I have been a parent now for four years. It has been a mixed bag of a time; a time of huge learning. And not just about how to coax toddler off a swing at the park. I first wrote for Dumbo Feather when I had a one-year-old. I wrote about the beauty and upending of becoming a parent. At the end of my first year as a Mum, I wrote a letter to Mums-to-Be; as the voice I wish I had inside my own head when expecting my first bub. I am a bit further along the path now. I have more perspective. In this piece, I share some lessons from my first four years as a mother.
- I wildly undervalued what mothers do.
I grew up admiring career women and being both curious and judgemental of mums who did not work. It conjured images of baking scones and nail salons and smothering children with unnecessary focus. Becoming a mother, I found the task of shepherding children into the world is more masterful, more difficult, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. For me, it is a shit load harder than being at work. I saw beneath my ill-informed vision 1950s house wife to the consummate and heroic skill required to look after young children. I found a disappointing lack of scones and pink nails. ‘What do mothers do at home ten hours a day?’ became a question that was very easy to answer.
- Society wildly undervalues what mothers do.
In the early years, when people asked me what I did and I replied that I was at home with the kids, conversation routinely dried up. I am sad to say I internalised that too. I felt ashamed of my days. At a glance I had nothing more too impressive to report than going to the park and hanging out the washing. “How are you enjoying your paid holiday?” people asked during maternity leave. Raising children is pretty bloody important for the future of our society and world. Yet perhaps because it is common and because women do the majority of it, its value is not seen. We also fail to ask mothers much beyond superficial questions about sleep and if their baby is rolling. We miss the depth and rigour of motherhood and its broader contribution.
- I see the value in community and in being around.
I used to scoot in and out of home, always on the way elsewhere. Now I drop off a jar of pesto to my neighbour with a newborn and take her eldest kid for a play on the monkey bars. I take our apartment building’s soft plastic collection for recycling. I chat to a new mum down the street about the sheer tiredness of it all, and her ambiguity about returning to work. Friends keep me sane on the 781st trip to the local park. We have a parents WhatsApp group for our block and it pings throughout the day with invitations to join for a haloumi pie or to hop on the 8:54am train to the zoo, with questions about how to soothe a two-year-old’s temper. Being part of a community saves my mental health and I love being more than a passing ‘hello’.
- It is okay to be changed by becoming a parent.
I don’t have to downplay being attached to my children. It is a beautiful thing, this softer side. The side that leaves early to get to the Christmas concert, that keeps art works, and handwrites lunchbox notes and misses her kids some days at work. My automatic response has been to squash these things, or make light of them. Loving my kids sometimes feels like a weakness, something to send up. “Silly Mummy.” I sometimes sell out my love for my kids to fit in with workplace banter, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
What success is… changes.
Motherhood stripped me right back. No work, no work community, less travel and escape and adventure. But other things have come to the fore; other things that are meaningful. Like making a meal with kindness. A child’s question about a friend at childcare who won’t play with them. Playing peek-a-boo with a plastic dolphin. Playing a part in a child feeling loved and free. Thanking my own parents for looking after me with a new degree of understanding. I still love work a lot, but my definition of success is broader now.
- The modern idea of selfless parenting is exhausting and boring and awful. An intensive focus on doing things right, having the right things and putting your child first every time is so demanding, so lonely, so intense. Intensive parenting, carried out in nuclear families, is not healthy or happy-making. Sharing parenting with other adults is essential, packs of kids are better than just your own, doing things for yourself is still bloody important. Learning I don’t have to be the one to do everything has been a saving grace.
- Resist less.
It can be hard to become a mother when your life has centred on independence, work, self. It is nothing less than a grand shattering. Yet there is no going back. I may always feel conflicted in some way by the identity jolt of becoming a parent. I am learning to try and accept that discomfort and vulnerability of this rather than fighting it. There is no going back. Resistance makes it so much harder. A lot of what has been hard in transitioning to being a mother has been fighting for my old self back. Accepting that I am making up a new model of me helps.
- The upside.
It has not all been loss. It has also been a huge gain. I often focused on the loss of work, ambition, time, freedom, sleep. I have gained wisdom, depth, perspective, love, questions. I am more interesting by a million miles.
- I am in a chapter of life.
This chapter, which involves a decent dollop of selflessness, patience, and slow, is not forever. This helps me feel less anxious.
- Some things we shouldn’t accept.
It’s not enough for me to worship my inner goddess and develop more patience and get up at 5am to catch the quiet of the day. Societally some things are not right. Mothers are still squashed and judged and in between a rock and a hard place. They are still too often expected to do it all. It is not enough to focus on mothers developing self care practices and deeper wells of inner peace. It needs to become acceptable for men to share child care, we need real conversations about judgement, identity, transition. We need ways of building parenting communities other than the pot luck of mother’s groups.I will save other critical lessons, involving methods of Lego construction, evolving a relationship with your partner, tricks for getting toddlers off a swing at the playground for the next edition. I wouldn’t say I feel wise, far from it. But one nappy, hug, breath, step at a time, I have come a ways.