Since becoming a mother, I’ve often found myself breathing into a brown paper bag. For all the unparalleled beauty of being a momma and being part of the miracle of life, there’s a lot to feel daunted about. For one, there’s the obvious task of learning how to nourish and care for a new-born life – every two hours. I guess society’s way of preparing us for the chaos that is the first few weeks (months/ years) is by telling pregnant women to “get as much sleep as you can before the baby comes”. Hands up if that’s actually worked for anyone. Anyone? No? Me neither! And anyway, at least for me, becoming a mum means that my most peaceful sleep only happens when baby is asleep next to me.
Getting back to new motherhood. We’ve all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. This makes perfect sense. It always makes me think of a place where family and friends are close by. People have (make) some spare time to come over, and everyone gets along enough that once a baby is born, the whole ‘village’ just springs into action and so begins the raising. It’s a warm and cozy scene, where the new momma and baby bask in the glow of each other.
New mum lovingly attends to her precious new baby. Her needs (such as nutritious food, household chores and, emotional and mental wellbeing) are provided for by a cocoon of love that is made up of her nearest and dearest. For some reason, this image in my head includes lovely warm weather and dinner at a big and welcoming dining table. The atmosphere is soaked in celebration and gratitude. Baby is doing the rounds being passed from one set of loving arms to another while momma eats. This is my personal reverie. It’s wholly fiction. My own initiation into being a new momma couldn’t have been more different.
Bonding with baby C was what gave me every ounce of strength I had and still have today. Having given birth in December, there was a seasonal kind of isolation itself. In this part of the world (Toronto, Canada), winter is a time when we’re all getting ready to be snowed in for the next few months – I call it hibernation mode. Doesn’t sound bad in theory does it? New momma hibernating at home, bundled up with baby for a few months.
Unfortunately, there was no village to go into hibernation with, which set the initial experience up (at least the postpartum part of it) to be desolate instead of warm and loving. I’m from the UK and I moved away from my own parents who still live there a decade ago. My sister went back to visit for Christmas (a plan made well before I was pregnant). The result? – I had virtually no family support system in place for the initial few weeks when I gave birth.
For any new parent, I now akin the first few weeks after the birth of a baby to being wrapped up emotionally and physically in a Wizard of Oz style cyclone. It swirls you up, up and away from your old life and deposits you into a place of your very own journey of self-discovery. Only unlike Dorothy, as a new parent you’re not looking to find your way home, back to your old life. You’re looking to pave a path to find wisdom, strength, courage and love for a wonderful new way of living and it includes another little human being. Transcendent but also naturally very overwhelming for anyone. I can honestly say, it was probably the most difficult time in my life.
For reasons then unknown to us, that we’ve only recently become aware of, my husband was not able to cope with this momentous period of change. Two days after giving birth, I found myself in the middle of a home invasion by in-laws whose primary goal was to celebrate Christmas with as little disruption as possible. My husband was literally holed up in a corner of the house also known as the guest bedroom.
While I recovered from my C-section, some ‘well-intentioned’ remarks from said extended family members included discouraging me to use my prescribed morphine tablets for pain relief and instead to do something less ‘worrying’ by getting off the couch and taking a walk. I was also informed that as it was Christmas time, a roast beef would be cooked and brought over to the house and if I didn’t want to partake, I could eat around it. I’m a vegetarian. All I wanted was to order a pizza but was told that was a rude and unappreciative notion because it wasn’t a Christmas food. This was the vein in which things continued for the duration of the festive period.
As you may have guessed my first Christmas as a mother was not just a right off, it was downright disastrous and traumatic. I missed my own family every minute and was reminded on numerous occasions by my husband’s, that things were tough for everyone. Apparently, I was the unreasonable one due to my hormones. They weren’t my parents and they felt uncomfortable being put in a position where they were expected to play that role. I was gobsmacked and did what any ‘hormonal’, postpartum woman would do. I cried and cried and cried. All alone, up in the master bedroom with my new baby and no real food, company or words of comfort. Not very village-like at all. I guess not everyone is comfortable around emotions and vulnerability. For me, these two things are coming to define motherhood.
Sometimes you have to build your own village. Person by person, hut by hut. Shortly after Christmas, I found that I lost my ‘filter’ and inhibitions and started talking honestly and openly about my experience. I talked to my parents and told them, how as a nursing mother, I was being told to eat the salad leaves around the meat that had been prepared and brought to my house. I can only imagine how my parents must have felt being so far away. In lieu of being with me (they were coming mid-January) they called in reinforcements in the form of a post-partum doula. That sweet and lovely lady and I connected on so many levels and are still friends. I called good friends and let the tears flow free like they needed to. I told them that even though they had hectic schedules around the holiday season, I needed them. And I needed them to bring me a Starbucks on their way over. And you know what? They came. They’d simply assumed that I’d appreciate space and spending Christmas exclusively as a new family unit; mum, dad and baby C. When they realized I was not just ready but in need of their company and love, they were there.
I read and reread every leaflet that my hospital had sent as part of the going home package when they discharged us. I decided to be conscious about making my own support network by signing up for free public services available to new mums. These included weekly visits with a post-partum nurse and a social worker. I am so grateful for such programs in my part of the world. By the time the winter melted away and spring drifted into summer, my social worker had helped me and baby C find our way into a wonderful early years centre. It was here that I met and became friends with some likeminded mothers with babies of a similar age and stage as baby C.
I also found my tribe thanks to Facebook groups. I know, tut, tut for relying on Facebook – I’m a walking millennial cliché. I’m proud of that label. Increasingly, villages can and often do begin with social media and sometimes that is also a good way to sustain the ‘real life’ ones. A while ago I did a shout out to mums in my neighbourhood on one of these groups and got an unexpectedly positive response. Playdates ensued for our babies.
What my experience taught me within the first few days of motherhood was that to stay sane and nurture my baby, I’d have to find ways to nurture and nourish myself. Almost a year after those harrowing few days after giving birth, I’m learning to view this as an imperfectly positive experience. On hind sight, this was a challenge that provided me with a crash course in something new mums often struggle with: self-care.
Over baby C’s first year, I’m proud to say I found us our very own little village and it’s thriving as it continues to grow and evolve with us. I also learned that if it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes one to a raise a new momma as well.