This Summer it will be 8 years since I had my first baby. With the youngest just turning 3, this is the longest stint in nearly 9 years that I haven’t been pregnant. Three babies in five years was – for the most part, a good plan. That said it was also tough. I always expected the chaos of the first baby. The reality of the second – and the juggling of two-under-two was surprisingly ok – which likely had more to do with two fairly easy-going personalities than my amazing skills as a mother. The reality of the third has proven to both myself and my husband that we are well and truly done. The combination of that ‘robust’ third personality and the fact that I now have more children than hands, has confirmed three is the magic number – or at the very least a very good time to insert a Mirena coil and close down the baby-making shop for once and for all.
Other than robbing me of my pelvic floor and the knack of finishing a sentence without forgetting what my point was, one of the biggest things that becoming a mother to these three lovely beasts has taken from me is my ability to be selfish. For these 8 years – as is right and fitting, the kids have come first. I grew them, birthed them, fed them and mothered them literally as though my life depended on it – because, of course, it did. I took the longest maternity leave possible and kept them all at home while I was off. Both myself and my husband juggled 4-day weeks and part-time childcare. We worked evenings and weekends to make up lost hours from nursing a sick child or attending various appointments. We counted pennies and saved pounds. We rarely made time for a dinner for two that didn’t come as a take-away. We ate more lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and shepherd’s pie than any human should ever have to. We co-slept, barely-slept and not-slept. Christ, I even handed over (read: been robbed of) my own very loved, very celebrated birthday – instead spending the month genuflecting to the all new shiny birthday diva – Yoda, who freaks out if I even get a mention.
We’re not perfect parents, I am not a perfect mother, but my god we’ve done our best. We also have a long way to go!
Over the last few years though my tolerance for standing at the back of the queue has waned. Having gotten them fairly safely through the early childhood years, I’m honest enough to admit that I’m rediscovering that much maligned trait of any mother – the ability to put myself first.
Maybe it comes with knowing I’m no longer in the holding pattern that having babies kept me in. In my baby-making years, I lost the baby-weight knowing I’d be putting it back on; I looked at the year ahead and mentally checked how weddings, holidays and other events would tie in with a planned pregnancy or bringing along a fresh baby; and I always went back to work after maternity leave knowing I’d be heading off again.
Maybe it has come as a mini-mid life crisis. I turned 40 last year and will shortly see in 41 and maybe this all has me realising ‘this is it’ and that it’s so important to love the life I want – not just the life I have.
Or maybe it’s just come because with the reality of motherhood comes the reality of always being needed – and by extension there is an urgent need to preserve some little part of myself that is just me, just mine, not theirs. Eight year on I know that the lovely parts of being a mother are matched by the tedium of spilt drinks, tantrums, sticky hands and smelly bums. That every day is filled with the good – and the bad.
Given I’m unlikely to abandon them anytime soon, my stolen moments of selfishness are frankly pretty sedate, but they help me to feel like there’s some of me left in there – a part that’s ‘Helen’ and not just ‘Mama’.
I took a fairly selfish view in shaking up things at work. Knowing that my baby-making stints were done, I started to look at what I wanted to do for the years ahead – rather than what I needed to do for the present. I handed in my notice without lining up what came next – though that sorted itself out fairly fast. I started a new job somewhere totally new and totally different, working a five-day week for the first time in 10 years, with my husband picking up the slack at home while I gave the new job my all. Happily my hours are more routine and I likely work less hours over the five days than I did over four; so the new job has worked out really, really well. Better still has been the shaking myself out of the rut that I’d settled into over the last decade -not least justifying plenty of mini-shopping sprees in the search for nice new things that help me look the part of a grown up!
In the last few years too I’ve become more selfish too in my relationships. Some friendships have fallen by the way-side, not surviving the time-poor years of having a young family. In hindsight those that suffered were the more imbalanced ones – those that always relied on me doing the favours; me making the calls; me doing the work. There are no bridges burnt just the inevitable coming of a time when you realise that when it comes to having five minutes to spare for a chat you dial a different number. And while it’s sad in one way, most importantly it’s ok as there are plenty of laughs to be had – just with some different, or a few less, smiling familiar faces.
As a couple myself and my husband really did get through the early childhood years with a weekly takeaway and chats filled with both fond recollections of the adventures that came before the kids and the normal chatter about our three beasts . We have little free childminding available to us and in years of unpaid maternity leave could never have afforded the luxury of a babysitter and a night out. We survived the ‘worst au-pair ever’ experience last year and landed on our feet with a real gem who has become part of the family – with the added bonus that she babysits one evening each week giving us the time to spend as a twosome. We’ve managed more dinners and movies in the last six months than in the preceding 8 years. It’s lovely to find ourselves back where we started – albeit wrecked and moderately broken, but still together; and no-one is any the worse for us skipping one bedtime each week.
I’ve also been rediscovering just how good I was with the materialistic side of things. In this respect I’m gifted! For years I’ve gone looking for clothes and things for myself and returned with nothing for me but plenty for the kids. But lately I’ve made a real effort (hardly a hardship) to get myself out of my funk. There’s new make up, new clothes and shoes – and the chucking out of much of the stuff that predates those three-small humans. I’ve pre-empted the urge to cut and colour my own hair in the stylings of an extra from Prisoner Cell-Block H by trying to make more regular trips to the hairdresser – a win-win for all involved. Horrifically too I’ve had to get off my lardy arse and pay more attention to this body that is now my own reconquered territory. I’ve had to own up that the baby-weight is now mine and I’m the only one who can do anything about it. The change in work clothes has meant honest clear-outs of the wardrobes and it was a revelation how long it was since a good portion of my wardrobe looked well or even fitted. Having lost my walk to work with the new job I’ve had to stop making excuses for not getting regular exercise – and start getting up before everyone else to pound the pavements before the family and work day takes over.
Of course it’s not like I don’t have four other people to think about so naturally I need to balance what I need against what’s good for everyone else. After a total of 4-years of breastfeeding, I felt over-touched, over-demanded, over-milked, and I would happily have weaned Woodie at a year or 18 months. He was a tricky kid to feed – frequently making a break for the other side of the room while my nipple was in his mouth, and I wanted myself back. But while he is the madman of the bunch, he is also the most insecure of our kids – the one who needs extra snuggles and the one who simply needs a little more – while naturally getting what the third child gets – a lot less. We’d moved twice in the six months around his first birthday and I’d returned to work when he was just under a year. It was really obvious that this little man needed the extra time – so I kept feeding him ’til he was 2 and weaned him gently and a little more slowly than planned. And that’s how these things will be – selective selfishness based on what works for all of us. A delicate balance.
I’m convinced that taking back some part of myself and being just a little more selfish is good for all of us. Writing this I’ve wondered if I gave too much of myself away in those early years but I think it’s the nature of parenting, of mothering, that you go to the back of the queue. And anyway I’ve loved playing second fiddle to these little humans – just as I now love knowing that though the family comes first it doesn’t always mean myself or my husband have to come last.
It feels nice to be selfish. In fact it feels very nice.