Three years, twelve weeks. Three years and twelve weeks.
In the dark early hours of a recent morning, as I lay awake next to my son, whose toenails scratched against my thigh as he twitched in his sleep, I worked out that I have been a mother for three years and nearly three months. Or 168 weeks. Or 1176 days. (And yes, I had to get my phone out sneakily under the duvet to do those sums) The number of weeks seem very long, but the days, they almost don't equate to as much time as I would have thought in this role and doing this job, often against a varying amount of resistance, occasionally with a sense of achievement, and always with a huge, constant and frankly, draining, outpouring of love, hope, fear and worry. When you feel such a wide range of emotions each and every day, sometimes all within the same hour, no wonder the days feel long and heavy. And even three years down the line, because I'm in the privileged position of having parenting be the biggest challenge of my adult life (so far!), I'm still struck by how different days feel now as a mother compared to how they were before. So surely, yes, there have been thousands more since I embarked on this journey?
But despite what some politicians today would have you think, facts don't lie. I really have only been a mother for three years and twelve weeks. It's also true that for the last 36 weeks and four days, I have been or rather I am becoming a mother of two. That is how long a baby has been growing in my uterus, stretching my body and my emotions to new lengths once more. A mother of two. Two children. My family. Complete. These are things I will maybe need another three years to get my head around.
I have written previously about the very specific things I am worried about as I approach the due date for my second child, another boy, in November, and I surprised myself as I wrote that list because with it came a sudden urge to highlight the things I am not worried about. The things I have a quiet but sturdy confidence about this time round. In many ways this article has summarised my second pregnancy, in that it has not been without its worries, fears and struggles (and certainly physically I have had more of these though nothing serious, mercifully, I'm just a little older and I now have a three-year-old to keep up with!) but underneath it all is a quiet confidence, or maybe just a quiet hope that my previous experience in terms of giving birth, surviving birth, and surviving what happened next, will count for something.
So here I am writing this motherhood diary again. Part of me is very sad I didn't just continue after my son turned one. How wonderful it would be to have I tried. I even wrote six weeks worth of diary entries following his first birthday, but it became a bit too much to keep going when in the background I was still not as well as I would have everyone believe. I was still struggling with post-natal depression and anxiety.
The problem with the Motherhood Diaries then was that there was too much introspection, and at that time I was living far too much in my head. I was also lacking the tools energy and perspective to step away from over-thinking and worrying; that's effectively what severe anxiety and depression does to you; it rids you of a certain sense of rationality and focus. At the time I still wasn't sleeping enough and I was still taking anti-anxiety drugs when I couldn't get my mind to calm down, I was still breastfeeding and felt conflicted about how that journey was going to end as I could feel it approaching (and indeed it did quite suddenly at 14 months post-partum). I was still fighting some old demons, and also welcoming new ones to the party. As much as writing is therapy for me, and penning my motherhood diaries for the first twelve months of his life tethered me to myself in a way I can't really describe or praise enough, there came a time when I needed to stop looking inward or backwards and start looking forwards, and out at the world around me. I needed to focus less on being a mother introspectively, and more on being a mother in the day to day hum-drum of life; to let hard moments pass without analysis or reflection. I needed to free up some time to do things I hadn't done much of since becoming a mother; dating my partner again, spending time with friends, travel, regular exercise, writing fiction (or poetry as it happened), taking on more exciting and challenging work projects, finding a family rhythm that worked for all three of us. To do all these things without analysing them in a weekly diary entry was freeing and invigorating.
I also needed to take time to get better because as I mentioned, some of my problems got worse before they got better. After a few false starts, I found a therapist that worked for me, and I began running and exercising regularly, two things which made a big difference to my mental health. The third was stopping breastfeeding (not by choice but by circumstance as I fell ill with an inner ear problem and had to take some drugs that I couldn't nurse with) and while it was border-line traumatic in the short-term, doing so gave us all a lot more balance, not just because of fewer hormones pumping around my body, but also because it was only after this that my son started to sleep tough the night. By 18 months he was consistently napping for 1-2 hours a day, and sleeping through from 7.30 until 6am. This felt like nothing short of a miracle for us. The lack of broken sleep transformed all our moods and gave us new energy and hope for the future. With that we embarked on more travel and did three long-haul trips in a year before my son turned two-and-a-half and while still challenging, the memories I have from our Australia, Thailand/Singapore and Maldives holidays will stay with me forever. A few months later, one night in January in a hotel restaurant, no doubt flush with the energy and achievement all this positive change, sleep and travel had brought us, and maybe a little drunk from some cocktails, my partner and I began to talk about having another baby.
Little did we know that barely a month later, I would be pregnant. Just like with our first when we found out a few days before going on a trip to South Africa, this time we found out the day before we went on our first family ski trip to Austria. I remember spending that week in Austria with a cloudy mind. I could barely focus on anything, not even being pregnant. It was early, of course, so there was no settling into the idea or getting comfortable with it just yet, but at the same time I was irrationally nervous and wobbly on my snowboard, and I got tired inexplicably quickly. And then on the third or fourth day, I was in a shop in the resort village, and felt a rush of nausea smack into me, forcing me to put down the things I was about to buy and go outside for gulps of fresh air that did little to settle my stomach. For the next ten weeks I battled on-off nausea that floored me on the worst days, and forced me to eat only crackers and crisps on better days. Not having a minute of sickness with my first pregnancy, this felt like a very unfair deal now that I had a toddler to also look after.
My son, Baby Bird, has not dealt with my pregnancy in the way I imagined. He has taken it completely in his stride and is interested and invested in it in ways I never expected. He asks to see my growing belly every day. He lays his head or his hand on it when we lie next to each other watching the TV. He says goodnight to his brother at bedtime, and this morning as I helped him dress for pre-school he talked in over-lapping sentences that he couldn't say quickly enough about how the baby would sleep in his bed, and how they would play hide and seek (or "hide and seat" as he calls it) under the table, and how the baby will cry but he will tell him don't worry.
But he is also already showing signs of being sensitive to and unsettled bythe changes that lie on our family's horizon. He struggles to be apart from me, and resists going to daycare most mornings. He has had night terrors and is more insistent on me staying in his room until he goes back to sleep, or on nights when he's more shaken, like last night, he cries until I bring him into bed with us. The workers at his daycare say he talks about missing me and his father more in recent weeks, but they also say he talks about the baby and how it's coming soon. He also helps them feed or keep an eye on the babies in his group. They have hinted to us that they think he will find the transition hard and I nod and wear my bravest smile, for I know he will find the transition hard. I know we all will. But I also know he has a big capacity to love his baby brother. Again this is another of those small confident hopes I can't deny I feel because I think he already does, and come what may in the short term, we believe having a little brother is going to be a very good thing for him.
As I near the end of this pregnancy, one that yes, I have greatly enjoyed, but also found unnervingly difficult at times, I feel things that I thought I wouldn't, what with it being my second time. I feel anxious. No, I'm not necessarily anxious about the labour and birth, because despite taking over 40 hours and of course, not going how I planned or thought it would, it was a positive and empowering experience and without complication. And physically I recovered well. To me, the birth is the easy part. It's what happens next that I am most anxious about.
In the simplest of terms, I'm anxious that I will feel things I don't want to feel because that's what happened with my first son. I didn't connect with him or with motherhood as quickly as I expected or would have liked. It took me a long time to see past the crying (his and mine!), the frequent wakings, and the incessant feeding to feel a love that was bigger and more significant than the burden I saw him as. I mourned my old life like I had lost a close family member - myself, maybe? Holding my son on the sofa, or pushing him in his pram down the street, I would fantasize about and sob for time alone, time apart from my baby, time to just be something or someone else. And then things got really dark as the anxiety brought new obsessions - things falling out of the sky and hurting my baby - and the months of sleep deprivation plummeted me into a depression that sucked my sense of humour from me completely.
Part of me doesn't think this history will repeat itself, because in many ways it can't; I'm already a mother, I'm so very deeply in love with my first son and already feel more connected to my second than I did my first when he was in utero, and I am so much more committed to looking after my mental health and doing everything and anything I can to get enough sleep and rest, rather than ploughing on regardless like I did last time. But there is another part of me - or so my therapist tells me - that can't help but access these memories and this trauma, and see where I'm headed and connect the two. My brain is too clever to not want to warn me of the risks so that is what he's started to do.
Is this why I want to write these motherhood diaries again? Possibly. I want to remind myself that I survived last time. I want to prove to myself that even if things get really bad there will still be happy moments. I want to document the unique and surprising things that second-time motherhood will bring, just like first-time motherhood did. I want to connect with other mothers, many of whom sent comments and messages in response to my motherhood diaries that honestly saved me from entering dark places some days.
I think I also want to write these diaries to do what they did the first time round. They connected me to my old self, the core of me, the writer in me, the person who yes, is a mother, but she is also many other things, things she needs to stay in touch with, even if with the thinnest piece of string, because she doesn't want to get lost again. She wants to stick around to experience and maybe even enjoy this journey. And I sort of hope you will too...
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.