The Truth About Motherhood: Ali Millar, writer

Ali Millar

“Soren’s birth was an incredible experience – both empowering and terrifying – and it totally changed my perspective on childbirth.” We hear from Scottish mum-of-four and writer Ali Millar about being a single mum, remarrying and the different stages of motherhood…

Ali Millar, 36, had three children: Ilia, 11, Soren, four, and Sullivan at the time of writing. She’s since had a fourth baby – a girl, called Winter. They live on a farm in the Scottish Borders. Ali grew up in the area and they moved there from Edinburgh after living in the capital for 15 years.

“I didn’t really think about having kids much growing up, but my granny came from a big family and had a big family and although there was only me and my sister in mine, I used to love the noise and madness around the dinner table at Granny’s when all the extended family were there. I used to sit wanting that, although I’m not sure if I wanted to be one of the children or the parents. Being the parent makes it slightly different!

Each conception happened easily, but in a way the journey was less straightforward. My daughter, aged 11, was born when I had just turned 25 and was straight out of university. Two years later I left her dad and raised her on my own until I met my husband. At that point I was pretty disillusioned with the idea of marriage and didn’t want another serious relationship either, I was more interested in finding out who I was and what I wanted from life.

Until then, I’d always rushed through life not really thinking – more children weren’t part of the plan at all. Also I couldn’t imagine how more children would figure, couldn’t imagine how I’d love more than one. So pretty happy with the way things were, I met my now husband when I was 30, and very soon realised I wanted a family with him, upending what I thought I wanted.

Two and a half years later Soren was born, followed by Sullivan 17 months later. After that we decided we were all done – having two boys 17 months apart does that to you – but then when we moved to the country the thought of another one began to creep in, and so here were are, waiting for the last one to join us.

Each birth has been completely different. Ilia’s birth was very calm and straight forward, she was born in the spring as the sun came up, and I’d been discharged by lunch. It was exactly what I wanted and after I didn’t realise what all the fuss about birth was about. I didn’t realise at the time just how lucky I’d been.

We don’t have family around to help out at short notice so I’m getting a bit anxious about the birth of baby four

Soren’s birth was an incredible experience – both empowering and terrifying – and it totally changed my perspective on childbirth. I’d gone to bed the night before with back pains – I always seem to labour worst in my back – and the next day woke with real pain, full on swearing every three minutes. We packed Ilia off to school and went to the hospital, where it happened to be a very busy day. We’d settled on a birth in the birth centre but had to wait due to the volume of babies being born. We spent most of the day in the waiting room, before being given a room about 4.30pm, and Soren was born by 6.30.

So there was no time for pain relief, he was born after six paracetamol taken during the day. I did use the birthing pool for a while, but was terrified by the idea of birthing him in it whilst the midwifes were out, the thought made me feel really alone. The pain was intense, but almost not like pain, I’ve said since we don’t have words for what’s experienced in labour, and can’t help but think that if men went through it there would be a whole set of ways to describe and talk about it; it’s certainly a traumatic experience, and not one we talk about enough – we’re just sort of expected to get on with it.

I bled very heavily after Soren was born, and then haemorrhaged at home four days later and again six weeks later, when it was discovered I had retained some placenta. That experience made me really terrified all the way through my subsequent pregnancy with Sullivan, but stupidly I didn’t tell anyone, just thought I was being silly.

At 37 weeks pregnant with Sullivan I started to bleed late on the Friday evening. we drove to the hospital and found I was in early labour. Because I was bleeding they wanted to monitor me and the baby, which meant being strapped to a heart monitor for the next two days. His birth was very slow, I think the fact I was really tense and very scared about it didn’t help. Eventually late on the Saturday evening they decided to induce me to try and speed things up. It meant I was in awful pain in my back and legs as well which seemed to contract in the weirdest way, but not much happened.

When I had my first there wasn’t an active online community – or not one that I knew of – talking about childbirth

Around two in the morning I was begging for a c-section just to get it over with, but was told it wouldn’t be long. It felt like ages and I was really upset by the attitude of the obstetrician. The baby’s heart rate kept dropping and not having slept since Friday I was really worried about the thought of having to keep going for longer, I really didn’t think I had enough strength left to push him out. But the body’s an amazing thing and less than two hours later Sullivan was born.

He wasn’t breathing when he was born, and was whisked away. The wait to get him back was horrible. I spent the whole time trying to remember the shoes of the person who’d taken him away so that when they came back into the room where the curtains were still drawn around the bed I’d know who they were.

After about the longest 20 minutes they brought him back, but had to do some tests to check he’d not been affected by the lack of Oxygen. He was absolutely fine, and we were discharged later that day. Because he was quite little he struggled to keep himself warm at home, and I spent the next couple of weeks worrying about him. I think because of how he was born I’ve always been really protective towards him, although he’s a total mischief-maker and a big brute of a boy now, he’s still the baby.

Now we’re facing the certainty of another birth we’re considering all our options. Right now the baby’s placenta is low, so we’ll have another scan in a few weeks to check if it still is. Oddly, part of me hopes it is a c-section as that would mean we’d know when to expect the baby and when to arrange people to look after the other children. I think the more children you have the harder it gets to make birth choices!

We don’t have family around to help out at short notice so I’m getting a bit anxious about the birth of baby four. Not so much the actual birth, I think now I’ve experienced a wide range of births I’m certainly less anxious about birth – and less set on having ‘the perfect birth’. But I’m worried about the logistics of it all.

I read an article about elective c-sections on The Early Hour, and thought it was really great. There’s still a stigma around c-sections I think, and as far as I’m concerned, anything that results in the safe arrival of a baby with minimal trauma for all concerned is a good thing. You’d think by now we’d be less judgemental of birth choices, so I’m keeping all the options open with this baby.

I didn’t feel massively informed about giving birth – before it happened. I went to NHS run antenatal classes, but they were pretty basic. The most helpful advice was from my granny, a doctor and mother of four, who told me to relax as much as possible during the birth and in the weeks running up to the birth, using visualisation techniques.

When I had my first there wasn’t an active online community – or not one that I knew of – talking about childbirth and just how difficult, painful, perplexing and amazing it can be. I certainly wish I’d known more.

I think a lot of parenting is raising kids who can be without you, who can grow into independent, resilient adults

With my firstborn I thought I had to get ‘back to normal’ as quickly as possible. I didn’t realise the previous normal no longer existed. I tried to follow Gina Ford’s contented baby book but I remember sitting on the bed crying because I couldn’t make the baby do it, and thought that made me a failure as a mother.

I have some lovely memories of trying to help the baby to distinguish between night and day, it was late spring/early summer – so the nights were really light. I’d close all the curtains and sit cuddling her in the evening and deliberately make the house really calm.

Other than that, the main memories are of trying to make it appear everything was fine, when inside I was an anxious wreck – unsure of myself and the new reality I found myself in. Those early days taught me to appreciate the time more with subsequent babies.

Although I felt pretty sure of what I was doing and things were great when it was just me and the baby, I’m not sure it really fell into place until years later. I was in a strange situation life-wise when I became a mother and that – coupled with the shift in identity and expectations – was really difficult. On the surface it looked like everything had fallen into place – I think – but really nothing had, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life.

I think each child changes you. Things fell into place after Soren was born. I felt ready to be a mother then, before that I think I was little bit embarrassed, not by my child, but by the role of motherhood, and so I shied away from it. After Soren things felt easier, although he’s a demanding child. And after Sullivan too. Now I can’t imagine not being a mum and have begun to feel over the last year, that I’ve got this, at times at least!

When Ilia was four months old I started a PhD. The workplace was pretty tough, they weren’t great at accommodating the needs of a parent, and I wasn’t good at expressing those needs, so it was pretty messy at times. After I finished I started working freelance, which was easier in a way, but that brings with it its own uncertainties and problems. I then compounded those problems by trying to change career after Soren was born, and forge a path as a writer, so it’s been quite intense doing that as well as raising the three kids.

Ilia’s birth made me realise I didn’t want to be with her dad. It sounds really dramatic, whereas it wasn’t really. I was married at 21, and had her at 25. When she was born, she seemed so small and innocent and my first impulse was to protect her, I knew I needed to protect her from the home environment she’d been born into but wasn’t brave enough to do anything about it until she was two. I know there are still some pretty regressive attitudes to single parenting, but the choice to leave her dad was a really important one, and one that was best for both Ilia and me.

What makes it all worthwhile? It’s all the little things… when they’re cosy in their jammies all cuddled up ready for a story

Second time around it affected our relationship hugely, I don’t think you can take joint responsibility for a puffy faced, squidge-nosed thing that might poo up its back at any moment and not have your relationship changed in some way. In many ways it was for the better, we’ve learnt to work together and to not take ourselves so seriously, we’ve learnt to give up things and be less selfish with our time. Other times, I really wish we had family close by so we could throw the kids at them and drink far too much and sleep in late in some hotel somewhere nursing our adult headaches the next day. You’ve got to dream…

I wish I’d been told that life won’t go back to normal, and that’s ok. That you won’t go back to normal either, and that too is ok. You’ve got to get used to the way the baby changes you and your life, and that it all takes time. There’s no right way to parent, a lot of it is just groping around in the dark, but everyone’s in the dark, just no one really wants to admit it.

If I could go back in time, I’d change my post birth experience with my first certainly, I’d slow down and stop presenting a pointless façade. I’d also have been a bit stricter with the boys and their sleeping habits, co-sleeping for three years with two kids who can’t lie still isn’t ideal. This next baby isn’t getting to know the delights of mummy and daddy’s bed, that’s for sure!

The greatest challenge we face, as mothers, is the competing societal demands. There’s this expectation not only that we should have it all but we should do it all. Increasingly it seems value is based on how busy you are, which is neither healthy nor helpful. I feel guilty a lot of the time – should I be working more, or should the house be tidier, should the kids be outside more? All these things make me feel guilty.

We live in such a compressed and controlled world where we see images on social media of ‘perfect’ families and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we should be like that. There’s also the “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t thing”, either you’re working too much or not enough, stay at home mums tend to really be looked down on and there’s a tendency for society to see them as invisible, instead of women working really hard to raise a family and often shelving their wants and needs for a period of time. That’s no mean feat.

Personally, the biggest challenge I’ve found is maintaining my own identity, and trying to create some mental space for myself. That’s where my work is really important to me.

What makes it all worthwhile? It’s all the little things… when they’re cosy in their jammies all cuddled up ready for a story, or when they wake in the morning ready for a new day. Kids need much less than we think they do, some of the most worthwhile moments have been when they’ve been ‘helping’ make dinner and they’re standing on their stools in the kitchen and I’ll look down and realise how much they’re learning just watching and chatting and stirring or learning to chop.

With my daughter, watching her become independent is a lovely thing too. She’s really musical and sometimes we’ve not been able to make it to her concerts, but she doesn’t care, she goes off and does it and is really proud afterwards – not just that she did it, but that she did it alone. Oddly that too makes it worthwhile, the things I would’ve once felt guilty about I can see in a different way. I think a lot of parenting is raising kids who can be without you, who can grow into independent, resilient adults – and when you see the first glimpse of that in your child, that’s really special.”