A BABY changes everything.
Life as you know it comes to a screeching halt the moment a baby is placed into your arms. The challenge confronting any would-be mother is this: nobody really knows what a baby is. This is obviously true of panicked new parents, suddenly ejected from hospital to home and faced with the responsibility of keeping the thing alive.
If you’ve reached that promised land of independence — financially and otherwise — this is the moment you return that key into that tiny cherubic hand. The balance of power has now shifted to the wailing little alien human squirming in swaddling clothes. Baby rules now. Baby tells you how much sleep you should get, whether you’ll have time for that much needed cup of latte (forget it if you’re breastfeeding), whether you’ll have a semblance of a social life or even time to take a moment to breathe.
Babies, it seems to me, pretty much do what they like. If it feels like falling in with your zealous schedule, it will. And if it doesn’t, it won’t. But it probably won’t, and you’ll always feel that your maternal self is at fault.
And if you’ve managed to prep yourself with all the knowledge you could possibly obtain on taking care of baby, and how babies are supposed to follow the universal chart of development, there’s again the feeling of inadequacy when your baby refuses to follow your baby manual “bible”.
The main stress factor is that there’s no upside — either your baby can do the things that it should be able to do at six weeks, in which case, congratulations, your baby has the skillset of “A Baby”, or it can’t, cue unrelenting panic that your baby has a developmental “problem”. And once again, you’re asking yourself if you’re a competent enough mother.
It’s the season of more soiled diapers than clean ones, endless feedings, sore breasts, uncombed hair, too-brief naps, complete anxiety over every little sniffle or wail, feelings of inadequacy and sleepless nights wondering if you’re the worst mother in the world.
For most women, pregnancy and new motherhood is a joy — at least some of the time. But this significant and life-altering event can also bring along with it worry, disappointment, guilt, frustration and even fear. “It’s completely normal to feel like you’re over your head,” assures Chan Jin Ai with a laugh. “But it does get better with time.”
When she was pregnant with her first child, someone had remarked to her that a baby would change everything. “And it did,” she says simply.
The mother of four has recently written a book, Joy Amidst Diapers, of her experiences and in her preface, she writes eloquently: “This is my motherhood. It’s a joy-filled paradox of the glorious and mundane, liberating and laborious. There’s delight and despair, courage and fear. It’s a life driven by hope in some seasons, weighed down by confusion in others. My profoundest adventure yet.”
The book, she shares, is not a “to-do” book for mothers seeking advice. “There are enough of those in the market,” she says, adding: “They brim with knowledge and know-how, but most lack an emotional connection.”
Smiling, the bespectacled author continues earnestly: “For most mothers, knowledge alone isn’t going to help them navigate through motherhood. My book is a reflection of all that I went through and hopefully, it may encourage someone along the way.”
BIRTH OF A BOOK
“I hadn’t planned on writing a book,” she admits. “When I was approached by MPH to do so, I didn’t say ‘yes’ right away.” Motherhood, Chan confides, takes up a lot of her time. The 42-year-old homemaker reveals that her blogs and her articles for a local parenting website caught the attention of the book distributor.
“I could only spare what little time I had, after the children had gone to bed and the household chores had been done. It was a big undertaking as far as I was concerned and I wasn’t sure if I was up to it,” she says candidly. After her husband and friends convinced her otherwise, Chan agreed to take on the project, albeit with a different perspective.
“Baby advice were aplenty out there,” she says drily. Most books seem to be the diabolical genius of the baby-advice industry, which targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what would surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives, and suggests that maybe, just maybe — between the covers of this book — lies the morsel of information that would make the difference between their baby flourishing or floundering. Instead of focusing also on the new mother’s identity transition, more books are solely focused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, in addition to how her psychology and emotional state impact her parenting, is important to examine and write about too.
Knowledge alone, says Chan, isn’t enough. As she writes in her preface: “Books like that are in abundance, and I suspect I’ve grown weary of how-to volumes that bear little or no living relation to how personal something like a ruined baby nap is.”
As I recall those words back to her, she nods and says emphatically: “There was a huge disconnect between knowledge and the emotional aspect of being a mother,” she says, before adding: “I wanted to address that.”
It took her eight months to complete the final manuscript. “My husband read through all my drafts. He was amazed at how detailed and true to the letter my stories were!” she says, chuckling.
Her recollection of raising her children is filled with vivid descriptions and details that Chan says came with the help of the journals and diaries she kept. “I’ve been keeping journals since I was a child. I slowed down when I became a mum but I kept on journaling whenever I could,” she says, half-wistfully.
“Writing is a way for me to reflect about what’s going on around me. Because everything happens so fast.” But there are memories that she will never forget and didn’t require her checking her diaries. “For one, you can never forget your birthing experience!” she says, smiling.
BIRTH OF A BABY
She didn’t really have a natural inclination towards children when she was young, admits Chan. “There are women who naturally take to children, but I wasn’t one of them,” she says ruefully.
When she was 17, Chan tells me that someone asked her to take a turn at carrying a newborn infant. “It was so awkward, and the baby started wailing in my arms!” she recalls with a laugh. She felt ashamed and intimidated and went on to avoid holding a baby for over a decade.
“Motherhood” she writes, “is a transformative experience. It took just one, my first baby, to wring out all the self-consciousness and awkwardness, finally convincing me that I could live with a child. I could actually grow a human being inside me. I could somehow bring her into the world. And survive.”
And survive she did. Chan’s story weaves around her four children, whom she nicknames Rabbit, Lamb, Tiger and Roo. The joys, trepidations, struggles and tears that come together with motherhood is all too real, as she would discover in her journey. “Nothing prepares you for that,” she says.
In her book, she writes poignantly: “How-to books and a plethora of information on the Web testify against me. I find myself falling short — the extra training that might benefit our children, the better environment I could provide them with, the more patient response I could have offered in the face of childishness. I don’t do themed parties; I go to the neighbourhood bakery more often than bake or order fancy birthday cakes. I’ve yelled when the baby is jerked wide awake by boisterous laughter on the other side of the door. I’ve caught myself sighing when a child wants help with a maths question. Snags of conscience rip into our tapestry — what I should have done or not done in a past situation.”
Imperfect mother? Maybe, but Chan testifies that raising her four children as a full-time homemaker has been an amazing experience that has made her redefine success in her life.
“I never thought that I’d be giving up my career to be a stay-at-home mum,” she admits, adding: “But seeing the bigger picture of raising a family helped me during the period I was transitioning between working life and taking care of my children.”
Yet she reiterates that motherhood isn’t so much a sacrifice as it is a privilege. “Mothers may not wear capes or be in a very visible public role to make an impact on the world. We start with our families who will be the building blocks of the society we live in,” she says, adding: “Some mums may feel isolated or think that what they do is mundane and doesn’t matter, but it does. As a mother strives to nurture and teach a child, she explicitly makes the world a much better place.”
Chan pauses briefly before concluding, her eyes dancing behind her spectacles: “The best moments I find are often the small mundane ones. Those fleeting wonders that might seem insignificant to others, but that sneak up on you and make you realise, in one quick breath, how profound, simple and beautiful love can be.”
JOY AMIDST DIAPERS
AUTHOR Chan Jin Ai
PUBLISHER MPH Publishing
PAGES 192 pages
Retails at MPH Bookstores