There are certain moments in life that come with their own handy phrases and clichés, and it’s only when you live through them that you realise how apt they are. Heartbreak, for example, is a throwaway term until you’re jilted, sobbing and clutching at your chest thinking, ‘Ouch, bloody hell, they weren’t joking!’ Even when the physical ache dies away, the conviction that your poor heart has been stomped to pieces can linger for years.
There are plenty of jolly little clichéd phrases, images and expectations around motherhood, too. Fraught mum reaching for the booze or the meds – mother’s little helper! Frazzled mum with banana in her hair, mum putting her purse in the fridge, calling the children by the cat’s name, mum reversing the car into a post box, wiping baby spew off her best blouse before a party and hoping nobody notices. Mum on a spa break having her ‘me time’ with cucumber slices on her eyes, mum in her mumsy bra and big pants with her ‘mummy tummy’ and ‘wobbly bits’, sobbing at NSPCC adverts and nativity plays, whooping with delight because her toddler did a poo in a potty then sending little Jimmy off to school with his sister’s ballet bag instead of his PE kit. Mums!
“I don’t want to be that mum,” you whisper to yourself before you have kids. “I hate putting cucumbers on my eyes. I will get my children into a routine and starve myself skinny. I will get fake tits. I will never celebrate somebody doing a poo, not myself, not anyone, not even if it’s made of gold, encrusted with diamonds and wrapped in winning lottery tickets. I certainly will not join the fucking PTA.”
Then have you have kids and… oh. All of these things, all of them, are happening to you, even the cucumbers on your eyes because my god, if you don’t lie down in a dark, child-free room listening to whale music soon you’re going to disintegrate onto the kitchen floor with all the bits of rice cake, porridge smears, squashed strawberry and crumbs that are always there, no matter how many times a day you sweep, and your partner or mum or a concerned neighbour will find you there, broken into pieces, limbs limp like the sad old sticks of celery you bought and never ate because they weren’t biscuits, and the children will be grovelling around you, poking you in the eyes and demanding that you put Peppa Pig on even though you have disintegrated, because they don’t care.
When you do get a break, a bout of teething or anxiety-fuelled insomnia will soon have you back in an underwater world of of sleep deprivation that you’ll eventually come to accept as normal, as you call the baby Captain Meow again retrieve your purse from the fridge. Perhaps you’ll lace yourself together with a gin and tonic at teatime, or pills from the doctor, or a steady parade of cakes eaten with your bare hands, and poke your wobbly bits, stop stepping on the scales or checking your bank balance, lower your expectations and think, well, shit it all. This is me for the next few years. Better just hold on tight, have another coffee and look forward to a six-hour nap when they start school.
I had my children 21 months apart, not remotely uncommon and further apart than many. “Ooh, two under two!” people cried. “Yep – woah!” I’d smile, patting my bump, secretly unable to imagine what it was going to be like. Now I get, “How are you coping?” and I can SEE in people’s eyes when they’ve been through it themselves, that they KNOW. It’s like birth – you can’t explain it, not really, and there isn’t any point. With early motherhood, nearly all the clichés are true. I am them. I can’t fight them, they have eaten me up. I now completely understand why women turn to ‘mother’s little helpers’ but it’s not funny, there is nothing funny about a woman who is so tired, thwarted, lonely, bored, scared, robbed of her identity, so madly in love with her kids and drenched in guilt because she’s not enjoying and maximising every precious, privileged second that she has to wipe her feelings away. ‘Losing your figure’ isn’t funny. Some may be proud of their post baby bods but plenty of others are horrified and despairing. Loads of my magnificent friends – who I had assumed were gloriously immune to the shitty, awful days, off-kilter work/life balance, low self-esteem, bad-tempered snaps, piss-poor catering and failed trips out – turned out to be struggling too.
I’m not complaining, well, not much. I know I am so very lucky and I kiss my children’s cherubic, snotty faces and rubbery little toes every day. As per the massive cliché, they are the absolute shining centre of my universe and I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s just… I get it now. IT’S REALLY HARD! When I ask somebody who’s just given birth, ‘… how was it?’, it’s not a question I necessarily expect much of an answer to, more a gently-wrapped expression of understanding and solidarity. And when I’m asked, ‘How are you coping?’, I can sense the kindness, and the implied, unspoken words, ‘Cos it sure as shit ain’t easy.’
Seeing women – for some reason still expected to be the alpha parent but while also kicking arse at work – struggling to the point of tears, is painful. But becoming a frazzled, knackered, adoring, broken, over-emotional mum isn’t quite the terrible fate I imagined. We need to keep on fighting for an equal distribution of parenting, fighting for the freedom and practical support to make family life work for the whole family so mothers can thrive too, then saddle up those clichés and gallop though parenthood together, eye bags bouncing, banana-streaked hair flying in the wind.
The other day, shortly after we returned from a spa trip, my daughter, completely unprompted, did a poo on the potty. I didn’t stop cheering for five minutes.