constantly developed a red rash around his mouth, so he has been on dairy free formula ever since – but now it’s been confirmed by the hospital’s allergy clinic and I’ve started reading more into it I’m worried that I should have cut dairy from my own diet months ago (why did no professionals ever advise me of this?) , and that the fact he has been breastfeeding all this time may in fact be contributing to his constant rounds of illness. My rational brain tells me this won’t be the case, but mum guilt is beating me repeatedly about the head anyway (when doesn’t it?!).

Fortunately a call today with the lovely Camden Baby Feeding team backed up my rational brain’s argument to some extent – the fact he never showed any obvious signs of milk allergy in the early months of being exclusively breast fed would indicate that negligible amounts were reaching him that way. Nonetheless, they recommend that now it’s been officially diagnosed, if I do want to continue breastfeeding I should really consider either cutting all dairy from my diet or stopping breastfeeding.

Even though stopping has been on my mind for some time already, I feel suddenly devastated at the thought of it, and am already mourning the loss of that closeness we still share (albeit only now for a few minutes each day and probably not with any real nutritional benefits to him). In my heart I know the time has come to stop – and my head tells me I’m lucky to have even made it this far – but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. My baby is turning into a little boy, essentially the first proper sign of him not needing me anymore (at least not in the same way) and as natural as I’m sure it is, that makes me feel sad.

On the flip side, the thought of no more pumping and freezing of breast milk does instil a certain sense of relief…Every cloud…

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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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