Oh god, those early weeks. I’m not even talking in the context of PND here, I mean generally; having a newborn is bloody exhausting. I see photos on social networks of women with perfectly styled hair comfortably holding their calm day-old babies while walking (NOT waddling) serenely across their freshly mowed lawns in flawless make-up, with their John Lewis husbands beside them… I hate these women. I want to go to their houses, de-alphabetise their CDs and leave their toilet seats up.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t a new mum pin-up. My hair was religiously unwashed, my legs were fuzzy, the dark circles round my eyes were Fight Club-worthy, and I wore the same maternity dress and leggings combo for weeks because I convinced myself it hid my swollen belly. I looked like shit but crucially (and unfortunately) my outward appearance matched the panic I was feeling inside, and that’s why I became obsessed with what I like to call ‘parenting-by-numbers’.
Parenting-by-numbers had me clutching the book my GP had given to me when I first became pregnant as though it were a hot water bottle, and googling everything from “how much hiccuping is too much”, to “one of my baby’s eyes is bigger than the other” (seriously). I thought giving him a soother would make us lazy parents and Little T’s teeth grow à la Luis Suarez. I insisted on putting him down to sleep in his Moses basket despite his loud protests, and nappy changes were an ordeal because I thought there must be an elusive ‘right way’ to do it and had a hunch that ending up in tears and covered in shit probably wasn’t it.
You get the idea.
The problem is that parenting-by-numbers is hard. It’s like trying to assemble ten different Ikea flat-packs while holding on to a squirmy sack of potatoes. You can’t follow so many instructions with any hope of getting them all right, and you certainly can’t proof read them to make sure they’re even the correct instructions! And so we learned.
When the pressure cooker that was my brain bubbled over one of the first things that needed to go was parenting-by-numbers. I was increasingly stressed trying to live by rules that simply didn’t work for me or my family, and ridden with guilt that I couldn’t parent the way I felt I was meant to. Big T was struggling too. Neither of us felt like naturally ‘good’ parents and our home life was filled with doubt and uncertainty.
The revelation came after I started carrying Little T in a sling. Days with him cuddled up against me, oxytocin flowing, made me realise how many of our problems stemmed from the various ways we were trying to keep him separate from us. Kept close to me he was the easiest, sunniest baby in the world! Who knew! So I started, slowly, to believe that I actually was the best woman for this job, if I could just listen to my natural instincts.
What that meant (to us – I’m not speaking for anyone else here) was doing what felt ‘right’. It meant ditching the Moses basket (it’s now toy storage in Little T’s nursery). It meant buying a co-sleeping cot and deciding to allow him to tell us when he wants to sleep in his own room. It meant changing his nappy when we felt it was needed rather than to a strict timetable, because (funnily enough) babies don’t pee to a schedule. It meant no set bedtime and giving him the freedom to feel tired at varying times because, y’know, that’s what adults do and why should he be different? It meant rarely turning on the TV, not on principle, but because TV is just another way for the people in the room to be far away from each other (I confess to watching a daily 10 mins of Charlie & Lola on the iPad though – it’s absolutely, completely the loveliest thing ever). It meant carrying him in a sling or pushing him in his buggy depending on his mood, and welcoming the closeness and encouraging his independence, whichever he chooses. It meant giving him a soother to make up for the keenly felt absence of my breast and committing to use it only for comfort, and never for peace and quiet.
It also meant realising that a lot of what we’d already been doing was intuitive and naturally right for him. We practised baby-led bottle feeding without even realising it, and we’d bedshared occasionally so we could all get some decent rest. Obviously we’d been babywearing from early on. And we had never, EVER left him to cry. We treat and have always treated his needs as though they’re valid and reasonable, because they are. The epiphany that we were already innately ‘gentle parents’ was enough to propel our confidence skywards and I started to connect online with our local babywearing group and found a vast community of like-minded mums and dads with the same set of challenges who wanted to approach their children with respect and tenderness.
We’re not ‘crunchy’ parents. We use disposable nappies (so far at least) and take the car when we don’t really need to. Big T is far too attached to bacon to ever become vegetarian and I am not prepared under any circumstances to part with my salon shampoo and conditioner. Admittedly there are ways that parenthood has made me more conscious of our effects on the planet and I’ve tried to change how we live accordingly, including increasing how much we recycle, buying second hand as much as possible (clothes, books, toys), eating vegetarian meals at least three times a week, and for me, recently deciding to move onto exclusively reusable menstrual products. But none of this directly relates to our parenting choices. You can own five cars, live on foie gras and pour toxic waste into the ocean just for funsies and still be an attachment parent (though you’d also be a dick).
Unlike parenting-by-numbers, attachment parenting, or gentle parenting, capitalises on skills Big T and I already have. When Little T arrived we had no clue how to raise a child. We needed books and websites and television and friends to tell us. But we did know how to be open and understanding and empathetic and sensitive. We knew how to love one another with complete transparency and how to communicate with respect. We knew that being together in our ‘bubble’ made us feel safe and accepted. We knew how to listen.
So the parenting manuals moved to the charity shop and our son is in that bubble with us, and he will never be left outside again. It will grow as he does, reaching as far as his independence takes him. He might not see it, but hopefully he will feel it and know that his mother and father are there, without question, with love, honesty and acceptance.