This has been a hard post to write. I have rewritten it three or four times, each time trying to bear being a little bit more honest with you all, with myself. To make the words clear. I hope I do it justice. I suspect it will be a little controversial, but opinions can do that and I think we need to stop talking behind people’s backs and talk to each other. I think because of our fear and shame that people might judge us and our relationships, we have avoided talking about a recurring problem about raising children in our society. I think we are entering a time when women are starting to feel more confident about opening up and talking more frankly about the challenges and solutions of bringing up babies. That is starting to lead to a remarkable break-down of some those unrealistic expectations hefted upon us.
Babies are a true gift of life. They are a tiny, perfect souls wrapped up in the softest babygros, waiting to bloom. They are the definition of love and grace itself. But. They. Are. Hard. Work.
In the Western world we live in time where modern society has led to nuclear families. This means a family often comprises only two adults in the home, and when a woman falls pregnant that couple will be expected to raise that child mostly by themselves. Nowadays it is very rare to have extended family and friends living within your house on on your street, often they live a great distance away and have demanding jobs taking up a lot of their time. We’re also having children far later in life than in previous generations and so grandparents are much older and less able to help.
Raising children and babies has not been like this throughout most of our human history. We have in fact evolved to raise babies in tribes. Even if they weren’t tribes we had close communities where raising babies was the work of women, but most importantly the term ‘women’ as a collective. This community provided many benefits for new mothers because older women and experienced mothers could easily pass information to the younger women; breastfeeding tips, how to rock a baby to sleep, what routines matter and what don’t. They would verbally explain and they could easily physically demonstrate. A new mother might not even need to ask for help because a friend or family member might often spot when to offer advice or a hand without even needing to be asked.
When my baby was born I realised my job as a mother was to mind read. A newborn baby can’t talk, walk or point and so as her mother I needed to get very good at reading all the bodily and emotional cues of my baby. Women are very good at reading minds, being empathetic and offering emotional support because of the millions of years of evolution. We need it for our infants to survive. We are therefore very good at offering help without being asked by those around us.
The tribe and community of women we used to have provided tremendous emotional support to a new mother, both verbally with, ‘you’re doing a great job’ and non verbally with displays of non-sexual affection; hugs, arm rubs, hand holding. It’s remarkable the impact a meaningful hug can have on your self-esteem. A new mother needs to be held and hugged and loved, at this time in her life more than ever.
We have lost a lot of this with the advent of our nuclear family, however the mother is still the same human with the same needs as she were a thousand years ago. The mother therefore looks to the only other adult in the household to support all her needs – her partner. She now leans heavily on this one person for practical solutions to many of her new problems; How should she best breastfeed? When should she wake the baby? What should she eat? The mother is also in need of a huge amount of physical and emotional support at this time because it’s a period of transition and she has a lot of fast learning to do.
There are other factors that compound the problem of this heavy reliance. The father is usually as inexperienced as the mother so that it can feel like the blind leading the blind. The father is also in a sexual relationship so there can be a conflict of interests.
Finally, there is also the undeniable differences between men and women to be considered. Typically babies were reared by the women the community. Now we are asking men to take on a far greater role than they have traditionally. Some men struggle and I’ve seen them mocked for this, but surely it is understandable. There are great physical and chemical differences between men and women. A women undergoes huge hormonal changes through the nine months of growing a baby. She then goes through more hormonal change during birth and once again when the milk comes in and in the months following, she is physiologically built to look after babies (even if she hasn’t grown it in her own uterus) , (and even if she doesn’t FEEL she’s ready). Are men physiologically and hormonally built in the same way? No. Can they offer great support? Yes! But will they be able to offer the level and type of support a new mum is looking for? I think it depends on the father. It has been a presumption of our wealthy, western society that men and women can look after a baby equally well but I think that needs challenging. I suspect fathers fall on a spectrum from being ‘a natural’ and really enjoying looking after their baby, all the way through to not finding it easy or comfortable at all. I think it is damaging when we infer that a father doesn’t love their wife or baby because they don’t like or they find it difficult to look after their baby. I have seen wonderful single fathers and amazing gay couples, but the dialogue needs to be opened. This would mean fathers could communicate free of judgement how they feel about their role and the family could better meet those expectations. Fathers would be better supported and understood if this was less of a taboo subject. We would make less assumptions. We would make better provisions.
I think putting all the responsibility on the father to support the mother is overwhelming. I can only talk from my experience, with my partner, Andy. But our experience was that he was unable to deal with the requirements I was asking of him. He found it incredibly demanding and he didn’t feel equipped to deal with it. Andy had zero experience in baby rearing – the first baby he held was his own (not uncommon. He had no experience of pregnancy, child birth or the months after as my body was healing and adapting. He simply could not empathise nor offer the support I was requiring. He was also my provider and my lover, and having all my eggs in one basket made me feel terribly vulnerable and worried.
Andy and I both struggled a lot (understatement) during those newborn months. Added to this was the terrible guilt that we were struggling when everybody else seemed fine. There is an element of competition that comes when people feel vulnerable, the bragging and untruths we tell are more to try and convince ourselves than others, but they hurt everyone – although we’ve all done it! Being told someone else’s parter ‘was AMAZING with the baby’ was a sucker punch to my heart. Why were we struggling so much?
But that is why I’m writing this post, because I think a great many couples struggle. In fact I now think it is entirely reasonable and understandable to struggle under these conditions.
I think we have a very British culture to quietly snigger at pregnant couples about the upcoming complexities that having a baby brings, but it’s not funny and it’s not fair. I think discussing some of the difficulties can lead to much better problem solving and expectations. Having help should not be a ‘luxury’. Women who’ve had babies often do not want to be ‘left alone’. Many dad’s are not naturally gifted at looking after babies and I do not think ‘time with the baby’ will solve this. Immersion therapy is cruel to all parties.
Often as a result of having no one else to turn to, the woman can take on an excessive amount of childcare and even be left trying to hide this fact from friends and family incase they judge the woman’s relationship harshly. Let’s be honest about our abilities and and emotions so that we can better prepare future families. My hope is that we might even change out cultural norms, taking the pressure off families, letting them prepare a little better and letting it become a cultural norm to offer free support again to those close to us.
Perhaps sharing a bit of our family’s story will help you see where we faced challenges and how we might have avoided some of our struggles.
When I was all round and resplendent and six months pregnant, I played scene after scene in my head of my husband and myself snuggled on the sofa watching QI with our sleeping, sweet baby in our arms, much like a soft focused Pampers advert. Maybe I’d be breastfeeding easily and pain-free with all that milk I’d have, and my husband would read my mind and get up to make us both a tasty and nutritious snack. We’d all go to bed at the same time, cuddling and sharing a bedroom, and I’d fall asleep with the sight of my cute and quiet newborn one side of me and my husband snoozing the other. That is what I had learnt from advertising and that is what was portrayed to me from magazine articles, films and occasional and clearly not honest talks to people with babies.
The reality was that we were in separate bedrooms a lot once baby arrived. I couldn’t breastfeed and so baby spent four weeks crying out of hunger and then the next eight weeks crying because she was a baby and I didn’t have her operating instructions. There was no point both of us listening to the crying (baby and me), moaning (baby and me) and swearing (thankfully just me), and so we decamped to separate bedrooms. Nothing worse that seeing your husband sleep soundly whilst you change a dirty nappy and make up formal bottles in the dark. I’m surprised more parents aren’t killed in their sleep by resentful partners. The upside of separate bedrooms, other than reducing the possibility of nightly manslaughter, was that Andy had a bit more energy to deal with his baby and wife in the morning, and boy was he going to need it.
I would do the night shift, not because he didn’t offer, but because as most mothers can empathise, I wanted to be the primary care giver for the baby whenever she needed food, be that day or night. It was very instinctual. Andy would do an early morning shift from 4am and let me sleep. I remember thinking ‘he get’s to sleep until 4am without any interruptions! I’m so jealous!’ And he would moan about having to get up at 4am every morning for three months. Both of us found it very hard indeed. It was lonely and gruelling, but it was easier than sharing a room and not getting any sleep. Those few peaceful hours in my own bedroom with earplugs were heaven.
I think it is ridiculous that most couples have to struggle like this and then the man has to get up and go to work and try and function like ‘normal’ and the woman is usually left alone all day with a demanding baby. If one more person suggests for me to sleep when baby sleeps I’m going to politely explain that to the Starbucks staff as I have a little nap in their cosy chairs. I shall also explain that just limiting my outdoor time to a little walk in the morning so that I can ‘rest’ in the afternoon is also unhelpful. The solution to deep and intense sleep deprivation will not be resolved by a twenty minute cat nap, women need far more support.
Now, because it was mainly just my husband and I figuring out how to keep a baby alive and neither of us had any childcare experience we would spend hours arguing about the ‘best way’. Usually at really unhelpful times like 2am. Was it to let her cry it out or give her a bottle? Maybe it’s better to take her for a buggy walk or let’s try this expensive jangly toy that is magically meant to stop crying babies from crying. The not knowing was crippling. My husband was looking at me to take the lead but I was looking to him for exactly that. We were rudderless and drifting out to sea.
All this lack of support, the healing after birth, the fatigue, the sense of failure because I didn’t automatically know what to do with a baby meant I was spiralling downwards. My relationship with my husband had changed because we were now tag teaming keeping a small infant alive and we were constantly disappointed in each other for not living up to our expectations. I was falling into postnatal depression rapidly.
All the stress placed on me meant I found having a newborn overwhelming to the point that I couldn’t take my eyes off the baby. The stress was now creating a deeper level of anxiety. The problem was exacerbated because I couldn’t rest, I developed insomnia. It was awful. The other problem with anxiety is that it is quite contagious for those around you. I was like a hyped-up teenager on steroids and cans of Redbull, nobody could relax and enjoy the experience in that sort of company.
Did I mention my husband was also working from home? Well that was neat little idea wasn’t it? All the baby’s crying and my crying, and the mess and the drama, he was in amongst it all day long. I was desperate every time I saw him for a cuddle and the words ‘you’re doing a great job’. But I needed this thirty to three hundred times a day which I can understand is a little wearing when you’ve got stuff to get on with.
I insulted Andy every time he tried to suggest a solution. A, because the solutions didn’t seem very practical because he had no experience with babies and B, because what I was really looking for was validation and words of comfort. It was a lethal combination. People would helpfully tell me to ‘relax’. If I could then then I would have. Relaxing was now something else to add to the list of what I was failing at.
We struggled on for months like a lot of new parents. I threw my new iPhone on the floor and smashed the screen, I would yell at the top of my voice. I would cry and scream. I was not a Pampers ad.
Like many families, things eventually got better for us. My husband is thankfully very logical and practical and could see we needed help. He found some options and presented them to me and persuaded me to try a few. He was right. It helped tremendously. My mum took the baby away for a night and let us sleep, we found a nursery for some mornings, I made dates and times to see friends without the baby, I accepted I was a great mum (slowly). My husband was unwaveringly supportive of me, always told me I was amazing and doing a great job (even when I was lying on the kitchen floor sobbing). He was steady in the face of all my wild emotions. I owe him everything, my sanity. When he didn’t know what to do he made cheese toasties and gave me hugs and told me he loved me and it was all going to be alright. That’s how we got through it, like a lot of couples, with hope and love.
But I think it could have been easier. By child number two we had learnt a lot and it was almost easy to get through those first nine months. We hired a doula for the birth, I paid for massages postnatally, we were lucky enough to be able to afford a part time nanny and a few hours a week with a cleaner. I told my husband that I would look after the newborn entirely for the first three months at least, but that he must do all the cooking and cleaning and tell me I’m doing an amazing job every single day. Our relationship was great with this new dynamic. He also looked after our toddler at weekends and got up with her every single day whilst I crawled through night after night of feeding. I reached out to friends to family and tried to be honest with the help I needed. I accepted free food and free hugs. I had experience of raising a baby and so I didn’t question every decision. I agreed to do whatever it took not to be anxious so there were a lot less showers, clean clothes and baby sensory classes. A lot more going to coffee shops with good cake, watching Netflix and Whatsapping friends. I learnt to say ‘no’, and to stop worrying about people’s judgements. I agreed to get pregnant on the condition that I didn’t have to trek more than an hour from the house during those newborn months. This meant saying no to some pretty big events, some people understood, some didn’t. It didn’t matter because it was entirely right for me and the baby and I suffered ZERO anxiety which was blessedly beautiful. I made it a priority to just do easy, stay at home stuff that was going to be manageable. It was one of the best times of my life.
I hope some of this makes sense to some of you. I hope that it goes some way to relieving the guilt many mothers and fathers unnecessarily feel. I hope it helps prepare to some new mothers and fathers beyond what we see in films and adverts. Yes, raising a baby is hard and requires a lot of physical labour, but I do think we could make it easier on our society if we had different expectations and norms. I have seen some new mothers sail through and really enjoy the newborn experience because they have the right support. And just because your partner doesn’t like looking after a screaming newborn it is no indication at all the love they have for you or their baby – THAT one took me a year to really appreciate.
What I learnt;
- We need to Mother the Mother – tend, care and look after the Mother so that she can look after her child. She is not a bottomless well of giving energy, she needs to be replenished. She needs genuine words of support and love, not contrived platitudes. She needs massages, she needs food cooked for her. She needs to let the rage out and have a rant and not be judged. She needs to know that motherhood is tough but it’s worth it. She needs to be given hope and courage.
- Stop judging fathers
- Stop the guilt when you ask, accept or pay for help. If you’re lucky enough to be able to pay for help, and you want it, just enjoy and practice gratitude – you would be more daft to turn it down!
- Make life easy on yourself. Do what works for you and not what you think is expected of you
- Know that most people find this difficult there is camaraderie and a hell of a lot of black humour in that
- Ignore societies expectations about jumping back into socialising, holidays, events and wearing your pre-pregnancy clothes. Enjoy the go-slow. You need all your energy and you need to know you’re a Goddess every damn day (even if you do leak milk).