This week marks ten years since I embarked upon the world of motherhood. Of course, length of experience is no guarantee of expertise – I have, after all been driving for over double that and my chances of success with parallel parking remain about the same as the chance of snow at Christmas (actually, significantly lower), but, just as I have learned the junctions to avoid at rush hour and the quickest route to work, so too have I found a few ways of making life easier, that I didn’t know a decade ago.
In the next few weeks, we are expecting a new baby in our family. My niece – oldest child of my oldest brother, whose birth when I was 12 was by far the most exciting thing to have ever happened, and who I have adored and marvelled at ever since – is expecting a baby of her own. I am trying so very hard to focus on the gorgeous thing that this is, rather than the fact that this makes me A. Great. Aunt. Because this is simply too outrageous to be considered.
My niece is clever and accomplished and funny and beautiful but having a baby is a great leveller; being suddenly thrust in a world of Metanium and meconium and changing mats and umbilical cords and broken sleep is a shock for everyone and in the hope that some of my mumming experience may be of use to her, or another new mum, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:
Your baby is going to need feeding. This is certain. Some people will have very strong opinions about how you go about this, that they will be eager to share. Their opinions must be of no importance to you. Breast feeding is marvellous if it works for you and your new partner in lactation. It is free, portable and requires no sterilisation, nor any equipment you wouldn’t have about your person anyway, however it can be fraught with stress and difficulty. A very wise friend of mine corrected me as I fretted that, “I know breastfeeding is the best for my baby,” pointing out that a mother in her right mind was far more important, and she was bang on. Do what seems right for you. Listen to your midwives, health visitors and the lady across the road, but make your own mind up. If you choose to bottle feed, you will have more washing up and more faff, but the end result is pretty much the same: a growing baby. Do what’s right for you.
Baby groups are not to everyone’s taste. Church halls, sing-a-long-a-Nursery-rhyme and marauding toddlers aren’t everyone’s (anyone’s?) idea of a good time, and post natal groups aren’t necessarily any more appealing, but do try to go as often as you can. However many pals you have to start with, it’s good to make some more. What you really want is a good bank of local friends with babies as close in age as possible to your own, so when your little peach is teething or having a growth spurt and forgetting what sleep is, you’ve got someone on board. If there’s someone you can walk round to who’ll make you a cup of tea and give you a quick squeeze on a bad day, life will be infinitely better.
Post natal groups are a little bit like the Freshers’ Week of motherhood, but instead of questions about what ‘A’ Levels you did and what halls of residence you’re living in, the interrogation is likely to be more focused on episiotomies and epidurals. It’s quite a unique time where you’re more likely to know someone’s recent intimate medical history than their name. Also like Freshers’ Week, you’ll have to kiss a few frogs before you find your princess. Not everyone there’s going to be a soulmate waiting to be unearthed, but you’ll find someone, or somefew who make you laugh and make you feel comfortable and all that ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ will have been worthwhile. I have laughed and cried and celebrated and despaired and walked endless miles and pushed countless swings and drunk gallons of hot – and indeed chilled – beverages with my mum friends over the last ten years. We’ve built each other up and talked each other down and I can’t imagine what the whole experience would have been like without them.
Look after yourself.
Everyone feels a little at sea in the days and weeks following the birth. Crazy hormones, sudden massive responsibility for a tiny human, exhaustion – giving birth for goodness sake – all can conspire to leave you feeling like you’ve been run over. Be honest about how you’re feeling. Midwives and health visitors will ask, but it’s very easy to pretend all is well, whatever ‘all’ is actually like. When my babies were about 6 weeks old, new mothers were given a questionnaire to complete to assess risk of Post Natal Depression, I am assuming that something similar still happens. I was lucky enough not to suffer with PND, but I remember thinking that it was clear what were the ‘winning answers’ and I don’t doubt that I would have chosen those whatever I was feeling. Please don’t. Lots of women find this time difficult and seeking help as soon as you can is only going to be a good thing. If you could do with some help, there are numbers here.
Some parenting teammates seem to understand that living on virtually no sleep whilst trying to do a brand new job you’ve had no training for is a bit of a tall order and instinctively do what they can to help, so you can sleep or shower or have a meal where you can actually use two pieces of cutlery, but some seem slower on the uptake. Spell out what you need early on. If you’re breastfeeding you’re probably not going to be getting endless hours of uninterrupted sleep for a while, but you could get some good daytime napping done. If you’re going this alone, I doff my beret to you. See what support’s available to you – organisations such as Gingerbread can provide practical advice, but it’s more important than ever to see who you have around who can offer real life physical help. It’s very hard to remember to look after yourself when you’ve got someone tiny, loudly demanding you look after them, but make it a priority. I can’t bring myself to use the term ‘self care’ but it’s really what we’re talking about.
Out and about
On this note, make sure you get out of the house every single day. I met one of my best friends in the world in the library when my oldest was 3 months and hers was 2 weeks. You might meet your new BFF in the Crime Fiction section, or you might just stave off the cabin fever – either way, be sure to get out. Fresh air is good for the soul, even if it’s raining.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
Some baby groups seem to be hotbeds of competition. If you’re the competitive sort, you may thrive, if not, I suggest taking no notice. There’s always someone inordinately irritating whose baby has been sleeping through since they were delivered and someone else who is sure that their neonate is showing every sign of pre-crawling, or something similarly unlikely. Unless your child has additional challenges to overcome, she will be walking and talking by the time she needs to be. Some babies walk well before they’re one, some are almost two. I had a 10 month old walker and and a 15 month old walker. Neither is noticeably more proficient than the other now. Equally – in contrast to some of the insinuations I heard at baby groups all those years ago, as far as I am aware, there is no known link between the age of tooth eruption and subsequent intellect. As my clever dad said, by the time your little one starts school he will be walking, talking and will have enough teeth to cope with school dinners. If you have concerns that your baby isn’t reaching milestones like supporting his own head or rolling over, then speak to the HV or the doctor, but otherwise be reassured that it will happen at its own pace; don’t worry if others are moving faster.
With sleep, which may become the only topic of interest to you for a while, again, your little rascal is going to be calling the shots with how this progresses. Of course, in the early days there’s little more to it than feeding and changing and praying they’ll manage 3 hours, or whatever time interval you’re working to. When mine were a bit bigger and a bedtime routine – bed, bath, book, milk – was a doable thing, my oldest obligingly slept through the night, 7-6, from six months old. Delighted that this was a winning formula, I applied the same technique to the second model. At 18 months she still wasn’t consistently making it through the night. I mention this, not to alarm, but simply to reassure you that when your baby refuses to conform it does not mean you are doing something wrong. It’ll come good in the end, sometimes you just have to ride it out, or sometimes you’ll need to keep trying different approaches until something sticks. Your health visitor will be able to put you in touch with someone who can advise you if sleep is a real issue, or there are a million resources available to read online.
It’s just a phase.
Finally, you’ll want to punch people who tell you that “it’s just a phase”, whether it’s screaming at the teatime witching hour (I’m thinking the baby, not you), forgetting how to sleep when their teeth come through or driving you to despair by systematically emptying every cupboard in the house when they’re 14 months old (good news: only 50% of my children did this) – but it is actually true. Some phases, admittedly, go on for a really, really long time, but they are all eventually replaced by something else.
In a timely development, babies learn to smile between 4 and 8 weeks and this often comes at the very point when you’re wondering how much longer the torture of sleep deprivation can continue. The crafty little monkeys usually crack out their most winning beams in the middle of the night, making being woken mere moments after you went to sleep slightly more bearable.
Another annoying truism is that the baby years are short. It doesn’t always seem that way, some phases seem very long indeed and those who are always #blessed may sometimes be #fibbing. The most devoted mama sometimes needs a break, don’t feel guilty when you do. I bet you’re doing a brilliant job.
Happy tenth birthday to my excellent biggest girl; the kindest-hearted, smartest and funniest double-digiter I know – what a decade it’s been.