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.