Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Mother's Day

My children, when they were small(er)

I remember my first Mother's Day. My daughter had just turned a year old. I remember reflecting on that first year of our new life; that of my little girl, and how I had changed so much in that time. All for the better, I felt, but I was insecure about how well I was doing as a parent. I wanted to know that I was doing the right thing, making the right choices, giving her enough of my time and love. Going to work made me feel guilty. I felt like I was the worst mother in the world for leaving my baby in a nursery next to where I worked, from the age of 5 months. Every lunchtime I would go to the nursery to breastfeed her, and deliver the milk I'd expressed earlier on in my morning coffee break for her afternoon feed. I would then return to work, to sit in my office, catch up on admin and eat at the same time, before carrying on with the afternoon clinic. In that first year of life as a mother, I poured 100% of me into my baby, and somewhere found some extra to pour into work. At home we played together, read together, slept together (sometimes - back then co-sleeping was not recommended and we were advised to put her into her own room when she was 6 weeks, instead of the 6 months I was told about when my son was born, four years later). We went everywhere together.
My baby girl was, and still is, a livewire. She was the only baby amongst those of my new mother friends whose baby would remain awake after a feed; more than that, as soon as she had finished her feed, she wanted to look around, soak up everything around her, and would get noisily impatient if I had the audacity to slowly sip on a cuppa and chat. I'd enviously look at my friends' sleeping babies in their buggies, wondering when my daughter would discover the delights of frequent napping. She never did. One day when I was at work, the nursery staff phoned me to ask if I could come to see if I could settle my little one down, because she had been awake the entire day and had not stopped crying for an hour. Wracked with guilt, I left my work (having rushed through seeing a couple of patients) to get to the nursery. I found my 6 month old daughter, blotchy, red-faced and clammy, screaming into a pitch black room in a cot. As I picked her up I could feel her stiff body slowly unwind into a softened stance as I tearfully whispered to her. She settled down, then began crying again as soon as I put her down into the cot. I had a full clinic to see, with expectations upon me. I felt so torn and guilty, I had no idea what to do for the best. I eventually left, feeling the trauma of seeing my baby so upset and overtired, but without being able to do the right thing for her. On the days I worked, I would tearfully load her into the car seat and drive to work, feeling the guilt of leaving her with the nursery. Things took their toll, however; our first Christmas as a family was spent with myself and my daughter having pneumonia. I have a photo of her in a baby swing at the park we went to just to try to do something fun on Christmas day. She looks ill and exhausted. What were we thinking?!
 It took several months for both of us to get used to being apart, but we managed it in the end. I think she found it more fun than I did, though. Ten years on, my daughter is a beautiful, confident, strong-willed girl who is still very much a livewire and requires lots of physical activity to keep her ticking over at optimum levels. She's bright, happy and has a strong sense of injustice. The guilt I felt all those years ago has given way to relief that I have not harmed her in the long term. In fact, those days gave her independence, some self-resilience and coping mechanisms which we are constantly fine-tuning and exploring. My son enjoyed the luxury of me being at home with him for the first two years, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, full-on 100% conscious parenting. He too is happy, empathic, resourceful, self-resilient, we are close and he makes me laugh every day. Which is a good sign, as this morning he told me he wants to be a comedian when he grows up, because he likes to make others laugh.
So, back to that first mother's day. Having gone through that first year, I was hopeful for some sort of recognition. I don't know what I really expected, but my husband had not made any effort to make that first mother's day memorable or special. Whereas I had taken our baby to a pottery shop to get footprints placed onto a big mug, bought a card and some chocolates for his first Father's day; I woke up to nothing. I remember trying to rationalise with my perceived selfishness for expecting something - after all, isn't Mother's day another consumerist opportunity - but I felt hurt that I had been overlooked. I felt that I was the Big Mug. I tentatively mentioned that I would have liked a card. He left the house and returned later with a card and a bar of chocolate. In my mind, I wanted to go out for lunch to celebrate life as a parent for a year (we had a March baby), to go for a lovely walk, to feel wanted and special and to soak up that moment. My husband did not think this way. Eventually I persuaded him to take us out for lunch, but he got stressed out because everywhere was booked so we ended up somewhere he didn't like. We ate in strained conversation, before we returned to the car. Overcome with disappointment, I gave an angry outburst that I felt I deserved more. He reacted by telling me I was selfish to expect so much from him. I wanted to be on my own, at that point, as I felt so overwhelmed and confused. He dropped me back at home, drove off with our daughter and left me to cry and sleep for a couple of hours. In looking back at this, I know much of this reaction was down to exhaustion, and feeling shamefully empty despite me knowing that I had no need to feel that way.
Since that first year, I have been wary of celebrating mother's day for myself. I made that conscious decision to not expect anything, but to be grateful for everything. The best gifts I have are from my children. I love the hand made cards, the messages, the objects they create secretly at school (although my younger son has disclosed that the clay teddy bear he has made at school is not for me, this year, but for his big sister - who he believes is more deserving of it than I am - fair enough I guess!). Last year the children spent most of Mother's Day with their dad, my now ex-husband. It was also my daughter's birthday. I felt exactly as I had that first year, only more bereft, not of gifts, but of not fulfilling my role as a mother; and guilt because the children used their birthday money to buy me a present, because their dad had refused to take them out and buy them anything, despite their apparent repeated requests for him to do so. They had expected him to help them, as I had given them some money to buy his birthday and Christmas presents.
So, this year is going to be different again. I will be celebrating Mother's Day. But I don't expect cards, presents or being pampered. This year I will be celebrating my children, who have taught me how to be a mother. Being a mother, it turns out, carries with it the expectation of frequent and repeated acts of selflessness. From the moment a woman becomes a mother, there will always be a part of her that will devote anything or everything to their child, whether it is compromising on sleep, time for herself, self-pampering to levels enjoyed in pre-parent days, financial or friendships; there is always something for a mother to offer. I will be reflecting on the lessons my children have taught me. The adaptations I have made in my life not to find the path of least resistance, but instead to walk the harder path, in order to change and grow, so as to contribute more to each challenge and overcome it. Mother's day isn't about me, I realise. For me, it's a day of recognising the roles women play in life for their children, and the rewards are those little cold hands waking us at 4am, the snuggles and the hugs, the smiles, the achievements made through persistence, having encouraged perseverance; the best gift I can give my children, aside from love and time, is to tell them every day "I believe in you". On Sunday, I will be going out for lunch with my children, but I will be celebrating them, thanking them for making me the woman I am today.

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