This is a transcript of the reading Yolande Norris gave at our May Story-share on Motherhood.
It’s never said, how much the onset of labour can be like coming up on ecstasy. The heart-rate increase, the chills, pupils grow dark and wide, the vision blurs – then the nausea, potential vomiting, and the moment, on the edge, when you just know everything is about to get a whole lot more intense, and perhaps you’re not entirely sure you’ve thought this whole thing through.
Alternatively, a friend was telling me about competing in the 24-hour mountain bike race as part of a team of only two – an epic, wonderful undertaking. After the race she described her experience to me – with its highs and lows, the challenges she’d met; including the weather, poor track conditions, a flat tire. We talked about stamina and the way in which her physical self went into battle with her mind. She said there were things she would do differently next time around. I said to her: you have just described what it is like to give birth.
In the hours and days following my son’s birth, the majority of visitors and well-wishers said to me, upon hearing an account of how he had come in to the world, ‘oh you poor thing’
‘how could they have let you go on like that?’
I felt robbed, completely taken aback by the suggestion that I was some vulnerable thing in the midst of a situation outside my control and outside of my doing. I hadn’t felt that way at all. I was a willing participant in the end-point of a journey of extraordinary physicality, wasn’t I? I thought I’d done a pretty bloody good job. I thought: you wouldn’t say that to someone who had just completed some feat of sporting endurance. You wouldn’t say that to a woman finishing the 24-hour mountain bike race.
If I countered by saying I felt I’d had a good experience I quickly learned to resent the response:
‘You only think it was positive because you’ve forgotten already’,
‘that’s just the hormones speaking’
or just a tight, bemused smile.
But I knew that I was lucky, I knew I was fortunate. I had a team of midwives – including an incredible student midwife, who stayed by my side for the better part of 24 hours. And a obstetrician who came close to goddessness – her head framed by my knees as she cut me precisely, wielded forceps, the most ungainly of tools, with deftness and determination, who pulled while I pushed and brought the ropeable cone-headed bub into the light of day before stitching me together so perfectly that I would heal swiftly and no-one need ever be reminded, before she disappeared like some kind of white-coated mirage.
In awe of these women, and the activity around me, I didn’t care for the baby at all – even when he was clamped, cut and whisked off to intensive care to remove fluid from his lungs. It makes me curl my toes in shame to think it, even now. I recall being far more impressed and proud of the placenta – my placenta? -offered for me to view by one of the midwives, as if she was proud of it too. She wrapped it in several layers of plastic bags, so that I could take it home.
I didn’t feel euphoric. In a cloud of dehydration, exhaustion and blood loss all I could think about was myself and how desperate I was for vegemite toast and strong black tea.
Even in that first hour, there was a niggle of disillusionment. When it is said that having a baby will ‘change your life’ I naively thought that it would change ME, for the better, and instantaneously. But sitting propped up in a hospital bed with crippling incontinence and mind awash I realised in dread it was me – just the same as I always was. Just me, who had not magically transformed into a mother, and then this baby.
What had I done. The words thrummed through my head for weeks. I liked looking at the baby, holding his tiny starfish hands and stroking his face; I wanted to protect him, and care for him, but I didn’t love him.
The huge focus we place on childbirth as the hurdle of womanhood and parenthood is bizarre to me. Compared to the monstrous looming of the first six, seven, eight weeks of life with a newborn, or longer still, the actual birth seems tiny and laughable in comparison. Like scaling a mountain to look out and find only desert to the horizon, with no turning back. I quickly saw that most of what I had read, or what anyone had told me about birth and parenthood was useless fluff, a gross misrepresentation or missing completely the real issues at hand, leaving some huge, glaring omissions. I found myself looking at the older women in my life thinking ‘why would you not say?’
In the coming months I felt no different as a person, but slowly, imperceptibly, love came, along with its entourage of feelings both harrowing and blissful. Love cloaked as fear, love pedaling anxiety, love desperately wanting to be more. At the best moments, it was simple love, uncluttered and unquestioned.
But still, 9 or 10 months in, I was coming apart. No dramas, no catastrophes. I was just lonely, bored, isolated from all the things I had been a part of, everything I had thought defined me. Every minute and hour dragged – yet I was told that time would fly. There were people I knew who felt validated and purposeful through motherhood. I did not, but wished I could be, for how much simpler it’d be. It is a desire for something else or something more that brings about dissatisfaction. It is dissatisfaction that breeds mothers’ guilt, that special kind.
I saved myself by going back to work, full time. A ‘working mother’, which is as ridiculous and unhelpful as the term ‘stay-at-home-mum’, when in fact there is just life, and some of it is labeled as work, and some enjoyment – or even both at once – and some you get paid for and some you don’t. And in the time left over there is sleeping, or trying to. Anyhow, a parent is a parent. And although I felt unchanged as a person, I was a parent and it would be forever so, no matter what I did with my days.
Upon sighting the realities of parenthood I realised that the whole world is exhausted, worn thin, and weighed down by worry and doubt. On my first outing with a five-day-old baby, to the local IGA, I saw people as if for the first time. I searched their faces. I knew suddenly that not one of them had a life that was neat and simple.
I still think now of all the people up all hours – a city awake within a city asleep – each one feeling completely alone on a sea of endless night.
Society likes to smirk and tell prospective parents that they won’t have time for whatever it is they are most passionate about in life, not after the baby comes. For women in particular I believe this puts you in a box, a socially sanctioned reason to give up, and give in, when in fact you are raw and rich and reaching out to the edges of the universe of experience. For a writer this is potent. Awake at 3 and 4am breastfeeding my mind was a wonderful lucid thing, unrecognisible and unreachable in daylight hours. My ideas were clear and bold. Words came to me well-rounded and easily caught. I tapped them out one-thumbed on a iPhone, scrawled them on scraps of paper in the kitchen.
Everything seemed incredibly urgent to me, and I turned against my former modes of procrastination and lethargy to attack projects with two hands and teeth bared. A dormant ambition took me by surprise with its ferocity. I became massively productive and rued the mindless waste of 29 years beforehand.
However, the subject matter on which I drew was chiefly of the home and family. My work became what could be spurned as ‘domestic’ and if not that then certainly inward gazing and cemented in my own reality. It’s a space I am tired of and wonder if I will now ever be able to shrug.
I’ve been a mum, a parent, for over three years now, but remain a little covert about it, tending to hide my maternal status, not wanting it to define me. I avoid using the word ‘mum’, cagey about admitting parenthood in social settings and professional contexts. I feel foolish, deceptive, and question what I am so afraid of, what I think I would really be revealing. Of course it means I fear that people will think less of me, although I know that it has made me sharper. Deep down, or not so deep down in fact, I believe that the label will preclude me from things like intellectualism, academia, excellence and genius. Because these things seem unavailable, I want them now more than ever.
And perhaps I don’t feel like I’ve earned the mantle. Like I still don’t understand the entirety of the situation. I still don’t know what I’m doing, and certainly haven’t done enough to earn it. There are mums who are far more mum than me, who have less support, fewer resources, more children, or more challenging ones. I still haven’t been whisked onto some higher plane of consciousness, smiling beatifically, the way we are led to suppose a new mother is. I am still disappointedly, reassuredly, myself. Like some kind of pioneer on the world’s most trodden path, I furiously make notes and observations to share with those who are yet to come, but know full well the paths of these next mothers will look nothing like my own.