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You Don't Ever Really Know What You'll Give Up After Children

Losing sleep is the very least of it.

Woman, Actually is the little corner of BuzzFeed where Mariela Summerhays writes about everything and anything to do with being a millennial mother — a woman first, mother second. Yes, you'll read about the glorious struggle and joy of child-rearing — but also about relationships, mental health and more. Because as it turns out, growing up doesn't stop at motherhood.

IT BEGAN BEFORE pregnancy, the handing of space over to my children. Like most people who plan for a future with kids, I tested and tried different futures in my mind, before making the commitment. What would twenty-two years old look like in this small apartment, with a baby? What would it look like without one? And when I’d tried on enough situations — Saturday evenings with friends, the early days of my career, the middle of every night — I decided that yes, they can have that much space in my dreams and plans.

With each pregnancy, I accounted for my babies’ growing with every ill-fitting dress, with every stretch mark that now circles my waist. I anticipated that for those months, even the spaces within my body would be shared with another and my organs moved to make room for my children. Then with every birth, I gave my arms to little bodies and rooms with furniture meant to hold adults, quickly filled with colourful and noisy contraptions to entertain a little one.

As my husband and my family grew, I knew to anticipate a life away from Sydney’s coastline and terrace houses, for a home that could house them, their walls of books and an eyesore of a trampoline that elicits delighted squeals, for which I’d trade every ocean view. Yes, they could even have those kilometres and hours of commute; that space, too, was theirs.

I'M OFTEN ASKED, mostly by women my age or younger — “what is it like to have children?” It’s curiosity usually, but most frighteningly to me, sometimes a sincere inquiry, the answer of which will, in however small a measure, go into their decision-making about starting a family. The joys can more or less be anticipated — though I promise, the imagination cannot stretch enough to capture its nuances — but rather, what exactly will I be giving up?

I often point to the spaces that children occupy, as I’ve just described to you. The hours, the physical space — the place they occupied in the dreams I had for myself when I first became a mother. You have to know you’re willing to give those over to your kids.

But here’s the secret that many mothers, if not all, nurse in their heart of hearts, that they won’t air for fear of rebuke —

I want some things still, just for myself. It’s scary to say that, because my witness of motherhood growing up was of an all-consuming, self-sacrificing love. These things I desire; they don’t at all benefit my children for me to have, still I want them all the same. I couldn’t know before having children, so I’m telling you now. These are the very things, oftentimes, that there is no space left in your life for.

SOMETIME IN THE LAST couple of weeks, I had to say goodbye to a group of people I’d worked closely with for a year, over video conference. I care about goodbyes; I need to know that I’ve expressed all the gratitude and love I have for someone, in the event that we’re never brought together again. Naturally, this was on the one day of the week my youngest is home and my husband was out — so I was constantly torn between her demands for attention and my desire to speak earnestly to my former colleagues. I stumbled through a teary farewell, before being hurried off.

You don’t imagine that children will even take goodbyes from you.

Just quietly, I still love to feel beautiful. Not just the pure beauty I should aspire to, that comes from putting my children’s needs and wants before my own, all day, every day — but the superficial, slightly vain feeling of beauty, of having my face admired and body desired. If I never hear that I have a good body “for a mum” again, it will be too soon.

And I want to be an interested person — not interesting, because I don’t care for being aspired to — but interested and curious and ever-growing. To be able to tell acquaintances of art exhibits I’ve experienced, new art forms I’ve turned my hand to; of people I’ve met and stories that have nothing to do with my struggles and joys as a mother. I know, I know — there are other, more important qualities to possess. But still, it’s what I want.

What space do I have for such considerations? Where? Between the swimming lessons and the need to earn a living; the nurturing of their talents, and that pile of laundry that has grown and shrunk on the upstairs lounge, but never completely disappeared? Well-meaning friends and otherwise, have told me I can get up earlier or stay up later; have you tried Youtube workout videos? You don’t ever have to leave your house. But more often than not, I cannot reconcile running myself ragged for what I know are not wholly significant or consequential pursuits.

Still, the sacrifices that hurt you the most, are the small, seemingly meaningless things that you didn’t know there’d be no room for.

IT'S BEEN A HANDFUL of years and some, since I became a mother. Now that my arms and midnights are mine again, I’m slowly finding out how to make enough room for the woman I've always been and the mother I want to be. I take up room where I can; I let that pile of laundry grow and shrink as it wills. I love the infinite horizons of the internet, where now you read this. I’ll leave my words all over it, for as long as I’m allowed. Few and far between as the opportunities are, I love to travel, often without my children, so that I am known first to strangers by my face, and not by the role I play to three other humans.

This past weekend, during this season of goodbyes, I gave myself a morning and an afternoon during which to ease a friend’s leaving. Before a leisurely lunch, we went to an art exhibit; all lights and shadows and mirrors. It gave you the feeling you could exist in more places than one; that you could occupy more space than the dimensions of your body physically allows. It's beautiful — you should really go see it.