The Truth About Parenting

Izzie is three months old today, so I’ve been a dad for a quarter of a year. It is one of those milestones that encourages you to look back, assess, evaluate, decide what you did well and what was wrong. I don’t believe in regrets, but there are a few things I could have done differently and that I wish I’d known about before Izzie was born. And with that in mind, I feel I’m qualified to tell prospective parents and new parents how it really is, and offer some advice from my experiences.

(FYI, I’m not going to refer to the baby as ‘baby’ in this post because that smacks of a 70s midwifery handbook (‘pull baby out, turn baby over, smack baby on the bottom’). Likewise, alternating between he and she is confusing while s/he is just plain annoying. Thus I will use ‘she’. Half of you will be pissed but the other half perfectly happy.)

  1. Plan for it being pure hell with a few light points and you won’t go far wrong – make no mistake, this is going to be the hardest thing you ever do. If you have any illusions about it being fun, joyous, magical, you should get rid of them now. Being a parent is a wonderfully enriching, fulfilling experience, but it’s hard work and it’s draining, and you need to go into it with a realistic appreciation of what you’re about to face. If you mentally prepare for a worst-case-scenario and it’s not that bad, you’ve lost nothing, but if you’re not prepared and it is a worst-case-scenario, it’s going to knock you on your ass. The light points make up for the dark, but they don’t come often, especially at first. So be ready.
  2. Make sure you have plenty of muslins – I had no idea what a muslin was before Izzie was born, but these large squares of cotton are essential. Ostensibly they’re to mop up spillages during feeding (I use them as bibs) and for protecting your clothes from baby vomit while burping, but there are so many more functions. Because they’re thin and breathable you can put them over the baby’s face when transferring her to and from the car in the rain, or when out in bright sunshine without adequate shade. You can lie the baby on one when doing an emergency nappy change on the back seat of your car, or line the changing table in the public toilet so your precious doesn’t pick up another baby’s germs. You can fold them and put them under the baby’s head in their crib or basket to catch dribbles, meaning you don’t have to wash their bedsheets so often, and you can even use them for a game of peekaboo.
  3. Nappy changing isn’t that bad – this is one of the biggest fears of prospective parents and it shouldn’t be. Yes it’s gross, yes it’s smelly, and yes, it can spread all over her clothes and yours until you’re both sitting in yellow poop. But if you’re changing ten nappies a day, by the time she’s 13 weeks you’ve changed 910 of the things and that’s enough to make anybody an expert. What at first takes ten minutes rapidly becomes a ninety-second piece of nothing. So don’t worry – you’ll get it.
  4. Caring for a baby is pretty simple – you think beforehand that babies are incredibly complicated little beings, but they’re not. If our ancestors could raise them in the wilderness without any instruction, there’s no reason you can’t, and the fundamentals haven’t really changed. If she cries it means she’s hungry, so feed her; windy, so burp her; uncomfortable, so change her; tired, so put her down to sleep; has guts ache, so lie her on her back and press her knees (gently!) up towards her chest to help her fart; or wants cuddles, so cuddle her. Mostly, a crying baby means she’s hungry, because they’re always hungry. And if you get into a routine of feed, then burp, then change, then cuddle, then put down to sleep, you avoid much of the crying.
  5. Caring for a baby is mostly horribly repetitive – if you think caring for babies is exciting and varied and confusing and intellectually stimulating, it’s not. It’s a chore like any other chore. You sterilise bottles, make up bottles, feed, burp, change, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Unless you’re breastfeeding, in which case you’re getting sore expressing milk all the time. That’s what you need to realise from the outset. What you’re doing over the first few days is what you’re going to be doing again and again and again and again until it’s second nature. And it’s not exactly exciting. It is what it is, but it has to be done while you wait for the bright points.
  6. You’re not going to break her – babies are surprisingly resilient and often simply bounce without much harm if dropped. But I’m not advocating you treat her as a basketball either. New parents carry their babies like they’re china dolls with cracks in them, but you should really carry them the same way you’d carry a rabbit or a puppy – firmly but fairly. Babies settle easier if you hold them with confidence, not like you’re worried you’re going to drop them.
  7. You will learn to function despite the lack of sleep – this is another of the main things prospective parents worry about – how will I cope when the baby is up every couple of hours? If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll get through the first six or seven weeks on adrenalin, no problem. But after that, the tank runs dry and you still have to get up, still have to deal with things in the dead of night, with no energy and eyes glued shut with sleepy dust. The next few weeks you get through with good old-fashioned gumption and bloody-mindedness. There is nothing physically keeping you going but will power and determination. But the good news is that you reach a point around eleven or twelve weeks where you don’t feel as tired. You look like crap and your mind isn’t anywhere near as sharp as it ought to be, but your body has become accustomed to the strain and you can survive. It’s all about surviving.
  8. Don’t worry if the love is not ‘immediate and unconditional’ – I always thought I’d feel an overwhelming surge of emotion when my daughter was born, and was a little concerned that I didn’t. This is, however, completely natural – by the time you’ve got through labour and birth with all the screaming and all the blood and they hand you this swollen pink bundle that looks Mongolian, you’re in too much of a daze trying to take it all in to feel very much of anything. But it comes later – a few hours in my case. And it grows over time until you’ll look at your baby and would rather die than be apart from her. And that’s when you’ll bore everyone to death about how much you love your baby.
  9. Babies play havoc with relationships – no matter how well you get on with your partner, or how much you love them, one day you’ll look and them and think, ‘My God I hate your face!’ This will be followed by niggles, passive-aggressive barbs, digs, arguments and full-scale blowouts. The stress, responsibility and exhaustion of raising a baby, the heightened emotions, fear, pride and possessiveness, along with adjusting to the changes in your life, leaves your nerves frazzled, your patience worn and your temper fierce, and the person you’re most likely to take it out on is the person right beside you. Mostly over things so minor that afterwards you can’t work out what the fuss was all about (‘What’s wrong with you? You told me there were three bottles sterilised. There are only two. Wah, wah, wah!’). If your relationship is strong, you’ll be fine because you make allowances for each other and know you’re in this together, come hell or high water. If it’s not and you think a baby will bring you closer together, start packing your bags. I don’t mean to be harsh, but the strain a baby puts on your relationship is intense, and if there are cracks in it before the birth, they’ll be gaping chasms afterwards.
  10. You will become paranoid – all those things you did unthinkingly before like pulling out into traffic, crossing the road, stroking strange dogs, going out without a jacket – suddenly these things are risks that could harm the baby. You look around for hazards and you see them everywhere. If you’re walking under a clear blue sky you take the rain cover just in case. You triple check seatbelts. You start to look at the cat as the predator she is. When people you’ve known for years want to hold the baby you wonder when they last washed their hands and if you’ve ever seen them drop anything. This is, again, totally normal – you’re meant to worry about keeping your child safe. Just make sure it doesn’t reach such an extreme that you wrap her in cotton wool and refuse to leave the house.
  11. Don’t lose your identity completely – it’s very easy to become a martyr, and perhaps you even want to, but it isn’t healthy and it doesn’t make you a good parent if you burn out. From now on, people will see you as the baby’s mother or father and not as a person in your own right, so don’t make things harder on yourself by becoming nothing more than a parent. Pick one interest, one thing that defines you as you, be it cycling, reading, fishing, knitting, and try to keep doing it. You probably won’t be able to do it as often as before, but it’s the best way to stay sane and to remain anchored in your life at a time when you feel as though you’re being swept away. Plus people who can only talk about their kids and nothing else are really freaking boring.
  12. Learn Dunstan Baby Language – this is the main thing I wish I’d known about from the start. I’ve mentioned it before in a post (Baby Talk) and was rather dismissive of it, but it’s actually really useful. It’s the idea that all babies have five ‘words’ when they’re born, such as crying with an ‘n’ sound means they’re hungry (‘nargh, nargh!’), a staccato ‘eh, eh, eh’ sound means they have wind and need burping, while a drawn out ‘eairh’ sound indicates lower abdominal pain (i.e. they need to fart). Whether this works for you or not isn’t important – the very idea that different cries mean different things means you can listen to your baby, learn her cues, and cater for her needs so much better than before. The first two months, when Izzie cried I had to work out why; after discovering Dunstan Baby Language, the second she cries I can tell whether to feed her, burp her, change her or massage her belly, and that not only saves time, frustration and tears, it helps you bond with your baby because you’re actually communicating, and that is priceless. I can’t recommend it enough.
  13. Find a good 24-hour store – I know you think you’re too organised and well prepared to run out of something essential, and before the birth you’re probably right. After the birth, however, you develop ‘baby brain’, a condition typified by forgetting which day of the week it is, let alone being able to remember to maintain stocks of cotton wool, baby wipes, nappies, Milton (sterilising solution), formula, nappy cream, etc. You’re absolutely sure you have another packet, no doubt about it, until you reach for it at close to midnight and discover you opened it last week and it’s the one you just finished. And that’s avoiding the fact that things break, the dummy gets chewed by the dog, all the muslins are in the wash, the sleepsuits are suddenly too small, or the online community recommends using Vaseline on her nose to help with her cold. So get ready for a few late night excursions.
  14. Be flexible – you may have decided beforehand exactly how you’re going to raise your baby. Breastfeeding, no dummies, co-sleeping, ‘cry it out’ – you may have the perfect plan for raising your perfect baby. The truth is that babies don’t conform to plans, and as soon as your plan hits reality, one of them has to bend – and it’s not going to be reality. It’s okay to adapt to changing circumstances, in fact that’s what it means to be a parent. You do what’s best for your child, and you, and the family as a whole. The saddest thing is seeing parents stubbornly clinging to something that doesn’t work because they are unable to let them go. Breastfeeding, for example – if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. So stop making everyone miserable, including the baby, and find an alternative. Reality is better than any plan you can make anyway.
  15. Pick up tips – it doesn’t matter where they come from, listen to them all and give them a try. Some will work, many won’t, but they can make life so much easier. Like, for example, to stop your baby spitting out her dummy, rub her nose –  it stimulates the suck reflex since the nose rubs against the breast while breastfeeding. Or when you’re cuddling her, patting her on the bottom soothes her. Or if all else fails and your baby won’t stop crying, the best position to hold her is face down along your forearm, the side of her head in the crook of your elbow and your hand cupping her bottom between her legs. At least, these work for my baby. Yours will likely be different, so find what works for you.
  16. Don’t miss out – if Izzie is anything to go by, your baby will develop so rapidly that every day brings a new facial expression, skill, sound or movement. Izzie, at thirteen weeks, is trying to hold her own bottle, straining all the time to sit up, can both whisper and shout, and is (terrifyingly) able to pull the cord on her dangling toy to start the music playing. People who think babies are boring or unable to do anything are missing out. You need to treasure this time, because it goes by very quickly. And every smile, every giggle, every time your child recognises you and responds with affection, is a gift that you cannot buy. All too soon she’ll be answering back, and then you’ll be embarrassing, and then she’ll hate you, and be off to university, so cherish this time. It’s hard but it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.
  17. Trust your instincts – you’re a parent. Whatever you think is right for your child is right. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says or thinks or does, only what you believe. The responsibility, and the honour, is yours. And so long as you listen to your instincts, you’ll do fine.

So these are a handful of observations from a three-month dad. Hope they help.

(And to my regular readers, I’m on holiday for a few days, so this blog will be going quiet for a week. I’m sure you’ll cope!)

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