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.