I firmly believe that most mums-to-be in our culture have rose-tinted expectations of what pregnancy, birth and beyond is going to be like.
I was certainly no exception.
Being something of a fact-hunter, I approached my first pregnancy in much the same way as a very exciting and practical college course. Books on ovulation, conception, pregnancy, nutrition, exercise, breathing, visualisation, birth and beyond lined my shelves. I read and devoured the facts within their pages as if memorising them would help me gain the planned top grades in the final assessment.
And as much as all this 'theory' stood me in good stead, two beautiful daughters, a series of heartbreaking miscarriages, and a surprise introduction to the world of different abilities, have taught me that the most invaluable part of it all was the support network I managed to build up before our first baby arrived, a few choice words of wisdom from those I trusted, and the flexibility of character to follow the unexpected paths we were taken on.
So what would I say to my younger pregnant self? What did I wish I had known just over a decade ago? What realities of Motherhood was I most naïve about?
1 There's no such thing as an absolute average
A complete norm, or the truly typical does not exist. How long it takes to conceive, the exact length of your pregnancy, how much your baby weighs, feeds, fills her nappy, wants to be held and sleeps is no different. Neither your body, not your baby have the latest iBaby App or manual from a childcare expert telling them what is expected, so don't be frustrated or impatient with either.
2 Radiant and glowing you say?
You will feel unutterably lousy throughout your pregnancies. Your face the shade of pea soup, so repulsed by food that your poor husband will have to eat in the garden. The exhaustion will floor you, you will stop in laybys to vomit. You will not understand how friends sail through their pregnant months. So be gentler on yourself and ditch the guilt, give in to rest, because making a new person is, after all, the most miraculous and incredible process imaginable.
3 What are you testing for?
In my arrogantly ignorant days, before I broke into the world of reality, diversity and inclusion, I saw ante-natal testing as standard rather than the choice I now know it as. I recall saying that we were having the tests 'just for peace of mind', that it 'only mattered that the baby was healthy'. But tests can only do that if you hear the result you think you wanted to hear.
With the prevailing assumption that Down's syndrome and other chromosomal conditions are to be 'screened out', you may face decisions and pressure to act in one way or another that you weren't prepared for, so think about what either result would mean to you before you put yourself through that stress. If your baby has some health complications, they are still your precious much-wanted baby with a loved life very much worth living. Take time to ask for unbiased support and counselling before you make any life-changing decisions.
4 Yes. Birth hurts!
I remember someone telling me birth wouldn't hurt.
I cannot begin to fathom her motive but of course I didn't believe her. I'd seen the TV programmes.
Luckily, someone else told me to imagine the most painful experience in my life to date, one that took all my concentration, but know that this time it would be natural and that each contraction would pass quickly, bringing me ever closer to my wonderful baby each time.
What I wish I had known before is just how empowering and strong giving birth made me feel.
5 Make a birth plan, rewrite it, hone it, be prepared to bin it
Add detail about how you want the third stage delivered and the type of bendy straw you will require to drink your juice through. You are in charge on your Birth Day.
BUT be prepared to rip it up and use it to mop your brow. Things happen, your feelings may change on the day, the baby will lead you in this particular dance, and being able to bend like a reed in the wind is your greatest ability.
One breech birth and one baby who needed neo-natal care are not in the small print of your carefully drawn-up birth plan young Hayley.
6 Get back on your breastfeeding bike
Always certain that was the way I wanted to feed my babies, what I didn't realise was that it takes a bit of practice to get it right, like riding a bike or patting your head and rubbing your tummy. I wish I had known with certainty that with wonderful support from midwives and breast feeding drop in groups and dot of determination, it is possible to feed on through toe-curlingly painful blistered nipples and quickly arrive at a point where it is second nature, free and instant.
And just when you've got it and have said smugly aloud, 'well at least I know how to breast feed this time' your second experience will involve three months of expressing using industrial dairy-sized pumps. Every life-giving drop will be bagged, labelled, dated and refrigerating and fed to your vulnerable daughter through a naso-gastric tube. But like many babies with Down's syndrome your daughter will learn to feed for herself and the experience will bond you both.
7 Being a new parent is hard!
It's most challenging, most worrying, lonely, most rewarding, thankless, delightful, hilarious, tedious, exhausting, uplifting, role you have ever taken on and will change you forever in ways you never knew possible.
There will be days when you doubt yourself. There will be days you are proud.
You will feel overwhelmed at times and when people say you will be tired, know that it's not a stressful-busy-week-at-work-followed-by-an-all-night-party-and-a-Sunday-feeling-washed-out-on-the-sofa-watching-Rom-Coms-on-repeat kind of tired. No, it's mind-numbing exhaustion that will make you forget your name.
Don't be afraid to fall back on the support of those you trust around you and take offers of help seriously. Parenthood is a marathon and not a sprint: Pace yourself, nurture yourself and know that no one has all the answers.
8 Accept your body's medals of pregnancy
Learn to love the changes and thank it for the beautiful children it has created. And never underestimate the value of supportive undergarments.
You are one of the lucky ones, for Motherhood is an honour and privilege, sadly not a right afforded to all.
9 Savour the fleeting moments of infancy
Enjoy those early months, they pass so very quickly and I promise you will weep when you fold away those memory-soaked babygrows. Accept your baby as the little individual they are comparing them to no one else, no sibling, fellow baby yoga participant, chart or book. Love and accept them for exactly who they are, not your pregnant dream of what they were going to be.