Having a newborn is overwhelming – an unusual mix of infinite love for this new being in your world, joy, nervousness, fear and trepidation, which many people don’t talk about.
When I had my son, Maxwell, seven years ago, I was the Editor of Cosmopolitan Pregnancy magazine. I thought I knew it all. But I knew nothing about what it was really like to have the responsibility of a vulnerable new bundle resting on my shoulders, until I was there.
The first few weeks were a breeze. All he did was sleep, feed, have nappy changes and a daily bath! Oh, and gaze into my eyes – while I took fifty photos. But as time passed, I found it more of a struggle – a struggle I couldn’t explain. Like all new mums, sleep deprivation meant my awake hours where spent in a state of delirium and what would ordinarily take me 10 minutes to do, took me much longer. I was used to having 8 1/2 hours sleep every night and the constant waking really took its toll on me. I couldn’t focus or accomplish the simplest of tasks. There were many times during those early months that I couldn’t even manage to find the time to have a shower. Late afternoon would tick around, and I’d realise I hadn’t left the house all day so would quickly jump in the shower and race down to the letterbox, just so I felt like I’d left the house. Often I’d get phone calls from a work colleague wanting to pop in and see me on her way to work, and I’d avoid answering the phone. After going from a corporate manager prancing around in stilettos to a frazzled, un-showered mum still in my pyjamas, there was no way I was having unexpected guests.
I became extremely forgetful – even to the point of forgetting to heat Maxwell’s meals and bottles before taking him out for what was supposed to be a ‘fun family day’, which in turn left me feeling hopeless, teary and like a failure. My partner at the time and I had no family support in Sydney, and I was the first of my friends to have a baby. So I felt like there was no one who could help me with baby advice, and I spent every second day at the doctors for a ‘rash’ or ‘temperature’ or ‘spots’ or something baby related!
I clearly remember the first time a friend asked me to meet her and her baby for a coffee when Maxwell was a few weeks old. ‘How on earth am I going to be able to be somewhere by a specific time?’ I thought. ‘And what if I forget one of the million things I need to take with me in case it rains, hails or shines?’ Mind you the café was directly across the road from my house and of course that was the first time ‘out’ that I had to do a serious nappy change. I was even flustered about what the social rules were regarding nappy changes in public and had to ask my friend for the protocol. (I changed him in the pram and took the dirty nappy home!).
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I became irrationally pedantic and fiercely protective of Maxwell to the point that when we travelled overseas to visit relatives when he was six weeks old, I let any ‘smoking relatives’ know in advance they weren’t to hold him if they smelled of smoke. I even left hand sanitizer on their kitchen sinks as a reminder to wash their hands before holding him. Eeek. I’d scrub the baby bath daily with antiseptic before bathing him, record the contents of every nappy change, feed and sleep, and let’s just say I turned into a total nutcase!
It didn’t help that I was only allowed to take six months maternity leave from my work (I know, legally I am entitled to take 12 months, but I felt pressure from work). So I felt like my ‘mother time’ was limited – and I was anxious about learning everything baby-related and having Maxwell in an established routine before returning to work the entire time. If I was struggling, how would a stranger looking after six children cope?
As my work deadline approached I did almost have a melt-down. I visited a well-known centre to help me teach him to sleep, but I couldn’t cope hearing him cry, then scream for 45 minutes, to get himself the sleep – the ‘controlled crying’ approach they advocated.
I visited multiple childcare centres in the area and none of them were ‘good enough’. One centre had kids outside in freezing temperatures with no jackets on while the carers were fully rugged up. Another centre had a super high staff turnover, which made me question the working environment. And the third was a rickety old building with a tiny outdoor space. This is the one I went with. Why? Because the staff had all been there for more than ten years and I could see the level of involvement they had with the children and they were super passionate about caring for them.
Every morning, from six months of age, I’d drop Maxwell off at childcare and we were both in a state of tears. I knew it wasn’t right to cry in front of him but it was so difficult sometimes to have a forced smile through glassy eyes. Then when he was two, I developed a ‘space rocket scenario’, where I’d turn leaving him into a fun experience rather than teary. He and all the other toddlers would watch me from the window launch from the ground into the sky and shoot off down the road – and they loved it! Of course as soon as he was out of sight I’d cry for the rest of the journey to work. This became my daily ritual until he started kindy. I just felt so guilty about leaving him in other people’s care.
But funnily enough, it was returning to work that also helped me find ‘me’ again. I remember feeling a mix of guilt and relief when, for the first time in six months I went to the bathroom without a baby and a 10 kilo nappy bag strapped to me. I felt light for the first time in ages. I could move unrestricted! And think clearly! I went wild at the mid-year sales and bought a whole new work wardrobe after feeling fat and daggy for 40 weeks (I put on 17 kilos while pregnant and couldn’t dress my new shape for the life of me, so resolved to wearing daggy dresses and tights the entire time).
I know clothes are not reflective of the inner you, but boy did a new wardrobe help me feel better about myself – and the ‘outer me’.
It was a massive struggle balancing a full-time job, childcare drop offs and pick-ups, deadlines, a team of 14 staff members. And then my partner and I separated when Maxwell was age one – just before Christmas. Emotions were high, sleep was low, stress was skyrocketing and the uncertainty of our future was anxiety-inducing.
But a routine really helped me navigate those choppy waters. I felt so alone and like the world was resting on my shoulders, that I managed to summon this inner strength that made me stronger, more independent, confident, self-sufficient and freer than ever. Every week I pencilled in one catch-up with friends to ear bash them while Maxwell was with his dad, have a few wines and milk them for every bit of emotional support I could. That was probably one of the most helpful things for myself I could have done. I’d try to do one yoga class a week, which always left me feeling positive, and a dash of fashion helped me feel more confident in my new body.
Establishing a good routine meant I could really stay on top of household chores and Maxwell’s care without feeling overwhelmed. The more I learned to balance a good mix of everything that made me happy with my responsibilities and my role as a new mum, the more confident I became. Life became fun again.
I gradually started doing interstate trips with Maxwell to visit my family, and realised how much fun this little travel companion was. He’s only seven now, but Maxwell and I have travelled extensively together – through Italy, Dubai, Scotland on a four week holiday, to Thailand and Vietnam with my Dad, to Fiji with my mum, whale watching at Fraser Island and to multiple places around NSW and Australia.
We ride our bikes together, play footy in the park (ps. I’m an awesome kicker!), play tennis and take our sketch books to the park to draw the boats in the harbour.
Every Friday night we have a ‘special night’. Maxwell chooses something to watch on Netflix, which is usually LEGO Chima and now the new Voltron series, and we cuddle up on the sofa under a blanket, watch TV and then talk about what happened. My partner of three years, Josh, also has a seven-year-old son, Daniel, so we also schedule regular family time for the four of us to spend together.
So why am I telling you all this? Being a new mum is hard. Relationship breakdowns are hard. Blended families are hard. Juggling a career and parenting is hard. And finding ‘me’ after experiencing so many huge life changes was very hard. People often comment on how much I do – juggling work, parenting and travelling – and I don’t want to pretend it’s easy for minute. I struggled for a long time. But now I’m at a place where I realise I need to do all of these things to feel alive. This is what makes me ‘me’ – and happy!
Finding myself and happiness again during a time of dramatic change involved rediscovering all the things that are important to me, and balancing that with finding quality time and experiences to share with Maxwell, and my partner and his son. What really makes me happy is being a good mum, creating fun experiences and memories together, being a great partner and step-mum, having a career I love and am truly passionate about, travelling, taking time out for me, enjoying a wine with friends, and of course surrounding myself with positive people. Being A New Mum, Relationship Breakdowns & Finding Me Again
It’s a lot, but it’s my perfect recipe for happiness. And I’m a much better person now than I was before I became a mum.
How did you find ‘you’ again after being a new mum?