A few weeks ago, my daughter turned 20 months old, exactly a year and 8 months. So I thought I would list the 20 things I've learned since I became a mother on that cold typically British, rainy afternoon in January of what seems to be eons ago but was only last year.
Now some of those things are tips and tricks I've adopted for basic survival, some "accepted" truths were forced on me which I had to chuck aside and replace with my own realizations, others I'm still in the process of learning.
So here goes:
1. Sleep is no longer my God-given right
It is a luxury that I would gladly give my right arm and leg for. And if you are lucky enough to get it, congratulations! You are officially part of the 1% of the 1%.
The first few months of motherhood taught me that and I will never be able to unlearn it. Ever. But I’ve discovered a couple of loopholes.
One is sleeping when the baby sleeps. This is one piece of advice I carelessly tossed aside and suffered greatly for it. But when I decided to follow my baby's lead and made nap time my favorite time of the day, my body and mind thanked me for it.
The other loophole is co-sleeping. Nothing has helped me and my baby more than sharing a room and, more often than not, a bed. It’s not right for everyone—but it was for me. (P.S. learn how to more safely co-sleep here.)
Breastfeeding while in the horizontal position has been another Godsend. I don’t regret it.
2. Breastfeeding is the journey of a lifetime
While we're on the subject of breastfeeding, I won't pretend to speak for every mother out there, but my decision to breastfeed and continue breastfeeding turned into an intense journey. However, while initially excruciating, the highs were definitely worth it. I wonder sometimes if the bond that I painstakingly forged with my baby would have been as strong if I hadn't breastfed, given my PPD. Or perhaps it would have taken longer to emerge.
3. Depression is real
Nothing else about motherhood broke me like depression. So I read about it, closely monitored my moods for tell-tale symptoms and talked to my doctor. But aside from getting the required treatment (homeopathic, pharmaceutical or therapy), little things helped like opening up to loved ones about how I was feeling, getting help with housework and making some time in my day for me.
Ultimately, I had to learn to reach out for help, cry out for it if I had to. There's no shame in it. I just wish I wasn’t silent for so long thinking that I could go it alone. Turns out, I can’t. No one can. (For help with depression, go here.)
4. There were times when it felt like there was no "me" anymore
People addressed me as the mother of so-and-so, or bitter old women shamelessly told me point blank that I simply didn't exist beyond my one mission in life of keeping my husband happy and my baby alive. People are ruthless.
This is one of the hardest truths I've had to learn. So I had to lose the wide-eyed naiveté, develop a thicker skin and learn to simply tune out the noise. What do they know anyways? They're not ME.
5. I should’ve talked to my spouse about parenting styles, BEFORE we became parents
I can't stress this enough. My husband and I never really discussed anything beyond having the baby in the UK. I guess we just thought we'd figure it out along the way. And we did, the hard way.
After much going back and forth, arguments, and counterarguments, we've found a tentative middle ground. We've found what worked for our little family.
So if there is one piece of advice I can give to new mothers and their partners is to talk to each other, A LOT. It will save you a lot of time, energy and frustration. (P.S., Motherly offers a class helping couples become parents.)
6. Just be present in the moment
I've personally struggled with this a lot. Sometimes I still do. I experienced motherhood for the first time in a new country. Add to that my PPD, plus my initial problems with breastfeeding, plus having hardly any help, plus a Pandora's box of other little annoyances and issues and it’s no wonder that I found myself under water so many times.
I forgot how to enjoy those all too fleeting moments with my daughter. But after a while, I learned to stop the inner chatter, and breathe. It's just me and my baby. No one in the world will love me like she does. I am grateful for that love. I have found nothing else calms my soul like my daughter's smile.
7. Follow my instincts above all else
I learned to trust myself, rather than some parenting book written by some snooty doctor who has no idea about my child's complexities, or people who had babies before the age of cell phones. In fact, I had to get rid of them.
Nine times out of 10, when I went with my gut, I was proven right and was able to act in the best interests of my child, rather than follow someone else's advice and then end up doing damage control and engaging in a vicious cycle of self-blame and self-doubt.
8. About guilt: Been there, done that.
So don't go there. Just don't. I know it's easier said than done. It seems the one universal trait shared among all mothers is guilt.
There's no rhyme or reason to it. We do the best we can, with whatever resources we have, expending all our energy and giving up chunks of our lives for the well-being of our children. So where exactly does the guilt fit in?
If I let it in, I open my psyche to a whole host of other monsters: low self-esteem, self-doubt, and misery all around.
We do this to ourselves. Baby doesn't care about the unwashed dishes in the sink, the laundry I didn't get to, or even that I didn't change her diaper exactly on the 2-hour mark. Babies are surprisingly forgiving, (they will forgive you even when you lose your mind and you can't seem to forgive yourself). So I took a page out of their books.
9. Just like how I had to learn to ask for help, I had to learn to say no to people
Most importantly, to my inner critic. I don't have to make it to every social engagement. I certainly don't have to have a gourmet dinner on the table every night. Take out and Netflix turned out to be my best friends.
10. The little things matter
For the first few months of motherhood, I looked like a hot mess. But when things settled down and I established something approaching a normal routine, especially when I was working from home, I made it a point to wear makeup every day.
I'm not talking about full-on glam makeup. Just a little concealer, some mascara and lipstick did wonders. It made me look and feel more put together, more human, more like a woman than a zombie from the Walking Dead.
11. Meditate, meditate, meditate.
I'm still working on this one. When I'm all over the place and I feel the onset of a panic attack because I decided to torture myself with questions like, OMG, what if we never leave Egypt? What if I can't get my career back on track? What if my daughter never weans? What if she inherits her father's hair? I simply take a few deep breaths and detach myself from the feeling of being overwhelmed.
If I have to listen to a YouTube meditation session then so be it. I observe those questions, the feeling of anxiety they produce and simply watch them go by without attaching myself to them.
I simply tell myself, I am not that anxiety. I researched mindfulness and practiced it. It helped me get through the rough spots without medication.
12. I involve my baby in the things I love to do
For example, I take my baby out to the garden and we look at the plants together. I point out certain flowers. Sometimes I bring her into the kitchen with me when I'm making dinner and I turn on the radio.
She loves it when I pretend I'm on stage, holding a mic, singing along to the songs and dancing all over the place. It's great fun. Of course, the kitchen floor that I have to clean up afterwards because she pulled every conceivable food item from the pantry drawers is not so much fun.
13. I reach out to other mothers WITHOUT comparing myself to them
Each of us is on our own personal journeys, and each of us has to deal with our own challenges in our own unique ways. So it helped to share war stories, learn from other mothers without comparison or competition.
I used to look at other mothers with mild envy and wonder how they look so put together. But then I realized that they must be going through their own struggles. I'm just not privy to it.
I realized that this is not a race, a sprint or a marathon and I won’t get a prize at the end of it. I just had to do the best I could. Who’s to say that other mothers weren’t looking at me and wondering how I do it all? After all, it’s all about perspective.
14. It’s okay to make some baby-free time for myself
I got into the habit of waking up extra early in the mornings, making myself a cup of coffee and spending a few quiet moments in my patio garden.
Sometimes I write in my journal, sometimes I flip through Pinterest for inspiration for a project I want to start working on (although I try to keep this time as technology-free as possible), sometimes I just sit and sort through my thoughts.
I try to go out with friends, or have a spa day (admittedly this happens once a year), or go for a manicure/pedicure. I’ve noticed that I always come back missing and loving my baby more, once I've had some "me" time.
15. I’m exploring things I never thought I could do
This has been one of those joyful, hopeful and completely unexpected side effects of motherhood. Becoming a mother suddenly triggered passions and ambitions I never knew I had.
Once I became a mother and my time was no longer my own I suddenly wanted to do everything. Or at least try. So I did, slowly and randomly here and there.
I stopped regretting all the time I wasted in my youth and started better utilizing the time I still have. I started writing more, I even started drawing and exploring my creative side. I’ve learned there is always something you can do, so do it.
16. I’ve decided that my dreams still matter and I won’t let go of them
I struggled a lot with this in the beginning. I used to think: I'll never have time to do anything else in my life. This is it. I peaked. It's all downhill from here. I got caught in that quagmire. I let people tell me that I have to put aside my dreams, if only temporarily.
So what did I do, eventually?
I started dreaming again and striving and aspiring for things. I’m not delusional, though. It will be harder, no doubt, with kids, but still possible. My baby will turn two soon, go to nursery school and sleep through the night. And just like that, I will have more time.
I will use it wisely. There's still a lot I want to achieve. It may not happen right now, or ever, but I have no regrets about dreams. Even if I never achieve some of them, I'm glad I had them.
What I will regret is allowing people to make the decision for me or convincing myself to stop trying.
17. My husband is in this, too
Bless their souls, even when they fumble, our husbands have the best of intentions. So I made time for my marriage. Once I factored my husband into the equation, I started feeling like we were a family, a unit onto ourselves, rather than survivors trying to make it through a war. I appreciated him more as a husband and a father and felt grateful for him. He became my rock once again.
18. I’m no longer sweating the small stuff
If I was a perfectionist before I became a mother, well let me tell you, motherhood was one rude awakening. Motherhood taught me that I won't get everything right all the time. So I decided to stop trying and enjoy the chaos. It saved my sanity.
19. Turn off the TV, and let my baby entertain herself
I witnessed the miracle of my daughter’s mind developing before my eyes. But somewhere along the way, I started keeping the TV on almost all day, until a child psychologist told me nothing could be more detrimental to my baby's development. As soon as I turned of the screen, I did notice a marked difference in her behavior. She started exploring things around the house, touching objects to get a feel for their texture. It was actually quite entertaining to watch—much more so than mindless TV.
20. Having more kids is my decision—alone
No one, no matter how close they may be to me, no one has the right to weigh in or try to manipulate what should be a very personal decision. I’ve realized that the people who are telling me that it's time I was working on baby number two are the ones who will conveniently disappear when I need their help and support the most.
This is my life, my body, my family. No one knows better than me or my husband our circumstances or the plans we have.
And there it is. I've learned a lot more than this, but those were the top 20 things I've pondered for the past couple of years or so. They're specific to my experience as a mother, but hopefully they will serve as words of encouragement and support to other mothers out there.