It’s not just children who experience growing pains. Those first few months of motherhood became for Meghann Birks a beautiful, challenging time between the person she once was and who she was to become.
I now understand the wry smiles and knowing glances that other parents gave me when I enthused about how much I couldn’t wait to be a mum. It’s not that they don’t love being parents. They understand more than anyone the sheer joy of it, but they also knew about the first few hours, days, months … and the challenges of it all. They were right when they said nothing could prepare me for the first few weeks of being a mother. I have been continually surprised in my life by the range of emotions one can experience, how quickly they can change and how sharply they can swing from one extreme to the other.
The extent of this phenomenon has at times been nearly unbearable in the first months of new motherhood, yet the rewards have been extraordinary.
I have to constantly remind myself that it would be foolish to expect me to master something as profound as motherhood in 8 weeks
Bedraggled, worn out and puffy-eyed, I feel as though I am always falling a little bit forward, struggling to get my feet under me. Then every time I do, someone shoves me from behind. But even in the 7 months since Elliot was born, I have stopped dreading this feeling quite so much. I am trying to accept it as natural and I have to constantly remind myself that it would be foolish to expect me to master something as profound as motherhood in 8 weeks. Sometimes I have to breathe through the pain because it hurts – this growing, this uncertainty, this doubt. Every time I feel like I have reached my limits, I am asked to go just a little bit further. There are times when I want to cry and throw up my hands and shout, ‘I have nothing more to give!’
Yet, on the other hand, in some of the quieter moments with my tiny, milk-drunk boy, I have flashes of certainty where I feel so completely fulfilled that I ache. I know that being a mother is unequivocally the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. Pressing my cheek to the top of his head, I whisper to him about the world and all the things we will do together, the many adventures ahead. Try as I might to stay in the present, part of me already longs for the days when he was small enough to hold in my arms and protect, knowing that they will pass all too quickly. As I return to part-time work and my life begins to fill with some of the things that existed ‘Before Elliot’, time seems to move more quickly. Time and time again, however, breastfeeding brings me back to the moment – back to my son, back to myself and back to serenity, if only for a few minutes.
The birth of my son came after a long and difficult labour which ended with an emergency c-section. It was heartbreaking to lose the beautiful, natural birth I had so wanted but the disappointment was soon overridden by the compelling desire to meet the little boy with whom I’d been sharing an intimate relationship for 9 months.
They wheeled me upstairs from theatre to my room where the baby had been skin-to-skin with his father since his birth. Amidst tears and kisses, he was handed to me. Still groggy from the anaesthesia, I placed him on my chest and watched with amazement as he wriggled his way down, licking and sniffing, then latched himself forcefully to my breast. I had so hoped for that experience and then feared it might not happen. It is hard to describe the joy and relief I felt as he did just what the books said he would do. To see and feel this happening confirmed my new status as a fully self-contained life support unit.
Feeding went well at first as I was blessed with a baby who ate like a champion. I found myself cheering his weight gain at every health care appointment, swelling with pride as his chubbiness grew. Though his ‘intense sucking needs’ were sometimes tiresome and there were days when I felt like little more than a cow, I loved breastfeeding from the start. I came to appreciate more and more those quiet moments in our day when all I could hear was the contented sound of his sucking and gulping.
In those early months I was exhausted, spent in every way possible, yet this new job of mine had no sick days or mental health leave. By the end of each day I was doubtful about whether or not I could cope. Perhaps I had made a terrible mistake in thinking I was ready to be a mother.
‘What if, what if, what if …’ would play in my head as I drifted off into fitful sleep. Yet in the dead of the night, I would awaken to the sounds of him sucking and making soft mewing noises like a kitten. Some nights, my head felt so heavy I could barely lift it. As I nursed him in my bed, I would prop myself up on all sides with pillows in case I fell asleep. In that moment, as I fed him with the milk my body created for that specific purpose, I felt like a mother.
Breastfeeding has not always been easy for me. I have struggled with recurrent thrush since he was 6 weeks old and supply issues that once necessitated the use of some of my sister-in-law’s breastmilk.
Breastfeeding has not always been easy for me. I have struggled with recurrent thrush since he was 6 weeks old and supply issues that once necessitated the use of some of my sister-in-law’s breastmilk. Through it all I have been supported and encouraged by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, and bolstered by my unwavering conviction that breastfeeding is one of the most important things I can do for my son. Now, 7 months later, some of my favourite moments are those night-time feedings (even as I wish they would be fewer and further apart).
Occasionally he sleeps through the whole thing, falling from the breast blissfully sated at the end of the feed. Other times, his dark eyes glitter in the nightlight’s glow and I find myself telling him that, ‘Although I love your beautiful daytime eyes, this is sleepy time’. He often smiles cheekily at this and stays awake, sometimes for hours, not crying or even fussing, just wishing to be held in mummy or daddy’s arms for a while before settling back in his own bed.
Whatever he does, something about the darkness only compounds my disbelief that I helped create this life and I have the privilege of being a part of it. Time and time again, as I lift my tiny boy from his cot and kiss him gently before putting him to the breast, the world seems to shrink around us until it is, once again, just him and me. Our connection is far more intense, however, than when he was in my womb because I didn’t know him yet. I didn’t even know he was a boy. I didn’t know what his smile would look like and I didn’t know that every day he would give me a new opportunity to stretch myself and grow beyond my limits. Quite simply, I hadn’t met Elliot.
Emotionally and spiritually the adjustments have been far more profound. I feel as though someone has detonated a bomb somewhere deep inside me. From the outside, the damage may not show but I feel as though I have been split wide open and laid bare. Every hurt, every wound has reopened, along with all my fabulous memories. Living overseas, I find myself more homesick than I have ever been, bursting into tears every time I listen to Nova Scotia music or hear a fiddle (which thankfully doesn’t happen all that often here in Australia).
I am overwhelmed by the desire to show Elliot all the people and places that have meant so much to me. I swing from one end to the other on the emotional spectrum: exhaustion to euphoria, joy to frustration, gratitude to a serious lack of appreciation.
I have had to learn that the dishes staying undone is not the end of the world, my pants still being too tight means little in the grand scheme of things…
This has been an exercise in acceptance with the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced. Not only have I had to learn how to care for and meet (most of) the needs of a newborn baby, but I have had to learn that the dishes staying undone is not the end of the world, my pants still being too tight means little in the grand scheme of things and that my ‘identity’, which I have spent years plotting and crafting, is actually fluid and bendy and now changes largely in response to the needs of my son. I become whoever Elliot needs me to be. Milk bar? Check. Walking, rocking, singing baby entertainment unit? You got it sir! Nappy changer? My pleasure. How’s that for a lesson in the Buddhist concept of ‘no-self’? It is in this dichotomy, between the emotions classically embraced as good (happiness, purpose, joy, love) and bad (anger, frustration, exhaustion), where a new mother has been born.
For now I inhabit that gap; that beautiful, frightening gap between who I once was and who I have yet to become. My son, my gorgeous son, is right there with me: already who he is, revealing himself to me day by day with every smile, every cry and every movement. I do not dread this ‘not knowing’ as I once would have, for in this space a miracle unfolds and the honour of being a witness to it is the greatest privilege I have ever known.
Meghann Birks is a writer, life coach and facilitator living on the Mornington Peninsula. She and her partner, Andrew, recently welcomed their first son, Elliot. They are enjoying their latest adventure and learning what ‘sleep deprived’ really means.
Disclaimer: The instance of informal breastmilk sharing with the author and her sister-in-law is the author’s own idea and was done at her discretion. It does not reflect the ideas and opinions of the Online Breastfeeding Café.