Everyone experiences becoming a mother differently. For me, it was a bit like being hit by a bus. Of course, I knew there was a baby coming and that babies were hard work but in terms of the fundamental irreversible impact on my sense of identity, I just didn’t see that coming. For the first two months I sleepwalked in a post-traumatic haze: I was a mother who hadn’t yet become a mother and I was utterly conflicted. I couldn’t let go of the pre-birth me (the person I had invested 30 years into becoming) but I couldn’t see how to be that me in the face of the sheer scale of demands and love that had arrived with my new baby.
Life After Birth by Kate Figes was the catalyst that eased me through the transition to
motherhood. Or, as I melodramatically announced in my sleep-deprived haze, “This book saved my life.”
Like all expectant first time parents, I had rushed out to buy baby manuals to tool-up on everything I needed to know about looking after a baby. I knew all about playing classical music whilst nappy-changing to build future maths skills. I knew I should sleep when the baby slept and let other people do the washing up. I’d made my mind up about sleeping arrangements and I’d even picked up a few practical skills like how to sterilise equipment.
But the baby manuals only taught me how to look after a baby, they didn’t give me a clue about how to cope with the avalanche of emotions (good and bad) that would knock me off my feet. The first time my husband and I went out alone together after the birth – a rushed birthday meal when the baby was 12 weeks old – I remember sitting in the restaurant looking around at all the other diners baffled by how people all around me all my life had been undergoing this seismic identity shift without me realising. Why did no-one talk about it? This couldn’t be right. On an almost atomic level, I felt like a different person. And I wasn’t ready for that.
I thought it was just me, I must be abnormal. I just didn’t know how to be this new mum person. Reading all those baby manuals had made me feel that there was a right (and a wrong) way to do everything connected with motherhood and I felt very alone. Other new mums would talk about practical stuff – breastfeeding, sleeping, exhaustion – but nobody else ever said “I have absolutely no idea who I am any more and that scares me witless because who I am is important to me, it’s what keeps me going.” Maybe they were having their own existential crisis on the inside. Or maybe not. What Life After Birth helped me to understand was that it didn’t matter. Whatever reaction to new motherhood I was having (or they were having) was normal and OK and someone else somewhere had had it too.
This isn’t a book that gives advice. It doesn’t tell you to do anything or not to do anything. It’s just a collection of voices. Of different women talking about their own personal experiences of becoming a mother. About their feelings for their baby, about going back to work, about their relationships with their partners post-birth. About love and hostility, guilt and joy. Each one tells a different story. But they are all told honestly in that unvested way that it is possible to confess to strangers things that you could never admit to your friends.
It was this sheer diversity of experience and truthful acknowledgement of struggle that helped me to accept that whatever I was feeling as a new mum was OK, and that there wasn’t a right or wrong way to feel. Embracing all those different new-mother voices helped me to accept the new-mother me as myself and to realise that I was still me, just a version of me that I had never met before. It made me excited about the future, to see who I would become on this journey.
Life After Birth is one of those books that is passed like a secret handshake from new mother to new mother. It was bought for me by a friend who had her baby a few years before me. “This book saved my life,” she said. “Don’t read it until after the birth, though. It won’t make sense.” I have since bought it many times for first time mums and passed it on with almost exactly the same words.
As far as book reviews go, I know this isn’t unbiased. It isn’t meant to be. Because this is the book that saved my life and I know it has saved many others too. For women who are lucky enough to glide through the transition to motherhood untroubled, this book probably won’t make sense (and you may be tempted to judge the rest of us harshly should you read it). But for shellshocked first time mums who don’t have that friend who gives them this book, this review is for you. Get online and buy it. And don’t forget to pass it on.
Overall Rating? 5/5 Life After Birth by Kate Figes was first published by 1998 and updated in 2008. It is published by Virago.
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