Today's Q+A comes from Elissa, a young Australian mum...
1. How old were you when you got pregnant?
I was 20 years old and had been married just over two months. We were quite surprised that it happened so quickly because we had been living together for the two years prior to our wedding.
2. How old is your baby now?
My darling little boy is just over six months old. So I guess you could say that I'm still pretty new to this whole scene.
3. You planned to start early, but it was earlier than you expected. Did you follow through with your original pre-baby plans or did you find your priorities and interests changed after becoming a mom?
We had all sorts of plans. To me, the main focus was on getting to a point in my studies where it would be easy, and perhaps even beneficial, for me to take a few years off. A Fine Arts degree is one which lends itself well to dipping in and out because the life experience gained can be channeled into the art you make. Still, I wanted to finish my degree and perhaps do my honors year before taking that break for a child. That would have put me at 23 or 24, which still satisfied my wish of being under 26. Sometimes I wonder where we get these numbers from. Why 26 for me, and 25 for you, and 33 for somebody else? Those two little pink lines were on my life map, but they were meant to come further down the road. Now, I kind of think that I must of been reading the map wrong. You hear mothers say it all the time: "Oh! I just couldn't imagine my life without him/her/them!" It sounds cheesy, but it's really true. However it goes down, there is something magical that happens to a woman when she gives birth. Just this evening, I visited a friend and her brand new baby daughter in hospital. As soon as I walked into the room I was engulfed by the amazing energy in the room. This woman was positively glowing, not only with love for her child, but with a new found respect and trust for herself. She confessed to me that she felt like a totally different woman, in a totally different world. I looked into her eyes and she could see that I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had felt the same way. Still do.
Instead of fighting what was happening, I embraced and enjoyed my pregnancy whilst preparing myself for birth. The birth itself was the most intensely wonderful and transformative experience of my life. I had a deeper and more honest respect for myself than I'd ever felt before. As much as I was head over heels for this tiny boy, I realized my own self and dreams were worth fighting for too. I even wrote in my journal about how the feeling of resolution, of being centered and calm, was juxtaposed with a vast inspiration for life, for creating, for seizing opportunities and harnessing dreams.
My perspective and priorities have certainly shifted. So, the nature of the dreams has changed too. Some of my original plans are still pinned up to work towards, but others just don't seem that important anymore. Time has become an issue, but time itself has changed in nature. Before, I could see a map of years, dotted with landmarks and events so that I would not loose my way. That map is gone and in its place exists only baby time. The days and nights are, for the meanwhile at least, broken up into self contained chunks of feeding, playing, changing, packing thing up, unpacking them, washing, cleaning, eating, and, oh, the nap times! The nap time is precious. It magnifies the importance of things. My boy generally naps for about 40 minutes at a time, so I often only get to choose one or two things to do while he's asleep. Take out of that time, the need to eat, to make calls in business hours, to keep the house in some approximate order, and you don't have much time left for the self. Occasionally he'll pull an amazing 2 to 3 hour nap and I just run around like a mad thing, getting as much done as I can before he wakes up. There are things that I can do when he's awake, but it's more my style to be 100% here or there. As a result of this fractured time, days, weeks, months all pass really quickly. Suddenly, completing my studies in the next 5, 7, or even 10 years, doesn't seem that far away. The date, which was so important to me before, just doesn't factor in now. It's only one aspect of what I do and, for every semester that I take off, I'm gaining a richer life experience from which to draw.
There are also new dreams and aspirations. You may find a freshly fueled passion for the environment, for starting community-building projects, for lobbying the government to provide better education. For me, I learned that I wanted to a doula. I've started contacting other doulas and training centers already. It seems that there would be no greater gift to offer my community than to support its women in such a precious time in their lives. It's not something that I ever would have thought of doing before feeling how powerful my own experience was.
4. How do you handle judgment, from getting married at 20 to having a baby at 21?
A lot of time I try to avoid the judgement by simply not revealing my age. I mean, I will tell you honestly if you ask, but I'm not going to volunteer the information. My hope is that, by the time people find out, they know me well enough that my age doesn't become an issue. I have a fairly ambiguous appearance, people peg me at anywhere between about 18 and 28, so I get away with it a lot of the time. But, sadly enough, judgement does happen and I have been subject to it by strangers and family members alike. I try to tell myself that it's not actually about me. It's people projecting their own fears, and their own regrets onto you and your situation. I try to breathe deeply before responding and to shrug it off as much as possible. The theory being that I will display my superior maturity by not rising to their negativity. Of course, a good ol' bitch fest over a chocolate milkshake doesn't hurt either! I was lucky enough to have a friend fall pregnant at the same at me, so we did a fair bit of that together. Something that was very reassuring about that friendship is that the woman in question is a good 10 years older than me and, guess what! People were judging her too. It taught me that, no matter what I do, and no matter how old I am, I will never be impervious to other people's judgements. What I can do is trust in my own self, and continue to make the choices that I feel are right. No matter what other people say.
5. What role does your art play in your life right now?
In a lot of ways I feel more inspired that I've ever felt before, but I also have a lot less time to do anything about it. More than that, I can't always channel that inspiration in the moment that it strikes, which is difficult and frustrating. I'm trying to get better at noting things down, snapping photos, doing quick sketches, whatever it takes to capture something of what I'm excited about. Whether I'll use all this source material later or not doesn't matter so much. It keeps the creative juices flowing and allows me to push and explore the ideas, even when I can't make the work. I've always worked a lot a night, so that works to my advantage when the babe is sleeping well. At the moment he seems to be having a bit of growth spurt or something and the extra night wakings are forcing me to go to bed earlier. I often don't get a nap during the day, so I need to rest while I can. With the somewhat erratic and limited hours, I''m having to use new little tricks to keep myself working. For example, I keep my journal on the coffee table now. This means that, to stop it from just being clutter, I have write, draw, or stick something in it every day. I've also been writing a lot. I'm not really a writer, but it helps me to unpack ideas, and funnel my energy into something that can be used as a source. My work deals mostly with relationships so, in a lot of ways, the intensity of emotions that come with the job of mothering are actually helpful for my practice. I'm in no way as prolific as I have been and the work, done mostly for myself, is largely unfinished. It doesn't seem to matter just at the moment though. I know it will be some time before I get back into a print studio, so I'm just trying make sure that I've got enough fuel to get the most out of the precious time when it does become available. For now, I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to be a stay at home mum, before anything else. I do have have a couple of little projects that I feel I'm making tangible progress with. One of which is a book, which I am both writing and illustrating. Seeing some of my ideas transforming into lines on paper, is definitely good for my spirit, but I endeavor to be zen about the lack of progress on other, more artistically complex works. I'm not saying it's always easy, but I'm getting there.
6. How do you find time for your own interests? More importantly, why is it important for you to pursue your own interests?
There is a person who I haven't really mentioned yet and should have: my husband. He is supportive of me, and he is one of the most involved dads that I've come across. Thanks to him I am able to take some time for myself, when he is around, which I can use to work, or sleep, or whatever I please. I also have somebody constantly reminding me that it's OK to choose my own work over the house work. Yes, it does add an extra element of chaos to our lives but, I became a mother, not a house wife. It does help to have that validation coming from a voice external to your own. By night he's a musician, so I guess there is a mutual respect about the need to pursue our own interests, particularly creative ones. On our wedding day we promised to 'protect the integrity' of each other -- by which we meant that we would respect the fact that we were not two lives becoming one life. We were two lives bravely adventuring out together, well aware that at times we would want to take different roads. Now, we have a third life to consider. The babe is not vocalizing many profound life choices at this stage (the kid is smart, but he's not a genius), but there will come a time when he does. When that time comes I sincerely want him to be able to look to me as an example. I will find a way to complete my study, to follow my heart, to carve out the kind of life that I want because I simply must! If I do not, I'm setting a bad example for my son. Before he was born, I promised him that I would never use him as an excuse for settling for a mediocre life. Whatever I do, whether it be part of my original plans or not, I will be doing because I am in it heart and soul.
Sometime I do get scared that, because I got caught out in the middle of my plans, I will never go on to fulfill them. I was only just starting to scratch out a place for myself the art scene when I became pregnant, and I do sometimes have visions of myself turning into some crazy housewife who paints floral doilies at the kitchen table, and proudly shows them off to visitors. Heck, even that would be sort of OK, as long as I was still interacting with the art world by going to and having exhibitions, working on collaborative projects, making and distributing zines, and embracing whatever opportunities came my way. My dream of having a residency in a Belgium print studio won't be realized for many years now but, if I'm being totally honest, there's no guarantee that I would have been accepted anyway. That's the important thing for me to remember. My son is not an excuse because, with or without him here, it up to me to work hard and fulfill my dreams. It is too easy to sit back and say that I could have become what I wanted, if I didn't have this baby, or I went to that school, or lived in this city, etc, etc. All that adds up to is saying that you could be who you wanted to be if you weren't you. Life, at least garnering the life that you really want, does not just happen to you. You have to get up, go out and get it. I need my son to see me doing that, and I need to do it to be happy with him; to remind myself that he is also my choice.
7. In your opinion, what's the biggest advantage to having kids young?
There are lots of advantages. I have lots energy, I'm used to living on little sleep, I'll still be young when my child is in school full time, and I can take my time before even considering having another one. Choosing just one to note is tricky, especially when it's all I know. With enough resilience, maybe any time can be the most advantageous time. For me, the idea of being a younger mum as he grows up is definitely very appealing. I might even reach the magical and allusive 'Cool Mum' status, but I won't pin my hopes on it.
8. What's been your biggest challenge?
I had to think for a really long time before answer this question. To me, the biggest challenge has been accepting that parenting is a whole lot of little challenges. I don't want to go on and on and about how hard being a parent is. I loved being pregnant, and I love being a mum! I totally adore and enjoy my son. Each day, even on the hard days, he does things to amaze and delight me. It's wonderful and fulfilling and emotionally intense, but it's also constantly changing. People tell you when you're pregnant that the only constancy that you will experience is constant change. It's not that I didn't believe them, it's just that until my son was born, I had no way of comprehending just how constant and rapid that change is. Almost every day I have to get to know a new little person. It takes a lot of emotional stamina. When people say motherhood is full time, I don't think they're really talking about the night wakings and the lack of time physically being alone. I think they are talking about the intense emotional investment that you have in this little being. Even when you are sleeping, you are thinking about them, burning up with love and hopes and dreams for them, but also knowing that you have let them chase those things on their own.I suppose that's the other thing worth noting in regards to my situation. My baby is still very young. I've chosen to be his full-time caregiver, and I'm lucky to be in a position to make that choice. As he gets older, he'll have play dates, perhaps preschool, then school, then school with extra-curricular activities. The availability of time slowly trickles back. With that in mind, I challenge myself each day to not feel anxious about the future. To try and switch off from all my other projects and just enjoy my son. The changes in him can be so minute and gradual that, if I wasn't really paying attention, I'd miss them.
9. One thing you wish you knew before having your baby?
I wish that I knew it was OK to ask for help. I've never been good at that. Often I try and try on my own, and will only very reluctantly ask for help when I've reached my wits end. I've learned that I can't do that anymore because I have a little person depending on me to have my shit together. To push, push, push and then crash and burn is fine when you can take a little 'me time' to lick your wounds. When you still have to get up in the middle of night, or be engaged in the morning, to help a person to develop and grow, it just isn't a viable option. It becomes selfish to avoid asking for help, if it means that you can't be your best self, and your best mumma for your baby. So, as much as my fiercely independent spirit is repelled by the idea, now I admit when I can't do things alone before I reach the point where it's obvious. It's actually really heartening to see how many people will happily help you, if you just ask them.On a more practical level, I would definitely love to know how to drive. More accurately, to have my drivers license. It was on my list of pre-baby things. It's kind of embarrassing that I can't drive (even though I know plenty of people over 30 who can't either), but I'm working on changing that situation.
10. If you could teach your baby one lesson, what would it be?
I want him to understand that the things we love, the people we love, and the ideas we love are all worth working for. It is important to have goals and dreams, but it's also important to recognize that: a) achieving them is not a given, and the work needs to be put in to reap the benefits, and b) sometimes life will offer up alternative paths, and we shouldn't be so fixated on the end point that we neglect taking up exciting opportunities and adventures. I want him to feel comfortable and confident in himself. I want him to have enough self-respect to choose the right path, even when it is also the hard one, and to be unafraid of the unknown.
To lend your voice to the Early Mama community, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to feature your story.