Wednesday, October 29, 2008

changing goalposts

The books and the magazines and the mid-wives tell you how to prepare for motherhood in lots of different and useful ways – what cots to buy, how to structure feeds, how to keep your precious babies safe, and the holy grail of course – how to get them to sleep. But nothing and no-one can prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster those little bundles of neuroses will take you on. There is no manual, no DVD, and certainly no preparation to equip you for the mental, psychological, and emotional journey you are about to embark on.
The life-rattling rollercoaster of parenting is full of highs and lows, turns and dips. Rarely is the path smooth, and rarely is it straight – and perhaps that’s why it is so fulfilling and challenging. One week you are flavour of the month, (which is always a blessing and a curse), and the next week its dad’s turn and it cuts you like a knife. How annoying the constant phrase “mummy do it” can become, and how much you miss it when you suddenly hear “daddy do it.” One minute (the exact one in which you are trying to cook their tea) they are clingy and needy, their arms outstretched pleading for your undivided attention, and the next (the one you finally sit down and want a cuddle) they are striding out for independence and push you away - you are currently surplus to requirement. You need the patience of a church full of saints… and not just because you have to read The Tiger Who Came to Tea 26,290 times with exactly the same enthusiasm. But because it is the hardest job in the world.
But the most difficult part of parenting I have found is the constantly changing goalposts. Just when you think you have it all figured out – they toddle off in their inimitable way and change the rules. Just when you pat yourself on the back for a job well done, a new challenge looms large and ominous, casting a grey cloud on your glistening rainbow. There is no time to catch your breath – or they’ll be catching you out.
And it starts early. Just when you think you’ve got the adorable new docile baby thing sussed, they start getting frisky and demanding more stimulation. You finally manage the whole breastfeeding lark and after five months of frustrated fumbling you eventually feel like earth mother, when the books start telling you to wean them off and give them proper food. You just get the hang of a rainbow of pureed fruit and vegetables spooning nano-milliletres into their gaping mouths, when they start demanding finger food and you worry about chocking, even in your sleep. You think you’ve just come to terms with crawling and have the house well and truly finger-proofed when Wham! You wake up one day to find them walking and a whole new set of challenges await you. You’ve just mastered the terrible twos when potty training looms and you are left a quivering wreck on insecurity and frustration.
With every new success, comes a crushing realization that there is a fresh ‘next-step’ loitering around the corner waiting to trip you up. You barely have time to stand back and congratulate yourself on the mastery of a new skill (your, not theirs!) and you tumble back to the bottom rung of knowledge as you try to figure our how to potty train, or discipline, or teach them how to cross a road. I think in nearly three years of parenting I’ve had about two weeks of status quo. Two weeks when my toddler wasn’t embarking on some new psychotic personality phase at the exact moment I had just about learnt to cope with the existing one, and my baby wasn’t morphing before my eyes into a teething, tetchy, crawling, walking toddler.
I’m not sure I could realistically expect much more, having had two babies in two years. With childhood being one long journey of discovery (yours) and phases (theirs), two different journeys in parallel were unlikely to merge into a golden path of calm. Our yellow brick road is bumpy and adventurous. It’s breathless and chaotic, but I guess the best journeys are. So my advice for surviving motherhood? Eat well, because you have to have the strength to be the adult all the time, even when you want to throw a tantrum of your own. Sleep well whenever you can, because they won’t always. And hold on tight. I liken it to sitting in the passenger seat (because you will rarely feel like you are in the driving seat…) of a rally car - you just have to buckle your seatbelt and hold on until your knuckles are white – because surviving motherhood is a hairy ride that will leave you exhilarated and terrified, deliriously happy and dementedly shocked, often at the same time. Only the brave need apply - you are going to need a heart of cotton wool, wrapped in nerves of steel. Oh, don’t think for a second there’ll be time for patting yourself on the back. There’s always a new challenge waiting for you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

News Flash! Mums are superheroes!

At last, scientific research has proved that baby-bearing makes us brainy. Tell us something we don’t know! So as we wash up endless dishes at the sink and wipe up after another messy meal, we know we can do complex equations in our head, and reel off the most amazing facts known to man. Ok, so we don’t necessarily want to, but at least we know we can because it's official.

New research has revealed that once we get over the mind-numbing stupidity of baby-brain during pregnancy – this is in fact caused by our brains re-calculating to prepare us for the vast mental capacity needed for motherhood (see, I’m sounding brainier already!) – we come out the other side cleverer and better able to cope with multiple tasks (who needed research to tell us that?).

Apparently studies carried out on animals including primates (our closest cousins… see how much I know??), show mothers become braver, are up to five times faster at finding food and have better spatial awareness. Who needed a study to work that one out?? Have you ever seen a mum confront anyone who so much as looks at her child the wrong way? I felt murderous intent the first time another child at playschool was rude to my Daisy! And as for finding food five times faster?? Ever watched a mum with toddlers in tow do a food shop? Speedy supermarket shopping should become an Olympic sport. My last trip round every aisle in Superquinn took a breathtaking 16 minutes! Ok, so Poppy needed treatment for whiplash from me pushing the trolley round the baked beans too quick, but at least I got out before two temper tantrums exploded around the petit filous section. And as for increased spatial awareness? If speedy shopping is an Olympic sport, then negotiating a double buggy through the inconceivably small aisles of most highstreet shops deserves a Nobel prize in engineering.

Another part of the research found that women’s senses became more acute after childbirth, enabling them to recognise their own child’s odours and sounds. I knew this already. When both my girls where is still in nappies I found I had the strange ability to know which one had done the poo as soon as I walked in the room. Probably not a skill I was going to put on my CV, but still, it kept me entertained.

Finally, the study showed that women who give birth after 40 are four times more likely to live to 100. Four times! So finally I can sleep well knowing I might just be around long enough to keep Poppy out of trouble. Because although she’s only 17 months, I know, just like I know it’s raining today, that that child is going get into trouble all her life. How do I know? Just another one of those super-power skills we mothers have.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Getting by with a little help from my friends

Picture the scene. You had a demented night with your crying, teething baby. Your reluctant toilet-training toddler has thrown the potty across the room and used the carpet instead. There is poo on the walls, Weetabix on your new shirt and wails of despair coming from all three of you. You want to run out of the front door screaming, but instead of reaching for the latch you reach for the phone. It’s time to cash in on one of your life-lines, and call a friend.

Now I know I’m making the following statement fully aware there is no actual scientific evidence to back it up. But I’m going to save somebody lots of money on research because I know I’m right - humanity would have dried up millennia ago if mothers did not have good friends. Having a baby is hard enough. Without friends to guide, steer and carry us through the experience, it is near impossible. Most women just wouldn’t survive motherhood without good strong friends, and civilisation as we know it would be extinct.

Friends in need really are friends indeed, and there is no needier a time than after you’ve had a baby. But of course, like most things in life, friends come in two varieties – the good and the bad.

Everyone has a bad friend, and every mother has a bad mother friend. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones who automatically launch into a monologue about the prim perfection of their beastly beloveds, who never actually ask how you are, and manage to look immaculate and preened even when they’re “frazzled, darling.” (I’m of the firm opinion these people actually have full-time nannies and therefore do not have to wash pee off the stair carpets, hide their roots under a cap because they have no time to go to the hairdressers, or wear sweatpants because there is pesto pasta on all their other clothes.) My advice is to ditch them quick! Let’s face it, when you’re feeling fat and frumpy, the last thing you need is Posh Spice landing on your doorstep.

Good friends on the other hand know exactly what you are going through, and know that most of the time, what you need is to vent your frustrations on a listening ear, a hug and a strong cup of tea (chocolate biscuits essential). A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words, because they have been exactly where you are now. They know the harrowing harangues of a mother on the edge of reason; they understand that the witching hour (the one before the kid’s tea when hell usually breaks loose) is called so because you turn into one; and most importantly, they know that you are still you, somewhere underneath all the guilt, anger and frustration. Luckily they also know that you just can’t help yourself when you harp on endlessly about how wonderful your beautiful babies are, and smile in agreement.

There is a reason why pregnancy is referred to as ‘being in the club.’ Because mums join together in support and sanity of each other, and you don’t need to be life-long friends to help out. Mums seem to instinctively know when another of our tribe needs help. You see it every day: when someone gives you a reassuring smile across a crowded shop when you are trying to tame a screaming toddler; when someone carries your tray to the table in the café while you push the buggy and get the high chair; when someone lets you ahead of them in the toilet queue because they know every second in that queue is fraught. And when you lift you head above the swirling waters of early motherhood and take deep breaths again, you too become the smiler, the tray carrier, and the queue waverer. Because you where there once and know how it feels.

Every time someone I know has a new baby, I wait a week until the mothers have left, and arrive armed with her dinner for that evening. I make her tea and listen to her talk about her child as if she was the first woman to ever give birth to a beautiful baby. I make her a cup of tea and clean up the dishes before I leave. I even offer to do the laundry. And when they inevitably thank me I smile and tell her that someone did it for me, and she will now do it for someone else in the future. Because that’s what “being in the club” means. Because that’s what friends do.

We roll our eyes in camaraderie at tales of potty-training fiascos, we nod in agreement at the latest discipline techniques and we cheer enthusiastically when baby eats her first pureed pear. We offer advice when it’s asked for, offer our shoulder when needed, and offer a tall glass of chardonnay when essential. Eating buns in sympathy with her distressed lack of weight loss is also fairly standard.

While parental partnership certainly can get you through the dark days and share in your pleasure of the delightful days, there are times, when (sorry men,) friends are just better. We get each other in ways perhaps that men, who no matter how ‘new-age’ or ‘metro’, whistle off to work leaving you at home with a neurotic breakdown and a grizzling monster just don’t – or can’t – understand. One man had it right though and no truer word was spoken. “I get by with a little help from my friends”, sang John Lennon. I certainly do.

(Published in Modern Mum, Autumn 2008)
(c) AKG 2008