Being a mother is rewarding and fulfilling. Yeah, blah blah blah.
It’s also the hardest and at times the most distressing experience of my life.
When my youngest sons were about one and two, I was at the park with them one spring morning. It was about 7.30am when we got there, as we'd been up since 5am. What woke them every morning at the crack of dawn for about three years? I don’t know. The fucking birds singing in the fucking trees, probably.
That last sentence represents how I felt during those years.
What brought me momentary relief from the cloud of exhausted misery that hung over me, was another mother I met at the park that morning. We only had a brief conversation but it is still clear in my head. It went like this:
‘What age are your two?’ she asked. Her hair was standing on end and she didn’t smile.
‘One and a half, and two and a half,’ I replied.
‘Same as mine,’ she said. Then she looked me in the eye, ‘it’s awful, isn’t it?’
I nodded, then we both returned to guard duty, stalking our toddlers around the park, trying to keep them alive for another day.
I felt cheered by that miserable and short conversation. It made me feel less alone – because I didn’t feel able to confide in anyone about how unhappy I felt. I should have been grateful to have two healthy children – and I was. I was just so darned tired. And – dare I say it – bored. Looking after babies and toddlers is relentless dullness interspersed with frequent moments of mind-bending, nausea-inducing panic. They injure themselves ALL the time. My boys specialised in walking into furniture, doors, swings, each other… We had gaffa-taped foam around the edges of our coffee table, the boys had smacked their heads off it that often. And every time it happened, and one of them was bawling his head off, my heart rate soared as I tried to decide whether to whisk him off to A&E yet again (by the time the youngest was four I had racked up seven visits). And while I was dealing with the injured one, the other would disappear from sight…
Once, when the baby was almost one and the older one just turned two, we ventured to Starbucks. It was upstairs in a bookshop and I was congratulating myself on the success of the trip (by that I mean we were all dressed and out of the house before midday) when the baby choked on a fragment of muffin. My heart constricted in fear as he went red in the face and stopped breathing. Then he coughed. Phew, he was fine. Then he coughed again. And then he spray-vomited milk and muffin all over himself, me, the table and the floor. Other customers and staff stared as I tried to mop it up with baby wipes. The little one was shrieking as I stripped his outer clothing off him. Then I turned round in time to see the older one heading into the lift on his own. I hurled myself across the coffee shop yelling ‘NOOOOOOOO.’ I was even louder than the screaming baby, which I would never have thought possible.
Shaking with humiliation and smelling of puke, I gave up trying to clean the place and crept out of that Starbucks with my drippy, crying children, never to return. I had to stop the car on the way home to have a wee sob.
Amongst the array of baby information dished out to new parents, one particular piece of advice stuck in my mind: never compare yourself as a parent to someone whose baby sleeps at night. I went to Baby and Toddler groups feeling like shit and tried not to listen to the mothers who gloated that their babies slept for 7 hours straight from 2 weeks old (I hated those bitches). I sometimes was so tired I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together - I only went because it relieved the horror of being stuck in the house all day. Any brief conversation I managed to dredge up was generally interrupted as I pelted across the room, baby attached to my nipple, to disentangle my toddler’s hand from a little girl’s hair while her mother looked at me and said, ‘it’s fine,’ when it clearly wasn’t. He did it so often I became seriously worried about what kind of thug I was raising.
Ten years previously I had one daughter; she slept well. And there was only one of her. I took her everywhere with me and it was easy. Having two boys, close together, both keen on constant attention was a shock of the highest order.
And I missed being at work. Perhaps not the work, but the company, the feeling I was doing something useful. I stared sullenly at my husband when he left each morning, resentment oozing from my pores that he was going to talk to adults, and drink hot coffee, and eat lunch, and think a thought from start to fini sh without being interrupted by wailing. I longed for him to come home at the end of the day, but when he did, I launched into an attack, pent up resentment flowing from my mouth. He soon developed a haunted look when he arrived, not sure what level of chaos he would return to, vaguely wondering where the fun-loving woman he had married had disappeared to. Had she been switched at the hospital?
Looking back, I’m ashamed of my angry behaviour when I should have been savouring those young years. At least I had a husband, and a supportive mother, and sufficient income to afford plentiful toys, Netflix and trips to soft play areas. Many don’t, and I wonder how they cope. When I hear of parents with seriously ill children, whose lives revolve around hospital appointments, I feel ashamed of my inability to cope with my two healthy ones.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for anyone else struggling with ferocious little non-sleepers: they grow out of it. And you end up having to wake them …!
Oh, and about the little girl I had a decade before the two little boys … the one who was a really easy baby? She’s now a teenager, one of those famous mind-fuck creatures that gobble up your cute little kid and morph into a stranger living in your house … but more on that another day.