On discovering I was pregnant I received a deluge of congratulations and good wishes, endless advice and cautionary tales. They ranged from the sublime – “ it’ll be the best thing you ever do” to the ridiculous – “your only accessory for the next 5 years will be baby vomit and dribble;” and from the positive – “you’ll never regret a minute of it” to the depressingly negative – “you’ll never sleep properly again”.
And while all of these things are true to a lesser or greater extent, no-one and nothing prepared me for the absolute upheaval a new baby brought. I had always been a do-er, and never been afraid of hard toil. Twelve hour days at work were food and drink to me; burning the candle at both ends was a way of life. I thrived on lists and deadlines, there was always a plan, a place to go, someone to see, something to do.
Being pregnant gave me more lists to write, new things to learn, and a whole new set of plans to make. But I should have known a child of mine wouldn’t play by the rule book. I’d written my birth plan (in colour code of course) and had it stacked neatly on top of my hospital bag. My drug-free, natural birth which would see me breastfeeding within seconds of arrival went up in a puff of epidural, as I endured a drug-infused emergency caesarean high-intervention drama, unable to hold her, let alone feed her, for the first few hours of her life. The realisation that Daisy would turn my pre-ordered life upside down began the day she was born. I’ve kept a copy of that plan to give myself a laugh every now and again.
The earth-mother image I’d had of walking round the house, baby at breast, suckling at ease, evaporated in the daily struggle with nipple guards, industrial double breast pumps and a stiff neck from sitting stock still for hours once she latched on in whatever position I’d ended up contorting into to get her to feed.
But we settled into our life together, Daisy and I, and we found our routine. I happily produced colour coded charts for the fridge door to keep me (and my husband) in line for feeding, sleeping and playing.
But the final demise of my grand plan came from me myself. Suddenly, instead of looking forward to going back to my busy, high-octane job, I realised I couldn’t leave her every day. The career that had driven and defined me all these years just did not seem as important right now compared to my new mission. The cosy bubble of maternity leave refused to burst, and handing in my resignation somehow didn’t seem like a hard decision at all. Daisy was only going to be a baby once, and I would have plenty of years in the future to work full-time again.
But in the months that followed, I had to remind myself that this was what I wanted. Much as I loved and took delight in her as she progressed and developed from a beautiful sleeping babe to a tearaway crawler who seemed to know exactly where I didn’t want her to go, and the exact thing (plug, cat food, phone) that I didn’t want her to eat, I found it hard. Sometimes unbelievably, overwhelmingly hard.
It was relentless, thankless, frustrating, lonely, frightening and all-consuming. I had managed a team of twenty people for God’s sake, surely one small baby couldn’t be this hard? I’d made a hundred decisions a day, managed multi-million euro budgets, hired and fired, and developed complex, long-reaching strategies. Now, there were days I could hardly decide whether she needed a coat on or not, water or juice, courgette puree or broccoli. Working for an international aid agency, I had travelled without thought to war-torn countries, but now found a trip into town a major expedition that required such military precision that even a list-fiend like myself could barely manage it without forgetting something.
Of course being at home also meant I took over the lion’s share of the housework, and the days seemed to roll into each other in an endless blur of washing, ironing, hoovering and cooking. There were moments as I stood over the ironing board wondering where I had disappeared to. Somewhere between childbirth and child-rearing the workaholic Iron Lady had become the houseworn ironing lady.
But then a strange thing happened. One day, she finally used her feet instead of her head to get down from the bed – a move I had been trying to teach her for weeks – and I felt a pride I’d never experienced before, and a final realisation of the job I had to do. So, amidst the poo and the vomit and the never-empty washing basket, I started to put proper value on what I was doing. Every time she smiled at me, reached a new milestone, picked up her first piece of finger food and successfully put it in her mouth on the fifteenth attempt, I realised that spending my time on her was the most important thing I could be doing. I finally came to terms with the fact that as a mother my life was very different now. Yes, the housework was still a pretty thankless job, but the feedback and acknowledgement I missed from being ‘the boss’ now came in the form of a toothy grin, a squeal of delight, and those first, heart-stopping words… “mama”.
I still have days when it just won’t come together, but I have many more where the joy of chasing her round the floor to wild screams of delight, and the priceless feeling of cuddling her in my arms as she dozes off to sleep, fill me with pride and satisfaction. I opened some new doors to ensure I still had a part of my life which was mine – guitar lessons and early morning runs, and I’m still addicted to making lists and colour coded charts. But I am happy in my new career – it’s much harder and more responsible than the one I had before, but more enlightening and satisfying. For now at least, being a mother is the most important job I can do.
Oh, and the accessories I wear nowadays? I do manage an Orla Kiely bag every now and again, and the odd piece of jewellery, but the baby vomit and dribble is definitely there. And I wear it as a badge of honour. Who knows – it may even become fashionable.
(Published in Modern Mum, Spring 2007 issue)
(c) AKG 2008
Thanks I laughed and cried at Iron Lady to Ironing Lady.. I really hope this article inspired more Mums to consider taking the much deserved and rewarding career break. As you know I took the career break but then decided to start a “start-up business”, now I just work when she sleeps (Luckily we’re still on a 2 hour afternoon Nap!), but even though I know I’m very very tired these days and have zero me time, I feel extremely lucky to be able to spend so much time with her. Thx