The Mixed Emotions of Motherhood
I saw a video the other day of a mother swan angrily swatting a man with her wing. The man was trying to free her baby swan from being entangled in a fence. But all this mother saw was a human doing something that she, in that moment, wasn't able to do which was to protect her child. So she reacted with anger and impatience, furiously paddling back and forth, swatting this man until her cygnet was placed safely in the water where she could wrap it under her wing. I felt that pen's feeling viscerally. Especially this week.
It has happened. The evidence of time moving swiftly regardless of whether my heart and mind were ready. My son started school last week. He was ready. I wasn't. He was excited. I was nervous. He strode through the school gates with determination. I stayed behind watching him walk away, feeling the space between us widen. It was time, I know that. The rational part of my brain knew that. But love isn't rational. Neither is parenthood.
Being a mother has meant being in the eye of an emotional twister, a hurricane of feelings swirling around. One minute there is this overflowing feeling of love and need to just be around this little person who has engulfed my world. The next is a feeling of needing some space so that I can find that person I once was before he arrived. Of course, that leads to the guilt. Oh, that guilt that never ever leaves me. That guilt has only intensified the last few weeks as we prepared for this milestone in our lives. The guilt of feeling the happiness of wanting to reclaim my time, of regretting not savouring each and every second with my boy, of believing I've taken the days for granted, of wanting the seconds to slow down despite feeling the immense pride in just watching him grow up. And so much of it emanates from a period of time that I can never get back, the time when just after he was born I began the rollercoaster that was post partum/natal depression.
Pregnancy for me was a wonderful time. I loved it. Never had I, in my entire life, feel so good in my own skin, in my own body. Never had I, for as far as I can remember, love how my body looked as I did when I knew I was carrying my future inside me. I had none of the usual uncomfortable symptoms that accompany pregnancy--no morning sickness or aches and pains. It was only towards the last few weeks did I start to have some arthritis in my wrists. Other than that, I was energetic enough to continue with my Reformer pilates classes until I was 34 weeks along. I loved every second of it. I was happy. Three simple words in a simple sentence. Yet three simple words we don't or can't often describe our state of being. But I could. For that moment in time.
Mine was considered a geriatric pregnancy. I was 41. But for all intents and purposes it was a relatively textbook pregnancy. My doctor and the midwives were amazing, keeping me at ease with regular check ups and tests. I had a booklet outlining what I should be experiencing at each stage, each trimester, what I should be looking out for (like a certain number of kicks before 5pm). Physically, I was on track. Mentally, I was preparing myself for what had been described as a "natural" birth. Although, I could argue that any way a child is born and if done so in a healthy way is natural. A natural birth as outlined by medical professionals is when the baby travels through the birth canal rather than taken out via caesarean. I knew it would be painful so I was coaching myself emotionally to be ready for this incredible moment in my life.
On a Monday night around 11pm I felt my water break. The movies describe this moment as after a 5 second pause when the realisation hits, there is a panic and rush to get to the hospital. This wasn't the case. My husband calmly called the nurse in the ward and we were told to stay home because I wasn't feeling contractions yet. We were advised that when the contractions eventually reached a certain frequency then we were to head to the hospital otherwise, in any case, they would see me first thing next morning. I didn't sleep much that night, I mean, I was officially in labour, but all was calm.
At 7am Tuesday morning we headed to the hospital, a bumpy 20 minute ride in a taxi with me holding on to the handle above the door feeling vulnerable and nervous. Upon arrival, we got admitted and taken in for scans and tests. All was normal but I had no contractions. So they sent me home. That evening, I started to feel them and we made our way back to the hospital where I was put in a room in the maternity ward awaiting the time when I would have to summon all my energy to welcome our little guy. It was a long wait.
42 hours, two epidurals and a rising fever later, it was decided that an emergency C-Section was needed. I was whisked into the operating theatre and as the sun set on a Wednesday evening in Hong Kong, I heard the cry I had been desperate to hear; the cry that told me he was here and he was ok. That's when I felt my own tears roll down the side of my face; tears of joy and relief. I think I passed out after I held him because the next thing I knew I was being wheeled back into my room and told my baby needed to be fed. I asked my husband how long I had been out. He told me "15 minutes". It felt like 15 hours, which was still not enough as I was exhausted.
In the moments after a woman gives birth, it is assumed she is wrapped up in a blanket of serenity, love, and peace. That may be for some women. For me it was anything but. For me, that was when I realised I had a little being for whom I was entirely responsible. This little human was relying on me for everything, including being fed. The weight of this dawning of consciousness came down on me like cold water being splashed in my face. Now don't get me wrong, rationally I was prepared for this, I welcome it, I wanted it. Physically and emotionally though, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was grateful for this beautiful boy for whom I knew I would give my life, but at the same time, I was scared out of my mind, thinking, believing, that maybe I wasn't good enough, or just enough. And my body reflected that insecurity with an inability to produce enough milk to feed my own child.
In the hospital's nursery, there is a floor-to-ceiling poster outlining the pros of breastfeeding and of baby formula. The list for breastfeeding was as long as the poster. The list for formula had maybe two or three "pros". The nurses would keep coming in to my room to encourage me to do what should have been natural for me to do. Formula, in their eyes, was not an option. Formula, in their eyes, was for failures. Those words were never uttered but the message was clear. They would help position my boy or would move me around to try and maximise the "flow" of breast milk. At one point, a kind nurse finally offered to help us supplement his feed with formula which I happily took. After taking our boy home and a few more tries my mother was the one who eventually told me to just use formula to feed my son. She, and my doctor, took the pressure off me by saying not only was it natural to do so but what was more important was my comfort and mental health. Plus my mother told me I was bottle fed with formula from the get go and I turned out ok.
As I settled in to a routine with our son and after the frenetic emotions of labour, giving birth and leaving the hospital, I started to feel a fog sink in. A fog and fear. I would describe the fog as my head being wrapped in thick cotton wool and unable to find or feel clarity and ease. The fear was how I felt every second. Fear about my son's health (he was fine and growing happily), fear I wasn't feeding him enough (I was), fear that I had failed him and subjected him to long term health effects by not breastfeeding him, fear I wasn't doing enough for him like taking him to those mommy and me classes (I had no desire to do those things). The only thing I wanted to do was keep him close to me in my baby carrier and go for walks through the city streets where he was enthralled with the sights, sounds and smells of Hong Kong. I took him everywhere in that carrier--on buses, subways, trams, and taxis. I would describe for him what he was seeing. I would whisper stories and sing to him while giving him kisses on the top of his head and eventually at the back of his head when I could turn him around so he was facing the world. That was the only time I didn't feel the fear or the fog. Every other second I did.
Looking back, I now know that not only was I feeling a natural event in any mother's life where the surge and ebbs of hormones wreak havoc on our physiology, I was also feeling that sense of failure for not doing what my body was designed to do when called upon to deliver. At the eleventh hour, when it was time, when it was my time to graduate to being a mother, I wasn't able to let him go and help him out into the world. I felt like I had cheated him out of his natural entrance into the world. I felt I had failed by being unable to ease his emergence out of the calmness in my womb through the volatility of birth, his literal rite of passage. I felt I failed him for not feeding him from what was meant to be the nourishment that was supposed to come from his mother. I felt like a crappy stand-in, when he deserved the real thing. When he deserved everything.
Those feelings manifested in being irritated and angry with myself. I felt my whole being was clenched, tight and unforgiving. I cried. A lot. And when it was time to sleep train him, after making sure he was ok, I stood on the other side of the door to his room hearing him scream and I was doubled over feeling like my heart was breaking in a million pieces. I felt like I was the worst mother in the world. And I felt it for almost 4 years (the Australian GP Dr Oscar Serrallach has said "post natal depletion" as he describes it, can last 7--10 years post birth). Depletion is perhaps the most accurate word. I felt depleted. Unable to give of myself. I was running on empty. Until my husband quit his job and we moved to the countryside. Even then, I would be afraid every time my husband would have to go into the city for a meeting about a project or some work. I would feel like I wouldn't know what to do out there away from the city lights if there was an emergency. But my husband saved me by being the most amazing father this little boy could ever ask for; by being my true partner and helping me parent. My baby saved me. My wonderful neighbour who had 4 kids saved me just by being there, just by existing. I knew if she was there, I would be ok. And slowly, with the help of kindness, patience of my family and of nature, I healed. Day by day.
Today, when I go to my boy's room at night to check on him before I turn in, I see him sleeping soundly, peacefully, happily. He doesn't need me there to fall asleep. He just needs my hugs and kisses when I tuck him in and then he turns over to listen to his music or audio stories and drifts away into his dream world. I think then maybe I did something right. Maybe those many tears I cried were worth it. And as I watched my little boy carry his backpack and wellies, making his way in his class' line, I felt all those tears inside again welling up. The tears for the mother I wish I could have been for him, the mother I grew to become because of his unconditional love for me.
My son turns 5 next week and the love and privilege I feel for being his mother is immeasurable. But I also want to add the gratitude I feel for him, for being the boy who told me in his own way what he needed and who taught me to be kind to myself and to be the mother he needs me to be.