I recently edited a book calledThings I wish I'd known; women tell the truth about motherhood, which is the book I wanted to read when I had my son, four years ago. If only it had existed then!
When I was pregnant, I spent hour upon endless hour thinking about my pregnancy and birth: buying a birthing pool, reading books about natural birth and assembling an ambient play list. But - although this now seems nothing short of astonishing to me - I gave barely any thought to what would happen if things didn't quite pan out as I'd planned (like, say, if my home birth ended up being an emergency C-section). And although I was aware, in the most abstract way, that life as I knew it was about to change, the amount of time I spent dwelling on what life would actually be like once the baby had arrived was virtually nil.
Or, rather, the time I spent thinking about it was coloured by, for example, my NCT class on breastfeeding, which consisted mainly of describing how, left to its own devices, my newborn would crawl up my tummy and 'self-latch'. In my case that information turned out to be so inaccurate as to be almost criminal, and, in retrospect, I wish I had asked for my money back. Unfortunately, I was too busy sitting on the sofa with each boob tethered to a milk-expressing flagon to do much of anything else for six months, because no matter how hard I tried - and BOY, did I try - breastfeeding didn't happen.
I know lots of women take happily to breastfeeding like ducks to water, and that is a wonderful thing. I just wish I'd prepared for the possibility that not everyone does. But, the bottom line is that, despite reading many manuals about the theory of motherhood, somehow none of them even remotely prepared me for the reality of it.
The propaganda about motherhood starts in pregnancy, when people cross crowded rooms to stroke your bump, and tell you, misty-eyed, how much they miss those early days and what a wonderful mother you will be. It's lovely, in a way, how society conspires to treat pregnant women like fragile creatures who will be transported on a cloud to the flower-scented meadow of motherhood. But it's not very helpful. For some reason it's deemed cruel or distasteful or unfair to talk honestly to pregnant women about what lies ahead. Instead, people - and weirdly, it's mostly other women - perpetuate a vague, fluffy idealisation of the truth that can be projected and spun out for nine months, which pregnant women, who know no better, get lulled into believing.
The problem with that, of course, is that when the baby actually comes along, the reality can be that much harder to deal with. Worse, it can leave women feeling they must be somehow lacking as a mother if they find it difficult. I know I felt that way. Even so, somehow the realities of motherhood often remain a hidden world, not talked about out loud.
What I have slowly discovered is that everyone has a different experience and, for every woman who has had an ecstatic birth followed by unparalleled happiness at being a mother, there is someone for whom parenthood has had a difficult start for any number of reasons whether relentless crying, a sleepless baby or just bewilderment at adjusting from being two to being three or to having a body that is battle-scarred and unrecognisable.
I probably had an unusually difficult start to motherhood - my baby was tube fed (and had nothing by mouth) for twelve weeks while doctors decided whether there was something wrong with his swallow. As it turned out there was not, but by the time the feeding tube came out, my son had lost the urge to breastfeed. So that was tough*. But I found other aspects hard too: my heretofore entirely equal relationship with my husband being catapulted back to the 1950s as he disappeared off to work every day while I stayed at home bouncing on my birthing ball to soothe the baby, then expressing milk, then feeding. Bouncing, pumping, feeding. Bouncing, pumping, feeding. There I sat, bouncing, all day, thinking: 'Where has my life gone?' and feeling a bit guilty that I wasn't having the time of my life, as advertised throughout the duration of my pregnancy.
But when I mentioned I was finding it hard to anyone who asked how I was doing, I realised that was the wrong answer. Bizarrely, when you are learning how to do the most challenging new job you'll probably ever do, you're under pressure to pretend that everything's going brilliantly.
The feeding thing turned out to be my big hurdle. Once we got that sorted, everything slowly started to get easier. Gradually, I found my feet and I started to really enjoy it and, could I love my funny, sweet and very loving little boy any more? No, I could not.
But, looking back, I wish I'd been able to read more about other people's actual experiences of motherhood, rather than manuals about how it 'should' be. I wish I'd read more about the myriad ways that things - from the birth, to sleeping, to weaning, to toddlers to teenagers and everything in between - actually do pan out. After all, there is nothing like knowing you are not alone.
So, once I'd found my feet as a mother I started approaching other women - writers I had long admired like Adele Parks, Cathy Kelly, Rachel Johnson, Emma Freud, Daisy Garnett and many more - to ask if they'd be interested in writing about their experience of motherhood: the highs and the lows, the funny bits and the sad bits, the good, the bad - and the not always pretty. The overwhelming response was 'yes' - they all had so much to say. And what really struck me as the book started coming together is that every single woman wanted to write about something different, whether it was navigating the world as a single mother of an unplanned baby, having a baby who thought sleep was for losers or how to nurture a relationship that has gone from being two to three. And that's the thing about motherhood - there are as many ways to be a mother as there are women, and there is no one right way to do any of it!