You might ask yourself, “who is she to pen a book on parenthood?”. Am I a doctor? No (well, I consider myself, like many others, to be semi-qualified from the University of Google). Am I the first woman to have a baby? Nope. (I must be at least the eighth). In actuality, I am no more or less qualified than any other mother out there to comment on parenthood, but therein lies the point. When my son (now two) arrived, I had plenty of doctors, health visitors and experts with very specific qualifications to ask about the practical, medical and painful; but what I didn’t have were enough mums around me to just have a bit of a rant to. No one knows the minutiae of motherhood like mothers themselves, and to share is not only to learn, but also to halve your problems as the old adage goes.
In no particular order, here are a few of the things I have learned about parenthood in the last twenty-four months.
One of the most widely abused clichés you will hear when you have a baby is some variation of “Ah parenthood! If only it came with a handbook!” Guess what… it does. And it has done for quite possibly ever. Some of the most rudimentary prehistoric cave drawings included tips for successful baby-led weaning (this is entirely made up but who knows). But yes, there are thousands of handbooks – walk into any book shop and you will see the “Parenting/ Child/ Baby” section is probably taking over a significant percentage of the building; not quite as sizeable as “Cookery”, but thankfully now eclipsing “Celebrity Autobiography”. Not unlike picking up a travel brochure, or joining a cult, it’s up to you to decide what direction you want to take. If you don’t want to buy one of these mothering-manuals, you can walk straight to non-fiction and buy a nice holiday read, but if it’s a handbook you want, then no one can say they don’t exist. The trouble with advice books of any kind is finding the right one. There’s no point in trying to work out what’s wrong with your dishwasher by reading the clock radio instructions, and equally, applying a set of rules to a baby who isn’t responding or who needs something different is futile.
The First Weeks:
You can never fully prepare for the early days and weeks with a new baby – especially your first. Yes, you will be sore, exhausted, tearful, confused (and that’s just before midday) and wonder if it you will ever feel normal again. There will be days you feel on top of the world, and others where even a well-meaning stranger peering into your pram makes you want to run for the hills. You will want to punch people who tell you to “enjoy it because it goes so quickly”, but then, mark my words, it will go so quickly and you will wish you enjoyed it more. I think that’s one of the reasons women have more than one baby; so they can do it again and relish the magical newborn phase unfettered by the fear that came with the first (although it’s just not the same with an older child hanging out of you too). But don’t look back and berate yourself for not having loved every second or reacting like a superwoman at all times. Ask for help, accept it when it’s offered and be kind to yourself. The cocoon you find yourself encased in will soon dissipate, and you will have to deal with the real world again, so for the love of God, accept a few casseroles for the freezer.
I knew nothing about breastfeeding before I had a baby, other than it looked handy to travel without a consignment of bottles and formula, and it involved some sort of clever bras which unhooked like small travel hammocks. I literally knew nothing else. What I know now is that it is the most emotive – and sometimes contentious - element of motherhood. The mere mention of it seems to cause consternation. A mother was banished to a bathroom in a restaurant for breastfeeding, another was berated for going straight for the bottle in the maternity ward, yet another criticised for still nursing her child at the age of 3. The conclusion I have come to is that the happiest babies are fed babies, however that works for you. Yes, mothers need more encouragement and support with breastfeeding, but if you can’t or choose not to, that is ok too. And to anyone who saw me trying to feed Tom in that café in London at 6 weeks old, I apologise for being nearly naked. I hadn’t mastered it yet. I’m still pretending that is was my own mini-pro breastfeeding protest.
Maternity Leave is Not a Holiday:
Unless you have ever been exploited on a working holiday fruit-picking, or booked a week in a hotel where the shower was broken and you were woken on the hour, every hour to be vomited on, then you will not consider maternity leave to be a holiday. I surely don’t need to list all of the reasons why, and even those of you without children can imagine how much work is it, all whilst recovering from a pretty traumatic medical experience. And so it stands to reason that you must never, ever ask a new mother what she does all day, as she will be well within her rights to punch you. Just. Don’t. Ask. Be envious of all the coffee and cake and naps if that’s what you want to believe. And if you’re a mum who is asked this question, go for the punching option. You can blame it on hormones in court.
It was only some months after becoming a mother that I really saw the importance of mum-friends. I had lots of them back in Ireland, but because I had moved to London just before having my baby I had to start from scratch. And I realised that trying to make mum-friends was a lot like dating; and I always hated dating. The do-they-fancy-me looks across bars followed by the will-they-call-me mornings spent staring at phones that didn’t ring. I had to go through it all again albeit it in a slightly different way. Mums are just people too after all, and like when you walk into a bar, there’s no guarantee every person there will fancy you, just because you and someone else both have babies, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have anything in common bar a birth story. In the early “Baby Groups” I signed up to, I initially found no like-minded mums at all. At one, I downed a cup of tea so fast to get away, I scalded my throat. Still, not being able to swallow for three days was a fair exchange for escaping the clutches of the the Most Boring Woman in the World (Guinness Book of Records pending). But I persisted and eventually found some like-minded mums. Remind yourself that for every ten Mums you meet, one might be a potential pal. But even the other nine might just be what you need to get you through a lonely day. Or at least fodder for all your fake friends on Facebook the next day.
I had seen many of my friends who were parents, regular floored or left housebound and pale by various grim-sounding conditions brought home by their children like that angry little stowaway monkey in that film everyone forgets they’ve seen, Outbreak. “Virus” they’d tell me on the phone as I was warned to stay away for the tenth time in as many months, that catch-all term to describe any non-life threatening malady a baby/ toddler/ child picks up at a faster rate than Donald Trump picks up parody Twitter accounts. They all had tales of viral infections with weird names that sounded like they belonged on an airport poster warning of the dangers of not declaring you’d been on a farm; ‘Slapped Cheek’, ‘Hand, Foot & Mouth’, ‘Pinkeye’… Jesus, who names these ailments?? I’m presuming they all have fancy Latin names too, but it’s as if Dr Seuss came up with a more does-what-it-says-on-the-tin nomenclature for kiddy viruses to make it simple for exhausted parents. I had naively thought I would escape unscathed, but over the last year, we have had perpetually colds, one 3am hospital dash, croup, rashes and fevers. When he starts pre-school, I’m buying both of us bio hazard suits. Or maybe that homeschooling idea I was throwing around might be a runner.
The most important thing I have learned about parenthood is that is it crucial to give yourself a break. We are all doing our best, and although that might not seem good enough for Instagram or your old size 10 jeans, trust me, it is good enough for your children. Motherhood can be competitive, this is something I was warned about, but what I wasn’t told, is how supportive and wonderful other mothers can be too, and this is what we should be shouting from the rooftops.
Originally published in the Irish Times, October 2017