Western society has few taboos left but, somehow, the other side of parenthood is still one of them. The famous pregnancy glow, the euphoric rush of hormonal love, and the sense of fulfilment are all phrases that are now synonymous with becoming a mother. And in recent years, there has even been the rise of the digital nomad supermum – using her maternity leave to travel the world.
And this is where, naively, I set the bar for my own ‘year off’. I had visions of endless travel, brunches and perhaps even a shoe-making course in Morocco (which is, when I look back now, quite funny, really).
Little did I know then that maternity is anything but a year off.
I became pregnant in November 2019 – just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In fact, it was the very same week I planned to let my friends and colleagues know I was four months pregnant that we went into lockdown.
As it was the first lockdown of many, a lot of the practicalities hadn’t been figured out, which meant that I couldn’t get into any prenatal or parenting groups – despite them all later being moved to Zoom.
So, instead of sharing my pregnancy worries – which foods to avoid, the difference between the first kick and gas, my fears around labour – with other mums-to-be, Google became my best friend. And I quickly realised that the perception of pregnancy we see portrayed on social media is far from the reality.
I know we’re not supposed to admit this, but I found pregnancy – especially the last months – very tough. This came as a surprise to me, as social media’s elegant expectant earth mothers (you know, the ones who spend all their time floating around in maxi dresses) had mostly described it as “the most amazing thing ever.”
In comparison, I felt unmaternal, insensitive and almost ungrateful whenever I felt the urge to talk about the shortness of breath, the lack of sleep, the rib pain and constant discomfort I was experiencing on a daily basis. And, whenever I plucked up the courage to do so, my ‘moaning’ was dismissed with clucks of, “Ah, but it’s worth it,” or “Well, as long as the baby is healthy.”
On top of all this, lockdown meant that the normal medical processes for pregnant women were up in the air; my hospital appointments were often moved around, and I often found myself transferred to random clinics. I rarely saw the same midwife twice.
It was in April that, full of excitement, I turned up for my much-anticipated gender scan with my partner, Jonathan. To our shock, we were told he couldn’t come in and would have to wait outside. I burst into tears.
I had to attend all of my hospital appointments alone, with Jonathan missing out on the scans, the first sounds of his baby’s heartbeat and the details of my pregnancy complications. And, although I understood the reasons (we were, after all, going through a global pandemic), it felt horrible not to share those moments with him.
My loneliness didn’t end there. With the country in full lockdown, shops and restaurants closed, as well as a limited amount of time allowed outside of the house, mine became a somewhat isolated pregnancy. There were no lunch dates with friends in chic floaty maternity dresses, or baby shopping trips with my mum. Our babymoon to Venice was unsurprisingly cancelled, too. In fact, as no one but Jonathan actually saw me IRL while I was pregnant, it almost felt as though I wasn’t expecting.
There were positives to all of this, though. Jonathan and I were able to work from home together, which meant we spent lockdown in full nesting mode; we prepared the nursery, we sat and did online shopping together for baby stuff (even though most of it was more often than not sold out), and enjoyed the last few months of our just-the-two-of-us time together.
I didn’t suffer from FOMO, as no one else could go out anyway. And, as I didn’t have to leave the house to go into the office, I managed to work until the end of my ninth month of pregnancy.
My office farewell was a sweaty Zoom call during a summer heatwave. My baby shower, meanwhile, was a few of my best friends surprising me on my doorstep, FaceTiming in more of our pals as they dropped off an array of thoughtful gifts. None of it was what I’d imagined.
In mid-August, the end of my rather uncomfortable, sweaty pregnancy was finally in sight, and I was overjoyed when the morning of my C-section arrived. It was a surreal day; I’d had a Covid test a few days beforehand, and only our mothers knew I was going in for surgery.
Thankfully – dutifully masked and in full scrubs – Jonathan was allowed into surgery with me. And, while he was the only visitor permitted between 8am and 8pm, we made the most of it, taking endless masked selfies to one day show our son what a strange time he was born into.
The surgery was straightforward and, suddenly we had a 7lbs 8oz baby boy: Marley. Full of pride, Jonathan walked up and down the ward holding our newborn, but was swiftly ushered back to our bay, which we weren’t supposed to leave.
The next few weeks felt like a whirlwind of sleepless nights and family visits. With lockdown easing, Jonathan was expected back in the office when Marley was just three weeks old, leaving me home alone with a newborn, most places still closed, social distancing rules still in place, and no support nearby.
These were some of the toughest weeks for me. The reality of motherhood was the biggest adjustment of my life, and a huge shock at first – a shock only magnified by the pandemic.
It may sound silly, but no one can prepare you for how full-on parenthood is, and all the mixed emotions it throws up. I felt guilty for asking myself repeatedly, “Am I really ready for this?” during the first weeks of motherhood – but I also felt fiercely protective of the little life I had created.
No one else seemed to speak about that strange juxtaposition. How could they, I suppose, amid a national lockdown when there were no support networks or groups running?
You may also like
Baby On The Brain podcast: the myth of the perfect pregnancy
Slowly but surely, I started adjusting, going on more walks than ever, talking to other mums from two metres away in the park, and learning to appreciate what I have. Because, cheesy as it sounds, my immeasurable love for Marley and confidence as a mother grew each day.
I started to build up a network of local parents in the same boat, joining a huge WhatsApp group of honest mums, eager to help each other. Neighbours reached out more, and soon baby groups began to open.
This couldn’t have happened sooner, as Marley wasn’t used to socialising and had become a true Covid baby, crying as soon as he saw new people. The few times he met my mother, he screamed hysterically.
Naturally, I wasn’t the only mum desperate to battle their babies’ stranger anxiety; trying to score a place in the mother and baby classes was soon described as ‘harder than getting Glastonbury tickets’. One site even crashed.
Then, just like that, we hit another lockdown, and were unable to spend Marley’s first Christmas with either of our families.
Instead of sinking into this new disappointment, we decided to focus on the three of us. While it was sad not to see our families, we took comfort knowing they were safe and healthy. Plus, it was an unusual way to avoid family politics.
With Jonathan working from home again, there was less pressure on me to do the solo parenting while everything was closed; now, we could even enjoy breakfast and lunch together.
In fact, all of this extra family time led him to find a more flexible job that offers majority remote working – giving us more time together – as well as enjoying a guilt-free social life apart.
So, yes, my maternity leave looks very different to the one that Instagram and all those glossy magazines led me to believe I’d have. Instead of spending the morning designing the ultimate Manolo Blahnik lookalike, I now sit in a bustling sensory class in west London singing nursery rhymes.
You know what? It’s worth it. To see my baby shriek with excitement at finally seeing other small people makes me truly appreciate what I have.
And, while my (fine, incredibly unrealistic) dreams of travelling the world with a little one didn’t come true, I’ve realised how lucky we are to be able to afford to stay home, in the comfort of a house we love, experiencing so much more of our newborn – and with our family in good health.
These days, I walk more slowly, enjoying the sounds of the birds, showing Marley the blossom trees, getting excited over new kitchen tiles and a Sunday roast, and appreciating all the extra family time.
Who needs the stress of taking a flight with a screaming baby anyway?
Images: Getty/author’s own
Recommended by Jessica Anais Rach
What can be done to stop women from suffering financially after having a child?
How pregnancy really feels when you’re in the role of the ‘other mother’
Baby On The Brain podcast: “Culturally there’s a massive challenge around asking for help”
How lockdown is reshaping returning from maternity leave