For a mother, the term ‘Me Time,’ doesn’t quite cut it. It implies time away from children spent luxuriously, a bubble bath by candlelight, a quiet spot to read a book for hours on end; an indulgence. What I’m talking about here is ‘Space.’ Not a luxury, but a basic need. Time out to take a few quiet breaths, to regroup from tantrums, whinging; from any and all of the demands of having young children. The last time I felt this way, I had just given birth to our third child.
‘There is no space,’ I said to my husband. ‘There is nowhere for me to just be.’
And even when I sought space in our small, small house, taking a shower, letting the hot water wash away the day, preparing me for another night of broken sleep, there was no solitude. The boys bursting through the door. My husband hovering, trying to settle an unsettled baby simply in need of her mother. Even if no one actually entered my physical space, I felt the demands weighing heavy on my shoulders. I couldn’t relax; what if they needed me?
In support of her staff, the principal at the first school I ever worked at, a Catholic school, famously spoke of giving her staff ‘time and space.’ Gently encouraging us in the direction of change.
Time and space. Two things I had in short supply when I first became a mother of three. ‘I don’t have time for my other children,’ I said, as I felt the dust of mother’s guilt settle with all my energies invested in ensuring our youngest baby thrived.
Despite the exhaustion, the deprivation of personal space, I tried to find the humour, the joy in the everyday.
Dancing in the kitchen, in a zombie-like state while sterilising bottles, I gave the last remaining part of myself to my two other children after feeding and caring for our baby – because if I didn’t laugh I would have cried. My eldest son, stood in the kitchen bemused by new dance moves which went like this; ‘And feed’ – arms out in front, ‘Express’ – arms above, ‘And sterilise. And sterilise’ – feet to the side, feet to the side. Because these were the actions of my every waking hour; feeding, expressing, or sterilising; all in desperate need to steadily increase our newborn’s weight.
‘Mummy’s a cow,’ my eldest son said cheekily, laughing at the rhythmic sucking sound of the breast pump.
This was funny; and not. Because for the first few months of our daughter’s life, life was hard, very hard. Advice was confusing and conflicting. Express at every feed and top up every feed with a bottle. Ditch the expressing and persist feeding ‘naturally.’ I was not a person in my own right, but a vessel for food and sustenance. And this went on for months.
Already a mother to two beautiful boys, I knew how to ‘mother’. And yet our daughter provided challenges I’d never had to face with the boys.
When our second child was born, my obstetrician visited me the morning after the delivery, declaring ‘Look at this lady of leisure’.
Sitting up in bed, engrossed in a good book, I had to remind myself I’d just given birth. I almost felt guilty for using up the hospital’s resources when I was clearly capable of doing this mothering thing on my own.
After the birth of our third child, however, I was shell-shocked. Things weren’t going smoothly as they had before. I buzzed the nurses, daily, seeking assistance with feeding, checking our attachment; because neither baby, nor I, seemed to have any clue what we were doing. After being discharged – our baby narrowly avoiding being admitted due to insufficient weight gain – baby and I attended extra weigh-ins, breastfeeding consultations, community group breastfeeding sessions. I engaged in copious amounts of anxiety-driven research, experimenting with bottle teats, adjusting the amount of top-up feeds, experimenting with baby-led attachment; encouraging the baby’s natural instincts to find the breast. But ultimately, it was a matter of time, and space, until baby and I were able to consolidate a good feeding relationship.
I wasn’t alone. My husband, is, and was, incredibly supportive. I have very hands-on and doting parents, a close circle of friends and family. But the feeding issues I experienced with our third child were mine to bear.
Was it worth it? Persisting with breastfeeding for so long, and at such a personal expense to me, and my other children?
Ultimately, that is not the point here. The point is that this was an incredibly hard time in my life; that while living through it, I felt as though the struggle would never end.
I remind myself of this time – so difficult, I’d rather forget – to remember that things will, and do, improve. To understand, and know, that while in the throes of a Lockdown that is only becoming more stringent, more difficult to bear; that things will, and do, improve.
In those early days with a newborn, I understood that life would not simply go on in the same way forever. But the days were long and hard, physically exhausting, emotionally taxing, it was difficult to imagine a different reality than the one I was facing. I had to remind myself of the silver-lining, work hard to appreciate my three beautiful blessings; each child filling our home, my heart, with love.
As I look back on those crazy, hazy days of newborn chaos, of mothering more children than I have hands; as I watch each child develop their own interests, demonstrate their own clever attributes, engage in some small act of kindness; the eldest one helping the middle one find socks, the middle one ensuring whatever he has to eat, there’s enough to share, both boys letting their sister ‘hog the ball’ when we play basketball, understanding she’s far too young to understand the rules; I appreciate ‘time and space,’ in all its forms.
This house is a small house. And some days, its smallness, our close confines, works to amplify the chaos; a zoo within a matchbox. Other times, it holds up a mirror to that which I am most grateful. Some days, this house is just small enough.
‘Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.’
– LU XUN, HOMETOWN
Victoria, we will get through this.