“It gets better” – or not?

Comments (elsewhere) on my recent post kicked up a subject I’d been wanting to write about for absolutely ages: this thing that people kept saying to me when Claudia was born. This thing that, while doubtless well meant, I found incredibly aggravating and unhelpful.

“It doesn’t get easier… just different.”

Imagine you’ve just had your first baby. Imagine said baby is colicky, or sleepless, or won’t breastfeed, or, hey, pick your troubles. You are shattered, overwhelmed, terrified, panicky; you’re doing your best just to get through every day (and night!) and are clinging, desperately, to the hope that it can’t last forever. You don’t really believe that, you can’t actually imagine things ever getting better, ever, but rationally, you tell yourself they have to, that babies have to get bigger eventually, have to learn to sleep and eat, and when those basic basic needs aren’t quite so pressing, or when baby has learned to talk and tell you what’s wrong instead of screaming for hours and making you guess, or when you have, please god, finally gotten more than 3 hours sleep together… it’s got to be a bit better, right? It can’t actually be like this forever. There has to be light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be.

And then your friends say no, it doesn’t get any better. Welcome to the rest of your life.

And they laugh.

You see what I’m getting at? Not helpful. And, I firmly believe, not true.

I realise that my experience – an unusually challenging baby, who grew into an unusually easy toddler – is skewed. I know that, while kids change over time, they don’t necessarily get easier in themselves; they may indeed get harder to manage. And I know that bigger kids have bigger, more complicated problems. Could be that come the teenage years I’ll be wishing I could trade sleepless nights of worry for sleepless nights of, well, sleeplessness. However.

I respectfully submit that anyone who says, with a straight face, “It doesn’t get easier,” is enjoying a blissful dose of amnesia. See for instance this excellent post from Ask Moxie, on the exhausting, constant neediness of the under 5s, which she readily admits to having blocked out of her memory. But it’s not just about the unique neediness of babies and toddlers; it’s more, much more, about the experience of having to deal with that need while at the very limits of your own resources.

Caring for a newborn – even an “easy” one – is a challenge beyond pretty much any other; at least, beyond any other in the normal range of human experience.* You’re chronically sleep deprived. Constantly exposed to the nerve-shredding sound of a crying baby (a sound that triggers a very basic, physical, almost unbearable response in new parents; I couldn’t even watch TV if there was a baby crying on screen). If the mother, you’re trying to recover from labour and are flooded with hormones. If it’s your first, you’re probably second-guessing everything you do, trying to figure out the “right” way to meet your baby’s needs from a myriad conflicting messages (books, friends, family, your own pre-baby plans and present “instincts” – ha! if only you felt anything so compelling as instinct). You no longer have any sense of self: you are just a machine (a ragged, rusty, broken down machine) for taking care of baby, with some dim, resentful memory of having once been a person. Your relationship (if you have a partner) is under more strain than it’s ever been, with each of you at breaking point and convinced that (be you breadwinner, or primary caretaker, or whatever) you’re the one with the worst deal. You have no energy or mental capacity for anything beyond just getting through the day. And the next day. And the next day. And the next.

How can it NOT get easier?!

Babies grow. You get some sleep. You get some perspective. You learn that they change; that every little problem isn’t going to define the rest of your kid’s life; that you can, in fact, do this. Eventually, you get to think in whole sentences again… after that, maybe even in whole ideas! You rediscover the outside world. You get to read a book occasionally. You remember what it’s like to be a person.

It gets better.

* I’m always nervous of saying motherhood is “unique” or “unlike any other experience”, because obviously, there’s an awful lot beyond my own experience, so who am I to say? I am cautiously confident, though, that nothing in most people’s lives can prepare you for having a baby – the sheer relentlessness of it.

I have a friend in the Territorial Army, who spent most of his wife’s pregnancy on tour in Afghanistan. He returned in the nick of time for baby’s arrival. He mentioned to me, when the baby was born, that he thought the experience was probably going to be great preparation for fatherhood; long shifts, physical exhaustion, stress etc. Really? I wondered… but didn’t argue. After all, I have no idea what it’s like in the army (but have no doubt it’s hard). It wasn’t an unreasonable idea. I did however ask him, after three months, if it had turned out to be the preparation he thought it would be.

Oh, how he laughed.

10 thoughts on ““It gets better” – or not?

  1. I found the first 3 months really tough (cried every day). An older friend (my parents’ age and a man) was unexpectedly reassuring: ‘You’ll get through it’ spoken with complete confidence. No promises about how it would feel though!

  2. Thank you for this! Eoin and I had a hellish first few months, genuinely, and things are still tough now: I am still waiting for the fulfillment of the doctor’s words that it gets better when your baby is two. It means a lot ot know that I am not the only one who has had, at one point, an awful time.

    Fingers crossed for you this time around x

    1. Oh, I really feel for you. It’s SO HARD. But believe me, it does get better, and I think it will probably get better long before 2 (though of course challenges do continue). Exactly when it gets better depends so much on your particular baby, and what is hard right now. Two particular landmarks for me, though: at 8 months, C learned to stand up, and in that one day she became a whole lot happier. She was a very restless infant and a lot of her frustration I think came from her body not being able to keep up with her brain. The same held true for a friend’s baby. If you have a shark baby (gotta keep moving! never happy unless you’re carrying them around so they can SEE stuff), chances are good you’ll experience some relief when they get more mobile.

      Second, less specific but maybe more reliable: you might find that sleep gets easier by around 18 months – I’ve heard that from others and def experienced it myself. It’s a slow process of course, you’ll probably see some improvement before then and certainly more later, but I found that was approximately when sleep ceased to be a source of stress. (I still get woken up at least once most nights. But it’s different now. Really.)

      Anyway. I promise you, you’re not alone. Most new moms are going through hell. I promise you. (And we all get through it!)

    2. PS – Sorry, I realise Eoin is already well past 8 months (and I think past 2, from what you say? Oh dear). That was kind of a reflex reply, but maybe will be helpful to any other readers. Anyway the point stands… it will continue to get easier!

      1. I love your description of a “shark baby”: Eoin was (and still is) definitely that! We used to refer to him as a little Borg: you got four shots with whatever calming technique you had discovered, then he would adapt and it wouldn’t work any more… He’s 18 months now, so a lot of things have got better: mobility, as you say, helped a *lot*. I think an awful lot of the problem is specific to me and my own anxieties, to be honest, but the stresses of motherhood haven’t helped! Thanks for the kind reply 🙂

  3. I found that small thing (besides antidepressants…) helped a lot. First, when the twins were able to hold their heads up, so that I could carry both at the same time and then walking. It was so much easier once they could walk to the car and I didn’t have to carry both and now, that they are able to tell me, what’s wrong. Nights are still not well though.
    I’d say: the first year is hell with twins but it’s improving every day 🙂 and it did help me, when other mothers of twins said: It will get better, hang in there!

  4. First, need to put my hands up – I’m not a mother, never will be, very happy with that.
    BUT lots of my friends are parents, it’s something that affects huge numbers of people in general, is something i perceive as really important for adults and for kids, and therefore interesting to me and well worth observing.

    I can see from your posts, and others’ comments here; from my experiences of friends and patients too, that children vary enormously in how easy or difficult they are to negotiate as parents at different ages. What I wonder, is whether parents too have age-groups that are easier/harder to manage for them? I know my Mum, for instance, found nights incredibly hard, in a way that my Dad did not (hence he did a lot of the night stuff); she also found us much harder to deal with as under fives – maybe just something about her, or maybe because she had no real experience of kids before having us, I don’t know. She totally came into her own (in terms of her comfort in parenting, not my experience of her which was entirely fine the whole way) when we were a bit older. And my Dad was probably the other way round.

    I’ve got friends who adored having small babies around, and others who found that much more challenging (not specially colicky etc babies or anything) but found the sort-of ‘no’ phase easy to handle, good sat distracting etc while the baby-loving friend found that more overwhelming.

    I’d be really interested in your thoughts.

    1. Huh! I had replied to this. Don’t know where it went (and sorry to keep you waiting). Anyway, reprise:

      You make a good point. I do agree that different people are talented at different stages of parenting/childcare. (Though my sympathies are entirely with your mother – as per Ask Moxie, the under-5s are uniquely hard because of the relentlessness; I wonder whether your dad would have found them as easy if he were the one to be with them most of the time? Assuming, as I am, a conventional/traditional family life.)

      So, hypothetically, if one had a fairly easy labour, easy breastfeeding experience, an easy baby, and were naturally suited to the baby stage of parenting – yes, that could well be the easy part! It seems to me, though, that very few women do find it easy, at the time. (Amnesia seems to kick in after a couple of years. People forget how huge the effect of the sleeplessness is, for one thing.) But it could well be that those happy women simply aren’t joining in the conversations I am having or reading.

  5. Oh, yes, being 24hours with kids is a whole different ball game, for sure. Im sure it’s no coincidence that Mu Mum started to find us easier around t’he time she went back to work full time!)
    But my friend who enjoyed the baby period (specially second time round, it must be said! And I’m sure that’s key) has really struggled significantly with boundaries etc as they’ve reached over about 4yo.

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