End of an era

Yesterday I officially returned to work after over nine months of maternity leave. It was the end of an exhausting, busy, fleeting, yet endless time of frustration, joy, tea, cake, sleep deprivation and laughter. As it is Easter holidays I am not actually back at work but it seemed a good moment to reflect on what I have and have not achieved.

Lots of mums see maternity leave as a challenge – or possibly a void of days empty of adult company to be filled with something, anything. Or they want to make something meaningful of their time, which is obviously a laudable aim. I’m not sure I set myself any particular targets, but just for fun here is a list of things I did NOT manage to do during maternity leave:

Write a book
Learn a new language
Take my daughter to a regular, educational group involving more than tea and biscuits for myself
Put make up on before leaving the house
Shower and wash hair every day
Carefully coach my baby to learn new skills such as clapping, waving, crawling and meaningful babble
Visit museums, historic buildings and places of interest so my daughter could absorb culture by osmosis
Plan an activity to take us out of the house every day
Teach my elder daughter to ride a bike
Dress myself and both children in tasteful outfits which complement each other
Leave the television switched off except for specific occasions
Keep the house clean and tidy and the clothes beautifully ironed and pressed
Sort through and selectively dispose of the thousands of pieces of ‘artwork’ my daughter has created

But on the plus side, here are a few things I DID do during maternity leave:

Feed both children, myself and my husband every day
Get the children up, dressed and to school during term time
Get the children up and dressed the rest of the time
Experiment with new breakfasts – thank you eggy bread for coming into my life
Manage a possible reflux/ dairy intolerance
Hold it together while my husband was suffering from a serious mental illness
Wash, dry and put away everyone’s clothes
Use reusable nappies
Read with my elder daughter every day
Venture to new places to meet new people
Make dozens of virtual friends who have become very real
Hold a million beautiful babies
Hold my beautiful babies
Help my daughter sleep through the night (which is the subject of another post)
See my elder daughter grow into a proper schoolgirl while attending parents’ evenings, literacy and numeracy workshops culminating in her shock win at the Easter bonnet competition
See my baby grow from a tiny newborn to a person in her own right with her own unique personality
Soothe a thousand tantrums, wipe away a river of tears, kiss away pain that I cannot see or understand and rock and cuddle sadness into oblivion

I think I can find meaning enough in there. Maternity leave is not housework leave. Most of us will not have time to start anything new or complete any big projects or fulfil any ambitious goals. The mothering part of maternity leave is pretty full on and full time. And it won’t stop with my return to work, although I can thankfully relinquish some of those tasks to others.

It has been a blast. Filled with cuddles and kisses, laughter and tears from all of us, minor and major crises both averted and confronted. I won’t ever have this time back again and I don’t regret any of it. The next phase will have new difficulties, frustrations, excitements and rewards. I hope I am up to the challenge.

The log in my own eye

I had a bit of a wake up call this week. I was discussing my husband and his illness with my mother. And, in a perfectly kind, non judgemental and non critical fashion, she pointed something out. I talk down to him. On occasions, I treat him like a child.

I have been so focused on his condition, his ‘issues’, his challenging behaviour, how hard it is and how unreasonable he can be, I have missed something both fundamental and important. I have been failing to treat him with the respect he deserves. I have been thinking so hard about the speck in his eye I have failed to address the log in my own.

A few days ago, he was trying to tell me something. My four year old interrupted, with a noisy toy, and he told her to wait. She waited as patiently as any four year old does. He appeared to have finished – I asked if he was and he said yes, so I said she could do whatever it was. He took the toy away from her. I was so angry with him at treating her in what I felt was a cruel and unfair fashion, I sent him to the shed.

That’s right. I essentially put a grown man on the naughty step. Oh, I have excuses –  I didn’t want to undermine him in front of the girls, I didn’t want a shouty argument with them around, and I wanted him to cool off. The shed is his man cave where he makes models – so not a nasty place to be. But that is not how you treat an equal.

I can be forgiven, you might think, for being under a lot of stress. His condition infantilises him. All well and good, but it wasn’t this incident my mother was referring to. It is something I have got into the habit of, over time, and from time to time. He enables it – if you act the child you get parented. He is happy for me to be the grown up. But successful relationships are built on mutual respect. And one of the big issues that has contributed to the depressive element of his condition is a huge lack of self esteem. He thinks I am more clever, more successful. His mother brought him up with zero expectations for his future. Therefore he has no expectations. And unwittingly I have been continuing this.

I felt mortified. In general I believe I am up for debate about most things, even those where I have strongly held views, and am willing to listen. I even change my mind sometimes. But when it comes to things like parenting, I think I am right. I may ‘listen’ to his views. But I am rarely prepared to accept I could be wrong. Yes, I do a great deal more reading and research. Being at home all day means I am in many ways the expert. That does not mean I am always right. He is an adult. I should consider what he has to say. I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Our children are half him too and I was  impressed enough with him to pick him to procreate with twice over.

I got very upset a while ago because I felt that he was treating me as ‘lesser’ than him. I felt downtrodden. His needs were always more important than mine. I had to beg him to take the girls out while I was suffering from mastitis. Unwittingly, in a slightly different way, I have been treating him with a similar lack of respect.

His condition means, actually, for now, this will continue in a small way. But that respect needs to come back. If you treat someone like a child, they will continue to behave like one. He too can and should be an expert on his own children. I plan to start asking his opinion more – and taking it into consideration – passing some decisions on to him. Treating him as an equal.

Like a baby

I am obsessed with sleep. Many years ago, before children, I remember talking to my mother about becoming a parent and what I thought I would struggle with and where I would excel. “You might find the lack of sleep a bit hard” she mused, “you do like to sleep”.

Oh God do I love to sleep. I love being tucked up in my bed safe from the elements, curled around my husband. I love waking before my alarm and knowing I still have x amount of time in bed. I love Sunday lie-ins, I love afternoon naps. Sadly all that is a thing of the past.

People talk about having sleepless nights when you have children. I think you are unlucky to have a truly sleepless night – a night with no sleep at all. But there are a multitude of ways in which being a parent can mess with your sleep. I have been blessed with many of them.

There is the night which does not start until midnight/1am/2am. There is the night which is broken handily into two hour chunks (90 minutes or an hour if you are especially lucky). There is the night split into say two or three with hour-long periods of awake time. There is the night which ends at 5am/4am/3am to make way for daytime. Then sometimes there are nights which joyously combine some or all of these features.

I have had good nights and very, very bad nights. I have had nights where when I eventually have to force myself, bleary eyed and with a pounding headache, up and out of the door, I could not give an account of what transpired with even a loose degree of accuracy.

It’s easy to lose all sense of perspective. I have hungrily scoured the internet looking for people who are actually having worse sleep than me. I have felt entirely disproportionate jealousy towards those whose babies are not demanding their attention and their breasts (and the rest) repeatedly through the night. I hope I have not been uncharitable enough to wish a rubbish sleeper on anyone. I have read plenty about sleep training, not sleep training, co-sleeping, gentle techniques, the importance of sleep, the importance of responsiveness…. I have tried lots of things, some of which work sometimes, some never. I have listened to lots of advice, informed and uninformed. I have been coming up with ever more inventive responses to the question ‘and how does she sleep?’. Like a baby – waking repeatedly for comfort and/or feeding. On her back. Terribly.

I am also hearing a great deal about the importance of sleep for mental wellbeing. All these doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, closely questioning my husband about his sleep and stressing how he must get a good night’s sleep. What about my sleep, I scream silently? Who cares about my sleep? Even before he was on sedatives at night, there was no getting up all night long from that side of the bed. I remember a complaint about getting only five hours after a night out with friends. I looked at him blankly and said I could not recall the last time I had five hour  uninterrupted sleep. I would be a new woman with that in the bank.

And what does any of this achieve? Not a great deal. Also, it becomes incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. Like most obsessions. Who wants to hear about the fact that my baby is waking through the night and that I breastfeed her back to sleep? How will your judgement help me? How will all the research about whys and wherefores help? It won’t. Nor will jealousy or competitive tiredness. There are choices I have made which some might think have contributed to the current state of affairs. Breastfeeding, for example. And there are things I do not have a choice about which also have a bearing on night-time. Like my husband’s illness. Those choices have been made. And this is the hand I have been dealt. I cling on to the memory of a brief illusory period when my daughter was still very small when she regularly slept 8, even 10 hours at a time. I didn’t tell anyone at the time. I knew it would not last but also I didn’t want to ‘boast’ about my great sleeper when others were struggling. It was a beautiful five weeks and I fear I did not make the most of it. But I know she has done it in the past. She will do it again. I look at my four year old, sprawled across her bed, out like a light every night, and try and remember once she too shared the midnight oil with me. Now she snores her way through smoke alarms. It won’t last forever.

So for now, I dream of sleep. Except I don’t really, you have to be in a deep sleep to dream. I’m never given quite long enough for that.

Perfect

I look at my baby daughter, nestled in my arms, her lower lip jutting out creamily with residues of my milk clinging to it. She is perfect.

Perfect you say? Sleep through the night does she? Err, no. I suppose she never cries? Well she is a baby, so yes she cries sometimes. Eats everything you give her? Apart from the stuff she casts aside with disdain or the things she meticulously pulls into a thousand pieces before throwing them into the most inaccessible corner of the room. Aah, I expect she’s crawling already, clever girl. No, she rolled over in the nude a couple of times but demonstrates no inclination to get moving. She’s one of those babies who can entertain themselves indefinitely then I imagine. Well, if by entertain herself you mean demand to be held all the time and grab onto the least convenient dangling object (think toggles, glasses, earrings, necklaces, scarves) and pull/ chew hard, absolutely.

Yet still she is perfect. I know this absolutely in the same way I know that day follows night, that nothing lasts forever and that I will always ALWAYS love her. I don’t need her to meet anyone’s expectations – even mine – to achieve perfection. A terrible night, a seemingly unending crying fit, an embarrassing moment where she deliberately whacks another child round the head, none of this will affect the fact that she IS perfect. Every single day at some point I whisper this in her tiny, albeit slightly waxy, ear.

In films we often see the newborn having their ten tiny toes and ten tiny fingers counted. All present and correct. They are perfect.

But what if all those miniature appendages are not in fact intact. There are flaws. Is my friend’s son, born with a cleft lip and palate, any less perfect? How about the one with Down’ s Syndrome? My elder daughter, who was born with developmental hip dysplasia? Of course not. They are still in my eyes and their parents’ eyes, entirely perfect. Conversely those imperfections are exactly what makes them perfect. They are unique. The perfect and only version of themselves. Matchless.

Not everyone can see this perfection in their offspring. Their could be dozens of reasons for this – post natal depression, problems bonding, challenging behaviour, sleeplessness, constant crying. I find this quite sad. Because for me it is important to feel, to know, that the tiny person stealing my sleep and demanding my attention, the schoolgirl finding new buttons to push, is perfect nonetheless. It makes those frustrations worth fighting past. It brings a touch of light to those dark and never-ending nights that helps me go on.

That creamy jutting lip? Finally asleep on the breast after I swore I would not feed her to sleep this time. But don’t worry. Because I still know she’s perfect.

For now

We all have things we need to ‘cope’ with. You might have to cope without a dishwasher because yours is broken. You might have to cope with four hours’ broken sleep because your beloved children wake repeatedly in the night demanding your attention. You might have to cope with camembert in your tartiflette because your Tesco delivery substituted it for the  reblochon you ordered. Or maybe you have to cope with your in-laws second guessing and questioning every parenting decision you make. Or cope on maternity pay when your full pay just covered the basics.

Yesterday I went to see my GP to discuss coping strategies. I have a lot of different demands on me at the moment. All individually manageable, but put them all together and everything is stretched. Very stretched. A few weeks ago, with a breastfed baby waking at least every two hours only to be settled by me and a four year old demanding my attention for my every waking moment, I thought I was at breaking point. I NEEDED my husband to step up and do more – to allow me a break at weekends without me having to beg for it, to learn how to settle the baby, to do more than hold the baby for five minutes in the hour between him returning from work and bedtime. Unfortunately at that point it became clear that actually while yes, he was being a bit rubbish, in the grand scheme of things, this was rendered completely irrelevant by the fact he was suffering from extreme paranoia and something beyond my ability to diagnose.

I didn’t break. I found reserves I didn’t know I had. Because I suddenly found I had to do more, and do it if possible with a smile on my face. Because how do you drag someone out of bed and demand a lie-in when his anti-psychotic medication has such a sedative effect that he would sleep 11 hours if nothing interrupted him? How do you ask someone to remember to do their share of the housework when his short-term memory means he cannot remember whether or not conversations have taken place? How can you criticise them for doing a shoddy job at hanging out the laundry when the most important thing for their mind to be doing is quite simply getting better?

As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, has caring responsibilities and is not getting any sleep I have a fairly high risk of developing post natal depression. That is something this family does not need. And I can see some of the symptoms are there. I am struggling to sleep when I first go to bed as my mind refuses to switch off, pondering the ‘what ifs’ and worrying about the future. I am so tired I sometimes find myself nodding off during night feeds. And I find myself getting angry when my husband’s illness means he does something wrong, or fails to see something which needs doing, or turns it back on me and suggests that I am the one with the problem. But I don’t feel depressed and for now I feel strong in myself.

Still I need to find a way to cope. My doctor is not, apparently, worried about me. I am showing resilience.  It’s okay to ask my husband to help. But it should be tasks where I don’t mind if things aren’t done quite as I would want them. I should try and get away for a couple of nights with the girls – but make sure a friend stays over with my husband so he doesn’t descend into a dangerous spiral of delusion unchecked by real life human company. I need to have as wide a support network as possible, so it doesn’t all fall on me. Not just the mundane physical tasks, but also dealing with the emotional side. It cannot always be me who has to listen to paranoid sniping. And I need someone to listen to me whinge and moan about my life too. Hopefully this will always involve tea and cake.

So I will cope. I do not have unlimited reserves of resilience, patience, time, or energy but I have enough for now. And every now and again, if someone can lend me theirs, then that will give me that bit extra for a day when I am running low and hating the world for throwing this at me. For now, I am blessed with perspective. I smiled and laughed (and cried) today. I’m okay. For now.

Mostly….

What name do you answer to? I have a few. But the one I hear most often – multiple times a day, hour, even minute, is mummy. I was someone else once. I used to introduce myself with that name dozens of times a day. That person is still there somewhere – taking a bit of a break. And that’s just fine for now. It won’t be forever. Although I will forever be a mummy and that is scary and wonderful. It’s not a part-time job or even a job at all really or a calling or an occupation. It just is.

So, I am mostly a mother. Even now as I write this inaugural post I have a small warm arm linked through mine as my four-year-old daughter snuggles up to me while watching CBeebies. And I can hear the white noise coming from the bedroom as my seven-month-old baby girl has a nap. I will pause here to allow you to pass judgement on the revelation that I am 1)letting my daughter watch television and 2) relying on naughty ‘props’ such as white noise to get my baby to sleep. Feel free to pass on and find a correspondent more worthy. I won’t take it personally.

But that is of course just part of the story. A new chapter began before Christmas when my husband was diagnosed with psychotic depression. That adds a new dimension to all our lives. This blog is not about him, or even about my girls. It’s about me. Being a mother. Mostly.