When I was 12 I was given a school project to write an autobiography. One of the chapters was, ‘my earliest memory’, and so as a big sister I wrote about the arrival of my wee brother when I was 3. But it wasn’t my memory, it was a recital of what I’d been told about it and a narrative of the photographs I’d seen. In truth I have no idea what my earliest memory is. What I do have though is the strongest recollection of the feeling of my childhood. A palpable, visceral remembering of how it felt to be a child in our family. And it was amazing.
There was nothing remarkable about the way I was raised. We lived in a small semi-detached house on a friendly street and we did normal things. We weren’t spoiled with material possessions, nor were we a family who went on lots of holidays. To any onlooker we were unremarkable in every way. But not to me. To me our home was the centre of my world. The coal fire, the mud pie making, the summer garden sprinkler showers and the late night sweetie runs to the petrol station. It is virtually impossible for me to convey in words how happy my childhood was.
(My Mum, me, my Dad and my brother)
From a very early age I remember the awe that I felt for my Mum. I used to ask her how she knew how to be a good Mum, how did she make us feel the way we felt, what was her secret? I genuinely worried that I’d never be able to replicate for my own children what she created for us. It feels like it was such a moment in time. It took me becoming a Mum myself to finally get it. She put us first in everything and she made sacrifices for herself. From clothes to career she pressed pause and she never made us feel like it was a burden. She was (and still is) a natural and the love that envelopes our family home is a force that I can’t properly explain.
As soon as Drew was born I vowed to be the best Mum he could hope for. My husband constantly tells me that I set unattainable standards in every element of my life, and as it turned out motherhood wasn’t any different. It’s been difficult for me to allow myself any space of my own in this new Mum life. The reality is that it’s impossible to be the sole facilitators of our childrens’ happiness to the exclusion of all else. Who we were before we became mothers is still the essence of who we are after the fact. So how do we strike a balance whereby both the parents and kids are happy? In my last post I wrote about my passion for being a stay at home parent, but please don’t for a second assume that’s where I begin and end as a person. Just as I am of course aware that for many women the thought of taking a career break is neither feasible nor in any way desirable. And I have nothing but respect for that. The point that I want to emphasise is that we are ALL the makers of sacrifices.
As parents we surrender our freedom the moment a child arrives. There will never be another day when you do not care for, worry about and give yourself almost entirely over to this life you created. It’s an unavoidable sacrifice, and one that hit me hard in the beginning because its force is overwhelming. I was plagued internally with rambling streams of consciousness that I couldn’t explain because whilst apparently over the top, to me they were real. ‘How could I sleep when to do so felt like I was allowing myself to be off duty? I couldn’t ever be off duty. If something happened to him my life would be over. I couldn’t live without this little person now that he existed in this world. And although I was doing everything by the book and he was as safe as he could possibly be things still go wrong…and what if they went wrong for Drew??’
In our first week at home I remember my husband doing a night of feeds so that I could catch up on sleep. The feeling of relief that I wasn’t the custodian of this fragile little life for a few hours was immense. My anxiety really peaked around that time and nights were the worst. At tea time I could barely eat because my stomach would already be churning with worry about something happening to him overnight. I went back to see the perinatal mental health team at the hospital (who had provided invaluable support throughout my pregnancy) and thankfully my medication was reviewed. The anxiety eased, but it never dissipated completely.
I struggled a lot with the sense of responsibility that motherhood brought into my life. I had been so determined that having a baby wouldn’t change me, but I had been irrevocably changed regardless and I felt some resentment for that fact. I think as Mums we are still too quiet about those unexpected realities. The ones that fly in the face of the role we are expected to play. Because to say something like that out loud would have probably been considered abhorrent. I had a healthy baby, a loving husband, a successful career and a beautiful home. But it was how I felt in those early moments and it’s something that there should be a dialogue around. Of course for some women such thoughts are an indicator of post natal depression and in those cases honesty and support is essential because there IS a way back. For me I not only got past how I felt, I fell in love with motherhood to the extent that I willingly gave up a job in order to be with Drew full time.
I have no doubt that some people will take the view that because I made the choice to resign that I can’t then claim it was in any way sacrificial. I disagree. All decisions have consequences, the repercussions of which are often unquantifiable at the time. We can weigh up what we see as the pros and cons and take a leap of faith, but when that leap is off the career ladder how do we really know where (or when) we’ll land? As a lawyer I am all too aware that the pace of change can be fast. And the longer I’m out of the loop the more difficult it will be to sell myself in a job market where new talent is rife. It is a fact that I have sacrificed my access to career progression, to networking, to academic learning and to the salary that such a job provided. Does it set a poor example to Drew that I seemingly so easily gave up what I had worked so hard to achieve? Or will he too reap the benefits of having a stay at home Mum in his early years, just as my brother and I did?
When it comes to work life balance something always has to give. Whether large or small we as parents have to make sacrifices in the interests of our children and, for our sanity, of ourselves. So whilst to you my decision to press pause on my career might be a sacrifice too far to me it is very simple. If Drew ends up half as happy in his childhood as I was in mine, then to me it will have been no sacrifice at all.