When you tell people that becoming a parent has introduced you to a whole new range of emotions, they probably expect you to start going on about loving your child in a way you’d never loved anyone before, that kind of thing. But that’s not what I mean – to be honest, no love can ever compare with the way I felt about the sharp glittery cheekbones of David Bowie when I was 15. Everything since has been downhill.
However, it’s certainly true that being a new mum introduced me to new emotions. If I had to name them I would call them:
1. The Responsibility Brick.
It’s such a sensible word, “responsibility” – calm, down-to-earth. But for me it conjures up vivid memories of the first day I was left alone with my baby. She was a month old. There was a small and virtually helpless human being in my flat, and nobody else. Just her, and me, in sole charge of her. I was 29 but I felt 14. Who on earth had thought this was a good idea? (Answer: me, about a year earlier. But what did I know?)
2. The Doormat Syndrome.
The parent-baby relationship wasn’t a give-and-take relationship, I realised: it was a give-and-give one. At a month old, you don’t even get a smile as a reward. The best reaction you can hope for is Not Crying. My reward for sleep deprivation, endless anxiety, and the attempt to make my body feed another person when it really didn’t want to (breastfeeding was not a success) was that a baby just stared blankly at me as opposed to screaming? It didn’t feel like enough. In a partner, this level of being taken for granted would have been a dealbreaker. In a baby, I discovered, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it except wait till she was old enough to lisp the sentence, “Thank you, Mummy, for everything you’ve ever done for me. I’m so sorry I didn’t mention this before.”
(She’s seven. I’m still waiting. But at least I get smiles now.)
3. The Can’t-Can.
As the (endless, fleeting, endless) time went on, I discovered another emotion, or rather a specific fusion of two emotions: the feeling that you absolutely can’t do something, coupled with the certain knowledge that you are going to do it. It’s the Can’t-Can: a dance in which you drag yourself out of bed and breastfeed at 3am, or don’t eat for hours because you can’t put the baby down for long enough, or pack a changing bag and put the buggy together and get on the bus and go out, and all the time you’re doing these things your entire being is demanding that you stop, please please just stop and go and lie down far away from the baby where it’s peaceful and you can clear your head. But you don’t. You know exactly what you need and what’s best you for you, for your mental health, for your physical health, and you do something different, because you have to.
It was a new experience for me. It was character-building, and I don’t think that part of my character would have got built if I hadn’t become a parent, so that’s a good thing. But I can’t say I really appreciated that at the time. I didn’t want to have my character built. I wanted to sleep, preferably in a hotel in a different country with no children within a designated 100-mile radius.
4. The Stormageddon Effect
This one is named after a recent episode of Dr Who in which the Doctor claims to speak Baby (and apparently the baby in question liked to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, which is totally believable.)
The books I read when I was pregnant claimed that you’d know what your baby needed, you’d learn to recognise the different types of cries. It worked with my second child, but not with my first; I had no intuition. I’d pace up and down for hours trying to work out if the baby was crying because she wanted sleep, food or medicine – or something else more complicated that I hadn’t thought of yet and she couldn’t articulate. The keys to my car, maybe? A doctorate in particle physics? A pot of bacon-flavoured jam? By the time she was old enough to tell me what it was she needed, she’d be too old to remember. In the meantime, like most parents, I’d just try things until something worked.
Luckily I never needed to get as far as the bacon-flavoured jam, so things can’t have gone too badly. But I remember that feeling, that attempt to understand someone who was clearly trying to communicate something, but couldn’t because the language barrier was too high. If anyone ever does learn to speak Baby, I swear I will change the names of both my daughters to Stormageddon in gratitude.
It Gets Better
There’s a video project called It Gets Better, for LBGT teenagers. It’s admirable, and someone should do one for new parents. It did get better. It got better enough that eventually I did it all over again, and it turned out the second time was brilliant, because I’d been broken in by the first time. I had been comprehensively taken apart and put back together by my unwitting engineer of a baby, and the resulting construction was still me, but a me who could parent.
(Of course, there’s still a part of me that just wants not to be responsible for anyone. But then, in seventeen years’ time both the kids will have left home (probably) and my partner and I can spend my time lying around the house drinking cocktails, or whatever it is people without children do with their time. I don’t remember. But it will be fun to find out.)