Mum's the word
PERHAPS I SHOULD have had more foresight. Aged 40 and eight months pregnant, I viewed my impending motherhood as a fantastic new adventure and spent little time dwelling on the potential challenges.
I figured that since I knew how to work hard under pressure and manage my own time, being a mother would be in the realm of the familiar. When people told me it may be difficult, I thought of multi-tasking and overdue deadlines. When they said I'd be tired I recalled late nights at work and early starts the next day. I reasoned that women had been having babies since the beginning of time - so what could be so hard?
Two months later, as the initial euphoria began to wane, I found myself exhausted, anxious, and utterly overwhelmed. Nothing I'd read or that anyone had ever said to me even remotely prepared me for the tiredness, the absence of personal time or the delicate balance of vulnerability and responsibility I now felt. It was as though I'd woken up on another planet and needed a manual to survive.
On good days my daughter slept well and a degree of normality existed, but on bad days we slid into a tussle, she not wanting to be put down, me having no time to take care of myself.
To make matters worse it seemed that all the other mothers I met were coping marvellously - radiantly taking up the mantle of mother and shrugging off their old life without a care in the world. Did no one else find it shocking that there was so little time to do anything but tend to the baby? Did no one else feel unreasonably tearful or too shattered to think? And was I the only one who wanted to talk about these things?
I wasn't of course. My feelings were quite normal. It was just that no one had warned me that I was up against the baby conspiracy - a conspiracy between women all over the world that leaves new mums feeling as if they've been kept in the dark about the realities of motherhood.
According to mother-of-two Orla Breeze, it leaves you feeling as if 'there's a secret book with all the answers, hidden away somewhere', even though you've done all the research, read the books and attended the classes.
Breeze says it took her the best part of six months to get used to being a mother. 'Everyone is prepared for the joy and the falling in love - that goes without saying,' the 33-year-old says. 'But it's the stuff they don't tell you about that I found hard. Like the fact that it's completely normal to feel overwhelmed. I didn't know that. At the time of my first child I felt totally prepared, I'd read all the books and talked to lots of friends and yet I was still so shocked.'
It was this feeling that inspired Breeze to create a website for Hong Kong mums - new, old and expectant - aimed at telling straight the things that often go unsaid.
The site (www.babyconspiracy.com), which was launched last month, invites mothers to 'claim your life back' with the challenge: 'If it's a conspiracy, then the time has come for us, the mothers of Hong Kong, to break it.'
With forums on everything from the best brunch venues with toddlers in tow to managing yoyo-ing emotions, Breeze says she hopes that English-speaking mothers will use the site to share information, find advice and discuss some of the challenges they're experiencing.
'Becoming a mother is a massive transition in your life and some women will find it challenging,' says Breeze. 'Women feel the pressure to cope and to be a good mother. If they're finding it difficult they may have a hard time asking for help. I want the site to support these women, to be a place where they can share their stuff and also, hopefully, have a laugh at it all.'
Breeze, who has two children - 22-month-old Tiarnan and newborn daughter Naoise - knows how hard those first weeks can be and is empathetic towards women who find themselves home alone, feeling tired and overwhelmed.
'There's some unspoken belief that women should have all the natural instincts to be a mother - that when the baby pops out you suddenly know what to do,' she says. 'But for many women this simply isn't the case. You want to have all the answers, but how can you? And if you don't have the answers you feel bad. There's so much pressure on women to be good mothers, whatever that means.'
According to psychotherapist David O'Rose, the desire to be a good mother signals a repression of other, valid feelings. 'The difficult, challenging feelings that arise for mothers need to be expressed, but women feel bad or guilty in doing so. To express the ambivalence is very liberating and opens the woman up to greater support, but she needs to learn to do it. The very fact of being able to express the challenges enables her to get back in touch with the other side of motherhood: the joy.'
Although some emotional ups and downs are common after birth, if the baby blues persist, help must be sought. The more serious condition of postnatal depression (PND) is now thought to affect one in 10 women and is one of the most common conditions linked to childbirth. The severity of PND can vary from mild depression to extreme disinterest in the baby and even thoughts of suicide.
O'Rose encourages women to seek help if they show signs of PND. In many cases, sessions with a counsellor will be enough to help stabilise emotions. For others, anti-depressant medication may be required. Whatever the severity, the most crucial point is when a woman asks for help.
Breeze wants babyconspiracy.com to be a place where women can talk to each other and get the support they need. 'I want this site to help mothers adjust to their new role and to be a place where they can go to focus on themselves,' she says. 'Although we have a whole section about baby, a question and answers page with a local midwife and some more light-hearted stuff, the core of the site is the forums where women share stories.'
Since the site was launched, it's attracted a steady increase in subscribers of two or three a day, Breeze says, with a total of 45 so far.
Each subscriber pays a monthly fee of US$2 - which Breeze says is a nominal administrative charge to deter people who aren't serious.
Although her time is scarce, Breeze says the site is worth the effort to build up a network of support for those in need. 'For Hong Kong mothers, by Hong Kong mothers, that's what I hope.'