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Exactly ten years ago, I became a parent.
In real life, our celebrations this week will be focused on Mister, involving Laserquest and chocolate cake. But on the blog, I’ve been reflecting on how my life changed in Autumn 2009 through this mini-series ‘Plus Baby Makes Three’, offering some thoughts to those who are currently making the adjustment to parenthood.
Whether you’re wondering what you need (and don’t need) before your baby comes, how to make your family life more ethical and sustainable, what should be considered ‘normal’, or how to connect with God through the sleep-deprivation – we’ve got you covered, with some incredible guest posts.
Today it’s Vicki’s turn. I’m so pleased to host her on The Hope-Filled Family – as a mum of a toddler and a baby, who also works full-time outside the home, as well as doing Serious Travelling with her family (think: trekking round Myanmar!), she knows what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, yet to grab hold of Jesus through it all and enjoy God’s good gifts in the moment. I hope you enjoy her wisdom as I have done.
Breast or bottle, responsive parenting or structured routines, cloth or disposable, sling or buggy, attachment theory or cry-it-out?
As new parents, we’re bombarded with the need to make decisions on things which we previously knew almost nothing about!
I mean, I’ve successfully navigated the various medical choices related to childbirth, made the all-important decision about which name to
saddle bless my little one with for the rest of his or her life, and now I’m expected to know my co-sleeping from my elimination communication, whilst maintaining an Insta-worthy house for all those visitors?
Oh yes, and keep a new little person alive?!
It’s no wonder 80% of mothers report feeling overwhelmed by new motherhood and up to 1 in 5 will develop mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year.
If you’re at this stage, then the last thing you need is a “10 steps to a perfect newborn experience”. There are plenty of Huffpost-style lists to tell you to enjoy every moment, forget cleaning your house, snuggle on the sofa, take lots of photos… And they are all spot-on!
Instead I want to share here a few things that I did which helped make the newborn stage really very magical for me – or rather, helped me identify and savour the magic within the challenges and the sick and the poo and the sleepless nights and the hundreds and hundreds of muslins.
So this intensely personal post shouldn’t be read as a formula or a method. Rather it constitutes the musings of a hopefully-just-the-right-side-of-hippy mama who managed to really enjoy the magical newborn days with our two little ones.
Be real, positively
In years gone by, depictions of parenthood (and especially motherhood) were often horrendously unrealistic and guilt-inducing. The maternal instinct was instant, natural birth was a given, and cracked nipples received little mention.
Recent years have welcomed a backlash against this. And yet I worry sometimes that we have moved too far in the opposite direction.
Discussions in my antenatal classes focused on how to “get through” childbirth and “survive” the newborn days. “Real” mummy blogs now joke about swearing at your children when they don’t nap to our schedules.
I was all for brutal honesty, but I also knew that approaching our newborn journey optimistically, and not as something to merely ‘survive’, would help generate that positivity in the flesh too.
In practice, this meant focusing on the bits that were going well and actively recognising that the tougher bits were just a phase (even when that meant reminding ourselves through gritted teeth that backpacking with a 6 week old was a good idea whilst rocking him to sleep on the beach).
It meant congratulating ourselves if something was going right (even when it was probably entirely accidental!).
It meant intentionally surrounding ourselves with people who built us up, rather than those who pulled us down (like the person who, three days after the birth of my daughter, told me that childbirth all sounded “pretty easy” to her but “how disappointing” the baby wasn’t awake when she arrived to visit).
So if your baby is sleeping/feeding well, smiling broadly, gurgling on queue, then pat yourself on the back. This doesn’t mean that if your baby sleeps poorly or doesn’t latch you’re doing something wrong; but as parents we need to take every small encouragement we can find. Take the good stuff!
Being honest when we’re finding it hard is crucial: we need to reach out for help. But positive attitudes do have a habit of generating some virtuous circles, and babies definitely pick up on parental anxiety.
A woman at a breastfeeding drop-in clinic told me that it was only when she relaxed about the possibility of using formula that her baby started latching better. He then stopped again but in the meantime they could diagnose a tongue-tie and get it fixed, and she went on to breastfeed for years. She and her baby were both able to deal with their very real (unimagined) problems more effectively when she chose to adopt a positive approach.
Chose and adopt are the keywords here – it did not come naturally, and it did not deny the reality of the situation. I’m not saying “fake it til you make it” like a job interview – but do expect it to go right, knowing that if it doesn’t, you’ll manage too.
If this all sounds like some sort of wellness-positive-vibes-goop.com-nonsense, I can only say that it saved my sanity.
In many ways, it reflects the choices I have to make on a daily basis as a Christian: how to respond honestly to my feelings, whilst holding onto the promises that my faith offers for my circumstances. How to acknowledge when I’m walking through a valley, whilst choosing not to fear when I’m deep within. For this parenting season of long days but short years, I didn’t want to be so focused on the hard that I missed the precious and magical.
Choose your sounding board
When it comes to parenting, there’s always a book or ‘helpful’ friend or relative waiting to tell us what to do. So at the risk of telling you just what to do…(!)
I decided early on that I would pick one close friend, whose approach to life broadly seemed to mirror mine and whose ideas about parenting overlapped with what I envisaged mine might be, and I said to myself that she would be the only one from whom I sought advice.
Katherine was and continues to be my immediate go-to on parenting issues. With four under the age of five at one point, her balance of grace and discipline, the pursuit of beauty and teachable moments alongside pragmatism, feel both achievable and aspirational to me. To me, her family remains a picture of the sort of family I want to grow. I can always vent to her without fear of judgment. And crucially, I trust her enough that I always give her challenges to me a second consideration.
Other parents might be reading this and thinking how much they valued a variety of views and suggestions. But personally, I found it helpful to know that should I want someone else’s wisdom, I would first consult Katherine. It provided a safe space to cut through the noise of a hundred other voices and books. That’s not to say the other voices were wrong – but I knew that the cacophony wouldn’t help me flourish.
Your ‘go-to’ might be a particular book or online forum that reflects your values and offers the right degree of encouragement and challenge: in any case, consider limiting the number of influencers in your life.
Hold parenting philosophies loosely – do what works NOW
When my daughter seemed to take to food later than others, I remember speaking to Katherine about my utter dedication to baby-led-weaning. “When it comes to feeding,” she said, “babies need a few things: the opportunity to learn independent eating, nourishment, and a full belly for a good sleep.” I had focused so much on the first (a central element in BLW) that I had ignored the others. On hearing this I suddenly felt free to intersperse a few spoonfuls of Bolognese alongside the lovingly cut up finger food, and my baby thrived.
I was (and still am) a committed babywearer. And yet at one point I found that pushing my daughter in the pram around the block each night just sent her straight to sleep. Doubts immediately crept in: what will I do in the winter? When she grows out of the pram? When we are travelling next month without a pram? Will she hate the sling?
Repeat after me: Newborns cannot habit form, and circumstances constantly change. Now repeat that phrase every time the words “rod” and “back” creep into your sleep-deprived mind. What works now might not work tomorrow. So hold parenting philosophies lightly, do what works now (as long as it’s not obviously harmful!), and relax about the future.
It might feel like this impulse won’t kick in until your little ones start to do things, but the urge to compare your baby to others runs deep.
In the end, they all get there with all the usual stuff. Those adults I know who walked at 10 months are now no closer to being marathon runners than those who walked at 18 months.
And those who for whatever reason don’t get there aren’t helped by comparisons. Comparisons can only end badly – at some points for me, if my children seem slower to develop, and at other times for others. As someone who is naturally ambitious and competitive, I knew this would be a real pitfall for me when they were older, so choosing to refuse to fan competitive parenting from the start has meant smiling through a whole lot of quite excruciating bragging, and resisting the urge to compare, either in their or in my own children’s favour.
Choose. That word has resounded through our parenting journey. I can’t choose my circumstances but I can choose to dwell on whatever will lead me to light and not darkness.
I am profoundly aware that for many readers, especially those grappling with the news of serious illness or disability or other challenging circumstances, my suggestions will sound just as trite as reports of colic and sleep deprivation from other parents have come to sound trivial. I don’t pretend to be able to understand what you are experiencing; I can only hope that what I write might shed an imperfect chink of light on what you’re going through too.
In the opening of this post I said that this wasn’t about making the newborn stage magical, but enabling us to see the magic within the challenge. Quite honestly, most of parenting is a mixture of magic and challenge. Right now as I write this I can hear my three-year-old “reading” sweetly to herself whilst her little brother tears down every single book from the bookshelves. Again.
Yes, most of parenting involves ordinary people muddling through the highs and lows. But if I remember I have been gifted these precious little things but for a short season, then – even in the mundane – the magic is there to be found.