There is nothing more likely to cause a barrage of dark looks than the appearance in the midst of a group of new mums of the fresh faced. You know the one I mean. Not the one who has come along to give her friend a hand with negotiating a new world, or the one who is manning the display of an astonishing array of baby cups; it is instead the woman who hasn’t resorted to a layer of foundation to give her the Glow of the First Few Months that you are sure you should have, the one who is getting enough sleep. There sit the rest of us, or stagger if our progeny have got to the stage of injuring themselves by achieving ambulation, or each other by deciding that everything in the room belongs to them and them alone, hair stuck to the side of our heads, baby sick trickling unbeknownst down our left shoulders and there she is. A soft smile, a spring in her step.
But it isn’t just the contrast between her energy and our fatigue that causes daggers to fly from our matchsticked, red-rimmed eyes. It isn’t just the way her figure snapped back into its pre-baby flatness, no diet, no exercise, no magic pants. It isn’t even the way that her buggy never seems to get stuck in the heavy double doors. No, the thing that causes the feathers to be ruffled and the hackles to rise is the smug sense of self-satisfaction that hangs about her. The internal certainty that she alone, amongst all of us tired, fumbling women, feeling our way through the red mist of early parenthood, knows what she is doing. She has found The Way and the rest of us, by implication, are a bit rubbish. Weak and over emotional slaves to the demands of our children.
It’s not as if new motherhood isn’t full enough of insecurities. There’s a reason we gather in groups, in dusty church halls and slightly-sticky soft play centres up and down the country. We meet so that we can know that we are not alone in our experience, that we are, despite the odd coloured nappies and the funny skin, the broken nights and the wailing and worry, doing ok; that our imperfect efforts will be good enough.
The thing is, you see, that you don’t start out on the journey with the benefit of experience. We have our preconceived ideas of what it will be like, of course we do. We set our feet on the path of parenthood full of the certainty that we will know what we are doing (especially if we’ve had cuddles with friends babies the odd time or two); our babes will feed every four hours on the dot and they will sleep when we put them down (after a couple of goes round of the mobile, you know, the one that plays twinkle twinkle little star so sweetly and has these colour coordinated little figures on it that match the decorations in the room, you know THE ONE THAT NEVER FALLS APART OR ON TOP OF THE BABY OR GETS IN THE WAY WHEN YOU ARE TRYING TO PUT THIS WRIGGLING THING DOWN QUIETLY AND TIPTOE AWAY SO THAT YOU CAN GO TO THE LOO). The reality of new parenthood (and I’m including fathers in this) can come as a bit of a shock. It can take us a while, and lots of questions directed towards people who have done it all before, to get the hang of it all.
I remember that feeling. For all my worries and anxieties about my first born, for all the time I spent teaching him to do, well, nearly everything, he was an easy baby. Good natured, the sort who cooed rather than screeched, he burped like an old man at the slightest provocation; when I put him down he stayed there until he nodded off no trouble. I had convinced myself that I knew what I was doing – certainly as far as teaching baby to sleep was concerned. If it hadn’t been for the Down’s I’m sure I would have attracted a fair number of glares myself.
Until along came A and taught me a valuable lesson. Here was a baby for whom none of the methods I had tried before would work. I picked him up, he woke up. I put him down, he woke up. We put him between us, ran the hairdryer until it shot out blue sparks, fed him until my mouth ran dry; nothing made a blind but of difference.
Until he was ready, of course. And we’d had enough of the broken nights to be brave enough to step away from our self-made rules if what good, loving parents were supposed to do in order to teach their children to sleep, and make up a few new ones, less prescriptive ones of our own.
You see them, these visions of perfect motherhood, as the years pass you by, baby to baby. You see them change. You see them move from the mountains of certainty towards the messy swamps of reality as their experience increases. As the number of children who pass through the birth canal grows, so does the knowledge that success of her strategy – or not – is about more than following a set of book-bound rules.
The funny thing is, though, that that moment of realisation, that moment when she knows, and we know, and we acknowledge to each other, that she is no better – and no worse – than the rest of us is met, not with I told you sos, but the smile of recognition, the solidly held hand of shared experience.
We’re all in it together. It’s a bit like teaching really.
When you’re tired, sleep.