Part 4 of our August Self Care Series focuses on those things you used to love that are now impossible, or seem that way, after having a baby. How can we cope with the loss of things that used to bring us joy?
Article by Andrea Paterson
We all know that pregnancy, birthing, and motherhood require sacrifice. In some way we prepare ourselves for the changes our bodies undergo, for the sleepless nights, for the morning sickness, for the inability to leave the house because of intense nursing schedules. Or at least we know these things are coming, even if we can’t be prepared for just how difficult it will all be. We are warned about some sacrifices, but others come as a complete surprise and blind-side us.
I play the violin. Or at least I did. I did play the violin before my son was born. I used to go out to Irish Fiddle Sessions in the city, I used to take lessons, I’ve played in some bands, I used to play at home with my husband playing guitar along with me. This was a form of self-care that was in my blood. My playing has ebbed and flowed over time but it has been something I’ve come back to again and again. The Irish reels and Scottish strathspeys speak to me. Shortly before my son was born I found the perfect violin. I had been casually looking for a new instrument for years, picking up random fiddles in stores and testing them against the sound in my head. I was looking for something that resonated with me, that sounded like my own voice transformed into a bow drawn across strings. My husband went to a music store one day looking for a ukulele. I went with him and idly picked up a violin. I instantly knew that I had found it. I found the violin that matched my soul. I found the instrument that was my own voice set free. My heart skipped. I looked at the price tag and gasped a little. But there was no leaving the store without it. As I walked out of the shop a salesman said “I hope that instrument will give voice to your greatest joy and your deepest sorrows.” I took it home, reels and jigs already thrumming in the wood, my hands itching to play. As I said, I had my son soon after, and that lovely perfect violin has sat dormant for the majority of the days since.
It’s not because I didn’t have time. And it’s not because I was too tired. Motherhood wasn’t the problem exactly, it’s just that my particular child hated the violin. When he was little the volume of the instrument disturbed him. I couldn’t play when he was sleeping because it would wake him up. As he got older I tried to play while he was awake, but taking up the bow and launching into a tune would send my child into hysterics. He clung to my leg, he cried, he screamed. Once he could talk he started shouting at me to put it away. He howled. Sometimes I tried to play over the caterwauling but who can enjoy music with a sobbing child punching your leg and begging you to stop? I don’t know what bothered him so much. I suspect it was more about the fact that I wasn’t paying direct attention to him and less about my playing (I hope).
But central to all this was the loss of a go-to method of self-care. Sometimes having a child means that you really and truly can’t do the things that feed you in the moments you need them most. I suspect that many new mothers, when charged with the directive to practice self-care, find themselves in similar situations–the presence of a new baby rules out the possibility of engaging in the things that used to matter most. Maybe the birth did physical damage that leaves a mother unable to play a sport she used to love, maybe round the clock nursing is keeping a mother from playing late night gigs with her band, maybe depression and sleep deprivation keep a new mother from having the focus and dexterity required to paint or sculpt. Feeling like you no longer have access to the things you loved most can be devastating. It can lead to resentment and anger and these are normal responses to a deep loss. So what can be done?
First, know that the loss of your most cherished activity is likely temporary. As you heal from birthing and your child grows older and more independent you may be able to engage in those lost outlets again. In the meantime you need to find a way to fill the hole. Is there a way to practice a related activity? If you can’t play ultimate frisbee due to an injury can you do something less physically intense? Could you temporarily take up cycling or swimming until you’re strong enough to go back to the sport you love? If you don’t have the attention span for detailed artwork, could you find quick but satisfying projects that will tide you over? You may not have the time or ability to work for hours on a detailed water-colour, but could you do some quick sketches or gesture drawings? The period after the birth of a child may be a time for poetry rather than novel writing. It’s a time to connect with what you love in fits and starts. You may not be able to luxuriate in two hours of yoga, but maybe you can fit in fifteen minutes.
So what if you can’t practice your favourite hobby at all? On an old episode of the podcast the Longest Shortest Time a woman discussed her love of singing and how her voice was bizarrely altered by pregnancy. After giving birth she found that she literally couldn’t sing anymore. Something in her body had changed and her voice was lost. I suspect that other women have experienced strange and devastating effects of pregnancy and childbirth. The unpredictability of it all may mean that the hobby you loved is truly not available to you. This is a deep and upsetting loss. A mother may feel that her baby has taken her sense of self. Something integral has been stolen and feelings of grief and rage are not out of place. Leave space for those feelings. Let them breathe. See if there are other areas of the self that could be developed or renewed. Maybe you used to knit–is that something you could take up again? Fiber crafts are excellent to do with kids around because you can work on them for minutes at a time and easily set them aside for later. Maybe you’ve always wanted try Zen meditation, the loss of your primary hobby might be the push you need to try something new.
Motherhood sometimes calls us to redefine ourselves. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t painless, but there can be small gifts buried in the process–maybe a chance to read more or journal more, listen to more of your favourite podcasts or learn to bake bread from scratch. There are small and fulfilling things that can fit into your day if you can only strike out and find them. Don’t give up hope on the things you loved most, but be brave enough to set them aside for awhile. Know that they’ll be waiting, or that you’ll stumble upon something equally wonderful that will buoy up your spirit.
Recently I tried pulling out my violin yet again. My son is three and a half. Maybe, just maybe, he would let me play without theatrics. I asked if he wanted to play along (he has a collection of instruments including a small keyboard, rattles, and bongo drums). At first he said no. I began to play and he began to get angry. “Look,” I said. “I just need fifteen minutes to play. Why don’t you go upstairs if the sound is bothering you. You can play in your room.” My son stomped up the stairs, glaring at me all the way. I anxiously started in on an old Scottish air. I listened for sounds of protest from upstairs. None came. I played a little more. Then I saw an inquisitive head poking around the corner. My boy came into the living room with a kazoo in hand. “Can I play too?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, and he began to wildly play his kazoo. His music was random and loud and completely unrelated to the tune I was playing. He kazoo’ed along with gusto. Somehow he always managed to match the very last note of the tune but not a single other note of the melody. It was fine. We were having fun. He insisted on being able to see the music on my stand. He stood on a chair and flipped the pages of my music book to choose the next piece. My son let me play the violin, albeit with insane kazoo accompaniment, for over twenty minutes. It’s a start, and I’ll take it.
There will be a return to the things you love, in time. And if there cannot be, for whatever reason, you will find new loves, new things to sustain you. It’s hard to focus on the space and opportunity opened up by a loss, but it’s there and it’s possible to embrace it. Acts of self-care are not optional, they are essential to survival. If you have lost your way, a new path must be forged. Maybe it’s time to take up the art of paper making. Maybe it’s time to start jogging. Maybe it’s time to get that membership at your local art gallery. Listen deeply to your heart and see if there is something new calling you. I think you’ll find that not everything is lost after all.