In the first part of a three-part series “What They Don’t Tell You”, Emily Writes looks back at the early days of her children’s lives and wishes she knew that no parent knows what they’re doing.
I’m on the very cusp of leaving babyhood far behind me. My youngest child – my baby – turns five in January. I have been in deep denial about this, especially since he’s my most baby-like baby. My firstborn Eddie has always had an independence that impresses me. He has always run as fast as he could into the world; maybe that’s due to not always being well enough to do so. He knows very well what it feels like to be on the outside looking in.
My youngest, on the other hand, prefers the comfort of my arms or his father’s. He prefers softness and safety – one of his first words was “warm”. Once when looking at photos of his father cutting his cord after he was born I could see in his eyes he was wondering why any tether had to be severed.
For all of these reasons, he’s my baby. My little one who always prefers my lap to any other place, hiding in my skirts or burying his face in a blanket whenever anyone else is around. He’s not a people person – he’s just a his people person.
Raising two immensely different brothers has been the greatest joy of my life so far. It has been fascinating and frustrating in equal measures. They give me anxiety for different reasons and are also my most calming influence. This more than anything is how I see parenting – now that I’ve been doing it for seven years.
It’s a mess of magic contradiction. And as I prepare to move definitively to the next stage I can’t help but consider whether I’ve learned anything over the last five years. Would I do anything differently?
Turns out yes. For a start: I wouldn’t even bother with a cot. I adore my children but they’re absolute turd sleepers and I’ve accepted that now. For years and years, my youngest slept little more than 45 minutes at a time. It felt like I was living in a nightmare for a lot of the time but the fact is that some kids just don’t sleep.
And some kids really need to sleep with you. Just like adults, they like to sleep beside someone they love. Just like adults, they sometimes have nightmares, get thirsty or hungry during the night, or just can’t sleep. Sometimes they just need you, and that’s ok.
So, I’d have saved the $1000 I spent on a fancy cot that neither kid used and instead I’d have bought myself a night nanny and then just head off for the weekend with my husband and forgotten about the kids for two days.
But most new parents are smarter than me and wouldn’t have wasted the money buying a brand-new cot like I did (at least it has a new home now where it’s being slept in) so that’s not good advice.
A better lesson is that you can have too much stuff, and you should put that down right now and not buy it. My god, I have accumulated so much garbage in these many years of parenting and I need only one-tenth of it.
I remember buying our buggy when I was just six weeks pregnant despite the doctor telling us not to because of miscarriage risk. The woman in the baby shop looked at us with all of our youthful exuberance and saw dollar signs. She convinced us we needed not a buggy, but a comprehensive travel system or else we were already bad parents. We left with all sorts of shit: a laydown bed thing and a sit-up thing, and a thing that turned into another thing and the only thing we needed was the coffee cup holder.
We bought a wind cover AND a rain cover. They’re the same thing!
If I were to do it again, I’d have borrowed a sling and bought a stock standard buggy and left it at that. What I did need, that you just can’t buy no matter what scam artists claim, is sleep. So much sleep.
That’s hardly a lesson for everyone either. Is there a definitive lesson?
Possibly. If I was to do it all over, I’d have asked for help sooner.
I’d have let go of the shame that makes us believe we are meant to just know how to mother. I don’t mean experts – I mean people who genuinely care for you. People who care for you, not for profit but because they love you and want to help you.
So much of my first months and years with my babies was spent wishing I was better at it all. Wishing I knew what other parents knew – how to get my child to sleep, how to get my child to eat, how to get my child to stop licking the hand rails on buses.
I know now that somehow through the muddle I raised two really gentle, kind and lovely kids. I wish I’d been able to go back to new-mum me and tell her that you don’t have to know what to do. I wish I’d known that everyone has their mess. Everyone has their behind closed doors life and their public life and nobody is perfect.
There are things I can’t change – I can’t care less about breastfeeding, it’s done. I wish I hadn’t struggled with thoughts like “How will he know I’m his mum if I can’t even feed him”. Now those ideas seem so utterly absurd! But how could you ever know just how little so much of it matters when you’re stuck in it?
It’s like being drowned in French fries. The dream but also a nightmare. I said so many things to myself that seem so utterly bonkers now. “If they don’t sleep they won’t grow; if I don’t get them out of the house every day they won’t have enough fresh air; if they don’t eat more fruit their teeth will fall out; if I let them have a dummy their teeth will be munted.”
Their teeth are fine.
I convinced myself of many things. That letting them sleep in my bed meant they’d never leave it. That picking them up every time they cried like I always did would make them clingy. None of it was true. They’re innately who they are and thank goodness.
To follow the lead of your child is the best gift you can give yourself, as well as the best gift you can give them. We look for a training manual, of course we do! We want to do the best job that we can. We want to do everything right because we’ve never known a love like this.
But the guide is them. They’re telling us what they need in their own mixed up, muddled up way. They need warm, they need freedom, they need to be baby and to be big. They need it all, in a million different ways, a million times a day. And we chase behind.
And then suddenly that time is over and the next chapter dawns: Exciting, terrifying, wonderful, exhausting, precious and fleeting.
The only thing that changes is the questions you have for yourself at 2am. The truth of how to handle it all stays the same – your guide is asleep. Beside you or in the other room, always in your heart.
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