babies

Bye Bye Baby

I don’t want another child. I was never especially maternal. So I never thought I’d be someone to mourn the passing of the “baby years”. I used to read stories of women’s sadness at saying goodbye to this time with, if not scorn, then at least bemusement. But you had those years with them, what gives? But now, I’m here.

My youngest child turned three near the start of this year, next August, he’ll start school. I went back to an office job at the beginning of June. It’s a seismic shift in my life, after 4.5 years of being a freelancer and stay-at-home-parent.

This week it’s been hitting me: the baby years are gone.

I thought I’d be pleased, entirely. I have tried to enjoy each step of my two children’s development and I’ve always relished the next stage, skipping ahead, looking forward without regrets. I don’t want to hold them back, or fix them in time. I love seeing them grow and become more independent. I see my biggest success as a parent displayed in their increasing ability to do without me.

And yet, and yet…

I find myself tearing up with regrets. Yes! Me! Maybe it’s a natural backlash to major change to glance back over one’s shoulder as your train leaves the station, wondering if you should have stayed one more hour, one more day.

A passage in a novel described a new mother “kissing every inch of her baby’s body” and had me welling up in tears. Did I ever do that? Did I stop, and take the time to explore his skin, lip-print by lip-print until I’d covered it with an invisible velvet of love? It wasn’t the author’s intention (I suppose) but, like all the bestworst parenting articles I read, it had me questioning myself.

Because maybe… I just got through? Maybe I didn’t stop and simply exist in love. Maybe I didn’t even feel that perfect, gentlefierce babylove they describe in stories. I am not doing mum-guilt here. I honestly do not remember.

I do remember feeling anxious, feeling the need to get things done. Being miffed by the books that said “leave the housework!” because, what is worse than sitting, pinned to the couch by breastfeeding and contemplating a huge, dusty mess? Ugh. I got things done, I met my friends, I did the grocery shopping, I went for long walks listening to music and exploring the suburb while the baby slept. I walked an hour a day, easily. I read books and newspapers. I produced a 48-page quarterly magazine for the local NCT branch. I cooked food and kept the baby fed. I went to the pub occasionally. I organised minor repairs and renovations on the house. I went to the park, to baby swimming, to coffee dates and tea with mates. Did I ever just kick back though, suffused with joy in my small perfect creation? I don’t know.

Probably I did? And maybe I still do. We’re all attempting to be more mindful these days after all.

Perhaps it’s that the moments of quiet joy are just that – so quiet and humble and unmemorable. You can’t recall them, much less write a whole 750-word column about them, unless you’re really smug?

In another novel, the mother regards her newborn as “the most perfect thing she’s ever seen”. OK it’s another one of those clichés, but I don’t know if I ever felt this either. Others must feel it, I believe that. Was I too busy, too sensible, too practical, too nervy to have allowed myself to feel that pure love and contentment? Did I have postnatal anxiety? I do remember describing that first year of maternity leave in London as “the best year of my life” and it was. I went back to work, eventually moved countries and had another baby, then spent another busy “maternity year” and beyond. In many ways, things have just got better and better.

But I can’t remember. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But now, I never will know for sure…

So I’m mourning a little. And it’s somewhat unexpected. Goodbye baby years and all your chaotic, scary, busy intenseness and boredom that means I can almost only remember rushing about and enjoying myself, sometimes frustrated and upset, other times happy and occupied but almost always with something-to-do rather than sitting in a post-natal haze of rosegold glow. Ahh, maybe that’s just my own version of it.

Whatever it is, or was, I find myself surprisingly sad to say farewell to that bright pocket of time as my life moves, ever swiftly, onwards.

21 unexpected benefits of being a sleep-deprived mother of two

Making music together

  1. I get things done in a crazy adrenaline rush with the idea that it might give me time for a nap later. Today I dropped my eldest at Kindy, took the empties to the bottle bank and completed my grocery shopping by 9am. I never take a nap later.
  2. I give less fucks about attempting my abominable German in shops now, and then switching halfway through to English anyway. Haben sie putzessig? Um… you know… für… putz-er-(mumble, mumble) cleaning?
  3. Sometimes I don’t even bother putting on makeup before leaving the house. This is a big deal for me.
  4. Likewise, I tend to choose one outfit and wear it all week. Maybe a fresh top here and there. Fuck it. Who am I trying to impress?
  5. When my husband’s away, I can get both kids through dinner-bath-story-bed in about one hour flat. If he’s around to help, it takes 3. Once they’re down, it’s wine o’clock.
  6. That said, I drink less. I just can’t handle the hangovers when I’m up several times in the night and there’s no lie-ins. So that’s a health benefit.
  7. I’m thin from all the anxiety. I may look haggard, I may eat poorly, but I am thin. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate that.
  8. Trips to the basement laundry room, rather than being a chore, are now a delightful “me-time” mini-break. Ditto for showers. 5 minutes when I can’t hear if someone’s chewing on the power cords or stealing each other’s toys. Bliss!
  9. When I see my friends, I can download information about everything I’ve been thinking, feeling and doing for the past week in about 30-minutes flat while we’re both kid-wrangling. My friend then does the same. We’re like socialising supercomputers. Or something.
  10. If I think I can hear my kid crying in the Kindergarten playground (it’s right next door to my house), I “just walk away” – maybe my heart is breaking but I gotta be callous and let him work it out himself. I’m so tired anyway: fuggeddabouddit.
  11. I used to be great at remembering birthdays, sending cards etc. Now they just whizz by and I don’t bother. Meh. Does the world need more Hallmark? I think not.
  12. Emails from friends are precious missives – I often read them several times over and look forward to sending my replies. Please write! 🙂
  13. I’ve become so efficient at clothes shopping – nup, nup, nup, yep that’ll do. At the moment, I no longer even consider dresses (because: breastfeeding), shoes with heels, “office wear”, anything with tight sleeves (can’t heft a baby with constricted arms) or anything too tight really, straight skirts (can’t sit on the ground), plain tops (show too much dirt), etc. It makes shopping very efficient, if rather boring. I don’t shop much for myself anymore.
  14. A night out is so rare, I get stupidly excited. I can’t believe I used to take this for granted! It’s almost worth having no social life in exchange for how wonderful it feels when I do finally get to go out of an evening. Almost.
  15. The precarious loveliness of small overtures – two playdates, a few yoga classes, a lot of information-sharing about our kids, and we’re becoming friends. We’re all just hanging by a thread, it feels like sometimes we just catch each other by the fingertips before one of us slips through the net.
  16. The look another mum gives you when you think you might have gone too far, but it’s fine because we’re all so exhausted and we understand.
  17. I’ve only got time to “play it forward” – I can’t remember enough day-to-day to return favours and I’d like to think we’re all helping each other as and when it’s needed. Plus, it’s SO NICE  when it comes back around.
  18. A true appreciation of the money vs. time/effort equation. Here in Switzerland I call it the “Going to Germany” conundrum (cheaper prices, but more time and effort).
  19. I’m learning to switch off my phone and shut down the laptop and try to spend “quality” time with the kids… um not right now as I’m writing this, obviously.
  20. Getting better at saying “no” or, at the very least, “not now”. It’s still hard and I don’t like it. But the saying-no-anxiety seems to melt away quicker with so much else on my plate!
  21. My emotions are much closer to the surface. I cry easily, whether it’s due to happiness, sadness, anger or stress. When I do something enjoyable (sightseeing, swimming, a good conversation, dinner out) I really love it. I may be finally learning to acknowledge my emotions. It’s a crazy time. I wouldn’t swap it.

Six Months

 

Six months I’ve known you

182 days

I’ve seen you asleep and awake

in so many ways

 

That transformative moment

as your eyes roll and close

slipping between time

where do you go?

 

My beautiful, funny, round-headed thing

with your gurgles and growls

a patient, determined little one

Love: mine and all of ours

 

How many times have I looked at you

touched you, waited til

I see your belly expand, a hand twitch with life

so you’re alive still

 

I need new words for your vocabulary

and the way you move

Watching as you change each day

grow and improve

 

The love for a child

gentle. wild. free

the adventures and dangers to come… fatal cliffs… my heart!

But right now, you’re with me

 

 

 

The Great Divide

grandcanyon

Ok I’ve enjoyed the first two months of new-motherhood but now I’m ready for some time off. Maybe a week’s holiday? Or a two? Perhaps I’ll tackle a fresh project now, or return to an old one – get back to my German lessons maybe… What’s that? I can’t? No leave can be granted? Well maybe I could just chuck a sickie? Nope, not that either. What… not even one day to myself?

Sigh – just one of the many laments of early motherhood – it’s relentless and there’s no holidays in sight. Especially at this stage. Feed, sleep, poo, repeat. And the baby doesn’t do much more than that either.

It’s got me thinking about the roles of mum and dad (in general) again. I say “again” because the last time I properly contemplated this was the first time Himself and I became mum and dad (specific). And let me tell you, nothing highlights the Great Divide between the genders* much more than having a new baby. This huge change in the status quo of your relationship is something I’m yet to see listed in all those “Why I’m never having children” articles, but it should be right up there. Alongside the zero-holidays policy.

When you’re the one parenting a new baby at home while your partner is back at work, there’s no getting around the fact that in these early months, you are doing the motherload of childcare (pun intended) and dad is, well, working. In other words, you’ve suddenly taken on very traditional gender roles. And it makes your day-to-day lives very different indeed. Granted, this was more of a shock to the system the first time around when we went from the relatively equal footing of both being full time working “people” to a Mum-at-home-with-baby and a full-time-working-Dad (as opposed to just full-time-working person).

But in a funny way, the gender gap is gaping even wider now. Because I’m also a “trailing spouse”, I currently exist in a weirdly segregated world. The only new people I meet are other women, mostly mothers and other expats who are also usually trailing spouses. The facebook groups I join are generally populated by females and are parenting-focused. I never come across males in a social capacity, unless they’re the partners of mums I’ve met. It kinda sucks.

On the flipside, I chose this.  And I’m lucky to be able to spend this time caring for my kids and not having to work for money outside the home. Himself would love to be home with them more often. If money were no object, I’m sure he’d quit work in a nanosecond (although how long it would take him to reach the boredom/resentment/need-a-break threshold I’ve just bumped into is hard to say… and I guess we’ll never know). If only it were easily possible for me to go out and find employment in this foreign country that pays as well as a male salary…

Not that I even want to work full time. Do I? I’d be lying if I said part of the appeal of this move to Switzerland wasn’t the sweet notion of being able to QUIT formal work indefinitely. Of course nothing is ever quite as good as it seems. And this is an almost entirely female problem. Not many men even get the choice of whether to quit or take a break from work to stay home and look after their babies, although it would be great if they had real options for this**.

As the kids get older, stay-at-home Dads become slightly more common. Slightly. [ASIDE: You don’t hear the male voice in parenting very often so I found it really interesting what Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in his semi-autobiographical book A Man In Love about the mind-numbing mundanity of life as a primary parent. It’s basically several chapters of Toddler Time but more brutal! I can’t imagine many mums admitting the “job” bores them so starkly although it certainly struck a chord with me.]

Then there’s the money and value factors. Of course, rationally, we’re equal partners who are both contributing valuable work so we can afford to live and raise a family. But in reality, it can be hard to see it as entirely “our” money or perhaps more importantly, half “mine”, especially when it comes to the more frivolous purchases I might want to make. And in terms of valuable work, sure I’m doing a very important job but, well, no one’s flying me business class to Boston to be a Mum for 8 hours then back again.

So it’s an odd conundrum. A paradox of feminism? We have the choice but we have no choice. And things aren’t equal, but how can they be? Parenting, at least in the first year or so, is not really an equal opportunity playing field.

In some ways I can see it’s actually worse for the dads – slogging away at a crappy job (all jobs are a bit crappy right?) and missing out on time with the babies that goes so quickly. Plus, he has to do a big chunk of childcare and housework too – particularly putting in the hours with our first child in this second-baby situation. And yet, and yet… he also gets to go out of the house every week day, he gets to talk to people who aren’t obviously involved in their own childcare battles about things that aren’t to do with kids, he gets validation for skills that have nothing to do with parenthood. And he gets the chance for 7-8 hours unbroken sleep per night. It’s not a competition, but if there were a ledger of achievements and sacrifices, I’d say sleep is a biggie.

Likewise, I’ve been wondering about breastfeeding and feminism. Is breastfeeding a feminist issue? Feminism is about choice and equal opportunities. So Bfing is another paradox. Sure you have a choice, but there’s also no choice, as in, no one else can do it for you (with rare exceptions), well, your partner can’t anyway. And, like giving birth, it’s in no way an equal opportunity situation between the sexes. So I’m stuck. But I chose this. But, only by dint of being a woman was that choice possible. And, based on where we are at as modern, first-world people and parents, it was in many ways the only option. So therefore I had no choice. But still… I chose this. Argh.

I’d really like a day off.

 

 

*I suppose this is true for same-sex couples (assumptions, assumptions!) if you substitute “mum” for “primary carer” and “dad” for “the one who continues to go to work”.

** I’m a total advocate of The Wife Drought theory articulated so well in Annabel Crabb’s book – for society to move on, men need a life and women need a wife.

Sweet Surrender

My new little Australian

“You’ve surrendered,” someone observed of me recently. And it was true. I felt a lot better over the Xmas / New Year period than a month or so back and a big part of it was accepting the inevitable: The new baby is coming. Soon.

The concept of surrender is a good one to practise when you’re about to give birth because, without getting into too many gory details, the whole process of delivering a baby tends to involve giving yourself up to the physical and letting it happen. Of course it doesn’t always go smoothly. But that’s the ideal.

After I wrote about feeling so down with Antenatal Depression and being afraid to give birth, I did some good things. I asked for help from various sources and I received it, for which I am very grateful. One extremely useful thing I did was “reach out” to some of my amazing mum friends, all of whom have given birth more recently and more often than me. I found their advice so useful in pulling myself together and writing up a birth plan that I’d like to share some of their wisdom here. I hope they won’t mind me so.

EMBRACE IT

  • Worry surfacing in late pregnancy is natural and obviously not feeling comfortable (in a foreign country) is going to elevate that.
  • Listen to yourself: your fears first, which lets you get to your strengths.
  • Every birth is different but the principle of surrender and embrace really helped me… I realised that with my [first] birth it was more painful when I was (not always consciously) holding on or fighting the pain but I had a fast transition when I started to give in to it. So with [my second baby’s] birth I did this from the beginning. When I had contractions I stood and circled a bit and said yes yes yes to try and embrace them. Don’t get me wrong there was yes yes NO yes times but I think this made it happen faster and in the end a lot easier than I imagined.
  • It is painful but focus that between contractions you’re not in pain. I was laughing joking apologising for yelling. For me an ipod of music got me through in my own world.
SECOND BIRTHS
  • It is a good idea to get a birth plan together but the whole thing will almost certainly be better second time round.
  • I was DREADING contractions as they were so awful when I was induced with [my first] but I found it much more manageable with [my second] as it built up slowly and only had about 2 puffs of gas and air during the whole thing – mainly cos it all happened so fast!
  •  In the end [my second birth] was very quick and I ended up on the birthing unit with [my husband] and a student midwife. It was intense but gas and air really helped me and I was totally up for considering other pain relief (and had asked for some) but [the baby] was just too fast and arrived after about a minute of pushing.
  • I had a terrible time with [my first] and ended up in theatre in a blind panic and having forceps and an epidural. This time my plan was very simple… try and if it feels awful, have an epidural. And that’s what I did. [My second] was born quickly and I felt enough to know when to push but no pain.

DRUGS

  • If planning pain relief gets you through the worry now then you should plan for that or at least acknowledge it as a possibility that is totally fine and acceptable.
  • A natural birth doesn’t have to mean totally drug free.  I’m totally for it but it’s not about being a bloody hero or a martyr.
  • I wouldn’t rule out anything, you’ve got to do what feels right for you. I hate all this stuff about giving birth a particular way – I think it’s just designed to make women feel rubbish at time when you are particularly vulnerable.
  • “[For my second] I decided that I wanted to go for the same again (water birth) but I was definitely much more open to the idea of drugs both when I was thinking about labour beforehand and during labour itself!
  • I asked for an epidural and no-one was shocked or judgmental (as I had feared). It was incredible. I felt calm and happy because the pain had been taken away and I had mental clarity because it doesn’t affect your head. I chatted to the midwives and [my husband] and he kept asking me when the drama would happen…and it didn’t.
  • In my case the natural birth choice was (imagined) pressure and once I’d realised it wasn’t really the decision for me I felt really liberated to have the epidural if I wanted it. Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect a natural birth, but it wasn’t for me. Who remembers in the long run anyway?
  • The good side of being in Zurich is not only quality chocolate and alpine air – you will also get the best healthcare. No short supply of drugs and no shame in administrating or using them.
  • You know however you decide to do this, I’ve totally got your back.

IT’S AMAZING

  • It sounds mad but I would do it all again (both of my different labours) in a heartbeat, even with the pain – it is so wonderful to hold your new baby in your arms that I would love to go back in time to hold them again when they were so new.
  • [My third] birth was painful but I knew I could do it and in the end I’m so glad I did. Over 4kg with no intervention no stitches… Good for both of us.
  • My birth second time around was brilliant. It was such a happier experience than with [my first] and it some ways it felt quite cathartic to have a good birth.
  • My two goes at giving birth are two of my proudest moments. I love thinking back on them.

 AFTERWARDS

  • It’s brilliant how quickly you can change a nappy from day one, not panic about them crying, know the signs of wind, overtiredness  etc. You haven’t got the chance to obsess over pointless things like the colour of his/her nappy because you have a lovely toddler to hang out with. Your life doesn’t really change because you’re already in a kid routine and they just tag along.
  • I was very anxious throughout my [second] pregnancy. Once [the baby] arrived though I felt loads better, and actually enjoyed it more this time round.

My new baby S arrived a week ago after a relatively quick labour with a natural birth. We are both doing well 🙂