NOT a natural mother

By Jayne Manfredi first published on The Road to Emmaus
A common, recurring response from other women when they hear I have four children; (after they’ve expressed the usual “Goodness, you’re brave!”) is often, “Wow, you must be a complete natural.”

What does this even mean? That I’m a natural mother? Perhaps one who breast feeds until her kids go to school? That kind of natural? Into whole foods and organic produce? Maybe it’s just a way of expressing admiration for someone who is so obviously committed to this mothering malarkey that they wanted to do it multiple times? Maybe all these things. Or maybe it’s just a bullshit notion entirely that has merely grown out of society’s erroneous expectation for mothers.

Women are socialised to be nurturing and this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we are designed to be mothers. This doesn’t just mean being in possession of a womb; it means that hormonally,  genetically even, we are naturally predisposed to be able to carry out the task of raising a child. Why then do we sometimes find motherhood so hard?

Medical sources estimate that around 10-15% of new mothers will suffer from Post-natal depression, and the charity 4Children has estimated that the figure might actually be closer to 30%. I might be going out on a limb here but I really believe that most mothers suffer post-natal depression to a varying degree, at some point in the first year after their baby is born.  If you were one of the lucky ones who emerged from childbirth relatively unscathed, learned to feed your baby quickly and with no problems and in short, took to motherhood as if you were born to it, well, wonderful. I have a friend whose experience of labour and infant rearing was so lovely to her she described it as an epiphany. It was a wholly positive experience. If you are such a person, then I’m glad for you. I wish it had been like that for me.

I have known both ends of the birth spectrum, having endured a horrendous experience with baby number one, which meant I couldn’t walk for over two weeks; to leaving the hospital after having baby number four and then going to school to pick the other kids up on the way home. It does vary widely.

Perhaps, like me, your induction into motherhood went something like this: you’re weeping in the bathroom every morning at the prospect of peeing onto what is an open wound, your milk has come in and you could rest your chin on your boobs, you lost so much blood in the delivery room that you’re dangerously anaemic, bringing a whole new meaning to the word “tired,” and baby won’t stop crying, and you have no idea what the problem is. Oh, and your partner is a completely useless waste of space.  That.

The thought that your milk coming in actually means your body is being flooded with nurturing, mothering hormones will, I’m sure, provide you with no comfort whatsoever, as you attempt unsuccessfully to latch a child onto a body part that is four times bigger than baby’s head and is ever likely to be sore, crusty and bleeding.  I kid you not, so determined was I to breastfeed (or with hindsight: stubborn to the point of dangerous stupidity) I actually kept a wooden spoon near me to bite down on whenever I fed her, because the pain was so intense.  I can’t recall feeling very nurturing at the time. Funny that.

We’re told that in this aim biology is on our side. Our hormones, namely oxytocin, will gush out along with a maternal outpouring that will bond you to your child in ways that are  utterly unbreakable. If you don’t feel this way there is a real and harmful remove between your expectation (and society’s expectation) of your role as mother, and the bleeding, agonising, leaking, red-eyed reality.

I was terrified of my daughter. Absolutely terrified. I’d never held a newborn, never changed a baby, never fed a baby. I assumed if you put a baby down in her Moses basket, she would just go to sleep (I know, I know, the naivety!) and was flummoxed and rendered powerless by her cries, which only seemed to cease when I fed her, and that was so agonising, it was the last thing I wanted to do.  She pooped continuously, which meant constant nappy changes. She got nappy rash, despite the constant nappy changes, which meant I was checking and changing her every hour, on the hour, round the clock, in a paranoid fluster that it would get worse. I was unprepared for the tiredness, the ever present exhaustion that there was no respite from, because only I could feed her so no one could help me.

The fear of her quickly turned to feelings of inadequacy, as conversations with my friend (who gave
birth the month before me) revealed a very different experience. She went shopping on her way home from the hospital. Shopping! I had to be wheeled to the car.
She’d been out clubbing when her baby was six weeks old. Clubbing! Just the thought of leaving the house to nip to the corner shop made my chest tight and panicky.
I was scared of going out with my baby; what if she cried and I couldn’t stop her? What if she needed feeding? I didn’t want to feed her in front of other people. I didn’t want to handle her in front of other people; I might be doing it wrong. If I ever did, out of necessity, venture out of the house, it would take me the best part of an hour to pack everything I needed. I was paranoid about not having enough nappies with me, or enough changes of clothes. I’d obsessively change her nappy, feed her, check her nappy again, fret and worry over whether she’d need feeding again. She’d sick up, so I’d change her clothes; I was obsessive in keeping her scrupulously clean at all times. Then she’d need changing again, and so leaving the house sometimes didn’t happen at all.  Plenty of times I left, began walking up the street with her in the pram, only to return almost at once because the sound of her high-pitched, implacable wailing brought me out in a cold sweat and made my tummy clench so tightly it hurt.

I avoided other mothers – who were obviously doing it better than me – as their apparent competence and relaxed manner with their babies highlighted my own discomfort. I felt like a fraud; like becoming her mother was a freak accident. I felt like a nanny or a childminder; like she wasn’t actually mine. I was terrified that someone would discover the truth; that I was useless at this mothering thing, and they’d try and take her away from me.

I loved her; this tiny, impossibly beautiful creature. I loved the smell of her; the feel of her soft, downy head with its sparse covering of blonde fluff; her minute and perfectly formed little hands.  In the wee small hours, whilst feeding her, I’d look down and marvel that anything so sublime could have emerged from me.  But loving her didn’t make me enjoy the experience as a whole.  I was battered; mutilated by childbirth, my body distorted to nightmarishly comic proportions, and I was in
a world of pain.

For motherhood comes naturally, doesn’t it my sisters? I am a woman and it is what I am designed to do.  To nurture new life, not just inside my body but on the outside too.  As I struggled to do the one thing that I’d been taught that I was designed to do, I wondered what the point of me was if I couldn’t do this one, crucial thing. What did that say about my worth, not only as a mother, but as a woman? Unsurprisingly, I spiralled downwards into a depression that took a long, long time to recover from.

When I’ve discussed the myth of gender with men, they are sometimes keen to back up their largely essentialist ideas by citing the fact that women give birth as a reason for distinguishing our behaviour to theirs.  This is a problem for several reasons; firstly it erases the experience of women who can’t or choose not to have children by implying that they’re somehow not fulfilling a biological imperative. Secondly, and to my mind, more harmfully, this notion of women as natural nurturers does a disservice to us all by depicting motherhood as something that we ought to be good at.  If you struggle at all, for whatever reason, it can be an isolating and humiliating experience.

The more I think about the idea of women as “carers” the more I see how our biology has been used as a stick to beat us with.  Designating a caring role to women has the potential to let men off the hook (for “biologically” speaking, caring isn’t in their remit) and in practical terms also means that any duty coming under the umbrella of “care” can be foisted onto women, whether it’s taking on the bulk of childcare responsibilities or looking after elderly relatives. As an aside, it’s no coincidence that many jobs involving care, such as nursery workers and auxiliaries in old peoples’s homes, are overwhelmingly done by women. I guess it’s also a coincidence that these jobs tend to be minimum wage too. Mmm…

Girls are socialised from the off to fit into this nurturing mould; it is little girls who are given dolls to cuddle and feed, complete with tiny nappies and pretend bottles. Take a look at the commercial break during a time young children are likely to be watching and witness the blatant gender stereotyping.  We proliferate the “caring” myth by saying things like, “Sons grow up and move on but daughters always stay close.” Which sounds quite touching but actually means “there’s little to no obligation for my son to call or visit, but that’s ok because my daughter will take care of me.” And this is seen by some as normal!

The bitterest irony of all of course; in a society that trots out the nurturing woman stereotype, is that it is totally incompatible with the most dominant female stereotype of all, that of the “woman as sex object.” Indeed, nothing can slay your sexuality more than being pregnant and then feeding/mothering an infant, or indeed older children. In a world where being sexually appealing and appearing available is prized so highly for women, it’s no wonder that a woman’s perceived value in society can diminish sharply when she becomes a mother. The creation of new life and the responsibility of rearing an infant ought to elevate a woman’s status, and yet the experiences of women I know, my own experiences and the high rates of post-natal depression would say otherwise.

So what is my response when another incredulous woman expresses the opinion that I must be a “natural mother,” for choosing to share my life with four little people?
“Sister, there’s no such thing.”


To my daughter, as your 13th birthday approaches

It’s thirteen years now since you changed my life irrevocably. After a lengthy labour, I am told you were blue when you came into this world (trust me to miss your arrival, duh. Unfortunately a general anaesthetic had rendered me unconscious). I am told you had to be revived. I didn’t realise how close I came to losing you until the paediatrician sought me out the next day to tell me how “lucky” I was that you had survived. (Some conversations you don’t ever forget. That is one of them.) When I came round you were placed in my arms and I got my first look at you. You were pink and had a head of soft brown hair. People say newborn babies can’t see properly. I know this not to be true. You could see alright. You searched my face, more than a little bewildered. As I held you, inches from my face, your eyes darted about, taking me all in. I couldn’t believe how perfect you were. Ears, eyes, nose, lips, everything in its place. I think I expected you to look a bit crumpled, a bit battered even, after being cramped inside me for 42 weeks (you were determined to be an Aries, weren’t you? Never let go of that fighting spirit, my little warrior). You weren’t crumpled. You were perfect.

A woman old enough to be my mother cleaned me up, chatting happily to me as she did so. Her name was Dot. I’ve never forgotten her. She was an auxiliary nurse. She literally cleaned my arse, throwing my legs up onto her shoulders. There was so much blood, much more than I expected. I felt ashamed to be laying there, helpless (at some point I’d screamed for opted for an epidural and so could feel nothing from the waist down. Yes, you hurt that much. But it’s ok. I forgive you).

They wheeled us up to the ward, settled us into the designated space, drew the curtains around us. I unwrapped your blanket, wanting to look at all of you. I held you up, making sure everything was where it should be. Your head seemed huge compared with your lower body. You were vaguely tadpole-shaped. You had the skinniest little legs I’ve ever seen. Your feet looked like flippers in comparison (sorry, you got those off me) and the skin on them was scaly. You shed that skin over the next few days and I remember not wanting to throw your ‘old’ skin into the bin. It felt like I was throwing part of you away (don’t worry, I didn’t keep it – unlike the clip which was attached to your umbilical cord stump, which as you know I have kept, along with the little piece of umbilical cord still attached to it). I turned you over too quickly and you threw your arms apart, alarmed. Your back was mottled pink and covered in fine, blonde downy hair and you had the tiniest little bottom I’ve ever seen. I turned you back over and examined your head. You were bleeding – or, rather, you had been – from two cuts on top of your head. Concerned, I rang the bell for a nurse. One arrived and explained patiently that the cuts were superficial. They’d been inflicted whilst you were still in utero. It’s how the medics check the unborn baby’s oxygen levels (or something – don’t quote me on that).

I held you close to me and rested my nose on your head. That’s when I experienced it. The best smell I have ever smelt. Ever. Seriously, if someone could bottle that smell, they’d make a fortune. It was like nothing else. I struggle even to describe it. The closest descriptive I can think of is ‘earthy’. I drank you up in that moment. I relished it. As you may be able to tell, the memory is still vivid. That memory is the one I will cling to until my dying breath.

It occurred to me that you might be hungry, so I put you to my breast. You didn’t seem interested. Your eyes closed slowly and I watched you sleep. All around us, on the ward, I could hear babies crying and mothers’ soothing voices. People came and went. A nurse popped by. A woman came and started quoting the Bible at me (I don’t need to tell you what I said to her. ‘Short shrift’ covers it).  Another woman came to ask if I wanted a cup of tea and some toast (you were born just after tea-time, you little bugger). My sister – your Auntie – came to see us, her eyes filling with tears when she saw you. It was too late for other visitors – they would all come over the next couple of days. For the time being, I was thankful that it was just you and me.

I didn’t want to put you down. I settled myself in bed, cradled you in my arms and dropped off to sleep, only to be awoken by a nurse chastising me. She was afraid I would drop you (I wouldn’t. I knew that. But she didn’t). She took you from me and placed you in your little crib next to my bed. You barely stirred. The ward settled down for the night. I watched you until I fell back to sleep.

I don’t know what time it was when you woke me. Your cry was urgent, heart-wrenching (to me, at least. No doubt all the other mothers were cursing you). I tried to reach for you, but couldn’t. The epidural had not yet worn off, and I was effectively paralyzed. I buzzed for the nurse and she arrived a short time later. She plucked you from your crib and placed you in my arms. She stood over me as, tentatively, I put you to my breast. I didn’t have a clue what to do. I thought it would just ‘come naturally’. It didn’t. The nurse showed me the best position for you. I fed you and the nurse faded away. You didn’t feed for long – your stomach was so tiny.

I lost count of the times you woke that first night. One thing I do remember is the time when the nurse arrived and took you from me. She would put you in the nursery, she said. I was alarmed at being parted from you. The nurse told me to sleep. I wish I could say I lay awake, fretting over you, but I’m sorry. I didn’t. The tiredness was too much. I slept. They brought you back at some point for a feed, and then they returned you to your little crib. We both slept some more.

By the next morning, I had regained the use of my legs. Excitedly, I got out of bed and peered down at you. You slept. And slept. And slept. I went to the bathroom and freshened myself up. When I hurried back, you were still sleeping. I was dying for you to wake up (ha! The times after that when I would be wishing you would just sleep are countless). When you finally started stirring I picked you up and settled back into bed with you in my arms. I sang to you (sorry – as you know, I’m tone deaf. Also, I forgot the words of the song and ended up going ‘la-la-la’ like an eejit). I chatted with the other mothers on the ward. One woman opposite me was in having had her third child. She gave me some cream for my sore nipples (sorry – TMI) and some friendly advice about how to get you to latch on.

A nurse came round and informed us it was Bath Time. She asked all the first-time mothers to identify ourselves and one woman cautiously raised her hand, along with me. The nurse set up a baby bath on a stand, filled it with water, squirted in some baby-bath stuff. She decided my baby would be the one to be bathed, and asked me to undress you. I did so, trying not to look like the amateur I was. I passed you to the nurse and her capable hands grasped you and plonked you in the water. She showed me and the other first-time mum How To Bath A Baby. I watched her and suddenly, from nowhere, I was gripped with fear. What if, one day, I didn’t feel like bathing you? The enormity of the task I had undertaken hit me so hard I felt physically winded. I sat down, fighting back the panic. (Oh and you screamed for the entire duration of the bath, but then you know that don’t you? You know that you screamed for the duration of every bath you ever had for the next five years of your life. You know this because I’ve told you often enough. It’s ok. I’ll get my own back one day).

When the nurse passed you back to me, I dried you and put your nappy on. It took me about half an hour to get you dressed because I just couldn’t figure out how to get sparrow-like limbs into doll-sized clothes. When I finally managed it, I settled back into bed and held you close to me. I buried my nose in your head – and then I cried. Oh, how I cried. The bath had washed away that earthy smell. You smelt of baby-bath products now. I wept and wept and wept.

Now here we are, thirteen years and countless baths later, and I find myself wondering: where did those years go? I feel like I blinked and I missed them. Where is she, that two-year-old who screamed like a banshee when I lifted her off the bouncy castle (you were getting trodden on by older kids)? Where is she, that four-year-old, posing awkwardly for her first-day-at-school photo? Where is she, that six-year-old, who wrapped her tiny arms around me when she caught me crying one day? She is here, you are here, but now you are a teenager and suddenly you seem all grown up. You are – as you have always been – kindness personified. You are affectionate, funny, clever. You are fair, compassionate, sensitive.  You are transforming into a wonderful young woman and I struggle to keep a lid on my pride whenever I introduce you to somebody new.

I won’t lie to you, there are times when it’s been a long, hard slog. I know this won’t be news to you. Mothering is hard work. Single mothering is doubly hard. It’s the biggest adjustment I’ve ever had to make in my life, bar none, and it was a sledgehammer I was wholly unprepared for. It took me some time – years, perhaps – to get used to motherhood. To accept that a part of my life had ended and that I could never return there. At my lowest moments, I thought the responsibility would overwhelm me. ‘I can’t cope!’ I would scream, inwardly – but, of course, I could, and I did, and I have. Now, despite everything, despite my moods and my short temper and my propensity to embarrass you by singing at the top of my voice with the car windows down, here you are, this well-adjusted, personable, happy thirteen-year-old.

I was looking at your hands today – remember, we were comparing sizes. You opined that your fingers were “chubby” and I told you (and the entire cafe – sorry) not to be so ridiculous. Whilst you were still giggling at that, I looked at those hands of yours – not quite a child’s, not yet fully-grown – and I was reminded of that little set of handprints of yours I have in the kitchen. You know the ones. You ‘made’ them when you were in nursery, for a calender you were making for me. I’ve just looked at that calendar. The date is 2004. You were two years old. It seems like only yesterday since I hung it on that little nail I hammered into the wall. (More to the point, *how* has that calendar survived being hung up in our kitchen for eleven years?! There is only one little splash of food on it. That’s quite an achievement, I feel).

Anyway, if you’re still reading (you better bloody had be) you’ve indulged me for long enough. You have your whole life ahead of you and I remember how exciting that feeling is. Enjoy it, my girl. Live, and laugh (a lot. Laugh a lot). Go out with friends, have holidays abroad, discover the world. Develop happy memories of a youth lived to the full. Don’t put up with any bullshit – ESPECIALLY not from boys *raises eyebrow*. You will be hurt – it’s life, I’m afraid – but you know I’ll kick the living shit out of anyone who ever hurts you. And take it from someone who knows – the person who truly cares about you will not deliberately hurt you. That sounds very simple, but it’s good advice. Remember it. When a person shows you their true colours and you don’t like what you see, walk away – no matter how much they beg you, no matter how many apologies or bunches of flowers they send you. The person who does it once – whatever ‘it’ may be that hurts you – will do it again. If you believe me on nothing else, believe me on this.

Be aware of your worth, as a woman and as a human being. Have confidence in yourself. Don’t ever be afraid to speak out – your voice, your point of view, is worth just as much as anyone else’s. YOU MATTER. Don’t waste your youth on stupid diets or worrying about how you look – believe me, in ten or twenty years’ time when you look back at photos of yourself, you’ll kick yourself for having had such insecurities. You are beautiful inside and out, you just don’t know it yet.

Happy Birthday, my love

Mum xxx