The Truth About Motherhood: Frankie Tortora, graphic designer

doing it for the kids

“The greatest challenge I face, as a mother, is staying sane. Staying upbeat. Fighting anxiety. Fighting isolation. As I work for myself and I work from home, often I can have zero interaction with another adult for days at a time.” Frankie Tortora on motherhood and freelancing…

Frankie Tortora, 30, lives with her husband and their 20-month-old son in Muswell Hill, north London. She’s a graphic designer and runs Doing it for the Kids.

“Having kids was always something I wanted. So much so that I made professional decisions in my mid-twenties to try and create a working life that would be flexible and would allow me to work from home well before starting a family. Which sounds a bit ridiculous when you write it down…

I hate to say it – as I know how traumatic and drawn out getting pregnant can be for lots of other people – but it was pretty quick for us. The first month we made a half-hearted attempt about a day before my period was due which, unsurprisingly, didn’t work out. Looking back, I think that fumbled attempt was a bit of a trial run to see how we really, actually felt about it. When I realised it wasn’t happening the relief was big but on the other hand the disappointment I felt was way bigger so that was kind of the green light to really give it a go. So with a bit more planning, the following month we did manage to conceive.

Massive caveat here, though, is that I’m ‘lucky’ in that I have very strong ovulation pain, stronger than my period pain, and pretty regular cycles, so I tend to have a good idea of when I’m ovulating which obviously makes a massive difference.

Childbirth was pretty harrowing, if I’m honest with you. I knew it was going to be hard, but the reality of it was beyond gruelling. It almost broke me, physically and emotionally. I was induced at +12 days and within an hour of the pessary going in, I was contracting with just a couple of minutes ‘rest’. My son was born around 36 hours later in theatre via forceps. He was 9lb 12oz. For those that have had a similar experience I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I think, for me, the crux of it was that I found the whole thing to not just be a battle with my own body, but more often with the ‘system’. Like a lot of women, I didn’t want to be induced, we went in to that appointment saying, “We’ll discuss it with the midwife and we can just go home if we don’t feel ready.” Of course there was basically no discussion to be had, it was more of a right-let’s-get-this-going-shall-we. I kept pushing to go home once the contractions started but they kept insisting that I get back on the bed to be monitored and if the results continued to be OK I ‘might’ go home. Needless to say, I didn’t go home.

Oh how I’ll do things differently the second time around!

My memories of the early days? Milk. Everywhere. My hair, my clothes, my phone, the sofa, the sheets

Because we went in naively hoping we might end up back in our flat or be able to labour at home for a while we didn’t bring everything with us. We brought our packed bags of essentials, but no birthing tools beyond my TENS machine. So my husband had to physically go out and find a ball from some derelict cupboard somewhere; he had to ask for a chair I could use to lean on. I mean it’s mad that there are so many rooms that women are labouring in, within the NHS, that are literally a bed and a sink. There should be basic active birthing tools in every room, not just two or three in the fancy new birth centres, not just birthing balls and TENS machines brought into the hospital by couples that can afford them.

On the other hand, I’m lucky I even had a room! I know lots of women that had to labour literally in a corridor because there were no rooms available. Mad. Of course, the irony is that maybe if they’d let me go home to labour for a while then another woman wouldn’t have had to labour in the corridor.

And if you really want ‘the truth’ – then the absolute low point, the scene that (if I’m really honest with myself) does haunt me, was the actual delivery. After an unproductive hour and a half of pushing it was decided we would try forceps but I was also asked to sign some papers in case of an emergency c-section. The doctor (because she legally has to) talked me through all of the potential risks associated with that kind of surgery including them cutting open my bowel by mistake. <Please sign here>.

I’m then wheeled in to the bright lights of theatre, my husband in scrubs, I’ve got this crazy, sadistic nurse insisting on completely destroying my left-hand trying to get yet another cannula in. I am told I’m about to be cut. I push once, twice. He’s here. A huge, 9lb 12oz, purple person. They cut the umbilical cord and a huge spray of blood covers the faces of the two doctors sat between my legs. That moment really was like something out of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – so dark it’s hilarious.

My son is taken to the other side of the room and I can’t hear him crying. I’m lying there, legs in stirrups, uncontrollably shaking from the adrenaline/ exhaustion/ drugs. My husband comes over with the midwife who tells us my son is “OK, he’s just having some trouble breathing”….?! The red button is pushed, the doctors rush in.

Thankfully it was just a case of too much gunk in his pipes and soon he is audibly whimpering. I’m stitched up, wheeled out into the appropriately named ‘recovery’ room. It’s about 600 degrees celsius in there. My husband has to ask for some tea and toast. I continue to shake. I eventually sleep.

I felt pretty well informed about the birth itself in terms of the stages of birth, the different forms of pain relief etc. But of course the reality is that every birth is completely different, every birth is unpredictable and that, actually, there are a hell of a lot of unknowns still around pregnancy and childbirth.

It sounds cliché, but how quickly humans grow up really is astounding. How quickly we teach ourselves to crawl, walk, feed ourselves, understand hundreds of words.

The biggest shock for me though was the experience in hospital after my son was born. Firstly, there’s the arresting reality of essentially caring for a newborn in what feels like, and sounds like, a war zone. People say women are warriors, but you have no idea what that really means until you’ve been on a postnatal ward.

And then there was the feeling of being trapped. I felt like a caged animal. Once they had me in there (we had to be kept in for a minimum of four days to finish a course of antibiotics) it was almost impossible to leave. I know they want to make sure you and baby are healthy before they let you go home, but the whole of concept of anyone ‘letting’ me go home just felt wrong. The language, the processes, the questionable bedside manner of some of the night staff – a lot about those seven days made me feel like I was a naughty student being kept in for detention. The endless box ticking, tests, procedures that literally no one told me about beforehand: no books, blogs, friends, NCT… yet all of the NHS staff spoke to me in acronyms and a language I didn’t even vaguely understand yet was apparently expected to know what was going on before they even said it. I should know about all of this stuff already, right? No Miss. Sorry Miss.

My memories of the early days? Milk. Everywhere. My hair, my clothes, my phone, the sofa, the sheets. A lot of bodily fluids no one really tells you about. There was lot of pain. Feeding took two-three weeks to really get going and my nipples were a mess. I had two types of wound from birth – one cut, one natural tear – so there were a lot of stitches to contend with in very awkward places.

Sitting was basically impossible; haemorrhoid cushion or no haemorrhoid cushion, so altogether feeding really was a nightmare at the beginning. Standing up for too long made me feel like the insides were about to fall out. So the only really comfortable position was lying down, on my side, sipping tea from a flask with a built-in straw. Once we’d nailed side feeding, things really got a hell of a lot easier for me. I think I may have given up on feeding if we hadn’t found that position. 

I’m not sure when I really started to feel ‘normal’ again, I think probably around 10 months when he started to sleep through the night. ‘They’ say it takes nine months to grow a baby, and nine months to recover from one so that sounds about right.

What makes it all worthwhile? That smile. That laugh. When he kisses me for no reason

But I do specifically remember the moment I fell in love with my son and it was not the day he was handed to me in that recovery room. Whatever Hollywood. My husband was away at a stag do when my son was four weeks old. I went to stay with my parents and it was that weekend I was hit by a huge wave, a tsunami, of love. It was mad. I think up to that point I’d just been concentrating on surviving.

I started working again when my son was about six months old. I’m a self-employed graphic designer, and as much as I am thankful to live in a country where I received some financial support as a new mother, living on my £139.58 a week Maternity Allowance just wasn’t realistic for much longer than that. And I only survived financially for that long because I had a big job come in just before I had my son and therefore some money in my account. But I was beyond ready to start working again by that point anyway. I love my son, but I also love my job. It is a huge part of my identity.

We planned it so that me starting work coincided with my husband taking a month’s Shared Parental Leave from his salaried job. So that month, we essentially swapped roles, which was amazing for both of us. My son was at an age where he was increasingly less dependent on me, he would gladly take the bottle, so my husband could be sole carer for full days while I got back into work. He had a tangible glimpse into the realities of looking after a baby all hours of all days and I had the luxury of time to contact old clients, update my website and kick things off again work-wise.

It sounds cliché, but how quickly humans grow up really is astounding. How quickly we teach ourselves to crawl, walk, feed ourselves, understand hundreds of words. There are so many innate, amazing things we just do. That we are programmed to get on with. Did I teach my son to breastfeed? Hell no. He probably taught me!

But I wish someone had told me about quite how stifling parenthood can be. There are no more ‘quick’ trips to the shops, you can’t just pop to the pub on a Tuesday night because you both feel like it, wherever you go and whatever you do you are always carrying, responsible for, feeding another person… Unless you have endless budget for babysitters or an amazing support network around you, when you have small children you are basically confined to your house post 7pm. I didn’t really appreciate what that meant or how it would feel.

In fact, one of my new year’s resolutions is to stop worrying about the size of our flat and get people around here way more often in the evenings. Because if we can’t go out willy nilly, then I’m going to make damn well sure that our friends come to us because seeing other people – particularly when you work at home and for yourself – is what keeps you sane.

If I could go back in time, I would have let my son sit it out in the womb to +14 days, given him more of a chance to make a move. I may well have still been induced, but I wouldn’t have that niggling feeling that he would have come of his own accord on +13. And I would have brought that birthing ball to the hospital with us!

My advice to expectant parents is: watch some serious nature documentaries because you are about to become a badass chameleon. In this parenting game, you have to continually adapt to survive.

The greatest challenge I face, as a mother, is staying sane. Staying upbeat. Fighting anxiety. Fighting isolation. As I work for myself and I work from home, often I can have zero interaction with another adult (other than my husband) for days at a time. That’s not healthy for anybody, let alone me. So I’m trying to work on that – through social media, through changes to the way I work, the way I live.

What makes it all worthwhile? That smile. That laugh. When he kisses me for no reason. When he dances by himself when there isn’t even music playing. When we get home from somewhere and he jumps around the flat shouting, “Home! Home! WOOOOOOOW!” That stuff. That stuff is the best.”