Maternal Guilt is a real thing and it's tough

Yesterday my freezer was my nemesis. It also took me back to those first few awful years after having my baby in 2011…it’s surprising what triggers memories all these years later. After falling and knocking myself out the day before, I was under strict instructions to take it easy. Child was packed off to a friend for the day, husband away off shore working, and I resolved to take my time (not an easy thing for Zebedee). After getting something out of the freezer, I was unable to shut the door due to the ice build-up. I had no choice other than to get a knife and hack away vigorously at the blockage, leaning over and pounding away. Literally, the last thing I wanted to be doing. I could feel frustration building, as I knew I was doing something which was making me feel poorly, but I also knew that there was no-one else to do it…and I really didn’t want to leave the freezer door open and lose all my food, as I’d have to go to the shop and replace it all. Eventually, I managed to get enough ice off to shut the door. I felt pretty weird by this time so took myself off for a lie down and woke up an hour later.


It got me thinking about how hard it is to truly stop and look after yourself – particularly when you are a mother. I have done countless podcasts and interviews, with one question asked every time – “how did you do it? How did you look after a new-born baby, manage a stoma bag, the loss of your job, your medical litigation, emergency hospital admissions, mental health problems and constant infections…while your husband was away?”. The answer was always the same – “I didn’t have a choice. There was no-one else to do it. I was the mother and the buck stopped with me. End of”.


I must make clear that, as with every family, we had difficult choices to make. Did my husband want to go away for weeks at a time, leaving his poorly wife and precious son? No, of course he didn’t. But financially we were left with no other option – I was on maternity pay, then sick pay, and then I lost my job altogether. Did I get a lot of help? Once I came back to the family home town 7 months after the birth, I had lots of family and friends around to help, although even in Leeds I had help there too. But no matter how much help you have, as a mother you feel the responsibility all of the time. I would set out all of Sam’s food, writing out meals and times (all shop bought Heinz…I didn’t have the time or inclination to spend hours cooking and pureeing organic stuff…and maybe this is why he likes plain food, but hey, he was fed and I was doing my best). I would fret about him, I would feel guilty about how much help I needed to have from so many people, all of the time. And that guilt is energy sapping.


My mum came to stay when I first came out of hospital with Sam after 3 weeks, my husband away working. She looked after Sam and I all day long, cooked our meals, cleaned the house, went shopping and did the laundry. She offered to do the nights when I was exhausted, as she was there while I battled my recurrent infections, my major abdominal surgery and broken perineum. Mum was also there when I came home from emergency hospital admissions, minor surgeries to drain the sepsis from the fistula tract. But I always refused – after all, l needed her to be on top form to look after us during the day. So I always stayed up with the baby, even if I had been out with a general anaesthetic earlier that day. I wanted to, it was really important to me do be a mother, and to look after my child myself. It took an enormous toll on my body and my mental health, but what other choice did I have?

I remember when Sam was one, I took the 3 hour train journey to London and across to Harrow to St Mark’s Hospital, where I had my fistula repaired by Professor Robin Phillips. The morning after the surgery I was discharged, and so I made my way back home. That sounds easy. Trust me, it was horrific. The gaping wound I had around my perineum (basically my ass) was gigantic, bigger than an orange - I was completely shocked when I looked in the mirror and saw the huge open wound. But I needed to get home. I couldn’t sit or really walk much, staggering along the train platform with my bags. I used my credit card to upgrade to first class so that I could have a bigger seat, as I was unable to sit down properly at all, wedging myself sideways and balancing precariously on a folded jumper. That journey was pure agony, but my maternal guilt was driving me all the time. I wanted to be at home to look after my baby, who was being looked after again by grandparents.


Once home, I sent the protesting grandparents away and spent long weeks painfully trying to look after my baby. I knew that they also had their own houses to run and animals to look after, and I felt I couldn’t ask for more than what had already been so generously given. I felt unable to reveal how much pain I was in, but two days after I got back I had to admit defeat and ask a friend to walk Sam around the block while I rested – he was screaming and screaming, but I simply couldn’t put him in the pushchair and walk. After an hour and a half he came back, my friend having other things to do, and I was back to gingerly propping myself on a chair while trying to entertain a lively one year old with toys. It was unremitting and hellish. I was given food and lots of support, but when the door closes you are alone with your baby, and your pain and you simply have to get on with it. The dishes are still there, the bathrooms still need cleaned, the cats still need fed. Life goes on relentlessly, and as a mother you have no choice other than to keep on going.


So yesterday, when I knew I should be resting, and I knew I was making myself worse by hacking the ice away, it reminded me of all those times when I was simply unable to put my own health first. This is the reality of being a mother, and something which people don’t understand unless they have been through it themselves. It’s really, really hard finding yourself unable to look after your own child, having to watch as they form strong bonds with other people, while you struggle to form your own.


Next time you see a washed-out mum with her children, remember that she is juggling a lot, and some will be juggling an awful lot more than others. And mums – the freezer can truly wait. The food can be re bought. Do as I say…not as I do!

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