/karen/

Motherhood and change

Saturday, 22 January, 2011

It has been almost five months since Astrid was born, and I find myself reflecting on the current status quo. On the one hand, things are going well: Astrid continues to feed well, sleep well, eat well and so on, and is generally a delightful and happy baby. On the other hand, when asked, “How is motherhood going?” by the well-meaning who naturally expect a wholly positive response, I find myself replying, “Overall, pretty good, but it varies from day to day, and I feel like I'm still adapting.” Then I feel sorry for the person I'm talking to as they usually don't know what to do with that information.

But nevertheless, it is the truth: I am still adjusting, because all change brings with it its own stresses and uncomfortableness. I realised recently that this was only natural: I am a new mother, entering the so-called “third” stage of life (life with children), and that, of course, affects everything. I'm no longer apologetic about it because it's logical that it's going to be hard and that it's going to take a while—longer than five months, in fact. Having Astrid has been the biggest thing that's happened to me since Ben and I got married. I mean, I knew that before I gave birth, but I didn't really know that—mostly because no one can tell you how much something is going to affect your life until it happens and you start to realise the extent of it.

And so one of the ways I am processing and dealing with the change is to write about it. I know in a way I am in a unique position: I've got the mindset of a writer—always standing to one side looking in, observing, taking notes, formulating what I want to say—and I am motivated to take the time to write about this. I know a lot of women probably wouldn't do so as they either don't have the inclination to write or the luxury of time. (NB: I am only able to write this because I arranged with Ben and my mother to take some time off to go down to a local café to do so. I'm sure that getting away for a little bit is good for my sanity as per my last post.) Anne M Smollon has this to say about processing change:

Having a baby and caring for the child that he or she becomes is hard work and involves many tough moments. Unfortunately, mothers rarely talk about these tough times and in that tacit way become vulnerable to society's skewed perception that they have the “luxury” of staying home with their children as though it should be a welcomed situation that bears no burdens. (MIA Missing in Action: How mothers lose, grieve and retrieve their sense of self, iUniverse, Lincoln, 2006, p. 25)

and

Mothers also obscure their feelings and symptoms by keeping busy with all the chores, distractions, and commitments that call them. While they answer the call of motherhood, they tend to miss the greater process unfolding within them; that is, the process of letting go of the women they were and a time that existed before they had children. This is a process that's imperative to attend; the process of letting go is a valid component of change. (p. 26)

So in this post, I want to talk about the change. I want to talk about the breadth and extent of it. I want to talk about what my life is like now and the things I struggle with. I suspect it will be more beneficial for me than for you, but I'm also aware that this is something that doesn't get discussed much and that it might be helpful for those of you who don't come into contact with/have lost contact with new mothers (because they tend to disappear into the ether of babydom). It surprised me recently talking to two single friends of mine that all their information about babies and motherhood is coming from me—and this is despite the fact that they both have friends who have children. They both said that they don't tend to see those friends that often anymore, and so despite having those relationships, they were pretty much ignorant of what happens when a child enters the family unit.

Let's start with talking about Astrid.

Astrid

The thing with babies is they are always changing, and the change is not something you can predict—at least not accurately, although there are probably some general things you can expect about them. With Astrid, the changes probably come down to the following categories:

Feeding

In the beginning, Astrid would feed for huge amounts of time—20-45 minutes per side. Then after about a month or so, the time became drastically reduced—perhaps because she became more efficient. Now it's about 10 minutes per side. But sometimes she doesn't even take that; on occasion, she's only fed on one side and sometimes not even for the full 10 minutes. The first time she did that, it scared the hell out of me. But the general wisdom is that if the baby is not sick, if the baby is happy and if the baby doesn't want anymore, she's probably had enough, and there is no use force feeding her.

The other thing that is starting to happen is that she can be a lot more distracted while feeding, and will keep coming off to laugh or smile at me or look at things around us. I've read that the way to deal with that is to space the feeds further apart—3.5 hours instead of 3 hours, for example.

The other thing is that sometimes she will cluster feed—usually around periods when she is growing a lot developmentally (which is impossible to detect; you just have to assume that it's happening). So sometimes her feeds will be really close together—2-2.5 hours. That's when I start going a bit mental.

The final thing to say is that it's all going to change very soon as we will be starting her on solids in the next couple of months. Mind you, as I've been told, solids in the first year are more about babies experiencing and experimenting with tastes and textures rather than them gaining much nutritional value from them; she may still be relying mostly on breastmilk. Furthermore, the content of what we give her to eat will keep changing—in quantity and variety. They say to start with puréed fruits and vegetables, move onto meats and then onto dairy. Initially all the food will have to be mashed, but later when she develops teeth, she may be able to pick it up and eat it herself.

So there you go: lots of change there as we gradually teach Astrid how to eat and what to eat. (Isn't that funny; little humans need to be taught how to eat! You'd think that would be basic and instinctual. Not really.)

Sleeping

I thank God that he's made me the sort of person that can handle broken sleep (as long as I get enough of it!) Before, Astrid would sleep in two hour blocks, waking to feed every three hours. Sometimes she would do a long stretch of sleep in the evening—say, from 7 am to 12 pm, or 8 pm to 1 am—but there was no way to predict whether she would.

In the last month to month-and-a-half, she's started doing what's called “sleeping through”, which basically means she sleeps 5-6 hours or more at a stretch. (Note that it does not mean sleeping the entire night.) On rare occasions, she will sleep for 10 hours in one stretch. (This also scared the daylights out of me, and I would keep waking up in the middle of the night to check that she hadn't died or anything.)

However, during key developmental periods, she will revert back to waking every three hours. Again, you can't predict this; you just have to roll with it. As you can imagine, my sleep is now pretty screwed up, and so every day is different, depending on how much sleep I've managed to squeeze in and, consequently, what sort of mood I'm in.

I've been told that once she starts solids, she may sleep longer but she will also probably keep waking in the night—not to feed but because of developmental reasons. I wonder sometimes whether I'll end up like one of my friends, who says that he can no longer sleep in as he has completely lost the ability to do so.

One last thing about sleep: I've been reading this fascinating book by Jennifer Ackerman called Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream and she says that people are genetically disposed to being either “larks” (i.e. go to bed early, wake up early) or “owls” (i.e. stay up late, get up late). However, this often fluctuates throughout life, so children tend to be larks, adolescents tend to be owls and the elderly tend to be larks again. If Astrid is larkish and we are owlish, I wonder how life is going to pan out for us as parents …

Pooping/weeing

Yeah, sorry; I know I should not be talking about such things in public. But it's another aspect of how Astrid's changed. Before, she would do a Number #2 at every single nappy change; now, it's barely once a day. Which is apparently fine: breastfed babies can take up to two weeks in between poops. The books say that as long as she is producing 6-8 pale wet nappies a day (i.e. urine), and she's happy and not ill, she's fine. Again, it was a bit of a shock when she first started doing that, and I did think there was something wrong with her at first.

All this is going to change when she starts solids. I'll spare you the details.

And of course, further down the line, there will be toilet training—something I currently know nothing about.

Developmental

Right: the developmental stuff I've referred to earlier. You're supposed to give babies time on their tummies from pretty much the time they are born. They hate it and complain about it because it's their equivalent of exercise (babies are naturally lazy). You have to pick your moment, and in the early days, it doesn't tend to do much. But in the long-term, it's supposed to assist them developmentally as they will acquire things like head control—eventually crawling and then walking (though some babies skip the crawling stage and go straight to walking). I've even read that tummy time is good for brain development—something about fostering synaptic connections or whatnot.

In the beginning, babies are usually very sleepy as they have just emerged from the womb and can't see very well. But then they tend to wake up and take more interest in the world around them. They still sleep a lot, but their sleep times start decreasing and they're awake for longer. Instead of sleeping every three hours, they may drop back to one morning sleep, one afternoon sleep and a long night sleep. Generally speaking, of course.

Becoming a mother

With all this change going on, I find myself adapting and re-adapting. It's a bit confronting for someone as structured as I am; I tend not to like change and not being in control, but both things are integral aspects of parenthood. Some days I really struggle, and tend to—well, not catastrophise, but look into the future with some pessimism about my life and what it might look like down the track. None of that negates the joys of motherhood and the delight I take in my little girl; it sort of coexists. I do not regret having Astrid; as I said above, this sort of thinking is part of the way I'm learning to deal with the change, and I don't want you to think that this is all complaints or problems in need of solutions.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. I've talked about the changes with Astrid; now let's spend a bit of time talking about the changes with me. For this section, I'm going to draw heavily on Anne Smollon's MIA Missing in Action and her chapter on loss. She breaks up loss into six different categories. I'm not sure I've completely understood her categories, but I think they are a helpful starting point for talking about the extent of change in my own life.

Material loss

Material loss has to do with things like loss of income, change of living space, change of possessions, change in wardrobe, and so on. When I had Astrid, I quit work completely and went around telling people I was now unemployed. I was being silly, and most people would quickly correct me and say something about how I was now entering parenthood, but I think what I was trying to acknowledge was the fact that I was no longer a wage earner. I was no longer supporting myself financially; I was now a burden on Ben, who was now the primary breadwinner. It's hard to shake western society's perception of social worth proportional to income, no matter how pagan (as opposed to the things of God) it is. I know the workplace now has things like parental leave (and paid parental leave now!) to deal with that kind of shift; it's just still confronting that the paradigm that I had lived with for the last 30 or so years of my life of being useful as an employee was now being reconstructed into the image of motherhood. Having a job is linked to all sorts of things: financial independence, discretionary/leisure spending, self-esteem, status, and so on. It's stupid but I feel bad that I'm not pulling my weight financially, but instead keep on spending money—on essential things, yes, but on other things too, like books for Astrid (which I seem to not have a problem justifying because, you know, they're for Astrid).

Regarding living space, it's interesting how stuff for your child starts overrunning all the rooms in your house. There's Astrid's room, of course (not that we used that much before), but now the lounge room has a permanent play area, with her bouncer and the high chair in the corner, and her toys in the cradle my dad made for me when I was born. Once she starts solids, baby things will begin to overrun the kitchen—tippy cups, melamine plates, plastic and silicone spoons, and bibs, bibs, bibs. (Friends have told me that they have somewhere in the vicinity of 40 bibs for their child because of all the mess that's made.)

Regarding wardrobe, I've had to rethink what I wear. Not only do I need to stick to breastfeeding bras, I have to make sure that what I wear is breastfeeding friendly. This means a few tops that are designed for breastfeeding (you can get some of them at KMart and Target), but also I find myself wearing tops and skirts/shorts (as opposed to dresses as I don't have that many dresses that are breastfeeding friendly) because it's easier. I also find myself wearing clothes that are more practical in nature—stuff that I won't mind getting soiled—which rules out some of the nicer stuff as I don't want it getting wrecked. Furthermore, having a bigger rack (sorry to be crude) changes the way I dress because things that used to be okay don't look quite right anymore (bearing in mind Trinny and Susannah's rules according to body shape).

I've also stopped wearing a watch and any jewellery apart from my wedding ring, as my watch tends to scratch Astrid when she's feeding (or her head puts pressure on it), she tends to grab and pull on necklaces, and bracelets are just annoying for the messier tasks of parenthood.

Obviously the wardrobe thing isn't going to last forever; at some point, I'll wean Astrid and perhaps return to what I used to wear. But I am aware that my body is no longer the same. Well, more on that later.

Relationship loss

I feel fortunate that relationship loss hasn't happened to me too much yet (yet); surprisingly, I've managed to maintain my friendships with single friends—mostly because of social networking. I feel like I've reconnected with some friends as well—friends who are also young mothers. It's as if they've recognised I've joined their ranks and therefore we have more in common. So that's been nice.

Still, I wonder how long it will be sustainable—whether, over the course of time, I will become one of those women who simply lose touch with the majority of people because the effort to maintain relationships cannot be sustained, or because natural contacts (e.g. church) cannot continue, or because family life takes up the majority of my energy the older Astrid grows. (Who knows. Perhaps it's avoidable. Perhaps I can plan for it now. The unavailability of couples and families is one of the bugbears of single people, but surely it doesn't have to be that way all the time …?)

My relationship with my family—my mother, father, brother, etc.—has also changed slightly. Astrid is like glue, strengthening the bonds I have with them. I tend to see my mother a lot more now than before—partly because I am less busy but also because she makes an effort to come see Astrid. My brother has also surprised me as well, being a lot more interested in Astrid than I thought he would be, living so far away. (He hasn't met her yet but he seems to look at all the pictures and videos I post on her Flickr page.)

But by far, the biggest relational change has been with Ben. It was only recently that I realised that we are grappling with the third task in Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's The Good Marriage, which is

To embrace the daunting roles of parents and to absorb the impact of Her Majesty the Baby's dramatic entrance. A the same time the couple must work to protect their own privacy.

This is no mean feat; note that half of all marriages start floundering after the first baby arrives. I think it's partly because things are more stressful, so things that things in the relationship that used to be minor issues start coming to the fore as major issues (or perhaps “more significant” issues, rather than “major”). (Communication is a big one.) It's also partly because time pressures and the demands of a third person in the relationship tend to encroach upon the relationship. When you become parents, date nights, hanging out with your spouse, and having deep and meaningfuls just become harder to squeeze in (let alone sex, but let's not talk about that here …). Instead, we've found that we have to really work on those things—as I said, schedule in marriage time every single week, otherwise it doesn't happen and we wake up one day and think, “Oh dear, things aren't going very well us! Must do something about it.” This is a bit of a change: I'm not used to having to be proactive about leisure/relationship time. It feels like work, whereas my natural inclination is to just fall into it and decide what to do later.

(If anything, motherhood is making me more structured about my time and using it well. Those writers with kids are right: you just become more efficient with what you've got.)

Intraphysic loss

Intraphysic loss has to do with losing your sense of self in terms of dreams, career paths, goals—the possibilities of what your life might have been like. To speak of it in dire terms, it's about the dying of ambition, the abandonment of plans for a particular future. Obviously that's being too pessimistic; some careers are compatible with motherhood, and there are things that you can do that even complement motherhood (as The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood points out). But there are certain careers that are completely incompatible, or if you want to get anywhere in them, you really have to work hard or segment your time. (Some of the women in The Divided Heart would take several months out from parenting to go work on a film or some other project.)

For me, this is less significant. On the one hand, I am scared of becoming deskilled and unable to enter the workforce once more when I am in the market for a job again. (This Salon article on regrets of a stay-at-home mother now broke and jobless in the recession is terrifying reading. On the other hand, I do wonder what happened to her worthless husband and why he isn't pulling his weight to provide for their children.) On the other hand, around the time I got pregnant, I was contemplating a change in activities anyway: I've never given writing a decent shot (because I am lazy and to get anywhere as a writer, you have to work really hard and be incredibly persistent) and was considering scaling back on work anyway. Motherhood has been, in a way, a blessing; it's been a good time to contemplate a change of “careers”. I know I'm not alone in this as some of the women in my mother's group have said much the same thing—that they would like to do something different to the jobs that they have left (or are on leave from), but many of them aren't sure what.

(Side note: It's interesting that we don't have a very good idea of how to change careers into different careers. I know that part of it has to do with luck and chance; people tend to stumble into things that they like, or they haven't considered the question of what they'd really like to do properly. [Read the chapter of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work on career counselling for some interesting stories.] Even so, sometimes I wish I had more of an idea of how to become, say, a caf´ owner or a photographer or a florist—careers that don't require years of medical school or another degree.)

Functional loss

Functional loss has to do with muscular or neurological dysfunction in one's body. I've been lucky in this respect; labour didn't damage my body too much. Sure, I've still got the stretch marks and things are a bit different, but it could have been a lot worse. (I get the newsletters for the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, and shudder to think what those poor women go through.) I still have twinges of PGP, but it's not as bad as it was during the late stages of pregnancy, nor does it stop me from doing things. (Mind you, I don't exercise as much as I should.) I do get a sore back from carrying Astrid, and from breastfeeding. (I know they say to maintain a straight back while feeding, but you try doing that all the time with a squirmy wriggly baby who keeps getting distracted and keeps pulling off.)

Of course, the big one in this category is sleep deprivation. I know I'm lucky in that I function pretty well on broken sleep as long as I get enough of it, but long-term, I'm finding it's taking its toll. I feel the fatigue a lot more because I can't always catch up. (I have all sorts of questions about sleep as well: if I nap, will that affect my ability to fall asleep later? If I sleep a lot and wake up still tired, do I need more? Does it differ according to the individual?) Fatigue is linked to increased irritability, increased impatience, decreased ability to cope with the day to day (let alone anything beyond the day to day), reduced concentration (which affects things like your ability to drive), etc. Some days I think I'm holding my own with everything that goes on (not that I think I need to get it all done; I'm perfectly capable of procrastinating—putting off for tomorrow what could be done today). Some days it becomes too much. I've been coping with it by scheduling housework for earlier in the week and more rest and R&R for later in the week. But it scares me how everything is going to change shortly—what with solids and so on—because that's something extra for me to get my brain around. I think, “How can I deal with this when I feel like I'm not dealing too well with everything else?” That's why I've never bothered to learn about expressing and formula, despite the freedom that it might possibly give me (provided Astrid doesn't reject the bottle); the learning curve is just a bit much at the moment. And soon enough maybe I won't have to bother with those things when she takes to solids …

Role loss

Role loss refers to a loss of a specific role in one's social network. It's about your social context being altered by change—for example, when a single person marries and all of a sudden, his/her friends must get used to this other important person in their life. (It's interesting the difference in the way friends who have only known us as married people and friends who knew us from before relate to us.) Motherhood affects your social life, your psychological wellbeing (which in turn affects how you behave around other people), your financial/worldly status (which in turn affects how other people see you), and so on. Interestingly enough, Smollon says that most mothers said that shifting from being single to being married was far less traumatic than shifting from having no kids to having a baby (MIA, pp. 33-34).

For me, having Astrid has affected how and when I socialise. At church, the time I can spend chatting with people after the service is limited according to how Astrid is doing (and sometimes how I am doing as a result of caring for Astrid). Sometimes I can be feeding during the socialising time. Sometimes I can't eat unless someone else is holding her because it's too hard. I've been fortunate that my good friends make an effort to invite me to things I can go to, but I also have to decline a few invitations, or not speak up about going to things because I can't do it anymore, and there are places that you can't really bring a baby (particularly in the evenings). I've found I don't go to the movies with friends much anymore because mums and bubs sessions simply aren't on when others are free (with the exception of Rhodes). At Christmas, I remember feeling really frustrated because I wanted to hand out the Christmas presents, but instead Astrid needed to be fed, and even then, she wouldn't feed properly because she could sense me being stressed. (Now that I've recognised that, I think perhaps next year I can be a lot more articulate about what I want—for example, everyone waiting until I've finished feeding Astrid so I can hand out our presents and watch people open them.)

Now that I'm looking for a new church, I've noticed that socially, it's hard to advance the conversation beyond “I'm a mum” because people don't know where to go from there; it's not as natural a link to your hobbies and interests (things like knitting, movies writing) as it is from work and study, for some reason; people don't know what to ask. I think perhaps I over-compensate by divulging more information about myself to new people, but it's because I want to be known. (All the same, it feels weird because I think, “They're not interested in this. Why am I telling them this?” Anyway, it's better than me feeling like I'm not an interesting person anymore just because I'm a mother.)

And yes I am more interested in things like parenting, children, development and so on since becoming a mother, but I still have and maintain other interests, and need to escape into those interests so that my life is not all babies babies babies.

Systemic loss

Last one: systemic loss. This refers to how role loss affects the rest of the family system—how a mother's reaction to her losses affects her spouse and her child/children. Children pick up on it and act on those feelings, and then mothers feel helpless to know what to do because they are trapped in their own grief. I've noticed the effect of me processing all this change has had on Ben, and how sometimes I can feel quite flat or down (which in turn affects Astrid and the way I am towards Astrid). Fortunately this is all low-key at the moment; I don't think I'm at risk for post-natal depression or anything like that.

Dealing with change

A few more thoughts before I wrap up (because I need to wrap up soon).

Right, I'm done. It was good to get all that out of my system—acknowledging all this so that I can process it and return to the task of loving and caring for Astrid unfettered. Thanks for reading if you have gotten this far!

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Other comments

That’s a fairly comprehensive post! I remember trying to explain to you that it couldn’t be explained until you were living through it: glad that’s starting to make sense.

To enjoy being a parent (at least so far) is a matter of getting used to the constant state of change, and learning to delight in the good, and deal swiftly with the bad.

Hey Dave! Yeah, I vaguely remember that conversation. If I could go back in time, I’d ask you what were the significant things that changed for you and how did you cope with them? (You can still answer the question now! ;P)

Always good to read one of these posts. smile

It’s fascinating for me watching you and my sister (with very different approaches and personalities) become mothers. I think I’m more similar to you in temperament and situation, so I may come back to these posts for comfort again in years to come. ;p

Posted by Little on 24 January, 2011 4:55 AM

Hi Karen. Just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your reflections especially on motherhood. I’m a new mum to an 8-week old beautiful girl. It’s helpful getting a sense of someone else’s experience of this phase of life. I too was surprised at the extent to which I feel the changes in life - more so than any other transition. One interesting thing I’m finding is the change seems to feel bigger for the mum than dad on an emotional or psychological level & not just because of a mum’s role with feeding or being the primary carer. I wonder if this resonates with anyone else?

Posted by Zims on 25 January, 2011 7:17 AM

Thanks Zims! I think you’re right, and I think it’s because way more changes for mothers than it does for fathers. Fathers tend to stay in their jobs, and their lives continue in a similar fashion; everything is different for mothers. I might be biased though ;P

Little: I confess I often write these posts with you in mind smile

People don’t realize how hard becoming a mother is until they are one.  I don’t think I was fully adjusted until my daughter was about 15m.  Now, I can’t imagine not being with her pretty much 24/7.  Of course every mother needs their break, but I feel like this is the life I always dreamed of.  I hope things are better for you now.  Writing about it is the best way to sort through it!  Thanks for sharing it with us!

I wish we could sit and talk one day in person, I always feel like I could have a long conversation about your blog posts and yet don’t have the time to give a written reply online proper justice. 

Enough to say, perhaps it was the combination of the music I was listening to on loss co-incidentally at the same time as I was reading this post and I cried.  I don’t think loss is really talked about much when it comes to motherhood; unless it’s loss of sleep (which has never been an issue for long periods with both my boys).  As well as loss, have you found longing as well?  For example, when you think about all the things you want to be for Astrid as a parent (and, possibly later, sibling relationships) does it make you think about your relationships with your immediate family and how things could be?

The song I was listening to is Track #6: http://danalittlemusic.bandcamp.com/



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