I go by many names. On Starbucks cups, I’m “Rubato”, because that is the way of Starbucks cups. At work, I’m “Not you, the other one”, because I have a colleague called Robin and he’s far more obliging and debonair than me. And at every doctor’s office I’ve ever visited, I’ve been “Roe-been Wheel-dare” – because apparently doctors’ receptionists the world over are part of a mysterious cabal that rejects normal human pronunciation.
Now, though, I have a new name – “Herbie’s mum” – and, to be honest, I’m still figuring out who that is.
This time last year, you see, I wasn’t anyone’s mum. In fact, I’d reached well into my thirties without remotely wanting to be – I was quite happy living in London, working at BuzzFeed UK, and generally gadding about unencumbered by dirty nappies. And I knew myself pretty well. I was prone to self-doubt. I was fond of hazelnut lattes and the books of Donna Tartt. My dislikes were open-mouthed chewers and, depending on the day, everything in the universe. My weaknesses were sitting and pizza.
But then the maternal urge rolled in all at once, like a storm. I fell pregnant in spring, married in summer, got priced out of my south London postcode by aggressive local upcycling in the autumn, and moved to commutable Kent by Christmas.
One month later, my son was born under the harsh surgical lights of a 4am emergency caesarean, all alarms and hastily put-on scrubs, and too much blood. I spent 72 hours awake on the delivery ward, letting cups of tea go cold while my husband, Stuart, and I marvelled at this tiny new piglet-person squirming around in my cleavage. And then we were sent home, my little instant family; two of us full of needle marks, one of us sawn open, and all of us shell-shocked.
That was 10 weeks ago. In that time, I haven’t had a hazelnut latte or read a Donna Tartt novel. I have eaten piles of pizza, though, during that first week home, when the three of us camped out in the living room, listened to tinkly indie playlists, and just cried and cried and cried (although Stuart would like it to be known that he did not cry, and did press-ups instead).
I thought that when I had the baby I would be essentially unchanged, just me plus a baby, but that’s not the case. At times, I’ve been a mess. My body has been a giant tender bruise, and I’ve been so shaky and uncertain that, for a while, I stuttered when I spoke. I’ve become more sentimental and prone to tears, but at the same time less tolerant of other people’s bullshit, because I have a baby to raise. I have, it turns out, infinite patience for tiny bald men who shout at my boobs all night, provided they are my children.
Eventually, Stuart went back to work. Of course, I knew he would – the plan was for me to take a year’s maternity leave, not him, but still. Watching him leave that first morning, knowing that now, for 12 hours a day, it was just me and this giant responsibility, I felt myself shrink to a dot and disappear, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, helplessly backflipping off into infinity.
You might have read Stuart’s work, by the way. He’s the Guardian’s X Factor liveblogger and, crucially, he writes a weekly column about what life is like with his new family. You may have read the full story of Herbie’s hairy birth, or about how I have a giant osmium skull now. I treasure these columns. They’re like little postcards from Stuart’s side of things. Marriage can feel fragmented with a new baby in the mix, especially when suddenly one of you is doing most of the parenting and the other most of the working. But, when I’m up with the baby at 4am and I’m so tired that I can’t form thoughts, Stu’s columns precisely describe the joy and terror I’m feeling, and I always enjoy them. Even when he threatens to lift me up by the ankles and wipe my bum in a national newspaper.
Soon I realised that, if I spent every day indoors with my boobs out and Herbie on my lap, I’d just turn into the creepy moon-door lady from Game Of Thrones, so I decided to Get Some Fresh Air. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to Get Some Fresh Air with a breastfed newborn, but it’s a trial. It involves putting him down so you can get dressed, picking him up because he’s crying, pulling on a sock on while jamming your tit in his mouth, changing his nappy, jamming your other tit in his mouth, changing his nappy again, changing your clothes because he’s vomited all over you, noticing four hours have gone past, running outside with the pram, then having a little cry because your baby is so tiny and you never noticed before that the world is so full of spinning knives.
Once I got past the front gate, though, I took an experimental jaunt to Lidl and frankly I’ve never looked back. They should market Lidl as a playground for new mothers – the aisles are wide enough to accommodate even a giant Humvee of a pram like mine, and the shelves are full of treasure, like reasonably priced German gingerbread, and occasionally a wetsuit. Emboldened by daily Lidl excursions, during which no one stabbed me and I didn’t accidentally abandon the pram at the zebra crossing, I took to running errands in town with my son cuddled against me in a fabric wrap. But still, something was missing.
Back in my pre-baby London days, my social life was something that was just there, waiting for me to dip into it. No matter what was going on, a trip to the pub or a dinner round a friend’s was just a text and a Tube ride away. Now friends were trickling down from London at weekends, but it was event socialising; they’d come down and make faces at the baby, we’d all laugh, and then they’d leave. There was no one to just hang out with anymore.
Again, this was always the plan. I’m the one who blithely skipped off into the suburbs, where I don’t know anyone, and started a family. But I didn’t think the lack of company was a problem until a nice old lady in town started cooing over the baby, and I almost fainted from the attention. Soon I was deliberately swerving the baby towards clumps of old ladies whenever I went out, hoping that they’d catch his newborn scent and engage me in conversation. Something needed to be done. I needed to talk to other humans.
The most logical humans for me to meet would be other mothers. Other mothers seem like normal people – many of them also enjoy coffee and sitting – but talking to them involves an entirely new skill set. My initial forays so far haven’t gone brilliantly; at the last mother-and-baby group I attended, I sidled up to a woman and offered a cheery, “Nice baby!”, but she backed away, looking frightened. More recently, I’ve made tentative inroads with a friend of a friend. We don’t like the same things, or work in similar fields, or have anything in common at all, but I’m realising that a) that’s part of being a parent among parents, and b) that’s OK.
It’s fine if you don’t have anything in common, because parenthood is enough. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t like the same music if you’re both going through it – raising a child is terrifying. Raising a child is about love and fear and making tough decisions, and sometimes it’s reassuring just to sit and drink a coffee with someone who gets that.
So, it’s been a steep learning curve, but despite the giant cut in my belly and all these new challenges, I have Herbie. He’s everything. I’ve become baby-mad. Specifically about my own baby. I now understand every Facebook parent who shares photos of their child every five minutes, because as my diminishing follower count will attest, I Instagram my son daily. I’m obsessed. I want to capture him from every angle. The love I feel for him is cellular, and sometimes it feels as though I’ll go berserk with it. When I’m not with him, I miss him – I physically miss him, so I sigh over photos of him, leaking breastmilk everywhere. Even when he’s just in the nextroom. I’ve only known the boy for 10 weeks, for God’s sake. Motherhood has turned me into some terrible, milky-boobed stalker.
With Herbie, my identity is changing day by day. First, I was a home, then I was food. Now his world is opening up and he’s noticing more around him, I am a clown, dancing for his amusement and his comfort when all the new sensations get too much. Soon I’ll be someone new – the person who ignores Herbie’s supermarket tantrums, the fixer of scraped knees, the disciplinarian, the embarrassing, uncool mum. These isolating newborn days will be over, and I’ll miss them, even though I may reclaim some sleep and sanity. I’m looking forward to being all these new people, though, because they’ll mean I managed to be a decent parent. I’d still quite like a hazelnut latte, mind.