I have a bone to pick with expectations.
I first learnt about them on a student exchange trip to France at the age of 17. It was meant to be “amazing”, a “once in a lifetime experience”. Instead it was lonely and difficult. I found myself in a world where I could not express myself and as a result became an outsider, that awkward person that hangs on to groups of people without contributing. I became depressed and felt guilty for squandering this “amazing” experience with my own genuine feelings.
I was so disappointed and let down by my experience and felt the blame lay squarely on my unrealistic expectations. This spurred a realisation for me.
Expectations can ruin an experience.
Not once in the lead-up to my 2 months abroad did anyone say to me: “you’ll feel really lost”. Instead it was “you’ll find yourself”. Well, I found more of my physical self as I made a daily trip to the patisserie to fill my emotional void with sugar coated almond croissants. But unfortunately, I had never felt more insignificant.
Yum! Image by Faruk Ates
Looking back, I still think it was a valuable experience, but it should have been just that…an experience, not “the time of my life”. I think that actually goes for most major events in life.
I had a similar experience following the birth of my first child, Lily. The most common question I was asked during my pregnancy was: “Are you excited?” After hearing this for the 20th time, my response was reactionary and immediate, I would break out the big smile, nod profusely and explain I couldn’t wait. And it was the truth.
But the effect of this question was like hypnosis for me. It solidified my subconscious thinking that parenthood was meant to be, and going to be ‘exciting’. Even if I may have read a chapter on settling, or listened to the antenatal session on juggling time in the post-natal period, these concepts were abstract and hard to tangibly imagine. The overwhelming emphasis from my world was that this was going to be the most exciting and rewarding journey of my life.
Then, diagnosed with post-natal depression when Lily was 6 months old, I was perplexed. This was meant to be exciting and rewarding. Why was I finding it so difficult? How is it, that millions of women have done this mothering caper the world over, and I feel it is beating me? I was young, healthy, fit, and educated. I had read the books and attended the classes. At my kinder graduation aged 5, my teacher proudly announced I wanted to be a mum when I grew up. BRING IT ON!!
The reality…you all know it, turn on the broken record. Tired beyond all scope of possible imaginings, feelings of defeatism as a tiny person up-ends your life and makes you feel inadequate, body changing issues, a feeling of distance with your partner, watching your friends go overseas and earn money and attend trendy wine tasting events.
I was expecting this:
But I was experiencing this:
I thought there was something wrong with me. Now I know, there wasn’t. My expectations were just so far from reality that I had lost before I had even begun.
I tried to keep up the performance of being on top of everything and “happy”. It was EXHAUSTING. But why did I do it? I’m still not entirely sure. Maybe because I didn’t want to let down everyone who was telling me how happy I should be. Maybe because people don’t want to visit you when your a vomit-stained, un-washed, teary mess who keeps falling asleep. Maybe because I thought I’d fool myself if I kept on the hamster wheel.
Did it work? Yeah, maybe. Sort of. Not really.
What did work? Talking. Well for me anyway. Mothers’ group was brilliant. 8 other mum’s right there in the trenches with me, sleep deprived, angry at our husbands, feeling like slaves to our 6 months olds. It was gold. We used to open a bottle of wine at 12.30PM and get it all off our chests. Then I had to talk to a psychologist for a bit as well. Similar issues, less wine and more expensive; but also very helpful.
Should 1 in 7 mums experience post-natal depression? It seems wrong to me. So, I find myself asking, what are we doing as a culture, as a society that makes this feeling of defeatism and sadness so profoundly common in new mums?
Unrealistic expectations are playing their part.
Unrealistic expectations of happiness, of fulfilment, of love, of connection with your partner, of physical recovery. And unrealistic expectations and understanding of the enormity and loneliness of the mother workload.
So, as a community can we moderate this expectation? I think we can. It’s not about bringing all pregnant women down and telling them depressing stories about motherhood. But let’s just say it how it is. There are high’s and there are low’s. Let’s ask open ended questions to pregnant or new mums such as “How are you feeling about becoming a mum?” to allow them to express themselves, rather than ramming pre-packaged emotions into their psyche.
None of this is to say it’s not worth it. And for goodness sake, share your lovely stories about your children too. But don’t sugar coat parenthood. Don’t watch too many nappy ads that make being a mother look like running through an immaculate house in white pants while your perfectly clean child giggles constantly. Sure, there is the odd moment like that (FYI: you’re mad if you wear white anything as a mum, and my house has never been immaculate since becoming a parent) but the bare bottomed giggles and the cuddles do happen, and are awesome!
As a community and society, let’s help to put expecting parents in a frame of mind that acknowledges the road into parenthood not as “the time of your life” but for what it is, an experience.
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