Three friends have had three babies in the last three weeks. It’s a veritable baby boom, people. One of them reminded me of the pitfalls of visiting new parents by posting this Huff Post piece up on facebook last week. My mind boggled over the guests who triggered it. Was it the ones who suggested popping to the pub, or the ones who turned up expecting lunch?*
Visiting new parents is a minefield, and if you’re not careful you can really mess it up. You can leave traumatised by a gory birth story, riddled with guilt because you took totally the wrong things or, worst of all, blissfully unaware of the havoc you have wreaked. As I’ve said many times before, parenthood for me meant apologising to my friends-with-kids. Primarily because on that first visit I had no idea. I mean I didn’t rock up with wine breath or anything crazy like that.. but you know, I just didn’t quite know how to behave. But I do now.
Take food. Yes, it’s that important that it gets three mentions. Take a staple, take a luxury, take something that can be stuffed in your gob while you do three things at once. Don’t text asking what they need and expect an honest answer. Just turn up with some stuff. It will be cherished. Seriously, you remember the bread & milk gifts as clearly as the cool gifts for baby. I learned quite quickly that if you take food, essentially, you rock.
Don’t stay too long. Now one person’s too long is another person’s warm up, right? But when it comes to new parent visits, limit yourself to one hour absolute maximum. Unless you’re throwing in a bit of cleaning/putting out the rubbish/taking the baby out type activity as a bonus (see next point), which earns you an extra 15 minutes. Energy is limited and there’s a hit-by-a-bus vibe in the air for a good couple of months so be mindful and vigilant. Even if you catch parents on a good afternoon it is highly likely they will wave you goodbye and then quite literally want to lie down on the floor with exhaustion. I kid you not - I did a whole series family phone calls lying on the actual floor because it was too much effort to sit on a proper seat. British parents will generally be too polite to say ‘please fuck off I’ve started to hallucinate again’, but they may be thinking it. Pay heed.
Today I caught up with a woman who has seen me at my worst and most vulnerable. Someone who has seen me butt naked, throwing up on myself and sitting in a bath that was 60% water and 40% bodily fluids of every origin. She’s quite literally seen all of me.
We sat in the sun (YES!), admired the ‘baby’ and his enthusiasm for snacks, drank our drinks and swapped ‘and how are you?’ stories. Then we said our goodbyes, took ourselves home and that was that. Now I’m feeling nostalgic. Wistful. And just a little bit sad. This woman was my doula, and she helped my son be born.
As soon as I knew what a doula was I knew I had to have one. Not in a must-have accessory kind of way, but in a must-keep-my-shit-together when having a baby kind of way. I was terrified of birth, fearful of pregnancy and dubious about my ability to enjoy the transition to motherhood. A doula seemed like a great way to man the barricades and give me a fighting chance at staying calm in the stormy winds of becoming a mum. She’d be a cheerleader of Team Me and Baby.
One of the first things I did after having my son was apologise. To the doctor for giving her hell during a particularly nasty part of delivery, to my parents for all the usual, but mostly to my friends with kids. My phone bill got large, as I called them all to say sorry one by one. I found new ways to apologise. Different ways to show I knew I’d done wrong. The babies who had come before who didn’t get a card, or a gift, and more shamefully the women that made them that didn’t get a visit, a phone call, or the chance to tell me how they were really feeling. I’m not sure I ever asked “And how are YOU?” with enough force or care.
But today I want to apologise to my friends who don’t have kids. The one’s I’ve not seen in months. The one’s I’ve bored senseless. The one’s I’ve confused with all of the “I *love* motherhood… I *hate* motherhood” rants and ramblings. The one’s I’ve patronised, or insulted, or just plain pissed off. I’m sorry.
Last week I was rifling through old school papers when I found a little piece of personal history. A time capsule style note I wrote in the 1980’s to my future great grandchild, with three key facts on it, the first of which was this:
Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister and has been for ages but I don’t know why!!!
The three exclamation marks are key to the analysis, right? I should have gone into political journalism after all.
Fast forward a week and ding dong dell, eh? The first people I texted once I heard the news were my parents. I still remember my dad doing a little dance when Robert Maxwell died, so I could but picture the look on his face. His reply? “I remember where I was the first time she died.” Quite.
There are several aspects of parenting that seem, at the time, to represent more than the sum of their parts. Things you do as a parent that reflect to the world what kind of person you really are. Things that embody who you are and what you stand for. The things of which I write are:
- How you feed your child
- How your child sleeps
- Whether your child has a dummy
If your kid is a dummy user I challenge you to admit you don’t have mixed feelings. That you feel not one ounce of shame when you’re out with your kid and his dummy. And if your kid is not a dummy fan, I bet you’re glad, right? Admit it, it’s ok. None of your photos will be ruined by the tacky sight of a dummy. You won’t be rooting around under a dusty cot at 3am or stalking the streets of a holiday town trying to find the right kind of ‘binkie’. Yay for you.
As a child I was a card carrying dummy lover. Yes, reader, I had one at bedtime until I was old enough to remember giving it up for an 80’s blue eye shadow. Which is fitting really, swapping one tacky habit that looks bad in a photo for another. The good news is that I don’t have buck teeth, I can talk for England and I only have a mild oral fixation (nail biting, you perverts) so it’s all worked out pretty well.
Except it hasn’t. My kid has had a dummy since about 11 weeks. It’s bought us some quiet nights, some disturbed nights, moments of relief matched by hours of searching for the bloody things in bizarre locations. I’ve likely spent a fifth of my salary on these weird little mini-boobs. I don’t buy the hype that it’s going to ruin my kids teeth, prevent him learning latin or whatever else ill side effects will befall him as a result. When I see or hear him sucking on it at night time in fact a little part of my heart melts. But should we get into a scenario where he has a dummy in public my heart melt turns to full on, head to toe-curling shame. And I’d really rather we hadn’t got into this.
What the hell is up with dummy shame? I’ve spent 20 long months trying to work it out and I still don’t get it, despite feeling it acutely. The dummy’s not the problem, and the kid sure isn’t the problem, so it’s got to be us that’s the problem. Is it because its plastic and tacky? Is it because it’s shaped like a nipple? Is it because it’s just a bit wet and sticky? I for one, don’t know, but I have a feeling if dummies were hand carved out of jojoba bark then a lot more middle class mums would be using one.
My mother doesn’t understand the issue with dummies. And neither do a lot of the Americans I know. They’re very WTF about the whole ‘ooh dummies, ewww’ thing. Babies like things that are far weirder than sucking on dummies, that’s for sure. Smearing their own shit on the wall. Pulling the cat’s tail. Raisins. But dummy shame is acute and real, and just one of those things that has undeserved cache in the parenthood armoury.
The shame manifests itself in strange ways, the most depressing being that I feel a real, palpable and actual physical sense of relief if I discover that someone I rate gives their kid a dummy. I do a mental air punch, and make a note of it in my imaginary dummy users notebook. It’s like bottle feeding all over again and it’s ridiculous.
Dummies, like bottle feeding, gaudy buggies and hideous plastic toys, are just one of those things you need to get the hell over when you have a child. By that I don’t mean that you have to join in. I just mean that they don’t matter. They’re not political or important, and they are not a yard stick by which to judge someone by. I know this now but my pre-child self had put dummies on my list of things I was going to do without.
I now laugh at my pre-child self with that hollow kind of laughter you reserve for the really, really stupid. It’s a dummy, folks. It’s not a bloody cigarette.*
*Ok, so this whole post is a long winded excuse to reproduce this picture of a smoking baby doll. Brilliant, isn’t it?
The baby has started walking. At long last. We waited 20 months and it finally happened. If you don’t have a baby you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. If you do have a baby, and that baby walked between 10 and 15 months then you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. If you had a late walking baby then you’ll know where I’m coming from. I’m fist bumping you, parents of late walkers.
20 months is late. It is way late. It takes a certain kind of patience on everybody’s part. Patience when you’re carrying your 13 kilo ‘baby’ around and he’s half your height. Patience as you watch your non-walking toddler insist on crawling around on the filthy ground. Patience as kids half his age walk past him. Patience as you patch up another pair of trousers that got torn to shreds. But most of all patience when other parents say things like ‘it’s easier when they don’t walk!’, and and ‘it will happen when it happens!’ and ‘it doesn’t matter when they do it..’. Oh man, you need patience for all for that crap. Because it is crap. My life is 1000% easier now he’s walking. Without a doubt. I mean, it’s no biggie. It’s not a problem per se, and this whole blog post reeks of WTFness. But a baby who refuses to walk til 20 months is a bit of a hassle. Trust me.
The whole not-walking thing tested the patience that I don’t have harder than anything since the whole no-good-at-breastfeeding thing. The one thing you need to parent in vast quantities seems to be patience. I’m trying, really hard, but all of my patience went on waiting for the baby to walk. Now I’m afraid it’s all run dry.
So he’s walking now and that’s all dandy. And boy is he happy about it too. Stuck in crawl-mode, he was frustrated. Now the whole world has opened up and it’s amazing to see. He’s discovered a tap, a cupboard and an Exit sign on the walkway just outside our flat which have brought him actual minutes of joy. Plus his determination has kicked in stronger than ever. This weekend at the park a woman came over to admire his obviously new found walking skills: “He know’s what he wants doesn’t he?” she said. Yes. Yes, he does. And now he can walk, I think he can have a go at getting it too. Bravo.
Today I had the misfortune to see a video clip of myself from summer 2011. My son was 10 days old. I was laid out on the coach looking floppy and jaundiced, wearing my go-to ‘safe’ nightie and leggings for the 10th day straight. I was having a break from the baby and waffling on about my birth story, as new mums are wont to do. No doubt I was giving inappropriate detail to my Step-Sister-in-Law, who was 3 months off giving birth for the first time herself. (I am so, so, sorry SSIL)
I was mad, reader: unsteady, shocked, deliriously happy but fragile as hell. On the video I look tired and yellow, but otherwise normal. In fact, eerily calm. It’s weird to see how normal I look, when I remember feeling so insane.
One thing I was grasping for at this strange time was the knowledge that other women had felt the same. That it wasn’t just me with the problems, the mania and the intense confusion. I searched for and found it it in all manner of places. But of all the places I found it, I can honestly say that the best source of all was this book: What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen.
Reader, I love this book. I keep a copy by my bed pretty much all the time, where it has stayed since I first dipped into it when Ted was just 11 weeks old. Back then it was a life line: I’d dash to read even just half a page of it whenever I had a hand free, and nodded in recognition so many times I’m sure I wore out of those tiny little neck bones that you don’t really need. It got me through some confusing times, and made me cry tears of relief, joy and disbelief that other people got it. It was like discovering the Smiths when you’re a teenager, but a bit more of a hassle, to be honest.
Stadlen has spent hours talking with new mums about their experiences and feelings. From her work and research came this book, which is stacked full of quotes from real mums that illustrate the highs and lows of early motherhood. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of early motherhood and the chapters are titled using direct quotes from mothers she spoke with. Just reading them gives me goosebumps:
Nothing Prepares You
I Get Nothing Done All Day
So Tired I Could Die
I Was Surprised I Still Had the Same Name.
You get the idea. It’s like every conversation you have ever had with another new mum poured into book form and as such is a total work of utter genius. For every mum quoted who you identify with there will be one who you don’t. As such it is a brilliant reminder that in motherhood we’re united yet divided. That while we find community and solace from other mums and parents, we’re on this journey all on our own.
Now this book sits by my bed as a reminder of what once was: the intensity, confusion and vibrancy of those early days that now seem like another life. I’d buy a copy for every new mum I knew if I didn’t secretly think it would diminish its magic. Like a weird, enchanted goblet.
Photo taken by Matt Preston and reproduced under CC license
A friend recently did a face swap with his baby and shared the results on facebook. You know: his face on his baby’s face, and vice versa. Reader, it was as disturbing as it sounds. And as tempting as it was to try this with my own baby, I held myself back.
When my boy was born he looked like he belonged to my husband’s side of the family which thankfully, he did. I was a hairy, dark baby and my husband a bald, pale one. We got a bald, skinny, pale baby and I thought he was gorgeous. So in love was I that I thought his forceps scar made him look like Ziggy Stardust. Oh, really. Having my own baby to fall in love with put paid to my theory that mums who had ugly babies were just pretending to think they were cute. Surely, I thought, they could see it was a bit squinty? A bit wax granddad? In a word: No. There is no way this has ever happened in the history of the world of people having babies. Ever.
Since all new mums think their babies are beautiful all we really need in the looks department is for our newborns to look a bit like us. But it doesn’t happen, does it? All babies looks like the dad and it’s a bummer. You’ve just given birth, nobody gives a shit about the state of your vagina and all people want to do is tell you how much the baby looks like the daddy. It’s one of life’s great chafing moments.
When the baby does start looking like you it is great. But with it comes the risk that you find out what you really look like. Imagine, for instance, that you have a weird or notable feature and that the baby has this too. Maybe you didn’t know it was that weird or notable, or had chosen to forget. Well your nearest and dearest are going to flag it up to you whenever they get the chance. As are strangers. Think about it. That baby at the library with the crazy big drug eyes? Look at its mum. You see what I mean? One friend’s mother in law loves to point out how big her grandson’s mouth is. “It’s so big! His mouth’s so big! Just like yours! God your mouth is so big! Just, WOW!” And on it goes, apparently.
I don’t need to face swap to see my own unfortunate little face peeking out from my own kid’s face. He has my tendency to sit with his mouth open, catching flies; he has my tiny mouth, my husband’s monkey feet (sorry, hon) and also his translucent, worrying paleness. Sometimes I look at him so much that these things are hard to find, but then other times it just jumps out at me, askance. He’ll look up from some puzzling task like putting a lid back onto a yoghurt pot and there I am. It’s me. Looking back at me. Scream!
Around the time I became a mother I found myself reading two books about adoption. The first was Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay, fierce and marvellous Scottish poet and novelist. I lay in the bath with my massive belly for hours on end reading this book; my mouth ajar as I read her story of tracing her birth mother, birth father and all the mess and sadness that came with it.
The other book I read at this time was Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson, which tells a different but similar story. Of Winterson trying to figure out her adoptive mother and her destructive behaviour; of her attempt to trace her birth mother and of the author’s own unravelling. If you’ve read the semi-autobiographical Oranges are Not The Only Fruit, you already know how cruel the author’s upbringing was. This book fills in the gaps. It’s gasp-worthy how tough her childhood was.
I’m not adopted, I should make that clear. But for some reason I was drawn to these stories about adoption when pregnant and newly mummed up, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I was obsessed with identity, life stories, and the tentativeness of my new child’s life with all its possibilities. The weight of the new responsibility felt complex and both more of a joy and a burden than I’d expected. The mess of childbirth, parenting, and the catch-your-breathness of facing your new life, your old life and everything in between sent me in search of these stories.
I recommend both books. They’re gripping, sad, funny and both women spin a great yarn.
And in Why be Happy… I found these words. They stopped me in my tracks back then, and they still do so now:
Birthing is a wound all of its own. The baby’s rupture into the world tears the mother’s body and leaves the child’s tiny skull still soft and open.
The child is a healing and a cut. The place of lost and found.
Photo by Backpackphotography on Flickr. Under CCL.
I love it when I find great descriptions of birth or early motherhood in the unlikeliest of places. So I’m starting something called Mother’s Bookshelf so I can share the good words I find. This month it really did come from the unlikeliest of places and that place was How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee. Who’d have thunk it, right? But on page 129 he describes his recovery period after an arse operation. Read this, women with children, and see if it reminds you of anything:
“…my bleeding arse, my orange piss, my contorted stomach, watching my blood bubble around the needle in the drip, feeling the cool saline fluid in my veins, suddenly losing and gaining and losing weight, feeling like a tube of screaming meat whose only purpose was to process the muck I ate and crap it out the other end… had made me acutely aware of the physical world, the pungent world, the world of flesh. I was poised to make something of it.”
It put me in mind of the body shock I have written about before and will no doubt write about again. Giving birth - however you do it - is so incredibly grounding with the physical world, and yet an experience that also propels you out of your own body and into orbit. That with the recovery comes such feelings of weakness, but also such depths of strength. You’re a superhero, but you’re nothing. These feelings are worth remembering.
Giving birth is better than an arse operation, admittedly (and sometimes, you get both at the same time. HAH!). And it brings the heavenly additional bonus of feeling like a brilliant creator of something other than crap. But still, the feeling of being reduced to processes, machinery and a hell of a lot of mess still resonates.
The book is very funny. You should read it.
Photo by Backpackphotography and published under CC license on Flickr