Being eluded by a definition of 'you'
How would you define 'you'? Three years ago I would have found that easy. I was a teacher. I was also a girlfriend, daughter, sister, friend, Londoner, about-to-be homeowner (finally!), reader, tea and wine drinker (not necessarily in that order) and Cadbury's chocolate fiend – but my job was consuming and I chose to become a teacher because it was an extension of me. I was happy to be defined by it.
But two years ago, we upped sticks and moved to the East coast of America with my (then very new) husband's job. It was a great career opportunity for him, a wise decision for our shared future, and the sacrifice I made by putting my career on hold (a sacrifice of which he was fully cognisant and hugely appreciative) was offset by the possibility of adventure that lay ahead of us. I found it impossible to find paid work as a teacher, but soon became pregnant and was able to enjoy some time setting up our new home, planning travels, hosting visitors and getting ready for our new arrival. Within a year I was a new mum to a healthy, beautiful baby girl.
I threw myself in to motherhood, happy to have a pressing focus for my time and energy that had been missing in the previous year, and consumed by a previously unimaginable love. I established routines, made new friends, hosted doting grandparents and aunts, and kept on top of the never-ending feeding, changing, washing, cleaning, sterilising, ironing and meal-planning that arrives with that gorgeous baby bundle. I was a mum and a wife, and it was a different version of me, but I never had a moment to pause and consider if it was a version of me that I was happy with.
But one day, the wheels came off the tracks. At about nine months, my daughter stopped sleeping reasonably well and started waking up 5, 6, 7 times a night. She started biting during breastfeeding, drawing blood and reducing me to tears every four hours. She was on the move, and her endless inquisitiveness led her to empty cupboards, bookshelves and drawers at a rate three times faster than I could remove the hazards or clean up after her. She began to resist the solid food I had painstakingly prepared for her or, worse still, willfully throw it from the high chair. I continued to love her fiercely, but the novelty of a newborn had worn off. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, bored to my back teeth with the routine drudgery of domestic tasks, and was left wondering, in amongst it all, where was the old me? Would I ever be able to find her again?
Predictably, the snowball that precipitated my emotional avalanche was a text from my husband at the end of a day when our daughter had resisted any naps, saying that he would be home late. When he did get back that night, he bore the full force of Megastorm Mum. He, wisely, allowed me to rant and cry, listened as I told him that he really didn't get exactly what it was like (I'm not saying working dads have it any easier, but they can't fully comprehend what the day-to-day with a baby is like. And they get to go to the loo by themselves and have an adult conversation before 6.30pm in the evening, so small mercies), and then set about helping me work out what we could do to change things.
I realised that if we had been at home, I would have been a matter of weeks away from returning to work in some capacity and would be cherishing the precious remainder of my maternity leave, whilst looking forward to getting a bit of the old me back. There would be new routines to focus on, the prospect of challenging work, and regular adult company to stimulate my mind. But because I hadn't immediately left anything to have my daughter, I had nothing specific to return to. I was caught in a sort of mum limbo – loving, and so thankful, for my role as a mother, but craving a break to be something else once in a while. Living far away from home created these conditions for us, and perhaps intensified their impact, but I know that many new mums in different situations experience similar things.
It’s taken us a few months, but we have recently begun to establish a new normal. My daughter goes to daycare two days a week and I am using that time to do a little comms work supporting small businesses, which gives me some professional (if not financial) gratification, and to see if that's something I can grow to fit around the main focus of my family. I am also taking time to write – which sounds ridiculously w*anky, but provides stimulation, and interest, and catharsis. It’s an indulgence, but if it’s one that keeps further avalanches at bay, I'm ok with that. I have a little more time to keep on top of all the household stuff, and a little more time to breathe, and I think as a result my daughter gets a better version of me on the five days when she is my total focus. I realise that we, as a family, are hugely privileged to be in this position.
This version of 'me' isn’t wholly satisfying (we’d all love to have a fascinating job that fits around the kids, allows us to be financially independent, and leaves us with free evenings to enjoy our partner’s company, right?!) but it strikes a better balance than I had when I reached that tipping point a few months ago. It also won't last forever; it won't always be what's best for me, or my daughter, or our family as a whole. But I'm starting to wonder that just as with a child 'everything's a phase', maybe the same goes for parents too. Now I'm a mother, 'me' has new priorities and pressures – good and bad – which will continue to shift and flux for years to come. For those of us who have been on a fairly predictable linear trajectory up until this point in our lives (school, uni, career, marriage, family), this will take some getting used to. But I feel the current outlook is much brighter than it was. So if I can issue a polite weather warning to my future self: next time you forecast an avalanche, revisit this post and consider what you can do to shift the eye of the storm.