When I left work to go on maternity leave, I thought I would never return to the same office, probably never know the same people, and generally be a very changed woman by the end of those 10 months, as if my whole life would disappear like Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man. But a month ago, I walked into the very same office, surrounded by the very same people, and aside from my weird, misshapen boobs hidden in my blouse, I was pretty much the same person. But returning to work did feel like a big milestone; the end of an era. So I thought I should write down a list of (sometimes contradictory) things I learnt while on maternity leave.
A list of (sometimes contradictory) things I learnt while on maternity leave:
- I am a very anxious person. There was not a day that went by that I didn’t worry about something. Why isn’t the baby sleeping? Why is the baby sleeping so much? Why isn’t the baby eating? Why is the baby eating so much? Am I still interesting? Will our money last? Have I started wearing mum clothes? Am I eating too much sugar? Do the women at mothers’ group think I’m a dick? Should we move house? Do I have a hole in my tooth? Does my house smell weird? Do I smell weird? Will I ever have fun again? Is that a spider in the curtains? And over and over with the worrying. Sheesh. I really want past Steph to give maternity leave Steph a huge, metaphorical toke on a bucket bong.
- Weirdly, I am a pretty relaxed mum compared to others. It is interesting spending time with other first-time mothers and listening to all the concerns everyone has – sleeping, eating, allergies, crawling, teething, choking, electrocution and boyfriends on motorbikes. At the end of the conversation, I quite often look around to find CC nude, covered in dirt, eating a large stick and playing chicken in traffic.
- I love being home. There are some rad parents out there who put their babies in infant fanny packs and venture out into the world like normal humans. Much to J-man’s chagrin, having a baby has made me want to stay home more than ever. CC is actually a pretty good baby when we’re out. Just now we went to a wedding where she did nothing but bat her eyelashes and smile and coo for an hour. But only I know that at the hour and five minute mark she turns into a drooling, sharting, crying, writhing, wriggling massacre of baby emotions. That doesn’t sound like a party to me, it sounds like work. So home, where our beds, fridge and TV are, is the best place to be.
- I don’t want to live in Sydney forever. I am pretty convinced that all the things that make parenting harder are related to city living. I like to imagine life with a child if I worked 9-5, weekdays, if our daycare was only a few blocks away from our offices, if our offices were only a short drive from home, if our home was not rented, if there was a backyard for playing and jumping through sprinklers, if there was a dog. None of that is possible in Sydney, with two people who work in arts/media. There is a lot to love about Sydney – interesting jobs, interesting people, good food, excellent beer – but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep my family here. Plus, I don’t want CC to be like those city kids I met at uni who asked me if I’d ever seen the ocean.
- I am starting to not care. You know how Kim Kardashian said Kanye West taught her not to make time for bullshit anymore? Clearly, I have a little bit of time for bullshit, because I know that terrible piece of celebrity trivia, but I have less time for it these days. Someone said something shitty on Twitter? Don’t care. A politician misspoke? Don’t care. Something I like is no longer cool? Don’t care. Office politics? Don’t care. Someone honked their horn at my terrible driving? Don’t care. It’s true what those cards at KMart say – having a baby does make you realise what really matters: family, friends, happiness and donuts. (Also, human rights, obviously).
Two women with prams were happily chatting at the post office about their weekends, their work, their husbands and their babies. The perky blonde mum abruptly ended the conversation with “I’d better go home. Mrs X says I have to feed him at 11.30 everyday and I can’t be out of the house while he naps”. Mrs X is one of those “baby whisperers” who makes a shartload of money by giving mums a strict timetable for their new babies to follow with the apparent aim of lots of sleep. She has been used, with mixed results, by a few women I know. I wanted to somehow drag these women at the post office down the street to a coffee shop and yell: “HAVE A CHAT. BE DAMNED YOUR BABY’S PRECIOUS “AT HOME” NAP. HERE, MOTORBOAT AN ENTIE BLACK FOREST CAKE.” But I suppose that constitutes common assault, so I let them go unharmed.
When I hear Mrs X’s name, a chill goes down my spine. I picked up some of Mrs X’s advice by osmosis via the women I know and, for a fortnight or so, I tried to force Cordelia to sleep when she didn’t want to, for longer than she wanted to. Of course, it didn’t work, Delia screamed a lot and I felt like a failure. I knew I had to stop when one day I was so obsessed with her sleep “routine” I forgot to buy falafels for the falafel rolls I was going to make for dinner and cried to J-man, “I am a terrible wife and mother. I can’t even remember to get falafels, the primary ingredient for falafel rolls. I’m no good at anything”. A tired J-man sighed and said: “For fuck’s sake, it’s just falafel.” He is a most excellent and smart man.
I feel like the falafel tantrum of summer 2014 is an excellent example of why a mother’s mental health and wellbeing should be of utmost importance. When Cordelia was two-weeks-old I got a visit from a community nurse who asked me a series of questions, which I now know to be a test for post-natal depression. I cried while I answered questions about whether I cried more than usual. The nurse got to the end of the test, brightly said “perfectly normal!” and left my house. When I took the same test a couple of weeks later in my doctor’s office the result practically flashed up on her screen as “totally fucking miserable”. Over the course of a few months, a lovely psychologist talked to me about why women can struggle with depression after having a baby. All of the things that lift the spirit and are recommended to ease depression – seeing friends, going outside, exercising, reading books - are virtually impossible when you have a small baby.
Sleeping well is also crucial part of feeling like a functioning person. And that’s exactly why these “baby whisperer” d-bags get loads of customers. They are cashing in on desperate mothers hoping to get some control back in their lives, feel even vaguely normal, and maybe eat Cheezels with their girlfriends once in a while, so they pay someone to tell them what their baby “needs” to be predictable and unconscious. It worked for some women I know, but not for most because those alleged baby needs involved being at home all the time with fgew interruptions to their important little infant schedules. Yeah, well, what about what a human woman needs? Some company, variety, excitement, mental stimulation and some godamned falafel.
Today in Woolies, I saw this magazine and took a photo because it hit me right where it hurts.
Had I seen this five months ago, while lining up to buy yet another humiliatingly giant packet of pads, wearing tear-stained clothes, with unwashed hair and leaking breasts, after getting two hours’ sleep the night before, I would have spontaneously combusted.
I mean, all my love and Cheezels to Jodi Gordon and Braith Anasta, but for pretty much every woman I have spoken to about motherhood, their newborn baby did not bring the glowing joy and love this photo depicts. It’s not the couple or their little family I have a problem with – they are all incredibly brave to wear white - it’s the “bundle of joy” bullshit women are force fed.
This would be a more accurate cover to convey those newborn weeks.
I recall the guilt and shame I felt in the hours after my daughter was born. In the blue light of that early September dawn, after 18 hours of labour, I looked over at my husband holding her as she screamed and refused to be put in her crib. Our exhausted eyes met across the hospital room and I knew we were thinking the same thing - “what have we done?” In the days after, I tried to be upbeat, while midwifes roughly groped and milked me like a useless dairy cow as they tried to figure out why I was having such terrible trouble breastfeeding her. When they weren’t doing that, the nurses were looking up my clacker to check how I was healing after birth. When we brought our girl home, I spent two weeks staying up all night – literally – trying to feed her. I couldn’t sleep during the day because I was wracked with anxiety. In the evenings she would scream non-stop from about 5 o’clock until 9, only to wake up hungry two hours later. I remember one particularly bad night when she screamed until almost midnight and my husband tried walking her in the pram. When he returned 20 minutes later, I heard her cries from the bottom of the driveway. Even the calming rhythm of walking could not knock her out. For about a week she stopped sleeping during the day too, and my wonderful older sister hugged me and rocked her cradle while I silently cried. It was torture when my husband returned to work. It takes a village to raise a baby, I thought, yet here I was alone, trying to figure it out for myself. I had desperately wanted a baby, so why was it all so hard? I felt useless, hopeless and guilty most days for those first six weeks of her life.
But as my mum, and every other woman who had made it through the newborn phase, assured me: things slowly got better. I called a lactation consultant to help me figure out breastfeeding, I saw my doctor, I talked to people. By six weeks our baby was smiling and sleeping and eating much better. At three months she was playing and giggling. At four months she started loudly babbling and showing us her sweet, cheeky personality. Now five months she is a little more predictable. She sits up, grabs her toys, examines her hands with wonder, shoves her feet in her mouth, “chats” to us all the time, cries if we walk away from her, and grins and flaps her arms in pure joy when we get her out of bed in the morning. She is drinking in the world. Cordelia will be six months old in a week and I can’t wait to see what that brings. It’s definitely not always easy, and there are still hard days and nights, but this is the sweet spot. I just wish we didn’t all pretend babies are exactly like this from the moment the cord is cut.
- This is probably the best article I read during the crazy newborn days, when it felt like the whole world was telling me I was weird for not coping:
- And this:
- This was recommended to me after I wrote this post. It is also excellent and reassuring. I especially like the points about how weird our society is for just expecting women to raise babies on their own:
We live in a little granny flat behind a grand terrace in Sydney. A tradesman told J-man he thought it was once a horse stable – it’s an odd shape and there’s no doors or windows on the back wall. I kind of liked the thought of sleeping where a little foal might have rested her head, her belly full of straw, in ye olde Sydney town.
Then we had a baby. Then summer came. I realise now we are living in a glorified shed. There is no cross-draught, no insulation. It is 28 degrees in here by lunch time. A plant recently grew through our bedroom window and curled around the blinds. This morning I was sitting on the toilet (sorry) and I noticed a huntsman spider carefully easing itself inside between two tiles. There are regularly skinks sunbaking on the carpet. When it gets windy, leaves and dust somehow get through the skylights and carpet the bathroom and kitchen floors.
Maybe one day, when I’m living with my third husband in an air-conditioned mansion in Bellevue Hill, I’ll stroke my pearls and reminisce about simpler times. But right now all I want is to move the hell out of Sydney, where you pay hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars a week to live in a stinking hot shitbox.
I am unhappy here.
But I am happy for shandies, icy water, cold showers, This American Life, apple green shorts, a funny husband and a very sweet baby.
Here she is.
It turns out motherhood has made me pretty crazy. To illustrate, here are a few of my recent Google searches: “sleep regression”, “baby waking at 4am and not going back to sleep”, “sleeping through the night”,”shush pat”, “getting rid of the dummy”, “getting rid of the wrap”, “pick up, put down”, “putting baby down awake”, “baby bedtime”, “am I a bad mother?”, “Khloe and Kourtney Take Miami”.
As you can tell I am really living it up on maternity leave. Also, I am pretty obsessed with sleep. I always have been. For an assignment in year 4 we had to track how we spent our days. I slept the most out of everyone in my class and was mildly scolded by our teacher for listing sleep as one of my hobbies. I’m probably the only person to have enjoyed a bout of glandular fever – two weeks of sleep! Yes! Sleep really is just the best.
I have also always been pretty obsessed with babies. I picked out the name Cordelia when I was 16. I have cooed over little baby outfits since forever. I would snatch baby cousins from their parents and cuddle them all day long. In early high school, I found out it might be hard for me to have a baby. I remember the vacant looks on the pimply faces of my friends as I broke the news in the playground, a mere 14 years since we all exited the birth canal.
So my two greatest loves have collided. Poor J-man has to console me almost daily about some new thing I found buried deep on a 2007 parenting forum. (Apparently I’m also obsessed with torturing myself.) “J-man!” I say “I read about some woman whose baby went from sleeping perfectly to never sleeping at all and her marriage broke down and now she lives in a caravan and has warts on her nose and wears a rope belt and tissue boxes as shoes”. Over and over again, he has to remind me that everything is OK, he won’t leave me (IT’S IN PRINT NOW, JOEL), everything is a phase, our baby is lovely and my feet are way too big to fit in tissue boxes.
This parenthood thing can be rough. But there’s someone who makes it all worthwhile. I love her to bits…
… when she’s asleep
… and when she’s awake
Exactly a week after Snorky was due, on September 21, this is what happened:
4.37am – I wake to painful cramps that pulse through my belly at regular intervals. I wait a moment before I wake J-man because this whole fake labour shiz has been going on for weeks. This could just be Thai take-out, I think. Like that scene in The Madness of King George when Helen Mirren tells Nigel Hawthorne to “try a fart”, I do just that to no avail. I wake J-man and tell him it’s on like Donkey Kong.
6am – The contractions are consistently coming every couple of minutes. In the book they give you at baby classes, it says this means the baby is imminent and get in the car now or you will have the kid in the toilet. I am thrilled at how quickly it all seems to be going and I imagine gazing at my baby over lunch.
8am – I have peanut butter on toast for breakfast, as the contractions pick up. J-man rings the hospital and they tell us amateurs to stay at home because this baby is not coming anytime soon. Hey lady, take some Panadol, have a hot shower and chew on some cement, they tell us.
9am – I set up a pain station in the lounge room, where I kneel on a pillow and put my head on another pillow placed on a chair. I cry, I scream, and I grunt. This baby is coming! J-man talks about calling the hospital again. I say if they ask whether the pain is manageable to tell them yes it is, I have a high pain threshold, and I could just as easily have this baby at home. I hear him say these words, words that will come to haunt me.
11am – Everything comes to a grinding halt. I feel like an idiot.
Noon – Oh, hang on. Here we go, something is happening. I want to keep things moving, so I get the broom and use it as a walking stick for my dicky hip and do laps of the courtyard under the hot sun. The contractions continue to come frequently and I moan and groan while our neighbours discreetly usher their visitors indoors.
2pm – Finally, I rate the pain as unmanageable and we hop in our little hire car and go to the hospital. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I distinctly remember sitting at a red light on Victoria Road wishing for death. Or birth. Whichever.
2.15pm – The midwives obviously care not about my views on life and death and send me to a waiting room in the delivery ward. Another couple – a heavily pregnant woman who is not in labour and her dude – sit across from us watching some kind of car race on the TV. I am contracting in front of strangers and it is the height of totes awkward. I squeeze J-man’s hand until it looks like a rubber chicken.
2.20pm – A lovely young midwife named Emily with a nose stud examines me and finds I am measuring – cough – three centimetres. Three. And I have to get to ten. How embarrassing is this? I can’t even take contracting to a three. She tells us to head back home, rest, have something to eat and come back at about 6pm.
3pm – This part is kind of a daze. I don’t remember being in heaps and heaps of pain, but I do remember telling J-man he should get in some nap time and a Red Dead Redemption session before things get real. I eat coconut bread with honey and an orange icy pole. Things amp up about 5.30pm and red hot, raging cramps race around my belly and back.
6.45pm – We go back to the hospital. The short trip to RPA is horrific. I cry and moan and have hand-to-hand combat with my seatbelt, which I’m convinced is making everything worse.
7pm – A kindly middle-aged midwife ushers me in to a delivery suite and shows me how to use the gas. The gas, my friends, is a con. It does nothing. But it does feel surprisingly good to just pretend. I get into a night shirt and ask the midwife whether I should take off my underpants. She laughs and says I can keep my dignity a little longer.
7.20pm – A lovely young midwife named Tori comes in and takes over. She says I now measure four. Fucking FOUR!? Will I still be in labour when they hand me a gold timepiece at my retirement party? She suggests we all get in the shower together. Me, her, J-man and the gas bottle. The shower is (obviously) huge. Tori and J-man chit-chat and discover we all went to the same uni. It’s weird. Here I am, totally naked, having a shower while my husband watches with another woman and there’s drugs in the room. This is not something I would usually be into.
9pm – The feeling of hot water on my body starts to annoy me. And this is about the time that I lose my mind. It is, I believe, the part the books and Satan himself call “transition”. At first I lean up against the bed growling and grunting like a wild animal, sucking in gas and chewing ice chips. Tori tells me to let her know when I am not coping and she will give me morphine. Soon after, I yell at J-man “I AM NOT COPING” in between hitting him on the chest as the contractions start to become just one big, awful contraction. I get the morphine. It does nothing for the pain, only makes me really sleepy in between contractions. With each one, Tori tells me “You can. You can”.
10pm – It’s time to start pushing. I won’t go into graphic detail, only to say that while it stung like a giant bee with fangs, claws, and Swiss Army knife in its pocket, it was such a feeling of relief. I look back now, imagining being naked, on all fours and grunting, as two midwives look up my clacker, and the only way I can explain it is this: I was not there for my own labour. The real me was at home watching Breaking Bad and eating cheese on the couch, waiting for Labour Steph – the unashamed and naked one – to come home with the baby.
11.37 – A little, blue being drops between my legs and starts to cry. J-man cuts the cord. I call my parents. We cry, we laugh, we freak out. We name her Cordelia.
The sign on the physiotherapist’s door said: “Knock ONCE and wait PATIENTLY”. The physio ushered us into her office, while still treating a pregnant woman for problems she probably didn’t want to share with J-man and me. The physio was nudging 60, wearing a white zip-up coat and sneakers, and had a Carmela Soprano hairstyle. The open-plan surgery was very old school, with 1980s-style posters on the wall, baring slogans like “PELVIC FLOOR: USE IT OR LOSE IT”. Her writing was scrawled and heavily underlined on a couple of whiteboards: “TURN OFF YOUR MOBILE PHONE DURING CONSULTATIONS!”. We winced when J-man’s phone buzzed.
Over the next 30 minutes, these are some of the things she said while diagnosing me with something called Pelvic Girdle Pain (it sounds so benign and Victorian) and showing J-man how to massage me:
- “This is probably labour. You’ve been in labour since Friday.”
- “You want the pain to go away? Get that kid out.”
- “Take off all your clothes. But not there – anyone could just walk in and see you naked.”
- “I’m going to use a permanent marker on your buttocks.”
- “Joel, put your finger there. Ask if it hurts. Wait until she says yes and then press down hard.”
- “That’s good, Joel. See how she’s crying? Sometimes you’ve got to make them cry.”
- “Is that your pubis? Good! I’m pleased with your pubis.”
- “Now. Go home and have sex. I’m not joking – that’s the best way to get this kid out.”
Monday came and went, and Snorky did not arrive. At this rate she’ll be celebrating her 18th birthday in utero.
It was going to be the perfect labour story. I imagined telling my daughter about the night she was born: “Your Gigi and I were talking on the phone about when you might arrive, when I felt pain in my back, spreading around to my tummy. It was good pain, exciting pain,” I would tell her every birthday. “I had a deadline to meet the next morning, so I hung up and worked for hours on a project I was really proud of, happily feeling little pains every so often. After days of weird Spring heat, it was cool outside and the wind howled wildly. Your dad was watching Cloud Control play at the Metro and I texted him to say I thought you might be on your way. He told his friends the news, and we were all so thrilled. I had peanut butter on toast for dinner, and late that night, I went to bed and cradled my tummy, nervously imagining the next 24 hours and how much our lives would change.”
That was Thursday night. Little Snorky didn’t arrive. On Friday, I felt really uncomfortable. I still felt twinges when I walked. It was painful walking the six blocks to the coffee shop and home again, but I was so excited. That night, we went out for what I was sure would be our last meal as a childless couple, and by the end I could barely move. We had to catch a taxi the four blocks home. I thought: This! Is! It! I even had J-man take a photo of what was definitely my final day of pregnancy. How smug I felt.
On Saturday morning, her due date, Snorky was a no-show. When I tried to get up, I couldn’t, with a shooting pain ripping through my hip, my butt, and down my right leg. Every step I took was accompanied by an automatic wince or a scream or a cry. I spent Saturday on the couch in my dressing gown, with darling J-man tending to my every need. Before bed I tearfully talked to a midwife, who said the only cure for what she thought might be sciatica at this stage of pregnancy was to have the baby. I crawled onto our bed and cried in frustration. Today, Sunday, has been no improvement. Little Snorkel is in there moving around like it ain’t no thing, happy in her human spa bath while I grit my teeth in agony.
This morning I thought about how lucky I’ve been to have an incredibly smooth pregnancy, with no illness or complications. If this is all I have to endure before labour, then I should be thankful. And I am.
But so far, Snorkel’s labour story goes like this: “In the days before I had you, I was in so much pain that your dad had to do things like carry me to the toilet, help me bathe and put my underpants on. And that’s why he started dating men.”
A woman I’d only met once or twice walked up to me at work holding a pink tissue paper package. She handed it to me and said “You told me you were having a girl, so I thought of you”. Inside were two singlets with little flowers she’d embroidered around the neckline. As I looked down at the teeny tiny cotton singlets a stranger had made for my unborn daughter, I realised it was probably the kindest thing anybody had ever done for me. As a reward, I thanked her through a mouthful of cupcake.
Pregnancy has made me the target of all sorts of random acts of kindness. I assumed that everyone looks at a pregnant woman and thinks of overpopulation, a soiled nappy choking a polar bear atop a melting iceberg, and haemorrhoids. But most people treat me as though I am carrying a Messiah.
Friends and strangers bake for me, they lend me books, they give up their seats on the bus, they give me old baby clothes, they tell me how good I look, they carry my bag and open doors for me. Our new neighbour offered us his car anytime we need it. He takes our bins down to the road and hauls them back up the steep driveway. An Italian cleaning lady at work fawned over my “Bambino”. My pregnant sister lugged over a baby capsule to lend us, even though she was sick and tired. Colleagues have offered to arrange a baby shower. Others who live nearby have asked if they can do the groceries for me. Surly teens let me hop on the bus first. I have never known such good fortune and happiness.
Part of that happiness also comes from new exposure to harmless freaks, who think they are being kind, but are really being harmless freaks. There was the bikie standover man who literally stood over me in court one day and said how awesome it must be to use my belly as a desk. A strange man passed me a note saying: “Marriage and children are the greatest. All the best : )”. A taxi driver told me I must be having a boy because his wife was beautiful when she was pregnant with their son, but “ugly as” when she was pregnant with their daughter. A man in an elevator said he would pray for me. Another man in an elevator tried to make me promise I wouldn’t call the baby Diana. A now convicted criminal told me from the dock that I looked good - she had looked like a “baby elephant” when she was pregnant.
It makes me wonder, what will be left in my life once I have the baby?
The woman running the antenatal class was totally obsessed with pelvic floor exercises. A physiotherapist, she even had an ultrasound machine set up in her home and subjected her teenage daughter to tests to see if she had been doing her exercises.
She told us French and Scandinavian women have the strongest pelvic floor muscles in the world because they are taught to do the exercises from a very young age. Without daily squeezes, our future would be filled with embarrassing moments and early entry into a nursing home, she warned.
She even had an anecdote to go with her message.
“I knew a woman who didn’t do her exercises during two pregnancies – she had two boys. Eventually her urge to wee would be so bad that she couldn’t even wait to unlock the door when she came home. She would wee in the garden. Now, that might be OK when your sons are two and four, but when they’re 16 and 18? No teenage boy wants to see his mother wee in the garden.”
Stony-faced and silent, she gave an ominous look to every single rounded woman sitting in the semi-circle.
I don’t underestimate the importance of pelvic floor muscle exercises. I don’t want to end up in a home, having to endure visits from awful singing schoolchildren. But holy crap, this class was full of doom and gloom. There were warnings of haemorrhoids, weird nipple happenings and, not surprisingly, paranoia. There were charts showing the “ideal stool” and demonstrations of how to sit on the toilet properly. Also, DON’T LIE ON YOUR BACK!
I know there are a lot of women out there who have truly awful pregnancies – that totally sucks – and it made me realise just how lucky I’ve been so far.
It’s something I am most definitely not taking for granted, so herewith a list of positive things about pregnancy.
A list of positive things about pregnancy:
- Strangers are very, very kind. I was warned about wacky strangers who want to touch you, but I haven’t had that happen yet. It’s been all about handsome businessmen giving me their seats on the bus, a lady at the coffee shop telling me “I’m holding well”, a little old lady wishing me the best for my “bambino” and – the greatest – a young guy offering to lend me his umbrella if I left it in a secret place for him to retrieve. “I can’t just let you, like that, walk in this rain, ” he said. I mean, wow.
- Colleagues are very, very kind. I’ve had people buy me sweets, cups of tea, friands and de-caf coffees. One woman bought our baby a pair of hand-knitted booties. The other day I shared a particularly wild taxi ride with a woman I work with, who yelled at the driver to slow down and continually checked on me.
- Neighbours are very, very kind. Our neighbours invited us over for morning tea and gave us enough clothes for our daughter (have I mentioned that? It’s a little lady!) to wear for the rest of her life.
- The nesting instinct is awesome. Suddenly I want to dry the dishes, make the bed hotel-style, bake, de-clutter and just generally outnest Big Bird.
- You crave cinnamon donuts. Your baby wants them, so you dang well eat them.
- Your hair gets shiny and your nails get strong. I’ve also lost my milk moustache! A miracle far greater than any pot of Nad’s could perform.
There are other things I could add, but I need to wee.