I’m not the mother I thought I would be

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Before I became a mother, I knew exactly what kind of mother I was going to be. Having seen so many strong, smart, ambitious women unwittingly lose themselves to motherhood, I was determined that I would be different. I would never be “just a mum”.

I definitely wouldn’t let my career suffer, or become a flaky friend. I wouldn’t bore people with endless talk about sleep routines, feeding and poonamis. I wouldn’t buy into the ‘mama merch’ and be defined by my child(ren). Instead, I would excel at ‘having it all’, prove that equal parenting was achievable, and raise a happy, well-balanced child in the process.

I wasn’t totally naïve about the transformation heading my way. I knew it would be hard, tiring work, and that my husband and I would both have to adapt. But if all the dads I knew could have a baby without totally sacrificing their career, hobbies and identity, why couldn’t I?

Of course, no matter how prepared you think you are, no one ever really is. Suddenly my whole world revolved around the tiny, perfect human I’d created, and inevitably, I did lose myself in those early months. I was fascinated by every mundane detail of his routine and development, comparing notes on nappy contents with my husband, and obsessively timing sleep and feeds as if my life depended on it.

The days and nights were long, relentless, and hard to fill; the exhaustion so penetrating that we could barely function. I quickly realised that while looking after a baby isn’t difficult in itself, doing anything else at the same time is impossible.

Overnight my universe had shrunk and I felt totally disconnected. I had nothing to talk about and no idea what was going on in the world outside my four walls. I felt simultaneously over- and under-stimulated; touched out but starved of intimacy. The dynamics of my friendships shifted, as they tend to when one of you has a baby, and I felt increasingly cut adrift.

The baby groups I dragged myself to only seemed to amplify that isolation and not-myself-ness. Week in, week out, I made the same small talk about my baby with women who happened to have given birth around the same time. But what I really longed for was connection, creativity, and real, deep and meaningful conversation.

An exhuasted, unwell Sarah Graham after her son brought home norovirus from nursery (Photo: Supplied)

I’m not the first or last woman to feel like this. Rupa Tailor Ord, 38, was so frustrated by the lack of stimulating, grownup talks and events she could take her baby to that, in autumn 2022, she launched Mother+ to provide exactly that. Hosting baby-friendly, daytime talks and workshops, covering lifestyle and wellbeing, careers, arts and culture. “It’s not baby-first; you can bring your baby if you want, but you don’t have to, and it’s not about parenting. We don’t have sleep consultants or talks about feeding. It’s something for you, as a mum,” she explains.

I wish something like this had existed when my son was tiny. Instead, around four months in, my mum agreed to start her one day a week of childcare, so I could dip my toe back into work. Though she and my son were only in the next room, allowing for regular breastfeeding access, opening my laptop and throwing myself back into work felt exhilarating.

I quickly got addicted to that feeling of being productive and engaging with the ‘real world’ again. As a writer, so much of my identity pre-baby had always been tied up in my work, and this was the first time in months I really felt like myself. Before long I was sneaking in extra bits here and there. I frantically tapped out emails on my phone while my baby was engrossed in something else, scheduled interviews for times when I hoped he’d be napping, and avoided pitching anything related to parenting for fear of being pigeon-holed.

In some ways, it helped. But in hindsight, I was so desperate not to lose myself to motherhood that I ended up sacrificing myself to work instead. By the time my book was published in January 2023 – two days before my son’s first birthday – I was hooked on over-committing. I was desperate not to let clients and editors down, to ensure my book’s success, and to prove how well I could manage the juggle of working motherhood.

I said yes to everything, filling my evenings and weekends with work commitments, and pushing through all the bugs my son brought home from nursery. The vibe I was going for was, ‘wow, look at her, having it all, not letting motherhood stand in her way’ – but in reality, I was constantly teetering on the edge of burnout.

In mid-October, I crashed. I’d done three work events in the previous four days, including two days at a conference in Berlin, and I was absolutely exhausted. My trip to Germany had felt important: not just a chance to talk about my work to a new audience, but also to prove to myself that I was still capable of going out into the world alone, and that my son no longer needed me as much as he once had.

It was, however, the final straw, and much of the rest of the year was a write-off to illness and exhaustion. My body forcing me to properly stop, rest and recover for so long was hugely frustrating. But it was also exactly the wakeup call I needed to find a better balance.

My smart, funny, cheeky toddler turned two this month, but I’ve also spent the last few months growing and learning from him. With his birthday falling so soon after Christmas and New Year, things like resolutions and goals for the year get a bit lost. But I know I want to spend 2024 hustling less, carving out some proper (non-work) time for myself, and leaning into the joy and wonder of motherhood. All while wearing my new ‘Mama’ necklace with pride.

Balancing work and motherhood

Tobi Asare, author of The Blend: How to Successfully Manage a Career and a Family, had these tips for me:

  • Try to plan your week in advance and give yourself some margin for things you enjoy, like getting outside for a walk.
  • Communicate with your partner and work out when there’s time during the week for each of you to do something for yourself, like each having a designated gym night.
  • Have friends you can be accountable to, who will check in every so often: Have you had some time for yourself? If not, why not? How can I help?
  • Forget the Superwoman complex – understand and accept that you can’t do everything.
Sarah Graham’s baby with the first proof of the book she wrote, Rebel Bodies (Photo: Supplied)

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