If there’s one thing most mums agree on it’s that nothing prepares you adequately for motherhood. You could read all the books in the world and have been around babies all your life, but still, when that little being pops out into this world and is your responsibility, everything changes.
We all know the wondrous, beautiful side of motherhood – the special moments, the overwhelming love – people talk about these things all the time. But there’s a lot of other less pleasant stuff that mums go through that often doesn’t surface in everyday conversations. And it’s this stuff that we need to talk about the most – so mums going through it know that it is normal, that they aren’t a freak, and that they aren’t alone in their experiences.
So, in a bid to get mums talking about these unmentionable sides of motherhood, we gathered a bunch of lovely Aquarius Baby readers, a few of our go-to parenting experts, and we had a powwow. The discoveries were fascinating...
Eveline Sleeboom, Dutch, 32
“Adjusting to being a mum can be tough at first. Mums need a lot of support from their husbands and from other women who have been through it.”
Selina Turner, British, 39
“We can be our own worst enemies, because we compare ourselves to the world around us. And I think the older we are, the worse we get at doing this.”
Leigh Hederics, Australian, 38
“I was surprised how hard I found it when I had my third child... Speaking honestly with other mums who were experiencing the same thing really helped me.”
Priya Fernando, British, 40
“We can be way too hard on ourselves. It is such a relief to open up to someone and say that you need help.”
Kirsty Radley, British, 35
“I really enjoyed the discussion... Being a new mum is an emotionally draining time. It’s good for us to talk about these things so new mums know they are not alone.”
Linda Van Den Doel, Dutch, 31
“Mums should stop judging each other and instead, just come round to each others’ houses and help tidy up, or let the kids play. Doing practical things together can really help.”
Pressure to be a ‘perfect’ mum
We all know there is no such thing. And yet we push ourselves to achieve unrealistic Mary Poppins-esque standards of mothering and practically wipe out all the enjoyment of the experience in the process. What we need to look at is where these standards and ideals come from. Who is role-modelling this saccharine version of motherhood? And why do we buy into it?
Heidi: Becoming a new mum is such a sensitive time and we’re all so nervous and defensive. Women who might have been high-powered business people suddenly feel like they don’t know what they are doing. The type of woman who moves here tends to have been a career woman and she’s used to being a high achiever. So it’s that much harder when everything doesn’t fall into place like you’re used to.
Shani: Childbirth and mothering is something women have been doing for billions of years. We are constantly surrounded by people who have already done it and it puts pressure on us to be as good at it as the people around us.
Kirsty: One of the hardest things I find is the judgement of other mums. Even on social networking, we’re horrible to each other. A pregnant woman asked on a Facebook page if there were any products other mums could recommend. I mentioned that I’d found the Tommee Tippee Perfect Prep for formula feeds a lifesaver. Her response was “Oh no, I’ll be exclusively breastfeeding”, which instantly made me feel like she had judged me.
Selina: There is so much pressure to breastfeed. I said I’d exclusively breastfeed before I had the twins… that lasted a week. I managed it with my first, but with the twins I combination-fed for four months. I have constant guilt about that.
Leigh: I find there’s a lot of judgement at the school gates. I have a four-year-old, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. But if I turn up at school wearing trackie pants, I feel I’m not dressed up enough.
Priya: On the first day of school I dropped my child off wearing tracksuit bottoms – everyone looked so glam I never did it again.
Andrea: My attitude is that it’s 7.30am. If I’ve even had a shower, that’s pretty impressive and you should count yourself lucky!
Heidi: I have worn my gym gear to the school gates before as a disguise to explain my lack of make-up and messy hair. Then I went home and back to bed…
Shani: Unfortunately, the judgement and comparisons start way before you have the baby. During pregnancy it’s all ‘How many kilograms have you put on?’ And, ‘Will you have a natural birth?’ Considering it should be a sisterhood, mothers can be very judgemental.
Admitting that it is hard…
If every time you open Facebook you are faced with your friends’ perfect mothering – picnics in the park with freshly dressed children, mummy doing yoga on the beach next to baby, kids chomping their way through organic quinoa cookies while planting their own veggie garden – it’s not easy to come out and say, “My baby has not stopped screaming for three days and I really don’t think I can cope with any more.” Admitting to yourself that you are struggling to get a grip on your new life is hard enough – everyone wants to be a ‘natural’ mother – let alone admitting it to others. But if we don’t, we run the risk of depression.
Kirsty: There’s not a lot of honesty here in Dubai. There’s this perception that you should be ‘living the dream’ with a full-time maid, getting your nails done, going to exercise classes – all the while being the perfect mum.
Andrea: People aren’t honest about their struggles… I knew I had postnatal depression two days after my daughter was born. But I didn’t tell my doctor until six months later, and I didn’t tell the rest of my family until one-and-a-half years later. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to deal with their reaction if they didn’t understand it. And I felt that the people around me wouldn’t want to know the truth.
Heidi: It’s funny the things you can tell people and the things you can’t. I could have told anyone how many stitches I’d had after labour and all about my sore nipples. But I couldn’t tell anyone about how incredibly fragile I was feeling emotionally. There still seems to be a taboo attached to that.
Linda: The days can feel endless with a new baby. You don’t have time to take a shower, or eat, and you’re afraid to put the baby down. And you’re afraid to say anything to people in case you cry. What if you say, ‘I am not coping’ and no one replies? That would be so lonely.
Priya: When I had postnatal depression after my second child, I felt ashamed of myself, like I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was having panic attacks on a scale that I’d never had at work.
Leigh: People can be more judgemental when you’re struggling with your second or third child. I got postnatal depression with my third and people were saying, ‘Why can’t you do it again a third time? You’ve done it twice before.’
Selina: I think as a mum, you put pressure on yourself to manage parenting like you’d manage a job. At home I’d be crying, shouting at everyone, wanting to jump off the balcony… but I’d put on a front for the outside world.
Shani: It is difficult to say you aren’t coping. People simply don’t want to be lumped into ‘that’ category. And you have to be ready to open up and talk about it.
The lack of support
With most companies in the UAE offering little, or zero, paternity leave, new mums are often left holding the baby solo just a few days after giving birth. Coupled with the fact that most people don’t have extended family here and their support network consists of friends who will either be working, or busy with their own children, new mums are often left high and dry without people to lean on. In the early days, this isolation can make things more difficult for the new mum.
Shani: We used to live in village societies where the women of the village would rally around a new mother. We are now in such different social circumstances, but the pressures are the same. The expat woman is a unique type of mother in an unusually isolated situation.
Linda: At home you could call your mum if you need something as she’s just down the road. Who do you call here?
Kirsty: In the UK you would have health visitors come round to check you’re OK. But there’s nothing like that here, without paying a lot of money for it. I have actually asked my parents to ‘babysit’ on Facetime before – if I need to run the bath for the twins, or get their dinner ready, I’ll put them somewhere safe, for example in a cot, and my mum will watch them and sing to them, and alert me if needed.
Eveline: If you’re struggling after having a baby, when you’re in the blur of it all, you often don’t have the momentum to get yourself out of it. Husbands are crucial at that point.
Impact on your marriage
Let’s not forget the dads. Not only are they adjusting to the changes in their own lives – albeit not normally as dramatic as the changes in mothers’ lives – but they are also learning how to deal with a new wife. In the tricky and stressful time of new motherhood, most mums need to lean on their partners so much more than they ever have done in the past. Some husbands simply don’t know how to cope with this and it can have an impact on the marriage.
Andrea: I run a support group called Out of the Blues for people with postnatal and antenatal depression and we have a lot of women who’ll tell us that the only person they’ve spoken to all week is the lady at Spinneys. Around 75 per cent of women at the group would say their husbands don’t understand the pressure of motherhood. If you add in the complication of postnatal depression, men often tend to distance themselves, because they don’t know how to fix it. Your husband is supposed to be your support, but if they don’t get it, who can you talk to? If your husband comes home from work and you’re still in your pyjamas, with sick in your hair and he is completely oblivious to your stress and asks you what’s for dinner, what do you do then?
Leigh: After I had the kids, I wanted to go back to work and my husband would say how much he wished he could stay at home, which made me feel guilty that I wanted to go back to work. But then when I got depression he was the first one who noticed it. He rang about 50 people to ask for advice. In the end, he ended up with depression himself. As much as he wanted to, he just couldn’t fix me.
Selina: If they are working and you’re not, when they get home you want help, because you’re exhausted from looking after the children all day. But all they want to do is relax after work. It leads to fights, which can get toxic. I often find myself in tears just through the exhaustion of work and kids, and he doesn’t know how to take that.
Priya: My husband was very supportive. He identified that I had postnatal depression and helped me to see someone about it. He was great all the way through.
Kirsty: My husband has been great, too. He works from home, which can be challenging, but he sees what looking after the twins involves. First thing, before I’ve even said ‘Good morning’ I find myself asking, ‘Will you be here for bath time?’ If I know I have help at bath time, I know the rest of the day will be OK.
Many of our discussion group mums, and mums we have met at other events, talk about this issue of having a minor (or major) identity crisis after having a baby – something that people often don’t talk about. It can be easy to get so sucked into and consumed by your new role and responsibilities that you forget how to be you.
Selina: Your husband puts himself first, you put the children first, but who puts you first? It’s easy to lose yourself in parenting. I found going back to work helps in a way as it gives you more to talk about and you’re excited to see your kids at the end of the day.
Andrea: There is a huge amount of mummy guilt for those who do go back to work, but at our support group we’ve found that people seem better emotionally when they do return. Just going to the loo on your own can seem like a luxury when you are a new mum. Or drinking a cup of tea while it’s still hot. What people forget is how exhausting it can be to be constantly demanded of the whole time.
Heidi: It’s an indulgence in a way, going back to work. I remember resenting my husband because he got to return to normality every day.
Kirsty: The other day we were going for a family picnic. I’d got everything ready and packed it all up and, just as we were about to go, I said, ‘Can I… not come?’ It had taken me a whole year to get to that point of realising that I could do things alone, away from my babies. I had such a relaxing time just being me, pottering around, sorting things out. I felt silly that I had waited so long to take that time for me.
What would you say to other mums?
Heidi: Children are resilient little things – they are hard to break.
Linda: It will get easier.
Leigh: Everyone goes through the same thing – you are not alone.
Andrea: Try not to compare yourself to other people. They might seem one way, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. If you can’t look after yourself, then you can’t look after anyone else. So if you are struggling to cope, talk to someone and get some help.
Shani: I’d tell pregnant mums not to plan too much when it comes to your labour and motherhood. You can’t plan for the unexpected.
Priya: My advice to new mums would be not to focus too much on routine at the beginning. And to be kind to yourself.