Being a Mum is a Complex Thing - Melissa Cogavin
Being a mum is a complex thing in 2020.
Looking back over the last few years it’s hard to sum up on paper without resorting to cliches. It’s hard to sum it up at all, and it’s still ongoing. I have a 9 year old and a 12 year old and at 48 I have been a mum for a quarter of my life now.
Like all good cliches there is truth there - it HAS been a privilege, I have been tested to the limit, I do have bags under my eyes, my bosom does swell with pride. It has messed with my sense of self-worth and my sense of identity took a big shift into the unknown and I think I was a bit lost for a few years, up to my eyes in nappies and bottles and flowery, tent like clothes as I had no idea what was a appropriate to wear as a mother, what suited me, nor what fit a body I no longer recognised.
I have been very lucky; I conceived and gave birth to two healthy kids quite late in life very easily and without any drama. The back problems that followed were dramatic and painful, of course I didn’t help myself by carrying my daughter everywhere, even hoovering with a sling on. I injured my back so badly I needed surgery - for the comfort of my baby - how nuts was that.
But I’m ahead of myself here. My impressions a decade later of having tiny babies were:
I never knew how wonderful it would feel to have a baby sleeping on your chest. Not just a baby, your own baby. Nobody ever told me the warmth and contentment supporting a tiny bottom and breathing in the smell of their tiny head would bring. I would have had kids well before that if I had realised any of this.
Tea-time, bathtime, CBeebies, bottle. Tucking your children into bed at 7pm and then watching TV snug on the sofa - there is a comfort in this that is hard to relate if you haven’t had children - but I loved knowing they were sleeping soundly down the hall and we were all safe at home; that we had made a little family together and had got through another exhausting day.
I was a good girl at school. I studied hard, got good exam results, did it all pretty much by the book. Work was much the same, I played the game, paid attention, networked and got ahead. Having a baby I assumed would fall into a similar pattern so it was something of a shock to realise, after yet another endless night at 3am, many out of print books from Amazon, the library and from charity shops later, that the answer to stopping your baby crying wouldn’t come from cramming like I did for my finals. “It has to be in here somewhere,” I remember wailing tearfully, poring over books from La Leche League and The Childbirth Trust and other well-intentioned non profits whose teachings have the side effect of causing outrageous levels of guilt among middle class women who can’t breastfeed their children.
It took a gentle Liberian midwife to see the mess I was in, crying in the health centre during a routine check up, and she told me to get a grip on myself. “Where I come from it’s normal to have your baby sleep in your bed,” she said. “It’s natural. Only you English women put yourselves through this. Have her in the bed with you for as long as you need it.” I wiped my snotty nose and nodded. “And bottle feed her at night, for pity’s sake,” she added. “You’re not a superhero. Give yourself a break.”
When I let go of the expectations I had set myself as a result of all this ridiculous reading, motherhood became so much easier. When I stopped comparing myself with everyone else, it made my journey mine, and I enjoyed it so much more.
I’m just glad I had my babies before social media took hold - that would not have helped my anxiety levels one bit.
There were periods when my first child Isla was born that I thought would never end - the first 6 months I found very hard indeed - she was a lousy sleeper and needed white noise in the form of a hairdryer on the cold setting hanging off her pram (she hated the moses basket, screamed her head off in the cot, the pram, under the extractor fan and in my arms were the only places she would sleep) ALL NIGHT LONG to get to sleep and stay asleep. It became so much a part of the ritual in our house that we all learned to live with the roar of the hairdryer next to our bed. The hairdryer itself should have had a knighthood for services to families by the time it eventually blew up.
During this period, strung out and wild with anxiety I remember ringing my mother in tears for advice about this rash, that cough, livid that she had somehow let go of what seemed to me at the time crucially important memories. How could she?! I know it was 35 years ago but still! I was astonished. Even worse, my best friend who had a baby just a year earlier than me infuriated me over and over again with her stock answer of “God I can’t remember.”
Eventually this period ended and my own memories faded, so much so that I thought about having another go at it and 3 years later along came Harvey.
Another cliche applies here; second time around you really are so much more relaxed. I enjoyed babyhood with Harvey a lot more and he was a very easy baby as a result. No hairdryer required. They got on well and Isla was never jealous. I was very lucky. My dad told us to write everything down - all the funny stuff they said - and thank goodness for Facebook as I have used that as a diary for these moments, otherwise they would have got lost in the piles of papery dross that litters my house and I wouldn’t have kept a good record of the priceless moments every parent treasures.
I’ve loved watching their little personalities develop, the crazy ideas they have about the world, their simplistic view on life. It’s a tonic. I could talk to them all day, which is just as well, as it’s the middle of lockdown and hey! I have all day.
When your life is full of toddlers you have no time or energy for anything else. I look back at that time and remember the slabs of chocolate my husband and I got through in an evening, how broke (and fat) we were, how we never went out, life was characterised by beige oven meals cooked wearily - fish fingers and chicken nuggets, wrinkly peas left uneaten, smears of ketchup on plastic plates. Clothes shopping was less a matter of ‘do I like it’ and more a question of ‘does it fit me’. That doesn’t seem to tally with the laughs I have just described above but they really are opposite sides of the same coin.
In the middle of this I decided to set up a business and it took off really quickly. A trade association in my mind was a dusty, bookish, policy-led, part time occupation that would segue nicely with bringing up two young children. Instead, I found myself travelling the world, taking on staff, becoming a spokesman for the industry, appearing on judging panels, trade shows and presenting awards, keynote speeches, publishing books, creating awards ceremonies, trailers and conferences, even appearing as an expert witness for a trial at the High Court in London. It was a terrific ride, one of huge highs and crippling lows, and the net result was after 6 years it wore me out completely.
Toward the end of my time with the trade association, I looked up and noticed something for the first time in years. Myself. My kids were a little older and a lot less dependent on mummy; my husband’s career was going well, we were settled in our house, all of a sudden there was time for me. I joined a gym. The weight came off. I started listening to music, going to gigs again. Wearing clothes I liked instead of ones that just covered my arse. Ditching the scarves and beads and birkenstocks and paying attention to what was trendy for the first time in a decade. It was a revelation. I did all sorts of new and crazy things - revisiting my youth in a period of embarrassing, intoxicating exuberance - but the one that Julie (co owner of StyleMyKid, pictured with Melissa at trade conference in Barcelona above) will remember best - was developing a sudden inexplicable fascination for Liam Gallagher, at a time when his own career was in the doldrums and he was rarely seen in public. I was obsessed, it was like a sickness, but it was a lot of fun. I wrote a blog (and one X rated story!), made friends with fellow fans, saw him in concert many times. Looking back on it now it was obviously a midlife crisis but I have no regrets. It felt like a butterfly coming out of the chrysalis and I much prefer the person I am now, I am healthier, fitter, happier, doing things for me as much as for my family, and my work, both of which had sapped me so much I had lost sight of who I was. As a result I think I am a better parent now too. The work-life balance that was missing a few years ago is gone, replaced by consultancy work that suits my lifestyle better. I have time and energy now to be a better mum, a decent consultant and a good wife and do them all with good grace instead of the howling resentment I have been guilty of in the past.
What do the next 10 years of motherhood bring? Exam drama, boyfriends, girlfriends, acne, slammed doors and negotiations about screen time probably; arguments and hugs and giggles and worry definitely. But I am blessed and I am proud of my kids. I am certainly far from perfect but the kids seem content enough, even writing this during lockdown - where negotiation about screen time is a pretty constant theme. I try not to compare myself any more with others, it just makes you miserable and takes your personal power away.
As women we are givers; the trick is to make sure you are always giving to yourself. If you forget to feed yourself - nothing else works, and that’s no good for anybody.
Freelance Writer & Independent Consultant to the Cinema Industry