11 days away. Away from work, routine, our second language even.
11 nights in 3 different beds. Sleep. Lots of it for a change.
We drowned in tea and coffee, visiting here and there, enjoying catch ups and overdue reunions. Hugging a little longer, saving up the embrace to sustain us ’til the next trip. Easter maybe?
Oh how we laughed. We laughed at grandads with knees not quite up to laps round the sofa. We laughed over card games, a family back together, competing gleefully for pennies on the countdown to midnight.
We cried too. Cried at goodbyes, a little ache wondering if it’s not time to move back.
And yet, as a familiar skyline appears from the clouds, as Frankfurt’s financial district beacons the plane home, all is reset.
Wir sind gelandet. We are back. Back where our daily routine awaits, our friends, our tiny, significant only to us adventures.
It’s a new year. A year with few big plans, yet plans to make little changes for the better: less stuff, more doing. More present, less distraction.
The wheels tough down with violent control. Wir sind gelandet. We are back to a life we are grateful to have chosen. Reset. Refueled from time with loved ones. We are in the right place however hard it is to say goodbye.
If you want my advice – and, really, I am not sure why you would. I have no official qualifications, limited experience, and a back catalogue of mistakes and mishaps -, but if you do, then there are only three things I would say to you if you are about to have a baby upend your life. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my new upside down life. It’s a major improvement, but nonetheless, it is a life upended.)
Firstly, and perhaps surprisingly, I would advise you to think twice before you keep reading. Seriously. Perhaps the best thing you can do right now is to stop reading, go and make yourself a coffee, and watch an episode of Gilmore Girls. The Internet, when it comes to parenting at least, is about 99% opinion and 1% fact. (Figures based entirely on my experience and not, of course, on fact.) Opinion can be great, but it’s worth remembering that Google will throw up millions of hits to answer your baby-related questions and most of those answers will be anecdotes from others in the same boat. When my son was very young, I got lost down rabbit holes of opinions, until I realised something that is perhaps obvious: for a lot of baby-related questions, there are no simple answers. Or at least not ones you can find via Google. Google doesn’t know you, your baby or your environment.
Questioning what I looked up and, most importantly, where I looked it up, was a real help. The Internet is very useful when used carefully. For health questions, I consult the NHS Website. As a Brit it is familiar to me, and it is written by experts in health. Along side this, I have found a few writers who I like for their amusing take on parenting, their tendency to tell their stories without giving advice, or their all-forgiving, frankly honest anecdotes that make me feel a lot better for my mishaps. Making this conscious choice to limit the amount of time I spent searching for answers helped me feel a whole lot better about myself. I enjoy articles about parenting from sources I have evaluated and have come to like. And, above all, I stick to one rule like glue: never read the comments. Reading the comments on any piece on parenting will leave you believing that there is no correct way to feed, clothe, put to sleep, or hold a child.
My second piece of advice would be to think twice before you say you’re fine. I don’t know many new parents (i.e. people whose kids are under 18…) who haven’t had at least one period of enormous stress. For some of those in my acquaintance it was a traumatic birth, for others it was a baby who would not sleep or feed. For me, it was a combination of exhaustion and anxiety, dating to before my son was born, that sent me spiralling downwards. And when people asked how I was, people who would have been more than willing to cook some meals, keep me company, take the kid for half an hour, or simply reassure me, what did I say to them? Oh, me? I’m fine, thanks.
Finally, I firmly believe there is a time not to think twice. Deep inside all of us is a very little but very loud voice that tells us what to do. It knows that gadgets and baby paraphernalia isn’t the answer to a baby that won’t sleep, so it will tell you not to waste your money. It knows if having a baby that cries for a while before sleep suits your style and it will tell you when enough is enough. It won’t judge you either way. It knows when it is time to be a strict with your toddler and when it is time to loosen the rules. It knows it is okay to feel sad and frustrated in a time that people will tell you to treasure. It knows. Don’t think twice when following the only advice giver you really need. Your instinct’s got your back. Trust it.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been given a lot of advice. Some of it was sought. Some of it wasn’t. Most of it was well meaning. Drabs of it were interfering. In the end though, a lot of it had to wash over me. In the end, I had to figure it out for myself. I had to enact a careful combination of asking for help and ignoring offers of help. I had to figure out when to seek advice and when to ignore advice. I had to think carefully and practice not thinking at all.
Most jobs come with, what, a six month probationary period? Maybe a year? You learn the ropes, find a good mentor, figure out the fastest route to combine the photocopying with a coffee run, and then you’re on your own. You’re in. You know how stuff works, what is expected, and what goes down when. Done.
Well, more than a year and a half into my new job, and the things I don’t know vastly outweigh the things I do. I don’t know, for example, how to get a baby to sleep. Haven’t got a clue. There are a few tricks that work with my kiddo, but not consistently, and definitely not efficiently. And sleep, that’s a pretty big one. That’s like learning who your line manager is. It’s probably in your interests to figure it out on day one.
I am also not sure how to raise a child. Seriously. I don’t know where the line is between caring and killing with kindness. I don’t know how much is too much when it comes to giving attention. I don’t know how much is too much when it comes to leaving them free to be independent.
It goes on.
I don’t know if I should hover at the playground, ready to catch him, or leave him free to learn from falling over.
I don’t know if I am dressing him too warm or too cold.
I don’t know if I am feeding him too much or too little.
I don’t know if I do right when I gently say, ‘no, sweetheart’ or raise my voice with my ‘absolutely not!’
I just don’t know. Every single day, I don’t know.
What I do know is this:
He doesn’t care. As long as I am there, he is happy.
He doesn’t expect me to have all the answers. As long as I still give the world’s best cuddles, he is fine.
I also know, for sure, that my intuition knows better than Google. I know (well, I tell myself daily, at least) that just because someone else does it differently, it does not mean that I am doing it wrong. They are not wrong either. We all just do the best we can, in the way that works. I know that no habit is unbreakable, and that trial and error is tried and tested.
In all that knowing and not knowing, there is plenty more to learn. If I was on probation, I’d have exceeded the limit for a reasonable number of questions. I’d have a boss ready to give me the elbow. I’d be updating my CV desperately, looking for the place I fit.
Fortunately though, this job comes with little in the way of an interview. Fortunately, though, I am as qualified as anyone, working hard and getting paid in love. Fortunately, when it comes to this job, the person doing the hiring had a permanent contract ready for me from day one.
I decided preparation was the key, so out came a plastic sheet for under the high chair, newspaper for the table, and some water and a rag for faces, fingers and the floor. Perfect.
After decanting a little red and a little blue into the lids from their respective pots, then placing the remaining paint well out of arm’s reach, it was time for the artist to take a seat.
Naturally, he didn’t want to.
Why? protested his little voice. Why are you making me put on a big bib and sit in my high chair if there is no food? Not an unreasonable question, I suppose.
Following a little persuasion – me driving the paint roller over the newspaper and saying weeeeeee – the little voice’s protest turned its attention to the new toys in front of him. The protest changed from, I am not remotely interested to I want to play with them all, right now, simultaneously.
And so we began.
My idea was to pass a rainy morning, have some fun, and create something to delight grandparents. My son’s idea, of course, was to make as much mess as possible. After some initial fun rolling the paint around, using the dabbers (I am not artistic; I don’t know what they are actually called), and tipping the paint from the lids directly onto the canvas, I decided it was time to make something “nice”, It was handprint time. Lovely. They will be worthy of any grandparent’s fridge.
Leading by example, I added my print first. The look on his face said: what? I can paint my hands, too? Yes! I want some of that, thank you very much. And so the chorus of more rang out. We made our first impressions together on the canvas. Mama and baby’s hands. Side by side. Perfect.
I whipped the composition away, wanting to preserve our finished work. I knew what was coming, of course. Quite rightly, his little protests said: Are you kidding me? You call that finished? I am only just getting started.
For me, the handprints were perfect. A child is rarely still, their growth is never static. This small square will serve forever as a moment frozen time, a way to remember just how small those fingers once were against my guiding hands. Tomorrow, with another new word, another new skill, it will seem as if they have grown again.
My little artist doesn’t care about prints though, at least not just one of them. And neither do I want him to. With me satisfied, we started afresh. The handprints stood aside to dry as we really got to work. One hand print, then another, then another. Blue, green yellow. Sponge dabs, roller, finger smudges. Creating, learning, laughing.
When I was first a new mum, and I mean really new, just weeks into the job, I was constantly looking for connections. My husband had gone back to work, most of my friends worked, and I was lonely. I was tired, too. Really, really, bone-achingly tired. (Although little did I know, I was going to get a lot more tired before I got less tired.)
Fortunately, I am not a particularly shy person. I would go along to parent groups, feeding circles, baby sing times, whatever was on offer, and chat to people. I’ll chat to anyone, actually. I like other humans. I am, however, an anxious person. That might seem like a contradiction, but it needn’t be. I like being amongst people. I love meeting new people. It’s just that sometimes I come away from social situations feeling anxious, agonising over what people thought of me or feeling foolish for saying the wrong thing. The idea of being with people appeals to me a lot. The reality usually does. It’s just sometimes I get a hangover from it.
So, I went along. I was a joiner.
And it was awful.
Not because I met awful people. The opposite, generally. I met nice people, almost exclusively new mums. We were all in the same boat, looking like seasoned sailors – and now, when I think back – presumably all feeling like the captain of a sinking ship. And yet the loneliness persisted.
I’d arrive at the parent meet up, roll out my blanket, watch O. kick around for twenty minutes and feel sick with discomfort. I feel sick writing now, remembering the room that always felt too hot, and the gentle hum of women talking and babies gargling that irritated me so.
Afterwards, I’d agree to go along for coffee, feeling like I needed a driving license for the pushchair, grinning inanely through the suspicion that my kid was the loudest and the most unsettled. Sipping the one cup of caffeine I allowed myself then, back when I was overly paranoid that my milk turned directly into everything I consumed, I would sit and listen as we talked feeding, napping, burping, nappies, and dummies, and want to be anywhere else.
Then, I’d come home, feeling deflated. I’d tell my husband that O. and me were failing mums’ group. We were always a bit late, always the most likely to have forgotten something, and always the most likely to cry (either of us). In the end, I just stopped going.
Of course, I see it differently now. I see that probably a good half of the people there felt the same. I see that I was tired and sensitive, and, given I was working in a second language, would misconstrue questions for judgement, advice for reprimand.
But I also see that other people weren’t the antidote I needed to loneliness. What I needed was the right people. I got on well enough with the women I met. They were all nice, thinking back. They were all friendly. However, the only thing we ever knew for sure we had in common was motherhood. And it wasn’t enough. We never, ever got to know each other as people, just as parents. We defined each other as X’s mama or Y’s mum. That is just a recipe for losing your sense of self completely. I am Helen, a mother. Not a mother, Helen.
So, what changed? Initially, nothing. I had some tough old months. But, I started to feel better, and that’s when I found my team. I met, though a mutual friend, a group of other parents. And yes, we talked feeding, napping, burping, nappies, and dummies, too. However, we had an initial connection, a mutual friend. We have stuff in common, as well: we are all from different countries, our kids are growing up away from grandparents, we knew when we were introduced a bit about each others jobs and backgrounds, so could talk about that too. For whatever reason, this group of people clicked.
And it turned things around.
I learned an important lesson when my son was born. People aren’t the necessary answer to feeling alone. Back then, I needed to be around people with whom I could feel vulnerable. Complete strangers were not the answer. At different points in your life, you need your avengers, the people with whom you can be yourself, an individual, but know that the people around you have got your back. (You know, to fight those space alien things that don’t keep regular hours and spit toxic goop at you.)
Sometimes I see people that I met when my son was very young, and I feel embarrassed. I just stopped going to any of the meet ups or answering messages. I couldn’t explain that while everyone seemed nice, I wasn’t able to hang out with strangers when feeling so tired, so down all the time.
Luckily, by leaning heavily on my husband and a couple of close friends, I did okay until the time when I found the gang that worked for me. You can also learn to feel okay with being alone; that’s something I learned, too.
Our little team is just one little team. Everyone needs to find theirs. Because, yeah, the talking nappies and naps, day care and tooth care may seem boring and cliched and – at times – down right disgusting, but it helps. It helps no end. It just also helps if you can do all that and still get to be yourself, too.
Make the most of it they say. They grow up fast. This time will soon be a distant memory. And yes, I know what they mean, and I know they mean well. I find myself looking at photographs of our baby from twelve months ago, unable to believe how much has changed. It’s a fact: my child is no longer a baby. He doesn’t fit in the carrier anymore. When he sees me put my shoes on for work, he doesn’t get sad. No, he points and says “ca-ja”, so that I don’t forget my coat. He still needs me and his dad, but less so and differently. Believe me, I know that time goes fast.
However, I am always reminded of an acquaintance of mine who asked me, when my son was only a few months old, if I got irritated by people commenting on how fast the time goes. She joked that there were plenty of days when hers were babies that could have gone faster. That comment was a breath of fresh air. Because, like every stage of life, the reality is that there are parts that there’s no making the most of. There is nothing enjoyable about nappies, for example. In my son’s memory box, there won’t be pictures of me or my husband at 4 am, wandering around the flat, humming softly while our insides scream with tiredness.
It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your time on this Earth, the make the most of it mantra fails to consider the nuances of living. It sells happiness as a choice, but I am not buying it.
It’s not just parenting either. There are lots of times we are told to embrace the moment when it’s not that easy. Take university, the freedom and possibility is a double-edged sword; it’s a wonderful time of chance, but also a time when the future is unsure and daunting. I will always be grateful for that time. I recognise it was a privilege. But it was a lonely time. It was a scary time.
Now I am safely in my thirties, I see young couples, and I too think: enjoy this time, this freedom, this youth whilst knowing it is not that easy. I have no idea what challenges they face, despite their apparent lack of responsibilities and carefree smiles. They could be without a job, living through an illness in the family, wanting marriage or a family of their own and unable for whatever reason. We are all masters at hiding what is going on behind our eyes.
Yet, I can’t dismiss the call to embrace the positives and look on the bright side. However, I think it is something we have to learn. We have to be guided by experience to really see what matters and what is worth making the most of. Otherwise, we just end up feeling guilty for not being happier. (Telling a new parent, on their knees with tiredness and questioning every decision that they should cherish every moment is only going to make them feel worse, believe me.)
In the end, I have learned that it comes down to treasuring what matters: the “adventures” my son and I go on; the comedy-drama that is lunchtime, sharing beans on toast followed by bananas and peanut butter: or the quiet moments, when it is me and my yoga mat, my book or my absolutely-the-last coffee of the day. In doing so, I build up my resilience for the harder times. The times when I am tired and frustrated and feel like I am failing. The times when I am pulled one way by work and another by family.
Oh yes, I am treasuring this time. I am making the most of these freely-given cuddles. I am aware of the privilege it is to watch him grown up. Already too many things are a distant memory. But I won’t feel bad for feeling bad sometimes. I won’t feel bad for finding parenting hard or frustrating. And I say the same to you, in whatever “make the most of it” phase you find yourself. Make the most of the times that are worth making something of. Appreciate what you have and forgive yourself when you don’t feel like making something of everything.