There’s a lot of bullshit written about being a parent but, if I’ve learnt anything in the last six months, it’s that having a baby is the greatest leveler of all. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how smart you are, how big your house is, how many books you have written or read, how organized or selfless or loving you are: when you have a baby for the first time, not a single one of us has any motherfunking idea what we are doing.
The last thing I want to do with this blog is to scare the living bejeesus out of women expecting a baby or send women thinking about having a baby running for an elective hysterectomy but (and I think it’s only fair that I be honest about this from the beginning) having a baby and being a mother for the first time is without doubt the scariest, hardest and most relentless thing you will ever do. It’s also the best thing you’ll ever do, but at first it’s scary, hard and relentless. And a bit shit.
In reality, it is impossible for me to really convey what it feels like when that gorgeous, edible, lovable, teeny-tiny terrorist lands in your life. You want to love it and make magical moments with it right from the start but when you bring it home from the hospital all you can think is that it’s going to explode any moment and actually, it kind of does. It might not be a real-life, blood-and-guts type explosion but it is mighty metaphorical bomb under everything you thought your life and yourself to be. Yes, you’re an intelligent human being and yes you knew that having a baby will change your life and that it would be hard, but you had no idea how that would feel until it happens.
And here’s what they don’t tell you: it can feel rubbish. I went through a serious period of mourning and even regret. Mourning for my old life, for my old self. It sounds selfish – it was selfish. Even the most selfless of people realise how selfish they actually are when they have a baby. You mourn the long baths you can’t take, the lunches with friends that won’t happen, the lazy lie ins, the sex…all things that may seem trivial but they represent a much bigger thing. They represent the former you, the person that you’ve known and quite liked for such a long, long time.
In one physical expulsion you are transformed instantly and necessarily into a carer, provider, protector. You are no longer the most important person in your life and eventually, eventually, that will feel wonderful. At first though, it can feel like you’ve been emotionally hijacked, spiritually violated and physically ruined. I was terrified by my own feelings of inability, inadequacy, regret…it wasn’t post-natal depression (although many tried to tell me it was). I could see the metaphorical emotional wood for the trees; I just didn’t like the view.
What they do tell you is that it’s the most magical time of your life. They talk about the unconditional love that you’ll feel instantly, the excitement of seeing your baby grow and develop day by day. All of these things are true but not initially and even then, not exclusively. The love (when it comes…it doesn’t always pop into existence with a big bang and a fan fare the moment the little puddle of babyness lands on your chest) will fight for space in between the fear, the worry and the exhaustion in those first few weeks and you will not know your elbow from your arsehole (except you will actually, because that will be very close to the other hole that you just shoved something enormous through…)
They’ll also tell you how to feed it, when to feed it, when to put it down to sleep, what to wrap it in, what to dress it in, what to carry it in, what position it should sleep in…they’ll tell you everything short of what to name your baby and you know what? You’ll be desperate to do it all.
In a rather cynical turn of social evolution, the natural worry of first time mothers-to-be has turned out to be a lucrative market. There are a lot of people who have made a lot of money telling you how to, essentially, make sure your child stays alive because, in the end, that’s what it comes down to. As a brand new mother, you simply want to keep your child alive. For too long, baby books and baby experts have written down the rules in books that make us feel like it should be easy to follow them. When it’s not easy we question our own abilities. Our confidence is sapped and we beat ourselves up, put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to ‘try harder’; we wear ourselves down.
You’ll assume that because there are so many books written about how to look after your baby, that they must know so much more than you. You’ll start to think you know nothing about being a mother and you’ll start to wonder if you can do it. I’m not saying don’t bother reading the books – all I’m saying is that without the books you are still fully equipped to bring this child into the world, to keep it alive, to make it grow and learn and develop, to make it feel safe and loved.
Remember that – learn it, live by it, believe it – and in your darkest moment repeat it to yourself like a mantra. “I am built to do this.”
Because, looking after your baby is a natural, century-old instinct that you need to trust above and beyond all the books. If I were writing a book telling you how to look after your child (which I’m not…more on that later), it would be the shortest book in the world. It would be titled “All You Need To Know About Looking After Your Baby” and it would read like this: Trust your gut. The End.
When you’re pregnant and making plans, you may think the most important thing is when it will learn baby sign language and be fluent in the elimination communication theory before it learns where its own feet are located, but in reality, when you get it home and you feel like you’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson, Godzilla and Judge Judy all at once, you simply want someone to teach you how to keep this teeny tiny terrorist alive. One long night at a time.
So, at this point, I want to say from the start that this is not one of those blogs. This isn’t a blog telling you how to keep your child alive and the best way to do it. I don’t care if you co-sleep with your child or not, I don’t care if you breastfeed it, I don’t care if you use disposable nappies or bionic nappies hand-woven in silk by red-headed, blue-eyed elves in the Himalayas. I don’t care because it doesn’t matter.
Why? Because being a mother for the first time is hard. Really hard. The hardest you can imagine and then a little bit harder. Those first few days and weeks will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your entire life. All you have to do is get through it and if that means co-sleeping, or bottle feeding, or getting a nanny, or telling family to fuck off for five motherfunking minutes, then that’s what happens. The books will tell you there are rules and guidelines but I’m going to tell you a secret: those first few weeks and months are like cage fighting. There are no rules. You do what you need to do to survive.
If you’re reading this and you’re pregnant and you’re starting to think about perhaps not reading this blog because it’s freaking you out…I understand. Many of my friends don’t let me speak to pregnant women because they think I’m too honest and it scares them. But if they gave me a chance (and if you give me a chance) they would realise that actually, even though they may not know it before they have the baby, this is the blog they will want to have read. This is the blog that will make them feel safe and secure in the knowledge that it’s ok to feel shitty and at your wits end. It’s even ok to wonder if you love this tiny terrorist that’s dropped into your life. It’s ok to wish you could turn the clock back nine months and plead a headache. It’s ok to wonder if you can just give it back. (“We gave it our best shot, it’s just not for us. Thanks. See you later.”) All of those feelings are ok because they are normal…
Of course, at this juncture, it’s important for me to say that while these feelings are completely normal in the early days as you adjust to becoming parents, any extended period of blue feelings, crying and sadness, lack of connection with your baby could be something more serious. Post-natal depression is a serious problem and one that isn’t talked about enough. Be aware of your feelings, scrutinize them, talk to your partner, talk to the midwife and your GP (I think I shocked mine with my honesty); keep the lines of communication open. Talk about how you feel – all the terrible, horrible, painful, sad, happy, excitable thoughts that you are having in all their raw glory. If you think that your negative feelings go beyond the point of what feels acceptable then get help immediately.
In the end though, motherhood is the single most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me but the expectations I had during pregnancy about what the first few weeks would be like (magical, exciting, love-filled, fulfilling etc) meant that the reality felt like a big fat slap in my exhausted face.
I have had one baby (so far…I would do it again) and on her third day on this planet I was showered, dressed, hair dried, make up on, shopping at Mothercare and baking cakes for the endless line of guests. I was an emotional wreck on the inside, a physical wreck on the outside, and I had no idea what the hell was going on.
When I have another baby I’m setting some serious ground rules: for ten days, I am going to be naked in bed with my baby. We are going to sleep, eat, watch movies, try to make breastfeeding work by taking time with it; we are going to get to know each other and there will be no guests. Unless they bring food. And even then they are only allowed to drop the food and go.
Be selfish in those first few days. It’s not just ok. It’s important.
I remember, when I was pregnant, one of my very good friends said to me, “As a mother, you just have to be good enough.” I’m a Type A personality and that comment threw me. ‘What do you mean good enough?’ I thought. ‘That’s not ok. I want to be better than good enough. I want to be brilliant at being a mum. I’m not settling for good enough.’ Pah.
I have remembered that conversation a million times since my baby girl came along and I smile at my naivety every time. Most days I’m good enough. Some days I’m pretty amazing and some days are only a success because we’re both still alive at the end of them. You can’t hold yourself to such high standards because, at the end of the day, you’re not in control. You take each hour, each feed, each wake up, each crying fit, each nap, each stinky nappy, each tooth, each cold and each sleepless night as it comes and, when you’re not sure you can take anymore you remember just two, simple things:
- I am built to do this.
- This too shall pass.
Remember that, and you’ll be ok.