What I’ve Learned by Kristin Shorten
Our daughter is almost 11 months old but already so much has changed since those wild newborn days. When Matilda was born I experienced that instant connection new mums describe. I’ve utterly loved her from the moment I found out I was pregnant, but I haven’t loved all of motherhood. For the first couple of months I felt shell-shocked, wondered whether I was cut out for this and questioned why we’d so eagerly swapped our footloose lifestyle for this overwhelming responsibility. I wondered why anyone would. Despite having a healthy baby and a hands-on husband, everything felt hard. My world was unrecognisable. I acutely felt the loss of freedom, time and sleep. I was so in love with our baby but there were more tears than moments of joy in those early weeks. But now, just months (and a little more sleep) later, I wouldn’t change a thing. Matilda has brought indescribable love, joy and meaning to my life. I’ve embraced motherhood and our new normal. I no longer miss my childfree days and the sacrifices no longer matter. All I see now is what I’ve gained. And I’ve grown into a strong, confident and happy mama. That parenthood gets infinitely better – and fast – is among my favourite lessons so far.
Prepare for parenthood
I loved being pregnant and excitedly spent nine months preparing for the type of birth I wanted, only for the event to go nothing like planned. Yet – despite having read all of the books and bought all the stuff – I was totally unprepared for parenthood and all of its transitions. Sure, I knew everything would be different with a baby but I didn’t realise just how stratospheric the shift in my priorities, relationships and lifestyle would be. The advice I received and much of what I read just didn’t translate until I emerged on the other side of labour. And I just hadn’t given much thought to what my days and nights would look like when we got home from the hospital. Perhaps if I’d been better mentally prepared for just how life changing becoming a parent would be, I wouldn’t have been hit by such shock, terror and despair.
It’s harder than you think
I used to think my job as a journalist – involving deadlines, pressure, punishing hours, being permanently ‘on’, always available, across world news and ahead of competing media – was demanding. But that was nothing compared to the perpetual triple-shift we pull as parents. Obviously having a baby is a big deal but the realisation that – as the mama – I was responsible for my fragile newborn’s life and that I was now on duty 24/7, indefinitely, was overwhelming. The future, which appeared as a mirage of long days and longer nights, scared the crap out of me.
This is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s demanding, relentless and exhausting. Even the simplest tasks – eating, showering or hanging out washing – can be challenging with a baby who won’t be put down. My life, time and body are no longer my own. I’m always on duty. I’m almost never alone.
The hardest part for me has, by far, been the sleep deprivation. Everyone warns you about it but nothing prepares you for how brutal, depressing and traumatic it is. It’s torture! I felt like I was drowning. Endless night feeds felt like being on Special Forces selection for six months straight. Sound dramatic? It was.
“Everyone has their own unique experience with motherhood. Their own journey, but the one truth is that your life will become equally harder and richer. Entirely exhausting and difficult, yet also fulfilling and deeply abundant. A beautiful catastrophe! You will lose so much and gain even more,” jewellery and accessories designer Elke Kramer put it perfectly in an interview with The Grace Tales.
But also easier
Sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective. I now try to focus on how well everything is going rather than just how hard it sometimes feels.
Motherhood feels easier now that Matilda is bigger, we’re sleeping a bit better, I’ve relaxed into my new role and we’ve found our groove. It’s still no cakewalk, but it’s smoother sailing.
While early on I was desperate for sleep and dreaded the painfully early starts to each day, I now can’t wait to whisk Matilda into our bed for morning cuddles.
Having a loose daily and weekly routine, fun activities to look forward and getting out a lot helps. I enjoy our outings, play dates and adventures as much as our daughter does.
I’m also now better at reading her cues, responding to her needs and being realistic with plans so we less often find ourselves in meltdown situations.
I’ve designed our days so that we have fun and get shit done but aren’t too rushed or overcommitted, and have a balance of stimulation and down time.
Domestic duties aren’t hard – just time consuming. The logistics of getting things done while caring for a little person who wants my full attention all of the time is challenging. As is the unpredictability of life with a baby. But as Jacinta Tynan wrote for Sunday Life: “Yes, it is tiring, and yes, it is time-consuming with showers and emails a sudden extravagance. But it is not hard. Hard is being tied to a soulless job for 80 per cent of your waking hours. Hard is fighting cancer, or having a child who is. Or not being able to conceive a child when you ache for nothing more. But soothing a crying baby who won’t sleep for love nor money is a privilege, not a hardship.”
Strap yourself in
New motherhood is like Japan’s Takabisha – the scariest rollercoaster in the world – triggering a sense of simultaneous fear and ecstasy. I’ve never felt as blissfully happy, content or at peace as I have since becoming a mama. But nor have I felt as raw, vulnerable or sensitive.
This quote from Elizabeth Stone’s book A Boy I Once Knew is so bloody true: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I wasn’t expecting such heightened emotions, hormones or prolonged baby blues. I didn’t expect the ‘mum guilt’, separation anxiety or to feel my daughter’s pain like it were my own. I suffered normal new-mum anxiety, self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness and rage towards my husband for not having boobs. And sleep deprivation makes everything feel worse.
Actress Clare Danes articulated her experience in a 2014 interview: “Being a mum is incredibly challenging, but we still feel a pressure to talk about it in very romantic terms. And it’s not just that. We all have that resentment at times and anxiety about being trapped by the role, that responsibility. And then chemically it can run riot. Your mental state, the hormonal swings are so extraordinary and singular to the female experience and they haven’t been taken very seriously or considered very deeply… I mean, post-partum aside, even if you have the most healthy relationship with your child and have support and resources, it’s tough. It’s really tough. And there’s no ‘off’ button. [For me] that was the hardest adjustment. You always feel beholden to somebody… And for so long they’re like koala bears, you just feel a physical responsibility to be there for them to cling to. It’s pretty primal.”
Write off sleep
I started stressing about sleep in my third trimester when I suffered insomnia. Then I gave birth and the sleep sitch got real! For about six months post partum my obsession with (the lack of) sleep consumed me. I was desperate for more than two hours of uninterrupted slumber and terrified that I’d never get a solid stretch again. I was so depressed that something I’d once taken for granted was now firmly in the realm of fantasy. And stitching together the scraps of sleep I got to see if they added up to enough for me to function only made me feel worse.
It was only when I finally reframed the situation and accepted that I wouldn’t sleep much or well for the first year, and ‘wrote off’ that period, that it became less of a big deal. My anxiety around sleep eased. I stopped rushing to bed the minute I put down my dinner fork. I relaxed and reconnected with my husband over a glass of wine before bed.
With time and a little effort on our part, Matilda’s sleep is improving. At 11 months she wakes once or twice a night, which – while still not ideal – compared to the first six or seven months, feels like a dream.
Connect with other mums
I’ve never been one to get lonely but within days of arriving home from hospital, I felt socially isolated, spending the best part of every day and night holed up, half-naked, nursing. Despite cherishing that time with Matilda, I felt strangely alone.
I devoured books/blogs and listened to podcasts on motherhood – which were my salvation – but craved connection with other women mums. We’ve since moved interstate where I’ve joined a mothers’ group (highly recommended) and made so many mama friends at Matilda’s various activities. Thanks to her I’ve struck up friendships at my local café, library and post office.
Sharing with other mums has showed me that I’m definitely not alone on this journey. And I’ve found a mummy tribe who keep us so busy with play dates that there’s no longer any time to be lonely!
Leaving the house with a baby was scary at first. Running errands – trips to the supermarket or post office – became major accomplishments when performed with a newborn in tow. Back then, a visit to the medical centre for Matilda’s routine check ups felt like a big day out.
Fear factor aside, it was hard to make and commit to plans in the early months in the absence of a predictable routine. And it’d take so much time, effort and organisation to get out the door that we’d be buggered before we reached the car.
When Matilda was tiny, there was only a small window of time between feeds but every morning – before it got too hot – I’d push her down to the local shops to grab a coffee and get amongst it. I’d breastfeed her in a café before pushing her home. The exercise, fresh air, vitamin D and caffeine kicked each day off to a positive start and formed a nice morning routine.
Catching up with friends, while we were still learning the parenting ropes, was trickier. We were suddenly keeping antisocial hours. Dinners – we learnt the hard way – were for now off the table so we mostly caught up with friends over a quick lunch or coffee. Some dates were disastrous but we always survived. And venturing out was always worth it.
Do it your way
Not the way your parents, sisters, friends or peers at mothers’ group do it.
I feed my daughter on demand and plan to for as long as she wants. I nurse her to sleep at night. During the day, I let her nap – snuggled into my side – on our bed or in her car seat if we’re out and about. And I let her play with my phone or keys when I need to distract her during nappy changes.
I wish I’d worried less about parenting the ‘correct’ way and trusted myself to do what worked for us from the start because I’ve realised that if it’s not a problem for us, it’s not a problem. Matilda is safe, healthy, happy and unconditionally loved – and that’s all that matters.
Having a baby has simplified my life in the best way. When I became a mama, everything that didn’t matter fell away. I’m now focused solely on my priorities. I don’t waste energy or time. There’s no space in my life for anything that doesn’t serve my family or me.
I’ve let go of unrealistic expectations and standards. I’ve let go of perfectionism, productivity and busyness. I’ve let go of our old lifestyle, busy social life and all-consuming career. I love my work but it’s no longer as important. I’ve let go of judgement and caring about what others think. I’ve let go of who I used to be.
At home, I’ve let go of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I’ve let go of cooking every night and preparing meals from scratch. I’ve temporarily given up growing herbs and attempting complicated recipes.
I’ve let go of caring about clothes. Sometimes I don’t shower until lunchtime. I don’t exercise, wear make up or shave my legs as much as I’d like.
I’ve let go of control and surrendered to the mess, chaos and craziness of parenthood.
It gets better
It really does. And easier.
For me, the sheer panic faded and motherhood ‘got good’ at about six months. In the scheme of things, life didn’t feel hard for that long. Each day moved me towards a place where I could breathe a little easier. Each week moved us out of survival mode towards our new, normal life.
Zoe Foster Blake put it perfectly to The Grace Tales when her boy Sonny was four months old: “Even at this teeny age, it has already become exponentially better than the wild, confusing, anxious newborn days and nights.”
Foster Blake’s early weeks were much like mine: “We just kind of existed, really. I can’t remember much of the first six weeks, it was a blur of endless feeding, mastitis, tears (his and mine), intense hunger and cake and coffee to make everything better.” Or in my case, salted caramel fudge.
This too shall pass
Some of the challenges and feelings I’ve faced in this first 11 months of motherhood have already passed.
Buddhism for Mothers author Sarah Napthali says: “Whatever you are feeling right now, as solid as convincing as it seems, will definitely, definitely pass. Every emotion that visits you is temporary and it is possible to observe it with curiosity instead of becoming completely subsumed by it.”
Matilda’s trickier developments, like starting her days – for what seemed like months – at 4.30am have passed and been replaced with new ones. For a while she hated being put down, strapped into the car seat or being in the pram. Now we’re wrangling with nappy changes, dressing her and keeping her safe. Next month she’ll spit the dummy about something else but that too will be temporary.
The days when I don’t get five minutes to myself, I remind myself that the relentless demands of caring for a baby will also end soon. Hillary Frank, who created one of my favourite parenting podcasts, says: “Motherhood is not always giggles and hand-clapping and learning to walk. But things do change and often they get better. And the things you’re going through, even if they’re not in the books, they happen to other people, too.
“These first few months are the longest shortest time. Remember that. They go on forever. And then they’re over.”
Take it one day (or breastfeed) at a time
A close girlfriend – a military wife with two littlies – told me, through tears (mine, not hers), that she survived the early months of her kids’ lives by taking it one day at a time. So that’s what I did. Actually, during those loose newborn days, I took it one breastfeed a time. By the time we squeezed in a walk, tummy time, a bath and (hopefully) a shower for me, it would be time to wind down for bed.
Even now, our days are still divided into stretches between naps and feeds, which makes them more manageable. But we manage to achieve much more now and the weeks fly by.
Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel
Days with a newborn were sometimes so long that the witching hour couldn’t come soon enough. Hitting 5pm and beginning the wind down to bed was sweet relief. Back then, putting the baby down and pouring a glass of red was my light.
And I wasn’t alone. “My favourite part of each day is when the kids are put to sleep (to bed) and Craig and I sink into the couch to watch some quality TV, like Celebrity Wife Swap, and congratulate each other on a job well done. Or a job done, at least,” Glennon Doyle Melton wrote on her famous blog Momastery.
But bigger picture, my ‘light’ is getting a glorious eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. And as we’re having only one child, I’m hopeful that I’ll get it soon.
Whatever your ‘light’ is – a night off, time to yourself, surviving the first year of parenthood, returning to work or your kids starting school – focus on that.
Don’t carpe diem
Everyone warns you to enjoy your baby being tiny but for me motherhood and life becomes better, richer and easier as our daughter grows. Despite loving the stage we’re at now, when I see older kids I always imagine what Matilda and our life will look like when she reaches their age.
I love watching her grow, grasp new skills and delight in the world around her. I’m excited about the activities – like baking and watching movies – we’ll be able to enjoy together when she’s bigger. And, for myself, I’m excited about the projects I’ll have more time to pursue when she starts school.
Parenting is getting easier as she becomes more mobile, communicative and independent. I also feel like – pretty nonsensically – that the more she moves away from being a fragile newborn, the more resilient and anchored in this world she is.
Journalist and mum-of-two Lauren Duboissays don’t listen to people who tell you to “treasure every moment”. “They’ve forgotten how tough it can be. Hindsight is an absolute cretin and makes people say stupid things. Yes, you absolutely will look back with rosy glasses and think how wonderful it was when your baby was so tiny and still and dependent. But that doesn’t help you at all today.”
One day when – during the newborn months – I was in a sleep-deprived dark hole, my best friend sadly said that she wished she had a baby keeping her up all night. It was a reality check, although she didn’t intend for it to be. She was simply being honest about her heartache and struggle to conceive.
I fell pregnant easily and Matilda is healthy. So while I’m tired, I’m blessed beyond belief.
Make the most of it
Some aspects of being the stay-at-home parent are hard but one thing is certain – this time will pass – so I may as well make the most of it. After all, I wanted – and want – to be a mama. And the grass isn’t greener.
When will I ever again have an opportunity to spend every moment with the love of my life and focus solely on our family? It’s liberating to be able to concentrate on these priorities, to the exclusion of everything else, for now. My greatest responsibility at the moment is my daughter’s care and I’m enjoying the simplicity of that. Having a baby restricts me, but it’s also freeing in that we don’t have to be anywhere or do anything that we don’t want to or that doesn’t fit around Matilda’s routine. I miss work but I’m making the most of my career break. It’s so nice not having to be ‘on’ all of the time, not having to endure long commutes or the daily grind of city life. It’s refreshing not having to dress up, wear make up or straighten my hair to fit the corporate mould.
Most of all, I’m making the most of having someone who needs me, loves me unconditionally, thinks I’m an amazing singer and finds me hilarious.
It’s the little things
Some days are tough but there are so many sweet, joyful and funny moments amid the struggles like little pyjama clad arms reaching up from the cot, cuddles and cheeky toothy grins. There’s no sound sweeter than my daughter’s laugh, easily elicited with a tummy tickle or game of peekaboo. Except for her saying mama of course! Kissing the top of her head when I carry her in the sling, smothering her soft skin with smooches and blowing raspberries on her belly are my favourite things. Her tiny fingers curled around mine, her hands on my arms when we read books and the way she clings to me when she hears the scary garbage truck are so precious. Her open-mouthed sloppy kisses, the way she blows raspberries on my stretched belly and seeing her bop to music like a hip hop artist make us laugh. The fun she has with her food – only a faction of which ends up in her stomach – and the freedom she relishes during pants-off time are disasters priceless. And witnessing Matilda reach milestones is so rewarding. Even though I have almost no time to myself, I can still indulge in small pleasures throughout the day like grabbing a latte when we’re out, listening to podcasts when pushing the pram and reading while my baby naps on me.
It’s all of these little things that, added together, total a happy life.
Before becoming a mama I was always future tripping, but Matilda has taught me to be in the moment. It’s harder done than said with an endless to-do list but motherhood is better when I’m present. Matilda is happiest when I’m here, engaged and experiencing life alongside her. Sometimes she doesn’t even want me to play, but just for me to witness her. Even when I’m sidelined, she senses if I’m attempting some sneaky multitasking. I still have to get stuff done and that’s life, but I’m trying to be present as much as possible.
Stop at one child
Kristin is a mama, wife and journalist living in the Northern Territory, Australia.