The baby diaries: tears before bedtime

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Babies cry. Quite a lot as it turns out. Sometimes it almost seems that they do nothing but cry. This isn’t true of course but time distorts when you are pacing around your living quarters with an infant emitting ear-splitting wails directly into your auditory brain channel!

Babies can’t really help the crying, they don’t have a lot of options when it comes to communicating so screaming is often all they’ve got. This has to suffice to communicate a whole lot of things which as a parent is your job to try to interpret, it could almost be considered a fun game, a sort of twenty guesses of the baby’s needs type affair, except that you hardwired to do two things when your baby cries, one is to respond and the other is to feel like a terrible specimen of humanity.

Sometimes babies just cry and once we’ve gone through the standard list (is she hungry, gassy, does she need a change, is she tired, running a temperature, bored?) we use the paediatrician recommended method of assessing if there is anything specifically wrong, which is to roll her over our arm and carry her face down. Usually this will temporarily stop the grizzling, which apparently is a sign there’s nothing actually wrong, so if the wailing commences again after that we can be reassured that we aren’t missing anything serious.

However, knowing that sometimes babies just cry (fab book a friend lent me ‘Your baby week by week’ gives an indication of how often and for what reasons or lack of reasons) doesn’t stop you from feeling like a failure every time they do. Especially when you are that joyous combination of over hormonal and sleep-deprived.

During my pregnancy, I received a lot of helpful advice (and some not so helpful advice) from a lot of parents. One piece of guidance in particular has been really helpful, when our daughter is screaming her lungs out and we are trying to assess how bad on a scale of dismal-to-barbaric this makes us as parents, which came from a friend at work we’ll call The Italian (and italicise because of the obvious link between Italy and italics – I assume Italians invented the slanting style and don’t want to hear any evidence to the contrary).

The Italian told me and the beard, on more than one occasion, that it’s alright to cry. I’ll admit that failed to really register at the pre-baby hypothetical time but I can’t repeat enough now that we are in the solid-albeit-squidgy-reality of parenthood. The Italian’s advice was meant for us more than our daughter although it applies to her too. This counsel has come in pretty handy as I think I’ve been more tearful in the several weeks of our daughter’s existence than in the previous several years.

I burst into tears when my daughter was first laid on my chest straight after birth. That definitely counts as good crying.

The next tearful incident was one particularly fractious night around the two or three-week mark when she seemed to be constantly demanding food but then would take a mouthful before screaming on my breast, nipple still in mouth, milk going everywhere. Unsure where I was going wrong (as already mentioned blaming yourself is instinctive), frustrated and tired, the beard sensibly whipped her away for a pace around the flat before I started to join her in the wailing!

On another disturbed night with unexplained crying dragging out minutes into years the girl’s tantrum must have been contagious as I neared breaking point and could only save myself from full on nuclear meltdown by hurling a pack of nappies across the room. Which, in my defence, seems a fairly reasonable response as I could have hurled the baby or thrown nappies (perhaps with a baby inside) at the beard instead and that probably would have been a bit harder to fix than a measured tidy up the following day.

When the little one got a bit better at sleeping, going for three or four-hour stints at a time, we started to recover from the prolonged period of sleep-deprivation we’d been subject to. I mistakenly started to think maybe I’d got the hang of this parenting thing and wasn’t as bad at as I’d initially thought.

This brings me to the next time I properly cried: the day I hurt my child. Before anyone starts calling the French equivalent of social services on me, I hasten to add that it was accidental and not at all serious but that didn’t stop me from feeling like the worst human being in existence, having just injured the best human being in existence (it’s possible I may be biased but the beard and both sets of grandparents would definitely agree with me, so that seems fairly conclusive to me).

I was putting her down on the playmat, she slipped slightly (from a height of probably no more than five centimetres), and bopped her head, she landed on the edge of the playmat but it’s a very hard tile floor underneath and it did cause two quick sharp wails before she was swept up and the tears stopped. We checked her for damage but pretty sure the only result was the initial shock of a slight bump to the head. The beard was relaxed enough about the incident later to try and joke about it over the changing table, I was not quite so sanguine about what had happened and promptly burst into tears.

The next time I cried was a week or two ago (my ability to remember things like days of the week and accurately marking the passage of the earth around the sun has severely decreased since living with a newborn). I thought we had got into a reasonably settled pattern of just waking once between midnight and 8 am but my daughter had other plans and went through a couple of nights of only sleeping for 60-90 minutes to a time. The shock of the return of this nightmarish sleep schedule just pushed me over the edge. In the witching hours of one such evening, I took her out of the bedroom to nurse her but was faced with one of those confidence-shattering moments when the daughter’s demands for boobs only resulted in shrill screams at my breast.

I just thought I have no idea what to do and I’m too tired to figure this out. I started to sniffle a little bit and then I started to full-on sob. I then started to feel worse about my failure to satisfy the infant thinking that my sobbing was going to upset her, but then I remembered The Italian’s advice ‘it’s alright to cry’. And that finally fully sunk in. It was alright to cry, it was alright to give into my emotions and it’s alright for my child to see me do this. In fact it’s probably more than alright to expose our daughter to this from an early age.

At this point the beard blundered in having been woken by the chorus of our howls to find himself confronted with a bawling child and weeping wife, incoherently thrusting the baby in his face whilst snuffling out something or other about maybe needing to change her.

I have been thinking about this moment quite a lot recently and why it is that I, along with so many other people, are indoctrinated to think of crying as a negative physical reaction, a sign of weakness that is something to be ashamed of.

From an early age crying gets pushed into a gendered dimension, which is why I think it particularly important to note that the advice came from The Italian, who happens to be male. Crying is often portrayed as a feminine trait symptomatic of girls and women’s inherent weakness, it’s okay for girls and women to cry, they can’t help it; but not for boys or men to do so.

As someone who is often fighting to overcome negative gender stereotypes I’m not exempt from this and have inadvertently accepted the narrative that crying is a sign of weakness and have consequently trapped myself into thinking that if I cry I’m giving into feebleness and in doing so undermining the notion that women can be just as strong as men.

The problem is that crying is almost unilaterally portrayed as a bad thing, unless we expressly clarify that someone is crying tears of joy. Crying is often symptomatic of sadness, pain or discomfort but these feelings aren’t a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. I think the problem lies in that tears make other people uncomfortable and are something that people feel need to be justified, excused or otherwise explained away as an anomaly, as though it isn’t okay to just admit sometimes we are sad and crying is an expression of that.

As the parent of an often-screaming child, I already feel like I’m failing when our daughter cries when it is just the three of us, but as soon as she cries around other people, whether friends or family or out in public, my feelings that I’m a failure are hitched up into a whole new level of uncomfortableness caused by the assumption that everyone else will also think I am a failure.

This sense that crying is bad is something that is unavoidable from the earliest age. We noticed this with some visitors who kept on asking whether our daughter had been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’.

Given our child is unable to support the weight of her own head, let alone plot for the downfall of humanity, we were given to understand that a good baby was one that was quiet and a bad baby was one that cried. At first we didn’t really notice it but the frequency at which this concept of good or bad was being liberally applied to our child really started to grate on me and although I’d let the comments slide at first, I then found the need to keep correcting our visitors. Yes, she woke up in the night; no, it wasn’t her being naughty or bad in doing so.

Frustrating to have to constantly contradict others, amongst ourselves it has become a source of amusement, so that currently whenever the potato cries the beard and I look at each other and laughingly say ‘bad baby, bad baby’. It’s a habit we’ll have to break before our daughter becomes conscious of the meaning of our words but figure we can get away with for a little longer so long as it is always said in a happy tone.

When she is old enough to understand the concepts of those asking if she has been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we’ll have to make conscious efforts to explain and to demonstrate to her that it’s alright to cry. In the meantime, I’ll work on accepting this more in myself as I expect this family will be dealing with quite a few more tears before bedtime in future.

 

 

 

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The Pregnancy Diaries: Part 5 – Drinking for Two

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After initial disappointment of first scan we’d been advised to schedule another scan before Christmas. As our doc only works from the clinic we attend on Thursdays we had to schedule the appointment for the same day we were due to fly back to the UK, timings were tight but just about do-able.

Initially we had intended that I go to the appointment alone and the bearded man would meet me at airport with all the bags, but as we got closer to the day of our appointment, I was becoming increasingly more nervous and couldn’t stand the thought of potentially hearing that the potato had gone away without him by my side. The beard offered to take bags to the airport, store them in lockers (as would be too early to check in) so he could join me for the Doctor’s rendezvous.

This time the black smudge we’d barely seen last time had evolved into something that contained a definable blob resembling a mushy kidney bean. Complete with a racing heartbeat. We received a hearty congratulations from the doc. The potato was real.

Had the results been otherwise there is a serious chance we’d have cancelled Christmas and decided to stay home instead, but as it was we left the clinic in a bit of a rush, conscious of the plane we had to catch.

The sense of relief we both felt was palpable but unspoken and we reached the airport in a blur of luggage checking, security and boarding before either of us said anything. It wasn’t until we sat on the plane, seatbelts fastened that we finally asked ‘so what now?’

At only eight weeks pregnant we weren’t ready to widely share our news (we wanted to wait until after the 12 week scan when the risks of miscarriage and serious complications dramatically decrease), however, we also didn’t want to keep this from the families when we’d be spending the holidays with.

We decided on only telling immediate family and close friends, those that we felt we could handle it if we had to ‘untell’ them about the pregnancy if the potato went away. We thought there was a pretty high chance certain people would fail to keep schtum but reckoned that if there was any ‘untelling’ to be done that additional burden would fall to those officially in the know and we could minimize the amount of people we’d have to deal with in the event of bad news.

To decrease the temptation of anyone letting the news slip we decided to time our announcement well. Bearded man’s family we’d tell on Christmas day (after arriving on 22nd December) and my family we’d tell after the extended family Boxing Day event.

The plan was sound but there was one issue, which was how to hide the obvious signs of pregnancy until we were ready to share? Morning sickness and fatigue was still a burden but I could plausibly hide these symptoms behind having picked up some kind of office bug and having worked too hard at the end of the year. The more obvious red flag would be my not drinking, particularly as I’m well known to be partial to a nice glass of wine or several.

There was nothing for it, I was going to have to do some stealthy non-drinking and the bearded man was going to have to drink for two. On the 22nd and 23rd we weren’t around the family home much to have to enact our plan. The first challenge was Christmas Eve, the entire family was at home all day, plus Granny, and there was a big family lunch.

We planned that if we sat next to each other at the table and strategically placed our glasses next to each other the man could sneakily drink from both our glasses without anyone being the wiser.

The bearded man’s first mistake was to attempt to polish off my glass of wine as quickly as possible so that he could then enjoy his at a more leisurely pace. His second mistake was in marrying someone a little bit evil.

When mother in law noted my glass was empty she very kindly offered to fill it up. A nice person would have politely declined or at least stalled. I am many things, but ‘a nice person’ is probably not one of them. As I gladly accepted a second refill and then a third the bearded one did manage not to visibly flinch or express his growing discomfort as it dawned on him his wife was throwing him under the alcoholic bus.

After lunch it got worse for the poor fellow as I offered to prepare drinks for everyone to maintain the illusion I had nothing to hide. I planned to make a round of Gin and Tonics for everyone (but without the gin for me) but then father in law brightly offered us pre-mixed G&Ts in a can, no way of separating the booze from the mixer and the bearded man had to once again drink my drink.

Another bright idea of mine, when discussing the family Christmas with brother and sister-in-law long before realizing I was pregnant, was to suggest a Christmas Eve trip to the pub (an annual tradition from my neck of the woods). To my credit I did quietly hope that this suggestion, so enthusiastically greeted many months before, might quietly be forgotten, but the hope was in vain and it was off to the pub for several rounds instead.

I did try to have a soft drink, claiming ‘I’d’ drunk too much earlier, but after the first round of mockery this wasn’t sustainable so I had to resort to more booze for the bearded man to surreptitiously consume. At least when his brother bought out shots, I steadfastly declined. Shortly after midnight we made our way home, with the bearded man only slightly wobbling, and headed for bed.

The next morning as my unlucky lad felt the force of the hangover he was bearing for both (all three) of us, I couldn’t help but feel a smug satisfaction as I’d been feeling permanently hungover for weeks now. Unsurprisingly he was keen to share our news as early as possible the next day!

The Pregnancy Diaries: Part 3 – The Potato File

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I’ve never been much of an obvious baby person, if there is such a thing, but by that I mean I have never found myself cooing over random children and marveling at the babies of people I barely know.

Show me a kitten or full grown cat for that matter and it’s a different story, I feel an instant desire to win it’s friendship and shower it with whatever affection that particular creature will allow me to bestow. I might even say hello to its owner.

Animal babies are adorable, human babies are a bit, well, meh.

My thinking has always been that most babies, particularly the really new ones, tend to resemble badly carved potatoes and I’ve had as much desire to get to know them as I would want to pick up and cradle your average root vegetable, which suffice to say isn’t much, unless said veggie has been baked and topped with tuna mayo and cheese.

Although if someone said to me ‘ooh look at my marvellous potato, don’t you want to hold it?’ I would think it a bid odd, but would probably look at it and maybe even pick it up out of politeness. This has, on the whole, been my experience with babies. Although to be very clear no-one has ever offered me a baked baby topped with tuna mayo and cheese. I hope if they did that my first instinct would not be to eat it.

In defence to my lack of naturally-occurring baby-loving genes I haven’t been around babies a lot and still don’t know that many people with tiny living replicas of themselves. Where my friends have had children, they’ll no doubt be pleased to know, I do hold them in higher regard than a potato, and can marvel at them as much as if said friends had got a new pet. These babies are wonderful and exciting and interesting because they are the product of people I love. Other babies continue to resemble badly carved potatoes.

Since our quest for a spud of our own has been on the agenda the bearded one and I have found other people’s babies to be much more interesting. It’s just that years of the vegetable comparison has stuck and we still have a tendency to refer to other people’s mini-them’s as ‘taters. Except now if we see someone with a stroller we tend to nudge each other excitedly and point out the ‘little potato’ in a definite gesture of good will rather than the perhaps less flattering way we used to apply the term previously.

At first we were referring to our own minion brewing within by the size of it as compared to some kind of edible substance (as our baby app updated us on a weekly basis): e.g. it’s a mustard seed, now it’s a kidney bean and now a small lime, etc.. However that got quite confusing because when speaking with my parents they’d ask me how the blueberry was, etc., but it kept outgrowing these references and we’d have so many conversations about poppy seeds, lentils and kidney beans I wasn’t sure if we were talking about the pregnancy or if I was supposed to be noting down a recipe.

So it became ‘the potato’. This has also been good size comparison-wise as these root veggies come in all shapes so it has probably been the proportion of some sort of spud for several weeks now.

Our doctor told us to keep a file with all the scans, test results and any other pregnancy related paraphernalia that we have collected and will continue to collect from our various appointments. I drew a picture of a pomme-de-terre on the front and the potato file was born.

It’s also a lot easier to refer to our own abstract ‘baby’ (I use the quotation marks to make it less real) as something decidedly less demanding. Thinking of it as an actual child has just been too hard (and thinking of it as a kitten is definitely too weird).

In those worrying early stages when the thought it might go away was all too prevalent, making it seem a little less human was a way to try to insulate ourselves against potential loss. However, even when I got past that stage I still find myself uncomfortable with the thought of an actual ‘baby’ (note the redeployment of the quotation marks there). Probably because I’m too busy trying to focus on the whole getting through the pregnancy malarkey that I don’t want to think about what comes after these 40 weeks are up, i.e. actually having to deal with a kid.

A potato is so much less threatening: I am definitely capable of looking after a potato, but a baby? Well that’s another story. For one thing I’m not sure I have a big enough baking tray.