I spend 90 percent of my time talking parents off the ledge that the cry hurls us onto.
– Baby sleep specialist Eileen Henry
When Rosa was smaller we were on a train back from central London and she started to cry, really cry, a few stops from home. By the time we’d pulled into the station she’d got into a terrible state, tiny and bright red and sobbing harder than I’d ever heard her. Nothing I could do would soothe her. In the waiting room a tubby businessman hid behind his newspaper and tried to tactfully pretend that there wasn’t a hysterical baby screaming the walls down, and all the while she was getting hotter and hotter and pinker and pinker and her voice hoarser and hoarser. I genuinely began to become alarmed, and I remember thinking crazy mum thoughts like no one could cry this much without eventually passing out.
Later on, back at home with her soothed and fine, I cried almost as hard as she had, as if in grief at her pain, as if in solidarity with her suffering. I felt in some way that it was right that I should match her distress, as if, as her mother, her crying was a debt I had to repay. This is what it means to have children, I remember thinking, this over-giving of ourselves, this sense that we have an obligation to suffer on our children’s behalf. I thought of a sentence I had read, that having babies was akin to “having your heart permanently annexed”, and I thought of all the times in the future that she would struggle and suffer and therefore I would too. We do it to ourselves and this is the nature of love, isn’t it, feeling this secondary pain, the pain of the people we love.
I have thought so much about what it means for her to really cry, why I dread it, why we dread it, us mothers, us parents. I read things that tell me that crying can be a healthy release of emotion and that as parents we are there to empathise and attend to this emotion, to witness it and listen to it but not necessarily fix it. I read things that say suffering and struggle are different and while we must act to relieve the first we cannot, should not act to remove the second. It is true that for adults, it is a gift to be feel comfortable enough to be truly emotional in the presence of someone who cares for us and can be in that moment with us, without trying to speed up our recovery for their own comfort. But nothing makes it easy to hear our children cry and not swoop in and soothe them in the most comforting way we can.
Parents often don’t know when the comforting ends and the bad habit begins.
– Tracy Hogg in The Baby Whisperer
I read far too many parenting books, most with contradictory advice, most with the advice not to listen to parenting advice from the “experts”. The sentence above haunted me in early motherhood, made me terrified that our parenting style was creating “bad” habits or crutches or associations or props. Proving that worrying is pointless because you’ll do what you’ll do anyway, we probably did create “bad” habits with our sweet sensitive baby who cried bitterly when she wasn’t sleeping in someone arms. Should we have let her cry bitterly for a while to get used to a crib? Dunno. Maybe. Would it have changed her behaviour? Maybe. Could we have done it? Almost certainly not. Would I do it next time round? Again, almost certainly not. I have seen 6 month old babies fall asleep by themselves in their prams in cafes with music and lights blaring (whenever this happens I always think “are you a wizard?”, but that’s because my baby once woke up when a parakeet squawked in Crystal Palace Park in a faraway tree); I have seen babies “grizzle” or “protest” when put down “drowsy but awake” in a crib but soon drift off and I have seen babies cry hysterically when they are put down. Babies are all different – how baffling that so few “experts” recognise this! And we just do what we do, as new parents trying to do our best.
But recently it became clear that would we have to change some of the things we had done for our sweet daughter to help her sleep. I wished we could do it with zero upset for anyone, but of course that wasn’t possible. It turns out that compassionate or gentle or gradual “sleep work” doesn’t mean the baby won’t cry or be unsettled, it just generally means you stay in the room to comfort your baby while she gets used to the change and that you can make changes slowly. So we find ourselves with a “solution” that is the least-worst for us, and we make various changes. The most drastic step so far approaches – removing our habits of feeding or rocking her to sleep and giving her a dummy. As the night approaches I feel sick, for me and for her. We do her normal “bedtime routine” and turn the light off and her daddy holds her in his arms. The idea is she will kind of settle herself to sleep, albeit while being held before a later stage of settling her in her cot. Immediately she starts to scream (did she know what we were doing? It felt like she did) and I sit in the kitchen bolt upright, drinking wine and trying and failing to read, listening to her cries, imagine her body arching and flailing. After 10 minutes it goes silent. I cannot believe it. Asleep already. But 40 minutes after she wakes and cries in his arms for 45 minutes – a lifetime – though it is less intense than before.
I have the most unrelaxing bath I have ever had, wondering just how her dad can bear it. And then it is over. He stumbles out of the room, hot and exhausted and emotional, like someone who has run a marathon. That night she sleeps better than she has in weeks. The day after I do the “in arms settling” myself, and she cries hard in my arms for ten minutes (a lifetime). I feel calm and infinitely saddened by her screams and the ways her head moves from side to side to search for her dummy and her mouth makes the most wretched little hmmms mmms nummms because her mouth is not used to closing around nothing. I remember the advice we got about this method: you don’t have to stop her crying and you don’t have to get her to sleep (she will do that), and strangely it doesn’t feel cruel but more like an act of difficult, difficult compassion. I watch her struggle. Relieved, I remember that I have found motherhood hard because I feel like I always need to be doing it and not being it. In that moment I just be-it. I think about my endless love for her. I think man she loved that bloody dummy and I watch her fall asleep.
It is all about the crying in the end. I don’t know what will happen next but I know the anticipation of doing something was much worse than doing something. For the first time on the second night, I sleep for long enough for me to feel like I am actually sleeping and not having a series of interrupted naps, that is staying asleep for an extended period and waking a few times to go to the loo, to plump my pillows, to feel the hours ticking by. For the first time in seven months! People kept reminding me that better sleep is life-changing. It might be premature but I think that maybe soon certain things might be back in my life, things like occasionally getting a taxi to town and having cocktails with a girlfriend or having an early dinner and going to the theatre with Adam. Or even eating our tea together and having a conversation! I think that maybe I get to have her in my life and do other things that sound superficial but that seem curiously essential to my identity not just as a mother, that is as a whole person. I think about how any renewed vigour in me will be good for her. And I think about these taxis to town and these cocktails and plays then coming back to her, always.
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My daughter was born in our living room at 1.20am on 20 June last year, and I had been awake for 3 nights by that point (aside from drifting in and out of sleep, jerked awake by my uterus contracting every 5-10 minutes each previous night). So I was very tired but I wouldn’t let my boyfriend go to sleep after the midwives had left, because how could we be sure that the baby would survive the night? We tried, hamfisted, to swaddle her, but couldn’t remember the instructions from our NCT class. She’ll pull the blanket over her head and suffocate, or her tiny heart will stop beating, or … something, I insisted. My boyfriend gently pointed out that we would, at some point during the rest of her life, have to sleep when she did. Over the next few months he would gently point out lots of rational things that I couldn’t see, then kindly concede to my slightly mad reasoning on a variety of topics.
Looking at her over the next few days, I remember thinking with great certainty that it was highly unlikely anything so small and new could make it. That first night, I couldn’t sleep until my parents had arrived in the early hours of the morning. They drove across London as the dawn broke on the day before the shortest day of the year and my daughter, on the first day of her life, slept curled on my mum’s lap for hours and hours.
When I was pregnant I forgot that I would bring myself to my mothering. And for a while after she was born, when I was finding it all so hard, I wondered why everyone found it difficult but some people found it particularly difficult. Why did I feel so devastated about the irrevocable loss of my carefree life? Why did I feel shocked by the burden of responsibility, when I’d known what was coming? Why did I feel waves of panic every time I tried to sleep? Shock, grief, fear, exhaustion, overwhelming love: this is what I remember from those early days.
Everyone said “it gets better!” and “you’re doing a great job!” and I kept wondering why they were saying this, when they didn’t even know what kind of job I was doing. But I didn’t know how much self-doubt I was living in, I didn’t have the hindsight of how much relatively easier it gets as you get used to it all, as you grow in confidence, as you watch your baby growing into a person. The notion that it gets better is impossible to really conceive of until it does. Everything that is being asked of you being so new to you and it is hard to really take it in at all, let alone the idea that it will change, and keep on changing. “You’ll look up and she’ll be leaving to go to university”, “long days, short years” people said: none of it was true, all of it was true, but it was of limited use to me in those giant, unending moments.
A friend gave a good insight about women who do not feel depressed or anxious or panicky or devastated on becoming a mother, that maybe they were just more practical types, that they were not so over-analytical or anxious as me. That made it feel better. A friend recommended Kate Figes Life After Birth and that made it feel better too, like I wasn’t the only one going mad. Very kind mum friends and their kind words of encouragement: they made me feel better. Over Christmas, reflecting on the six months that passed and trying to work out what was new about me and what was the same and how these things could meet, I realised that I felt different in ways that I hadn’t foreseen – not just that I was a bit tougher; not just that I understood real love, real, daily joy; but also that I was aware of the dark side of my life, of myself. I felt, for the first time, that I understood how people could do terrible things, make awful mistakes, how humans were driven to things because they were driven to the edge of themselves and their capacity to feel hopeful and happy. All this from my privileged middle-class existence with great family and friends around me. All this because of a person no taller than 1 foot high!
So much of my extreme feelings were mostly due to sleep (the lack of it). I looked and looked for words about sleep deprivation that weren’t either Mumsnet laments or journal articles on its psychological side effects, but I never found them. Instead I looked at a drawing I had made of a graph where my mental health was inversely proportional to how well the baby was sleeping, a drawing that summed up everything and solved nothing. As she turned 6 months, she developed the alarming of habit of waking up every time we tried to put her down. We couldn’t see a quick-or-easy way out of it apart from to take it in turns to hold her for most of the evening and all her naps, and let her sleep in our arms once we had gone to bed. We sat in a dark room with our arms full of baby while the world went by outside, while chores went undone, words to each other unsaid, game-changing television unwatched, books unread, yoga unpracticed, meals uncooked and selves unattended to. What a strange beast you are, I would think, as she lay completely asleep in my arms until I tried put her down, when her eyes would snap open and she would begin to whimper. It was like she was convinced there were wolves at the door and her body had become primed to tense up when it was not curled up next the place it originated. I hadn’t realised how necessary the breathing space while the baby sleeps is to one’s sanity. I didn’t expect parenting to end at nighttime, I knew the extent that a baby erodes one’s personal space and autonomy but, with her waking so much in the night as well, it felt all too much.
She was so wakeful and I was so tired and sad. I weighed less than I had when I was seventeen and my ribcage was such a depressing sight to me. I met a really jolly mother in a cafe who was exhausted too, but she was just so stoic about it. Instead I seemed to sink into more and more of a maudlin mess. I clamped my jaw shut all day from the stress of it and my damn ears hurt all the time.
On one of the worst nights I got some sleep between 12 and 4 with baby in my arms. Very tired but too uptight to sleep, I cried from about 6am and could not stop. I laughed a few times in between but the crying won. Around 9am I had a shower; I had failed to get the baby to nap because I was too tired to make the effort required to feed then jiggle her so I just let her lie in my arms sucking on her fingers until my partner took her and quickly got her to sleep. The disadvantage of him being there was that I could really accept I was exhausted and had nothing left in the can and sit and could sit and watch him care for her and finally admit I was a terrible, terrible mother.
In the shower I thought maybe the baby had woken up and I could hear her crying but so many things sound like her crying and are not – water in the pipes, water dripping from the tap, a faraway dog whimpering, the little boy from upstairs whooping as he comes in the door – that I thought probably, she was not crying. I felt like a schizophrenic who decides on balance that the voices are NOT real even though they can definitely hear them.
I felt angry at everyone around me for believing me when I said I was alright.
I remembered that, early that morning, I was so tired and sad I actually fantasised about being dead for the first time. I had never got why people did this before but NOW I did – it would mean a lovely rest and an instant end to all this shit. Looking back this seems crazy to me, and I knew at the time that of course I did not want to be dead. It would make everyone pretty sad and I would miss them all and there were lots of things I wanted to see and do and I had an underwater lagoon’s worth of hope postponed inside me. But I realised that for the first time in my life, I had imagined death as a respite! It didn’t make me feel sad, just stretched and balloon-like and in slight awe of everything that had happened.
I considered the nature of depression – a scale, a collection of symptoms, a rational reaction to things that are intolerable to us. And now, I remember saying to a friend that I probably did think I was slightly depressed at times in the first six months but that was mainly because what was happening at the time seemed pretty depressing to me.
Just before she was born, I remember a friend saying she had cried from despair more in the first 6 months of her baby’s life than in the rest of her own life, and I had no idea what she meant. I think I thought: well maybe you did, but I doubt I will. Someone else referred to it as a rollercoaster and I thought: oh, it will be much more balanced and fine for me! You never know exactly what is coming for you. And I found that some female friends who had previously suffered depression were much more buoyant in motherhood, perhaps because as one said to me, “you already know about the darkness”.
Like most mothers, I feel that it is very, very hard and also that having her is the best thing I have ever done. I am even glad it was so hard because as things gets easier it is all thrown into stark relief, like the technicolour of health after illness. A few days ago she started blowing all the air out of her cheeks, then looked greatly surprised, then did it again and again, for an hour. Then she started holding both her arms up in the air simultaneously. I don’t know why. Of course then I forget everything, all the tough bits that we have been through, all the “sleep hell” as a friend called it, the dark days, another friend, the grey days, another. These happy moments cover you over entirely and all you can do is tread water in their joy.
We are only having one baby, we kept saying after she was born. One really is enough. Recently I asked my partner if I should keep her baby stuff in case, you know, just in case there was a next time, and we both decided that yes, we probably will keep it, not that we’ll need it probably, but just for now. Just in case.
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I sit on the rocking chair in Rosa’s bedroom while she sleeps in my arms, her head nestled next to my cheek. Her hair is fluffy and smells of the lovely baby shampoo we were given by her aunt and also of that sweet, universal baby smell. I am thinking about how content and joyful she is, and wondering how much of that is down to genes and how much is down to what we have done for her in her first 6 months on earth. We have given her everything every time she has wanted it: every time she has cried we have picked up and cuddled her; we have fed and rocked her to sleep and re-fed and re-rocked many many times each evening and night. We have held her in our arms for hours and hours and tried and failed to put her down and picked her up again. She is so, so loved and we are such a terribly soft touch and so very tired.
Babies play tricks on their parents, like sleeping for quite long stretches and making you feel quite smug until they are 4 months old then SUDDENLY waking every hour of the night. Or they settle quite well each night until they are 6 months old then SUDDENLY they need to be held for two hours every evening before you can put them down, and then can only be put down for an hour and then must sleep on you ALL NIGHT else they scream and cry and you will do anything, anything for just a bit of sleep. There are lots of tricks, but they all centre around the very dispiriting fact that lots of babies get worse at sleeping as they get older, not better.
Our baby is beautiful and bright and funny and lovely; people tell us this and it is true. But there are times – like when she FINALLY sleeps after an hour of exhausting, back-breaking jiggling and when you try and put her down she is suddenly WIDE awake and screaming and you have to go through the whole thing again; or at 3am when she keeps waking unless you keeping getting out of the warm bed and rocking her until she finally falls into a deeper sleep at 5am; or when she actually sleeps for a long stretch but you are so stressed and sad and frustrated and wound up and full of rage that you lie silently in the dark for four hours, awake, exhausted, occasionally googling things like “can people die of sleep deprivation” – there are times when this cannot help you.
Wait it out
Attachment parenting – whose tenets I mostly agree with – argues that babies just need to be nurtured and cared for and in the end they will sleep by themselves and for longer stretches, but of course WHEN is anyone’s guess. They could be one, or maybe nearer two, and what about mothers and fathers and their sanity? This website casually breezes over hundreds and thousands of hours of parental night-time desolation by saying “This phase of nighttime parenting will pass soon”. Whenthefuckissoon? So much of motherhood requires self-abnegation, but it would be nice for a parent’s needs not to be totally erased in the equation. The fact that the baby is gorgeous is used as a reason for you just to have to put up with it, when the two things are not really linked – your baby may well be lovely but you are truly exhausted, and it seems like the second fact is seen as irrelevant just because the first is true.
Don’t wait it out
So it becomes clear that we must DO SOMETHING, but every option is so unappealing. In the “old days”, as I understand it, people would leave the baby at the bottom of the garden in the pram to cry, or they would shut the bedroom door and let them cry and in the end these babies would learn to sleep by themselves and not need mum or dad to put them back to sleep when they wake up. Nowadays “sleep training” is some people’s profession and there are thousands of words written on the internet for desperate parents to read. The blogs are full of terms like the baby “fussing” or “protesting” when you first attempt to teach them to sleep more independently and I wish they would just say it: screaming, crying, wailing, whimpering. Of course most parents find it heart wrenching to hear their baby cry; to “let” their baby cry and only respond in the kind of lukewarm way recommended by sleep trainers; to “leave” a baby to cry. It seems to go against every parental instinct when in every other scenario when they are tired or sad or ill or cranky we respond to them with a massive love-bomb.
I told a friend who had never heard of the term “sleep trainer” that you could pay someone to come to your house for the night partly to teach the baby to sleep and partly restrain you from diving in the room to pick up the baby up. “So they come to your house and break them?”, she said. The argument goes that some crying in the short-term is better for everyone in the long-term. And I will have to do lots of difficult things for my child that she may not like at the time but that will be better for her overall. But it is hard to know whether the night I say “I cannot go on like this”, and the third and fourth and fifth and sixth nights I say this is actually a turning point or just more of the same exhausting equivocating. I am the WORST person to deal with this: I am indecisive and my indecision is ratcheted up sleep deprivation; I am a massive wimp about my baby crying; and she also seems to have a particularly heartbreaking cry, but I’m sure ALL parents feel this!
With pre-verbal babies you cannot explain to them “hey, so you know we’ve been getting you to sleep via breastfeeding or rocking or jiggling – well that’s all over now and I’m going to put you in your cot and you’re going to be baffled and cry and cry and probably in the end you’ll go to sleep, then we’ll do that again every time you need to nap or sleep for a few more weeks until you’ve nailed it”. This is CRAZY but I can’t help but draw parallels with our dear old cat being put down when I was 18, when the very worst thing of it was her just lying there looking at me before the act, not knowing what was coming. I am not putting my baby down – things are not that desperate yet – but it feels like some similar act of betrayal, not being able to explain to her what is about to happen. It feels like I am breaking some code or bond of trust between us. BUT we cannot go on like this. Right?!
So that’s me, flailing around and failing to make a decision about my daughter’s sleep habits and fixating on unhelpful analogies like my childhood cat being put down. Hopefully when I write again in the new year, I will have more cheerful sleep news to report! And I hope everyone has a restful and happy break.
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Last weekend I went for a massage, leaving the baby with her dad and a bottle of expressed milk. It wasn’t hard to leave but it was strangely hard to be there, both glad to be alone and not, knowing this window of freedom was just that.
Previously I had wondered what women meant when they talked about a loss of their sense of self when they become mothers. I have been thinking a lot what this means for me, and it is simply that I am tired and the baby is very demanding and there is simply not time or energy to contemplate myself – the things I like to do, the things I think about the world, how I feel about everything. And most of all exactly who I am now that I am someone’s mother, in addition to everything else I used to be. The baby comes first, I fade into the background and when I come face to face with myself – in an hour off, when confronted by a memory from my old life – it can feel overwhelming and sad to be reacquainted with this person who I used to spend every day with.
I am still here. I know this, and I know I will reemerge in stages, even if this “I” is different from before.
Our daughter is 4 months old, by most accounts a cranky, difficult age where babies are coming to terms with their fast development and are overwhelmed by these changes and the world around them. Her sleep, which had previously been relatively ok, went totally fucked a few weeks ago and though it’s improved a little, she still wakes frequently and then at 5.30am, full of beans and ready for the day (if you’d had a decent night’s sleep yourself this would he doable, but ya know …). She wakes too early from naps and her lack of proper sleep makes her tearful and scratchy, and she sails from joy to hysterical yelping better than any teenager. Totes emosh, I think as I hug her little wriggly body.
In this “phase” she cries approximately 2 seconds after I leave the room and often wails until she is carried, so basic tasks like getting dressed or making a cup of tea or hanging the washing out take hours and must be interspersed with feeding and cuddling and singing and cheering up this little grumpy person. I can no longer always feed her to sleep like I used to so I spend some of every day jiggling her to sleep while she screams in my arms and flails about and I silently count to 20 and try not to think of people having cocktails in a bar in Dalston, and sometimes kiss her chubby tear-stained cheeks, and tell myself that she will sleep eventually. Sometimes I am so tired that my ears have a constant slightly painful swish in them, and I cry at everything and even my teeth hurt.
Through it, I love her so much I think my insides will explode. And I constantly think to myself: this is the hardest, most grinding, exhausting and frustrating thing I have ever done. Who knew babies were like this? Everyone lies about it, including me when I speak to mums with brand new babies in cafés, because you HAVE to. I feel guilty about everything, including napping when Adam gets up with her at 6am, how I STILL feel tired and sad after a long nap, any time away I have, my ingratitude at wanting MORE time away, the minutes I leave her grizzling while I do essential tasks like, you know, cleaning my teeth or taking a shit.
Occasionally I stand next to her in the early morning and consider the 12 hours ahead of us and think I cannot do this and Adam leaves for work and I really, really want to say “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME” but I never do because I am not a total cow. I can barely write about it because it is often a bit misery memoir, because all mums suffer, because I don’t want to look like I’m moaning, because I’m lucky to have a lovely baby and a lovely flat and lovely partner and lovely family and live in a great part of London and not have to put my children in a small boat to escape a marauding gang of murderers. There are always mothers with less support than you, getting less sleep than you, with more children or crankier babies than you, so everyone is silent on it except in their friendships and everyone is quietly shouting “FUUUUUUCK” as they mainline coffee and push their buggies up hills.
Every day has some moments of joy, sometimes lots of them. Today I was hugging her in my bedroom and I caught sight of the mirror and her face looking at me in it, lit up with pure happiness. When I sing her certain songs, or she spots her favourite toy, her jaw drops in ecstasy. She has started to do a real dirty cackle whenever I make miaowing sounds against her neck (what? Miaowing into your baby’s crevices is totally normal), the best sound in the whole entire world.
Things are tough at the moment so I’ve lowered my expectations accordingly, which make it a bit easier. If she sleeps beyond 5.45 or if I haven’t sobbed by 8am I feel like I’ve triumphed! Although I feel frequently brittle I also feel tougher than I ever have. I feel like a warrior, like I did after my 2-day-long home birth with no pain relief. (I remind myself of the birth, a lot!) I see my reflection in a shop mirror while I push the baby in her yellow buggy, with my Nike Airs and my mom Parka and I note that I have washed my face and my hair isn’t too dreadful and I even put on mascara. And even if I don’t feel like it I say to myself: I’m still here. And even if I don’t feel like I am, I say: I’m nailing it. One day I hope Rosa will be proud that I am trying my best.
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I look at the baby looking at things. She reaches out to touch them. She laughs for the first time. The problem is the baby is so damn sweet. It has quickly become clear that she has come to colonise my heart and she is never, ever giving it back. Everything I had built up is undone. I am like a wobbly jelly on the floor: I cannot withstand anything. She cries in the car for what seems like forever, an exhausted cry; it sounds like a puppy whining and we, exhausted too, end up sobbing along with her (they should photograph this and put it on the side of condom packets). She smiles and gurgles in the sunshine and I can’t stop kissing her soft skin and she is so beautiful and new that I, still exhausted, feel my eyes fill with tears again. All this crying. This is the frontier of the new world we have created, and we are ruined.
I think back to my decision to have a baby and how at the time, it was impossible to comprehend the intensity of what we were doing. The fact that right now a whole human being almost completely relies on me day and night for all her physical and emotional needs is kind of terribly burdensome and terribly beautiful. All this time I am caring for her and she is responding to me we are developing this bond that started when she was growing inside me. When I walk in the room she turns her head and her whole face lights up with joy. I am the apple of someone’s eye, and it is adorable and exhausting.
The thing about babies is that they are so lovely and they are always there. It is a joke how much they are always there. I know this joke now, which comes into its own on a bad day when you think about having to do it again the next day, and the next and the next until – when? They go to school? University? – and every night too. Every night too! What a punchline. If I wanted I could worry about every tiny decision. If I wanted I could feel guilty about every mistimed moment, every nappy-wet-for-slightly-too-long, the time I plonked her on the bed just a little too hard because she was crying again. If I wanted I could go utterly mad.
Out on a walk, all three of us, I tell Adam that I am going to run ahead and it is predictably glorious, the lightness without the baby in my arms and the wind blowing and the speed I can pick up and the flashback to my previous life, or another life, one without her. But it’s only for a minute and I come back to them, like I always will, like 99% of me will always want to. But the coexistence of these two opposing desires fascinates me. I look at her, so small and beautiful and needing me: how will I ever leave her? And then: can I leave her now for a bit please? Us parents are all obsessed with getting our lives back, the milestones that show how independent we are or how grown up the baby is. But I can’t help but think these landmarks are there to distract us from the irrevocable thing that we have done. The truth of it is: you are never, never getting your old life back.
But, we must still messily staple our old and new selves together. The weeks and months are flying by but days with babies often last forever, so we go places every day, however tired we are. Even at the weekends I force her dad to agree to day trips out of the borough, and he humours me because he loves me and because he is kind. When she was a month or so old we took her to the Tate Britain and I nearly wept as we walked in – the fact that people make art reminded me how big the world is, how small our domestic tribulations are, how babies are sweet but there is other stuff – thank god! – in the world apart from babies.
There is other stuff in the world apart from our children. In the V&A I see other mums and we exchange knowing looks because we are remembering the other non-baby parts of ourselves, the fact that we are interested in art and culture and we are remembering the holy fact that in the world people are moved to make art.
People make art and they maintain parks and they parent too. The ratios of the parent in me and the other parts of me are still to play for. For now, I carry my beautiful baby everywhere along with all the silly stuff you need to carry for babies, and I ache all over. I breastfeed her a gazillion times a day and sometimes she sleeps in my arms. It is so bodily. I catch sight of myself in the mirror, laces undone because it’s hard to reach them when she’s in the sling and hair a horrible mess and no make-up – this stuff shouldn’t matter but it adds to my feeling of being all at sea, at the behest of somebody else who needs me and ensures I don’t have the time or will to put on tinted moisturiser. Sometimes a glamorous young woman goes past and tears spring to my eyes and then I laugh at how silly it is, all of it, her glamour and my lack of it and my concern for my lack of it. I can’t shake the feeling that that I am temporarily suspended from the real world or a world that is somehow more important, even though for me this is very real and very important.
In yoga the teacher tells us to think back to our third trimesters, our imaginings of our future babies, our curiosity about them. I realise I have not looked at her from this angle: how I know her now, thinking back to the ways she was growing inside me and the night she came into the world.
I couldn’t have guessed all the things about her. I guess the future is the story of her needing me less and less. For now, she grins at us gummily and leaps for joy when I sing her the bouncing baby song from baby class. Sometimes when she is crying and I know she isn’t hungry or tired, I take her outside and usually something about the change in air or light or temperature calms her. She stares at the trees searchingly, as if she has questions; in wonder, as if she cannot believe that they are there.
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Before I had a baby, I was desperate to know how I would feel overall about the experience of having a child and caring for her. There is so much information and hyperbole and marketing around this major life event, but I know (now more than ever) that my previous knowledge, the sum of the words and pictures I had absorbed, are scant preparation for how something will make you feel. I remembered reading an article by a woman who said something like I just found looking after young children frequently boring and depressing; I feared feeling like that too and yet I truly wanted a baby. Are we ambivalent about having children because the whole experience itself engenders so much ambivalence? Is it because we know it will be so hard yet feel compelled – thanks, biology – to do it?
In the early weeks I felt shocked by how I suddenly seemed to have lost everything – freedom, time, personal space, the luxury of sleep. Newborns do not necessarily make you feel, immediately, that you have gained something great in place of these things. It seemed like some giant, mean cosmic trick, to ensure our biological desire to procreate then triumphantly show you the reality: ha! This is what it is really like!
I realised I had known nothing about babies. I was overwhelmed by how much our daughter cried and how little I felt understood her, my confusion over what she needed and my perceived inability to soothe her. I was obsessed by the idea that we had a “difficult” baby and would compulsively ask people if they thought she seemed “normal”. At the worst points I genuinely wondered if we had made a terrible mistake in giving up our autonomy, and I remember saying to my dad do you think we shouldn’t have had her? It would have been easy for him to reassure me of the opposite, but instead he said I don’t think you had any choice. This calmed me so much in the moment: the inevitability of it, that we always would have had her.
Our daughter is now 9 weeks old, universes away in every sense from her first weeks. She smiles at us so that her eyes crease up and her mouth is wide open in a hysterical canyon of joy. She smacks her lips together after a feed and arches her tiny body like a fat little seal. She gurgles and goos when she wakes up almost like she is holding a conversation. Her eyebrows rise like Robert de Niro and she has these expressions: solemn, baffled, bored, surprised, non-plussed, joyous. The best moments with her are heaving with love and heart-breaking and the best things that have ever happened to me. It is like everyone said it would be, which makes it hard to write about in any kind of new or interesting way. It is hard and rich and fiercely full of meaning and emotion and significance. It is what I wanted.
We are learning to spend our days together; I am learning to do what all mums must do on maternity leave – fill their time but not over-fill it, rest, learn to go with the flow and take each day at a time, balance what the baby needs with what you need to make sure you can be a good mother and also an actual individual away from your baby. At times I feel like we are almost permanently attached to each other and strangely, for now, I don’t mind. All the clichés about the low bits are true: how mad and sad sleep deprivation can make you; how exhausting the guesswork of what does the baby need right now is; how tiring it is to endlessly walk round and round and round a park with a baby who starts crying again whenever you stop for a rest; how suddenly you are sometimes hit with an ache so violent to be able to go for a cocktail or catch a film or try that new restaurant that it nearly floors you.
Such is the fug of new motherhood with its hormonal fuckery and broken nights that I cannot follow conversations, can’t tell one day to the next, sometimes can’t even remember the mood of days previous. Looking back to the first few weeks of her life, I cannot recall much about how the hours played out, what we did day to day – already I have forgotten. I think about women and our biology and whether I still think gender is constructed and think feminist-heathen thoughts like I can’t believe they let us fly planes. I tell myself not to fantasise about a time when I am not tired but to see tiredness and this general state as a long piece of string I am riding on.
It feels necessary to constantly zoom out, else you could fixate on the fact that you’re singing Incey Wincey Spider again while you have a wee with the door open. People talk to you a lot when you have a baby, and older people often say these are the best years, don’t wish them away, and I believe them and that I must think of this long game, this bigger picture. In the future I think I will look back and see these early babyhood days in a summery blur and agree that yes, this was when I had everything.
I feel clearer about the nature of happiness than I have done before, and what I feel is that I am happier now things are harder. It is another cliché, the whole oh it’s really hard and tiring and a bit lonely and I miss going for long boozy evening meals and to the cinema BUT it is worth it because of how the baby has enriched our life! – and it is horribly true, for me. Every thought about maternal love is boring and predictable and just like everyone says. To us, she is perfect. Even when she is crying and the other babies are not, or when it seems impossible to put her down for more than 5 minutes, or when it’s 3am and I have changed the third nappy in an hour, I fiercely and whole-heartedly think to myself I would not change this about her. At first this felt like the strangest thing to me, but I have come to realise that this is real love, this total acceptance, this defence of imperfections or inconveniences because they are hers. I do not believe in fate or suchlike but somehow the way she is deeply feels like the way she was meant to be.
When she is crying, I look at her confusion and distress and think that it’s our job to get her through it, in this pre-verbal stage, by holding and feeding and loving her. I suppose it will always be our job to get her through it.
Sometimes at night I go to bed with her lying quietly beside me in her cot, her arms resting above her head, and I love her so much that I go through all the photos and videos of her on my phone because I need a dose of her before she wakes up a few hours later. This is the state I am brought to. This, apparently, is being a mother.
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(All unreferenced quotes from Penelope Leach’s 1977 “Baby and Child”)
Birth feels like the climax to long months of waiting but it is not really a climax at all. You were not waiting to give birth, you were waiting to have a baby. Your labour has produced her and there is no rest-pause between the amazing business of becoming parents and the job of being them.
It’s a summer’s day, the back doors are open, a bee buzzes outside. I am lying on the bed while my mum and dad potter around the flat clearing up and Adam looks after our brand new baby, that is, holds her while she sleeps and makes sure she continues to be alive. A plane flies by in the distance; people are on it, going somewhere. The fact that the outside world continues to exist is infinitely shocking and comforting.
There are things I haven’t noticed yet, that I will come to notice in the next few days, like: my daughter Rosa has a round wide face with the hint of being heart-shaped one day, and the best mouth I have ever seen, with a tiny cupid’s bow and the propensity to shape it into the sweetest o, all the time. Her limbs thrash around like she is conducting an orchestra, and she sometimes holds her fists in a comical squirrel-eating-nuts pose. She hiccups a lot.
The night after she was born I had a dream that she was lying looking at me and singing like a little bird in a high sweet voice with her little o mouth. I will need to hold onto this dream in the coming weeks, the idea that she will be a person, and not just this thing which, although strange and sweet and miraculous, could not be loved yet, because what the absolute fuck has happened to us and our lives?
During this settling period don’t torment yourselves by expecting love. Love will come but it will take time … You cannot turn on your love for your baby at the flick of a switch or the cutting of the umbilical cord. The mixed feelings you have for her now are neither a guide nor a warning for the future.
At first during the night feeds I have some kind of post-birth adrenalin spike and I relish these late night challenges: I feed her, write down the time and length of the feed, settle her, have a drink and something to eat. I CAN DO THIS! I think. She will either come for a feed crying and jerking or happy and alert and jerking, eyes like a little blackbird in the dark, and I will have to kiss her and kiss her. Come on ol’ blue eyes, I say, tell her about how she has ruined us, our carefree lives, now that this terrible weight of care is in it. I now know how much I didn’t know before she was here. I didn’t know anything, anything at all.
Several times in the next few weeks, exhausted by giving birth and shaken by awful hormones and the overwhelming relentlessness and responsibility of the task at hand, I will look at Adam and say what have we done? I will realise that there is a worldwide fucking conspiracy about how awful all this business of the first weeks is, and no one is allowed to tell you but they all know that this time will hold the entirely most difficult moments and days of your life.
It is the heartbreak that hits me so violently, the true realisation about my old life, now dead; and the partnership of two being over and my partner’s tired face and his tireless endless encouragement. Then the anxiety, convinced that something is terribly wrong with the baby, being too anxious to sleep or that she will start crying again and need you to feed her however tired you are, and how you think you hear her crying even when she is not (until she does). My google searches for this time reveal, depending how generous you are, the worried rantings of a new mother or an absolute madwoman. “Newborn how many times feed” “newborn won’t stop feeding” “newborn red birthmark on eye” “10 days old how many dirty nappies” “sore nipples” “mastitis” “baby fast breathing” “newborn spits up milk” “baby will only sleep on our chests” “how to stop baby crying” but all of them are actually saying the same desperate thing which is SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME.
Your newborn baby’s behaviour is a series of reactions to what she perceives as random stimuli … While she remains a newborn her behaviour will be random and unpredictable. She may cry for food every half hour then sleep without any for another six hours. This morning’s “hunger” does not predict this afternoon’s because her hunger has no pattern or shape yet … Her sleep is similarly formless; ten minute snatches through the night and a five hour stretch in the day till you nothing about how she will sleep tomorrow.
When I nap I open my mouth in my sleep just like she does and for a minute my confused brain thinks I am the baby. I think of how my own mother held me and I am desperately sad that now I have the real responsibility of someone else’s life, that I cannot just fuck it all off and get on a train and go to Oxford and lie my head on my mother’s lap. I cannot ever do this again. During one of the many hours when she sleeps on me, I see a coach going past the window to London Victoria, and an urgent part of me longs to get on it, alone, and from there somewhere far, far away. Perhaps to wander some backstreet of Venice or take a yoga class and go for coffee with my phone turned off, not answerable to anyone, but I guess I can never really be alone again. How thrilling and how terrible. To long to be away and to know how unbearable it would be too – what an awful, tender corner we have backed ourselves into.
Then one day we get her in the sling and she sleeps peacefully and we go to the PUB. One morning I sit with her while she is in her bouncy chair, looking happily at me with her bright eyes. One evening I rock her and sing to her in the garden and she actually stops crying.
If you can let it, your body will start loving the baby for you even before she is properly a person. Whatever your mind and the deeply entrenched habits of your previous life may be telling you, your body is ready and waiting for her. Your skin thrills to hers. Her small frame fits perfectly against your belly, breast and shoulder.
She has fat little arms and fat little legs. She sleeps like a frog on our chests, clambering upwards if she slips too far down, and we kiss her soft head. When she is two weeks old I have a massage in the same room where she was born and I realise that I have walked into this room every day since her birth and have not once reflected on that fact. Nor I have I remembered how much we wanted her, how much we dreamed of her for 9 months. Or thought how lucky we are that she is safely here and so beautiful to us.
As I come to try and write the “truth” down, I realise that this truth changes every day, minute to minute, and that perhaps this is why people don’t tell you it – because it constantly slips out of grasp.
In these days I will keep thinking of a letter written in to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar agony aunt column where the writer asks “WTF?” about their life. I will try to make myself remember her response:
The fuck is yours … That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
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“Gestation: the period of development in the uterus from conception until birth” – Oxford English Dictionary
“It could happen from any time now!” – everyone
The midwife has come to the house and is listening to the baby’s heart. Through the monitor it sounds like this: wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow, and I do not know if I will ever have a more favourite sound than this fast rushing stream. It is an old-fashioned moment: I am lying on the sofa while the midwife takes my blood pressure and checks the baby and Adam gets to listen to her through this old wooden trumpet shaped thing that looks as rudimentary as the tape measure they use to measure your abdomen. The sun comes in at the window and I know I will always remember this moment, so despite how clichéd it is I could weep. I do weep, frequently, these days. The culprits include strangers who smile kindly at me. Baby animals. Manipulative TV shows. I was always overly sentimental but at times I think oh come on! This will get worse, I know.
I am 39 weeks pregnant with our first baby. The uncertainty around exactly when and how she will arrive is mostly fine and at times unbearable. I am on maternity leave and all I do is sleep and re-pack my hospital bag and read my books about birth and do some cooking “for the freezer”, just like they do in the movies. It is lovely, and I am happy and mostly not too anxious and I know there is a thunderbolt coming and that there is nothing I can do about it.
Most nights I get up at 4 or 5am, starving, and eat a bowl of cereal and look at my bleary-eyed reflection in the hall mirror on the way back to bed. For the rest of the night I have the deepest, quietest of sleeps, as if my body is being kind because it knows what’s coming. In this last week my face has got fat and I care a little bit but not that much. I think maybe once I was an object of desire for a small, niche demographic of humans but I feel very far from that now. This is ok, I think. I waddle and I look like I am carrying a beach ball under my t-shirt. This bump is a perfect globe, one that makes me head to the loo eight times a night.
It seems like a long time ago when I peed on a stick on an October night and the result was POSITIVE then we lay on the bed, not embracing, not saying anything (except fuuuuuuuuuuck in our heads), until we dropped off to sleep. Any period where the seasons change three whole times feels like a long time. Now that era is nearly over and soon she will be here. Adam hasn’t got much work on at the moment so gloriously, we are together a lot, and I cannot resist announcing the significance of each moment – this could be the last time we go to the cinema with just the two of us! This could be the last meal we have out before we are parents! She could come today! She could come tomorrow! I say these things a lot but I cannot fully take them in. We wake up in the morning and it is just me and him, it has been this way for 6 years, it has been everything. From now on we will watch things reshape.
He takes a picture of me outside in a garden with this ridiculous bump and we know we will look back at the photo from the future and remember this moment fuelled with all its meaning and imbue it with even more. I have photos of my mum, pregnant with me, that are the same. I have photos of us all, as a family. We are living in the middle of what people call a special time. It turns out I don’t care very much about being original. It turns out I want what most people want. That the things that are meaningful for most people are also the things that are meaningful for me.
At the last scan (unless the baby is overdue, this was the last time I would see her until I see her) I felt more entranced than ever at this wondrous biology, at her gorgeous spine, at her perfect heart. I do not know why people need religion: nothing is more weird than the fact that humans and other animals grow their own offspring inside them, nothing is more strange and spectacular. Nowadays, I talk to her a lot and already I love her. Already everything is changed.
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“Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and this one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”
– Charles Baudelaire
- Contemporary central Vesterbro apartment
- Casa do Largo – 2 br Alfama Castelo in Lisbon
- A beautiful place to stay in Biddenden
When I was 20 I’d arranged to leave a big group of friends holidaying in a villa near Granada, Spain to join some other friends from university for the remainder of their month-long trip around Europe. The first part of the holiday was a dream group scenario: people fitting happily into either do-ers or lie-ers by the pool, lots of great food and wine and silliness and a roaring fire at night in a compound-style casa with old walls and an olive grove down the hill. We played games and sang songs loudly and I lay on a rock too late with a charming man who was not my boyfriend and crept to bed in the early hours of the morning, feeling just on the side of that being ok.
The time came to leave them and I got a lift then a bus to a wrong place then a right place and finally met up with the girlfriends I was due to travel with. We saw an old church and had a meal and stayed in a quaint B&B. Immediately it was clear that I had made the wrong decision. I did not want to be there. I did not want to travel around Europe for a month. In the toilet of a bar I tried to choke down the boredom and alarm of a panic attack. The next morning I told them it was not going to work out. I remember a few sympathetic faces and a few blank with incomprehension, the kind that make you feel infinitely lonely. (Since then I have not worried myself about people who don’t have enough imagination to empathise with the full, mad gamut of human neuroses. These neuroses are like multiple wriggling newborns; they are so alive.)
By the evening I was back at the villa. Everyone was very kind, one of the boys nailing that combination of teasing and compassion that allows those kind of boys to speak of Complex Things. “See,” he said. “I told you it wasn’t safe to leave the compound.”
My history is one of not wanting to leave the compound. I have begged to come back from holidays early, then come back from holidays early, stuck out holidays by counting down the days and generally wished even the best holidays were at least 1-2 days shorter. Nearly everywhere I have ever gone, even if the trip was by my standards a relative success, I have felt some of these feelings regularly, sometimes frequently: an acute sense of dread about “something bad happening”; hypochondria, usually related to sunstroke or food poisoning; fear of some kind of accident occurring or something preventing me from getting home as planned, like missing a flight or losing a passport; mighty tear-stained meltdowns precipitated by my frustration about these feelings; a terrible sense of being sick of myself; relief when I get home because I’ve “made it through” without anything awful happening.
Certain things make it easier: going somewhere with bigger groups of friends or family, going somewhere familiar, not going too far, not going for too long. There are exceptions to the rule – America (a bigger version of Britain) is further but much easier than North Africa. 10 days somewhere familiar can be less problematic than 5 more exotic. I seem to forget every time that this will be part of most trips, and each time feel surprised – oh it’s me again, this me. Alain de Botton observed this in The Art of Travel – we forget the person we always have to travel with, ourselves, as well as the difference between anticipating and actually going somewhere.
This gap between states is the paradox – coexisting with this anxiety I have huge, regular cravings for a “change of scene” which leads me to frequently plan holidays, usually when I see pictures that tell a certain story, even if it is not exactly the truth.I consistently forget that the reality of this change of scene might not be quite what I thought it would.
There are some places where I have felt an amazing sense of peace and calm, as I imagine you are supposed to feel on holiday:
Now I am seven months pregnant and our new flat is just starting to look like our home and it’s spring and I don’t want to go anywhere. I do not want to go to South Africa or Sri Lanka or India. I do not want to have dinner on the beach in Maui and I do not want to walk the Great Wall of China or travel on the Trans Siberian Railway. It seems like everyone else dreams of these things and other people’s decisions to do these things are immediately accepted as impressive and positive. The truth is that going to places just does not – usually – contain the truth I think it will. Its truth is messier, and for now I am done with it and I am done with trying to fix myself into a certain type of person, am done with apologising to myself. Like a stubborn alcoholic too fond of their fun, booze-addled persona, I have started to question how much I believe in self-improvement anyway – the unquestioning kind where we blindly put all our efforts into change, into creating the best possible versions of ourselves. To fight against our natures in this way takes a huge amount of effort and self-wrangling and instead I could be reading books or helping old ladies across the road or encouraging my future daughter to be a feminist.
I no longer care about being the intrepid type of traveller that I longed to be when I was younger, partly because it is hilariously over-ambitious and also because that person was tied up with how I wanted others to perceive me, and I mind much less about that as a 32 year old than a 19 year old. These people are so fundamentally different from me in almost every way, in terms of traits and values – I know that now – that wishing to be like that would mean wishing myself away entirely.
For now, I choose my life. I choose holidays in Derbyshire. I choose rainy disappointment and getting stuck on the M25. And then coming home.
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I have been thinking about how it is almost impossible to convey anything about your life without it doing some small violence to other people. Nowhere is this more evident than pregnancy, birth or motherhood, where saying or writing things as factual as “I didn’t have any drugs during birth”, “the birth was actually ok”, “my baby sleeps all through the night” can easily wreak havoc on someone’s self-esteem or self-confidence.
I am sensitive. We are all so sensitive. There are degrees of violence and intention – for a lot of the time people don’t intend to cause harm, and indeed lots of people are very careful to speak carefully or to stipulate that this is only the case for them, that for others it will be different. The worst is of course when someone tries to make you feel bad, or responds to something you have said to make it about them. This is terrible theft, and I know I’ve done it myself. So often we should just listen, it is the graceful and generous thing to do, but instead we say oh dear, sounds like you had a tiring night, I was up with the baby from 3am so I’m pretty tired too! And the other person’s space to speak and be heard is all gone, we’ve filled its place with ourselves. We feel like we had to say it, it was bursting out of us because we all need and want to be heard, but of course usually we don’t have to say it.
There’s a bit in my pregnancy yoga class where the teacher gets you to shake your arms and hands and legs to help let go of all the comments and unrequested “advice” because, as she says, “I will do exactly as I like anyway.” I have been very lucky overall and not had to put up with much of this compared to other people I know, but small things have got to me – advice not to have a home birth, certain comments on how “small” and “neat” my bump is (most of the time I don’t mind at all, and these are so well-intentioned! But once or twice I have only heard “inadequate”!) and, perhaps worst of all, the doom-mongering: enjoy lie-ins while you can, enjoy quality time with your partner while you can, enjoy going to the cinema or sleeping for more than 3 hours in a row or ever reading a book again for the next 5-18 years while you can. Even if this sentiment has a good degree of truth, it denies the fact that we are adults who will do our best to organise our time in the way it works for us, albeit under much more challenging circumstances, and it is so much more about the people saying it than the future of the parents-to-be. It is competitive anti-bragging – I am more tired, my life is harder than yours.
I can only conclude that we have got to this point by creating an industry around motherhood (and other factors too – we don’t bring up babies in true communities any more and are often alone with our anxieties). This is of course a double-edged sword – all the things written and spoken on the subject do serve to educate us to make our own choices. My mum said the other day how strange it was to think of all the women in the world giving birth to two, five, ten babies, doing this quietly, in war zones and refugee camps, coping without baby blogs and Baby Bjorns and baby yoga classes and NCT classes. We have it ostensibly easier with all these things, and yet all the chatter makes us go a bit mad. The internet is a relentless skewed showcase of other people’s lives and those other lives make us feel so bad, even though for the most part they have exactly nothing to do with ours.
This time in my pregnancy is very happy and mostly physically comfortable (I know by saying that I may inevitably be making someone else feel bad or sad!) compared to the first awful bit and hearing these kind of comments infiltrates this time and make it less perfect. It is a finite time, I am very aware of it, but it’s mine and I want to protect it. I know it is my responsibility to make this happen too, to avoid reading certain things or to say to people “I would rather not talk about that thanks”, because other people have a right to speak and be heard too. There are just generous and not so generous ways of speaking.
AndI know I am one of those women who is going to need to write in detail about the exact textures of extreme sleep deprivation and exhaustion and publish it on this blog, and therefore possibly and inadvertently make someone else feel terrified, and of course that is ok too.
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