Everyone knows the best parents are those who don’t have children yet. They’re so consistent, so sure of themselves, of the Right Way. They only ever do what’s Best for the Children, never feeling conflicted or confused about what that might actually be. They follow the rules and guidelines, or if they don’t it’s out of some Philosophical Objection, not out of laziness or convenience or ignorance. They would never dream of being tempted to throw their children out windows or lock them in the pantry. They’re never bored or impatient, instead cherishing every smile, every lullaby. They truly are magnificent parents, and their hypothetical children are very, very lucky.
I was exactly the same. But I knew that when I was faced with the reality of caring for an actual human being, things would likely change. Pregnancy had already taught me that parenthood would not magically rid me of my flaws or make me a better person. I was not suddenly motivated to eat exactly as I knew I should, instead since I no longer had vanity as a motivator I ate as much chocolate and pasta as I wanted. I went to pre-natal yoga but I never did the homework and towards the end when I wasn’t working full-time I stopped going because I preferred to spend that $20 on lunch. I was still just me, imperfections and all, even with another human being to consider. This was disappointing.
But I was also like all the other best parents (without children) out there. I was certain I would do things a certain way, and because of this my child would behave a certain way.
We’re only six months in and already I’m surprised at a couple of things I am doing completely differently to how I’d imagined. For starters, TV. Toby and I watch a lot of TV. I don’t know why I thought this habit would suddenly change just because there was a baby in the house. I heard stories of people who would prop their babies up in front of the TV and be appalled. Shocking! And yet. Emma sees plenty of TV, some of it age appropriate, most of it not. I feed her in front of it, it’s on during the day while she plays on the floor underneath. There are times when she’s grizzly but I can’t pick her up just yet, so I put her in her rocker with something soft to cuddle, and stick her in front of ABC Kids for a few minutes while I get dressed or brushed my teeth. A lot of times in the afternoon when we’re both tired, especially after a less-than-an-ideal day, I lie down on the couch with her with something mindless on TV and we both drift off to sleep. The one sick day I’ve had since she was born, I was on the couch watching Downton Abbey all day like I would have in my life BC. Sometimes we put an Elmo video on YouTube on one of our tablets for her (although I think we enjoy them more than she does). So, yeah. The kid watches TV. And for now, I’m ok with it.
The other surprise for me was when we started solids. We don’t eat much packaged food – I make almost everything from scratch – so I was determined to do the same for her. Why would I feed her from a jar if we don’t eat from a jar, I reasoned. I’m keen on baby-led weaning but given some new research I wanted to give her a few weeks of purees before we reached the six-month mark. Occasionally I’ve had bouts of motivation where I’ve baked sweet potato, mashed avocado, pureed fruit or vegies, but otherwise it’s been rice cereal from a packet with a squirt of fruit puree from the supermarket stirred in. I think it’s because she hasn’t really liked the homemade stuff as much as the shop stuff, and also because the bought fruit puree actually doesn’t have anything else in it so I don’t feel so bad using it. I also started the day after a family holiday, which was a good idea in theory but on the other hand I also had a touch of the back-to-work blues (yes, even stay-at-home parents get those!) and was feeling a bit overwhelmed with being back to normal life I think.
The day we started solids it occurred to me that we were definitely moving out of the easy predictability of the newborn stage, and that meant that every day there would be some new decision to make. Before, it was just about feeding her, putting her to sleep, letting her lie on the floor with some toys, having cuddles and singing and reading books. Now, I have to decide what to feed her, and then make it. She’s not happy just lying on the floor so I have to make sure to give her some variety with sitting (in her fortress of cushions), lying on her back or lying on her tummy. I have to install the new car seat since she’s getting too big for the capsule. All sorts of other fun things are lurking just over the horizon – checking out child care centres, child-proofing. All of this occurred to me in a split second the day we started solids, and I suddenly saw the next 18 years of my life stretching before me. One long ‘to do’ and ‘to decide’ list, some of it small and tedious (apple or pear for lunch?), some of it life-changing (public or private school?). So yeah, packaged baby food it is. Some of the time anyway, just so my brain doesn’t explode.
The only good thing about all of this is a third surprise. While I’m not exactly proud of these changes to the way I expected to parent, I’m also not as guilty a mother as I thought I might be. I have mostly Irish Catholic blood in my veins, which is excellent for guilt. I feel guilty about all kinds of things, all the time – some reasonable, others not. Many of the things that cause me to lie awake at night feeling like a terrible person don’t even seem to faze others. (RSVP to a low-key event and then decide I don’t feel like it? NEVER.) When I was pregnant I abstained from all the usual things not because of the risk (which I thought was small) but because of the guilt (which was much greater). All mothers write about mother’s guilt and I thought I would be the same. But somehow, I’m not. It helps that everyone around me tells me I’m doing a great job, and it also helps that the baby is obviously fine even though she probably knows the Friends theme song off by heart and prefers fruit from a packet. Because of these things, I’m far more forgiving of myself than I expected. Most days then, I am merely striving to be a Good Enough Parent, and not worrying too much about the occasional days when I don’t quite meet the mark due to tiredness or frustration or boredom. Because I know she doesn’t need the Best Mother Who Ever Lived – we all know that person has yet to have children. She just needs me.