A post from my collaborator, friend and writer Rebecca Megson-Smith.
Recently, I was talking with a friend who is about to become a dad for the first time. He asked me what it had been like as a new mum in those first few months.
I was amazed to discover I couldn’t immediately find the words to answer him. When I did, I quickly found myself soft-soaping the issue – ‘yes it’s tough, but you’re in a love-bubble with this new baby and, well, that sort of carries you through.’
A love bubble?! How on god’s green earth could that ever be useful information? I left the conversation less than pleased with myself.
Wall of silence
Not least of which because I’ve been working on a theatre project called the Milk Monologues over the past couple of years. The project has worked with over 100 mothers and parents, gathering and recording their experiences of those early weeks and months.
I’ve been intensely moved by the stories I’ve heard, and more than a little angered by the wall of silence that seems to persist when it comes to talking about early parenthood. There’s something about those first months. After the initial flurry of cards and flowers and visits, comes that moment when the door closes. Then, more often than not, for most of the hours of the day and night, it’s just you and the baby.
The door closes. We don’t see. We don’t really understand. At best all our cultural insights – on television and in the movies – either give us the comedy nightmare versions of parenting, or a glossy, usually whiter-than-white, heteronormal view of life.
That latter view is beautifully dressed. The woman (usually) is walking around in a golden haze with her baby, who mostly let’s her get on with all the things she needs to do in her life, and is adorable. A-dor-a-ble.
I have never met that woman in real life. Some women I’ve met come close. You know, they’ve washed and brushed their hair, applied make-up and, for the duration of our brief encounter, their baby doesn’t puke on their carefully selected outfit. However, I’ve also had messages from that woman at 3am. She’s sure she’s doing something wrong and it’s all going to end in catastrophe. She’s just so tired. Hell, I’ve been her.
Time passes and they grow bigger. They survive your parenting. They don’t need you every waking moment. Eventually they stop waking up at stupid o’clock (so I’ve been told…).
You’re failing them
And then the fog sets in about those early anxieties, and the challenges you faced: About being hooked up on an antibiotic IV drip 11 days into the life of your firstborn because you didn’t spot the signs of mastitis in time; about the months spending nearly an hour to get your baby to nap for less than 30 minutes. The nights of them crying, for no discernible reason, the baby fighting every form of comfort you offer them. And you’re so tired you can’t come to any other conclusion than it’s you, you’re failing them, you’re the problem in the room.
There are absolutely so many really beautiful, awesome, glorious things about those early days too, of course there are. But in the main you’re on a massive learning curve and you don’t want to **** any of it up. So of course your anxiety levels are high even if you’re actually doing a pretty good job, even if you’re enjoying a lot of it.
How was it for you?
But when someone asks, ‘how was it in those first few months for you?’ and you’re well on the other side of them, it’s like squinting down a dark and misty corridor of time. It’s not so much that the mind rewrites and softens the memories. It’s more that it’s a really complex question to answer.
And there’s also something more insidious at work here. There’s a bit of self-censorship, rooted in fear.
There’s a part of you that holds back, because you believe that maybe, just maybe, for some parents, it is a breeze. For some parents, that glossy happy shiny version of parenting is exactly what they’ll end up having. And then, won’t you look the fool? Won’t you have exposed yourself for the abject failure you were, for not getting it right, for not abundantly loving every last moment of your children’s babyhood when you had the chance to…
A village to raise a child
That fear is powerful. It silences us. It keeps the door closed, the full-disclosure kept safely locked up inside. But we need to work against that for the health and well-being of the whole community. For the new parents, the parents-to-be, the friends and family who may or may not be parents but who want to be there and provide support. We can only be truly supportive if we’re holding honest and open conversations and if we embrace the adage – it takes a village to raise a child.
So what would I say to a new parent-to-be? I’d say, let’s make the time and space for a bigger chat. I’d say, I’ll tell you how it was for me. Build your community now and don’t ever be afraid to call on it, people want to help. I’d say, when it’s tough you need to hold onto the fact you’re doing far better than you realise. I’d say, when it’s a breeze, hold onto the fact you’re doing far better than you realise. This isn’t just one conversation, it’s a dialogue that lasts a lifetime. I’d say, let’s keep chatting.
Rebecca has written more pieces on early motherhood, read them here.
5 Things Every dad needs to know before the birth of their child