Motherhood is overwhelming, in a good and bad way. The emotions and the love are deeper than I ever expected, and the bond I have with my girls is so fierce and strong; it’s indescribable. I’ve never known a love like the one I have for my girls. I’m embarrassingly proud of their smallest achievements. They are both really smart kids, with a great vocabulary for their age. They are affectionate, kind, funny and stubborn. They are crazy and wild and amazing. Having these two as my own is the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced.
But the sadness, anxiety and chaos have been overwhelming at certain times, too. I struggled to bond with my first bub in the first few months and I can remember how sad I was. But now that is well and truly gone and I have a crazy obsession with my girls. When I see them being affectionate to each other I know I created that. It’s a heart-beating-out-of-my-chest kind of love, and I have a new-found love for me.
Cancer has plagued my motherhood experience, and I’ve struggled to be a happy mum because of it. I feel awful that my kids have had to deal with so much in their short little lives. I’m wildly protective of them and what they’re exposed to, so I’m heartbroken they’ve grown up around this.
My Dad had a stroke while he was out for a run, in 2013. He was a marathon runner, didn’t drink or smoke; the healthiest guy you could meet. We thought we lost him that night, and again the next day when he had a secondary bleed on his brain. Miraculously, he pulled through and although he was paralysed on one side, he started work on rehabilitation. While he was in hospital, nurses found an abnormal lump on the side of his chest. It turned out to be melanoma skin cancer. Dad was in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, and I live in Bendigo, so every weekend for seven months we packed up the car with our daughter Missy, then 18 months old, and traveled to Melbourne. The drives alone were exhausting, let alone the toddler-in-the-hospital situation and the roller-coaster ride of Dad’s cancer: One minute we were told it was caught early and he’d be okay; the next we were told he was terminal. One minute we were told he’d be able to go home, the next he was being moved to palliative care. I thank the lucky stars I’m blessed with an amazing husband who picked up the pieces and just made it work.
Seven months after Dad’s stroke, I got a phone call from the nurses who said I best get to Melbourne straight away. Being with my Dad in those last moments was a horrible and beautiful thing, all in one. I’ll never forget the sounds, the stillness, or the sunrise as he took his last breath. He died on April 28th, 2014.
It was almost a relief when Dad passed on. I was exhausted from all the travelling, and I felt like a shit Mum for what felt like abandoning Missy to be with him. But then came the hard part. How do you explain to a toddler that Pa (or G-Diddy as Missy called him. Dad liked to pretend he was hip; that was his “gangster” name) had died she would never see him again? Say what you will about a one year old not knowing what is going on – Missy did. She spent some beautiful moments in hospital with Dad. They sang nursery rhymes, and she would sit on his chest and share his ice-cream and orange juice. This was a big loss for her too.
Navigating through my grief while trying to be a good Mum was the hardest thing I have ever done. Some days I couldn’t get myself out of bed, and Missy would come and lay with me. Some days I’d lock myself in the wardrobe so she couldn’t see me crying, again. Some days are such a blur I don’t even know how I managed to look after myself, let alone a little person.
I was in world of trouble, and getting to a point where I was so low that I didn’t know if I could get out on my own. I decided to go back to work full time and put Missy in day-care. I felt extreme guilt about that, but it was the only way I was going to come out of that black hole. It still upsets me, but she was so loved by her day-care. And she is such a confident, smart little girl because of her time there.
We fell pregnant with Audrey about six months after Dad had passed away. We’d tried to fall pregnant for 14 months, and the happiness when we finally did was the best I’d felt in years. Unfortunately, my pregnancy with Audrey wasn’t all glow-y and amazing like my pregnancy with Missy. I spent a good part of my pregnancy in hospital with kidney stones and had six surgeries all up; my last when she was just three weeks old. It didn’t matter though, we had our baby we’d so desperately wanted, and life was beginning to feel happy and normal again.
Fast forward to April 2017, when my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Audrey was exactly the same age as Missy when Dad was diagnosed. So here we are, doing it all again. I’m trying to figure out how to explain this to Missy (now 5), what to keep from her, and what to tell her. I’m petrified this will scar her for life. I’m trying not to tie Dad’s illness in with Mum’s, so she doesn’t think her Nana will die like her Pa did. I’m again fighting to be a happy Mum while my world is falling apart. I find myself driving the long way to places so I can have a cry in the car, because now with two kids, even the wardrobe/pantry/toilet isn’t private enough for a quick cry. And I’m feeling guilty that my husband and my kids are having to carry me through this again.
The juggling act is the greatest challenge I’ve faced as a parent. Juggling my parents health trouble. Juggling being a wife, a friend, and business owner while trying to be the best mum possible. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I am succeeding at all of those roles consecutively. When I’m killing it as a Mum and Wife, I’m failing at being a good friend. When I’m a good friend, I’m neglecting my hubby and kids. When I’m flat out with my business, I’m ignoring almost everything else.
Being a Mum has 150% changed my work. I work harder, smarter, I have more compassion, and I’m more patient. I connect more deeply with my clients and I care about them more than I think I could if I didn’t have kids. I’m more passionate because I never know when I’ll get the chance to be in my office next. On the flip side, I’m also more stressed because when I’m in my office I’m always feeling guilty that I should be out with the kids playing. With a home office, you can hear everything. If someone cries, I have to resist the urge to run out. If a little voice is singing at the door, how do I not open it?
Every challenge I’ve faced has made me feel more confident. It’s the age-old saying that you don’t know how strong you are until you have had no other choice. My war wounds have made me into a better person. I’m proud of myself for creating these humans, and for raising my girls into (mostly) wonderful and kind people. I know that I make my girls feel loved, always. It’s something I always felt from my Mum – I never had any doubt that she loved me as deep as the ocean. I’m proud of myself for giving my absolute everything to motherhood. Even if I fail, no-one will ever be able to say I didn’t give it my all.
A friend once told me, straight after my Dad died, that today I will think about him every minute of every day. Next week you might think about him every second minute of every day. In three months, you might think about him only ten times each day. And in a year, you might only think about him once a day. This helped me get through the depths of my grief and gave me a light at the end of the tunnel. It taught me to take each day separately and to know that the next day might just be easier.
Getting a good support group, and accepting and asking for help is something I have never been good at. I was always the one offering help, not receiving it. But this time around, I am letting my friends and family in and allowing them to help me. I’d like to encourage people who are struggling to reach out. At the very least, you will have an ally to walk the road of shitty-ness with you. It doesn’t have to be as shit as it is right now, things can improve. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by asking for help.
I feel like there’s a world of people out there, going about their business and pretending that everything is okay. When in fact, they are going through something really shitty. And what if maybe, just maybe, my story encourages them to reach out for help? I wasn’t okay after my Dad died. I pretended to be, but I wasn’t. I don’t think I’m really okay now. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to reach out and tell people that. It’s the human connection that can help us all survive.
Leah is mum to Missy 5, and Audrey, 2.