At a certain point in my life, several women I knew were getting pregnant. I watched as their lives diverged from paths we had been sharing, and I could see they were going though things I had no personal experience of. As their concerns grew to encompass motherhood, I recognised that I was in danger of not being able to truly get what they were going through.
I love my close friends dearly, they’re important to me, and each of them is someone I really value having in my life; I could sense the mothers amongst them slipping away, spending less time with those of us who weren’t on a similar journey to theirs.
Rather than letting this become my reality with me increasingly ceasing to relate to their lives, I made a conscious decision to try and develop an understanding of what becoming a mother and navigating the world as one might feel like. So I actively started seeking out memoirs about motherhood and articles about parenting.
The books I immersed myself in became my gateway to diverse accounts of what being a mother is like, granting me a front seat at the motherhood experience. It turned out that the more time I spent engaging with these types of books, the more I acquired a familiarity with the realities of my friends’ lives. Also, spending time with my friends and family members who had become mothers and talking to them about what was happening in their lives, proved that I was genuinely interested in the changes that they were experiencing and willing to engage with them about it. This seemed to lead to them seeing me as someone who got where they were within themselves, resulting in more open conversations about the pleasures and lows of carrying and caring for a baby.
As a guy I won’t ever directly experience motherhood. I have watched women around me become pregnant and bring babies into the world. I have seen their lives alter in many different ways. Everyone has unique experiences and though there may be commonalities between particular types of women, those early stages of facing up to birthing a child and dealing with what follows, remain intense vibrant ones. Each person’s circumstances are a result of many forces, some of which are beyond their control. There’s no predicting what kind of pregnancy anyone will have, and until it happens, no one knows how they’ll feel.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to be ‘educated’ by some first-person narratives in book form that have helped me immensely, giving me insights into some of the experiences women in my life are going through, from early stages of pregnancy to dealing with going through the world as mothers.
Hollie McNish’s Nobody Told Me is a brilliant and funny account of one woman’s journey into motherhood, a book that many have loved. On the other end of the scale is Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work which talks about the difficulties of the experience for her in powerful details, a book that reveals how psychologically unsettling things can be. Then there’s The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which manages the impressive feat of simultaneously being intellectual, poetic and accessible as she explores motherhood and gender as her body changes. For an irreverent take I would recommend Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, which displays the comedy that can exist despite the loneliness that sometimes manifests.
These are just four of the books I have read in my attempts to gain a deeper understanding of what women in my life are going through as new mums. All the books I mentioned are by white women, as are many of the other books I have encountered on this topic. That realisation as I sat down to write this piece, led me to wonder, where are the motherhood memoirs by women of colour? In seeking answers to this, I came across an amazing article titled We Need to Talk About Whiteness in Motherhood Memoirs that addresses the topic in question and contains references to several books addressing diverse types of motherhood; definitely worth making time to check out.
When it comes to looking after a small child, again you’re faced with a great unknown especially as no two babies are the same, and there’s an element of seeing what temperament each baby has been gifted with. As you grapple with raising this human being, you may have varying degrees of support or understanding from the people closest to you. All you can do is keep trying, striving to be the best parent you can be, and trying to remind yourself that there is no perfect way to be a parent — and even the people who seem confident are probably muddling though just as much as you are, making up huge elements of parenting as they go along.
For the most part you just have to react to what each day throws at you, for no amount of planning or preparation can anticipate the multitude of ingenious ways a small child will naturally manage to take you by surprise. Going with the flow has to become a big part of how you navigate the days going forward if sane is a label you can apply to yourself. You’ll make mistakes, of that there is no avoiding, and one thing it’s important to keep at the forefront of your mind is that babies are resilient and much of the first couple of years will be a blur to them. Having responsibility for a small child is equally scary, frustrating, beautiful and mind-blowing at the same time.
I would like to finish off by recommending two books that provide insights into young kids’ perspectives;
- Children’s Minds by Margaret Donaldson is a concise and readable book about the development of children’s mindsets, language ability and thought processes.
- The Truth About Babies: From A to Z by Ian Sansom, wonderfully depicts the wonder of becoming a parent and what things must be like for babies as well as being a book you can dip in and out of to enjoy the gems housed within the text.
Happy reading, and here’s to surrounding kids with nurturing adults to support parents in the journey that is child rearing.
At the risk of mansplaining…
Cells divide to create new ones, all of them multiplying inside your womb to create a unique person. Your body changes with every moment as you grow a person, internal organs moving to accommodate the foetus as the cluster of cells gradually becomes a recognisable tiny human being. You feel the kicks, the shifting movement of activity you’re aware of but don’t control.
At times you rub your bump, rest your hands upon it, and sometimes you talk to the growing form you’re looking after. It’s part of you, yet it’s still separate with a mind of its own. As you navigate the world, your stomach leads the way, advertising the presence within. You’re still you and at the same time you’re different, your body changing independent of your control. The identity you knew as yours is still intact, yet it’s gaining other dimensions, revealing to you parts of your psyche you didn’t know existed. Some of how you feel might be to do with the hormones, the tiredness, but you know that the uncertainty of what lies ahead is ever present, exerting an influence even when you’re not thinking about it.
People share stories of their experiences, offering unsolicited advice, some of which is lapped up with gratefulness whilst others elicit feelings of indifference, if not irritancy. Sometimes you feel bulky maybe even fat, abandoning clothes you can no longer wear. You try to embrace being pregnant, easier at certain moments more than others. Sometimes you feel strangely detached from what you’re going through whilst at other points relaxing into it feels good. Most of all though, there are good periods and bad ones, all mixed up into the experience, punctuated by excitement, fear, confusion, and all manner of emotions.
Many women speak of having mixed feelings when the moment comes that their internal guest, the child they have been carrying inside them, comes out of their body. However the eagerness to meet the latest addition to their life probably trumps everything. In the developed world majority of women survive the parting, the pain that precedes the entrance of their child into the world, something some can’t quite believe even though the rational part of them knew and hoped they would. That first moment where you catch sight of your baby, that’s an intense one, more emotional than can be imagined; that’s a human being created and carried around inside another person, their mother, for months. Everything has been building to this point for so long, from that first positive test, scans, checkups, going through all those months to become someone new.
After the baby is out, quite a few women speak about how their body feels different, squishy, alien from how they’ve grown used to it being. Already they’re conscious of the absence, the return to normal, except there’s a new normal from the one they were used to having. Other women out there in the world, even the ones who’ve done this before, they don’t know exactly what each new mother is feeling, and as many new mothers themselves say they realise within days, even they forget exactly how they felt right after the baby became a person who wasn’t inside them. Now they have to get to know their new state of mind, their new life, adjust to the changes they find themselves living; this is a journey for life.
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