After six years of medical school, one year of internship and two years of being a resident doctor I stood draped in a blue gown, my brow sweaty with effort, and smiled as I heard the newborn cries of the baby I was holding.
Having a baby is the happiest days of most people’s lives; I know because I have been there.
I’m in the background of some photos, cleaning up instruments, throwing out my latex gloves. In others I feature alongside the family, leaning over the hospital bed, dark shadows under my eyes. I will be recounted in years to come, “and that’s the doctor who delivered you”. By then my name will have been forgotten, most details blurred into a collage of pain and exuberance, a heady cocktail with which to begin motherhood.
I was drawn into the world of obstetrics by the elation I felt at my first delivery as a medical student. I decided then that I wanted to be there for people’s best days; in medicine there’s not much opportunity for that. And yet, as fulfilling as my work was, I felt a gnawing emptiness. The combination of fourteen-hour work days, constant stress, the music of my shoes clacking on the lino floors as I walked from ward to ward meant that I was getting skinny and pale, becoming a ghostly image of my former self.
I soon realised that, though I loved my job, the unnerving feeling of emptiness was not going away. I watched as new mothers scooped up their babies, the pain of labour forgotten in an instant, an overwhelming love enveloping them instead. And I realised how much I wanted that too.
I didn’t know what exactly the role of motherhood entailed. I couldn’t picture myself as the mother of an actual child, just a baby, and even then I didn’t really know what that meant. But, I figured, I have worked hard as a doctor so nothing can be harder than that so, no matter how much ‘work’ being a mum is, I would be fine.
No, forget that, I wasn’t going to just be ‘fine,’ I was going to be amazing. Superwoman. She Who Can Do It All.
It didn’t take me long to realise how little I had known about this whole mothering thing. It’s not the tiredness that gets to you, it’s the fact that it’s endless. You don’t finish a shift and get a break. The tiredness thus builds up, day upon day, until your brain feels muddled, your mouth dry and croaky as though you have been chewing on cigarettes. The housework never ends, and the patience needed on a daily basis is exhausting.
The problem was that, as a perfectionist, I was trying too hard to make my new reality perfect. I focused so much on the frame, polishing it and refining it, that somehow I missed the picture.
My life as a medical student, then doctor, had always been about the endpoint, and it took me a long time to realise that there is no ‘goal’ to being a parent: instead it’s a journey.
The first few months of my daughter’s life I was so caught up in maintaining this image of a perfect world that I couldn’t see the beauty, intricate and complicated, of my wonderful new reality.
It took time but, slowly, thread by thread, I let my façade drop. I watched Superwoman take off her kick-ass boots and fly out the window as I began to realise that I wasn’t perfect, life as a parent would never be perfect, but that it was OK for it not to be.
I was no longer standing on the fringes of life, pager on my hip, stethoscope around my neck, detached and clinical. Instead I was immersed in the reality of life and it was so much more fulfilling (and involved so much more work!) than I could ever imagine.
The last two years have been a whirlwind of smiles and laughter, tears and tantrums, joy so unbelievable I sometimes feel like my mouth is going to split open from so much smiling. It is like a spinning wheel, the colours of my life flying so brightly and so close together they create the impression of an endless, snow-covered white.
And now I find myself at the beginning. Not the first beginning, but a new beginning. I have just given birth to my second child, my beautiful little boy.
And I don’t care about ‘doing it all,’ or maintaining any kind of external image. I am certainly not aiming for perfection. Instead I just sit here for hours, kissing his plump cheeks and soaking in his newborn smell. Because this time I know how quickly it will all go, and how much joy there is in the minutiae of life.
My first baby has gone; her wide hazel eyes are now those of a toddler. She has taught me how to love, but more than that she has taught me how to live.
I sing and dance with her, I plunge my hands into gooey play dough, hell I even bake cookies that burn on the bottom but are so much fun to make that I don’t care. I am messy and flawed, bigger (in every sense!), and love my life in a way I could never have imagined.
I now understand the exquisite beauty of this imperfection. I am – thankfully, joyfully – a mother.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem