I remember looking forward to becoming a mum, all the lovely things I would do with my babies. The long walks, cups of tea, naps together, pastel-coloured loveliness. It sort of wasn’t like that in the early days. I was mostly tired and bored, as it turns out babies aren’t the best at engaging conversation and appear to resent you for having your own.
I often get asked at the café, when does the joy begin? This bundle of joy, when does it actually arrive? We have had some contributions from our community listing a few instances where we have felt this aforementioned bliss.
My girlie, 15 months old and still toddling about as a relatively new walker. We went strawberry picking and her little face lit up when I showed her the strawberries hiding between the leaves. I did most of the picking as she was busily eating them straight from the plant. We had a drink in the café afterwards and I asked her what she liked about pick your own. She said, “together.”
My oldest was unwell on and off for about 18 months of her young life and I was in and out of hospital with her. I remember one occasion when we returned home on very little sleep; we went straight to bed and she asked if we could snooze together. I slept for around 3 hours and when I woke up, my other half had cleaned the house top to bottom and cooked lunch. I remember hearing my little one slowly climb down the stairs and appear a little while later, all tousle-headed, and we curled up on the sofa for the rest of the day. Although the hospital was awful, the calm afterwards is a memory I will cherish.
My son has never been particularly interested in clothes: mostly, he’d rather not wear them. I would always ask what he’d like to wear and he would mostly answer “no.” Shortly after he turned 2, we went coat shopping. I persuaded him into the shops with the promise of a stop at a café and we had a mooch around. After looking at a few items, he suddenly disappeared from my side. After my initial panic, I found him by a coat with big red buses on, and he looked at me and said, “This one Mama?” I almost cried in the shop. This was his first request. Obviously, I bought it and he wore it from the shop, and in fact for the rest of the day. I still have the coat, I can’t bear to throw it away.
I found the joy in the most unlikely of places and when I find myself exhausted or feeling low, I find those memories a great comfort. I’ve found them getting older has brought more joy than their babyhood. More sleep is helping with that.
Like Katherine, I’ve often found myself wondering where the joy can be found in the marathon that is motherhood. Here are three places where I can definitely say I have found it.
Firstly, and I would imagine this is the same for a lot of mums, the first time my son called me “mama”, although it was in the unlikeliest of circumstances. He’d been calling my husband first “dada” and then “daddy” for months, and I knew that it was quite normal to master “daddy” before “mummy”, but I was still waiting impatiently for the day when he would address me too. It happened when we were in a motorway service station on our way to a short break with some friends. We were changing his nappy in a filthy, dingy baby changing room when he looked up at me and said “mama!” Instantly, the unpleasant surroundings melted away and all I could see and hear was him. I had to ask him to repeat himself because I wasn’t sure I’d heard him, and when he did, I felt like the luckiest person on earth. He spent the whole weekend gleefully saying “mama, mama”, and my heart lifted every time.
Secondly, a few months later, I went to Germany on a work trip. This was the first time I’d been abroad since he was born, and I was quite nervous about leaving him. My son had a fantastic time with his dad and grandparents, and they sent me regular videos and photos to reassure me, but I was still worried that he’d be upset that I’d left him. When I got back, it was late at night, and I agreed with my husband that I would go into our son’s room to comfort him if he woke up (which was not an unusual occurrence). Sure enough, he woke a few hours later, so I went into his room as agreed. As soon as he heard my voice, he said “mummy?!”, sounding so surprised and pleased that it suddenly didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night; it was just wonderful to feel that my presence gave so much joy to him.
Lastly, I was completely unprepared for how much joy I would feel at the joy my son brings to other people. This was especially true in this first few weeks of his life, as we gradually introduced him to our families in a merry-go-round of grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and I’m-not-sure-what-the-technical-term-for-this-is-so-let’s-just-go-with-cousins. Every single person who met him found joy in him, and that in turn brought joy to me. It was a revelation: of course I had known they would love him, but I hadn’t expected how much seeing their love for him would affect me. One of my favourite memories is from when my son was two days old and I was stuck in hospital waiting to be told when I could go home. My youngest brother and his fiancée came to see us for just a couple of hours, and it meant so much that they had made the journey from London just to be there for an evening. I have a photograph of my brother holding my son on that day, his tiny head supported by my brother’s enormous hand as they looked into each other’s faces. I was exhausted, bewildered, and more vulnerable than I ever remember having felt before, and seeing evidence that there were two more people who had our backs meant more than I can say.
Lately, we are slowly doing the rounds of our family members as lockdown lifts, and I feel the same joy in reverse at the delight on my son’s face when he sees people he recognises and has missed. He’s now as overjoyed to see them as they are to see him, and it reminds me that I’m not doing this alone. Feeling recognised, feeling valued, feeling like I’m part of something bigger: this is where I find happiness in parenting. In tough times, when I feel like I everything is going wrong and I have no-one on my side, remembering these moments can give me the joy I need.
If you read the books and listen to the majority of new mums, apparently you should have felt the joy as soon as your newborn was placed in your arms?
I for one have a very different take on this. When my baby boy was placed in my arms, I felt absolutely nothing except shock and pain. Once the visitors had left the hospital, pure panic set in.
By way of background, I am a single mum to a beautiful six-year-old boy called Riley, who was also diagnosed with autism at two and a half. He now makes me laugh every single day, but it certainly did not start like that.
The first year was spent with severe depression and at around the six months mark, I was diagnosed with post-natal depression and was referred to group therapy, which was an absolute lifeline. I recall ringing up my mum and saying to her, “You have to come and pick him up, I don’t want him anymore, he has to live with you.”
It was nothing like the magazines portrayed. I was in a constant state of anxiety; depression and the tiredness nearly finished me off. I thought I was meant to be swanning around on my maternity leave drinking posh coffee and living my best life.
When my son was around a year old, something clicked for me: he did bring me joy and make me laugh. He started to get up to all sorts of mischief and one day, I turned my back on him and he had covered himself in toilet roll, and the more he laughed, the more I did.
We became partners in crime, me and him against the world, and our bond is something extra special.
I still get overwhelmed and cry, plus I have a sense of loneliness, especially at night, but I have also realised that we mums do the most amazing job every day and it is the hardest job in the entire world, so be proud!
The feelings I experienced, especially at the beginning, are normal, not abnormal, and seeking help does not make you a failure.
So for anyone struggling to find the joy in sleep deprivation, stitches, bleeding nipples, and boredom, it will come and the source will you surprise you. For me, it’s what makes motherhood worth it.
When I gave birth to my son, I was waiting for the cloud of postnatal hormones and euphoria to carry me off down the stream of motherhood on a raft of endless maternal joy and fulfilment. I think I got on the wrong raft, because I ended up on postnatal depression island, and I didn’t find a way back for a while. But slowly, as I found my feet in my new role, those moments of heart-wrenching love for this new little person took hold of me. They were there at the usual junctures, watching him while he slept, his first smile at 7 weeks, and the first steps at 11 months, but they also crept up on me when I least expected it. They were in the little tuft of hair his head that pointed directly upwards for the first 8 months of his life. They were in his uncontrollable giggles aged 6 months as my Dad sang “rubber ducky” in a silly voice. They were in the time I asked him at 20 months old (when he could only say a few words) what his favourite thing was, almost as an experiment for my own amusement, and he stunned me by saying “APPLE CRUMBLE!” at the top of his voice.
I find joy in the little tasks of care-giving that I do for my son. I loved the day I could hold him on my hip and carry him with me to make a cup of tea. He loved just being part of what was going on. I find joy in cutting his sandwich up how he likes it, and washing his hair in the bath and making sure not to get any soap in his eyes.
Of course, there was more joy than I ever could have imagined when my son really hugged me properly for the first time as I sang to him before I put him to bed, but there is also joy when he makes me stop a conversation with an adult to inquire, faintly accusingly, “What are you talking about?!”
I am finding the toddler years hard, probably the hardest since I had a newborn baby (but thankfully nowhere near as lonely and miserable). I feel exposed and out of control and my son has held a grubby mirror to my unmanaged temper and outbursts of rage, for which I am continually ashamed. But I have learnt that you can feel all of those things and still adore the feel of his little cheek against yours, and the way he calls frogs “thogs,” and the way he pretends to be cross with me because he likes experimenting with his voice and then basking in the power trip of my reaction, and also that if I try hard enough, I can still make him laugh.
The work of motherhood does not always make me happy, but in the tiny, sometimes inconsequential moments of connection and care, I find myself thinking “ah, maybe this is what they were talking about?” And I realise that when mums of grown-up children go misty-eyed and nostalgic about the early days with their kids, those bits are what they remember. Perhaps you relish the joys of motherhood so much because you’ve had to work so hard to earn them, and because you find them in ordinary places, where you least expected it.