Becoming a mother triggers an inner battle between the joy of having a child and the guilt over daydreaming about your former life. As mental health conversations are slowly destigmatised, sharing an honest testimony around pregnancy, maternity and motherhood become—now more than ever—an act of sisterhood that empowers women as mothers and individuals.
On 20 February 2020, right before COVID-19 plunged the world into lockdown, I had my first child, a baby girl. And as much as I love her, I can’t help but fantasise about my pre-nappies freedom. Am I a monster? I’ve learned I am not. But the first time I said, “I miss my life” out loud, I felt like the worst person in the world.
Fortunately, this happened in April 2020, so we were all fully embracing our socially distanced lives and my husband was the only (perplexed) person to hear what I said. Fearful of my disorientated hormones, he didn’t say anything back. So, disturbed by my own words, I started an inner monologue. Getting pregnant was an easy journey for me and—after 19 hours high on an epidural—I gave birth to a healthy baby. What did I have to complain about? I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame.
Having a baby can affect your emotional and mental health
“We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in,” says professor Annette Kämmerer, a psychotherapist at Heidelberg University, Germany, in a Scientific American article published in August 2019. What rules was I breaking by craving a little bit of ‘me time’? Apart from compromising the status of maternity as the epitome of fulfilment in a woman’s life? None.
Having a baby is the ultimate full-time job. It is a task that takes all of your energy and time. Once the little one arrives, good luck with taking a shower before 2pm or watching a whole episode of The Crown uninterrupted. I tried, and I’m still on season one. Emotionally, the result is a perfect tandem of joy and frustration in equal proportions. Remove the first variable and you get a horror movie—remove the second and you get a unicorn.
“Having a baby is the ultimate full-time job. Once the little one arrives, good luck with taking a shower before 2pm or watching a whole episode of ‘The Crown’ uninterrupted”
I’ve realised that motherhood means learning to be comfortable on both sides of the euphoric-miserable spectrum. One day, you’re on top of the world because your baby didn’t wake up every other hour in the night. The next, you wish you could fly off to another planet. But why are we still reluctant to share these less-than-ideal scenarios of motherhood? Partly because women tend to deal with our negative feelings when no one is looking.
To struggle in silence is still a prized quality in women. Recently, PhD student Allyson Bontempo at Rutgers School of Communications and Information in the US, said of her research on how expressing negative emotions may benefit gynaecological cancer patients: “In western society, there are strong expectations to ‘be happy’ or ‘be positive’. Although well-intentioned, this places pressure on individuals to feel a certain way, and if they don’t, they can experience a sense of guilt or failure.”
The conversation around motherhood is changing—for the better
On the bright side, over the past few years, more women have started sharing their stories about motherhood. Last year, supermodel and body-positivity ambassador Ashley Graham shared a photo of the post-pregnancy stretch marks on her stomach. “Same me. Few new stories,” read the caption, which has more than 1.5m likes. “Most beautiful post ever,” commented model Tara Lynn, while personal trainer Kira Stokes added: “Stories of life.”
I wasn’t as brave as Ashley. I didn’t share the mixed feelings I was experiencing as a new mother with my 2,228 Instagram followers, but I am happy that I did with one of my best friends. She had a baby around a similar time that I had mine, so we were both on the same motherhood reality-check page. We were FaceTiming in our PJs when she spoke the magical words: “I feel guilty sometimes when I’m physically there, playing with my son, but my mind is dreaming about the things that I want to do for myself.” I felt so relieved. Perhaps I wasn’t a terrible mother, after all. And surely I wasn’t alone.
Maybe the ‘me time’ I was craving was a sign of sanity. Maybe it was the only way to be the best mother and role model I could be. In September, Vogue beauty editor Tish Weinstock spoke to celebrity mothers about how they balance childcare and self-care. “Becoming a mother changes everything,” says Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima. “Beauty and self-care go out the window sometimes. But as my two daughters have gotten older, I’ve realised that they copy a lot of what I do and my habits, and it’s important for me to make sure they’re copying good ones.”
Building a sisterhood where sharing is encouraged
Narratives that break the aura of perfection around pregnancy, maternity, and motherhood are an act of compassion that reinforces our credibility as moms and, more importantly, as women. “Being able to discuss things—the overwhelming emotions, whether I’m behaving normally or hormonally,” says Anushka Sharma, actor, producer and Vogue India’s January 2021 cover star. “For all of those questions, you have to have a circle of trust. It’s really underrated, that ‘sisterhood’.”
“More unconditional love, a lot less freedom. Motherhood is as rewarding as it is energy-consuming”
Honest testimonies such as these are crucial to managing expectations and reducing frustration. After carrying a child inside your tummy for 40 weeks, your body will change; a miscarriage brings unbearable pain and a non-sensical yet inevitable sense of failure, and having a baby will reduce ‘me time’ to a minimum.
As I play Baby Einstein music on my phone while my daughter eats her afternoon snack of mashed banana and papaya, I reflect on how much my life has changed—more expertise with the blender, fewer clean spoons. More unconditional love, a lot less freedom. Motherhood is as rewarding as it is energy-consuming. There are moments of extreme joy when you want to press pause, and moments when you wish you could go back to when you had a social life beyond visits to the paediatrician. In the past 10-and-a-half months, I have certainly had a few of both—and that’s OK.