Nothing could have prepared me for those first few months after my daughter’s birth. The sleep deprivation alone was enough to make me lose my mind. Add on nursing, diaper changes, bathing, entertaining and the desperate need to be the text-book mother and homemaker, and I was living only to take care of the little person I had just birthed.
Baby A would be fed at the slightest cue, bathed and changed daily (if not multiple times during the day), freshened up in the morning and after naps and endlessly entertained with toys, books and even mum-and-baby classes. On the other hand, I would go days without a proper shower, would still be in my PJ’s when my husband came home from work, and would occasionally have lunch at 4 pm.
As a young woman, one always hears how sacrificial we are as a gender. We must sacrifice for our children, for our spouse, for our parents, to keep the family together, to maintain hypothetical ‘world peace’. So, there I was with my sacrificial mind-set, sacrificing my relationship with my husband as I focused on everything Baby A and forgot to make time for my marriage, sacrificing my social life because it was just too exhausting to drag a child along, and sacrificing my mental wellbeing by ignoring my own needs. I let my intellectual thirst remain unsated as I convinced myself day after day that I was too tired to pick up a book and that mindless TV would give me the break I so needed, neigh, deserved. I convinced myself day after day that I was too busy to write, to study, and to try something new because groceries had to be bought, dinners had to be cooked, laundry had to be done, and toys had to be put away.
Overwhelmed with the ‘monotonous’ that I believed were beneath me, motherhood took me into a very dark place within myself – a place where the well-educated, intelligent, ambitious me was replaced by a hopeless woman who couldn’t look further than the next dinner or load of laundry that ‘had to be done’. More than once, I questioned my decision to become a mother at 25. More than once, I questioned my decision to become a mother at all, because the woman I was those first few months into motherhood, was not a woman I recognised.
Going back to work helped bring back that former version of me. The adult conversations, the intellectual stimulation and the sense of achievement did wonders for my waning self-esteem. Full time employment left me with a new problem though – the illusive work-life balance. As someone who is used to giving 100% to everything, the one person I wasn’t giving it to was my daughter. She saw the worst of me, and I of her on weekdays, and weekends were simply not enough. Therefore, I sat shuddering in my dark place for a long time contemplating the decision to quit my job. I couldn’t imagine a life without the purpose and identity my work had given me. What would I be if I wasn’t a working woman? What would I say when people asked me what I did? Could I strip myself of the identity I’d held for years and make that one more sacrifice for my child?
I’ve learned that I’m not great at sacrificing – I’m not sure many people are. Often, we do something for others supposedly at our expense, but it gives us internal satisfaction and a feeling of wellbeing. That emotional payoff is enough motivation for that act not to qualify as a sacrifice. If you feel trapped and unfulfilled, then the emotional payoff is clearly not enough and to an extent, you are sacrificing unhappily. I’ve learned this the hard way – if you don’t take care of yourself, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually too, you won’t be doing justice to the people that you’re supposedly making all these sacrifices for. A person who is unfulfilled cannot fill anyone else’s life with joy and happiness, and someone who feels trapped cannot let those around them feel free.
After much contemplation, I did eventually quit my job to stay at home with the then nearly 18-month-old Baby A, but I didn’t do it as a sacrifice for her, I did it for me. I knew that I didn’t want to live with not having spent as much time with her as I could in her formative years when I could afford to. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with not giving her my 100%, so I quit my job to be at peace with myself. Of course, everyone is different and many women would be more at peace with themselves going to work instead of staying home with their child, but I tried both and surprisingly found myself happier with the option I hadn’t expected to.
Finding myself in motherhood was not easy. I know that I’ve still got a long way to go. Every day is a battle between this horrible need I’ve been socialized into, to sacrifice more than I can handle, and my very conscious effort to put myself first. Every day I try to carve out an identity for myself that does justice to both my ambitions and my family.
If you find yourself in a place like mine, here is what I’ve found to work:
1. Letting go of the sacrificial attitude – actively questioning whether I was happy with the decisions I was taking or not. I’m glad to say that I quit my job for me, not as a sacrifice for my child. Sure, there were other beneficiaries like my daughter and my husband’s stomach, but there were casualties as well, i.e. my husband’s bank account
2. Making myself a priority – I see women forget about this so often and I’m guilty of this one. In the first few months of Baby A’s life, I really deprioritized myself and it became worse when I went back to work, because I really couldn’t find time to exercise, to meet friends, to read, or do anything for myself. It quickly caught up, because I started falling ill frequently – I’d be down with a cold every third or fourth week.
Now I actively prioritize myself. For example, I plan my meals with my daughter’s, so if there’s food for her, there’s food for me. If I need to shower, I’ll shower while I bathe my daughter, or I’ll give her the iPad for 10 minutes and run in. I’ll leave the toys lying outside in the living room and read a book instead, or I’ll make a simple meal so that I have some time to write. I’ve found that ever since I’ve actively started prioritizing my needs, I’ve not only become a healthier and calmer person but a more loving mother and wife as well.
3. Doing at least one thing that I enjoy every day. This builds on to point number 2 above, but it basically means that aside from ensuring that my needs are met every day, I ensure that I get an opportunity to let loose. Taking care of a toddler all day is much harder than going to work in my opinion, and if you don’t do something to unwind, the frustration will catch up with you. That something that I enjoy isn’t as lavish as going out and watching a movie everyday (which, as many parents will appreciate, is pretty lavish), but can be as simple as reading a book or enjoying a hot cup of tea while staring out the window. I ensure that I do that one thing every day even if it’s 1 am and I need to get up in 5 hours.
4. Making time for other relationships, especially my marriage. When Baby A was born, I was so focused on being a good mother, that I forgot myself, let alone others. Unfortunately, as we all know, children don’t hang around giving you hugs and kisses, telling you entertaining stories forever. They eventually go to university, get married, move out of the house, but even before that, once they start school, you become only a part (still an important one, but still just a part) of their lives. It’s therefore important to ensure that you hold on to your relationships other than your child, most importantly your marriage.
This is an area I’m still working on, but I’ve made good progress. Once a week, my husband and I go out on date night. On weekends, we encourage Baby A to engage in at least a little bit of independent play so that we can spend some time with each other. I’m trying more and more to start meeting my friends again, sometimes even dragging along a rather unhappy Baby A.
5. Feeding your mind and soul. This is precisely what I was doing wrong during my maternity leave, and I kept complaining about it without attempting to find a solution. Taking care of a baby is not a very intellectually stimulating job, but it does become more so as they grow older. That said, I’ve found that keeping myself engaged mentally has been very important in finding myself in motherhood. In this day and age, technology has made doing anything from the comfort of your couch possible. I’ve always wanted to learn French, and since Baby A is learning it at nursery, I’m learning it from this superb app on my phone. At the same time, I’m taking an online course in a subject I’ve been interested in for a while but didn’t get a chance to study at university. I’m also writing. The intellectual stimulation and the feeling of achievement that my job had given me is back to an extent and I’ve managed to find it while spending a lot more time with my child.
Every day I fight a battle within to snap out of my sacrificial mind-set, to give less than my 100% to some mundane chore that only I think is important and to give more to myself and my family.
On tough days, I retract into that dark place inside of my head, wondering whether motherhood has transformed me into a shadow of my previous self. On those days, my husband likes to remind me that time is unfortunately linear, and we must learn to adapt to progress. It’s unfair for me to expect that I will be the person I was before I had Baby A, so I must carve out a new identify for myself and figure out what motherhood means for me. I must give a 100% of myself to my family – they deserve nothing less. That said, I must give myself a 100% too, because I too, deserve nothing less.