I am, thank G-d, the mother of two wonderful, beautiful, happy, loving, hilarious, cheeky little girls — a baby and a 2 year old. It’s a strange mixture of knowing exactly what I’m meant to be doing, yet also feeling so insecure as a mother sometimes. The truth is I’m a lot more confident these days than I used to be, despite the whole new level of challenges and dilemmas that came with becoming a mother of two.
My first daughter was objectively one of those Difficult Babies. She not only didn’t want to nurse, but she would alternate taking tiny amounts from a bottle with frequently crying from hunger, and for the first couple of months decided midnight till 4 a.m. was screaming time. On top that, the COVID pandemic and the usual first time mother struggles — I had also ended up back at the hospital 24 hours after I was initially discharged, with an excruciatingly painful infection, as well as suffering a tailbone injury from the birth that meant getting in and out of bed and just sitting were agony. Having never given birth before, I thought this was normal. It took me a couple of days to figure out what the problem was, until an angel of a cousin bought me a special cushion to sit on. The cushion was only really supportive when used on a hard chair though, so for my first six weeks as a mother I couldn’t even sit on a couch.
Just as I began to get the hang of things, I fractured my elbow and couldn’t hold my baby for a couple of weeks. On the day I was due to go to the hospital for a scan to see if I’d need surgery, my husband phoned, saying he’d see me there as he’d just been admitted for a bike accident in which he injured his knee. My elbow healed shortly after that, thankfully. He, on the other hand, was on crutches for months and eventually had to have surgery.
I am lucky to have two incredible sisters as well as my aunt who helped me get through that time. During my first few weeks after giving birth, when they were in the house I don’t think I changed a single nappy; they did them all. When at a nurse’s check up I filled in a routine questionnaire to assess my risk of postpartum depression, I laughed as I told the nurse how good I felt, despite everything that had happened.
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The birth of my second daughter brought its own challenges. A week and a half before the due date I had an ultrasound, and since her weight was estimated to be high, the doctor said I had better immediately get to the hospital or I wouldn’t be able to birth her. (Encouraging words when you’re already scared of giving birth again after your first experience.) Because the baby’s heartbeat was also coming up as irregular, I was sent to the hospital in an ambulance. The hospital staff didn’t seem too concerned though, and I had a torturous wait there of a day and a half, without seeing my toddler, slowly losing my mind until a delivery room was free for me to finally be induced.
Afterwards, I declined painkillers so that I could tell what I was feeling and whether my tailbone was ok, which thankfully it was that time (fun fact: if it gets injured once while giving birth, it’s likely to happen again. Yet another encouraging thought to go into labour with.)
When I got home, then came the task of caring for a newborn and 1 ½ year old at the same time. With no pandemic this time round, my parents could spend the summer in Israel, so I had a lot of help from them as well as my sisters. Of course there were many adjustments and learning experiences I had to go through on my own.
When you have your first baby, milestones that feel huge might be going for your first walk with the baby, or the first time you wear her in a sling. With your second, milestones become the first time you survive putting them both to bed, the first time you’re forced to multitask something like sitting in the bathroom nursing the baby at the same time as giving the toddler a bath. Or the first time you take both the kids out, then, feeling more adventurous, go into a store and buy something, and then, even more ambitiously, get pizza and pasta for you and the toddler and eat at the same time as feeding the baby, and at that point you’re just wondering where your medal is!
But then there are the times that you’re walking with the double stroller and the baby is crying, the toddler is throwing a tantrum and you just know someone is looking at you and wondering “why did she have another one if she can’t handle it?” Well, obviously I didn’t know what it was going to be like with two at this age until I had them, did I!
No one had warned me that as well as your heart seeming to double in size with love for them both, so does your mum-guilt. I didn’t know that my heart would break a little each time the toddler comes to me for help or to play or for attention and I’m forced to say “let me finish [feeding/changing etc] the baby first, and then I’ll help you.” Because I never want her to believe that one child is more important than the other. I also didn’t know that if your first child starts sleeping through the night at three months old, your second might give you eight months of sleep deprivation, where a rare good night means getting a stretch of five hours.
Other basic human needs like food, water, going to the bathroom, or, I don’t know… caffeine!… can sometimes get forgotten about or pushed to the wayside for hours at a time. You manage a couple of chores and then in a rare moment of quiet and calm, make yourself a cup of tea and juuuuuuust as you’ve almost reached the couch, hear a child’s squawk. You hold your breath; quiet resumes. You take a few sips standing up; if you sit they will know! This is why I need my me-days so badly. My me-days are going to the office.
These days I’m also struggling with how to deal with my toddler’s tantrums and pushback when she doesn’t get her own way. I am a bit of a pushover in general and lean towards giving whatever it takes to make the tantrum stop, and for a while I think she sensed it. She is the first grandchild / niece in my family, ridiculously cute, fun and funny and so is frequently showered with love and attention. The thought “I don’t want her to become spoiled” quickly leads to me googling in fear “how to make sure your child doesn’t become a narcissist.” Bad news for both of us – it turns out effective discipline and not letting your child walk all over you are actually very important.
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When you have a child you essentially become a new person, and this happens again after your second. You simply unravel, you are raw, in uncharted territory. Everything changes and you have to change and build yourself up again with it. I could so easily see how new mothers slip into postpartum depression or anxiety, and although I was lucky enough not to, my questionnaire the second time round definitely had more boxes checked than after my first. Before my second child, I had become a confident parent and knew exactly what I was doing. But now I had to start all over again, whilst also raising a toddler becoming more toddler-y by the day.
For the self-critical new mother, words of support and encouragement feel like breaths of air, a reminder to release some of that tension you’re holding, to accept that this is difficult and probably no mother would say that it isn’t, and to cut yourself some slack.
It is self-doubt, as a mother, that might lead you to make stupid decisions, like ignoring your screaming baby so that you can make dinner to have it ready for when your husband gets home from work. On one particular night, I tried wearing the baby for a bit while I cooked but it didn’t help, so, since she was fed and clean, I put her in her crib and tried to ignore the crying while I got dinner ready. I had told myself and my husband I’d cook that night and I was not going to fail. After, I cradled the baby till she fell asleep, and then, filled with shame and self-loathing, called my mum to have a little breakdown about the horrible mis-prioritizing I had done.
I wouldn’t judge someone else if they were in my position, but for me it felt wrong, especially since my husband would only have wanted what was best for the baby and best for me.
I was trying to prove to myself I can do it all, I can be as good as “all those other supermums,” the ones on social media, the ones you only see at the top of their game, the ones who don’t show weakness. I feel a bit of an absurd shame in asking for or feeling like I need help, and I try to avoid it; I’ve always been like that. My inner critic says plenty of mums manage without help. And that might be true but what does “manage” mean and what are they sacrificing, because whatever you are doing means something else is not being done.
In any case, every mother is different, with different challenges and different approaches. Maybe someone else’s baby is easy so she can make dinner without sacrificing giving the baby attention. Maybe someone else would have help with the baby, or help with making dinner. And maybe someone else has a pragmatic approach to their baby crying and doesn’t fear that each moment of unattended crying could turn the baby into a damaged person.
Ultimately, self-doubt led me to make a decision I regretted. Instead of trying to prove something, anything, I know now it’s important not to look at anyone else or compare, but to trust myself and my own instincts, to figure out what is the best decision in a given moment for me and my children.
It took me a while, but I finally reached the point where I know that an occasional breakdown or what I consider a “failure” are so outweighed by the love, warmth and joy I bring to my children and they to me, that those failures are almost insignificant – except for the lessons I learn and the ways I improve from them.