I’ll be honest: I don’t know the first thing about babies (or contraception for that matter but that’s another story). Before I had my daughter I’d never changed a nappy, I made it through a good eight months of pregnancy before I realised that the uterus and the womb were the same thing, and I was genuinely baffled when friends bought me bibs for my newborn at my baby shower. Why would a baby who doesn’t eat food need a bib?!
Throughout pregnancy I was terrified. Not about labour - I’d survived a bikini wax so how bad could it be? No, I was terrified about having a baby. A tiny little thing that I had to keep alive, for a large portion of the day, on my own. I’d never been around babies; I had no interest in babies; I didn’t think I’d last two weeks.
Fast forward ten and a half months and she’s still here and, some might say, she’s thriving. Motherhood really is a role in which you have to learn on the job and it’s the same for everyone, whether you’ve wanted a baby your whole life or not. I’ve definitely had my ups and downs this past year but I’m not doing anywhere near as badly as I thought I would. In fact, I even feel like I’ve got a little bit of wisdom to impart.
Don’t rush in to get your baby as soon as they wake up. If you value your sleep and me-time that is. I found out by accident one morning not hearing my daughter crying from the shower that babies sometimes wake up, cry for a bit, and go back to sleep! Accidentally not rushing to her as soon as she made a noise was a game changer. If my daughter has slept for less than an hour during the day I will always leave her for up to ten minutes to resettle. Only when she’s on her back screaming in her woodlouse pose do I throw in the towel and get her up. It’s not just me that benefits from this – less than an hour is not long enough for her to wake up well-rested.
Buy a shade. If you want to eat your lunch in peace and hold a decent conversation whilst you’re out and about that is. When my daughter got to about three months she stopped just falling asleep anywhere and everywhere. The outside world was far too exciting and stimulating – sleeping’s cheating and all that. Of course, she still needed regular sleep, so not being able to sleep meant that she would transform into the spawn of Satan. On Christmas Day she was awake for eight hours straight as I had absolutely no idea how to make her sleep – she nearly broke me that day. A shade solved this problem: the slightest hint of a yawn or an eye rub and the shade would go on, a couple of rocks of the pram and she was out for the count. Bliss.
Accept that you’re going to hate your significant other a lot of the time. Make no mistake about it, maternity leave is a job. Not a 9-5 job, no a 24/7 job with no annual leave (especially if you’re breastfeeding). Doing it day in day out with little or no respite is exhausting. Meanwhile your significant other gets to swan off to work and get eight-plus hours a day off! In the early days I think this resentment is normal. Of course, they are actually working, they probably wish they were at home with you both and you wouldn’t really want to be at work yourself missing it all, but sleep deprivation makes you irrational. Not to mention the fact that your freedom has been completely taken away and, to a certain extent, they still have theirs. Thankfully, this period is short lived and as your baby’s stomach grows, they can spend longer and longer without you and you’ll hate your partner less.
Connect with other people. Honestly, the best thing about having a baby is that it’s an excuse to make new friends. As an adult it’s quite difficult to meet new people to be friends with but throw a baby into the mix and it’s a walk in the park. You can meet people at baby groups, on apps, even in the street. It’s an unwritten rule that once you have a baby you’re in a club: other mums actually make eye contact with you when you pass them in the street and it would be weirder not to talk to the person sitting next to you when you’re waiting to get your baby weighed. Having people to talk to is so important and the good thing is you very quickly get to know people really well. As a new mother it’s completely acceptable to talk to people about your vagina within five minutes of meeting so immediately all barriers are down. Once you start talking you realise that everyone’s in the same boat and you’re all just winging it hoping you look like you’re smashing it.
Look after yourself. The moment you give birth is the moment you stop coming first. That’s not to say that you’re no longer important. In fact, I think looking after yourself is even more important when you have a baby – happy mum happy baby and all that. Since having my daughter not one day has gone by when I haven’t showered and applied make up. I still get my nails done every three weeks and I play netball at least once a week. Since she’s been in her own bedroom I even get to read before I go to bed again. These little things are so important for mental health and if I don’t do them I’m not the only one who suffers.
Try and enjoy the little moments. I’ve found this really difficult. As someone who thrives on routine and likes to be busy, I’m always thinking about the next thing that needs to be done. Sometimes I have to force myself to stop and actually enjoy my daughter’s company. I’m finding this easier as she’s getting older and a little more predictable. I spent most of the first nine months of her life gripped by anxiety, which resulted in frequent insomnia. There were a lot of mornings where I just didn’t want to have to get up and do it all again. Maternity leave has certainly felt like work to me on my bad days. Now that she’s older and has her own unique personality it’s much more fun.
Enjoy nap time. The best advice my mother gave me in the early days was to put my baby down in her Moses basket when she fell asleep. After three weeks of going slowly insane pinned to the sofa by a feeding/sleeping baby, this advice was a revelation. I’d already finished all seven seasons of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and all three seasons of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ at that point and ‘Jane the Virgin’ just wasn’t going to cut it. Yes, she often woke up pretty soon after I put her down, but it wouldn’t be long before she fell asleep again and I had use of my arms for those brief intervals! These days she often does a good 90 minutes morning and afternoon in her cot and, as my time management skills are now super-human, I can get a lot done in that time, even if it is a Netflix binge with free arms for tea and biscuits!
This too shall pass. I’ve learnt, over the past ten months, that on the whole any annoying/stressful phase that my daughter is going through will last three weeks tops! Whether that’s screaming from 6pm to 10pm every evening, waking up for the day at 5am or point-blank refusing to accept milk from a bottle, they all sorted themselves out in the end, usually without any intervention from me. She’s even stopped dropping every single bit of food I give her on the floor now – the dog is furious!
Make people fit in with you. Definitely if they haven’t got a baby of their own. One of my biggest anxieties before giving birth was that I’d have hordes of unwanted visitors plonking themselves on my sofa and not taking the hint to leave. I even gave my family strict ground rules beforehand, so I wouldn’t have to worry about offending them when she was actually here. I joked to friends and family that they could only come around and see the baby if they also did the washing up/brought me food. I wasn’t joking. Even with mum friends I think you still have to be selfish. In the early days I did lots of things that I knew were a bad idea just to fit in with other people (going to a busy shopping mall at nap time to name a few). These trips inevitably ended up in a meltdown, severe anxiety and public humiliation on my part and a ratty baby to contend with until 7pm. These days I state my availability between 10.30am and 2.30pm. If that doesn’t work for people, that’s fine, I’ll see someone else!
Ask for help. This is the most important one. Without a doubt the best thing I’ve done in the past year is attend a baby group at my local children’s centre after a night of insomnia and break down inconsolably in front of everyone. Not only did it mean that I got free baby massage and counselling sessions from the group leader; it also enabled me to make friends. Mums that I had spoken to briefly were suddenly asking for my number and asking if I was ok. Showing some vulnerability meant that people reached out to me and those same people are now some of my best friends and we speak to each other every day. We even just had a baby-free holiday together! Admitting that you’re struggling is so important as there’s so much help out there, but you won’t receive it unless people know there’s a problem. When 20% of new mums experience post-natal depression or anxiety it’s really not something to feel ashamed about. I’ve had so much support from my local children’s centre and post-natal mental health charity Bluebell. Feeling like you’ve got people who care about you and who will check in with you is invaluable.
So, like I said, I don’t know anything about babies, but these are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve learned along the way (usually the hard way). Yes, all babies are different but in a lot of ways they’re the same. Equally all parents are different and what works for one may not work for another. I think the most important thing is to try and have a sense of humour. Yes, discovering my baby eating her own faeces was slightly alarming but my friends certainly appreciated the photograph. She lived to tell the tale and now I’m much less anxious about her crawling around on the floor and putting everything she finds in her mouth.
These days I find that I enjoy motherhood most days. There really is nothing better than having a little mini-me who thinks I’m the most hilarious person in the whole world. Yes, this past year has certainly been challenging but now that it’s nearly over I feel hugely grateful, proud and excited about what’s to come.