When you become Mother…
When you become a mother, you cease to be an individual and not just because you have a new human being lurking around in the depths somewhere below the waistband of your leggings: everyone feels that they have the right, nay, the duty to give you the benefit of their advice. For me, the advice actually began before conception: my mother informed me solemnly that a post-coital shoulder stand would greatly increase my chances of getting pregnant.
That was the very first piece of advice, the first glittering snowflake in a veritable avalanche of remarks, suggestions and shared experiences. Don’t get me wrong: I am always ready to listen but I do think that motherhood appears to be a process lots of people view as collective. I know Hillary Clinton reminded us that it takes a village but at times, it can feel as if there are a veritable mega-city of experts, judging your every tiniest decision.
I decided to start having children relatively young in terms of my peers. I was twenty five years old and as I blithely told everyone, I expected my brain to lose function rather less rapidly than my ovaries. I was newly married, my husband was working: it didn’t seem like a very controversial step to have a baby. I should add at this point that I had the huge privilege of growing up in a vast, sprawling family and loved every minute of it and my mother had her first child at nineteen.
I was taken aback, therefore, when the GP treated me as a potential ‘problem pregnancy’, expressing her astonishment that a graduate of 25 should even consider having a baby. She clearly felt it was her duty to tell me about all the regret I would suffer from not having ‘explored myself’ further before having a child: I asked her if it was her professional opinion that I would be more likely to have a healthy baby at 25 or 45, although I already knew the answer.
Over the desk from me, therefore, was a woman who simply could not understand why an intelligent woman should want a child under her biological clock was ticking so loudly that it kept the neighbours awake. I slipped away as soon as was polite and found another doctor, a West Walian gentleman whose reaction to my news was ‘There’s lovely’, which was how I felt.
So then, the blizzard of pre-natal advice began. I expected the sensible ‘Don’t drink alcohol’ and ‘Eat sensibly’ stuff but I had no idea that my bump was the membership card for the Obstetric Rocky Horror Show Appreciation Society. Having few friends of my own age who had experienced labour, I was at the mercy of the hardened survivors, the sort who would tell you that with their Gerry, they went into labour on the Wednesday night but didn’t give birth until the following Thursday, by which time they had lost their hair, their teeth and their will to live. My mother, as ever, put things in perspective: ‘It hurts terribly, but you love your baby terribly afterward so you just forget.’ Spot on.
I will never quite recover from the feeling of utter uselessness when I found myself alone for the first time, facing the insurmountable responsibility of looking after this miraculous new person. I had no confidence at all and my well-meaning father went out and bought the best baby-care book he could find in Barry, at short notice. This dreadful tome, apart from promulgating the idea that ‘lovely Mummies all wear cheesecloth’ was written by so-called experts and their word was to be taken as law.
According to them, the only safe times for a mother to return to work were before the baby was a fortnight old or after they were five. Anything else risked ‘breaking the psychological bond’ between mother and baby and, not mincing their words, they predicted the consequences of such actions would be children who were emotionally scarred and probably criminal. Nice. Thanks for that. Very helpful. Well, I had missed that first window so could look forward to five year of unbroken baby-centred activities with other cheesecloth clad Mummys. Meanwhile, next-door-but-one had her own advice about how to play things. ‘Make sure she has half a bottle of Calpol a day. Take the edge off.’
I did survive, brain and sense of humour intact. I went on to have another five daughters, which means I am now the target for all of those who wonder if I had thought enough about the planet before having such a big family and of course, the ubiquitous merchants of ‘Trying for a boy?’ These latter are often surprised by my response to this remark which they regard as harmless though it reduces my beautiful daughters to the status of gender failures. Or I might suggest they check out the last ten years GCSE results: I am perfectly happy to parent offspring from the gender much more likely to succeed. But by now I am quite resigned to it and I suppose it is an unavoidable fact of life: that stork seems to deliver a great parcel of Other People’s Opinions as well as your beloved baby.
By Myfanwy Alexander.