Sarah-Jayne says she has always been a driven person, with a focus on the future that has led to an evolving ten-year career in the fields of midwifery and public health. Here she tells us how her professional experience didn’t prepare her for becoming a mother herself, what she’s learnt, and how parenthood has changed her.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t always want to be a midwife. I’d gone into it purely because it represented a permanent wage – I’d already met my long term partner and he wanted to set up a business, so I felt that if I went into a job that guaranteed an income it would work.
But it soon became my calling. You can’t do that job just for money. All my friends were out drinking and having fun but I was meeting people from so many different backgrounds. Some of the poverty I saw, for instance, was quite humbling and I had to grow up really quickly.
While my husband was setting up his business I just went for it and seized every opportunity I could. I did every course I was allowed to do, including a masters in public health. I found that I enjoyed this work and ended up working in research at the end of it – looking into midwifery, pre-eclampsia, downs syndrome screening… everything related to the field.
So, when it came time for my husband and me to have our first child I felt so well informed. There was no choice to make that I hadn’t critiqued and I was quite confident and controlling about what I wanted. I cycled and trained right up to the birth and I went in on the day really cocky. And I was right… I had the most wonderful pregnancy and birth and it was pretty much the same as my birth plan. But…here’s the thing.
My expertise meant nothing as soon as he was born and my experience in the months after birth was the most horrendous of my life. He screamed all day every day and he didn’t sleep. I’d heard of colic but had no experience of it. Friends would say they’d come and support us and stay for half an hour and leave. My husband struggled with it and worked longer and longer hours as a way of coping and even my mum said she was having trouble enjoying the experience of being a grandma. A lot of my friends had babies around the same time, but none of theirs seemed to be like mine. I was isolated and sleep-deprived and hysterical – I was so tired.
I rang someone about a tax bill while walking my son one day and I remember breaking down and crying in the street… The lady on the line was saying “This isn’t about the tax bill is it love?”. It sounds funny now, but it was awful. For a long time, I felt like I was getting something so wrong. Everybody wanted to give me advice – from friends to random people in shops. People would say it was about feeding, but I’d feed him all night long. I was cutting food out of my diet just in case… but it wasn’t working and people were telling me what to do all the time.
“It wasn’t working and people were telling me what to do all the time. Then one day I just got a handle on it.”
Then one day I just got a handle on it. I realised that I wasn’t doing anything “wrong”… it was just that my baby was harder to manage than some other people’s. I don’t mean to diminish anyone else’s experience, and there will be people who have harder times than me, but recognising that I was having a harder time than my friends, for example, kind of got me through it.
My husband is really honest about the early days and says that he didn’t know what to do with him, but around the 18-month mark my husband and my son just clicked and developed the lovely bond they still share today. At four years old he’s still hard work but he’s also super fun with a wicked sense of humour…. He’s just like my husband!
In fact, we’ve just had our second child, and we laugh about the fact that, at six months, it’s not yet the time my husband gets involved. But that’s fine… Now he and my eldest are super close and do so much together that it gives me space and time to look after our new arrival. We’ve accepted our roles… but they’re not the same.
As a man, it’s not the first question people ask you but for a woman, your fertility is your story – whether you choose to have children, have none, or have ten… It’s a constant pressure and I can’t tell you how relieved I was that it was “done”. I’ve had my two children now and I can relax. In fact, with hindsight, the worst thing about the whole experience was the sense of “mum guilt”… It’s a real thing that’s not talked about. There’s a huge amount of pressure on women. It looks easy and you don’t always realise just how much women carry around.
Mum guilt drives you to care – so it’s important you have it – but it can also make you feel like a terrible person every moment of the day… You take one moment for yourself and jump in the shower and you feel terrible. You have this overwhelming sense of love for them but you also go through a rollercoaster of emotions hourly. I think “oh my god you’re the most beautiful thing ever… so please sleep so I can wash my hair”. It’s exhausting, it’s relentless. It’s 24 hours a day… and it’s totally worth it.
Work was so important to me but I have to sacrifice some of that because I want to be there for the boys and ensure they grow up healthy and happy. There has been some resentment between my husband and me about our careers but the truth is that I’ve got a long time left in my working life. We’ll be working until we’re 70 and right now it’s more important that I can give my sons all the love and security and attention they need.
The oddest thing is that I was always so focused on the future but right now I don’t want this period to end. My four-year-old is questioning the world in this innocent way and coming up with theories for how it works and my experience of motherhood with my six-month-old is the dream experience I expected the first time. For the first time in my life, I’m content, and I would pause this moment for as long as I could.
Family pressures can sometimes be difficult to manage and many people feel confused by what information is available or struggle to access services close to home. Family Action’s free FamilyLine service is available for anybody looking for emotional support and guidance.