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The Motherhood: Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald

‘When he arrives, your fears for your career and indifference about children dissolve within seconds. You are a convert who has utterly embraced a new spiritual reverence for motherhood.’

As we celebrate Mother’s Day here at HerCanberra, we bring you a special tale of love and loss from our Associate Editor Emma Macdonald.

She is one of a selection of Australian women asked by Jamila Rizvi to write letters of advice to themselves as new mothers, compiled in the new book—The Motherhood. Here’s an excerpt.

Dear Emma,

Well, this is all rather unexpected, isn’t it? Here you are with a newborn in your arms: a son, no less. You, the hard-nosed, outspoken and cynical newspaper reporter and your husband, Paul, the driven and committed political operative, have managed to create just about the calmest, most glorious baby in the world. It feels like a perverse sort of miracle.

You were terrified as you arrived at hospital this morning. While you can manage the adrenaline rush of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the combative life of press gallery journalism and the unpredictability of Australian federal politics, you are desperately fearful of becoming a mother. You are afraid of losing control, of change and of not being good at something.

Here you are, about to give yourself over to a child absolutely and completely. You’ve had literally no practice because you generally avoid holding other people’s babies. You don’t much like children at all, to be frank. But now he has arrived and your life has changed in one extraordinary instant.

Emma’s son, Thomas.

As he was lifted from your body, this child did not cry. He was awake and alert, but he did not make a peep. The nurses wrapped him up and delivered him into your arms and he stared at you for the longest time. You drank him in: those eyes, enormous, blue, somehow knowing, and fringed with eyelashes so long they brushed his eyebrows. The room fell still and silent, filled only with the moment.

‘It’s always the boys who get the lashes,’ one of the nurses chuckled.

Then those lashes flutter closed and he sleeps. You hold him to your chest and breathe him in. Right then, you feel prouder of yourself than at any other stage of your life. You have created something incredible. He is special and you sense that from the beginning. Your worries dissipate in amazement and the most overwhelming tidal wave of love. You know this child. You know him and you always have.

As you stare at this perfect sleeping newborn, you will briefly remember the shock at discovering you were pregnant with him. How could there have been a time when you didn’t want this with every ounce of your being? That feels impossible now. You feel slightly sick as you remember that day you took the pregnancy test in the shopping centre loos and almost keeled over with fright.

You had just spent the afternoon at the hospital with your beloved mum. She was waging a battle with cancer and you’d watched in alarm as her condition went from stable to desperately ill. You looked after her as best you could until eventually you’d followed the ambulance to the hospital for yet another round of emergency surgery.

It’s only when they ran out of hospital beds during your mum’s long and slow recovery—and they placed her in the maternity ward—that you stopped and looked around you. It hit you like a punch. What you had assumed was your body’s way of dealing with shock and distress was actually something far more profound. You were growing a new human being, a baby of your very own.

You raced to the chemist and, afterwards, stood wide-eyed watching those two dark lines develop, signifying your fate. It’s actually kind of funny how someone so supposedly switched-on – a trained observer, a professional chronicler of the human condition – could have been so oblivious to growing another person inside her. You still smile a secret smile every time you walk past those shopping centre loos.

It’s not that you hadn’t been discussing babies. For months now, you’d been getting nagged by friends and strangers alike about when you would take the leap into motherhood. You were 34-years-old and they were obviously hearing your biological clock tick louder than you were. Your focus was elsewhere. As well as your mother and her illness, there was the hard-fought-for career that you didn’t want to compromise. Not for anything. Not ever.

In fact, you were more than a little insulted when the topic of babies came up in conversation. When a friend or family member inquired nosily, you’d think to yourself: Wasn’t it enough that you were winning Walkleys and writing about issues of national importance? Why were you being measured by the contents of your womb, rather than the contribution you were making to democratic engagement?

The thing is that when he arrives, your fears for your career and indifference about children dissolve within seconds. You have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love. You are a convert who has embraced a new spiritual reverence for motherhood. You decide that you will have more babies and lots of them. You want to fill a house with children and never bother writing a front-page story again.

Those early days and nights are going to be magical and comical in equal measure. The Type-A control freak that you are is going to have to yield completely to the needs of another. You’re an only child who is used to forging and forcing her own path in life, but now there is someone else who is utterly reliant on you, robbing you of independence and autonomy.

Prepare for your carefully controlled schedule and curated existence to be shattered by someone who weighs less than four kilograms. You are going to change your attitude to life because there is not really another option. You are going to slow right down, you are going to find joy in the small moments and you are going to utterly delight in this child and all that he can do. You are going to learn to get along together just fine.

Emma, there are going to be tears from both of you because of breastfeeding. Tears galore. Persevere, though, because you will learn this skill without starving your baby. Together you are going to become a team. In those quiet, dark, solitary hours between the dusk and dawn, you are going to think you are invincible. And then, when the light breaks, you are going to think you are insane, because sleep deprivation does that to a person.

Nothing is going to stretch your physical, mental or spiritual capacities like the exhaustion you are going to experience over the next few weeks. Actually, if we are being completely honest with each other, it will be months at least. Even when he is a toddler, and a child aged three and four and five years old, there will be nights when he is sick and you won’t sleep. Truth is that he is more important than sleep. And you’re fitting this rather brutal lesson in nice and early.

There are other things that you will learn in these early weeks. That tea can still be comforting even when drunk cold. That you can consume a tin of tuna while standing at the kitchen sink in less time than it takes for him to spit a dummy out. That your husband will still come home to you, and love you, even when you haven’t changed your tracksuit bottoms or washed your hair in over a week. You will also learn it is possible to stare at your child for twenty-three of the twenty-four hours in a day yet not tire of his perfection. You will marvel that he wakes up smiling and that his eyelashes are so long they get kinked when he sleeps on them.

Emma and her mum, on her wedding day.

Perhaps the most profound joy will come in watching your mother bond with your son. She will stand over his cot to watch his midday nap just to capture that first smile of the afternoon when he opens his eyes and sees her. She will be your saviour when you stumble through her door, hand her the baby and collapse onto her sofa. And when you wake you will smell the delicious meal she has whipped up for you, all while keeping up an endless stream of gentle conversation with her grandson as he watches from her hip.

She will have you in stitches as she covers his eyes while she walks him past a television (she doesn’t want him sullied by the daytime TV you’ve suddenly become partial to), and she will sit in the back seat of your car on the three-hour drive from Canberra to Sydney holding a muslin cloth over his capsule because she fears the sun may taint his perfect skin. No, her arms aren’t tired. Well, maybe just a little bit.

You and Paul will often reflect that your mother’s and your son’s shared gentle natures mean he has more in common with her than his parents. This little boy will give your mother a new lease on life and you will, for two glorious years, imagine that she has beaten this wretched disease.

But, I’m sorry, Emma, she hasn’t.

My dear, you must prepare yourself for the hardest goodbye. I want you to know that those last few weeks at the hospice will be as exquisite as they are painful. You will be the constant in her final days as you were in her life. The autumn light bounces off the lake and filters through the trees onto her bedcovers. You will discover that, like childbirth, death is a labour of sorts. It can be long and it is hard.

Your mother will die on a Sunday morning. As she takes her final breath she will open her eyes and look deep into yours and a single tear will roll down her face. She doesn’t want to leave you. You will feel a void so great that you can’t imagine ever being able to stop crying. The flow is endless. You will go home and collapse on your living room floor and your now two-year-old will climb gingerly into your lap with a face full of concern. It might be hard to believe, but that tiny baby you’re holding today will become a walking, talking being who is capable of the most enormous empathy.

He will ask you ‘What’s wrong, Mama?’ and you will explain that you have lost your beautiful mum and that, right now, your heart feels like it is breaking in two. He will place his hands on your chest and lean in to kiss your heart.

And he will help you get through it.

Some days he will be the only reason you get out of bed.

Emma and her daughter Imogen.

Four years after your son, your daughter will arrive. A girl!

A girl! And you will name her after her grandmother and tap into an entirely new well of love and all-encompassing adoration. The first six weeks of this little one’s life will be so different to her brother’s because, for one thing, she is a different human being. And for another thing, you have at least half of clue of what to do.

Oh, and your career. You’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you? You will go back eventually. And you’ll be better at it. There will be plenty more front-page splashes, awards and moments of profound pride and satisfaction in what you can achieve as a journalist. You will approach your craft with more wisdom, empathy and knowledge than you did pre-children. Nobody works more efficiently than a woman who has childcare pick-up at 5 p.m.

Emma, even if you did start out as the most accidental and reluctant of mums, you will continue to feel blessed the way you do now. This will be the journey that defines you. Everyone who ever said anything corny about a woman not being fulfilled until she has children is right. Every cliché is spot-on. There are not enough superlatives in the world to chuck at this gift of children.

You are going to love them with all of your heart for all of your years and you will never stop delivering secret and regular messages of thanks to the powers that be for giving you these exact two people. You are still paid to craft words for a living, and that gives you joy too, but at the end of all your days, it’s your children’s hands you want to hold. Like your own mum, it will be the faces of your children that you want to see as you close your eyes for the last time.

Love, Emma

the essentials

The Motherhood is coming to Canberra when Jamila Rizvi, editor of The Motherhood, leads a lively discussion with contributors Emma Macdonald Lanai Scarr,  and Anna Rose about their experiences as new mothers.

When: Thursday 17 May, 6-8pm
Where: National Library Theatre
How much: $20 entry or $45 with book included. Refreshments served.
Tickets: Book here.

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

  • Cecilia Symonds

    This is the most powerful piece I have read all year and I must admit I cried a lot. I am so sorry for your loss Emma. Thank you for writing so beautifully about your experiences.