The Dark Side of Motherhood

"...everything I thought I knew about being a mom went out the window"

"Knowing all the facts and having access to the greatest minds in parenting did not stop that seismic shift of new motherhood from breaking me down to my core (even the second time over). 

It's also done nothing to stop the dark side of motherhood from swallowing me whole.

I wrote this series of articles while in the throes of dark motherhood myself (the irony is not lost on me). 

I'm nine months postpartum now and I still don't recognise myself."

Read on as Samantha Herbst unpacks the 'dark side' of parenting, revealing her own experiences while sharing what many South African mothers have gone through as they became parents.

She also speaks to experts to offer a ray of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, as she explores the often unspoken elements of parenting that - if left unchecked - can consume us.

Life's biggest joy and its greatest joke

"I was flung back to square one with a force so violent and disarming that I'm still trying to figure out how I got here."

The day before my second son was born, I remember looking in the mirror with intention, taking mental stock of me. 

Who was I at that moment? How would I change? How prepared was I? Thirty-nine weeks in, there was no going back (ha ha). 

But I knew what I needed to know, surely? I'd done this before. My eyes were open. I wasn't that naïve "first-time mom" anymore. I had entered the intimate fold of women who have birthed. I knew.

But I had no idea. 

Twenty-four hours after my oh-so-wise moment of introspection, everything I thought I knew about being a mom went out the window. 

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''What use am I to anyone?'

"You can love your kids and not enjoy motherhood."

Anxiety and depression in new motherhood has long been an oversimplified topic. 

Doctors and perinatal support systems put it down to 'the baby blues'. 

Most mothers are simply expected 'to get over it', sometimes with the grace of counselling and medication, but more often with the promise that 'this too shall pass'.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that no two pregnancies are alike, and no two women's experiences of motherhood are exactly the same. 

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"You'll never have this new gig waxed"

"The Motherhood Industrial Complex"

The postpartum identity shift is a profound experience that few new mothers are prepared for.

If you're a mother, chances are you know what it feels like to be out of depth in your new role. You might feel like you'll never have this new gig waxed.

You might feel that you have no idea what you're doing and will never be good at (or love) being a mom. You might feel guilty that you miss the woman that was – her body, her freedom, her time, her job, her friends, her marriage.

At some point, as you catch a quick glimpse of yourself in the mirror, or find a rare moment of introspection in the cloudy chaos, you might feel like you've made a mistake, that motherhood was never meant for someone like you. This is how Nadia Gabriel felt.

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"What if I'm just not a good enough mom?"

What if I'm just not a good enough mom?

There's a flight of stairs in my home that leads down from my children's bedroom.

With few exceptions, whenever I navigate those stairs with my baby cradled in my arms, I imagine what would happen were I to lose my footing. Or, as babies do, if he were to suddenly launch himself backward and out of my arms.

For a fraction of a split second, I see his little body slipping out of my desperate grasp. 

I imagine where he might land on the tiles below, in what way he might sustain injury. I wonder if there would be blood or if he'd simply lose consciousness. 

It's not an indulgent thought – the opposite actually. 

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"We're heading into dangerous territory"

The memory is still so fresh, so raw, so vulnerable. So shameful. 

I was overwhelmed and feeling like I might vomit – or worse – if I didn't get away.

I left my baby in his cot, told my toddler to wait in the room, closed the door, ran to the kitchen and screamed

It was painful. It was guttural. It was primal, and it wasn't enough. 

Anger followed the overwhelm and I launched at my dustbin – half my size but big enough to destroy with satisfaction – and I kicked and kicked and kicked. 

It had been a Christmas treat for the household. I'd spent a couple of grand (out of my first and only UIF payment) on a shiny new name-brand dustbin, and nine months later it was collateral damage. 

A safe outlet because, were it not for my Brabantia taking the hit, it might have been one of my kids.

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"Oska Bekezela"

"My guardian carried that 'stuff', and it became mine"

Biologically, every woman starts life in her maternal grandmother's womb

Each baby girl is born with all the eggs she'll produce in her lifetime, which means each one of us was an egg within our mothers' ovaries while they developed in our maternal grandmothers' wombs.

It's a nostalgic, almost ethereal idea, that each of us carries the stories of at least three generations within us as we navigate our lives, our DNA connecting the generations before us with those to come. 

With those stories, however, we carry history and memories, both good and bad. We carry our mothers' DNA, and our mothers' mothers' DNA, but we also carry their trauma.

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"She was alone. She was angry"

"This is not an indication of how much a mother loves her children, but it is an indication that, as a country, South Africa is failing to offer mothers all the support that they need"

By mid-morning the sun was out in full force, the breeze hinting at the Highveld downpour that would inevitably break the afternoon heat. There would be a hustle when the time came.

Golf course sirens would warn of a storm brewing, traffic reports would caution the workforce to start planning their routes home, and Joburgers would head indoors to safety.

For single mom Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile, a storm of another kind had been brewing. 

She was indoors but not safe. Not from her thoughts, her anger, or herself. 

By then, she'd been sick with grief since her father's passing, and alone in parenthood for more than a year.

That Gauteng summer morning was of the darkest she would experience in new motherhood. 

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"I felt like the only mother who wouldn't survive it"

'I felt like the only mother who wouldn't survive it'

Author Ashley Audrain admits to wondering why women writers seemed to previously shy away from birth scenes that aligned with every woman's birthing experience. 

Against this backdrop, Audrain recalls second-guessing whether or not the depiction of birth in her own novel, The Push, was too much and if she should have pulled back. 

Luckily, she didn't. Her debut work offers a lucid depiction of a vaginal hospital birth, followed by a forthright account of the early months of motherhood.

"I felt like the only mother in the world who wouldn’t survive it. The only mother who couldn't recover from having her perineum stitched from her anus to her vagina. The only mother who couldn’t fight through the pain of newborn gums cutting like razor blades on her nipples. The only mother who couldn't pretend to function with her brain in the vise of sleeplessness. The only mother who looked down at her daughter and thought, Please. Go away."

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"If you're putting yourself first, you're a bad mother"

"It's the implication that your dreams are too big." 

As a mother, there is something weirdly risqué about putting yourself first.

When you're looking after another human round-the-clock, taking an hour to go to the gym, get your nails done or have coffee with a friend feels gratuitous, self-indulgent. Heck, even a shower once a day feels like a treat.

Post birth and in the early years of motherhood, a woman's preoccupation with the well-being of her infant (otherwise known as 'maternal reverie') can prevent her from fulfilling her own needs and desires and might morph into martyrdom. 

This can be a dangerous precedent to set, especially if it persists indefinitely.

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"I was broken. I had to let go"

"It also took me the six months that he was away to realise that I had to let him go"

In the early years of parenthood, while our nests are full and bustling with the neverending rinse-and-repeat of life with a small child, we imagine that day in the distance when our children will eventually leave the nest, fleeing the proverbial coup.

But that nest? It's multifaceted and several stories high. 

Most of us begin our parenting journey on the top floor, safe in our postnatal love bubble, but with each passing year and every new milestone, our children head down one flight of stairs, and then the next, until, one day, they fly right out the door. 

We know that growing up is gradual, but so is letting go, and it's just as painful.

As a mom of two teenage boys, Natasha Kisten is no stranger to letting go. She's known the heartache of crying in the car after leaving her babies at a creche for the first time. 

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A Parent24 Series
Written by Samantha Herbst
Edited by Elizabeth Mamacos
Images by Nasi Hako