Babies aren’t balls of clay

While walking the dog round the forest yesterday, I met a French lady who peered at the 16-odd pounds of baby strapped to my chest and asked me how old she was.

‘Just coming up to five months,’ I replied.

‘They grow up so fast,’ she said, and then added, ‘Make sure she grows up strong. There aren’t enough strong women in this world.’

Since I had no idea how to respond to that, I said, ‘I will. She’ll be a strong woman. She’ll be a Nobel Prize winner.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘We need more strong women. Promise me you’ll make her strong.’

‘I will,’ I repeated, as though solemnly undertaking a blood oath.

And then she was gone.

It was all a bit surreal, actually, particularly as her dog seemed to be a cross between a black lab and a hell hound, all teeth and drool and mad staring eyes. But for the rest of the walk, her imperative was bouncing around my head – make her strong, make her strong – and my agreement to do it.

But how exactly do you make a girl into a strong woman? Bathe her in ice water and dry her with sandpaper? Teach her to toy with men’s hearts and crush them underfoot like Miss Havisham’s pet Estella? Sure, I plan on taking her to karate lessons as soon as she’s old enough so she can defend herself, but other than that, I’m kind of at a loss as to how I’m meant to achieve this. And how much power over Izzie’s personality am I meant to have?

Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr John Watson, a behavioural psychologist and not Sherlock Holmes’ fictional biographer, said something along the lines of: ‘give me a dozen babies and I’ll make them into lawyers, doctors, artists, thieves or beggars depending on how I raise them and in spite of any natural proclivities they might have.’ Now, we know, and have known for a long time, that this is a pile of hooey – genetics and individual differences count equally as much as environmental factors in how we turn out – but people still seem to think that as parents we can control the development of our children.

My mother, for example – at the age of 27, while working for the police, I had a breakdown. Ten years later, my brother has just had a form of burn out after his wife left him and took the kids. So my mum is all, ‘Two kids, two breakdowns, how bad a mother am I? I should have made you stronger.’

So I asked her the same question: how, exactly, should she have made us stronger? Besides which, she tried – my parents used to send me to boys camp over the summer to build my character, toughen me up and force me to become more sociable. I found every summer a form of cruel and unusual punishment; my brother, on the other hand, was in his element. While I wandered down to the village every afternoon to lock myself in a toilet cubicle and cry, he thrived. While I was bookish and introverted, he was sociable and outgoing; while I was moody and introspective, he was laid back and confident. We were raised in the same house by the same parents and given the same guidance, moral framework and experiences, but were completely different people from the start. And the fact we both had breakdowns is plain bad luck, not a fault in our upbringing.

Because kids are not balls of clay that can be moulded into whatever we want – they’re people with their own thoughts, ideas, desires and abilities. Izzie already has a personality – two parts wilfulness, one part stubbornness, mixed with an insatiable curiosity and a happy disposition – and that’s without any input from me.

This is the lesson all parents need to learn – just because we made our children, it does not mean that we own them. They belong to the Universe. We brought them into being but they are themselves. They are not us in miniature, or a mirror of our beliefs and ideals. They are rivers that will find their own way to the sea, irrespective of the routes we took. We can guide them on their journey, steer them from our experience and insight, and love them for who they are – we cannot make them into something they’re not. They will disagree with us, and they’re not wrong to – for however much we teach our children, they teach us the same.

Will Izzie grow into a strong woman? I think so, because she’s fearless and determined already. All we have to do is nurture that independent spirit, and prevent it getting her into trouble. The same goes with any parent – we have to work with what is already there, and accept things as they are, instead of trying to turn our kids into something they’re not. So long as we remember that, we’ll be doing our job.

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The Key to a Happy Life

No expectations. None whatsoever.

Resentment, disappointment, annoyance, frustration, and a sense that everything in the world is unfair and fundamentally wrong, all stem from having expectations that it should be other rather than accepting what it really is. We spend far too much time looking at where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and where we think we should be, and not enough time living in the here and now and grasping what is right in front of us.

Having expectations when you’re a parent is fatal.

Last night, Lizzie went out to see the new James Bond film and have a pizza, leaving me looking after Izzie. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘She’s been awake all day, she’s behaved like a gem, and I actually got more of her Sweet Potato Bake in her than on her, so she’ll be tired and contented. I’ll have her in bed by seven, cook some dinner, and have some much-needed time to myself. I’ll spend an hour on the Xbox and a couple of hours writing. Awesome. I’m looking forward to my evening.’

Fatal.

The fact it took me three hours to get her to sleep on Saturday and four hours on Sunday should have indicated that you can’t bank on a bedtime, but I somehow forgot this rudimentary aspect of parenting in the expectation of a restful evening. So when it took me from six till ten to get her to bed, trying milk, water, rocking, singing, reading aloud, dummy, teething gel, Calpol, cuddles, TV, hypnotism (which made her laugh), teddy bear, womb sounds, and ultimately she fell asleep from exhaustion, I was pissed. I mean, seriously pissed.

It was no fault of Izzie’s – she’s a baby – it was my fault. I hadn’t managed my expectations to fit reality, and the reality is that my time belongs to the baby, and any extra I get to myself is a bonus, not a given. Expecting you can have an independent existence in the first six months of a baby’s life is just barmy. Get on with what you can when you can, and accept that what you can’t you simply can’t. If I had no expectations of the evening, I wouldn’t have had a problem – I’d probably even have been happy.

I think that’s as good a lesson as any for life in general.

As a kid, I wanted to be a famous author. Everyone told me I would be, because that’s what you tell a four-year-old, and I accepted it because you believe everything an adult tells you. But as I grew older, they kept saying it. When I was ten, my grandfather told me that not only was I going to be an author, I was going to be one of the greatest authors in the world. When I was thirteen, my teacher told my parents I’d be on This Is Your Life one day. When I was seventeen another teacher told me I had a gift and it was my duty to share it with the world. Everyone – family, friends, educators, peers – thought I would go on to be the most successful thing ever to come out of the little town of Frimley, population 5,000.

I therefore lived my life with the unshakable expectation that I’d be a famous author at eighteen. I saw future me as a rich, successful author living in the city, attending movie premieres and society parties, frequenting all the best theatres, museums and art galleries the world had to offer. Essentially, all glitz, glamour and sophistication. Monaco, Cannes and Val D’Isere – that was going to be my life.

Skip eighteen years ahead and you find me a balding, pot-bellied autistic guy on antidepressants who lives in his partner’s house in a village on the edge of nowhere and has spent his life working in shops, office administration, domestic care and call centres. There’d be nothing wrong with it if it it wasn’t so far away from where I expected to be.

In my twenties, I couldn’t stand that my life didn’t match my plan for it. Why the hell wouldn’t anyone publish my novels? How could I possibly live the rest of my life an unknown? I was meant to be special, damn it – everyone said so. So why am I broke and alone? I spent my twenties writing novels and waiting for my life to begin.

It took me until my thirties to realise that my life had begun – and begun many years ago – it simply differed from my expected path. I still write my novels, still try to get them published, and sometimes I do feel as though the parade is passing me by, but I’m less discontented about the whole thing. I hope they get published, but I’m not suffering unduly because they’re not – it’s just the way my life has worked out. And there’s nothing wrong with my life.

The life I’m comparing it to – the successful me with the apartment in New York and the A-list friends – is nothing more than a fantasy. How can I feel bad that I’m not living the life of a person that never even existed anywhere but in my head? It’s like getting upset because the sky isn’t green – it never was nor could be green, so what’s the point of those tears?

My advice to anyone feeling they’ve not lived up to their potential is: don’t look at where you think you ought to be, look at where you are, because if it’s anything like my life, it’s not bad at all, just different. Disappointment comes from looking at the future and remembering the past, comparing your situation with what it was and how you think it should be. When I was eighteen, the thought of living in a little village, unknown, with a baby, and London a hundred miles away, was intolerable; at thirty-six, it’s pretty darn great. Live in the moment, appreciate the present for what it is – your life – and remember that those other lives you’re comparing yours to aren’t real.

So long as there’s air in our lungs, blood in our veins, and the sun is still up there somewhere, even if it’s hidden in cloud, we’re doing okay.

That’s the key to parenting, and to life itself: no expectations. Life and babies refuse to conform to preconceived notions. The sooner you can make peace with that, the happier you’ll be.

And if you're still not happy, here's Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!
And if you’re still not happy, here’s Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!

The best-laid plans…

After three years of trying for a baby and finding out the odds were stacked firmly against us, we gave up and decided to get a puppy instead. We still wanted a baby, and if it happened one day, it would happen, but in the meantime we would move on with our lives.

The meantime didn’t last very long. Two months, in fact. Then Lizzie was pregnant.

I hadn’t planned to have a one-year-old puppy and four-week-old baby at the same time, but these are the cards we’ve been dealt and the hand we have to play. It’s hard, stressful, and exhausting, but Izzie will grow up with a devoted companion and within a couple of years our spaniel Ozzie will have a friend to play with who has roughly the same ball control skills and ability at maths. Who is to say that the way things have worked out aren’t better than the plans we made?

When you’re having a baby it’s normal to make plans. What I’m discovering, however, is that plans don’t survive contact with babies. The tranquil water birth turned into an operating theatre, the baby harnesses that worked so well with a teddy bear are rubbish for real babies, and ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is only good advice for people who can afford cleaners and endless takeout.

The biggest change we’ve had to face is over breastfeeding. Everywhere you look you see posters exhorting that ‘breast is best’. There are countless books, support groups and websites providing practical advice and encouragement; midwives congratulate you for choosing to breastfeed as though you’ve decided to donate all your money to help build a new birthing unit; and random strangers slap you on the back and tell you, ‘Well done.’ Well, not strangers so much as acquaintances – if strangers came up to a breastfeeding woman and slapped her on the back, it would probably end in handcuffs and a public apology.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the flipside of all this focus on breastfeeding is that women who formula feed are looked down on as lesser individuals, unworthy of praise. Worse, they are failing their children by giving them an inferior product. Before the birth, we were warned that not all women could breastfeed, and with typical arrogance we pitied these unmotherly wenches who couldn’t feed their own children because, of course, we would be breastfeeding ours. Problems happen to other people.

We have stopped breastfeeding. It was a long, arduous journey to come to the decision, but it is what’s best for all of us. There were many reasons that it wasn’t working, not least that, after losing so much blood during the birth and having two transfusions, Lizzie’s milk doesn’t have the fat content to give Izzie the calories she needs. We had to top up with formula after every feed, and once Izzie realised she could get more milk with less effort from the bottle, she treated the breast as the appetiser before her main meal. Less stimulation meant less milk being produced. So that was that.

From an objective point of view, it is the right decision. Mother and baby were becoming increasingly stressed by the whole thing; Izzie is now putting on weight; I can feed her any time of the day or night and give Lizzie a rest; it’s easier to feed her in public; and she got the colostrum, the important stuff, in the early days so Lizzie did her job.

But you cannot look at breastfeeding objectively. It’s an emotive issue, and regardless of how much you know it’s for the best, it’s impossible not to feel that you have failed.

Lizzie is taking it particularly hard. We had always planned to breastfeed, and the fact we are using formula makes us feel like poor parents. As I keep trying to explain to Lizzie, and myself, the odds were always stacked against us: her mother didn’t create much milk so there might be a genetic basis; Izzie had a traumatic birth and forceps babies don’t feed as well; she spent four days being fed formula through a naso-gastric tube so was used to a full belly with no effort; Lizzie has to use nipple shields, which make it more difficult for Izzie and provides less stimulation to the breasts; mother and baby were on different wards for four days after the birth so everything was delayed; and this is before we mention all the trauma Lizzie suffered. Under the circumstances, that she managed to breastfeed at all is commendable, let alone for over three weeks. There really is nothing to feel bad about.

I think the key to surviving a baby is realising that ‘plans’ are actually ‘preferences’. Then, if things don’t go as expected, you haven’t failed: you’ve simply had to adapt to reality. And that is the best that any man, or mouse, can hope for.