9 May 2014

Dim glow of motherhood

7:21 am on 9 May 2014

It was the women strolling along Wellington's Oriental Bay with the sun shining down on them as they pushed their three-wheeler, off-road buggies along the glistening waterfront that made me think maybe it was time to start a family. These women advertised the glow and ease of motherhood – and it was literally a walk in the park.

Let me preface the whole situation by mentioning that I’d come to a point in my life where I felt I’d achieved and tried everything on my ‘to do list’. I’m the kind of person who feels great satisfaction in crossing items off lists and setting new goals, who sets my watch 15 minutes fast to create a sense of urgency. As a result I always felt like I was running out of time and in a rush to get things done.

Photo: Sonia Sly and Escher

Photo: Sonia Sly and Escher Photo: Supplied

Rising to the challenge of a new goal, and doing something I’d never done before was next… it would seem that there was only one option. I’d already met the man of my dreams. We’d been engaged eight months after meeting each other; marriage ensued, along with a mortgage. Four years on, we felt that we needed a new project, something to keep us on our toes.

And so it began. I’d casually look at baby clothes and bassinets, dreaming of my ‘mini-me’. That’s all any of us really want, isn’t it – a version of ourselves which we make and cultivate? We nurture and provide for them and hope to pass down our wisdom, philosophies on life and ultimately want that child to become a ‘better’ version of us, like a new and improved model that won’t have the same hang-ups, paranoia, and misshapen perspectives that we did.

I kept my eyes on the prize: the idyllic image of parenthood, of happy families with smiling faces and bouncing babies with Michelin Man rolls. I was prepared to sing lullabyes out-of-tune, and I could see myself too, with that halo of warmth resting above my head; strolling down Oriental Bay with a baby of my own.  This would be the start of something new and exciting.

And then the morning came. Two blue strips settled on the pregnancy test.

I was a) relieved (“Wow, we conceived!”) and b) mortified (“OMG! I’ve had next to no contact with babies, how will I ever care for one?”).

The thought that followed: Would I end up with a stomach ravaged by the same tummy tiger stripes as my mother’s? A woman smaller than myself, she felt the burden of physical change after four children of her own and the loose streaky pocket of skin that remained, was a constant reminder to her.

It all sounds incredibly superficial, and in some ways it is – pregnancy inevitably involves physical change, some of which cannot be undone. I could blame the media and women’s publications which elevate celebrities and images of unattainable Yummy Mummy bodies sculpted to an inch of their lives (with the help of private trainers and restrictive diets of course), or I could put it down to my own history of anorexia.

Regardless of my past and my discomfort with the prospect of physical change, there was a point at which I yearned to see my body transform. I wanted to know what it was like to touch my belly in that protective way in which I’d seen pregnant women do. Plus, this was a ‘natural’ process, right? Around 57 million babies are born worldwide every year, so it shouldn’t be so daunting.

But as my belly began to expand and my ankles swelled beyond recognition, I found some of those ‘eating disorder’ thought patterns filtering back into my psyche; with cravings for food that I’d never been interested in before, I realised that my body was no longer my own. Resigning myself to the process, I decided to embrace the experience (and the containers of ice cream accumulating in my freezer) as much as possible… until the day that I couldn’t.

Sonia and her family

Sonia and her family Photo: Supplied

If you’ve ever been kicked in the stomach, or walked into a cricket bat as someone is about to strike the ball, then you’ll have an idea of what it was like as I stopped in the middle of a busy city street clutching at my stomach. I was being ripped in half, battered and bruised from the inside, out. I reached the third trimester and pain had kicked in. My baby was transverse (lying across) and was stretching my 4’11” frame and short torso beyond reasonable capacity, tearing my ligaments. The strain on my once able and active body meant that even walking down the street was painful, and exercise was a no-go. And so, with pain, depression inevitably followed. Horrible thoughts crossed my mind: I wanted this child out of me!

I’m going to gloss over an intense 43-hour labour (with a baby in posterior position – head down, but facing the wrong direction) by saying that delivering a baby (at least in my experience) was nothing like it looked like on One Born Every Minute. It was much, much, much worse.

I’d watched that programme religiously as part of my ‘research’ of what to expect. Despite hearing midwives advising new parents-to-be against it, the reality is, living through and enduring every single second of 43 hours in real time goes unexplainably beyond the frames of a what a camera can catch! I find it funny now, but my husband who hadn’t slept for that duration wanted to be there to catch the baby.

He thought he’d be overcome with emotion. When the time came, all he wanted was a bucket. He was pallid as I’ve never seen him before.

It’s also true what everyone says, and no matter how often new parents are likely to hear it (I must have tuned out because I wish I’d only listened). There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that could ever prepare you for life with a baby, and that includes no amount of babysitting. Keeping in mind that some people apparently have these ‘dream’ babies that never cry, never teethe, and sleep through the entire night (who are these people?).

If you think your relationship needs a bit of drama, don’t bother having an affair! Just have a baby.

If you think your relationship needs a bit of drama, don’t bother having an affair; just have a baby. You won’t know what hit you because there’s nothing like sleep deprivation to make two people hate the sight of day light, and each other.

My time was no longer my own. Choosing to sleep when I wanted to was not an option, no matter how long I’d been awake feeding through the wee small hours from darkness to light, or no matter how sick with pain and fever – nursing an equally sick baby who is draining you continuously of milk, and every last bit of energy you have is tantamount to torture. For those with an aversion to noise  a screaming baby (especially a newborn) won’t assist you in the development of your sanity or your relationship. I discovered that my husband, who had always dreamed of having a family, couldn’t stand crying. One could only discover these things through experience, but in my mind I somehow felt cheated. I was hurt. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. We were meant to be elated.

So I learnt to live in fear. I would tip-toe through the house when the baby was asleep, and have since discovered exactly where all of the creaks in the floor are. I was afraid that the courier man would knock on the door, not only because I’d have to answer it with my hair standing on end with my eyes glued half shut, but also because it would wake the baby, in which case, I’d never be able to catch up on sleep.

The aforementioned is pretty standard stuff and as bad as that was, the worst was still to come  we hit the six week mark, and along with our baby, began projectile vomiting. I was concerned that it was something I’d eaten; paranoid that it was the little teaspoon of peppermint tea that I had fed him that afternoon. Off to the doctor we went. A bit of reflux, we were advised – some drops of Ranitidine should fix it.

It didn’t.

Vomit was on the couch, in my hair, down my back; puddles of baby vomit (acrid regurgitated pools of milk) created a path behind me as I walked. It soaked into my clothes. To combat this, we strew muslin cloths and towels along the couch and floor. How could such a huge amount of liquid explode from this tiny creature’s mouth, not every half hour, but every five minutes?!

My days went like this: Feed, vomit, change. Feed, vomit, change. Feed vomit… mop. Feed vomit, wash. Feed, vomit. Shower.

Twenty bibs, a day and five loads of laundry made me exhausted.

I couldn’t leave the house without the frustration of changing my baby’s clothes three or four times beforehand. No sooner had I changed his top, and he’d drench himself in milk again. There was NO time for lists, organisation, or crossing things off; no planning, dreaming, idealising, visualising, for living, no idyllic life spent strolling down Oriental Bay with a halo above my head. If I left the house, it was quick dash down the road before baby was starving and screaming.

It was the hardest, longest year of my life. I felt stripped of my identity (one which was heavily tied in with my passion for my work), isolation had left me bereft of stimulation outside of day-to-day care for a ‘high needs’ child.

Prior to motherhood I’d never heard of reflux – I’ve read that it occurs in at least 50 per cent of babies (and obviously varies in severity). It’s caused by an under-developed valve at the top of the stomach which pushes liquid back up through the oesophagus. We were fearful that he might choke on his own vomit, and no sooner had we put him down to sleep, he’d wake in pain, violently regurgitating his last feed. We were advised that he’d grow out of it at three months old, and then later at six months once he started solids. In between we tried various drops for wind, and even baby Gaviscon. Nothing worked and his ‘spilling’ (which is what the medical profession call it) increased in severity.

Looking back now, at the time I was incredibly stressed out and depressed. I knew it was going to be hard but not that hard. I lost any sense of time and I barely knew what month it was, it was a matter of surviving the next 15 minutes, then the next half hour, just getting through the day was enough. I had looked into support groups for mothers who were struggling, but leaving the house was so stressful and the thought of talking even more about babies drove me insane. I must note that I did take him along to baby sensory classes, but that was hard too, with the reflux still burdening us. So we stayed at home for the best part of a year. I’d look at him as he smiled back at me and I’d think to myself how happy I should be in this moment, tears streaming down my face. And then, snap: he’d vomit. Sometimes I couldn’t be sure if I should laugh or cry, so I did both.

If you met me you might say that I’m the last person on the planet who would be suited to motherhood. I err slightly on the side of ‘control freak’ and I’m a planner. Looking after this child left me no time to plan and I had no control over anything. As much as I wanted to embrace the process, attend mother’s groups or at least get out of the house and make new friends, the circumstances dictated that I couldn’t.  On top of that, my body was taking a long time to heal. I underwent physiotherapy for nine months, focussing on residual ligament, sternum and back pain. I could barely walk for the first three months after the delivery.

It was the hardest, longest year of my life, in which I felt stripped of my identity (heavily tied in with my passion for my work). Isolation had left me bereft of stimulation outside of day-to-day care for a ‘high needs’ child, on top of which, laundry had become my life. I was struggling for air.

Down the track at nine-months-old, just before Christmas, our little boy started to crawl and finally his reflux eased off. Now we know what it feels like to have a normal baby, who isn’t draped in muslin cloths and towels; one other people can hold and enjoy. We are no longer filled with anxiety that he’d produce this torrent of milk, and I’m not burdened with days of never-ending laundry. As small as it seems, he even let us lay him on his back, something he’d never been comfortable enough to do before. It was a breakthrough, a revelatory moment for our family.

I realise that I’m fortunate to have had an end in sight. He was otherwise healthy, and reaching development milestones, and I was grateful for this. In the later stages, around 8.5 months, we were advised by a paediatrician that a child can suffer from reflux up to 18 months. I only wished that we’d been advised earlier, if anything, to ease my own disappointment and frustration when nothing had changed in six months.

Now, just over a year later, I’ve happily returned to work and it seems like little time has passed. My little baby boy is becoming more of a person each day and is busy socialising at a Montessori daycare, eating dirt and catching colds. His carers say he has a great sense of humour and he’s obsessed with books and art. He’s also just started to walk, and as he follows me around the house and points at all of the pictures on the wall, I’m finally coming to terms with the joy that motherhood can bring.

These days I like to live in the present. My watch is now set to the actual time. I’m also more productive with any free second that I have at home. Life is undeniably busier (and the house messier) than it’s ever been, but I can finally appreciate the importance of ‘balance’, which I’d never successfully achieved before. Plus, I’ll happily chat to new mothers, and I can hear my heart sing when I see the face of a newborn baby. Though I’ll never have another of my own, I can’t help but look at both the parents and the child with wide-eyed amazement. I know I didn’t experience the glow of first-time parenthood, but I’m more than happy to bathe in the warmth and light of theirs.

Cover photo by Wayan Vota.

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