I stare at the mothers grouped opposite me. I promise myself I will stop boxing them, “thirty something”, “married”, “joking about spas”. The thread of irritation curling in my stomach relates to the fact that my box is the hastily duct taped type. It bursts open in every situation. How, for example, are their prams so clean? There’s a stain on my pram that’s been there since all time. Perhaps it’s enfolded into the biology of my pram, blooming up like a birthmark. Pale and heavy on the lid, gleaming only when it knows I won’t be able to scrub it. “Admit it’s hard!” I shout at them in my head. “Say it! You imagined banging on the walls of your uterus, begging it to take the baby back after you had been breastfeeding for the third time in thirty minutes!”.
I realized I was in dialogue with myself. I was battling, again, a construct of togetherness from which I felt deficient. The surprise in people’s tones when I told them my baby would go to childcare while I continued my degree. The nasal voice of the nursery worker who said, “Oh, how can you leave her?”. The time J and I walked into the doctor’s room for my contraceptive implant, three months old E-B gurgling in her carry seat. I was proud, my baby was extraordinary, grey green eyes which gleamed and a pout. The doctor, who said,
“Well, I know you wouldn’t be without her now. But this was silly of you…”.
My skin burned. Clearly, I’d been pampered by the anonymity of doctor’s surgeries, the bleep of name and DOB on the screen, the luxuriously generic medical assessment. Now, this woman’s personal view was a sickening probe. “Are you breastfeeding?”. I was. “Oh, good mummy”. Her tone, slick with surprise, brought with it the assumptions of other healthcare workers, who wrote ‘bottle-fed’ on my baby’s forms before I could correct them. Breastfeeding, of course, belonged to mummies whose babies were planned to the last degree of their ovulatory temperature. I’d been told throughout my pregnancy to breastfeed, and I acted accordingly. But somehow, as a young mother, I fit an equation involving milk powder and Tommee Tippee bottles. Not the most heinous combination, I know, but wait until you have a child out of the mould.
Humans love making links. In situations where we can’t empathize, rationalization according to things we’ve read or imagined is comfortable. There’s a thrill in placing a cage of pre-conception over a scene, and seeing the edges fit. But patterns and trends aren’t organic reality. Some young mums breastfeed, some bottle feed. Some older mums bottle feed, and, you guessed it, some breastfeed. All for reasons they’d probably say were personal. But for the young mum whose baby might have tongue tie, who might have breast hypoplasia, or who might just decide not to breastfeed, it’s the ones, twos and threes of her age which gain a neon glare. Postpartum depression happens to mothers of all ages. It can be exacerbated by the worries more likely faced by younger mums: income, expectations of failure, social judgement. But, as a twenty-year old mother idly imagining throwing myself in front of a bus, the weight of the young mum misapprehension was so great that, at a time where I most needed it, I feared seeking help. The feelings that accompany PPD, despair, anxiety, struggle to bond with your child, already offend societal expectations of motherhood as a rosy and nurturing place. Add to this the crime of being a young mum, and how would I ever continue my grand design to disprove every doubt ever laid at my door? I can only praise God that He’s put my architectural instincts to better use these days, in looking after my health and enjoying my family.
No mother is the same, of course. I expected motherhood to descend on me like a mantle. As though my womb would weave the concept along with my child, and deliver them both. Instead, I found myself sore, tired but fundamentally unchanged. It’s months and years which adapt you, not a window of labour. Which is why it’s important to recognize the one thing mums do have in common. We all turn (or have turned) our lives to the exact motion of another’s needs. An arduous and bewildering task, and one which is not age-discriminatory. To place assumptions upon the relentless learning curve of parenthood is an unnecessary stone at the feet.