”This month, Marcus turned one – a crazy year that has pushed me beyond my limits, further than I could have imagined. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that motherhood isn’t hard because you’re doing it wrong – it’s just hard. It took me a while to understand and accept that it’s not me, nor Marcus or our situation. At the end of the day, I need to trust myself. I’m the one who put my son into the world and who knows what’s right for him better than anyone else. I think that’s the real journey to motherhood: arriving at the point where you realise you’re the one that knows best.”
“When Thomas and I started dating, we were approaching our thirties, so it made sense to raise the topic of children fairly early on. We both saw building a family as part of our journey together. We didn’t discuss that chapter in detail though, because I preferred to get married first. After Thomas proposed on my birthday during a romantic weekend getaway, we planned our wedding for mid-July of 2019. Four months before the event, on an early spring Sunday in April, I took a pregnancy test. We were at Thomas’ parents’ house in the Netherlands to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday. When two coloured lines appeared on the test strip, I was in utter shock. I wanted to become a mother, but this was too early… When I showed Thomas the positive result, he was over the moon. His intense enthusiasm was contagious and changed my perspective. By the time we heard the heartbeat at the six weeks echo, I was convinced the three of us would be fine.
Along with the coloured lines came all the symptoms: tiredness kicked in, my breasts were sore and countless bathroom breaks became part of my daily routine. Thomas told his parents almost right away because his mum sort of guessed it; we announced it to mine during our visit in France when I was 7 weeks along. We shared the news with my grandmother, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, as well. Everyone reacted surprised, but they were super happy for us. A few weeks later, we went in for our second ultrasound. I had rushed through traffic, but arrived late for the early morning appointment. As I slid on the chair in the doctor’s office, I felt more stressed about making it to the office in time for meetings – at that point, I thought of the ultrasound as more of a formality. When the doctor moved her device around, I noticed she bit her lip. Instead of looking at me, she kept her eyes locked on the screen. I don’t remember the exact words she spoke after what seemed like an eternal silence, but she couldn’t find a heartbeat. I was totally taken aback – I hadn’t expected it. The doctor went on to discuss the next steps. My rational side took over and tried to take in as much information as possible, although I was too stunned to process or question the details of her explanation. Once we were outside, it hit me: this baby wasn’t going to join us. On the pavement in front of the doctor’s office, time stood still as I collapsed into Thomas’ arms.
Shortly after our wedding, I fell pregnant again. At the second ultrasound, we received the same news: the embryo had stopped developing. I’d been more cautious and less attached this time around – I hadn’t even allowed myself to calculate the birth date. I did start to worry: what if we’d have to go through a long, arduous process to become parents? Or what if children weren’t in our cards – what would our life look like without? It made me sad just thinking about it. At our request, the doctors ran several tests. I wanted to know as much as possible before we tried again, since the miscarriages had taken an emotional toll on me. None of the exams indicated an underlying problem; our two losses were assigned to bad luck.
At the end of 2019, I held another positive pregnancy test in my hands. I was worried and super stressed that something would go wrong again. The first trimester was a heavy one: I vomited every night. The doctor eventually proposed a treatment for the nausea, but I turned out to be allergic to the medication. At 12 weeks, I landed in the emergency room due to respiratory issues. I was terrified. Later on, ahead of every ultrasound, I was beyond nervous. Thomas’ mother was very much involved; she called regularly and checked in after every doctor’s appointment. I relied on a dear friend and my cousin who was pregnant with twins too, but otherwise, our support system was rather limited due to the lockdown. As for equipping our apartment, I didn’t want to buy much baby gear. I knew which bed and mattress I preferred, but never dared to press the buy button, until Thomas grabbed the computer and ordered everything in one go. I’d continuously calculate: at 25 weeks, the baby had a 25% chance to survive. At 36 weeks, he was no longer considered premature, which was the final turning point that alleviated my worries.
Marcus was born at the start of August, on the warmest day of the year. When it was time for me to push him out, I panicked: in a minute, he’d really be there and it’d no longer be just the two of us. Everything happened in a daze and went so quickly once he was born. They took him for routine tests, but it seemed like an eternity before I held him in my arms again. I think I was in a different world, but I do recall that I wanted to keep him as close as possible. It was 5 in the afternoon when we arrived back to our room. While Marcus slept through the night – the first and best one ever since – we took turns checking in on him every half an hour. It symbolised the start of parenthood, part two: the worrying that never stops. Tsunami of emotions
Those first days felt like I got hit by a tsunami. I liked being surrounded by the experienced medical staff in the hospital; going out into the world with a tiny human to care for without supervision felt scary. When we arrived home, it was 30 degrees in the apartment. I went straight into the bedroom, closed the door and held Marcus as I sat on the bed. I stayed there for the next 24 hours, recreating our little cocoon. The next few weeks and months were intense. My world was turned upside down and I was in a continuously tired, fragile state. Before, when friends with babies said they didn’t have time for a shower, I thought they were just badly organised. Experiencing life with a newborn myself made me find out first-hand that they had been right all along.
It had never crossed my mind that it would be more complex for us as expat parents in COVID-19-times. We live in Brussels, but Thomas is from the Netherlands and I’m from France, so we can’t put our families on speed dial to come help us out straightaway. I didn’t realise until a friend with a baby of Marcus’ age told me her mother babysits while she takes a shower or spends a night away in a hotel with her husband. Due to the lockdown, we couldn’t rely on our network of friends close by either. So once my maternity leave ended and Marcus got sick, Thomas and I had to work in shifts to take care of him. We went from an intense to almost unmanageable situation. I’ve been alone with Thomas once since our son was born, but it also means the three of us have developed a tight-knit bond. And although it’s a challenge, we love our life as expats and wouldn’t want it any other way.
Building a community
Marcus is the most amazing, perfect human being on the planet. The cliché is true: you never know how capable you are of loving someone until you have a child. He crawls very fast and has just taken his first steps; looking at him move around makes me melt. At the same time, motherhood is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I had no clue it was so difficult, because society paints this image that once you’ve had a baby, you resume your old life. Which is far from the truth: it changes everything – you’ll never be the same person again.
The whole system should be re-evaluated if you ask me, starting with maternity leave. In Belgium, it’s three months for a mother and three weeks for a father, both of which are way too short. By the time you need to head back to work as a new mum, your body is still in pieces and your baby doesn’t sleep through the night. In Scandinavia, they offer six months for both parents and six months to be shared between them. I think that sets a good example of acknowledging the role of the father. The general model has to change too: I used to work 12-hour days – now I work 10, but not in a row. I don’t want to have meetings between 5 and 7 in the evening, because I need to take care of Marcus. I’m lucky that my employer is flexible and my job is result-driven, but not every mother is as fortunate. Society’s mindset needs to shift: having a baby is far from comparable to going on a trip and coming back as if nothing has changed.
I’m lucky to have found a partner in crime who agrees with my views on motherhood and thinks just as strongly about them. At the end of my pregnancy, a friend introduced me to Alicia, who was due around the same time I was. Knowing other mothers who’re in the same phase as you, with a maximum difference of four weeks, is beyond helpful. Meeting Alicia was exactly what I needed. We were fortunate to cross paths, but not every mother is. So around Christmas, while Thomas took care of both babies, the two of us planned an afternoon brainstorm about what we could do to help others. Our mission is to bring mothers together by sharing the realness of the journey that is motherhood, including all of its ups and downs. We might feel like we’re failing all the time… but we’re not. In May, we kicked off &MomStories, in the shape of a blog and Instagram account. We share our unfiltered personal experiences and the practical advice we wished we’d been given. The feedback is overwhelming: many mothers have written us messages that our platform helps them to feel less alone. I can’t describe how happy it makes me knowing that we offer support to other women out there.Lessons of motherhood
Becoming a mother has made me much more human. I initially got pregnant by accident, but had it not happened, I don’t know how many years it would have taken us to take the plunge. I’m forever thankful to that baby for letting us realise how much we wanted to become parents and for making space for Marcus. I love my life, my work and my friends, but I always thought I lacked a true purpose. I wasn’t sure if there was something deeper that was super important to me, something that I was willing to fight for. Until that sweltering early afternoon in August of last year, when Marcus made his entrance. He brought a cause to me: help other mothers by showing them how difficult, yet beautiful and amazing motherhood is, and support them on their journey. That’s how I want to contribute to making this world a better place.”