19 Aug Losing Your Identity In Parenting
Becoming a parent doesn’t mean giving up who you are. Mother Suvi Mahonen shares her story of finding her identity and learning from her mistakes.
The sippy cup spout was still gunky, smeared with the remnants of a half-squished date. I stared at it in disbelief, then shoved it at my husband. “How could you miss this?”
I’d been busy packing the baby bag to take my daughter to Rhyme Time the following morning, and it had been my husband’s job to do the dishes. His definition of washing dishes involved vaguely waving them under running water at the sink. He squinted at the spout and shrugged – and then he swore at me.
We’d only recently moved to the city, which had added another layer of stress to the already stressful transition of becoming parents, with its sleep deprivation, zero downtime and chores that never ended. Most nights we fought, and there was a constant tension between us, which felt confusing, because we were working together to raise our baby, but pulling apart in so many other ways. All I knew about my husband at that moment was that I hated him. Intensely.
Even so, I only meant to yell at him – but my hand, driven by premenstrual hormones and a year’s worth of pent-up rage, seemed to have a mind of its own as it rose swiftly in the air and connected squarely with his cheek. I stood there, stunned. The man with the tired eyes in front of me was the love of my life and I’d just hit him. I immediately apologised, but he brushed me away. “You’re not you anymore,” he said. “You’ve become a different person.”
That was last night – a night that marked a new low point in our relationship, and I wondered if other couples found the changes after having a baby as hard as we did.
Today I am on a tram travelling to Rhyme Time, hoping to make some friends in a city where I don’t know anyone. My daughter is on my lap and together we look through the window at the high rises, water inlets and the sun shining off the sea. This was all meant to be our new beginning – only it feels like the beginning of the end.
The library is crowded. I make my way to the back and squeeze into an aisle bench. The other mums are young and trendy in their city frocks and sandals, jiggling babies on their knees. I unpack our supplies on the inch of spare space beside us: sippy cup, sultanas and my daughter’s Peppa Pig doll she’d insisted on bringing. The mum on our right gives me a quick polite smile, but before I can compliment her on the cuteness of her baby, she’s turned away.
My daughter begins to cry. She’s spotted the climbing blocks up the front and wants to have a play. For the sake of peace I take her up. She climbs and crawls over the solid squares of foam, legs pumping furiously. When the presenters take their seats, she’s finally sated and happy to go back to ours.
I pick her up and can see a woman has taken our spot. She has a son, about two, who is running to the front where a large group of toddlers have gathered. I approach, planning to just collect my daughter’s things, but when the woman sees me she gestures at the bench and asks, “Was this your seat?” The old me would have let her have our spot and gone and stood at the back, but the changed me is tired. The changed me didn’t sleep last night after fighting with my husband. The changed me is clumsy and awkward and simply ends up saying, “Yes”. The woman smiles before getting to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she says as she brushes past me and moves down the aisle.
I settle back down on the bench. The program is underway and the presenters are holding up a song lyrics poster for the first rhyme we’re going to sing. I see the woman who had taken our seat. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor at the edge of the group of toddlers, holding her little boy’s hand. I do a double-take. How could I have not noticed? Beneath her v-neck tunic, pushing up to her ribs, is the perfect basketball shape of what must be at least a seven-month pregnant belly.
Shame, so deep it feels like a wound, sears through me and my face burns a bright red. I try to catch her attention, but she doesn’t look my way. I am mortified at the way I made a pregnant woman move. You’re not you any more.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” I say, stepping aside to let the other mums past at the end of the session, “I didn’t see that you were pregnant”. My apology sounds so lame, but when I look in her eyes I can see they are shining. “Do you want to get a coffee?” she asks.
We sit at a table at the library cafe. We’re kept busy rescuing crayons from the floor, wiping sticky little faces and mopping up spilt water, but somehow we still manage to talk. She says she has days with her toddler when it all feels too hard and I know exactly what she means.
My husband is home late, and by the time he steps through the door, our baby is asleep. He finds me out on the deck, gazing at the night view: tall apartment buildings thronged by the river, their reflections shimmering on the black water’s tide. He comes and stands beside me.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he says.
“No, I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”
He puts his arm around my shoulder and we stand there silently, watching a boat chugging down the river.
“I miss us,” I say.
He pulls me closer. “We’re still us,” he says.
At the base of the bridge, down on the sheltered beach, a couple of locals have set up for night fishing. Lanterns shine on the rocks, buckets in the sand. We see them cast a line, and it occurs to me that my husband is right – we are still us. Being a couple is important, but so is being parents, and the two are not mutually exclusive. We have something now that is much more powerful: the desire to work together to raise our precious child.
Down the river, the boat is coming in to berth. Just beyond the jetty, two cranes flank the sky, their turrets glowing with lights, and as I watch them I realise that the city is just a city. I give his fingers a squeeze. We’re our new beginning.
Words by Suvi Mahonen