Time away from baby

Like many parents, the thought of leaving my twelve-month-old daughter with somebody else overnight fills me with dread, regardless of who that somebody is. Therefore, the thought of leaving her for four nights with her Granny while I went on honeymoon was a real crisis of character.

Regular followers of this blog will be aware that, when booking said honeymoon, all was not well in the Galton-Drew household. Lizzie wanted to go away for seven nights; I wanted to go for a maximum of four. She accused me of being unable to let go; I accused her of finding it too easy to let go. She wanted our old life; I wanted our new life. And so it went round.

Ultimately we went away for five days, four nights, a result of both my need to be a dad and be there for my child, and the fact we’d misinterpreted the website and couldn’t actually afford seven nights anyway. Building up to it, I wasn’t over eager to leave my troubles (I mean, my daughter) behind. How would she cope without me? How would I cope without her? What if something happened? How could I possibly enjoy myself knowing I’d abandoned my parental responsibility in order to have a jolly?

You know – normal, obsessive, neurotic parent thoughts.

For all parents considering time away from the baby, it’s of course entirely up to you and you should always do what you’re comfortable with, but having now had a holiday without the little one, perhaps my experience will help you make up your mind.

I needn’t have worried. At all. About myself or the baby.

If we start with the little one, she was absolutely fine. She didn’t seem to miss us, went to bed without a fuss and was thoroughly spoiled by her grandmother. Actually, that’s possibly the only real problem: having been fed home-cooked finger food she could feed herself with, she now steadfastly refuses food from jars and food that requires a spoon. Thanks Granny!

Not to blow my own trumpet, but I think the reason it went so well is that we’ve done a great job creating a confident, outgoing child. We’ve been there in the background but we’ve allowed Izzie her freedom, been ready to catch her when she falls but let her explore where and how she wants. It means she’s fearless, ready to face the unknown because she knows there’s a safety net beneath her and rescue just a chirrup away. It’s certainly confirmed there’s nothing wrong with our parenting style.

Going back to the baby-less holiday, I was fine too. Surprisingly fine. I put her out of my mind and barely thought about her. True, there were moments – when I saw someone pushing a pushchair, when I heard a baby crying, when I saw a strawberry-blonde toddler waddling awkwardly along the quayside – but for the most part, I didn’t find it as crippling and debilitating as I thought I would.

Perhaps this is because I’m a person, and not just a dad. It’s easy to forget, when you’re at the coalface, that there’s a whole other side to you – several sides. Lizzie and I finally got to do what we love doing: exploring. We drove down unmarked roads and walked along overgrown tracks, ducked through caves and peered into rockpools, squeezed up spiral staircases and descended into dungeons, danced on beaches in the rain and stared at Pagan trinkets scattered around Neolithic stone circles in celebration of the solstice, and still somehow found the time for hot tubs, steam rooms and meals out. That is who we are as a couple, and what we haven’t been since the baby was born.

Despite my previous claims that you can holiday just fine with a baby, the truth is that you can’t do everything. You can’t just stop at the side of the road because you’ve seen something interesting poking out of the long grass, examine it for five minutes, then jump back in the car. You can’t decide on a whim to explore this ruined castle, or wander across that causeway, or climb down these two-hundred steps to that isolated beach. Around a hundred times I thought, ‘We couldn’t do this with a baby.’

And it felt so good! Not having to think about nappies and food and waterproofs, being able to hold hands with each other instead of constantly focusing on someone else, is amazingly therapeutic after a year of unremitting parenthood. I saw many young families out with kids, and all of them were struggling, arguing, flustered, overloaded with bags and equipment, and it was such a relief not to be similarly encumbered for once.

Lizzie and I connected in a way we haven’t since forever. Of course, when you become a parent you don’t cease to be a partner, but it’s very easy to cease making an effort for one another since you’re so knackered and emotionally overwhelmed by the whole world of baby care. The arguments that characterised our lives over the past six months have gone. And that doesn’t just make you a better partner, it makes you a better parent too.

Before this honeymoon I could barely countenance the idea of going away without my child; now I think it’s a great idea. Parenting is a team sport, and the occasional team-building weekend is essential to keep it running smoothly.

So, anyone know of any cheap getaways?

Partnership vs. Parenting

It has struck me of late how the requirements of being a partner and those of being a parent are often diametrically opposed.

It’s the quintessential conflict at the heart of Jane Austen – do we pick a partner based on practical considerations, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice, or do we marry for love, like Elizabeth Bennet? Actually, since Elizabeth Bennet only really warms up to Mr Darcy after she sees the size of his package (i.e. Pemberley), perhaps Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility is a better example. Except she decides not to marry the man she loves because she concludes he wouldn’t make her happy, so marries a rich guy old enough to be her father and learns to love him. And while Fanny Price marries for love in Mansfield Park, Edmund is her first cousin. In fact, the only character in Austen free to marry for love is the titular Emma – she’s the only one with an independent fortune who doesn’t need supporting by a man.

But whatever the case, that this is such a preoccupation in Austen’s novels shows that in Georgian times, it was a very real conflict. And so it still is in some areas of the modern world – the upper crust, for example, who seem to marry the person who fits the job description of ‘wife and mother’ while refusing to give up the mistresses they really love (no names mentioned). But for the most part, these days we in the Western world marry for love.

As partners, me and Lizzie are great for each other. While I’m a sensible, reclusive stick-in-the-mud, Lizzie is a childlike, emotionally-liberated basket case. While I fret about rules, money, going out, she ignores all propriety, splashes out on frivolities, and is so restless it’s nigh impossible to pin her down. Throughout our relationship, therefore, she’s encouraged me to let my hair down while I’ve helped her face up to her responsibilities – at least in part. She reminds me that the world is a magical place where fun should be had – I remind her that there are boundaries and we need to stay safe. That’s why we love each other.

Trouble is, the very things that you love in a partner are not necessarily very attractive in the parent of your child. In fact, they’re often the opposite.

Before Izzie was born, we pulled each other towards the middle, but since the birth we seem to have returned to our outer limits – I am the responsible worrier again, Lizzie the frivolous spendthrift.

Unfortunately, these two mutually exclusive positions have been playing havoc in our household of late. The most commonly used phrase in the past six months, since I became primary carer extraordinaire and Lizzie has struggled with her role as mother, has been, ‘Look, you don’t need to make things easier for me, just don’t make them any harder than they already are.’

I hate being the responsible one, the one who has to rein the other in, the one who has to say no more often than he can say yes. But it is the role I’ve had to take. And being a parent spills over into being a partner: those very things I love about Lizzie – her clumsiness, her messiness, her devil-may-care attitude – have lately been driving me insane.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the festive season. Christmas is different as a parent – at least it was for me. Normally I look forward to it, get excited, wake with boundless joy Christmas morn, suffer agonising anti-climax once the presents are opened, recover enough by lunchtime to be contented, and wobble in a confused daze until New Year where I’m filled with hope over the coming months and regret over where I’d considered I’d be by this stage of my life. And Lizzie, well, she lived through every one of those experiences and emotions, and then some.

I didn’t. I lived from day to day, hour to hour. Bottles, milk, solids, steriliser, muslins, bibs, toys, car seat. Have we got enough nappies? The baby wipes? Where’s her extra vest in case she soils this one? Teething gel? Spare dummy? While Lizzie dressed the baby in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats and woke her up to sing Auld Lang Syne, I fed her and changed her and rocked her back to sleep. While Lizzie drank champagne and ripped open presents, I listened to the baby monitor and kept the noise down. I didn’t mind it – Izzie was my stable anchor in the chaos of the silly season – but it hammered home how different we are, as parents, as partners, and as people.

If we were living in Georgian times, choosing our partners based on practical considerations, then, hand on heart, I doubt that many of us would have chosen the people we’re with now. We’d have chosen people who were different, better, smarter, funnier, kinder. I can’t imagine I’m the only person with a young child who’s looked around at other people and thought – if only I’d picked them, how much easier would my life be now?

But such thoughts are nothing more than fantasies. It’s so easy when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed, overfed, and surrounded by twinkling lights, to forget the important truth: we’re not living in Georgian times, and we didn’t choose our partners, at least not consciously – our hearts did. Not based on their parenting abilities, but because we loved them and love them still. Because they appealed to some intangible need or desire deep down within ourselves that only they could fulfil.

Lizzie might annoy the hell out of me as the mother of my child, but there’s nobody else I’d rather share my life with. It’s separating out these two conflicting realities that’s the hard part.