Mum Guilt and Mum Anxiety

A few years ago I was on the beach in Fuerteventura, splashing around in the surf, when a huge wave appeared and completely knocked me off my feet.  When I finally dragged myself back onto the beach I realised that my bikini bottoms were halfway down my bum, I had a mouthful of sand and I was only wearing one flip flop.  I hadn’t seen it coming at all (though I expect for others watching from the beach it probably happened in slow motion and might have looked very amusing).

Falling in love with Alba was a little like this.  It’s all I can compare it to.  I think everyone experiences this sensation at different paces (for some it is a slower burn and takes time) but for me it completely floored me and was very intense; almost destabisingly so.  It was (and is) suffocating at times – leaving me feeling overwhelmed with an acute rush of love that I don’t know what to do with.  (Incidentally, this is why you can sometimes look at your pet and want to squeeze them as hard as possible – it’s your body’s way of trying to temper that onslaught of love and emotion). Sometimes when I’m holding her I notice I’m gritting my teeth the way you might do when you’re in pain.  I have to practice dropping my shoulders and un-clenching my jaw or I go about my day in a constant state of tension.

holding baby hands

If I describe my intense love for her as hitting me like a wave, then just like any chemical or hormonal hit; that wave slowly ebbs away, and what’s left is often a feeling of worry or anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  It is that vulnerable feeling of knowing I am solely responsible for this tiny human, and a fear that if something were to happen to her, I wouldn’t be able to cope.  It’s like the sticky, choking rush of adrenaline you get when you wake in the night and think the dressing gown hanging on your bedroom door is almost certainly a murderous intruder – you can talk yourself down from it but the sensation lingers there in the darkness even after you’ve realised it’s not real.

I know that my solution for any anxiety or fear is always control and hypervigilance – it has always been so.  This is why I find myself deep in page 7 of a Mumsnet forum about how long a baby can sit in a car seat for when planning a trip away, why I spend more time than I care to admit with my hand on her chest checking she’s still breathing, and why she has tried probably every formula brand and every anti-colic remedy on the market.  My hypervigilance somehow also assumes I have no control over my own body – I place Alba down on the changing mat and close the windows in the nursery before carrying her around the room just in case I somehow accidentally drop her out of the window.  She loves being held above me in the air but I have constant visions of her slipping through my fingers.  Last night I couldn’t sleep as I started to imagine the pile of books on my bedside table somehow slipping off and falling onto her in her crib.  My life seems a constant cycle of imagining awful scenarios and then researching how they can be mitigated – I bought a mirror and placed it above her car seat so I can see her at all times when I’m driving, in case she somehow chokes/slips out of her seatbelt/becomes spontaneously ill and I don’t realise until we reach our destination.  All of these purchases or ‘research projects’ give me back some sense of control amidst the chaos of a constant fear of losing something that I love like I never have before.

If I’m not feeling anxious about keeping her safe, I’m worrying about my parenting and feeling guilty about any occasions when I’m not physically holding her or engaging her.  The newborn days are so overwhelming (I learned to do everything with one hand as she would cry the second I placed her down) that the moment they start to self-soothe or play with toys, it gives you back a small slice of freedom.  But for me, that freedom comes at a price.  We might spend an hour with a mix of reading, playing with her taggy toy, bouncing her on my knee and singing songs – but then the second I pop her down in her rocker to grab a cup of tea or a slice of toast, I instantly feel terrible.  “Does she think I’m abandoning her?,” I wonder.  “Will she grow up thinking I constantly sought to just place her down in her jungle gym/rocker/swing/nest so that I could do things for myself?” I take her out to meet friends and worry if I’m doing it for me, or for her – would she prefer to be at home? Would she prefer to be out walking in her pram? Even sometimes when she falls asleep and I place her down in her crib I think of someone saying “Oh how convenient, she’s sleeping again – now you have even more time to yourself!”  I have somehow created an image in my head of a mother being the ultimate martyr and existing only for her child, and any ounce of enjoyment that comes from anything other than her baby is quite sinful.  I have been for two hair appointments lately and I worry that people will judge me for leaving her with someone else so that I can do this.  Am I spending too much time away from her? Am I attentive enough? Is she happy enough? Am I… enough?

I recently read Untamed by Glennon Doyle (an amazing book that I was so kindly gifted by a friend and would recommend to anyone) and the sections on parenting really blew me away.  Particularly this quote:

“Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist. What a terrible burden for children to bear—to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear—to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too.”

I try and remind myself of this as much as possible.  That I am still allowed to enjoy things, that I am still allowed to relax and just be ‘me’, that it’s not mutually exclusive for me to be a Rosie and also be a Mum.  But it’s difficult.  I’m sure the best gift I could give her would be for her to see a Mum that is content, confident and thriving – a Mum that is kind and gentle to herself and trusts her intuiton about what’s right for her and her baby.  I hope I can get there.

Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash