Summer read: Maddy Phillipps’s son is one and no amount of sage advice could have prepared her for the past year. Here she shares five major lessons from 12 life-changing months.
First published October 24, 2022
Recently my son turned one. I am not big on birthdays, preferring to celebrate my own by skulking at home and feeling guilty about not replying to messages on Facebook, but this one felt surprisingly momentous. Unbelievably, my partner and I had sustained human life outside the womb for a full calendar year. And here was me thinking my life had peaked in 1999 when I was in the audience on Ready Steady Cook. Though I don’t believe that having kids is a prerequisite to a full, purposeful life, no year has taught me more than this one.
These five lessons from those 12 months were the most surprising parts of new parenthood for which no books, Instagram posts, well-meaning colleagues, distant relatives, or parenting subreddits managed to truly prepare me.
Lesson #1 – Birth is a trip
Unsurprisingly, my induction into motherhood involved a birth. Officially, my birth was an NVD (normal vaginal delivery) at Birthcare. Unofficially, it was a deranged, sleepless, three-day hormone bender that stretched from Saturday night through Tuesday morning. It involved cranking house beats, numerous showers, a birthing pool, McCain oven chips, the entire BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries, copious amounts of vomit, and lots and lots of “No!”s.
Then, just when it was feeling like my second year at Otago uni revisited, A HUMAN CAME OUT OF ME. The human cried then immediately shat on my newly jelly-like empty stomach, and all of us were covered in blood and poo and vomit, and I ate a muesli bar and had a cup of milky tea, and my baby fed then drifted off to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep for the next six hours because I was still so high on hormones and the fact that I’d actually expunged a tiny mewling boy from my innards.
Those are the facts, but they don’t do the experience justice. The whole thing was so surreal that it resists description. Ever since, my mind has been consistently boggled that so many women I’ve encountered in my life have had this out-of-this-world experience (obviously, no two births are the same, but having seen photos of a friend’s C-section with her organs draped across the operating table, I am confident that all methods of baby-extraction are the stuff of pure madness).
Before, I had always seen birth as a cuddly kind of thing, all soft pinks and blues and fluffy ducks and little hats. Nothing could be further from the truth. Birth is hormones and total presence in the moment and blood-red gore. Birth is a life-changing, mind-altering, psychedelic, consciousness-expanding trip. Who needs ayahuasca when you can have a fucking baby?
Lesson #2 – Parenting is relentless
Once the initial high of the birth subsided, I was brought crashing down to earth by the realisation that now my partner and I had to keep that baby alive and well. This was… an adjustment. Even my most soul-crushingly busy work weeks, where I’d hunched over my laptop early in the morning, late at night, and on the weekends, paled in comparison to sustaining a newborn. I was now required to feed and change and launder and soothe literally around the clock, no matter how bad or sad or tired I felt. When my son needed something, the buck stopped with my partner and me.
My new life as a mother felt relentless: the sleep deprivation was bad, the breast engorgement was bad, my perineum and lower back were very very bad, but the worst thing of all was the 24/7 sense of total responsibility. I sometimes wished my son would reverse birth himself, just for a little while, just to assuage it. Parenting felt like being on permanent retainer to the world’s most demanding client, and I imagined I would never be free to chill out and enjoy life ever again.
I wasn’t wrong, exactly. Parenting is still constant, and still tiring, and my ability to read a single news article, much less a book, in peace remains severely curtailed. But, surprisingly quickly, being fully responsible for another human life simply became the new normal. Cleaning stubborn poo from tiny testicles? Easy. Administering Pamol in your sleep? No problem. Lovingly preparing a healthy, balanced meal knowing that there is about a 20% chance your kid will eat it, but that’s OK because you get to forage for smooshed and hurled scraps after they go to bed? Standard.
And with every passing month, there have been more and more blissful moments to offset the more banal, unrelenting tasks. There is no more potent antidote to exhaustion than the screeching joy of a baby being hurled dangerously* high in the air, or stroking a fluffy dog, or eating sand, or hurtling down a slide face-first. Now, at one year old, my son is a legitimate delight, and there is no other tiny bossy creature to whom I would rather answer.
Lesson #3 – You may not recognise your own mind
I like to think of myself (hopefully with some degree of accuracy) as an adventurous, easy-going person. I assumed these qualities would seamlessly transpose from my old identity to my my new, motherly one, and I would be super chill about any potential threats to life and limb that might befall my son in the world outside my womb. This was not the case.
I spent the first few days of motherhood believing that my son would, apropos of nothing, drop dead. It seemed impossible that such a tiny, fragile being could actually keep itself alive. This then turned into a paralysing fear of SIDS or suffocation, to the point that I was only truly relaxed when I was fully awake, hovering over him, watching his chest move up and down and checking that his wee cherubic nose had unrestricted airflow. Sometimes at night I woke up soaked in sweat, suddenly convinced I’d fallen asleep feeding him and he was buried under the covers in our bed, only to realise he was snoozing safely in his bassinet.
When I walked past our open second-floor windows, intrusive thoughts would shunt their way into my stream of consciousness, telling me that I was going to drop him out the window. Not content with that little piece of horror, my brain then threw in a visual of the aftermath of said dropping. So, open windows were my nemesis, then I started to worry about positional asphyxiation in the car seat, then one night I dropped my phone on my son’s head and made my partner drive us all to Starship to ensure he didn’t have a brain injury (the doctor examined him, then told me that, while normally they would keep a young child with a possible head injury in hospital for observation, in this case, due to “the mechanism of injury,” she thought we should really just go home).
Retrospectively, this was classic postpartum anxiety, but at the time it seemed completely rational. And much like the initial feeling of relentlessness, it seemed like this situation would go on forever – yet, over the first few months, 95% of the anxious thoughts faded away. No doubt my postpartum hormones calmed down, and of course my son became bigger and stronger day by day, but I think a big part of my brain relaxing a bit was building up a memory bank of Times Things Went Wrong and He Didn’t Die.
We dropped his capsule on concrete with him in it, and he was fine; I dropped him under the water in a pool when he was eight weeks old. He was fine. My partner inexplicably decided to take him for an impromptu dip in a warm, muddy bog, and despite my grumpiness about a possible UTI from the fetid bog water (“Honey, they are THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF HOSPITALISATION FROM AGES O TO 3 MONTHS!”) he was fine. And, due to his Shrek-like enthusiasm for the sludge of the swamp, acquired a new nickname (“Bog Boy”).
It’s just as well the anxiety has ebbed, because toddlerhood is a whole other level of accident and adventure. In the last two days alone, my son has been clawed in the scalp by an ornery cat, fallen off a swing, hit his head on numerous items of furniture, and slammed his fingers in a door. Yet he is fine – more than fine – and so am I.
Lesson #4 – You will abandon deeply-held beliefs
The cloth nappies were the first to go. While pregnant, I had painstakingly researched and purchased a full set. According to the seller, they were nearly as simple to use as a disposable, and highly effective. I lovingly laundered, folded and filed them neatly into changing table caddies. So easy! So organised! So eco-friendly! It was going to be great!
When we left Birthcare, we were given a pack of disposable nappies to take home. Over the next few days, I watched with grim anticipation as the packet emptied, nappy by nappy, knowing that soon our daily tasks would expand to include rinsing poo out of rags. Conscious that I had spent several hundred dollars on the nappies and evangelised about them throughout the pregnancy, I did not share these thoughts with my partner.
On our son’s sixth day of life, the disposables ran out and we were compelled to commence our Cloth Nappy Journey. We immediately realised that, unlike the planet-killing hyper-absorbent polymer filling of disposables, cloth doesn’t wick away moisture from the skin, so the baby feels wet whenever they pee. Our son did not like this. Every liquid emission, whether asleep or awake, resulted in screaming, which meant he was waking up and screaming roughly every 20 minutes. He got a horrible nappy rash. Our laundry décor now included a fetid, poo-ey nappy soaking bucket, and we were doing three loads of laundry per day. I dreamed wistfully of the times when I could go a full 10 days without doing a load of washing, provided I wore bikini bottoms instead of undies on day 10.
Despite my noble intentions, I simply could not go on. On day four of the Cloth Scourge, I begged my partner to go to Pak’nSave and get us a box of disposables. He said desperately, “Are we even trying to be eco-friendly AT ALL any more?”
With an intoxicating rush of profound relief, I replied, “No.”
Our Cloth Nappy Journey was, blessedly, over.
Since that watershed moment, I have either compromised or completely abandoned previously-held views about co-sleeping, baby swings, baby food in pouches, salt before age one, baby-led weaning, and screen time, and fuck it feels good. Nothing hits quite like a child contentedly sucking flavoured yoghurt from a hydrocarbon-derived pouch, anaesthetised by an episode of Bluey.
Lesson #5 – You will have mixed feelings about pretty much everything
I am, obviously, biased, but I think my son has the coolest, most endearing little personality I’ve ever encountered in a baby. Listening to him laugh with his whole being, cackling and screeching with glee, is joy and love that’s qualitatively different to anything else. And when he’s upset, all I want to do is envelop him in a cuddle and let him know I’ll do whatever I can to make it better. For me, that part is effortless, instinctual: in that sense, motherhood is the easiest thing in the world. But in other ways it feels like nothing but effort: wiping, cleaning, changing, feeding, STOP PULLING THE CAT’S TAIL AND PUT DOWN THAT SCREWDRIVER AND GAH WHY IS THERE ROTTING KIWIFRUIT DOWN THE BACK OF THE COUCH CUSHIONS AGAIN.
These diametrically opposed thoughts are fundamental to the parenting game. Pretty much everything evokes mixed feelings: seeing them happy lifts your spirits like nothing else, but they’re exhausting; you want a break, but then you miss them; you miss your old life, but you can’t imagine life without them in it; you love watching them grow, but you’re nostalgic for when they were small(er). As the brilliant Caitlin Moran says, kids are intoxicating: they’re both too much, and never enough, and that’s just the nature of the beast.
For me, recognising and making peace with this duality has been the most important lesson of motherhood so far. Well, that and learning how to eat left-handed as a snoozing baby naps in the crook of my right elbow.
*Not actually dangerously.