I’m really good at giving advice. Mostly gratuitous, although if you ask for it – or even imply (consciously or otherwise) you’d like some – I will happily shovel it out until the cows come home. Just ask my sisters, friends (and ex-friends), colleagues, and most people I come into contact with. I will even text you later on with more advice I’ve thought of since our conversation. My generosity knows no bounds. I was going to title this post “Things every new parent should know”, in the spirit of gratuitous advice.
But they aren’t really things every parent should know, because who am I to claim I have any clue. Instead, this is what they are: Things I tell myself, over and over again, in order to stay sane while also being a parent. While it may seem the two are mutually exclusive – especially when you’re very new to it, or going through a particularly rough patch – it is, of course, possible. You just have to figure out what you need. Friends and family (should) help (re-think their involvement if they are doing the opposite). Exercise definitely helps, as does getting out of the house, wearing jeans rather than trackies, and date nights. And a friendly inner voice, telling you things that are very particular to you and what you need, helps. And these are the things I tell myself.
1. We mustn’t let the baby break us up.
When Toby and I celebrated Emma’s first birthday with wine and our favourite take away pizza in front of Breaking Bad, we were celebrating not just keeping a baby alive for a whole year. We were also toasting to us and our marriage. I once read that having a baby is like throwing a grenade into your relationship, and I think that’s true. It’s also true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, luckily. Bringing a third person into a relationship is always going to be fraught, and when you add factors like changing roles, unknown expectations, less money, less time, less sex, sleep deprivation, the havoc pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding play on your physical self, it really does become testing. It’s easy to snap at the nearest person, since you can’t snap at the baby.
Toby and I were together ten years before Emma came along. In a way that’s a benefit because it means we’d already been through a lot, and knew we always come out the other side stronger. On the other hand, we’d had ten years to develop habits and rhythms in our relationship – we’d had a lot of time to get used to us. Bringing this small creature into the fold who seemingly cried for no reason and refused to sleep at the right times and all the other things babies do was difficult. But then I read one mum’s story and one difficult night when she and her husband were lashing out at each other (over nothing but being tired, really) he said to her, “The baby’s trying to break us up. We can’t let him.” And that’s what I tell myself now. It reinforces the fact that we are a team, it changes the perspective from “I’m exhausted and no one understands” to “we’re exhausted and only we understand”. It’s us against her – in the nicest way possible, of course.
2. This too shall pass.
As a truism, this is both frustrating and wonderful when it comes to babies (and children, and especially teenaged girls). It’s wonderful because it means that no matter what crappy period you’re going through – breast refusal, nap refusal, sleep refusal, quiet refusal, cuddle refusal, dad refusal, mum refusal – it’s not going to last. It feels like it will – at 2am, everything feels like the world is not about to end but will be this way forever and ever, which is worse – but it won’t. It will be better, hopefully tomorrow, but if not tomorrow then the day after, or next week. It will feel like a bad dream one day.
But this is also a frustrating lesson one has to learn as a parent too. Because just like the crappy times don’t last, neither do the good ones, particularly when it comes to babies’ routines and what they need when. Finally in a good routine with eating and sleeping? Don’t congratulate yourself or your baby just yet, because it will change the minute you do – they’ll need more food less often, or longer naps, or an earlier bed time. And it will take you days or weeks to figure it out while you scratch your head over the fact that just last week they were a completely different baby.
3. We’re all just trying our best.
It goes without saying that not all parents are trying their best. Hopefully it also goes without saying that for a lot of people, their best is just not possible. They don’t have the (physical, emotional, mental, financial) resources or the support necessary to parent in a way that’s approaching a good level of normal.
This is not about those parents. This is about regular parents, with houses and jobs and a decent level of mental and physical health and wellbeing. This is about just doing our best. Like everyone, I was a better parent before I had a baby, but I’ve proved to be as imperfect a parent as I am human. That’s okay. It’s also okay if someone believes in controlled crying or no crying, or gives peanut butter before the first birthday or after the fifth, or feeds before a nap or afterwards. Unless you know otherwise, it’s best to assume that even if they’re not doing it your way, this is the way that works for them and their baby. With almost everything baby-related, the evidence isn’t exactly clear – you can find evidence to back up almost every way of doing things. There are some exceptions of course – you will not find evidence that passive smoking or drinking coke are okay for babies, so if you see a parent putting coke in their baby’s bottle or smoking while their kids are in the car, feel free to judge. (Try to keep a poker face though, and for God’s sake don’t say anything.) But otherwise, provided the kid looks okay and the parent seems to care, try to assume the best.
You should also try to assume the best in those moments when you see a parent ignoring their child – buried in their smartphone at the playground or focusing on the shelves in the supermarket rather than the chattering child in the trolley. In that moment they can look like a parent who isn’t present, who is ignoring their poor child, who is more interested in groceries or Facebook than their own offspring. But it’s good to remember that you are only witnessing a moment, and that moment might be the first five minutes of the day where that parent has had a chance to retreat into their own little world. They could have been up all night with a sick child, spent all morning entertaining said child while trying to clean the house and now they just want five minutes to themselves in a place where their child won’t get into any trouble so they stay sane and their child doesn’t get yelled at. This is them, getting out of the house the way we are told to. I know I’ve been the one pushing a pram with a screaming baby inside and ignoring the screaming, and I hope people gave me the benefit of the doubt when they saw me doing it.
4. She looks fine.
It’s so easy to worry about babies and their development. Sometimes it feels like you’re just one missed nap or slightly alcoholic feed or bump on the head away from completely ruining their life. Health and safety campaigns and the current focus on early intervention no doubt save many lives, but at the same time they can make parenting a truly frightening prospect. (This is especially the case for first babies – I think most people agree they are far more relaxed about most things the second time around.) Luckily, babies are pretty resilient, built to survive clumsy new parents. It’s always good to remember that some babies are raised by actual wolves. In her short and perfectly healthy life Emma’s been diagnosed with possible lazy eyes, possible wonky hips, possible low weight. There’s also the issue of her being a vegetarian, which usually leads to a long conversation with the nurse about the importance of protein. While I have taken Emma to get all her developmental checks according to the government mandated schedule, and I always get a suspected issue checked out, and I do keep an eye on her protein intake, I also try to be fairly pragmatic about it. Does she look okay? Yes? Then she probably is.
5. Wine will help with this.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that my answer to almost everything that ails you is wine. She noticed this because any time she posted something on Facebook about a problem, big or small, I suggested wine. (Or sometimes I might suggest a foam roller.) I certainly don’t drink nearly as much as I used to, since I’m still breastfeeding Emma and no longer part of the Friday after-work drinks crowd. And I have read some interesting things recently about women and alcohol, which I don’t want to get into. This isn’t really about wine, anyway. It’s about having a treat for yourself, a guilty pleasure that you can indulge in after a particularly crappy or blah day (not every day – it’s not a treat then), something that’s just for you. Chocolate’s the other obvious one, or trashy TV or magazines, or whatever. You will know deep down if it’s just a treat or an actual problem, and if it’s just a treat, don’t let anything stop you from enjoying. Forgive yourself your crappy day – ignoring your child for that whole five minutes, snapping at your partner, judging the mum you saw giving juice (empty calories! no fibre, just sugar!) to her toddler, spending an hour googling “baby rash pictures” when you should have been vacuuming – and have a treat.