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The Mask of Motherhood

Laura Peppas

There was just one moment, throughout my surprisingly enjoyable pregnancy, that would really give me an indication of what was to come.

It wasn’t that episode of Friends where Rachel gives birth to a beautiful baby girl and a few episodes later is back at work, as fabulous as ever.

It wasn’t the many Instagram mummies with their glossy hair and Seed-clad little ones tucked neatly on their hip, waxing poetic about the journey that is motherhood.

It wasn’t my prenatal classes, which focussed so much on the impending labour rather than the aftermath.

It wasn’t even a visit to friends who had babies, because that only ever offered a mere glimpse of what was in store.

It was a moment at the end of my final prenatal checkup when my midwife made the parting comment: “You know the women who find motherhood the hardest? The ones who need to have everything ‘just so’; who always need to be in control. They’re the ones who struggle most in those first few months.”

As a self-confessed control freak, a tiny alarm bell triggered. Before then, I was under the misguided illusion that somehow, my baby would magically fit into my life, not vice versa. This is going to be tougher than you think, I realised.

Now when I look back at those first few weeks post-baby, I remember running to the mirror to put on makeup before people visited, hurriedly trying to clean the house while my baby screamed, and trying to squeeze my sore, engorged breasts and postpartum belly into my old clothes.

It sounds terribly self-indulgent and foolish, but a part of me felt I needed to be like those smiling, shiny-haired mothers.

Look how in control I am. I’m still me. I can do this. I just couldn’t embrace motherhood for what it really was, and the imperfections that undeniably came with it.

What’s worse, I couldn’t help but think what I knew I should never say out loud—I want my old life back. I felt like I was being forced to abandon everything I was—a writer, friend, wife, traveller—for this tiny, screaming human. My days had swiftly gone from a job interviewing successful business people and politicians to feeling lucky if I had the time to drag my aching limbs into the shower for ten minutes.

Not even my body was mine anymore: my breasts were simply an alarm clock telling me when it was time for 
a feed, my hair was shedding from raging hormones and I had headaches from grinding my teeth in my sleep (a subconscious way to release stress, according to my dentist.) Though I was grateful that I could grow life and in awe of my baby, I struggled to accept my ‘new’ self.

Yet I felt compelled to smile, to tell everyone what a blessing motherhood was. It felt taboo to say anything else, for fear of appearing ungrateful— because I knew there were thousands of women sitting in IVF clinics who would kill to be in my position, or single mothers battling it out alone.

In the past, I’d never had a problem telling people when I was snowed under at work or stressed with study, but for some reason, I wasn’t brave enough to tell people the truth when it came to motherhood: that I was completely overwhelmed and had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Swaddling, settling, breastfeeding? I was in over my head, and I’d never felt more isolated in my life.

My husband tried to be supportive but when it was time for him to go back to work, resentment set in. There he was neatly slotting back into his old life, while I was stuck at home in this new, unfamiliar, scary territory.

Before giving birth to her baby boy two years ago, Sarah Freeman* thought motherhood was going to be “walks around Lake Burley Griffin with the pram, wearing expensive activewear and drinking a cappuccino whilst laughing with my new mummy friends.”

“The reality was I was exhausted, felt very fat and unattractive, had no idea what I was doing and was in shock about how much things had changed,” Sarah says.

“I thought after having a baby I would ‘snap’ back straight away until I realised the 20kg I gained wasn’t just baby and placenta (it may have also been cake), and I felt that my career had gone to shit.”

For the first year of her baby’s 
life, Sarah suffered from postnatal anxiety, which, along with postnatal depression, is becoming increasingly common among both Australian women and men.

“On reflection, my struggle with antenatal anxiety started during my pregnancy,” Sarah says.

“I had a constant feeling of impending doom and started having panic attacks.”

As soon as my little boy arrived, I started having very scary thoughts and the panic attacks increased to the point that they were debilitating. I found an amazing psychologist straight away but it took more than a year until I felt like I was on the road to recovery.

“I did try to put a brave face on
 with some friends, because I felt embarrassed that I was struggling when it seemed so easy for other people.”

More than ever before, we have access to a wildly overwhelming amount of information on parenting: from books, forums and apps, to social pages telling you what not to do. With one snap of a stranger’s camera, our parenting flaws are so easily exposed to the world. That easy exposure can, in turn, increase your level of paranoia: Am I holding my baby right? Should I be feeding them this? Are they judging me for using formula instead of breastfeeding?

It could also be the reason why many mothers are compelled to put on a brave face, even when struggling—a recent survey by Pregnancy, Birth and Baby showed one in three parents are reluctant to seek advice due to fear of being judged or seen as a failure.

Another major shift in motherhood today is that we are often told we
 can ‘have it all’: the booming career, baby, relationship and social life. It’s a positive thing, of course, but it could also be why some new mums feel extra pressure on their shoulders.

“I feel the generations before us have had a very different experience with motherhood,” says mother of one Claire Sainsbury.

“After marrying, many women stopped working to focus on raising a family. Now women are having babies later
 in life, when we’ve established good careers, friendships, routines—so it could be one of the reasons why it feels like it takes longer to adjust.”

New mum Javier Steel admits she set “ridiculously high standards” for herself before the birth of her baby girl, Odessa.

“I thought that I could still ‘do it all’, despite having a baby,” Javier says. “I would work, create, socialise, travel—I wouldn’t use motherhood 
as an excuse for not doing things. I guess I thought that I’d be really good at motherhood and that I’d magically have these maternal instincts that would kick in and make me some kind of Nigella-esque domestic goddess who was an amazing, effortless, chic mum. But once Odessa was born I [felt I] had lost my identity.

“I was no longer Javier, Creative Director, who had something to show for all of my hard work. I was suddenly a mum and at the end of each day,
my husband would come home and ask me what I did. I would tell him, ‘the same as yesterday—my life is like Groundhog Day.’ Our relationship dynamics changed: I was almost resentful of him because he got to leave the house, go to work, talk to people, make money—achieve things. I didn’t feel fulfilled or challenged, I had no creative outlet, I missed my friends and I missed the freedom of being able to leave the house without having to plan hours in advance.”

Javier says she realised that you can still “have it all,” just perhaps not all at once.

“I think you just need to learn that you can have/do all the things, but that you might have to wait. If nothing else, motherhood teaches you patience,” she says.

“I guess that I wish that people would be more ‘real’ about what it’s like to become a mother. I [also] wish I knew that it would pass and that it would get better every day. Being a mother would no longer be a burden, it would be an honour.”

Though the online world may have created extra anxiety for new parents, it is also responsible for some positive change—we now have access to 
more support than ever before, with a wide range of mother’s groups, playgroups, and online support networks which encourage people to “reach out” if they’re struggling.

Local networks such as Canberra Mums and Mums Exercise Group Australia (MEGA) are growing increasingly popular while new online group ‘No Mum Left Behind,’ is designed to combat the isolation and loneliness that can accompany mums by encouraging other mothers to connect, whether it be a “walking buddy, coffee date, playgroup pal or someone to cry into a bottle of wine with.”

“I really believe that you never know the impact of reaching out to someone who could be having a tough time, even if they look like they have it together—you never know what someone can be going through,” co-founder Nikki says.

My own “reach out” moment came from one 
of the most unlikely situations.

I was walking home from doing the groceries, trying to navigate the trolley in one hand while holding the baby in the carrier in the other, when a young man passing by in a suit called out: “You’re doing an awesome job.” With those five words, a stranger had lifted my day, and I walked home feeling a little lighter.

After that, when I started focusing on the simplicity of “doing an awesome job” of keeping my baby alive and well, something shifted. I knew I’d eventually be back at work, go out to dinner and feel like myself again. My breasts would stop hurting, the stretch marks would fade. But that could all wait. For now, my life was focused on raising a healthy and happy little girl—and like anything else, there would be good and bad days. And when I finally accepted it for what it was, the real beauty of the journey my daughter and I were on revealed itself.

As the weeks turned into months, my screaming newborn became a giggling little girl who smiled whenever we tickled her knees, nuzzled her head into my neck when I picked her up and held my hand while I fed her. I realised I’d relive those difficult first few months again, just to see who she is today. But next time, I won’t be so afraid to tell it like it is.

LOCAL RESOURCES

HAVING A BABY IN CANBERRA WEBSITE

The Having a Baby in Canberra website has been developed by the Women’s Centre for Health Matters and features information on all stages—from planning the pregnancy through to the first six weeks at home with a baby.

havingababyincanberra.org.au

MACH NURSING SERVICE

The ACT Government’s Maternal and Child Health (MACH) Nursing Service assists parents with support, information and health advice.

health.act.gov.au | 02 6207 9977

HEALTHDIRECT

Healthdirect Australia is a telephone health advice and information service.

healthdirect.gov.au | 1800 022 222 (free call, 24 hours)

AUSTRALIAN BREASTFEEDING ASSOCIATION

Breastfeeding support and information are available from Australian Breastfeeding Association volunteers via the Breastfeeding Helpline.

breastfeeding.asn.au | 1800 686 268 (free call)

PANDSI

PANDSI plays a vital role in providing support to Canberra parents affected by post or ante natal depression. Services include a weekly daytime support group, one on one support and a telephone support program.

pandsi.org | 02 6288 1936

CANBERRA AND REGION MULTIPLE BIRTH ASSOCIATION

CARMBA is a support network for parents and carers of twins, triplets, and more.

carmba.org.au | 0430 202 894

PREGNANCY BIRTH & BABY

A confidential phone and online service providing information, advice and counselling about pregnancy, childbirth and baby’s first year.

pregnancybirthbaby.org.au | 1800 882 436 (free call)

* Name has been changed
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Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra’s senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra’s wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she’s not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea.

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