An essay by Annie Ridout on the reality of being a mother to three young children, in which she challenges the notion that some mothers just breeze through it…
I walk around slamming doors. Hot fury rising. I’ve spent some hours sorting and folding laundry, putting it into drawers, pulling out clothes that no longer fit and putting them in a big bag to take to the charity shop.
All while packing for a few nights away at the seaside. Packing for me and the three kids. Texting the friend who’s minding the cat. Checking with the Airbnb owner, to see if we can arrive early. Making sure important work emails are answered.
My lower back aches, so I take Nurofen. I hurt, and I’m tired and frustrated. But we’re going away, so I need to be chipper. And anyway, I chose this life, which means I can’t moan. At least not out loud. Instead, I slam more doors and passive-aggressively stomp around the home. The kids don’t notice; they’re busy playing games. And I’m pleased, because this is no one’s fault; it is simply the reality of raising three kids, aged six and under.
Someone tells me on Instagram she finds it hard mothering her two children but that her own mother says it was easy mothering four. And while I tell her that her mother must have forgotten what it’s really like – that all children have tantrums and make demands – I think: perhaps some women do find it easier.
Or do they just push down the feelings of frustration and anger? The disappointment when others don’t step in to help.
Do they walk through their days wrapped in a tiredness that blurs their thoughts and steals their productivity, and accept this with grace?
Do they practise gratitude, and thank their God for giving them these children?
There might be something in that last one; gratitude can layer itself over the grime. But it doesn’t remove it entirely; it still lurks in those times when the kid refuses to go to sleep or eat his tea. In those moments, gratitude dissipates and fury rises.
Frankly, when a woman with kids says that motherhood is, or was, only beautiful and never hard – I think they’re lying. Or that they’ve forgotten. After all, the tired nagging restless mother figure is familiar to us all. I am her, and so is every other mother I know, at least some of the time.
Show me a woman with a handful of children of need-constant-attention age, with little outside help, and I’ll reassess my generalisation.
But I’m certain it won’t happen. Because this can’t come from a woman with grown-up kids who now tells me about rosy days with her angel kids who never tantrummed. That memory can’t be trusted.
And it can’t come from a father, unless he is the sole carer for those kids, because the burden falls disproportionately to the mother, if she’s there, when it comes to childcare.
And it’s not just the obvious caring that counts. It’s the hidden stuff, too.
The phone call from the school that always goes first to the mother. Deciding what the dinner should be. Filling out nursery forms. Registering with a dentist. A trip to the doctor for vaccinations. Buying new clothes and sorting through the old ones. Signing up for classes.
These admin tasks that seem trivial but take time. And most of us are squeezing them into ‘breaks’ from our paid work.
I remember when I had just one baby. I was so in love with her, and focused all my attention on the beauty of motherhood. I tell her, still, that every morning I’d wake, peer into her Moses basket and it felt like Christmas Day, every day, because I had been given the most wonderful gift. And the excitement didn’t wane. I felt so bloody lucky.
But then I had to start working – balancing motherhood and earning. And that balance is hard to get right. Focusing on one, then switching to the other. Mother. Work. Mother. Work. And sometimes the two blur and you’re trying to tap out an email while the kid pulls your trousers, asking for a snack or attention and you don’t know whether you’re annoyed with your work or your kid.
That ‘Christmas Day’ love is of course still there, but I’m often too distracted by the chaos to notice the beauty.
Now, I understand why all the mothers a few steps ahead of me made jokes on Instagram about the noise, mess and chaos. At the time, I thought: but motherhood is so beautiful! Now, though, I see that the noise can drown out the beauty. It takes over.
Though with each of my babies, I’ve had a magical beginning. A few weeks of just me and that baby, going slowly. Meals cooked for us, lazing in bed together. Longer, each time. Cocooned in that beauty. No pressure, no work, no reminders in my phone, no stress.
Until other people start visiting and poking tiny holes in our bubble so that it begins to deflate and we have to re-join the world. And those outside people and pressures taint the beauty. We are forced to reintegrate when all I want is to be alone: my baby and me.
Alas, time moves on and so do we. Our lives constantly shift – and we adapt.
For instance, I think back to those times when a holiday was an actual break. Now, it’s a busy, fun, chaotic jumble of joy and anxiety. Instead of hours laying on a lounger, I ask for just five minutes. And I spend it swimming in the sea, or closing my eyes as the sun warms my skin.
It’s about managing expectations. That, and balancing my own needs with my kids’ needs.
One thing they need is for me to be calm.
The older two used to say: why are you so angry? And it made me panic. I wasn’t angry before, why was I now? So I decided to ask for more help. Work less hours. Take the school holidays off.
My son said: if you’re so tired, why don’t you just sleep all weekend? And I realised that at the age of four, he has a better grasp of self-care than most adults.
But I’m learning to listen to my body and press pause before I burn out. And recently, my daughter said: you’re never angry, any more.
I still feel the fury, when I’m overburdened. It bubbles up inside me. Or when I’m tired, after a 4.50am wake-up from the toddler. But I make a conscious effort to present as calm. I’m loving and kind to my children; I will drop anything if one of them is sad or really needs me.
But I regularly take for myself, too. I walk alone to the coffee shop in the sunshine and stop to smell roses. I have an evening out with friends. In the morning, I go running then stretch and shower, alone. I go to bed early to read my novel. When the youngest naps, I put on the TV for the older two so that I can read a business book. And when it still gets too much, I tell people; I talk.
Motherhood is hard, at least sometimes, for us all. But knowing that it’s universal seems to lighten the load.