There’s no school for mothers. Babies don’t come with a manual. These are the sort of things people laughingly say when you’re stressed out dealing with a new baby, as if this was in any way helpful, and as if after many thousands of years of having children someone couldn’t have rectified those situations.
There are so-called parenting classes you can take whilst pregnant, but they focus almost exclusively on the birth part. Which is the part that, in reality, you have the least control over. Baby’s coming out how it’s coming out, whatever you do. I spent a frankly excessive amount of money on NCT classes just to receive a series of lengthy, expensive lectures on why pain relief in childbirth is evil and women who don’t breastfeed are terrible mothers. Which it isn’t, and they aren’t. (Don’t do NCT.) What I really wanted, and needed, to learn was how to care for the baby once she was here. How to change a nappy, how to hold a baby, what equipment I needed, all the practical things you’ve no clue about that start after you leave the safety of hospital and the guidance of medical professionals.
Since no one’s offering up that kind of practical wisdom, or helping new parents understand the adjustment they’ll have to make in their lives once the little one arrives, I wanted to share a few aspects of motherhood that no one warned me about but I very much wish I’d known in advance.
1) All your best laid plans will fly out the window
You’ll put so much care into your birth plan, you’ll agonise over every decision, you’ll have pressure from all angles to make certain choices, and all this will give you an idealised view of how your birth should go. But your baby will have totally different ideas.
My first child was two weeks late, had to be induced, and got stuck on my pelvic bone so she had to be pulled out with forceps. My second child decided to make an appearance five weeks early when I was in the middle of trying to deliver a load of important work projects, and we were then in and out of hospital for the first couple of weeks of this life while he overcame the challenges of being premature. None of this was what I planned.
The problem is, we put so much pressure on women to design the perfect birth plan that so many feel like failures when things go off script. Which they almost always do. You’re not a bad mum if your birth didn’t go the way you wanted. You’re a hero for going through pregnancy and birth at all. The stylised representations you see in movies and on TV are bullshit. Be prepared for the unexpected, don’t hold yourself to impossible standards, and try to be proud of yourself. Although positive feelings can be slow to come when you’re exhausted and full of hormones, but keep telling yourself what an amazing job you’ve done – because you have – and they will come.
2) Babies don’t open their eyes straight away
Did everyone else know this? Having seen babies born in movies, I assumed my little one would come out crying and looking around. When my first child didn’t make a sound, I was almost hysterical with worry. But she was fine. They laid her on my chest and she had her eyes closed. Slowly she started to flutter her eyelids for a bit and pull strange faces like she was trying to look, but her eyes stayed closed. I started to panic that there was something wrong with her eyes. There wasn’t. It can take newborn babies anywhere from a couple of minutes to 20 minutes to open their eyes – even longer if they are premature. And they don’t make a lot of noise to start with – enjoy that while it lasts! So don’t panic.
3) You will panic about everything
On the subject of panicking, I wanted to talk about this one because when my first child was born I genuinely thought I had gone insane. And I don’t mean that in the dismissive way we often use words like “insane” and “mad” to belittle mental illness, I mean I truly thought I was suffering from a psychological disorder. I found out nearly two years later that it’s incredibly common, but no one talks about it because everyone’s afraid that they’re losing their minds and that their babies will be taken away from them.
For the first few weeks, or even months, of my daughter’s life, I couldn’t stop visualising horrible ways in which she was going to die. Most of them would be my fault, but I also imagined ways other people would cause her harm or terrible accidents that would happen out of nowhere.
I gave birth in Brighton, where the labour ward is on the thirteenth floor of a tower block. I loved this, as I gave birth looking out over the sea and it was beautiful. But then when we were moved to the postnatal ward on the floor below, it became a source of constant terror. I couldn’t stop imagining dropping my little baby out of the window and her plummeting twelve floors to the ground. I couldn’t go anywhere near the window and I couldn’t bear anyone else to go near it holding her. I felt sick with worry about it, but I couldn’t understand why. Of course I wasn’t going to drop her out of the window. But I couldn’t get the image out of my head.
When we left hospital, I kept imagining accidentally smashing her head against a wall, dropping her downstairs or feeding her something poisonous. I regularly woke up in the night panicking that I’d been holding her and must have dropped her, only to realise she was sleeping soundly in her cot. I was constantly checking that she was still breathing. It was exhausting.
Thankfully, when my second child came along, I was prepared for this. It also wasn’t anywhere near as severe the second time around. But I was still worried about lots of things, and this time I had two little people to worry about.
The good news is, it doesn’t last long. Not with that level of intensity, anyway. I think for the rest of my life I’ll worry about the two of them intermittently, but I won’t be having fits of sobbing or being close to retching with fear over it. It is normal, it is common, it’s all the hormones giving you this urge to protect your vulnerable little baby plus the enormity of the task hitting you plus sleep deprivation which makes everything so much more overwhelming. You’re not crazy, you’re not a bad mum, you’re not alone. And this too shall pass.
4) You’ll never be able to watch a dark drama again
I was not prepared for this one. I used to LOVE a horror movie, and, ironically, during my first pregnancy I got addicted to crime dramas. I even watched a lot of Scandi crime series while I was breastfeeding in the middle of the night – it didn’t kick in straight away. But at some point, I think as my daughter developed more awareness and we therefore connected more with her as an actual individual person, I realised i couldn’t watch or read anything where something bad happened to a child.
One evening my husband and I decided to watch the remake of IT. We’d seen the original, so we knew roughly what was coming, but the opening credits had barely finished before I insisted we turn it off because there was a vulnerable, innocent child walking unsuspectingly near a drain and I couldn’t bear to watch what happened next.
Any film or book or TV series ries that involves harm, or even distress, befalling a child now turns me into a weeping mess. Even when bad things happen to adults, I picture the distress of their parents – that’s still someone’s baby, no matter how old they are.
Again, I thought this was just me being weird, until I mentioned it on Twitter and loads of women replied to say they were the same. Something happens to you after you have a child that makes your empathy more intense and your concept of pain and loss that much more visceral. It’s probably those pesky hormones again, doing too good a job at ensuring you’ll protect your baby. Man, they’re a pain in the arse. I know my child needs looking after, ok? I’m on it. You don’t have to beat me round the head with a sledgehammer about it!
But that’s my lifelong love of horror movies done with. Sad times.
5) Your child will have a personality from the very beginning
However much you think you’re going to shape this young mind, and impose a routine upon them, think again. Their mind already has a pretty definite shape and they’ve got some strong views on what they want to do and when. From the moment they come out of you.
Of course they’ll develop and change over time, and you have a role to play in supporting that. But if you’re thinking you’re going to be in charge, drop that idea right now cos it’ll only make you frustrated when it doesn’t work out that way.
The biggest lesson I learned in parenting my daughter was to follow her lead. To understand her needs and interests and help her pursue those. To recognise her cues for what she wanted and when, and go with that. Of course you’ll need to provide structure and boundaries as they get older, but if you’re led by the needs of your child, rather than some list from a parenting book or the mum and baby group woman’s routine, I’ve come to realise that you can’t go far wrong. You’ll also be far less stressed.
So yeah, babies don’t come with a manual, although someone really should have written one by now. But there are certain constants we can be prepared for. And the more we all share our experiences with each other, the less panic and anxiety new parents will experience in those vulnerable and confusing early days.
It really is all totally normal.