This weekend, my little boy, Duckling, turned one. As landmark birthdays go, it's probably the biggest, although sadly its the one he'll remember least. It's been a bittersweet event for me. It's wonderful that he's growing up and becoming more aware and communicative. However, I also feel a certain sense of loss that his baby days are now nearly behind him. Most parents experience this I'm sure, but for me it seems odd to feel quite so nostalgic, as Duckling was (and still is on occasion) what Dr Sears politely calls a "High Need" baby, and my rather more straight talking childminder calls "difficult". For the first few months he couldn't be parted from my nipple for more than a few seconds before he let it be known that his world was officially ending. He rarely slept more than five minutes at a time (unless tucked up in bed with me, again, glued to the breast), and trips out in the pushchair almost always ended in me crying as much as he did. Even as I write this, he's asleep across my lap as he refused point blank to lie down in his cot to nap.
My sadness is therefore not about missing what was, but never having experienced what could have been. I never really got the squidgy, sleepy newborn days, or breezy summer outings with a sleeping baby in a pram (though this is undoubtedly a very idealised image of motherhood!). Rather, my memories primarily consist of multiple traumatic trips out conducted at high speed with my pulse racing and teeth gritted throughout. That's not to say there haven't been good parts - I love Duckling fiercely, and he is endlessly entertaining when he's in a good mood, so it's not that every day is a chore, or that my baby gives nothing back. I also know I'm a good Mum, and I think I've done a decent job in the circumstances. Yet I still, even now, go to bed most nights feeling utterly drained and a bit deflated (though thankfully, apart from a few days here and there, not depressed). I quite sure I'm not alone in this, and that Duckling's tenacious personality would be enough to exhaust anyone, but I still can't help wonder why it has been so hard? Procreation is after all both the fundamental purpose to all life and the process by which we continue to exist and evolve as a species. Everybody has (or had) a mother, so why is mothering not easier, more evolutionarily refined? Why do mothers everywhere still find themselves kneeling on the floor of their children's bedrooms at 3am, faces pressed up against the bars of a cot, pleading pathetically and ineffectually for their wailing offspring to "just <insert swearword> go to <insert swearword> sleep"?
Obviously the difficulties of being a Mum are strongly linked to a lack of sleep and being 'on call' 24/7 with little respite - that's a given. On a psychological level, I think lack of control and lack of recognition also contribute. Whatever your personality type, after nine months in the womb as part of you, accepting that your child is an independent entity that (at least initially) you cannot reason with, who won't thank you for what you do, and over whom you have very little sway can be hard, particularly if you've not got much experience with babies, or have previously been in a work role or relationship where you command some kind of respect and have some kind of order. In the early days, you also don't know your child well enough (and they don't know you) to interpret their cries and moods accurately. Traditional female support networks once helped a woman to learn all about childrearing before having children of her own, and helped a new mother to share the burden of her new baby once it arrived. They also helped her to feel valued. As Naomi Stadlen says in her excellent book "What Mothers Do", once upon a time, "Women saw each other being mothers. The importance and value of what they were doing was obvious. A new mother today, struggling alone with her baby in her flat, is no longer of this traditional world." It is easy to be sentimental about 'traditional ways', but it is not hard to see the benefit in placing a more positive emphasis on mothering and its importance to society as a whole, if only to help a mother feel that the daily grind has some kind of positive purpose.
False expectations don't help either. I didn't read too many parenting books before I had Duckling because I didn't want to make assumptions about him or the best way to raise him. However, as open minded as I thought this made me, I had actually subconsciously created a 'perfect' personality for my child. The reality came as a total shock. All I could think was "But Drake and I are so laid back. Why isn't he?! Do I have the right baby? Can this amount of feeding / protesting / wakefulness really be NORMAL?". The answer is of course yes, for Duckling it was, and deep down, intuitively, I knew this. My bright little baby was just sitting at one end of a sliding scale of quite normal fussiness (although a tongue tie did make things worse). Nevertheless, it took me a while to reconcile the baby I had expected with the one I got. After holding back on the expert advice while pregnant, I started Googling obsessively, trying to figure out what I could do about this remarkably vocal child. While some information was useful, much left me with the impression that I had given birth to an "exception to a rule", or that my problems were simply a result of having deviated from best practice (whatever that was).
This is another reason I think modern motherhood is hard - we are swimming in so much 'expert' advice, it threatens to drown us. Much of it is well-meaning, but it isn't tailored to our child. We feel we ought to follow it anyway because the experts have done 'research' and surely must know better than us. A good example is sleep training. Duckling doesn't like sleep, never has, and will usually only fall asleep while feeding. In desperation, at six months I did some 'Pick Up Put Down' (note to anyone thinking of trying - it's a bit less heartbreaking than Controlled Crying by way more backbreaking). "Pick up and hold until calm before placing back down" the instructions say. I picked up, I held, but the calmness never came. Duckling screamed and screamed. I walked about, he screamed. I rocked him, he screamed. I jiggled, he screamed. I didn't know what to do. Ninety minutes in and I hadn't even got to the 'put down' part.
With perseverance, I did eventually have some limited success but it wasn't the miraculous key to a full night's sleep I'd been hoping for, so I felt I must be doing it wrong. I wasn't being consistent enough by resorting to feeding to sleep on the forth wake up of the night. I was holding him too long before putting him down, or maybe I wasn't holding him long enough? My confidence as a competent parent crumbled, while my resentment of my baby grew. I was giving it my all, so why wasn't he playing ball? What was wrong with this idiotic child? What was wrong with me?
Eventually it was my mother who put me back on the path to sanity. After months of repeated sleep training attempts, she told me to relax and just do what made Duckling and I happiest and gave us the most rest. So back to feeding to sleep when he woke in the night, and bringing him into bed when I was too tired to stay upright in the rocking chair. Not long afterwards, he slept through the night for the first time (well, to 5am).
So, as Duckling turns one, I feel sad both because the tough memories rather outweigh the happy ones, but also because I've probably spent too much time worrying about this fact and seeking 'fixes' to my baby's apparent flaws, rather than accepting his quirks and sticking with what made us both happiest. Ironically, my midwife praised me right at the very start for not trying to fight against what my baby was telling me he wanted. I wish I had remembered that praise more as he grew! "Trust your instincts" is certainly the best piece of advice any new mother can receive, but also "trust your child". Hopefully the lessons learned will stand me in good stead for year two, but I'll keep you posted!