What they won’t tell you.
I’ll start off by saying that I absolutely love being a mum. Despite the broken sleep, the dirty nappies, the tea-time battles over the kitchen table, the sometimes mind-numbing monotony of being stuck at home on a rainy day with small children-not to mention the complete emotional rollercoaster these little people put you through (such highs! such lows!), I am incredibly aware of just how lucky I am to be a mum to two gorgeous children. I’ll stop short of using '#blessed', but you get the picture; they are everything to me and I am very, very grateful.
But a snapshot of my early days of parenthood still sticks with me (my eldest son is now almost 6), reminding me just how tough I have found it at times-so much tougher than I ever thought I would.
My son was born at the end of November and so the run up to Christmas that year was all a bit of a blur. I was completely besotted, wallowing in the newborn bubble and loving getting to know this new little person, the person who completed our little family.
But at the same time long endless days bled into long broken nights; days when getting us both out of the house in between feeds and fully dressed, appropriately bundled up against the cold and in a fresh nappy (that’s him, not me) felt like such a near impossible task it almost made me weep to contemplate it as I sat breastfeeding in my pyjamas watching Homes under the Hammer and wondering when I was ever going to get a chance to wash my hair. Days when meeting a friend for a coffee and a slab of cake, and getting there on time and not looking too dishevelled (hair brushed, no leaky boobs, no muslin absent-mindedly draped over my shoulder) felt like the most massive achievement.
My previous life spent working at a women’s magazine in London just felt a million miles away from what life looked like now. Buying expensive takeaway coffees on my way to work (and drinking them while they were still hot!), wearing heels, meeting friends for drinks, trying out new restaurants with my husband-basically doing what I wanted, when I wanted. That was gone. My identity, the personality I had spent 30 odd years carving out had quickly been replaced by simply being someone’s Mum, however much a honour that was (I even used to go to a baby group where each week I was given a name label for me to wear with my son's name scrawled on it in big letters, followed by mine, in much smaller writing… and in brackets.) So as my husband, friends and work colleagues were filling their diaries with Christmas drinks, late night shopping and office parties, my calendar was marked only by Baby Sensory classes and weigh-ins at the children’s centre.
And so it was that one Friday evening in mid-December my husband returned from his work Christmas party (at a very reasonable hour, and in a pretty respectable state, to give him credit) to find me standing in complete darkness next to the oven in our kitchen, with the extractor fan on full, rocking our son and silently sobbing. I’d been there for 2 hours, the white noise of the fan being the only thing that would stop him crying and send him off to sleep. I was too terrified to move for fear of him waking again, so I just stayed there.
I remember a friend asking me as my due date loomed how I was feeling about becoming a mum. Without really even thinking about it I said I felt okay about it all. After all, I continued, I’d spent a fair bit of time with her and her baby over the past year. I’d rocked and coo-ed, I’d changed a nappy, unfolded a buggy and even tried to help fit the rain cover. I’d had the chance to see it first hand I said, so at least I wasn’t going into it blind. In hindsight it really must have taken all my poor friend had to barely suppress her laughter.
And therein lies the rub. When you announce you’re having a baby no one is going to sit you down and share the day to day realities of looking after a newborn (and yourself) with you; you know, the really raw stuff that doesn't often make it on to Instagram. No friend will point out how much you might bleed post birth (not just for days, but possibly for weeks!), and how you’ll essentially be wearing a nappy just like your new bundle of joy. No one warns just how nervous you’ll be going to the loo that first time. Or how you’ll only forget to put on breast pads when you go out in public once, and after that, never again. No one will share the pure elation you will experience when you finally get a stretch of three hours’ unbroken sleep. And how you will never, ever, be able to sympathise with anyone who hasn’t got young children ever again when they moan about being tired, because they went to bed at 1am and had to get up for work the next morning.
No, no one will say it because you’ll find it out for yourself. Yes, there’ll be days when you’ll feel like you're winging it, you’ll worry you’re getting it all wrong. The responsibility of being in sole charge of this vulnerable little being who looks to you for its every need will sometimes feel overwhelming, and there will be periods when it just feels really, really tough. But it will get easier.
You will learn to trust your instincts. You’ll soon realise you could read every parenting book ever written but there is no instruction manual for your child (and as a side-note, please don’t, they only made me feel completely inadequate). The things that are terrifying and anxiety-ridden the first few times you do them (changing your screaming baby’s dirty nappy in a cafe toilet, trying to fit a car seat, manoeuvring a buggy onto a bus whilst laden down with shopping) will all become second nature in time, they just won’t faze you.
You will find your new people-the mums you meet at baby groups, yoga classes, swimming lessons, GP’s waiting rooms. And they'll know exactly what you’re going through, because they’re there too- right with you. Having a baby has an amazing effect on how we interact with strangers; I went from avoiding eye contact and staring at my phone as I bustled along the street, to swapping numbers in the park and arranging play dates within half an hour of meeting. And sure, as time goes by and maternity leaves come to an end, people move house, babies start going to nursery, you’ll accept that some of these new friends won’t necessarily be your friends for life. That lovely as they are, you have little in common besides having a baby at roughly the same time. But for when you needed each other, you were there. And if you’re lucky, some of these new friends just might turn out to be absolute gold-dust, forever mates-the ones you know you would have become friends with however, or wherever you met (one of my closest friends today is someone I met at an antenatal swimming class 6 years ago when we bonded over the fact we shared the same fantastic taste in polka dot maternity swimwear).
And so when you announce you’re pregnant your friends and family will hopefully just squeal with excitement and unbridled joy. They’ll hug you, shower you with congratulations and tell you becoming a parent is the best, most life-changing thing ever. And despite the fact they know what lies ahead for you, they’ll mean it. Because it is! It may be the hardest thing I have ever done, but it’s completely worth it. Even the grey hairs.
Rebecca Thomas Seaside dweller, coffee drinker and mum of two.