When you ask me what motherhood is like

 

gustav-klimt-portrait-mother-and-child-oil

 

When you ask me what motherhood is like, I wonder how I can ever convey it.

– I could tell you about the tiredness – the bone-crushing weariness that comes from too many nights of interrupted sleep and scrolling through your phone at 4 am while your baby feeds hungrily beside you. And of long days at the mercy of this sweet new tyrant, whose needs now surpass any of your own.

– I could tell you about the loneliness – a singular loneliness that comes from feeling trapped by the sheer logistics of moving with an infant; how it’s impossible to meet a friend for a coffee, or pop to the shops, or pay an impromptu visit to the cinema, as you once did. And that venturing outside now must be choreographed and planned with military precision.

– I could tell you that you will find yourself arguing with your significant other, or your mother, or anyone else close to you who participates in your care for your child.

– I could tell you that you will understand the fight for equality in whole new ways, and that no matter how good your man is and how hard he tries, the bulk of the emotional labour – and the care for your child, the running of your household while you juggle your job – will fall on you. Take this with a grain of salt – there are full-time and single fathers out there too.

– I could tell you that your body will feel different – whether you still have reserves of fat on your hips, or your breasts have changed in size or volume, or your stomach feels strangely squishy. But when you look at it, remember this body of yours grew and nourished another human being – it deserves kindness too.

– I could tell you about the guilt – perpetual, lingering – from all the different factions of this new tribe you now belong to (and beyond) – because you opted for a C-section, or you’re unable to breastfeed, or you’re the wrong age for your child, or you have to return to work, or there are things you are doing or not doing that will surely leave indelible scars for years to come.

– I could tell you about the loss – of your old life, your old self, of old friends, of time, of opportunities you are no longer able to grasp, because you are no longer – and perhaps never again will be – the priority in your life.

– I will tell you, though, about the joy – the pure, unfiltered, extraordinary joy (the privilege!) of watching a tiny human you helped create advance before your eyes, coo, babble, giggle, play with you, crawl, take their first faltering steps, reach for you with slow, chubby arms.

– And I will tell you about the love – the enormous bottomless pit of love you now feel that terrifies you in its infinity, that will enable you to cross deserts and slay dragons, that has broken your heart into a thousand pieces and stitched it back together in the finest softest yarn, shrouded in gossamer, so your heart, and how you love, and how you see the world, will never feel the same again.

Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself? 

Very well then, I contradict myself.

I am vast.

I contain multitudes.

 

This is motherhood.

 

 

 

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Notes from the Motherhood Trenches: The First Year

 

Everything we did was a first: first bath, first walk, first drive in the car. It was like we walked into an alternate universe that looked just like the old one, but all the rules were different and we had to relearn how to live.

– Soleil Moon Frye


 

It is sometime in February in England and I am skipping—yes, skipping— to the cinema, cappuccino in hand, like a prisoner on day release, or a teenager skiving off school. I am off to see La La Land, on my first afternoon off after giving birth to my son in October. My sister is looking after Noah and I am giddy with excitement—at reconnecting with my old (first?) love—the cinema—and at having a few hours to myself, after weeks of focusing on a tiny new being.

Another memory: A frosty early morning in December, around 4 a.m., and I am sitting up in bed, bottle-feeding my son with one hand and editing an urgent brief for work on my laptop with the other, wondering sleepily how my life has come to this. I’m learning to do a lot of things one-handed these days. A sunny November afternoon a few weeks earlier, and I’m preparing to take my son out in his stroller for the first time. I’m terrified, almost as much as when I went to the hospital to give birth to him. I’ve tried to avoid using a stroller in favour of an eco-style wrap, but Noah’s a heavy bub and my body simply isn’t built for it. I am frightened both by the sheer logistics of taking my son out, and the fact that his pram symbolises to the world that I am now, officially, a mum.

Right back to the beginning: I am lying in a hospital theatre in North London, woozy from a spinal block, and the world is swaying slightly. It is around midday on October 24, 2016 and my son is about to be born—by an elective C-section—on the same date, incredibly, as my best friend’s son, in a hospital in Cairo, exactly seven years earlier. After months of trying to come to terms with this pregnancy and wondering whether, given my advanced years and despite a battery of tests, my child will be healthy, the moment of truth is here. Within what feels like minutes, I hear the wails of my son— loud, angry, determined. There is so much life in this cry. Relief overwhelms me and I feel my eyes welling up.

 

This is what I learn about motherhood—that like many of the biggest life events, it is both intensely profound and intensely banal at the same time. My son is a constant source of wonder. I still haven’t grasped the fact that I ‘grew’ this child in my tummy, that he is a product of my husband and myself and all our forebears, that he bears our genetic blueprint and yet is his own little person, that he evolves every day before our eyes. And yet this process of evolution, though miraculous, can also be profoundly tedious, involving long relentless days of nappy changes and feeds and bottle washing and baths and naps and drool, on what feels like a constant loop.

Intense is the word I use most often, when people ask me what it’s like. Every emotion is heightened. I spend the first few weeks of Noah’s life in a hazy, slightly surreal, but deliriously happy blur. Everything has gone better than I expected—I am lucky with my C-section recovery; my child, who is perfect, spends most of his time sleeping; and I am in awe every time I look at him. I read somewhere that having a child releases similar hormones to falling in love—for women anyway. Despite the bone-wrenching tiredness, I feel like I’m floating on air; my heart flutters every time I see him; love songs take on a whole new meaning; and there is a smile on my face and a softening in my heart that can only compare to being utterly, and completely, in love.

But when I try to write about my experiences of motherhood, I hit a block. I find I’m still struggling to comprehend the enormity of it all, to describe exactly how it feels. I feel an obligation to be completely honest, to ‘keep it real.” I want to avoid the cult of motherhood—the dreamy, idealised version of beautiful young mums; bodies already back in shape, beatifically breastfeeding cherubic infants. The reality is, of course, more complex. You may not be able to breastfeed, like me. Your stomach will feel like a lump of dough for the longest time. There will be poop—lots of it, explosive at times—and spit-up and projectile vomiting and frantic attempts to burp him at ungodly hours. Your bub will cry at times for no discernible reason, as will you. You will argue with your partner, also for no discernible reason. Sleepless nights and rioting hormones will play havoc with your emotions.

When I ponder later why it’s so important to me to write about the bad stuff as well as the good, I realise a big part of me feels guilty. I think about my friends and people I know who desperately want a child, but can’t have one. I didn’t seek to be a mother and I didn’t invest any time and energy in becoming one, and yet I have become one, despite myself. And so I hold back from celebrating my new status too much—it seems unfair. When I finally write a brief piece that I think is relatively light and send it to my sister for feedback, her response, after a long pause—and for the first time with my writing—is negative.

“It’s so dark,” she says, carefully. “Perhaps you could try and inject some humour in it?”

 

In late April in Cairo, as the season turns from spring to summer and the shadow of Ramadan looms, depression strikes. I am exhausted, from too many interrupted nights and a sleep deficit I wonder if I will ever remedy. My usually moderate workload has tripled because of a forthcoming event, and I’ve barely left the house in days. Most of my closest friends have long since left Cairo and I haven’t had the time to make new ones. Friends contact me from abroad but I never find the time to write or initiate a call. My husband, though supportive, works long hours, and it is exhausting to constantly renegotiate our relationship as new parents. I am lonely and tired and I miss my old life. One night, after I put my son to bed, I drink half a bottle of wine and listen to my favourite (maudlin) songs, and find tears rolling down my face.

I spend a few days like this but throughout it all, my love for my son, and my happiness when I see him, never dissipates. This is another truth about motherhood, I learn—it is a paradox. It is possible to feel intensely lonely, while realising that you will never be on your own again. It is possible to grieve your old life, your old body, the old you, and all the freedoms you took for granted, while taking absolute delight in your child and loving him like you’ve never loved before. The truth is that there is no greater change in a woman’s life—hormonally, practically, physically and emotionally—than giving birth. There is such a profound shift in your circumstances, and such a huge sense of responsibility for the tiny creature now dependent on you, that it is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed.

I read somewhere that the first year of motherhood is the loneliest, and the most crippling for your self-esteem, and I understand this. In my son, I have gained the world; yet as a new mother, I am more vulnerable, more emotional, less confident, less myself perhaps, than at any other point in my life. I suspect exhaustion has a lot to do with this. But I am also an accidental mother, singularly unprepared for this experience, a woman who has carved out her whole life on twin poles of freedom and independence. In this year, I often feel like I have neither.

 

But as much as the lows cripple me sometimes, the highs sweep me away also, on great clouds of sweet fluffy baby goodness. There is so much sheer joy in a child, of a different kind than I’ve ever experienced before. How do I explain the beauty of a baby’s babble to someone who has never heard it, the delight I take in the very first sounds he has decided to make? Or the rapture of every milestone we experience together—his first bath, his first smile, his first tooth, the first time he puts his hand in mine, or reaches for a hug, the first time he rolls over, the first time he says ma-ma, his first attempts to crawl or stand up. And most of all, his giggle—the ecstasy of a child’s uninhibited chortling, which is now my favourite sound on earth.

As much as I’ve cried in this first year—not just in my own life but at every terrible, sad story I hear or read about, because the process of giving birth also seems to loosen your tear ducts and leave your heart permanently exposed, so my already empathetic self is now so sensitive it hurts—I have laughed too. Because it is impossible to feel anything but joy when I see my son. Impossible not to try and make him giggle, as I go through my daily repertoire of silly sounds and made-up words and games of peek-a-boo. And impossible not to feel a new sense of contentment when I am alone with my husband and son—after years of struggle to imbue meaning into my life, there is a singular peace in reverting once again to a family unit.

As the seasons shift, and my son grows stronger and more resilient—as he literally begins to feel more solid in my arms—so, ironically, do I. It isn’t until Noah’s eighth month or so that I stop worrying that I will drop him every time I take him out of his car seat or carry him down the stairs (I always imagine the headlines in the paper the next day)—something I refrain from vocalising because I fear it will make me sound slightly crazed. And it is probably around the same time that I—mostly—stop checking to see if he is still breathing, if he hasn’t stirred for a while in his cot; the terror of SIDS haunts me. A friend jokes that if I manage to keep him alive his first year, I’ve done well. Another lesson I learn this year: Babies are much more resilient than we give them credit for.

And though I wish I could fit into my old jeans—I also rediscover chocolate this year, which means my love handles have yet to shift—and there are days when I have no time to shower, and my nails are a mess, and I stop wearing my favourite dangle ear rings and thank the universe daily for dry shampoo, my predominant emotion this year is actually gratitude. I am profoundly and incredibly grateful for my beautiful, funny, magnoon child with his cute Stevie Wonder head shake, and the fact that I get to share my delight in him daily with my husband and family. I am grateful that I have lived enough to not regret the things I can no longer do because of my child, because motherhood is all-consuming, to say the least. And I’m grateful that I’m old enough to be largely impervious to the judgments of others, though mum guilt is impossible to avoid completely, because there are so many opinions from every corner on everything.

But most of all, I am grateful that we have the resources to raise our son in the way we want—to feed him, and clothe him, and put a roof above his head, and give him as much love and security and as many cuddles as we possibly can. I cannot imagine having a child that I cannot make happy—the instinct to protect and love and nurture them is so overwhelmingly strong. In our increasingly fragile world, this seems like the greatest privilege of all.

 

Yet as this year of my son’s birth—the most profound of my life—draws to a close, I know I am no closer to coming to terms with the concept of motherhood itself. It is a word I still find incredibly loaded. There are mums and moms and mommies and yummy mummies and that very English fear of looking ‘mumsy’ (translation: frumpy—god forbid you actually look like a mum) and the fetishisation of MILFs, versus the sickly sweetness of Mother’s Day, or the various prescriptive cultural and religious tropes to wrestle with. I think sometimes that feminism has failed mothers; failed to reclaim and redefine motherhood for those of us who don’t want to be categorised, or defined by it; failed to convey just how much strength and resolve is necessary for the average mother to survive.

The process of becoming a mother this past year has been a baptism of fire—alternately terrifying and joyful, a privilege but also a burden, and searingly lonely at times, even if I’ve had to interact with society at large more than ever. Nothing has shaken my sense of self more, or tested my physical, emotional and mental health so profoundly. It has distanced me from some friends but brought me closer to others. I have always tried to avoid becoming hard but it has softened me even more, and increased my compassion and empathy. At the same time, I have discovered reserves of strength—both physical and emotional—that I didn’t know I possessed. As one of my favourite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, says, “Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”

And I am barely there yet—I have just one year and one child under my belt, and there are mothers all over the world who struggle with much more and survive and flourish. Or simply persevere, through the exhaustion, and the aches and pains, and the long days and nights, because they know something fundamental has shifted, and that for the rest of their life now they’ll be wearing their heart on the outside, hoping and praying and pleading with the powers-that-be to always keep their child healthy, happy and loved.

To all the mums out there—this one’s for you.

2016: A year of political and personal upheavals

new-beginnings

That 2016 was a terrible year has become something of a litany now. There was the relentless roll call of celebrity deaths – from Bowie and Prince, to Rickman and Wogan, Cohen, Ali, Wilder, Harper Lee, and, more recently, Fisher, Michael and Reynolds – all era-defining, often self-deprecating, wildly charismatic artists, whose songs, films, books and TV shows punctuated our lives, and whose deaths – nearly always too early – seemed also to close the door on a different and somehow better world.

Then there were the political maelstroms of Brexit and Trump, the resurgence of strongman leaders like Modi and Duterte, the raging conflict in Syria, continued IS atrocities, shocking assassinations, terrible plane crashes – news that always verged on hyperbole, if not outright catastrophe; the sense that the world as we knew it was teetering on its axis. I thought 2011, when I was producing news videos, with its literal and numerous political tsunamis, was a singularly dramatic year, but it had nothing on this one.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered – on International Women’s Day, no less – that I was pregnant; as luck would have it, just when I had embraced the likelihood that I would most likely spend my life childfree. Neither something I had planned for nor expected, I spent much of the year grappling with the enormity of this fact – when I allowed myself to believe it was happening at all. You hear a lot about postnatal depression but there is also, I discovered, something called prenatal depression – a dreadful malaise fuelled by rioting hormones, all-pervasive nausea, and an absolute terror of what the new future holds.

As it happened, I was incredibly fortunate. I had a supportive partner (now husband), family and boss, wonderful friends and colleagues, and a complication-free pregnancy – something of a miracle, given my age – which resulted in the birth of my son Noah in October. Both pregnancy and motherhood are, unsurprisingly, emotional rollercoasters and I will write more about them later. Suffice to say that I have neither cried nor laughed more than I have in the past eleven months, while my friendships and relationships have nearly all deepened. Most of all, perhaps, I have been forced to come to terms with my vulnerability, after years of touting my strength and independence. Becoming a parent opens your heart in a way that nothing prepares you for.

So while 2016 was a difficult year for me in many ways, it was also an extraordinary one. I learned many things last year – that you should avoid complacency at all costs, since life has a way of coming and biting you in the butt when you least expect it – both personally and politically. I learned, more than ever, to take things one day at a time and to trust my instincts, and I learned that we are stronger than we think – both physically and emotionally. I learned too that the human spirit is extraordinarily resilient – the only reason why, perhaps, we have survived for as long as we have.

For all of these reasons and more, I stay open to the belief that the good in us outweighs the bad, that life is cyclical – as history teaches us – and that this bleak landscape will eventually give way to something better. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyful and positive 2017. May it lack some of the more unwelcome drama of last year but still be sufficiently challenging – in a nice way – and filled with enough good and wondrous things to keep you happy, healthy and fulfilled. And in the words of Neil Gaiman:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”