As a first-time mum at 36, I embarked on motherhood full of wisdom and life experience, with a comfortable home, and a freshly painted nursery with Huggies nappies and Bonds suits neatly lined up in anticipation.
I had travelled the world and coped with many difficult circumstances. Friends fretted and fussed about parenting, but how hard could it be? I was smugly confident and knew I would be great at this. I would be the perfect mother.
The moment my eyes met Daniel’s in the hospital labour ward I fell in love with all the passion and craziness of a 14- year-old girl in the throes of her first crush. Life prior to his arrival faded to a grey weary blur, and the world lit up around me like a Christmas tree, full of colour, light and meaning.
I felt truly alive at last.
When Daniel was five months old we set off on our first ‘family holiday’ to Port Macquarie, where we introduced him to swimming and he ran his chubby fingers through the gritty sand on the beach for the first time. He and I squealed with delight during our daily swims, enjoyed nocturnal breast-feeding sessions gazing at the moonlit beach, and attempted our first restaurant meal. Our family and our lives were finally complete. Or so we thought.
After the holiday I started feeling nauseous in the meat section at Woolworths and wondered why the smell of raw steak had become so repugnant. An old familiar feeling of both nausea and hunger overwhelmed me. Eventually I overcame my denial and found a pregnancy test in the bathroom drawer and gasped in disbelief as two red lines appeared.
One sultry evening in the spa bath sipping champagne had resulted in Cameron’s grand entry to life, only 13 months after his brother.
My careful plans began to unravel as the reality of having two babies in such quick succession sunk in. On my first week back to part-time work I blushed as I applied for maternity leave once again. The luxuries of rest and nurture enjoyed during my first pregnancy were impossible this time around as I tended to Daniel’s needs.
Rushing to hospital two weeks earlier than expected, I worried about being separated from Daniel and wondered how I could love another baby like my first. My doubts dissolved a few hours later as I gazed into Cameron’s wise and inquisitive eyes. The power of maternal love washed over me like a crashing wave, and my heart expanded to contain it.
The next few months brought a haze of dirty nappies, tired scratchy eyes, kilos that wouldn’t shift, hasty shopping trips for essential items, when I’d forget to buy the milk. It was a steep readjustment to life as we knew it. Our social life dwindled as leaving the house felt like scaling Mt Everest in a snow storm.
However, amongst the chaos, exhaustion and messy nature of our new life, the sense of love and commitment grew, and I was hooked on my boys.
Several months on, while the boys were still under two, I again began to feel unwell. My pulse raced, the kilos finally started shifting and one evening I felt the earth move under my feet, but not in the way Carol King sang about. Hastily I performed another pregnancy test and it was negative.
After a series of puzzling tests my doctor called one evening to say I had thyroid cancer. How could that be? Cancer was not part of my plan to be the perfect mother. Yet, ironically, it was my role as mother that drove me to fight the horrid disease with all my strength.
Before I knew it I was in hospital having my thyroid gland cut out of my neck. My husband took a photo of me sitting on the floor playing with the boys, my neck bandaged and my face pale, smiling brightly at the camera, which reminds me of the surreal weeks that followed the surgery. Radioactive iodine treatment came next which required me to stay in isolation in hospital for a week at a time.
Like a caged animal in the stark green hospital room, I attempted to watch soap opera re-runs, and sobbed desperate tears as I hugged photos of my babies to my chest. They were too young to understand where Mummy had gone, and my heart was heavy with the guilt of having left them. After two bouts of treatment the tests were clear and I dared to dream of a future again.
Cameron and Daniel are now eight and nine years old, and I no longer try to be the perfect mother.
Each day is a precious gift, and I’ve stopped subconsciously seeking a prize or striving to be the best. At report time I hear other mothers complain that little Johnnie didn’t get an ‘A’, but I’m satisfied with a ‘C’. I want the very best for my kids, but I also know that a perfect life is a myth.
Instead I focus on living life to the full and loving my boys with all my heart. My hope is to sow qualities such as resilience, acceptance and courage into their lives so they are ready to take on all the challenges that lie ahead and embrace all the joy available to them in an imperfect world.
“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