Being a parent is hard, exhausting work, both mentally, physically and emotionally: doubly so when you’re the mother. As a mum, you go through a journey that encompasses huge changes to your body, your emotional state of mind, your career, your relationship with your partner and your entire outlook on the world around you. And this whirlwind of change can be incredibly hard to deal with.
This was brought home to be with visceral intensity when I read Eva Wiseman’s article, The seismic changes of having a baby, in a recent edition of The Observer. As a new mother of a 5-month old daughter, her recollections are raw, heartfelt and come with an honesty regarding the reality of motherhood that’s rare in the media. This is no sugar-coated version of what it’s like to become a mum. My daughter is nearly two now and reading Wiseman’s words brought those first panic-stricken months of parenthood rushing back to me in a jumbled flood of recollections. And it made me *think*, which is exactly what good journalism should do.
A new kind of love
“The thing I feel for her is physically painful. It’s an awful love. A terrible love. It continues to wind me. It’s a one-inch punch. It’s not the comforting bath of love I’m used to. It’s a bruise being pressed, continually, by a strong thumb. I can’t believe so many people do this and keep on living. Not just living – working, eating, washing their hair – when they have this much undiluted emotion swilling through them.”
That’s how Wiseman describes this new, blossoming love for her child. A love that’s so intense, so all-encompassing, so precious that it actually hurts. And she’s not unique in this: the bond that women feel for their child is unshakeable and wholly unquestioning.
It’s the intensity of this mother/child connection that makes it so difficult for the father to comprehend this new dynamic, this new love, this new person that’s a part of both of them but also so strongly connected to the woman who gave them life. No man, however strong and blind his love for his children, will ever feel the deep, biological bond with a child that a mother does with their baby
How does dad feel?
But let’s not forget the emotional impact on dad too. The British stereotype is of the aloof father who takes the news of the conception, the upheavals of the pregnancy and the stresses of the birth in his stride, remaining calm, unphased and ultimately mildly disconnected emotionally. But that certainly wasn’t the case for me when my daughter was born; and I think we may be doing men a disservice by ignoring the emotional and psychological effects that the arrival of a new baby can have on the male of the species.
Men tend to get rather airbrushed out of the equation, especially in the child care books and the NCT classes, leaving new dads unsure what to expect, how to react and how to *feel* about the whole experience… and we’re British, so feelings are not something we naturally excel at, let’s be honest.
What’s best for the child
In her article Wiseman talks about this idea of ‘what’s best for the child’ and the way it’s used as justification for all number of things by medical and midwifery professionals. Mums can end up being left out of decisions and feeling divorced from the whole proceedings of childbirth, despite the intricate birth plans they’ve agonised over and the supportive words of the pregnancy books.
And I wouldn’t for a second want to belittle that feeling – I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to be that mother; worried, scared and unsure of how to balance ‘what’s right for the child’ with her own pain and fear. I take my hat off to any woman who has been through this experience and come out the other side. It’s their strength, tenacity and devotion to their child that means all of us are here today. Without mothers, the human race would grind to an untimely halt.
Feeling powerless and disconnected
But if mum can end up feeling left out of proceedings during the birth, dad is even more of a hindrance to the midwives. The feeling you get, as the father, is that the medical staff would rather you weren’t there at all. The unspoken subtext is that you were needed for conception, but that your job is now done and would you mind getting the hell out of the way of the doctors.
I’m not for a moment saying that the father’s experience of childbirth is comparable with that of the mother. But, even so, it’s a terrifying experience for the man and one that very few dads are fully prepared for. There’s the trauma of seeing the person you love most in the world being prodded, injected and examined and feeling powerless to help. There’s the worry and fear of the actual birth, worrying not just for the safety of your unborn child, but your partner as well. Will they be ok? Is the birth supposed to take this long? Where are the doctors? Why are there so many people in the room looking at incomprehensible charts and whispering to each other?
There’s a lot to worry about. And there’s this overwhelming feeling of being impotent and unable to help. Your innate, human instinct is to try and make ‘everything ok’ but during the birth dad is very much a spare part.
And it doesn’t stop at the birth. Even once your little bundle of joy has arrived there are plenty of things for the new dad to stress over.
After the birth
Once you’re back in the ward, you’re confronted with the stark reality of being responsible for this tiny little person. Some midwives are immensely helpful; some are busy, jaded and ultimately do little to help. And there’s no handbook that tells you how to change that first nappy, or comfort this screaming little soul who’s still getting used to the idea of having entered the world.
You’re faced with a partner who’s been through the trauma of childbirth or even a major operation in the case of a caesarian. They’re immensely tired, weak and full of a cocktail of drugs and hormones that leaves them fragile and sensitive. And they’re almost certainly in pain, which leaves you, again, feeling powerless to help, wanting to make it all better but knowing there’s little you can do except do the lion’s share of the nappy changes.
There’s also the hollow feeling of being asked to leave the ward when visiting time is over and how much that hurts. You’re natural urge is to stay with your partner, with your new child and to take care of them. But you’re bundled out unceremoniously and made to feel that your presence is definitely not required.
Once you get back home, these feelings of anxiety don’t disappear, of course. There’s the terror of those first few days, not knowing how to care for this tiny newborn and wondering whether you’re doing things right. There’s also the post-pregnancy blues to deal with, which can leave you coping not just with a crying baby, but also a partner who’s sobbing uncontrollably, but with no idea why. So you have to be strong, you have to divide your attention between both of them and you have to somehow cope with comforting them both in the best way you can.
In short, it’s tough. And there’s very little to prepare you for this before you’re thrown in at the deep end.
A fundamental change in your life
Becoming a parent changes two fundamental things: it’s changes your perception of yourself and makes you less selfish, and it changes the nature of your relationship with your partner. You’re no longer two independent adults who’ve chosen to spend time together. You’re a team. A team that has to prioritise the needs of this tiny child over and above your own needs. The baby comes first, always. And that’s a really tough psychological change to cope with for many people. If you think your life will be the same post-baby, just with more toys around the place, think again!
In essence, if you’re not ready to become the third most important person in your household, with baby first and your partner second, then you shouldn’t even consider having a kid. As the dad, you’re there to support both of them through those first few months. And if that means spending most of your nights sleeping on the sofa, or walking your child up and down the hallway until she sleeps, so be it.
Are you ready to become a parent?
So, how do you know whether you’re ready to become a parent? There’s a quote that’s attributed to Hugh Laurie, the actor, comedian, musician and all-round good egg, that goes as follows:
“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
I think this sage piece of advice applies entirely to parenthood. There really is no right time to do it, as you’re never truly ready to become a parent. You just have to roll with it, learn on the job and hope you don’t cock it up too magnificently along the way.
So, whatever you do as a parent, you can only do your best. And hope your best is good enough. No-one can ask any more of you, so good luck!