Ridiculous Thing #41: Telepathy

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Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/foenix/3797156837/

If my secondborn child had been my firstborn child, I would have been the smuggest parent in the world. His sweet disposition and easygoing attitude? Clearly the product of the natural, effortless calm of my parenting. I mean, it’s not so tricky, really, is it? Sure, I’m tired, because of course he wakes a lot through the night as many young babies do, but really the actual parenting bit is not that tricky, now, is it? You can pop him on his mat and cook dinner while he chats away to you in baby talk. Latch him on for a feed and he’ll look up sweetly into your eyes while calmly sucking away. Bathtime, and he kicks his chubby little legs delightedly and has a whale of a time. Want to go out? Just tuck him in the sling and he’ll fall peacefully to sleep. I mean, I don’t like to brag, but there’s not really much to it, is there? You just carry on as before, only now you have an adorable munchkin in tow.

Eheh. Eheheheh. Luckily for my levels of insufferability, The Bee was preceded into our lives by a kid whose implacable opposition to every damn aspect of the world around her is an ongoing lesson in some pretty hardcore humility. With the experience of The Bird’s early months under my belt, there’s no risk that I’ll mistake my younger child’s personality for some kind of merit badge for myself. Yes, perhaps the often-reported relative ease of second children can be chalked up to your perspective as a second-time parent. Going from one to two dependants is nowhere near as mindbending as the quantum leap from being childfree to being a parent. You’re less in mourning for an old way of life, the second time around. You know more of the tricks of the trade. And, frankly, you’re so distracted by the elder child that you haven’t the opportunity to fret over your younger one’s every furrowed brow. But I don’t think The Bee’s easy just because I have more clue and less time to worry about him. I mean, he’s never cluster-fed. I find it hard to imagine that that’s anything but an innate trait. With the best will in the world, you can’t positive-mental-attitude your way out of a cluster feed. So, I’ve had pot plants that were harder to care for than this child, and I don’t think it has anything to do with me.

So surely an easy child is the last thing in the world that should lead you down the path of postpartum ridiculousness? Except that an easy child is easy to feed, easy to put down, easy to love, easy to entertain, aaaaand easy to ignore. Especially when you’ve got the human equivalent of Grieg’s piano concerto in B minor raising havoc in the front room and wanting a biscuit. While his sister tantrums, performs the entire score to Frozen, bakes (in such a way that the entire kitchen disappears behind a potentially-combustible cloud of icing sugar), stages toddler-friendly spontaneous reenactments of whole seasons of ER, and builds every tin in the kitchen cupboard into a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa so huge that it probably needs retroactive planning permission, The Bee simply gets parked. On his mat, in the sling, in a bouncer chair, or even just on the bare floor, something I’d never have entertained for my precious first child. This weekend, after a long and tiring day out, I installed The Bird in her car seat, climbed into the front, let out a sigh, and only when reaching to plug in my seatbelt noticed The Bee strapped to my chest, smiling up at me from his carrier. Of course, it gives me a huge squeeze of guilt. I made a resolution to read him three stories a day, and am not always achieving it. We always start, but then we’re often hijacked by his sister wanting to sing, or needing a change, or involving us both in a deep-sea mission to rescue trapped sharks (big into the Octonauts over here). So I was reassured when I recently saw a good friend, the second of four children. He told me that his elder brother had been built to the same spec as The Bird, and wouldn’t entertain the prospect of their mother spending any time on any children but him. So their mum, a rational and highly educated successful professional, had resorted to the one method left to lavish attention on her younger ones: telepathy.

It’s pretty ingenious. What you do is to wait until your eldest is in full flow, explaining to you that she is Peppa Pig and you are Elsa from Frozen and together you are off to the Mariana Trench to extract a whale louse from inside a sea sponge (really), and then you shoot a look across at the baby who is lying kicking on his playmat, and telepathically play with him. You can’t say a word, of course, or the big one will flounce, but you can widen your eyes very slightly to make sure he knows you’re sharing a wavelength. If he kicks, that means he understands. When he coos back, it shows he got your mental message of maternal love and interest in him as a discrete human being with his own thoughts and worth and value. It must work, because my friend the younger sibling is one of the most splendid people you could hope to meet. So it may look to the untrained eye as though you’re benignly neglecting your younger child just as much as ever, but you — and, crucially, he — will know better. Telepathy. Sorry, second babies. It’s all we’ve got.

Ridiculous Thing #41: Telepathy

Ridiculous Things #21-40: No Explanations Required

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Well, it’s been a challenging fortnight of woe and dismay in the Postnatal household, of the type that will become funny only with a heftier dose of hindsight than the calendar has yet supplied. Rather than recounting our latest tribulations, I’ve realized that plenty of the most absurd things I’ve done in the new-baby haze don’t need all that much explanation. So here’s my greatest-hits rundown of the remaining most obviously Ridiculous Things I’ve done, over which we can pass mostly in silence:

 #21: I melted my breast pump. Before I got a microwave sterilizer, I used to boil my pumping kit to sterilize it. The general scatterbrainedness induced by sleep deprivation and a little human Tamagotchi that required my full attention at random intervals meant that I simply forgot I had the hob on. I came back to a boiled-dry pan filled with lightly smoking plastic pump parts. The eery new half-melted forms they had assumed made me wonder whether Salvador Dali ever sterilized a breastpump.

#22: And then a few weeks later I did the exact same thing a second time.

#23: …. And then a third time.

#24: The best part is that it wasn’t even actually my pump. Sorry Jools. It’ll be returning to you as good as new though, as all the parts have been replaced. Three times, in fact.

#25: I impressed random strangers by turning up for buggy bootcamp in the park at three weeks post-partum, complete with towel and water bottle, but then underwhelmed them pretty considerably by having forgotten to bring the baby’s changing bag, and having to borrow a nappy for The Bee from one of the other mums. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “It’s baby wipes that I tend to forget.” I then had to admit that I had forgotten those too.

#26: In fact, on reflection, showing up to buggy bootcamp was also a Ridiculous Thing to do in that I was at the time waiting for a hospital scan for a suspected hernia.

#27: I wore clothes inside out. And often realized this, but didn’t care enough to do anything about it.

#28: I went out one time with odd Converses on; one grey and one black. That could totally be a Thing, but it’s harder to convince people that you’re doing it deliberately when the rest of your look consists of inside-out clothes with sick on them. (See above.)

#29: I offered to leave the ten-day-old baby in her pram outside a pub, so as not to inconvenience other patrons. I meant that I was going to stay outside with her rather than cramping out the pub’s interior with my behemoth of a buggy, but when the landlady asked in as many words “What sort of mother are you?!” I started crying.

#30: I didn’t ask the GP for a routine PND scan at my postpartum health check, even though I thought it would probably show I had PND, because he didn’t offer and it seemed socially awkward to ask.

#31: The reason he didn’t offer was probably that I had exponentially increased his desire to get me the hell out of his consulting room by bringing along my two-year-old to my postpartum check, who had spent most of the examination demanding “WHAT’S THAT MAN DOING?” in tones of increasing belligerence and alarm, to the point that he had asked her to stand quietly on the other side of the room. And apparently expected her to comply, like someone who had never met a two-year-old before.

#32: I joked about putting the kids on eBay to the health visitor, the one person who could actually have taken them off me and put them in local authority care.

#33: I let my friends make a music video starring my three-week-old as a miniature beatboxing champ.

#34: I strafed a stranger with stray breast milk. Luckily, it was another mum who was also breastfeeding, in the mum-and-baby room at a shopping centre, but I am just waiting for this debacle to repeat itself in less congenial circumstances. I’ve got my driving test next month and am 80% sure that some series of unfortunate events will conspire to ensure I somehow lactate on my driving examiner.

#35: I spent a day obsessively moving the summer-born baby out of draughts that were totally imaginary.

#36: Not 48 hours after the draughts balagan, I forced my other half to tour the entire city in search of an electric fan so I could sit the baby next to it because I was worried she was getting too hot.

#37: I let a toddler poke The Bird in her fontanelle.

#38: I let a dog lick The Bee’s face.

#39: I conceded that “‘J’ is for watch” just to avert an incipient toddler tantrum while nursing in public.

#40: And in fact, I nonetheless redefined ostentatious breastfeeding by taking a hungry baby to a wedding. I’d decided that I didn’t want to shell out for a formal nursing dress, so just wore an old cocktail dress that I was sure I could feed in easily enough. Of course, to feed, I had to pop out of the top of the dress, which was probably alarming enough by itself for the many stern-looking venerable relatives in attendance. I also found on arrival at this (church) wedding that everyone else was dressed quite formally, in dark and neutral colours. My dress was hot fuschia pink with a puffball skirt. No one else had bare shoulders or bare shins, let alone bare breasts. The baby started to cry for a feed while we were all sitting in the pews, which were arranged facing the aisle so that fully half of the congregation was obliged to cop an eyeful while I tried to latch him on. Thankfully he quietened down once he was on. Or at least he did until the bagpipes started. It turns out that even the most placid of young babies, who normally feed implacably through even the greatest of dramas, can make an exception for bagpipes.

 Maybe I should’ve arranged this list as a bingo card. But is anyone out there willing to confess to having matched any howlers like these?

Image credit: Jes on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mugley/2594318333/

Ridiculous Things #21-40: No Explanations Required

Ridiculous Thing #20: My daughter’s other mother

meandamysterystranger It was a bad tantrum, as The Bird’s tantrums go, but not the worst. Her dad was away, her brother six weeks old, and I was trying to put her to bed against a show of resistance all out of proportion to her small body. We’d been battling for a good twenty minutes now, and we were both tired. “I don’t want you,” she hissed at me, tearing off her pyjamas for the fourth time and escaping into the February chill of the hallway. She was really crying now, shaking with it, and barely looking at me through eyes scrunched into dark, bloodshot crescents. I could handle it. It was her I felt badly for, her shuddering back and shivering limbs. Overtired toddlers get like this; they flail verbally as well as physically, and they deal in low blows. Rising above it is part of the protocol. I tried to help her to put her PJ bottoms back on, and she fought me off. “Nooo, I want,” she was saying now, desperate, but her sobs and tears were swallowing the rest of the sentence. “I want…” “What is it you want, Bird?” I asked, weary. She mastered herself enough to speak clearly, her little face contorting. She swallowed. “I want my other mum.”

*

At university I picked up just enough social psychology to do some real damage. I took on, disappointingly uncritically, the idea that children are blank slates, tabulae rasae, just waiting to be formed by their upbringings. You could, I thought, put the same newborn into any number of different families and produce any number of totally different children as a result. Then my babies were born, and my nurture-not-nature presumptions took one hell of a pounding. Forgive me if I get a bit crunchy here, but I had the strongest sense, in my daughter’s early months, that this was not a new life that I was shaping and moulding but a well-formed soul that I was simply somehow channelling into the world. It started even before she was born. We had an amazing ultrasound scan picture, produced at 20 weeks’ gestation, that showed just her perfectly-formed little right hand. It was crystal clear, raised to say hello, and it was not a tiny copy of my hand. The tip of the thumb curved backwards in a way that my own thumbs do not. It was a difference it would never even have crossed my mind to anticipate. Just like that, the little ball of life expanding in its warm, dark, interior world became, for me, not a little piece of myself, not even something I had made, but a mystery person, a small stranger whom I would someday meet. My favourite-ever post on the Humans of New York blog covers this idea exactly:

““Life is a miracle. It’s not a mystery to me. It’s simple. Humans can shape their environment, but they can’t create anything. All we can do is put together what is here. But I challenge any man to try to make some life. Actually, forget life. I challenge any man to try to conjure up some dirt.” (Posted by Humans of New York on Tuesday, 5 August 2014)

“Life is a miracle. It’s not a mystery to me. It’s simple. Humans can shape their environment, but they can’t create anything. All we can do is put together what is here. But I challenge any man to try to make some life. Actually, forget life. I challenge any man to try to conjure up some dirt. Posted by Humans of New York on Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Once she arrived, the sense that we had met someone, not made someone, got stronger. All newborns have inscrutable, ancient eyes and look like they’ve seen empires rise and fall. My hour-old daughter slept in my arms in the hospital, sighing and frowning, looking as though she were transmitting a sitrep to whomever had sent her. And as each of my kids has got older they have manifested all sorts of traits we can’t account for, quirks that don’t seem just to echo the way we’ve tried to raise them. Sometimes I’ve felt completely mismatched to them, as though I don’t have what these particular little humans require to thrive and grow. That February night during that tantrum, I found out that at least one of them felt the same way.

*

That tantrum happened six weeks ago now, and The Bird’s other mother has been with us ever since. That night, crushed by this apparent confirmation that I don’t have what she needs, I poured out my heart to the online mum group I joined when first pregnant and on which I’ve relied ever since. One friend from the group messaged me. As a young child, she remembered, she’d used to tell her mum all the time about her “other” parents, describing them and the house where they lived. Sometimes now, she said, she still felt a strange sensation of memory, of another life running in parallel to the one she lived now. I told my partner’s mother, who laughed that The Bird had obviously had a past incarnation; she’d been a Spanish infanta with armies at her command, and simply couldn’t adjust to the ignominy of living without a fawning retinue and scores of devoted servants. When she stamps her little foot, it fits. Somehow, it made me feel a huge sympathy for her: this poor little transplant into a strange and disconcerting world where nothing fits and everyone is wrong, where there’s a way things are supposed to be and it’s not the way things are. Now, I imagine another mum for her with boundless patience, with a soothing voice and a knack for saying whatever it is that The Bird needs to hear to reconcile her to her world. I imagine the mum she’ll accept cuddles from, or smile at on pickup from the childminder. When my temper’s fraying, as it does daily — hourly — I try to catch myself, try to wonder what The Bird’s other mum, the one in The Bird’s head, might do. When she’s at her worst, I think to myself, hell, I want her other mum right now. Someone else can handle this one. She’s not the child I thought I’d have, the soft clay I’d form to reflect my own interests and my own values. Maybe I’m not the mum she thought she’d have either. When I catch certain looks in her eye, when I see not my kid but a person looking back at me, grinning to me about the absurdity of the whole situation, I feel it. I half love it. Who wants a tiny clone? How much better it is to find yourself immersed not in a vanity exercise, a kind of extreme blood-and-guts selfie project, but a mystery assignment with an intimate stranger. This is not the ride I thought I was boarding. This is not the territory I thought I was coming to cross, or the travelling companion I thought I would have. It’s much more frightening. It’s much more exciting. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know where she came from. I don’t know who she needs. But I’m who she’s got, and together, day after day, we try.

Ridiculous Thing #20: My daughter’s other mother

Ridiculous Thing #19: Ineptly navigating baby groups

A few tips on how not to make friends at baby groups:

  1. Project crippling insecurity. Yeah, stop the press — a real insider tip there. And yet so hard to avoid. I was sure with my first that everyone else could see my crashing incompetence that I sat in groups vibrating with angst so strong that I could feel others edging away from me. (Or was that my paranoia again? Vicious/ironic circle!) Of course I’m much more blasé this time around. Except that this week The Bee has had an ear infection and, at a baby group we’d not been to before, I became convinced that other mums were thinking “That baby has stinky ears. That is Stinky Ear Baby and his Stinky Ear Mum.” We were clearly going to get a reputation. I became so sure of this that when one kindly mum did strike up conversation I found myself, a propos of absolutely nothing that she had said, blurting “EAR INFECTION! He doesn’t usually smell like this, you know! I do wash him! But I’m sure he’s not contagious! Unless you rub your ears on him! Er! HA HA!” and thereby self-fulfilling the prophecy. If that woman recalls us as anything but Blameless Bewildered Baby and his Verbally Incontinent Mum, we’ll be bloody lucky.
  2. Conversely, come on too strong. Here’s a script:
    Hi, fellow adult at baby group. I know that the interactions you and I can have are as subject to an unspoken protocol as any diplomatic entente. First we can smile at each other’s kids, then very briefly at each other. In time, with a fair wind, we can enquire as to those respective kids’ ages, and even names, and pronounce them gorgeous. In a few weeks we might lie them next to each other and pretend they are interacting. A few weeks after that we can officially complain to each other about how wretched our offspring are. Then we can admit we don’t actually know each other’s names, and if all goes well one of us may take the plunge and moot a playdate. We’ll get through a few of those before we can drop the Pinterest-mum façade and get down to eating biscuits, setting the world to rights, and arranging lifesaving cocktail nights. The thing is, I am very busy and very tired and very, very starved for adult company. This morning I attempted to banter with a self-checkout. I am on the verge of actually calling Call You and Yours. I need a friend now, not several months down the line, by which point you might have gone back to work and my toddler might have taken such an aversion to getting dressed that we can’t actually make it to group any more. So: I see you have a BABY there! Me too! IT’S LIKE WE’RE SOULMATES! What’s say we skip the 1950s chaperoned-dating routine and just swap numbers now? …You… seem to be backing rapidly away?
  3. Drop your baby. Yep. Did it with The Bird at our regular group, during circle time. She had better core strength than I realized, and pitched herself forward out of my arms, bonk onto the wooden floor head first. You can imagine the wailing that ensued (and the baby was pretty upset too). Another time (when she was much older) she was riding up on my shoulders and decided to practice her Olympic freestyle dive. I caught her by one leg. Carrying on like this doesn’t convince other parents that, given your cavalier approach to your own child’s safety, you’d be the ideal person to invite into their lives and homes. If you can fling your own kid merrily onto the floor, what might you do with theirs while they pop upstairs to the loo?
  4. Feed your baby beforehand. Of course you have to feed your baby. But your baby, once fed, will need to poo, and if yours is anything like mine it will sometimes time that activity such that you spend the entire baby group in the toilets, changing a succession of increasingly outrageous nappies, finishing only when the group itself is drawing to a close and leaving you with nothing to show for your house-leaving efforts but a nicely disgusting nappy bag with which to alienate your fellow passengers on the homebound bus.

Despite these pratfalls I’ve managed to be adopted by a group of friends without whom I would be completely and utterly buggered. If you can exceed my achievements, i.e. by having a modicum of social competence, pat yourself on the back. You’re going to be just fine.

Ridiculous Thing #19: Ineptly navigating baby groups

Ridiculous Thing #18: Wearing eyeliner/not wearing eyeliner

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All winter long I’ve been wearing my boyfriend’s coat. The sleeves engulf my hands, making gloves redundant; the front covered my bump in pregnancy and has space now to accommodate both me and the baby in his wrap. It conveys what a friend recently described as “Kim Jong Il chic”. It is, I hope, the ugliest damn thing I have ever worn. And I wear it every day, for hours, out to the park or round the supermarket or to the pub or a friend’s house. An earlier version of me, the undergraduate version who once dared myself to brave a walk up the street without makeup on and had to return early because I couldn’t stand doing it, wouldn’t even be able to look.

If you look half-decent postpartum, people sometimes get kind of prickly about it. Your baby can’t be that much work if you still have time to draw a straight line around your eyelid. Who’re you getting all gussied up for, anyway? Showing the rest of us up.

If you look like you haven’t bothered postpartum, people shake their heads. She’s let herself go. Looking a bit Mumsnet there. She must really be struggling. Sometimes, being out in public with young children is just an exercise in choosing which kind of teeth-sucking you want to invite.

The flip side is the praise you sometimes get. You’ve got your figure back, yummy mummy! You look great, for x days/weeks/months post-baby! You look like you were never pregnant! Motherhood suits you; you’re glowing! It’s lovely. It’s awkward. It’s a reminder of how you stay as public property long after the appearance of your first-ever baby bump turns your body into a topic of popular interest. Feeling awkward, though, is ungracious; means you don’t know how to take a compliment. Are you getting the feeling that there’s some conflict here?

Ridiculous Thing #18: Wearing eyeliner/not wearing eyeliner

Ridiculous Thing #17: “Stimulating Activities”

When I start feeling sorry for myself about what a big shock it is becoming a parent, or going from one kid to two, I try to imagine what the first few days of life are like for a newborn. I picture it as being like going suddenly from life in an animated cartoon to 3D live-action. It’s not just that the details of your experiences change: your whole frame of reference for what exists is just exploded and replaced by something new and totally unanticipated. It must be the greatest existential crisis of human life (…though I suppose there are lots of people who tell us there’s such a thing as a similar transformation at the other end of life…). Either that, or I have watched Enchanted too many times (…though I suppose there’s lot of people who tell us there’s no such thing as watching Enchanted too many times…). Anyhow. Thinking like this was my way of trying not to be so weirded out by my brand new baby.

It’s easy to expect too much of a newborn. With The Bird, I got myself into a lather of sadness over the fact that though most babies have crying licked from the moment they emerge, none of them really smiles for at least the first month (and sometimes significantly longer). It broke my heart to think that sadness is more fundamental than happiness. (Of course, it’s not quite that simple – crying and smiling are ways of signalling, not basic feelings, so an unsmiling young baby can be perfectly content. Interesting to wonder though whether “happiness” as we would recognise it always starts out as a social interaction.) Looking at my newborns, little human burritos warm in their swaddling blankets, I found it impossible to imagine walking, talking humans ever emerging from them. The conclusion I came to, then, was that I would have to coax such humans out of these squidgy beginnings. If they were going to learn anything, I’d have to teach it to them. They’d have to be Stimulated and Inspired and Exposed To Learning Experiences. That’s the sort of sentiment that has you out doing baby groups and activities with a three-week-old baby who, frankly, can’t yet see as far as their own fingertips.

One of the franchised baby activity groups running in our area liked to spam local Facebook parenting groups with an image promising that 90% of babies who attended their sessions met developmental milestones early. Hurray, right? But babies have developmental milestones for every single damn thing. Bringing their fingers together, holding their heads up, eye contact, sleeping, cooing, rolling over, cutting teeth; the works. These milestones span such a broad range that it is near certain that your child will be later than average at some things, and earlier than average at others. Grab a control group of kids who didn’t attend this group, and I’d be astonished if nearly all of them (say, around 90%?) didn’t hit at least one milestone early (and others late). This whole problem points, for me, to the error in thinking that you have to get your baby out to groups to stimulate them: for newborn babies, simply existing is pretty darn stimulating. Developing is literally all there is for them to do. In their pre-birth cartoon world, there was no day and night, for example, so that’s a pretty mind-blowing thing to have to suss out. There were no faces (twins and more excepted), and just staring at those takes up just about all the mental processing power they have. Temperature changes; those are a big one to have to figure out. Being dry as opposed to wet. Colours. A breeze on the skin. Things having a smell. It is all new, and it is all totally unanticipated and completely dumbfounding. Whether or not someone is there singing you a rhyming song and performing makaton while you try to adjust to all this is kind of the least of your newborn concerns.

Eye contact: it happens in the end...
Eye contact: it happens in the end…

There’s a blog post on this theme that I really like, The Fourth Trimester, that sums this all up: “the first three months of a baby’s life are like a fourth trimester…If I just let him live his life like he’s still in the womb my life will become way less complicated.” There is a lot of very good sense in that post, on the implications of giving your baby that extra time to adjust, like a rehabilitating ex-con, to life on the outside. Don’t worry about creating bad habits; don’t beat yourself up about routines. Do what you gotta do to get through the days. And definitely don’t fuss about taking them out to activity groups. So, having taken that all on board, I definitely didn’t bother with groups with my second, right?

We were at Stay and Play when he was twelve days old.

So YES I have a toddler to entertain too, but in fact on the days she goes to the childminder I am still out at groups. (In fact, I am at groups being furtive in case the toddler shows up there with the childminder, and becomes infuriated that I am doing fun things without her.) That’s because life at home with a newborn is, at times, wall-climbingly claustrophobic. While you’re waiting for them to hit all those milestones, by logical inference you are stuck at home with someone who cannot roll over, coo, make eye contact, etc., let alone converse intelligently on whether Masterchef is deliberately trolling us with all these avocado recipes. So as nice as it might sound to lie around watching TV while the baby sleeps on your chest, in reality the appeal of that palls rather quickly. And that, of course, is if you have the kind of baby who is content to let you do things like watching TV. Babies like that are, in my experience, disappointingly rare. More common are babies who scream at you while you attempt fruitlessly to achieve basic household tasks. As it happens, I feel that I’ve kind of won the baby lottery this time around, in that The Bee is totally chill with comprising the entire audience for a matinee performance of Mummy Sings The Cole Porter Songbook While Scrubbing The Bathroom. The newborn Bird was not like that. The Bird considered it the height of insolence for me to indulge myself in such pursuits as attempting to eat a sandwich, use the lavatory, or do anything that didn’t involve striding purposefully while she nestled against my chest and glared out belligerently at the world. I’m trying to make this sound funny, but in reality it was soul-destroying. At home she screamed for hours, cried for reasons I could never fathom, and never slept. So we went out. Bars didn’t want us, libraries seemed somehow like a poor choice, so baby groups it was. Baby groups, you see, offer six things you’ll find essential in the postpartum period:

  1. Other adults. These serve to supply sympathy, conversation, and reminders that you have capabilities beyond the management of others’ bodily fluids.
  2. Distraction for the baby, who may be diverted sufficiently to occasionally stop yelling.
  3. Distraction for you, so that even if she in fact cries just as much as she does at home it might not make you want to claw your ears off.
  4. Rooms you are not responsible for cleaning. There’s little so maddening as being placed in front of chores that need doing, but obstructed from doing them by a baby who won’t let you (a) stand up, (b) sit down, or (c) bend over. Going out doesn’t get your housework done, but it does provide you with an hour when you don’t need to feel guilty about that.
  5. Biscuits.
  6. Kindness. At groups, people will tell you your baby is gorgeous. For a minute, you may even get to glimpse your baby through those other people’s eyes: as a small scrap of promise, not just the mad little dictator of your world.

No, my newborns did not learn to baby-sign like champs, or develop a more refined aesthetic sensibility from staring at coloured lights and unseasonal tinsel, or bud as future Mozarts through early exposure to Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush. But going out to groups is one Ridiculous postpartum Thing that I am more than happy to recommend to anyone.

Ridiculous Thing #17: “Stimulating Activities”

Ridiculous Thing #16: Wreaking havoc among the Quakers

My daughter’s fourth-biggest tantrum to date was the one when things started to get real. It was the one when an ambulance stopped to help us.

She was about eighteen months old, and new to tantrumming, so her performances then made up in raw feeling what they lacked in polish. The tantrum sparked off when she wanted to carry the changing bag. Because she was only three feet tall, the bag when hung over her shoulder still dragged along the pavement beside the main road where we were walking. The Bird didn’t like this. She started crying, then screaming, then folded herself in half backwards at the waist and hurled herself at the ground. The pavement was wet, and I was new to being on the receiving end of tantrums, so I commenced valiant efforts to stop her from doing this. (Now I just roll with it; sometimes literally.) I was pretty absorbed in grappling with her when I became dimly aware of someone approaching. “Are you all right?” asked a male voice. “Do you need any help?”

“Oh, no, thank you,” I said, without even looking up at the speaker, still pretty focused on trying to keep The Bird from concussing herself on the concrete. She had splayed all four limbs and was thrashing backwards like a freshly-landed tuna. “She gets like this.”

“Sure?” asked the man.

“Yes, thanks,” I said, in a tone that sounded perhaps a little bitten-off. The Bird’s feet flailed at my jawline. Getting a grip on my daughter steady enough to lift her up, I breathed in for long enough to look up and realize that the man, now walking away from us, was dressed head to toe in forest green.  And the vehicle that had pulled in to the layby ahead of us, to which he was returning, I saw, was bright neon yellow with a checkerboard pattern down the side. We passed it as I hauled The Bird, still convulsing away, on up the road toward the supermarket. The paramedic waved as we passed, then the ambulance pulled away. With hindsight, I think he must have thought The Bird was having a fit, not simply pitching a fit. My hat is off to him for the way he lived the job.

Anyway. I mention all this by way of illustrating that it wasn’t becoming a big sister that made The Bird dramatic. A few weeks back one of my friends said, rather gently, that “[The Bird]’s tantrums aren’t, you know, normal tantrums.” I nearly cried with relief that someone else thought so too. It’s nice, when you’re going through hell, to get some acknowledgement that you’re not merely going through Bedfordshire. But underlying disposition or none, it’s quite clear that the first few months of having a new baby at home corresponded with more and bigger sads than we’d ever had out of this little girl. The Ridiculous Thing about all this is that I made basically no concessions to it whatsoever, and bludgeoned on with an attempt at normality when clearly she was needing a bit of quiet time to adjust to suddenly being one of a set, instead of the centre of the universe. That’s how we ended up with our (then) twin biggest tantrums yet.

There does come a point when you stop trying to make them stop, and start simply filming them...
There does come a point when you stop trying to make them stop, and start simply filming them…

One occurred when The Bee was five weeks old, and we were on our way to a (planned,  booked) civilized cultural activity with an incomprehensibly serene mum-of-two friend. For forty minutes of time when we should’ve been looking at masterpieces in a world-renowned art gallery and creating our own artworks inspired by them, The Bird and The Bee and I stood stranded in a nearby muddy park while she screamed and wept and rolled in the mud screaming “I WANT TO ROLL IN THE MUD.” Many, many passersby passed by. I have never avoided so much eye contact in my life. And that tantrum was eclipsed the following week, when I took the kids to music group.

We go to music group every Monday morning.  It’s a little circle of toddlers shaking shakers, clapping hands, and dancing and singing their little hearts out. In fact, of course, the toddlers do barely any singing. The toddlers do their own thing, while their accompanying parents gamely impersonate Old Macdonald’s menagerie and pop assorted weasels. We’ve been going for over a year now, and The Bird has not once joined in with a song while at group. She likes to sit in the circle and regard all other comers with a baleful stare. Periodically the group leader calls on the children to suggest an animal to appear in I Went To Visit A Farm One Day, or a colour for the imaginary tractor they are going to ride on, or a hand gesture for the group to mimic. The Bird never answers if she is called on, and often looks like she has one or two hand gestures that only good manners are keeping her from suggesting. Then all the way home she will joyfully sing all the songs she’s just been pretending not to know, and tell me “I do like music group,” and ask when we can go again.

Anyway. That Monday, she did not want to go to music group. This happens periodically, and she’s usually delighted when we get there, so I decided to persevere. I’d reached a point, amid the maelstrom of life with two in nappies, when I was sure that only my determination would keep us from sinking into a morass of mess and wasted time. Life with small children is an endless parade of semi-predictable and short-term demands. Kids possess a non-winning combination of great tenacity and lack of a masterplan. They can’t plan, compromise, delay gratification, or drive. That meant, I concluded, that if we were to achieve anything beyond satisfying the immediate demands of the id, I’d have to run things like a drill-sergeant. So I soldiered on. A relative, Auntie Awesome, dropped round to our house first with my one-year-old niece so we could all walk over to group together. This didn’t improve The Bird’s mood any, and soon we were too late to walk and had to use the buggy. The Bird didn’t want to go in the buggy. Because Auntie Awesome was there, and I didn’t want it to look like The Bird was calling the shots, I manhandled The Bird into her buggy while she screamed. I knew she’d be fine once we got out of the door. In fact, she was still screaming as we got out the door. But I knew she’d be fine once we got to the end of our road. In fact, she was still screaming as we got to the end of our road, and as we left the neighbourhood, and in fact twenty minutes later when we reached the venue for group, a Quaker meeting-house. We were late and the other children were all already in a side room, sitting in the circle singing, so Auntie Awesome took my niece straight in to join them while I tried to park up the buggy. By now The Bee, in a sling on my front, was crying fit to burst as well. And though I “knew” The Bird would be fine once we got into the circle, she was absolutely not prepared to go in. In fact, still screaming, she kicked so hard that she toppled the buggy, in which she was still strapped, over backwards and bashed her head on the floor.

I don’t know heaps about Quaker faith, but I do know that it accords a special value to silent contemplation. I do know a little bit about libraries, which happened of course to be the specific part of the meeting-house in which we were asked to park buggies: those, too, are of course all about the silence. So being in a Quaker library for this, our then-biggest blowup ever, seemed somehow supernaturally perfect. (I don’t know, for example, whether Quakers share my belief that the universe is fundamentally ironic, but get the impression from what followed that they potentially do.) Usually the library was empty at this time, but today of course it had patrons; an older woman of supreme poise and composure was sitting at a desk right beside where The Bird had pitched herself over. Chastened by the experience with the paramedic, I’d become a bit more aware of who was around us during meltdowns: as I felt this woman’s eyes on us my skin got hot and embarrassment pinged in my guts, even as I hauled the buggy upright on autopilot, grabbing my daughter to check her poor bumped head. She wouldn’t let me unstrap her but I hugged her as tightly as I could with her brother tied onto my chest. I wiped the tear-tracks on her cheeks, trying to reassure her in a half-infuriated mutter. The panic receded enough for me to realize that the other woman was on her feet. There we were, going nuclear, and coming between this poor library user and her thoughts, her reading, and (as far as I knew) her God. I started fishing for some words of defensive apology, but she spoke first. “You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.

I couldn’t have been more floored. Not unless I’d pitched myself over in a buggy.

“Can I help?” she offered. “See if I can distract her?”

That moment of kindness gave me what I needed to pull myself together and realize what we needed to do. “Thank you,” I said, “but I think we just need a moment’s time out.” I looked at The Bird, my poor overwrought first baby. “Baby,” I said, “would you like to sit outside in the sunshine and listen to the birds?”

The BIrd stopped crying. “Yes,” she sniffed. The Bee stopped crying too. I pushed the buggy back out of the library into the meeting-house’s little garden. The first snowdrops and a scattering of early crocuses were opening their faces to the weak sun. We sat all together, me on the cold grass, and listened. Early spring birds sang, a stream of liquid joy spilling into the cool air. Otherwise, it was silent. We contemplated.

The Bee settled warmly against my chest. The Bird’s breathing slowed down from its post-sob judders. After a few minutes, I peeped into the buggy and pulled a funny face. She smiled. I did it again, and she laughed. “Would you like to go in and sing?” I asked. 

“Yes,” she said.

I got her out of the buggy and she toddled in, and we went inside. The older woman was still there. “Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being kind to us.”

I hadn’t deserved the kindness. The Bird was only so wound up because I had steamrollered her. Topsy-turvy in the postpartum whirl, I had wanted normal Monday morning so much.  I’d wanted fun with my two kids, had wanted peace and joy. Somehow, through that incredible storm and that gesture of kindness when I’d expected judgement, we’d reached it.

We went in to join the group, and sang. When we came back out, the woman was gone.

Ridiculous Thing #16: Wreaking havoc among the Quakers