Lessons from the first year

Lessons from the first year

It is a very “newspaper columnist who’s running out of proper ideas” understatement, but: you learn a hell of a lot in the first year of a baby’s life. At least, I did. Some of it was stuff I already thought I knew!

Obviously, I can only speak to my own experience, but it’s difficult not to use the standard parenting-blog “YOU will think this”, “YOU find that” language – which is something I’ve tried to avoid in my posts so far. But today I’m giving in, especially because this one goes out to all the new parents, or expectant parents, who haven’t been through and come out the other side yet.

Hearing these things would have been comforting to me at the time. I hope they’re comforting for you. I know I’m not the only person saying them; but quantity also helps, because if we’re all saying this is how things are, we must be on to something. The fears and worries that come with being a new parent are completely normal. It still sucks to experience them. It helps to know that other people feel the exact same way.

1. A lot of the anxiety is unfamiliarity, and it will pass.

When it’s your first baby and you’re living in a typical “nuclear family” household – i.e. you’re not already sharing child-raising duties with other parents in a big communal multi-generational home, which is a huge failure of modern capitalist society – so much is completely new. You might have changed a nappy or two – in my case, probably twenty years ago because I’m an only child and all of my cousins are grown up – but there’s a difference when it’s changing every nappy. And doing the associated laundry.

You might have seen a baby napping in their capsule, or been at a friend’s house while their bub was asleep in another room, but it’s completely terrifying when it’s your baby, it’s the middle of the night, and you genuinely don’t know how quietly they breathe because you’ve never shared a bedroom with a newborn. I was checking baby’s breathing so often in those first weeks. When she and I were sleeping in the lounge (it was part of the system J and I figured out so we both got at least one decent chunk of sleep) and settling after her 3am or 4am feed, I would lie on the sofa, holding my own breath, eyes straining open, counting the seconds until I heard a little snuffle from the bassinet.

I still get up to check she’s breathing, some times – but the terror is gone and the anxiety has faded significantly, because we’ve been through so many nights together now.

I don’t demonise anxiety – it’s our brains’ way of trying to manage difficult and unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, it’s also good to be aware of when that anxiety is getting too strong, and having ways of reining it in. One thing I did a few times was allow myself ONE check – not five or ten or fifteen. Counting those seconds when we were going to sleep in the lounge was another – it meant I wasn’t getting up every five seconds to check her, and I knew how long it had been since I’d last heard her little puffs of breath.

2. Men can parent. Duh.

This one is obviously coming from my perspective as the woman in a hetero relationship. Even before baby arrived we had a lot of conversations, some funny, some very aggravated, about the way people talking about fatherhood. The classic is asking a dad, looking after his own children, “are you babysitting today?” because obviously it’s not really his job.

Since we’ve swapped roles – I went back to office work in November and J is now the anchor parent at home – it’s even clearer that the only fundamental difference between us is that I make my own milk. And if I weren’t still breastfeeding, or hadn’t been able to continue breastfeeding, even that difference wouldn’t exist. J changes more of the nappies. He takes care of the laundry. He has a much clearer grasp of baby’s daily routine, even when I’m working from home under different levels of COVID restrictions.

He’s not heroic for doing any of this. He’s a dad.

One thing I remember from our antenatal classes was a bit of advice: “Just because the other parent is doing things differently, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.” And I’ll admit that took a lot of work – especially because I’m an anxious person, and because as feminist as I am it’s really, really difficult to push past the constant messages we receive that men are useless, especially with small babies. Obviously they get to be cool and fun and engaged when the kids are older and don’t need food spooned into their mouths or their butts wiped, but young babies? The province of mothers. (Even my favourite author, Terry Pratchett, has a bit of that going on in the later Vimes books.)

But you can work through it. And you both need to be on board for those early weeks, because they are bloody tough – but it’s much, much easier to say that from the other side of it.

3. The baby will eat stuff off the floor.

Yes, babies need things to be pretty clean, especially in the early days. Sterilising bottles and other equipment is really important.

But they will eventually eat something off the floor and you won’t be sure what it is and they have definitely swallowed it by the time you get a finger into their mouth to check. And hang on, did you wash that finger?

If it’s poisonous or genuinely hazardous, don’t read this blog – get medical advice asap! But if it’s a scrap of paper, or a dried-up bit of grated cheese dropped during last night’s dinner, or a plastic straw they want to chew on for a minute … it’s fine. It’s probably good for the immune system. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a very tired mama who thinks raising an entire small human is a very big job and doesn’t need to be made even more difficult by trying to meet Home & Garden magazine levels of tidiness and vaccuuming.

The baby will also bump her head, a lot, and I promise you, you will figure out when it’s actually serious enough to warrant a rush to the hospital and when it’s only a whoopsie. See point 1. And also point 4.

4. Babies are pretty resilient.

You won’t do everything perfectly and there will be screw-ups and you will feel like the worst person in the world every time you wait too long to change a nappy, or the baby bumps her head because you stopped paying attention for a second, or she’s gotten overtired and won’t settle and literally nothing you can do will stop her crying, and oh my god, colic. Baby might scream and scream for hours, every evening, for no diagnosable or fixable reason, and you’ll already be completely exhausted, and it is impossible not to think that she’s going to be traumatized for life and it’s your fault.

Babies get through.

When we were in hospital, preparing for her heart surgery, the surgeon and anaesthetist came and talked us through the risks – risks we had no choice about taking because, let’s be real, her heart wasn’t working properly and needed to be fixed. But they reassured us that babies are pretty elastic and can recover from a lot.

And that was heart surgery. Colic has nothing on heart surgery: it’s mostly an endurance test. Again, I know: it’s so very easy to say that with hindsight. That’s where point 5 comes in.

5. You are pretty resilient.

There were plenty of times J and I both thought we wouldn’t survive parenting. Or that our relationship wouldn’t survive parenting. We’ve both said some pretty dark, hopeless things to each other and we desperately needed – and thankfully, were able to access – outside support to get through.

We got through.

And yes, that is much simpler to say with a good night’s sleep and a happy, squawking baby scrambling around your feet. When the colic is a fading nightmare and even the surgery feels like a blip quickly disappearing off the radar instead of the longest eight weeks of our lives. But it’s important to know it, and hear it, precisely because it can really, really feel like you’re alone. You’re not. Millions of people have done this, just like you.

Give yourself time and patience and a bit of leeway. You’re doing the best you can and it is more than good enough.

Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

The early pregnancy anxiety

The early pregnancy anxiety

Back to my one weird trick of writing up some of the copious notes I took before baby arrived!

So, we won the IVF lottery on our second spin of the wheel (I never know how to count it; is it still our first go if we only had to do the embryo transfer twice, but didn’t need to do all the hormone/egg collection rigmarole again?).

And it was exciting, and terrifying, at the same time. It also didn’t feel quite real – or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I didn’t let it feel real.

As I wrote in that previous post, every bit of good news just kicks off the next cycle of anxiety. A positive pregnancy test is only one step in confirming you’ve got a bona fide healthy pregnancy on board, and the moments of greatest excitement are also the moments of greatest risk.

I think I managed to not cry, not shed a single happy or upset tear, until the seven-week scan.

It’s the big cut-off point for IVF patients. Either everything is looking good, and they happily send you off to go find a midwife and carry on like any normal pregnancy, or, well, it’s not and you have to decide whether to go through it all, all over again.

I hadn’t had any bleeding (good sign?) or cramps (neutral sign?) and maybe just a little low-level nausea in the evening (good sign?), which naturally I turned into another thing to worry about because my mother had horrific morning sickness with me so maybe not puking my guts out was a bad sign??? But I managed to lock everything down into an itty-bitty box and refused to look at it.

Bottling everything up is not typically a great long-term strategy for mental health, but (personal reckons, and I am not a psychiatrist!) I figured in the very short term it was better than having a full-blown meltdown.

And then, there it was. A weird little flicker in the middle of a weird little bean-shape sitting smack in the middle of my uterus, on a big screen for all three of us (me, J and our lovely fertility doctor) to see.

I will happily admit I cried. That little flicker made it real.

(And it also made me angry because of that whole “heartbeat” meme that anti-choice monsters use to deny pregnant people the right to choose, and I didn’t want to feel angry and political in that moment. Though it is on brand. But that’s all a rant for another time.)

Although I had done my best not to get my hopes up, in case they were dashed, I had started talking to the baby. Trying to build a sense of connection to something not even a centimeter big. Hoping in a vague and ridiculous way that it would create a positive environment, a good vibe, some more luck. But it wasn’t as real as it became when I saw her on that screen, thumping away, oblivious to literally everything.

We all react differently. J started planning things. I bought one of those week-by-week antenatal books. This was pretty typical for both of us.

And it was all fine for a couple of days. Then I had a bit of a crash.

This is really where the title of this blog comes from, because the note I wrote on 3 September, four days after the scan, was entitled “Everything you do is probably wrong”. It was my first, proper, massive panic attack of the pregnancy.

If you’re like me, you start off thinking you’ll be sensible about it all. Just follow the normal guidance. Definitely don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Check the advice about food and exercise and sleeping and symptoms to watch out for.

And then, somehow, it all spirals into a freakout because what if the pet guinea pigs have contracted a rare virus from a mouse so now you can’t be in the room while their bedding is being changed and maybe washing your hands for the third time in 10 minutes will help??? on top of the ten other things you Googled today.

I could tell it was bothering J. Suddenly I was stopping meals halfway through to check if I was allowed to eat them. I was transformed from the stroppy feminist who’d happily rant about diet culture and food policing and the way patriarchy constrains pregnant people by creating an environment of fear and blame, into a nervous woman whose favourite phrase was “no, I can’t eat that.”

But it was really difficult to break out of it because it made total sense.

The fact was, at that point, if anything went wrong – if we lost our pregnancy – no one would ever be able to convince me it wasn’t my fault.

When our first embryo didn’t take, it was actually kind of easy to shrug and say, well, fertility science is basically witchcraft, they have no idea why it does or doesn’t work a lot of the time, it’s a coin toss roll of the dice cross your fingers kind of game. And it was even easier than that knowing we had an embryo on standby in the freezer, so we didn’t have to consider re-starting the whole bloody process.

But now – then, after the seven week scan – the baby was there. She had a heartbeat (see previous note about awful anti-abortion losers). And the only person who could screw things up was me. The doctors had done their job. J had performed his part. My body became the weakest link, and I just didn’t have a lot of faith that my body was up to the job.

The trick I always (try to) use with anxiety is: find the thing you can control. For me, it was finding a midwife. At the same time I felt like everything was exploding around me, I was scanning online profiles for a lead maternity carer, hoping I’d find the perfect person who would make it all smooth sailing again. Someone – a third party, not my partner or my mum or my best friends, who are obviously all biased and therefore liars – who could reassure me that every pregnant person goes through this stuff and comes out fine on the other side.

Thankfully, I did.

Photo by Barbara Krysztofiak on Unsplash