The day before my scheduled C-section, I got what I supposed would be my last haircut for five years. I spent the entire wash and blowout trying to bury the panic of my life flashing before my eyes. Not because I thought the C-section would kill me (though plenty of well-meaning folks had told me how terrible that was going to be), but because, despite my determination to be a relaxed parent, I’d heard the horror stories. What if having this baby was the end of my life?
I thought of The Guardian’s "Man with a Pram" series and its standard narrative arc of "Parenthood is a prison, but love for my baby sets me free." Or an article by this woman, who described the “absolutely exhausting sleep deprivation that sends you totally insane, and the monotony, and the seemingly unending, repetitious feeding/changing/getting baby to sleep, and the realisation that your own needs are so far down the list, and the sadness and futility and depression that this is your life now.” Oh, and the writer continues: the “RAGE, HATE, and ANGUISH.” Another article assured me that, at some point in what was to come, I would want to throw my baby at the wall.
I tried to calm myself, thinking of my sister's two easy babies. I figured her relaxed attitude was either the cause or the effect of my nieces' demeanour, and I was determined to have the same experience. But other parents were no more encouraging than the parenting articles. During my pregnancy, well-meaning doom-mongers shared stories of their three years of hell, or how 2 a.m. was the only time they could find to eat. I'd bravely insist: It’s not going to be like that for me.
“You’ll see,” they said. And they waited to hear the war stories I’d return with when my baby Satan revealed his plans for me.
One article assured me that at some point in what was to come, I would want to throw my baby at the wall.
Five days after my son’s birth, we were gingerly celebrating Mother’s Day with tea at London's Royal Opera house. I was petrified that, at any minute, he might start screaming — competing with the performers’ powerful voices between rounds of cucumber sandwiches and petit-fours. Or worse, that he would save his wails for the courses during which the loudest thing you could hear was the scrape of spoons in clotted-cream dishes. But the screams never came. He slept the entire time — and continued to do so for most of the first month.
“Just you wait for month two and three,” people warned us, in gleeful anticipation of gorier stories. Those two months passed, and I still had nothing to horrify them with. “When he starts teething in month five, and really starts moving around, you’ll be miserable,” went their upgraded version.
I'd tell them about waking up two or three times a night, minimum, for the past four months. But the result was just that I slept in a bit longer. Boring. I'd say how my baby was colicky for about six weeks, and how we took turns joggling him on our knees to help get burps out for four hours every evening. But I just felt sorry for him that he was in pain. I could recount how he started exploding out of his diaper — once into my hand, twice all over my skirt — and that one of those times was in a café. But, luckily, we have this thing called a washing machine. Boring. (Another secret about newborns that no one tells you. All those diapers don’t even smell that bad; they smell yeasty.)
We traveled by subway, train, car, and plane. Unlike the horrendous train trip documented by "Man with A Pram," our experience traveling with an infant was — sorry, I know this is getting dull — easy. We also managed to go out for long lunches fairly often. That “repetitious cycle of feeding/changing/getting baby to sleep” is pretty much perfect for restaurants.
“You need to get some better stories,” said my friend after another "How is motherhood going?" squeeze hadn’t yielded any juicy tales. To say that, in my experience, motherhood has been relatively easy is a real conversation killer. It perplexes rather than intrigues. No one wants to know your secret; they only want to know what you’re hiding. I sound like I’m gloating if I talk about my "easy" baby too much.
Then, after reading yet another "my baby nearly finished me, but her eyelashes make it all worthwhile" article, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I posted a status update about my terrible secret; I told the world that I just didn’t relate to those my-baby-is-Joffrey nightmare stories. I braced for a torrent of defensive attacks from parents deranged by the torment of raising their children.
Instead, what I got were balanced opinions from parents who had found some bits harder than others, and were finding some babies easier than others, and weren't broken by it.
To say that motherhood has been relatively easy is a real conversation killer. No one wants to know your secret; they only want to know what you’re hiding.
So why the lack of balance everywhere else? Is it some kind of hazing ritual? Perhaps the experienced parents think they're doing us newbies a service in toughening us up? I’m sure that plenty of babies really are sanity-consuming monsters — and I feel for their moms and dads. But it might also be true that some of this parental anxiety can be traced to the propaganda of parenthood that’s designed to generate clicks and sell books by playing to people’s worst fears.
My Facebook "confession" also drew out some comments that emphasised why the positive side of new motherhood needs telling, too. One friend, who has had ongoing health problems, hopes to be a mother one day but finds people's parenting stories petrifying. “I've been told by my own mother that it would be better if I never had children, because I might not cope — and by a friend who wanted to stress how hard it is,” she said. “It doesn't stop me wanting children; it just scares me more and makes me worry I'll be a terrible parent.”
The bad side of being a new parent might have needed telling once — when no one even admitted that postnatal depression existed, when perfect parenting was held up as the ideal everyone must achieve or else they were a failure. But we get it. What parenting sites, magazines, books, and even some parents themselves don’t want anyone to know is that there are easy babies. Lots of them. There are babies who don’t drive your relationship, health, or mental well-being into the ground, and there are mothers who find time for themselves without a book on how to cope.
Admittedly, though, I still haven't found the time to get another haircut.