I read one of those comments on a blog last night. You know the type: “If you breastfeed your baby, and carry him all the time, and sleep with him, he won’t cry. Babies don’t cry if you do those things. Only babies whose mothers somehow alienate themselves from them cry.” Well, bullshit. They might help, of course, but a crying baby isn’t the sign of a mother who’s failing somehow. `Don’t let anyone ever persuade you otherwise.
Nine years ago today I got the bus into town.
If I had been on Facebook, it would have been worthy of a post: “I got the bus into town today!!!!!”, but I wasn’t on Facebook back then, not least because I was a heavily pregnant English thirty-something, rather than a lissom Ivy Leaguer.
It wasn’t the getting the bus that would have made the event post-worthy, but rather the date I did it. It was, according to that little cardboard wheel in the midwife’s file, my Estimated Due Date. Although I knew that babies didn’t tend to keep to schedule, I still had a hankering suspicion that this would be the day that would forever mark my Before from my After. More than that, after weeks and months of (usually kindly) comments from strangers, I was desperate – in that self-absorbed way every first-time mother should be entitled to by law – for someone to ask me when I was due and to beam “Today!” at them, just to see them scurrying for kettles of hot water and clean towels. Or just scurrying.
It taught me a lesson about parenting, that journey into town. The bus was late, just as the baby turned out to be. The day was cold and raw and I was too uncomfortable to do any shopping. And not a single, solitary granny or shop keeper even made reference to the bump sticking out under the top button of my coat which was the only one I could still fasten.
Nothing, from that point on, went as I’d expected it to. The Baby Whose Birthday Should Have Been Today eventually arrived ten days later, in theatre. The newborn clothes I’d packed didn’t fit him and his little toes curled up in protest like tiny jester’s feet inside the babygros.
He cried, and he cried, and he cried. We came home, and he cried. I fed him, and he cried. He’d doze, fitfully, and wake crying. My memories of that winter are of pushing him in his pram for hours till he’d drop off, only to arrive home, rain dripping off every bit of me, trying to manoeuvre the pram up the step of our small terraced house and startling him awake. And crying.
It was suggested I tried a baby carrier. He cried. Someone said that babies don’t like moses baskets, that I should let him sleep in with me. He cried. At the mentions of colic or reflux, I badgered the doctor for prescriptions to try and help. He cried (baby, not doctor). The health visitor suggested baby massage classes at the Sure Start centre, but we were asked to leave because (you’ve guessed it) the crying was setting all the other babies off.
Why did he cry? I have no idea. He is now the most chilled out of my three children, much more so than the other two who tended to cry only when any self-respecting baby would do so. I think, although it doubtless makes no sense, that he just didn’t like being a baby.
It’s all a long time ago now. I thought I was over it all, till I saw a Facebook post from a friend of a friend on maternity leave with her first baby. She was glowing, fulfilled; doing all the mummy things she’d dreamed of while her brand new little boy sleeps and feeds and gurgles. He has been a long time coming, and I am delighted for her. Someone, who possibly hadn’t found the early days like that, commented on her luck. “I’m just so happy and relaxed, and I think it’s rubbed off on him”, was the reply. And I was back to all those miserable, guilty feelings of nearly nine years ago.
Even writing this, I am thinking of people close to me who would do anything to have a baby – perma-crying or not – in their arms. I feel uncomfortable writing something that could sound ungrateful.
It’s just that we beat ourselves up over our babies: how we birth them, how we feed them, how we bond with and raise them. To some extent, so we should: the early days really matter. But it all lends itself to a culture of judging and feeling judged, an atmosphere in which we come to feel that we have more influence over circumstances and the individuals who are our children than we probably do. The lesson I learned from the bus trip that day – that you can be as well prepared and as positive-minded as you like, but that life – and babies – don’t always work that way – still holds true, but it’s not always easy to remember.
There is so much advice out there for new mothers: from strangers on the streets, from acquaintances on social media, from experts making a living selling books and apps and courses all promising to solve our problems. Some of it is helpful of course; sometimes there are things that can make a difference, difficulties that need to be identified and dealt with. In the midst of it all, though, I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that it is, in so many ways, a lottery. So much of it is beyond our control, right from conception onwards, and that applies too to how our babies are. There isn’t a default “calm baby” waiting inside every squawking wakeful infant, just waiting for its mum to crack the code. Sometimes it’s just a case of hanging on in there, being as positive as you can, and trusting to time to do the job.
And if you have one of those crying babies? Once you’ve checked you didn’t leave the tags on the vest and that you didn’t use chilli oil for the post-bath massage (true stories, folks), add a pat on the back to that swaying, baby-holding stance of yours, and don’t listen to anyone who says (or makes you feel) that it’s somehow your fault.
Oh, and from personal experience, I don’t recommend you read We Need To Talk About Kevin. Not yet, anyway.