Are the images we see of parenthood realistic?
Back in 2014, I remember it quite clearly, I was sitting in an antenatal class with other expecting parents, who later went on to become good friends. We have often talked about those classes, but one memory which stands above the rest for me is one of the exercises, where we planned “24 hours with our new baby”. I remember filling in hourly slots on the flip chart with stuff like “going to the coffee-shop with the baby” and occasionally saying things like, “Ooh, it has been four hours, so we probably should be feeding the baby now too?” or “Perhaps baby will need their nappy changed now?” It always makes me chuckle when I remember it. I honestly don’t remember if the antenatal teacher tried to question this chilled out picture of the day we painted. I do wonder now how much she was laughing internally at our naivety. The perception some of us had, after babies, was this: the realities of parenting were a well-kept secret, and not to be discussed, at least not until after you have the baby.
Culturally we are all influenced by the image of “happy motherhood”. The commonly sold narrative is that all parents will naturally transition to life with a baby with ease, and will innately understand all aspects of parenting, especially if we buy the right “stuff”. In reality, we are social creatures, and what we learn about parenting, comes from what we absorb, from our wider lives, childhood, and culture. Many of us simply are not around babies and children much, except as children ourselves. We may have had a sibling, but chances are we do not really remember them being babies. We often grow up in small nuclear families, rather than extended families or small communities. We might see a lot of babies on the screen, but many UK parents have rarely held a baby before the day comes when they hold their own.
The societal norm of not really talking about how parenting can be unless you are talking to another parent, of not admitting to our real feelings, of not discussing widely how normal it is to find it difficult, perpetuates the “big secret” about what it is really like. Search an image site, or google for the term “motherhood” and what you will find is similar to the photo above; a gallery of soft focus images of babies being cuddled, smiling mothers and heartwarming memes talking about how amazing mothers are. And we are amazing, but that doesn’t mean we feel like we are. Yet we are constantly bombarded with this stuff. “Enjoy every minute, it goes so fast!” the memes cry, or they say things like; “Motherhood is messy, and crazy, and challenging, and sleepless, and giving and still unbelievably beautiful“. And just sometimes, seeing this stuff can make you want to scream; “I don’t feel the bloody beauty! I am tired, I am fed up, I want to shower without interruption, I want to pee by myself, I want a full nights sleep and I want my old life back, just for a day”. It can be especially hard to be a new parent in a world where we can be bombarded with “insta-ready” images of parenting. We see smiling parents in adverts for “stuff”. We see lovely snippets of life with kids on our social media feeds, a place where we compare the best parts of other peoples lives, to our everyday.
Amidst the “pre-baby” expectations of what we might gain- a lovely cute ‘bundle of joy’, love, fulfillment and happiness (all of which may be true) we may feel ashamed to admit if we feel a “loss” too. A loss of our old identity, our autonomy, our old body, our professional selves, our time and our sleep! I clearly remember having the realisation myself that my life had completely changed now. It was never going to be what it was ‘before’ and that there was no break from this, no holiday, no time off- and in that moment the responsibility I felt was completely overwhelming.
When you ask new parents what they feel is the most unexpected aspect of caring for their baby, quite often the knee jerk response is: “no-one prepared me for the sleep deprivation”. Our cultural norms do not prepare us for what normal infant sleep is and fears around bed-sharing, can mean more exhaustion for western parents, who are frequently trying to get babies to “go down” in a separate sleep space or even a different room. Their small human often has an entirely different agenda. When we see babies on the television, or in movies frequently we are shown a picture of a newborn, alone, in a lovely crib, while they sleep soundly. In fact to prove this point, here are the top images from a google search for “sleeping baby”.
No wonder it can all come as a bit of shock when the reality for many is not a baby who is happy to sleep alone, but is in your bed, latched on. You are in a fleecy M&S onesie with one boob out because you know you shouldn’t use a duvet, and any sheets that do remain have a few dubious stains on- “Is that breastmilk or baby vomit?” you briefly wonder, before turning your attention to other more pressing matters, like getting your baby back to sleep. Again.
And while we often focus on only how the mother is doing after birth, the same difficulties are often true for the other parent too.
Before we had our baby, my husband often remarked he didn’t see how it would change things a great deal. I remember having a conversation with him about how I wanted to make sure I got my hair done before having the baby, as I might struggle afterward. He was confused by my worries, in his mind, of course I would have time. In reality my baby was 6 months old before I got to the salon. The transition to fatherhood was equally hard on him, and I remember he was also emotional and overwhelmed at times. I’m ashamed to say, I resented him for this at the time, I was dealing with my own struggles to breastfeed, and my transition to motherhood. Where previously we would have shown each other empathy, instead we were often in conflict. Having had a very happy relationship ‘before’, the strain we came under came as a shock to me, we hadn’t anticipated it at all. Our experience felt dramatic at the time, it was our first maritial “rough patch” but we weren’t unique. I only realised this a couple of years later, having a lunch date with an old friend, who confided in me (after a few drinks) she had a really similar experience. Difficulties in relationships after having children are well documented, and also backed up by research. Yet it seems like the huge upheavals to relationships and subsequent difficulties are only alluded to in passing conversations, rarely discussed openly, if at all.
Obviously I love my daughter with a passion, I would never change a single thing about her (ok that is a lie, I do kind of wish she would sleep but that is another story). I don’t want to paint a negative picture because I have gained far more than I ever lost, and being a parent really can be so very wonderful. I think parents are amazing, and that we often are far too hard on ourselves. But I think we need to be telling real stories. Parenthood isn’t trite memes. It isn’t soft focus images of cuddled up babies and tiny feet. Breastfeeding isn’t always smiling down lovingly at a suckling baby, especially at first. Sometimes there is pain involved in becoming a parent, physically and emotionally. Often it is hard work. There is a learning curve. We might not be able to fully prepare for it, but we can be prepared to be surprised. And as we shed our old skin, and our old lives, and become something forever changed, we should reflect on the stories we tell to others who might be next. Our real stories deserve to be told. The truth is rarely “insta-ready”, but sometimes it is good to get a little bit real.
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