Parents love to give advice to other parents, despite the fact that since all babies are different most advice will be utterly worthless. I didn’t set out to write advice here as such – rather just to note down the stuff that surprised me about parenthood – but it has rather come out that way. If it helps, imagine that the ‘you’ I’m addressing here is me, a few months ago.
This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, because babies are. Or something.
- Humans need to be taught to go to sleep. For the first few days, our daughter would eat, stare at us blankly for a few minutes and then drop off to sleep again, to be repeated a couple of hours or so later. Then one day, or so it seemed, she basically stopped falling asleep on her own, with the result that we would get to the early evening and she would scream bloody murder. Turns out, you have to firmly if politely make your baby nap during the day in order to avoid over-tiredness and the attendant yelling and tears – from everyone. This has been The Biggest Thing. We are idiots, but we simply didn’t realise that when babies get tired, they don’t just go to sleep, as we do.
- You are not prepared. You will have a vague idea about ‘sleepless nights’ and ‘piss everywhere’ but while these are to a greater or lesser extent true, the things you think will be hard won’t be as bad as you imagined, and the things that are the hardest to deal with you hadn’t even thought to anticipate. Also, every vanishingly minor thing that irritates you about your partner, love them dearly as you do, is made, conservatively, a billion times worse when the stakes are so high as in the first few weeks of your baby’s life. Basically: accept all this for what it is. You can’t – I couldn’t – prepare properly. Embrace the chaos.
- Before your baby is born, midwives and other medical and support professionals will only tell you The Right Way to do things. ON DAY ONE of your child’s life, it becomes apparent that no fucker ever does things that way because they are often wildly impractical. Best of all, for fretting and anxious parents, it’s the midwives who are the ones to say “Well, yes, ideally, but I never did that with my ten kids, and…” (I don’t exaggerate. One terrific maternity care assistant had ten kids and she looked irritatingly unravaged.) Would you like an example?
- Wipes. Fucking wipes. You are strongly advised to clean your baby at nappy changes using cotton wool dipped in a bowl of warm water, and then dry her with more cotton wool. You mustn’t use baby wipes – despite their tricksy, misleading name – because your baby will get nappy rash and their bum will fall off. We dutifully did this in hospital and for the first few days despite the particular challenge of the first few dirty nappies – Google ‘meconium’ if you don’t know what I mean and my apologies for what you’ll find, and if you do, my apologies for reminding you – but quickly decided that was so much of a faff that we would risk a bum-less daughter. We bought newborn-safe wipes, NAIVELY AND IRRESPONSIBLY swallowing the MARKETING BULLSHIT on the packet that said they’d been shown to be “as safe and gentle as water in one of the largest ever clinical trials”. So much easier to use (we bought a wipe-warmer too mostly so the cold wipes didn’t jar her awake in the middle of the night) and, since we still carefully dry with cotton wool, she has resolutely failed to get nappy rash and is in full possession of her bum. I buy 36 packets at a time from Amazon; £24, delivered free. Sold.
- Apparently, because hormones, newborn baby girls can have a period. This was mentioned casually at a birth class. CAN YOU IMAGINE not knowing this, taking off a nappy, and finding your days-old daughter BLEEDING FROM THE VAGINA.
- Your diet will change. Your diet will have to change. Before our daughter was born, we smugly filled the freezer with home-cooked meals – ragù, chili con carne, chicken casserole and so on – which would simply need to be defrosted and paired with some quick-to-whip-up carb such as rice or pasta. Ahahahaha. Simply carving out 15 minutes to prepare one of these meals is hard enough to begin with, and then there’s plating up, eating – often one-handed, or cold – and clearing up. For basically two months, we lived off ready meals and take-away, sometimes literally cutting it up and feeding it to each other. (We had also wildly underestimated the length of time it would take us to get back on our feet, so our freezer supplies in any case were woefully inadequate.) The kind of food you need is food that ⓐ can be easily eaten one-handed and which ⓑ doesn’t have a precise ‘ready’ time; it needs to be able to sit in an oven or on a hob keeping warm. Additionally, in the first few days in particular, both of us lost a decent chunk of weight, simply through there not being set mealtimes where we could be sure we were eating enough, and through running around more than usual. In these times, ‘just any calories’ is fine; when we arrived home with Ada, we sat and ate half a chocolate cake each. And finally, you might need to adjust the nature of your meals completely: we found that, having normally eaten our evening meal around seven, baby bedtime pushed this back to nine or ten, and trying to convince a baby to sleep, after a day of convincing a baby to sleep, when you also have low blood sugar is fun for nobody; we started having bigger lunches to carry us through, and peppering the flat liberally with vaguely healthy snack points.
- People will stop you in the street and talk to you about your baby, and you won’t know what to say.
- Nine months is a long time and thus you will basically forget that a baby will arrive at the end of it. Let me explain, since that will be greeted with much “I bet Jenny didn’t forget!!!” roffling. We knew early on that Jenny was pregnant, so we were aware of the full nine – actually, ten – months of pregnancy. For one thing, there is no bump for much longer than I expected. And then a weird thing happened. I realised, after we went into hospital late on in the pregnancy for some monitoring after the baby was a bit too quiet for a bit too long, that the medical context had finally prompted me to realise and remember that she was imminent. Now clearly, I hadn’t forgotten, but ten months is a long time, and at some level ‘Jenny being pregnant’ had just become the new normal. That was how our life had been for so long towards the end of the pregnancy that a part of my brain had just started thinking that’s how it would continue to be.
- There is an ingeniously simple system – which I won’t detail for fear of compromising it – for letting expectant mothers secretly alert the authorities to domestic violence. That’s a chilling thing.
- Every little thing – every little logistical thing, like brushing your teeth or taking the recycling out – becomes much, much harder, even to contemplate.
- Holy fucking shit, they develop so fast. I swear that I could feel Ada being heavier in the evening one day when I picked her up compared to first thing that morning, so quickly was she growing and putting on weight. And also, after a few weeks of not much apparently changing mentally, when she hit around two months everything started kicking off, and every single day, she’d do something new and astonishing – vocalise, know how to activate the music on her baby gym, grab a finger, grab a finger more gently and deliberately, and so on.
- The sheer relentlessness of the first few weeks is the killer. Usually, after a major event – your baby’s birth, in this case, but I’m thinking exams at school, an operation, a big launch or something – you get a chance to rest, recuperate and reflect, but here, it’s just the start, and exhaustion and frustration and worry and the grind of keeping the household running just builds and builds and builds. It’s hard.
- You will find it impossible to explain what it’s like, and why it’s so hard.
- It’s also, of course, all worth it, but that was one I knew before.