The way most people react even to the idea of a baby crying, you’d think it’s the worst sound in the world, nails on a chalkboard multiplied by chewing tinfoil to the power of someone slurping their soup. “There was a crying baby” is shorthand for “the experience was completely ruined and I derived nothing of value from it”. And I used to think like that.
I have to emphasise that it wasn’t having a baby which changed my mind, it wasn’t the magical (mythical) “you’ll understand when you have one of your own”. It was years before baby came along, when I simply came to appreciate that babies have no other way of communicating. And when you need something, as a baby, it’s pretty bloody urgent. And god, who wouldn’t love to just sit down and have a big wail about things sometimes?
That cry, on the bus or at the park or on a plane, wasn’t and isn’t about me (or you). It was about a baby who has a need (and they’re a baby! They need it now!) and a parent or carer who’s doing their best to diagnose and correct the issue as quickly as they can – and how could you feel anything but sympathy (especially when you’re on a plane)??
Now that I do have a baby on my own, I’m glad I went through that bit of personal growth. It’s easy to see why parents get to the end of their tether, once you add that full-bore open-mouth bellow of infant anger on top of the sleep deprivation and constant underlying terror of childrearing. It can feel like the baby is just making more noise specifically to make you explode or join them in crying. And it really helps to remember: this is the only way she can tell you things are wrong. She wishes she could make it stop herself. She simply can’t. She’s a baby.
And sometimes I’m not the person who can help, because I am at the end of my tether, but that’s only going to be made worse if I’m also telling myself that the baby crying is a personal moral failure on my part, and that being unable to pick her up because I’m so damn tired, or nurse her because my boobs were too damn sore, means I’ve failed. It’s definitely going to be made worse if I’m fielding unsubtle, contemptuous glares from supposed grown adults in my vicinity who want to pretend that children don’t exist in public areas.
Now sometimes, if a baby’s having a tangi in public, the answer is to take them out of the situation they’re in. But that’s still about what the baby needs, not placating antisocial melon-ballers.* We all have to recognise that some caregivers don’t have the choice to not be on that train, or not do the shopping a that time, or have no space or facilities to feed or change or nap the baby right now.
(I was just out at a nice Wellington bar the other night which had no changing table in any of its bathrooms. I changed the baby on the floor, and she was well grumpy about it, and I did not try to stop her crying because you’d complain too, lying on a cold floor with your bare butt in the air).
Sometimes the baby cries and there’s no fixing it. She’s fed and clean and warm and just really, really tired which only makes her less likely to go to sleep. Or she’s a tiny creature full of big feelings and can’t say “I’m experiencing some existential angst, mama” yet. And what matters, in that moment, is that she needs me, and she needs to let her feelings out, and I want her to know that’s okay, and she will always have someone to snuggle her while she gets it out of her system.
She’s a baby. Sometimes, the baby cries.
*Melon-ballers: the most useless kitchen utensil and yet one we’re all supposed to put up with
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.
Last week, baby had a fall from the sofa, onto the carpet, onto her head. There had been a couple before – onto her butt, which is very well padded – and the sofa isn’t high, but this was terrifying. She paused for a moment, she cried loudly, she was comforted quickly. So far, so good (except for the fall). Just one of those moments you freak out about at the time but really, just something that happens to every baby, right?
Except you do have to take every blow to the head seriously. Even if every bit of literature says it’s probably nothing serious, they all conclude but get it checked anyway. That’s nice and straightforward. So I called Plunketline and waited, and waited, and was presented with my first dilemma: did I keep waiting, or hit the number 3, which was tantalisingly presented as offering a quicker response from a Healthline nurse who could do triage. I mean, the baby’s condition wasn’t “hang up immediately and dial 111” serious, obviously, but was she “take up a triage nurse’s valuable time” serious? Or only “wait your turn” serious?
I pressed the number 3 and felt terrible about it. The lovely nurse – I have only ever had positive experiences of Healthline and the Plunket line, even though almost every call has been more about my own anxiety than a genuine medical issue, and I think they understand and empathise with that – went through the checklist. No vomiting, no unconsciousness, no floppiness, acting like her normal self. Probably fine, just like I thought, just like the literature said, but then again, at the end: but get her checked face-to-face by a doctor.
I hung up, and did a huge melodramatic sigh, and thought, “Really???”
It’s a situation that feels like a dilemma because you know that in 95% of cases the doctor will find nothing wrong and you will have, in some sense, “wasted” their time. But the 5% of cases where things are more serious justify every single one of those 95. On the other hand, you have so many cultural narratives about parents – usually, specifically, mothers – being too sensitive, too concerned, too worried, not “letting kids be kids and take a few bumps”. You really, really don’t want to play into that, or worse, have other people think you’re playing into it.
I was determined to do the right thing, with “better safe than sorry” going around and around in my head. But boy, did the baby pick the very best day to test me on this, because there was a massive pile-up on the motorway, the local medical centre had literally no doctors available because the roads were closed, the local community hospital had an estimated 1.5 hour wait and because there was clearly nothing wrong with the baby we were bottom of the queue, and we ended up going all the way back into town to our GP who happened to have a free slot.
So add worrying about being stuck in traffic forever – I had no idea if the gorge was still closed or how long the gridlock would take to disperse – with, now, exposing the baby to multiple places sick people go to the pile of evidence that I am the world’s worst mother. I mean, I obviously let her fall off the sofa in the first place!
The brain can only handle so many things to stress out about simultaneously.
She’s fine. She checked out. But there was one more hurdle to clear: just on the offchance everyone had somehow missed signs of a concussion, we – I – had to wake the baby in the middle of her sleep cycle, in the middle of the night, just to check she would rouse normally.
No parent ever wants to hear the phrase “check she can rouse normally in the middle of her sleep cycle”, am I right?
It felt like a kind of penance, setting an alarm for 2am (and knowing always that I’m already lucky having a baby who sleeps pretty solidly) and shaking her awake, hearing her startled, indignant crying begin, realising she now needs a feed and a change and all my hopes of just gently easing her back to sleep were shattered.
But why the hell did I have to do penance?
Explaining these thought processes feels like trying to teach someone a recipe in a language neither of you speak. It makes no sense. Babies have falls, and helplines are there to take your call, and doctors are there to check them over, and waking them up is a good thing. Nobody did anything wrong in this situation. Yet the starting assumption of my brain was: yes you did, at every conceivable stage of this process. And not just this process; everything. You are at all times and in every way a Wrong Mama.
It’s an exhausting way to live. And it’s dangerous, because when all that anxiety gets on top of you, the instinct is to not ask for help. You feel like you’re being silly or paranoid or overthinking things. You’ll just look like a fool if you go to all that bother for nothing.
And maybe you are, and maybe you will. But you’re allowed to ask for help anyway.
The baby had an unusual 3am wake-up last night – and I know I’m very lucky that that’s unusual for her, but it doesn’t make the shattered sleep patterns any easier to deal with – and ended up lying back in bed, around 4am (after feed and burp and change and pump) with my two favourite people on either side of me making their usual snuffly and/or snorey noises, reflecting on a mantra that got me through those earliest weeks at home when it felt like I’d never sleep again.
It’s enough to just lie here, in the quiet and the dark.
We spent the first week of baby’s life in hospital, and I was absolutely sleep deprived – she was on a three-hourly feeding-and-top-up cycle for jaundice and I was trying to learn to latch her and still knocked flat by the C-section and in a strange room with strange noises and lights and midwives appearing what felt like every five minutes to take my blood pressure. In a way, there was just so much going on that I didn’t notice how tired I was. I’d gone through “tired” and out the other side. But you can’t keep that up for long.
The second week, once we were home and lost the massive omnipresent support network the hospital offers, that was when things, specifically my and J’s brains, started to break.
There is a piece of advice that gets passed around pregnant people: sleep when the baby sleeps (and its corollary, clean the house when the baby cleans the house). It’s a lovely theory, and on the few occasions I’ve managed to do it, it’s incredibly healing. I think that’s why I’ve shared it myself – it does help, when it works.
But the fact is, some chores still need to be done, if you want to have a bottle to feed the baby with (or a mug for your own precious twilight cuppa) or cloths to wipe her butt. Sleep gets pushed down the priority list pretty easily, and when you finally get to it, on a timer that could go off any minute, it feels impossible. As though you’ll never sleep again and the only possible outcome is putting your brain in a robot body.
Like a lot of obligations, it creates a cycle of anxiety. You know you need to sleep in order to function and if you don’t sleep you’ll feel worse so you need to sleep and all the time you’re spending worrying about not sleeping is time you are not spending sleeping which you know you need in order to function … etc etc etc.
On top of that, you’ve just gone through a huge series of changes. Again, you don’t notice so much in hospital because there’s so much else going on. But back home, in your own bed, without the distractions of beeping machines and doors opening and closing in the corridor outside, you try to revert to old patterns. Except those were the patterns you had when you were pregnant. You’re not pregnant any more and you’ve barely had the opportunity to realise that. You don’t need to do those pre-sleep Kegels any more – or at least, not for the same reason. Which might mean – it did for me – having a little cry because you missed out on the birth experience you were hoping for. And then you wonder if your knees were always this hard, before those months spent wedging a pillow between them to alleviate your hip pain. And hang on, which side do you even like to sleep on when there isn’t stabby sciatic pain making that decision for you?
Finally, it’s the wee hours of the morning, it’s dark and you’re alone and all the worst thoughts your brain can conceive of start bubbling to the surface. It becomes very easy to believe that you can’t do this, and there’s no one around to contradict and affirm you. I mean, you can’t even get to sleep in your allotted sleep hour, how can you possibly raise a baby?
And that’s where the mantra comes in.
It’s enough to just lie here, in the quiet and the dark.
It’s not sleep, but it’s still rest. It’s a moment of stillness. It’s not getting any of the “real” things on your list ticked off, but it’s what you need to get them done tomorrow. And when those intrusive awful thoughts came crowding in, for me, it was something concrete and simple to focus all my attention on. Sometimes, that would be enough to get me off to sleep. And if it didn’t – if the baby had a nappy explosion or an offensively loud truck drove past the house or next door were having a party (on a TUESDAY? You MONSTERS) – it was the best thing I could do, in that moment. That was the job, even if it was “just” lying in bed staring at the ceiling.
It didn’t make everything magically perfect and easy, but I am absolutely certain it would’ve been a lot worse if I’d let the anxiety goblins feast on my delicious brains instead.
There were mantras for other times, too. Maybe I’ll write about them next time.