This time last year, I didn’t know very many mothers. My friends and I were women in our early thirties who could still get pissed on a Tuesday night. We could still phone each other on a Saturday morning and say, “I’m outside your house, do you want to come and waste a whole day on houseplant shopping and gossiping and cocktail drinking with me?” We could still occasionally miss the night bus and clamber into bed together. Now as we approach the end of 2016, things have changed.
Now I hold tiny babies on Sunday afternoons, coaxing them to grab my index finger with their whole hands. I make cups of tea for women who lie trapped under infants on sofas (they’re so little but so hard to get out from under at times). I make hard and fast plans, sometimes weeks in advance, considering if Tube stations have lifts and if restaurants have bathrooms with changing tables.
Many of my friends have become mothers – really brilliant, perfect mothers, if I may say so myself – and I have learnt so much from them.
I have learnt exactly the *kind* of pain childbirth involves
“It’s much more ouch-y than I had ever expected,” is how one friend put it as she described the feeling of delivering her daughter. “It stings very badly.” She had expected a deep pain, a mystical pain unlike other pain she had experienced in life, and was surprised to realise that the sorest part for her was the pushing of the baby through her own flesh and skin. “It was exactly as sore as that sounds,” she said. This is an obvious point, I realise in retrospect, but one I only became aware of when a good friend with whom I can talk about such stuff became a mother.
That said, I have also learnt that the notion that childbirth is homogeneous is entirely false
Having a few friends who have had babies this year does not make me a gynaecological expert, I know, and yet, even in my limited experience, it has become abundantly obvious that the act of childbirth varies greatly. Sometimes it has taken a couple of hours, sometimes a couple of days; some women have described it as no big deal, some have been in serious medical danger. And so the idea that we judge women who get the epidural or opt for the caesarean section feels even more odious to me now. Never has it been clearer that many of the messages about natural childbirth are quite simply cruel and misogynistic, and it’s rhetoric that we should challenge every chance we get.
‘Getting your boobs out in the pub will never feel natural,’ one friend said as she did just that at the weekend
I have become an expert-by-proxy on the latest cinema releases
One new mother friend has become a particularly loyal customer of the local parent-and-baby cinema screenings. She has seen everything. In a room full of crying babies at 9.45am but still. Everything. I no longer have to turn to Peter Bradshaw for tips; my friend can give me full and considered reviews of Nocturnal Animals or Arrival or Paterson or Fantastic Beasts or whatever. She has, I tell you, seen everything. (I have also found new mothers to be quite good at recommending Netflix shows.)
I have realised that having the baby isn’t always the inherently stressful thing, it’s the lack of support that makes life really difficult
Most times, when I visit my friends with babies, they look beatific, their faces plumped up by love. “It’s really all so lovely,” they whisper to me, almost embarrassed by their good fortune. These are women lucky enough not to experience postnatal depression, and crucially they have supportive partners and paid maternity leave packages. It’s not so bad waking up in the middle of the night when you know you can take a little snooze tomorrow as the baby sleeps, my friends tell me, doing their best to be brave in the face of exhaustion. And I think of the grey-faced women forced back to work when their babies are still teeny-tiny weeks-old things because their employers and the state ignore their needs. I think of the single mothers on zero-hours contracts providing for older children and newborn babies. And I know we have to do more to help those women. We cannot let it be that the better-off get to kiss and cuddle their babies more than the rest.
I have come to know that for many, breastfeeding isn’t the most natural thing in the world
There have been friends for whom breastfeeding simply hasn’t worked and so they’ve turned to formula and bottles, a set-up that comes with an often overlooked boon: fathers can be more involved in the (more-or-less constant in those first few weeks) feeding, sharing the burden and the joy more equally. And even for those whose bodies and babies have complied, it is sometimes strange. “Getting your boobs out in the pub will never feel natural,” one friend said as she did just that at the weekend.
I know we have to work hard, harder, to make things better
A friend had a baby on the day of the Brexit vote. Another a couple of days before Trump was elected. These babies I know are being born into turbulent times, where an uncertain future looms – the world is getting hotter and meaner and less tolerant and more dangerous. And these tiny babies I visit in London flats are the lucky babies, the very luckiest babies, born far from bombs and civil wars. But we most hope for them and work for them. It’s tempting to hide away from 2016, but until the babies grow up and become the scientists and the thinkers and the policy makers we’ll need, we must do the job as best as we can.
I now understand better the sacrifices my own mother made for me
Oh God, I suddenly realise, I’ve been an ungrateful shit for the past 33 years. I look at the new mothers I know, at the love they’re expending and the sacrifices they’re making and the hours they’re giving and the money they’re spending, and I think of my mother, who did all of that for me. And I resolve to treat her with even more care now that I see more clearly and more closely the toil of being a mum.
I have learnt that a “wind” smile is just as good a “smile” smile
“Yeah, I’ve just fed her so that’s probably just wind,” a mum will say as a smile breaks out on a six-week-old’s face. And I’ll ignore her completely. I’ll take that “wind” smile coming my way and I’ll see it as pure love, thank you very much.