‘Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of little children’
– William Thackery
Mothering Sunday. Pink everywhere. Florists breaking their traditional working hours to trade on a Sunday. On the streets unkempt men walk quickly having ‘just popped out for something’, clutching paper and plastic-wrapped carnations in one hand and a pint of milk in the other. Restaurants have papered over their usual Sunday offers, knowing they won’t need to sweeten the deal to haul the customers in today. Mothers of young children unwrap delicate parcels to find painted pasta necklaces and hand-printed cards. Dads everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that preschool teachers had the forethought they lacked.
This is the day we celebrate motherhood. We celebrate it because we recognize the sacrifice that it entails. Or we think we do. Before I was a mother myself I knew that there was something mysterious about motherhood, that I didn’t quite grasp. Then I became a mum, and now I know that there are things about being in this role that only other mothers can relate to. The following are the three things I find most difficult about being a mum.
First of all there is the, sheer, utter, complete exhaustion. As a student I frequently stayed up til dawn debating, talking, joking with friends… sometimes night after night. Then I’d spend the whole of the next day awake. I was tired. But not like this. As a junior doctor I’ve done night-shift after night-shift responsible for all the medical or surgical patients in a large hospital, with sick patients and grumpy medical registrars. It was tiring. But not like this. When the sun rose, I drove home, responsible for no one but myself, and could crawl under the duvet and sleep all day long in reasonable amounts of peace (barring the occasional knock from a postman with a parcel or a drill on the road outside). With a baby, the jolts from sleep are unrelenting. The somebody who needs you (and only you) is indifferent to the colour of the sky, the number of hours you have been on duty or the last time you ate. If you’re lucky, you might get a nap in the daytime whilst the baby sleeps. If you’re unlucky, the baby falls asleep, you rush round tidying, putting on washing, maybe preparing some dinner, then fall into bed hoping for sleep just as the baby’s familiar tones drift across the baby monitor, pulling you to your feet again. If you have an older child, your chances of sleep in the day are slim to none. You might as well just forget it and slug down the coffee. Gradually, thinking and dreaming about sleep becomes boring. You resign yourself to achieving fewer and fewer hours of the mythical stuff. You stop talking about it, and just laugh hollowly when asked about it.
Then there is the extreme lack of alone time. Not even when you want to use the bathroom. If you shut the door when you’re on the loo, somebody is soon shouting for you from downstairs. Or has clocked where you’ve gone to, and started asking you questions through the door. Currently my younger child will not tolerate being separated from me for the time it takes for a quick trip to the loo. Thus, I rarely get through an entire wee without having to stop (very good for the pelvic floor) and rescue my crawler from the shower tray, trapping her finger in the bathroom cupboards or bumping her face off the bath as she pulls to stand. When people ask me how I’m getting on back at work, how am I managing four full days a week in a busy A&E department and having two wee ones at home, I often smile and say that I appreciate that I at least get to go to the loo on my own at work. And that I get to finish an entire cup of (still hot) tea during my breaks. And if I can’t perform normal bodily functions alone, the chances that I can do much else alone are totally scuppered.
A third problem that is particularly true for mothers who breastfeed is the claustrophobic feeling that your body is no longer your own. Your time, your patience and your multi-tasking skills are being tested to the limit, but if that weren’t enough, these little people even want your very physical being. It starts before they’re born. I enjoyed my first pregnancy immensely, but even then there was the feeling that my body had been hijacked by a tiny human holding court somewhere deep inside. By the end of my second pregnancy, suffering from antenatal depression and a variety of seemingly trivial, but utterly agonising pregnancy-related physical complaints, I looked forward to nothing more than my abdomen and pelvis being vacated. And this despite the fact that this time I knew what to expect from labour (ie not the candles, birth pools and massage oils I’d dreamed up during my first pregnancy). Then they’re out. Breastfeeding is beautiful. I can hand on heart say that it saved my bond with my first child during the long months of post-natal depression I suffered after his birth. But it does mean (at least with my babies) that you have someone literally sucking the life out of you pretty much round the clock. I’m not kidding. I was trying to wash my hair in the bath the other day and my youngest latched on for a post-breakfast snack. Your body when you have young children is not only exhausted, but beaten and bruised from feeding them, carrying them around on your hip all day and sleeping awkwardly so that you don’t disrupt their fragile sleep-wake balance.
I realise I am not making motherhood sound massively attractive. It’s not glamorous. It’s a massive sacrifice. I’ve struggled with this, and not gracefully. I love my children more than I could ever have imagined I would. I know how extremely blessed I am to have been able to conceive them and carry them. But I’ve been bitter, I’ve felt resentful of my husband and I’ve just felt that none of this sacrifice was very fair. At times this has led to streams of silent tears, or fits of rage and tantrums a toddler would be proud of. At other times, I have silently got on with it, enjoyed the good days, accepted the bad and drunk an awful lot of coffee and the odd gin and tonic.
This weekend I had my perspective changed. I attended a wonderful day conference for Christian mums. I was privileged to be joined by some of my best friends. We were like children ourselves, practically giddy at the prospect of a day without kids or work. It felt wonderful to be in the presence of other people who knew my struggles. Who knew how hard it was to try my best to be a good and godly mum, and to feel like I fail at this an awful lot of the time. But best of all was the insight and truth brought by keynote speaker, Ness Wilson. She described mothers as a ‘perfect snapshot of God’s perfect love’. I sniggered inside, hoping beyond hope that God loves better than I. But it went further. How we nurture and tend to our children builds a framework on which they will then be able to see and receive God’s love. They will know the love of God and recognise it for what it is when they are first loved by a mother who will sacrifice all for them. And God knows about sacrifice. Did He not make the ultimate sacrifice for us in giving up His very own son, coming to earth in the form of a man and suffering torture and death in order that we might be restored to full righteousness? I know this, but maybe such a sacrifice is too big for my tiny brain to compute. How about Jesus and the Disciples? They were busy. Really busy. The bible tells us that the demands on their time were so great that they barely had time to eat and rest. Mothers can relate to that.
I regularly pay lip service to the idea of ‘giving my all’ for God. I sing it in church often enough. And I’ve always thought I meant it. When I think about it now, I think I meant that I would give my all for the things I felt God was calling me to, the things I am passionate about. Yes, I will give my all to fight global poverty, to bring healthcare to those who don’t have it, to stand up for refugees and asylum seekers to have no voice, to serve the homeless… Will I give my all for the little things? Will I put my all into helping my 3-year-old cellotape his toilet roll vehicle creations? Will I lay aside the work I’m doing on my laptop help him get the colour of his homemade playdough just right?
So when I get up for the third time in the night and stumble towards the crying voice of my baby girl, lift her from her cot and sit feeding her in the darkness of her room… The comfort and love I show to her then will help her know how God loves her, how he longs to tend to her every need and sound, how he will never ignore her cry in the dark. What a privilege.