Life after birth without losing your 'self'
Beneath those puffy eyes and mussed up hair there is often a new mum in need of a confidence boost. Emine Ali Rushton shares how to navigate life after birth without losing your 'self'
There I was, sitting on the sofa breastfeeding the new baby, with Strictly flashing away in the background. I was tired, wired, cranky and unbathed, so the blinding sequins and deafening power ballads weren't helping.
I wondered if I'd ever again have the energy to get dressed up, dance all night and stay out till morning. Maybe in a few years, I thought, eyeing Susanna Reid who was doing a great job, shaking her hips with a smile on her face. But judge Craig Revel Horwood didn't agree: 'Well, it was all a bit mumsy, darling.' Susanna was in great shape, a good dancer, vivacious, joyful – but she'd just been labelled dull, parochial, mumsy – shorthand for 'You no longer have "it".' And what is 'it' anyway? Sexiness? Coolness? Relevance?
Dull or daring
'Mumsy has become a bit of a dirty word,' says my friend Claudine, a creative at a London advertising agency who has two kids. 'You're saying someone is safe, pedestrian... in our game, if you book a 'mumsy' model, it doesn't mean she's not pretty – it just means she's not daring.'
However 39-year-old Danni, mother to twin boys, says, 'Personally, I couldn't give a damn about being daring, and if I look like a mum that's fi ne by me. I tried for ten years to have children and now they're here, I've embraced motherhood wholeheartedly. Why would I want to look all made up and dressed up if I'm spending time with my boys? I want to be as comfortable as possible.'
But while 'daring' may be a step too far, most of us do want to look good. And when, in the early days of motherhood, we discover we have neither the time nor even the inclination to do so, it can leave us rattled. This is something I can definitely relate to. For a time after having both my children, I had a niggling sense that I'd lost my way.
One day I thought I was quite relevant, ontrend even, my hair in a sharp, blunt bob, clothes just the right side of individual. The next I woke up and saw a woman with conservative (bordering on Tory MP) hair, wearing mum jeans and an omnipresent nursing bra. My makeup looked off, too.
If I wore bright lipstick (my signature style) it looked like I was trying too hard; if I didn't, I looked washed out. 'When the refl ection in the mirror doesn't match the image in the mind it can be upsetting, particularly for new mums who have spent 40 weeks slowly changing shape and mentally preparing themselves for a baby,' says psychologist Aimee Beal. 'Then, overnight, wallop – your baby's here, your body's changed, and yes, you're a "mum".
'It's lifealtering, but your mind is playing catchup. You're still "you" in your head, so that's how you expect to look. But it takes time for both your body and your mind to recover – something we don't hear much about in the media, with all these celebrities who are seemingly unaffected by childbirth.'
Another friend, Cat, relates to this. 'Because of breastfeeding my boobs went up four cup sizes, and I just lost all sense of how to dress. Zipup hoodies, and lounge pants that I'd only ever worn to bed became my staple daywear. It wasn't me, but I just didn't have the time or energy to dress properly. Besides, whenever I tried to wear something nice it got covered in food, dribble or vomit, and was often ruined as a result, so there really was no point. It's safe to say, those months were not my happiest!'
For many women, however, motherhood and the physical changes it brings can be quite liberating. It's about admitting that, for a short time at least, your body feels different. You may be exhausted beyond the point of coherence, and a mascara wand may seem about as useful to you as a nine-inch stiletto on the school run – but that's perfectly Ok.
Other things are simply more important than being seen in the season's latest jeans, or hottest nail polish – and there's no doubt this is a healthy perspective. As a colleague put it, 'I'm too busy chasing after my kids to be chasing after some idealised image of "motherhood" too. I'm a mum, not a model.' I, too, embraced 'mumsy' for a short time, not because I didn't care, but because I cared far more about other things. When my mum questioned my grown-out hair, I argued that I hadn't 'let myself go'; I was, instead, simply giving myself a break.
But if looking good is so tied up with feeling good that a lapse into frumpsville is unthinkable, you're not alone. Esme, a 36-year-old knitwear designer, said it took her nine months to feel like herself again. 'Once my son was breastfeeding less and sleeping better, it was like a light came on. My mum took him for an afternoon and I booked a hair appointment, manicure and pedicure, got my brows and lashes done, and in the space of those few hours my confi dence returned. It was crazy – but just being able to look at myself in the mirror and see this puttogether person again was such a big relief. I defi nitely saw that as the turning point in my post-baby life, and now, once every two or three months I book a top-up appointment to keep that feeling alive!'
So for any woman who's ever been caught out by the sudden onset of mumsyness, there is hope. There were times during those early months when my husband was working long hours and I'd go a full week without a bath. My mum would come round on a Sunday and order me into the shower. I wore the same clothes in rotation, because they had built-in nursing clips or fl aps (dresses were suddenly an impossibility, unless they were buttonfronted), and lived in shoes I could fl ing off or slip on while still holding the baby.
I started to feel sorry for myself. Which is when my (very) glamorous mother showed me a picture of herself, taken shortly after the birth of her first child – me. She was wearing bottle-rim glasses and a shapeless tent dress, all topped off with frizzy hair. She actually managed to look about 20 years older than she does now.
We burst into laughter. She, and I, are proof that mumsy is not so much a lost sense of self as simply a postponement of it. So to all those new mums out there flailing around in mumsyness, I say be kind to yourself, and give yourself a break. Embrace this new unfamiliar you as readily as you embrace your new baby. Because before you know it, these precious days together will be gone.