Nothing seems to cause quite as much whiplash as the rush of contradictory emotions that come with parenting a small child. Just as your precious baby claws at you, so too do the abundance of feelings that march into your life alongside your family’s new addition.
There’s indescribable joy, of course. The sound of your baby laughing is a salve for even the most troubled of souls. There is love deeper and more treacherous than anything your heart has encountered so far. There is guilt, because responsibility for someone so important and now essential to your own happiness naturally prompts the feeling that you will never be good enough for them, or attendant to all their needs.
Perhaps it is the contradictions of parenthood that have been most surprising to me, and the most instructive. Here are just some of the things I’m learning.
1. Let them fall, even though it hurts you most
When I was pregnant, I feared I would be an anxious mother. Anxiety has been a constant and grudging companion for most of my life, and I assumed it would rear up with greater force than ever where a child was concerned. But I’ve been surprised by how relaxed I am generally about potential hazards, especially with a walking toddler who puts his hands into everything.
When he trips, I say “uh oh!” in a singsong voice and wait for him to get back up. When he chews on his shoes or shovels dirt into his mouth, I remind myself it’s good for his immune system. I let him try lots of different foods, even the spicy ones, hoping that it will translate to an adventurous gourmand later on. On the whole, I would describe my approach as “she’ll be right, mate”.
But I did not feel calm when he tumbled out of bed last week and split his eyebrow open. Seeing his head dripping with blood was like someone had carved a knife into my own body. And though I managed to keep it together to get him to the emergency room (shout-out to the doctors at the Christchurch Hospital!), I still wish I could have suffered the gash myself.
A friend told me afterwards that “toddlers’ heads are much stronger than mothers’ hearts”. This is the price of teaching them independence and adventure – it’s knowing that scars are a part of the deal.
2. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em
One of parenthood’s biggest surprises lay in the intensity of connection I felt with my child. I understood it as a theoretical probability before he was born, but nothing prepared me for the invisible cord that held us together afterwards.
At times I felt it as an overwhelming intrusion, particularly in the rapid adjustment period post birth where the touch of your baby is all consuming and constant. I remember feeling burdened by the sense that I would never have a free moment to myself again. Not an overnight adventure by myself or a night out, not even a solo but suddenly blessed trip to the supermarket.
Of course, the attachment period races by much quicker than you think and it isn’t long before you’re doing all those things again and more. The surprise then lies in the discovery of your own need. When my baby was very small, I longed and longed for time to myself. But when it came, all I could think about was the fact that my small human wasn’t with me.
Other mothers have described it like missing a limb or going outside without your pants on. There is an element of it feeling raw and wrong, but it’s important to push through and take that time for yourself. It creates a stronger, more resilient child and provides nourishment to a healthy mother.
This is the price of teaching them independence and adventure – knowing that scars are a part of the deal.
I think of it now as similar to a computer program that’s always running. Sometimes it’s in the foreground taking up your attention and other times it’s in the background, quietly ticking along. But either way, it’s always on.
3. Time travelling
New parents are told repeatedly by old ones to enjoy it while it lasts. “It goes by so fast!” they say, pointing to their teenagers or adult children.
There have been moments in the last year where I felt sure time had actually stopped, so molasses-like was its passing. At 4am and frantic with a baby who won’t sleep, it’s difficult to imagine a time in the future where your anxiety might instead be related to a baby who’s taken the car out for the first time.
And yet, time has the curious habit of acting elastically. When I think of the past year, I remember it as being both interminably long and also ferociously quick. I look at photos of my son from six months ago and he seems inexplicably foreign – smaller, skinnier, less himself. I look at him now, his joyful grin, bow-legged walk and tooth pegs all so intimately familiar to me that they might as well be tattooed on my heart, and I feel a rush of melancholy from knowing that this, too, is ephemeral. That one day not long from now, I’ll look at a photo taken today and find it difficult to remember the child he once was.
My mother used to say that she wished she could have just one more day with us all as babies. I realise now that yearning is an inescapable feature of parenthood. We yearn for easy transitions into the next, less fussy stage of our children’s lives even as we yearn to travel backwards too.
The Portuguese have a word for this kind of longing: saudade. It describes a nostalgia for a place or time that can no longer be recaptured.
This is the simultaneous gift and torment of loving a child. But goodness, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.