I recently started to write about my experience of becoming a mother: the alien sensations of being pregnant for the first time (when ligaments stretched and gas got trapped and sometimes I bled for no reason and everything was unprecedented and felt seismic and completely unfathomable); the frantic consumption of facts and advice in books and online about pregnancy and birth (but, perhaps somewhat naively, absolutely nothing about actual parenting); the gruelling and brutal labour (a post for another day perhaps); the overwhelming torrent of love and fear and complete exhaustion of new motherhood… And then I stopped. Because it all felt so far away, too distant to describe really. I look at my son now, a vibrant, energetic, stubborn whirlwind of almost three, and I can only hazily remember the newborn days filled with vomit (him), sleeplessness (me) and crying (both of us). Without me noticing, the oppression of new motherhood eased into something bearable. Something agonising still, in its intensity, but a weight I could live with and enjoy.
And then everything changed again, when my daughter arrived.
I am quite frequently asked, when pushing the double buggy around my neighbourhood, how I am finding it with two kids. I usually just smile, often a touch wearily, and say it is fantastic but a little tiring sometimes – and I hope that the three years of sleep deprivation carved on my face excuse me from responding more articulately. I’m not sure how (and let’s be honest, the man in the bakery probably isn’t actually expecting me) to explain that I feel utterly joyful on the one hand and sometimes a bit sad on the other. I suppose that is the very definition of bittersweet, though I’ve never knowingly used one word when many many more will do. But also, I wonder if I’m treading a fine line between insufferably smug and insufferably ungrateful and I’m never sure into which side I might accidentally tip. Because the happiness I have enjoyed since having my daughter is completely unrivalled in my life so far, largely unfettered as it has been by the fear and anxiety that I felt when my son was born. But I also feel some sadness and guilt that my son’s life has been impacted so drastically, in a way that he neither requested nor expected, and that our previous life together is… well… at the risk of sounding slightly melodramatic… over.
Life before my daughter was, with hindsight, blissfully straightforward, because I was able to focus only on my son. I still miss our time at home together, just the two of us, though already I am starting to forget what precisely made it so joyful. I suppose it was the sum of things that alone were hardly noticeable, let alone remarkable. I would be witness to his glee when he saw an aeroplane or a bee or he stepped on an extra crunchy leaf, because he alone had my attention. We could read twenty stories on the sofa on a rainy afternoon, without the interruption of a baby grabbing the books or needing milk or a new nappy. We could go on an adventure for the day without it taking two hours to coordinate everyone to leave the house (I’m exaggerating, but not as much as I wish)… Most of all, when he felt sad or tired or overwhelmed, I was always there, absolutely, to comfort him and cuddle him.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to call this grief. Grief for something that is gone and will not come back. And I believe that is also what my son has felt, as he has come to terms with having a little sister. He actually seems to be coping well, for the most part. He ignores her quite a lot and sometimes shouts in her face to see her jump but he also loves to make her laugh and to give her kisses and cuddles and to bring her toys. I think his grief comes when he is exhausted or upset or when he wakes in the night and only “mama mama mama” can help. Perhaps I am projecting, but it feels as though his desperate cries come from a new place since she was born, somewhere deeper and less conscious. I try to honour them whenever I can; I’m sure that it is part of his process of acceptance. I also want to do everything I can to help him because, ultimately, this is a situation of my doing, not his, and I do feel guilty for it.
I also know that we have been lucky enough to be able to give him a wonderful gift. I have two sisters, my husband two brothers, and we both count them among our best of friends. I can already see the relationship between my son and daughter grow and I am so grateful that they will have each other in the future. I feel consoled with the thought that the pain of no longer being our only child will be soothed and diminished by the delight and comfort of having a sibling.
For me, although my relationship with my son has been permanently altered with the arrival of my daughter, we are still as close as ever. I can’t always give him what he wants, which I can cope with, or what he needs, which is harder for me, but he seems to be coming to terms with that in his own way. And for me too, my feelings of sadness and guilt are allayed as I see their relationship develop.
Being a mother of two is like being torn in two. Quite often, both children need you and you have to prioritise the one who is the most desperate. It is almost always the toddler. Except for when it is the baby. Bedtimes are the worst, often the scene of a crying toddler and a crying baby and then, on the really bad days, a crying mama too.
But some days, the stars align. Your toddler plays independently whilst your baby needs milk, and your baby is napping whilst you hare around the playground with your toddler, and your baby plays happily whilst your toddler has supper, and then they both have a great time splashing in the bath and then you all cuddle into the chair for bedtime stories before your toddler goes to sleep content and then your baby does too. You drink a glass of wine and congratulate yourself on the brilliant idea to have two children. (Sometimes your mind even wanders to a third, but not for long to be honest because one of them invariably wakes up and you remember why toddlers and babies are nature’s most effective contraceptive).
And it was a brilliant idea, to have two. I don’t regret it for a second. And the answer to the problem of being torn in two, incidentally, is to try to get as much help as possible. It doesn’t solve the problem when only mama will do (which is often a milk-related issue in our house) but my god it helps.
And so. Motherhood 2.0. What to do with those feelings of being a mama of two?
Guilt: be gone.
Sadness: I am making my peace with you.
Happiness: I am grateful for you.
And my children? I adore you.
The Mutual Adoration Club