Baby love

Solid foods for my little girl. Solids! Pretty soon she will be asking to borrow my high heels (or not asking) and I will be researching how to lock the location services on her iPhone Series 12.

I know it’s cliched, but the time when you have a baby in your arms really does fly. Even during the first three months, when I was awake for practically every moment of my baby’s life, I would look at her (finally) sleeping face and know the time was limited.

We are still in the blessed, baby phase of her life when she still doesn’t know too much about the possibility of independent flight. She can’t yet reach anything really without me picking her up and moving her towards it. She sits in my arms, nestled there like she was made to fit the crook of my elbow and it was made for her, and she doesn’t yet even know to try to crawl away. So she doesn’t – instead she sits, feeling safe without knowing why, just knowing that this is the natural place for her to be.

So how to balance letting your baby explore the world and feel safe with you at the same time? Or really for me the question is, how to let go?

I know I don’t exactly have to rush – after all, Ellie is only five months old and I can be forgiven for using up all the time I have with her for being together and not yet introducing her to the concept of my absence. Not yet! Too soon! Because once she doesn’t need me any more, then she will not be my baby any more, and that part of my life will be over.

Yes, I know a child always needs her parents – but one step closer to not being needed absolutely is one step closer to experiencing the sacrificial nature of being a mum.

Here’s what I know: being a mum is a lot to do with selflessness. You have to do the right thing for your child, even if the best thing for you is to hold them close for the next 20 years, even if you feel your heart beat slow down to a calm, easy rhythm when you have her against your chest, knowing with your body that they are safe because they are right next to you. My friend Rachael described the connection to her baby as an elastic band which stretched and stretched her heart out, whenever she was away from her son. We know it needs doing. It’s just that it hurts.

I am going to become a better balancer of “bigger and stronger” vs “wise and kind” (these are the terms used in attachment theory – which, it should be noted, is different to attachment parenting). I am going to help my baby explore the world, and help her become more comfortable with others, always knowing that she can come “back to base.” The crook of my elbow will always be here for her.

But first, for a bit longer, I am going to revel, wallow and immerse myself in Ellie time. All too soon it will change and change again. Right now let me drink deeply of this passing cup.

Thanks for all the love

Tomorrow, I have my reunion meeting with my Post Natal Depression (PND) therapy group. I attended the group over eight weeks, late last year. It was a group of other mums and myself, all of whom had been diagnosed with PND, or, as Marg Booker, the counsellor from the Tresillian Centre who ran the group preferred to call it, “Post Natal Distress Disorder.” Ellie is two days from turning five months old, and so it feels like a good time to take stock.

Marg used to emphasise to us a number of things, but here are a couple that come to my mind, regularly, which I thought I might record for posterity in case I ever forget them:

– The Reality Principle: this is the way life is, not how it should be. (In my words: deal with it. It’s not so great all the time, but it’s not so bad, either. And even if it is bad, it is still your reality, and no amount of ruminating is going to change that.)

– The aim of learning how to manage moods is not about being a control freak. It’s about managing mood so as to fulfil one’s non-mood dependent goals (eg rather than being swayed by a passing emotion of anxiety, recognise and let the anxiety pass so you can get back to the task at hand which may be taking a deep breath and trying something new).

– You are responsible for yourself and your baby. That’s just the way it is. This is a variation on the Reality Principle: you have to deal with the life you have and your mood disorder, because no one else can.

– Moods are not caused by events but by your perception of events. So that means that you are in control – you don’t have to flip out over something unless you really want to.

– Just do it. Whatever it is. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

And so for taking stock: I think we are doing pretty well. Some people have a view of life that generally, everything is OK and the bad events are the exception. I guess you could say that I have the opposite point of view. So when things start going well, I feel as though I am peering out of a tent flap, checking, in disbelief, that the lightning did not really rip out all the pegs in the storm. Is that thunder I heard again? Isn’t it about time that the walls started falling down?

But right now, here and in this moment, I can say (TOUCH A SWEDISH SAUNA’S WORTH OF WOOD) that life is going really, quite swimmingly well. I have a beautiful and healthy baby, who sleeps at all the sleep-appropriate times. She prefers me to all other people and things in her life, and that feels really, quite spectacularly, special. She is developing a wrinkle between her eyes from grinning, and when she smiles, she looks like me when I was little, with her Bailey cheeks taking over her face and turning it upwards. She pulls her blue, toy elephant into her wide open mouth which looks like she wants to eat the whole world and experience it that way. She rolls on to her side, chubby legs bent into the air, and she encounters her learning shoe, or the waving green of the trees out the window, or a bird casting a shadow, and she is still, taking that in from under her long, black eyelashes. She squeals when I stand her up, and she babbles and coos after a milk feed, looking at me with eyes which are slate grey in the evenings and dark brown in the light. I am in love. It’s reciprocated. She doesn’t know any different – I am the one teaching her how to love, after all.

I have a wonderful husband who only warrants a single line in this blog post, although all of this is dedicated to him. I have plans for the future – small plans but happy for me because I am at last thinking about what I want to do and not just doing what I think I must.

I am happy on the level of contentment, and quite often, my days are full of happy at the level of passing pleasures, too. There you go, Bertrand Russell. You would be proud.

And so, as I take stock, I would like to say that I am well. I am well. In my own early years, I learned how quickly things can change and pass. But perhaps that doesn’t mean I have to live in a constant state of preparation for disappointment. Perhaps it just means that I have an excellent, internal compass for disaster; and a great capacity for hope.

On being good enough

I have recently realised that being a good mum involves, basically, being a good person. Um, but what does that even mean? How can you make sure you are a good person?

The thing is, when you raise a child, you are teaching that child how to be a person. How to be a human being in a world of human beings, some of whom bite and scratch, some of whom hug and give. Most of whom do both at some time or other. What do you teach your child, and how? Is there a perfect solution, a perfect person to create?

If you are like me, and a perfectionist, this is a challenging situation. I can tell you what it leads to: worry. Constant, nagging worry that you are not doing it right. Should the baby be sleeping longer? Is the baby getting enough stimulation? As the baby grows and you start to feel you have the Maslowian basic basics under control, the tasks multiply: should you help the baby reach that toy, or should you let her get frustrated so she knows that she can’t always get what she wants? Are you teaching her emotional manipulation or resilience? Will she become cynically resigned or ignorantly satisfied?

And that’s just on the play-mat. The questions get ever wider, more diverse: more. Jokes are made that stay-at-home parents need to re-activate their adult brains once in a while, and I can totally understand the need to speak to other grown-ups about grown-up things (ie no poo references for 30 minutes, minimum.) But I feel like I am thinking more, on more levels, more than ever before. I am training someone, not just in government policy, or report writing, or how to make an ace paella. I am training someone to be a person.

Being a person covers, obviously, everything. From the physical – how to sleep, how to eat, how to tie your shoes – to the mental – how to think, how to have an open mind, how to manage risk, how to problem solve – to the emotional – how to manage emotions, how to feel them and then let them go – to the social – how to empathise, relate, give and take, love. I feel like Sherlock Holmes, absorbing every tiny detail in every situation and processing it to try to maximise the lesson in becoming-human for my baby, from the intentionality behind passing her a blue elephant to whether I am too focused on getting her to babble rather than engage in spatial tasks. My brain is firing on pistons I never knew I had. I have some sort of mother-meta-cerebellum in action.

I realise that I may be overthinking this.

But – making a person. It is a big job! And what if I don’t get it right?

This is the thought of someone who, let’s face it, has pretty low self-esteem. That is something I am working on, and something which research shows can be changed. The idea that I am good enough to help someone else be good enough, is new.

But I can tell, deep in my heart of hearts, that the best way to help Ellie become who she is, is to be who I am now. Because as her mother, it’s a teleological argument – I am bound to be the best person to help her grow and learn, because I love her in a way that only a mother or father can. That’s why there are two of us. Between us, I reckon she will learn a thing or two about how to be all sorts of variations on the theme of interesting, muddled, short-sighted, and lost important, loved. Love is a great evolutionary invention. Without it, none of this would be possible.

How Not to F*** Mothers Up

Three days ago, I finished reading “How Not to F*** Them Up,” by Oliver James, and I have been fuming ever since. I didn’t want to write this post, as a friend had recommended the book to me and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But I can’t rid myself of that book until I write something about it. I feel it is my duty to warn other mums: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK!

Former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett once described Pauline Hanson to be “so simplistic as to be irresponsible.” That sums up my reaction to “How Not to F*** Them Up.” The book is presented as based on research. I love a good, popular, non-fiction book. But what I absolutely cannot abide is when someone writes a book, purportedly based on the latest evidence, and then picks and chooses scientific articles to back up their existing opinion. I know that is what we all do, every day in conversation, in written pieces, even in research theses. But it is utterly irresponsible to do so in a book targeted at one of the most vulnerable groups to judgment and advice in the Western world – mothers.

The author makes it fairly clear that his own background has informed his decision to write the book. But what he doesn’t seem to realise is that his views are totally coloured by his own experience of growing up. His mother suffered from depression and he attributes many of his own social, developmental issues to this. His No.1 goal is to tell mothers, do what you need to do to avoid getting depressed, because that is the worst thing you can be for your child. Fair enough. But then he proceeds to pretend he is objectively presenting three different types of mothers: Organisers, Huggers and Fleximums, whilst implicit in the text is his favouring the Huggers and second, the Fleximums. He tells the Organisers to hire a nanny who is a Hugger because she will do a better job than the mother. He tells any mother thinking of going back to work before their child is 3 years old (3 years! Who has the luxury to wait that long!) to hire a nanny and avoid day care at all costs, citing research which shows raised cortisol levels in day care kids. He says that “women these days” have a Bridget Jones Diary idea of themselves, and find it hard to shake off that selfishness in order to take proper care of their children.

Grrrah! What Mr James does not tell you: the research he refers to is all about correlation and not causation. Higher cortisol levels reflect higher stress, yes. But stress is both good and bad – it represents is arousal, whether that is expressed as fear or excitement. A child in day care may have higher cortisol because they are under stress – but is that stress good or bad? is it exciting, or scary – or maybe both? And is it the role of the parent to avoid all arousing situations for their children, or is it the parent’s job to teach their child how to wind down after being aroused, how to cope with stress? Not that I want to do a Mr James here, and interpret scientific ideas for my own ends – but I just want to point out that scientific opinion should not be quoted as scientific fact.

Like everyone else, Mr James also talks about the benefits of breastfeeding without probably looking at the primary research himself. I refer Mr James to “Is Breast Best?” for a more accurate account of the research, which finds only that breastmilk can conclusively be shown to benefit against GI infections, but all the rest, from better bonding to higher IQs, is simply unproven.

Mr James also acts as if every upper middle class mother can afford the choice to work or not, or hire a nanny. It is nothing to do with materialistic goals and everything to do with making ends meet that many supposedly middle class women have to choose day care over nannies. There are all SORTS of structural issues still in the workplace and the provision of daycare which Mr James pays absolutely no mind to. Instead his advice to stay at home and be less selfish, or get a job and hire a nanny if staying at home will make you depressed, is practically designed to make mums like me feel bad about themselves. I need a job to pay the bills, and keep my mind active, and model positive behaviours for my daughter. I can’t afford a nanny. Reading books like “How Not To F*** Them Up” just triggers my PND/anxiety and for no good reason that I can see, with the research Mr James quotes chosen purely to support his own opinion. What was that about No.1 rule, don’t make mothers depressed, Mr James?

What bugs me the most about this book is that Mr James could read my review and decide that I was just being resistant, wanting to support my own rationalisation of my position. Who in this world is forced to be more honest about themselves than mothers, in those dark hours before dawn What does Mr James know about this constant struggle to be good enough as a mother, responsible for a human life? And how does he support us? By judging, ranting and worse, presenting his own, subjective experience as scientific fact.

Not helpful, Mr James. Not helpful at all.