Waiting for a smile

Everyone knows that the first months with a new baby are hard. Lack of sleep, a demanding feeding schedule, the stress from a crying baby. Everyone knows that. Of course.

But, until you’ve done it yourself, you don’t really know.

The punishing schedule is the first part. A newborn baby needs feeding about every three hours, they say. That’s sounds pretty tough – but it’s only part of the story. If you have ever seen the film Three Men and a Baby, then you might remember a scene where Tom Selleck’s character, in desperation, asks what he should do about feeding, because a feed takes as long as the suggested gap between feeds, so he’s feeding the baby all the time. That’s hilarious – until you discover it’s not that far from the truth. With my girls, during the first weeks it regularly took more than an hour and a half to feed them. In the ideal world, that would leave you with an hour and a half free. That assumes, however, that you are done when the baby is done. When one of my daughters was having trouble with breastfeeding I went through a phase where I was having to express breast milk and feed the baby with a bottle – for every feed I had to warm up the milk, fill the bottle, feed and change the baby, express milk, and sterilize all the equipment – knowing I would be repeating the whole exercise again in the next couple of hours. Thankfully, that wasn’t the same daughter who found three hours a ridiculously long time to wait, and regularly wanted another feed immediately after the previous one.

The schedule would be bad enough, if you knew exactly what you were doing and were trained to do it, like an Olympic athlete. But, with the first child, everything is new, and you are having to discover how to do it all while already operating at full production speed. Changing nappies, dressing the baby, taking their temperature, giving baths, feeding – these are all skills that have to be acquired. But it’s not only being able to do these things – it’s knowing when to do what. Is the baby crying because she is hungry, or has a full nappy, or has tummy cramps?  Is the baby still crying now because she is still hungry, so I should feed her more, or because she still has tummy cramps, in which case I should carry on walking around with her and rubbing her back – or is she now crying because she really wants to sleep, and this idiotic parent is keeping her awake with all that feeding and back-rubbing? The really bad news is that not only do you not know exactly what to do – no one knows. Midwives, lactation consultants, health visitors – they all know a great deal about babies, but not about your child specifically. They can give advice and make suggestions, but you are the one who has to try it and see how it pans out. Eventually, you and your child get used to each other, but until then, it can be a struggle to keep your head above water.

Finally, there is the last part – which makes it hardest of all. What, as a parent, do you most want for your child?  A common answer is: I want my child to be happy. Well, a newborn does not show happiness. She doesn’t smile, or laugh. A newborn is either neutral, or she is crying. This may seem like a minor detail, but it is incredibly hard to put in so much effort, to do your utmost to take care of this child, and the best reward is the absence of a negative. Thankfully, that doesn’t last forever. That first smile from my baby, that first sign of some sort of happiness, was like the first ray of sunshine bursting through after a long, dark winter storm. It lit me up inside. Months later, each time I arrived to pick her up from the creche, I knew when she had spotted me by her crow of sheer pleasure. Immediately she set off over the floor at her fastest crawl, panting in delight, and reached her arms up for a hug. At that point, it was very hard to remember just how difficult those first weeks were.

Which, I suppose, is the reason why children get brothers and sisters.

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