A few days ago, my daughter turned 20 months old, exactly a year and 8 months. So I thought I would list the 20 things I’ve learnt since I became a mother on that cold typically British, rainy afternoon in January of what seems to be eons ago but was only last year.
Now some of those things are tips and tricks I’ve adopted for basic survival, some “accepted” truths were forced on me which I had to chuck aside and replace with my own realizations, others I’m still in the process of learning. So here goes:
1). Sleep is no longer you’re God-given right as a living entity. It is a luxury that you would gladly give your right arm and leg for. And if you are lucky enough to get it, congratulations! You are officially part of the 1% of the 1%. The first few months of motherhood will teach you that soon enough and you will never be able to unlearn it. Ever. But there are a couple of loopholes. One is sleeping when the baby sleeps. This is one piece of advice I carelessly tossed aside and I suffered greatly for it. Follow your baby’s guide and make nap time your favorite time of the day. Your body and your mind will thank you for it. The other loophole is co-sleeping. Nothing has helped me and my baby more than sharing a room and more often than not a bed. Breastfeeding while in the horizontal position is another Godsend. Try it. You will never regret it.
2). While we’re on the subject of breastfeeding, I won’t pretend to speak for every mother out there, but my decision to breastfeed and continue breastfeeding turned into one hell of a journey. However, while initially excruciating, the highs were definitely worth it. I wonder sometimes if the bond that I painstakingly developed with my baby would have been as strong if I hadn’t breastfed, given my PPD. Or perhaps it would have taken longer to emerge.
3) Depression is a killer. Nothing else about motherhood will break you like depression. Read about it, know your symptoms and talk to your doctor. But aside from getting the required treatment, little things will help like opening up to loved ones about how you’re feeling, getting help with housework and making some time in your day for you. Ultimately, you have to learn to reach out for help, cry out for it if you have to. There’s no shame in it. The shame is in being silent for so long thinking you can go it alone. Trust me, you can’t.
4) There will be times when it feels like there is no “you” anymore. People will refer to you as the mother of so and so, or bitter old women will shamelessly tell you point blank that you simply don’t exist beyond your one mission in life of keeping your husband happy and your baby alive. People are ruthless. This is one of the hardest truths I’ve had to learn. So lose the wide-eyed naivete, develop a thicker skin and simply tune out the noise. What do they know anyways? They’re not YOU.
5) Talk to your spouse about parenting styles, BEFORE you become parents. I can’t stress this enough. My husband and I never really discussed anything beyond having the baby in the UK. I guess we just thought we’d figure it out along the way. And we did, the hard way. After much going back and forth, arguments, and counterarguments, we’ve found a tentative middle ground. We’ve found what worked for our little family. So talk to each other, A LOT. It will save you a lot of time, energy and frustration.
6) Be present in the moment. I’ve personally struggled with this a lot. Sometimes I still do. I experienced motherhood for the first time in a country that I hate (and that’s putting it mildly). Add to that, my PPD (which I’m sure Egypt was a major contributing factor), plus my initial problems with breastfeeding, plus having hardly any help, plus a Pandora’s box of other little annoyances and issues so it was no wonder that I found myself under water so many times. I forgot how to enjoy those all too fleeting moments with my daughter. So stop the inner chatter, and breathe. It’s just you and your baby. No one in the world will love you like they do. Be grateful for that love. I have found nothing else calms my soul like my daughter’s smile.
7) Follow your instincts, not a parenting book written by some snooty doctor who has no idea about your child’s complexities, or people who had babies before the age of cellphones. In fact, get rid of them, burn them if you have to (the books, not the people). Nine times out of ten, when I went with my gut, I was proven right and was able to act in the best interests of my child, rather than follow someone else’s advice and then end up doing damage control and engaging in a vicious cycle of self-blame and self-doubt.
8) About guilt, don’t go there. Just don’t. I know it’s easier said than done. It seems the one universal trait shared among all mothers is guilt. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. We do the best we can, with whatever resources we have, expending all our energy and giving up chunks of our lives for the well-being of our children. So where exactly does the guilt fit in? If you let it in, you open your psyche to a whole host of other monsters: low self-esteem, self-doubt, and misery all around. We do this to ourselves. Baby doesn’t care about the unwashed dishes in the sink, the laundry you didn’t get to, or even that you didn’t change her diaper exactly on the 2-hour mark. Babies are surprisingly forgiving, (they will forgive you even when you lose your s*&% and you can’t seem to forgive yourself). So take a page out of their books.
9) Just like you need to learn to ask for help, you need to learn to say no to people and most importantly, to your inner critic. You don’t have to make it to every social engagement. You certainly don’t have to have a gourmet dinner on the table every night. Take out and Netflix are your best friends. Use and abuse the hell out of them.
10) The little things matter. For the first few months of motherhood, I looked like a hot mess. But when things settled down and I established something approaching a normal routine, especially when I was working from home, I made it a point to wear makeup everyday. I’m not talking about full-on glam makeup. Just a little concealer, some mascara and lipstick did wonders. It made me look and feel more put-together, more human, more like a woman than a zombie from the Walking Dead.
11) Meditate, meditate, meditate. I’m still working on this one. When I’m all over the place and I feel the onset of a panic attack because I decided to torture myself with questions like, OMG, what if we never leave Egypt? What if I can’t get my career back on track? What if my daughter never weans? What if she inherits her father’s hair? I simply take a few deep breaths and detach myself from the feeling of being overwhelmed. If I have to listen to a YouTube meditation session then so be it. I observe those questions, the feeling of anxiety they produce and simply watch them go by without attaching myself to them. I simply tell myself, I am not that anxiety. Research mindfulness and practice it. It helps you get through the rough spots without medication.
12) Involve your baby in the things you love to do. I like to take my baby out to the garden and look at the plants together. I point out certain flowers. Sometimes I bring her into the kitchen with me when I’m making dinner and I turn on the radio. She loves it when I pretend I’m on stage, holding a mic, singing along to the songs and dancing all over the place. It’s great fun. Of course, the kitchen floor that I have to clean up afterwards because she pulled every conceivable food item from the pantry drawers is not so much fun.
13) Reach out to other mothers but DON’T compare yourself to them. Each of us is on their personal journeys, and each of us has to deal with their own s*&% in their own unique ways. Share war stories, learn from each other, but don’t compare or compete. I used to look at other mothers with mild envy and wonder how they look so put together. But then I realized that they must go through their own struggles. I’m just not privy to it. This is not a race, a sprint or a marathon. You won’t get a prize at the end of it. Just do the best you can.
14) Make some baby-free time for yourself. I got into the habit of waking up extra early in the mornings, making myself a cup of coffee and spending a few quiet moments in my patio garden. Sometimes, I write in my journal, sometimes I flip through Pinterest for inspiration for a project I want to start working on (although I try to keep this time as technology-free as possible), sometimes I just sit and sort through my thoughts. Go out with friends, have a spa day, go for a manicure/pedicure. I always come back missing and loving her more, once I’ve had some “me” time.
15) Explore things you never thought you could do. I’ve spoken before about how motherhood suddenly triggered passions and ambitions I never knew I had. Once I became a mother and my time was no longer my own I suddenly wanted to do everything. Or at least try. So I did, slowly and randomly here and there. I stopped regretting all the time I wasted in my youth and started better utilizing the time I still have. I started writing more, I even started drawing and exploring my creative side. There is always something you can do, so do it.
16) Your dreams still matter. Don’t let go of them. I struggled a lot with this in the beginning. I used to think I’ll never have time to do anything else in my life. This is it. I peaked. It’s all downhill from here. Don’t get caught in that quagmire. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to put aside your dreams, even for a second. Keep dreaming. It will be harder, no doubt, with kids, but still possible. Your baby will turn two soon, go to nursery and sleep through the night. And just like that, you will have more time. Use it wisely. There’s still a lot I want to achieve. It may not happen right now, or ever, but I have no regrets about dreams. Even if I never achieve some of them, I’m glad I had them. What I will regret is allowing people to make the decision for me or convincing myself to stop trying.
17) Don’t forget about your husband. He’s in this too. Bless their souls, even if they fumble all over the place, our husbands have the best of intentions. Make time for your marriage. Once I factored him into the equation, I started feeling more like we were a family, a unit onto ourselves, rather than survivors trying to make it through a war. I appreciated him more as a husband and a father and felt grateful for him. He became my rock once again.
18) Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you were a perfectionist before you became a mother, well let me tell you, motherhood is one rude awakening. You won’t get everything right all the time. So stop trying and enjoy the chaos. It will save your sanity.
19) Turn off the damn TV, and let your baby entertain herself. You will witness the miracle of her mind developing before your eyes. I used to keep the TV on almost all day on the Disney channel but a child psychologist told me nothing could be more detrimental to my baby’s development. She hardly used to watch TV anyways. But I did notice a marked difference once I turned the TV off. She started exploring things around the house, touching objects to get a feel for their texture. It was actually quite entertaining to watch.
20) Don’t let society dictate if and when you should have more children. No one, no matter how close they may be to you, has the right to weigh in or try to manipulate what should be a very personal decision. Believe me, the people who are telling you that it’s time you were working on baby number 2 are the ones who will conveniently disappear when you need their help and support the most. This is your life, your body, your family. No one knows better than you or your husband your circumstances or the plans you have.
And there it is. I’ve learnt a lot more than this, but those were the top 20 things I’ve pondered for the past couple of years or so. They’re specific to my experience as a mother, but hopefully they will serve as words of encouragement and support to other mothers out there. Speaking of other mothers out there, I would love to know the most important lessons you’ve learnt since embarking on this strange and wonderful journey.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post about some of my creative pursuits…