The log in my own eye

I had a bit of a wake up call this week. I was discussing my husband and his illness with my mother. And, in a perfectly kind, non judgemental and non critical fashion, she pointed something out. I talk down to him. On occasions, I treat him like a child.

I have been so focused on his condition, his ‘issues’, his challenging behaviour, how hard it is and how unreasonable he can be, I have missed something both fundamental and important. I have been failing to treat him with the respect he deserves. I have been thinking so hard about the speck in his eye I have failed to address the log in my own.

A few days ago, he was trying to tell me something. My four year old interrupted, with a noisy toy, and he told her to wait. She waited as patiently as any four year old does. He appeared to have finished – I asked if he was and he said yes, so I said she could do whatever it was. He took the toy away from her. I was so angry with him at treating her in what I felt was a cruel and unfair fashion, I sent him to the shed.

That’s right. I essentially put a grown man on the naughty step. Oh, I have excuses –  I didn’t want to undermine him in front of the girls, I didn’t want a shouty argument with them around, and I wanted him to cool off. The shed is his man cave where he makes models – so not a nasty place to be. But that is not how you treat an equal.

I can be forgiven, you might think, for being under a lot of stress. His condition infantilises him. All well and good, but it wasn’t this incident my mother was referring to. It is something I have got into the habit of, over time, and from time to time. He enables it – if you act the child you get parented. He is happy for me to be the grown up. But successful relationships are built on mutual respect. And one of the big issues that has contributed to the depressive element of his condition is a huge lack of self esteem. He thinks I am more clever, more successful. His mother brought him up with zero expectations for his future. Therefore he has no expectations. And unwittingly I have been continuing this.

I felt mortified. In general I believe I am up for debate about most things, even those where I have strongly held views, and am willing to listen. I even change my mind sometimes. But when it comes to things like parenting, I think I am right. I may ‘listen’ to his views. But I am rarely prepared to accept I could be wrong. Yes, I do a great deal more reading and research. Being at home all day means I am in many ways the expert. That does not mean I am always right. He is an adult. I should consider what he has to say. I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Our children are half him too and I was  impressed enough with him to pick him to procreate with twice over.

I got very upset a while ago because I felt that he was treating me as ‘lesser’ than him. I felt downtrodden. His needs were always more important than mine. I had to beg him to take the girls out while I was suffering from mastitis. Unwittingly, in a slightly different way, I have been treating him with a similar lack of respect.

His condition means, actually, for now, this will continue in a small way. But that respect needs to come back. If you treat someone like a child, they will continue to behave like one. He too can and should be an expert on his own children. I plan to start asking his opinion more – and taking it into consideration – passing some decisions on to him. Treating him as an equal.

Getting it wrong

There are times in all our lives when everything just seems to come together. Choices are the right ones, battles are won or perhaps not even necessary. All the calls you make pay off and the results are perfect. You preen, filled with the only slightly smug self-satisfaction that you are getting it right. Unfortunately, in my case at least, these occasions are so notable because they are the exception to the rule.

Lately I seem to be getting it wrong. A lot. Not in any big ways – I am not misguidedly deciding a good beating is the way to get a four year old to stop answering back, or resolving to ‘air the baby’ by leaving her screaming at the bottom of the garden. But small decisions that I have to make all the time unfailingly turn out to be the wrong ones.

It all comes back to the demon, sleep (I know, I am aware of my obsession which is the first step on the road to overcoming it). Not so very long ago, my baby liked to nap three times a day. Usually for 45 minutes. I had found a pretty effective (I will avoid the expression ‘good’ as it involves both props AND boobs which is a no-no in some people’s books) method of getting the nap to happen reliably. There were times when it didn’t go entirely to plan and times when after a nap she would settle down for a good boobysnooze, pinning me to the sofa unexpectedly. But generally, it worked.

Now, however, this has become at best unpredictable. The problem with babies is that just when you have figured them out, they change. Overnight usually. So my little one no longer wants three naps a day. She wants two. But she can’t quite link up those pesky sleep cycles to make sure both these naps are of decent lengths. This means nap number 2 often ends a long time before bedtime, leaving me with two choices. I can either roll with it as she becomes increasingly foul tempered and bring bedtime forward a smidge – which tends to mean she is out like a light but will almost certainly wake 45 minutes after being put down. Or I can squeeze another nap in, and try and push bedtime back a bit, knowing that she will be much more difficult to settle – but may sleep for a slightly longer stretch. My problem is this – I seem completely incapable of doing any of these things at the right time. Yesterday I spent an hour settling her for her first nap. Which lasted 30 minutes after she rolled over to her front and woke herself crying. Time well spent? And yet this morning it took me just five minutes to settle her at the same time. Sadly the nap didn’t last any longer. But she was clearly ready for it.

My head is a whirlwind of calculations – time since last sleep, duration of sleep, when nappy was changed, what has been eaten – but that doesn’t seem to have  helped me make the right decisions. I am an expert on her sleepy cues. I keep an eye both on the clock and the baby. Yet I am still clearly getting it wrong, or else she would have slept for a more reasonable amount of time. She is sleeping now. But for how long? And if she wakes in a few minutes, can I possibly keep her up til bedtime?  It is no wonder women on maternity leave start to question their mental faculties. You are given a puzzle where the rules which govern its behaviour change every few days at completely random intervals, while simultaneously being deprived of sleep (again often in quite random ways).

I long for that feeling of getting it right. I still manage it, sometimes. When my elder daughter throws her arms around me and says when she grows up she wants to be just like me, I know I have done something right. When I am rocking a resistant baby in my arms to the soundtrack of a snoring child I am reminded I did teach one little girl to sleep. I did get it right, enough. But for now, I am getting it wrong.

Judged

At what point, I wonder, did you make your first judgement about me? Maybe you got no further than my avatar, ‘mentalmumof2’. Crass, you thought (it is). Perhaps when I talked about bedsharing, your eyebrows twitched. Or you screwed up your face at the idea of breastfeeding until 2. Maybe the judgements you made were positive ones – you thought ‘this is someone I could get along with’. Or you may have flicked off, moved on.

We make hundreds of judgements every single day. It’s impossible not to. We judge whether there is enough time to cross the road before the car comes. We judge whether or not we want to be friends with someone. We judge the woman on the school run who dresses entirely in leopard print and the mean with the pierced nose and full beard. Many of these judgements are unconscious, never voiced, never consciously acted upon. But still we make them.

When you become a parent, you open yourself up to a new world, where any stranger feels free to make judgements, form opinions – and then tell you to your face. The first few times it is unnerving as we are unused to complete strangers discussing personal choices with you. It may be presented as friendly advice. Indeed that is probably how it is intended. But it doesn’t stop there. There is seemingly no end to the things on which a mother – and it is usually a mother – is judged. How you feed, how often you feed. Where your baby sleeps, how often, how long for, how you get them to sleep. Whether you use a dummy or a sling or white noise or wean early. How you dress your baby and how many layers. Whether you use ‘controversial’ baby equipment like a Bumbo or bouncer  or jumperoo. How you get around. Whether you use extended rear facing  car seats. Whether you choose to work, not work,go part time, when you return to work. Who looks after your child when you work.

So why is it ok to make all these judgements, to share your opinions blithely with strangers? It’s not. It’s often extremely annoying. It can be very difficult for insecure, sleep deprived first-time mothers (and the rest) to hold firm in the face of judgement. Or when presented with miracle solutions from voices of reason and respect which you ‘have’ to do. You might not be doing it ‘right’. We are all mostly muddling through, somehow, getting it wrong, then getting it closer to right. Everyone is different, different parents, different children. And when you have made what may have been a tough decision – for example ceasing breastfeeding or moving a child into their own room, it is supremely unfair to be judged on that. By someone who is not in possession of all the facts.

But equally, sometimes, that other mum isn’t judging you. She is trying to help. She is offering the benefits of her own experience – what worked for her. It may not work for you, but this offer is not made with malice, or meant to be patronising. Maybe they have never seen a sling before, or a breastfeeding toddler and simply want to know mos. Maybe they aren’t out to get you after all.

Feel free to judge me – share your judgements even , I’m strong enough to take it. But the mum over there, the one who hadn’t had a chance to shower, who has forgotten her spare nappies and is struggling to breastfeed a screaming baby while being batted by an angry toddler, spare her your judgement. Offer her your help instead.

The last time

As a parent it is easy to get hung up on firsts. First tooth, first words, first steps, first foods. First first first. However determined you may be to avoid the competitive elements of parenthood (and I personally cannot understand why anyone would want to win the competition to cut the first tooth), there is a huge focus on these things. Even relaxed second, third or fourth timers will on some level be taking note, waiting for these milestones.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Within very wide parameters, we do need to know our children are roughly on schedule. Sometimes there may be developmental issues so early realisation of those challenges can be extremely important. It’s also quite exciting. A talking baby, a walking baby is very different to a tiny newborn. New worlds unfold, New opportunities arise.

What we perhaps focus on less is that, shockingly early, there will be last times as well. A friend posted recently that she was giving her daughter her last breastfeed and was feeling quite emotional. This got me thinking about lasts. Our last breastfeed is a long way off (perhaps 18 months away if I manage to follow the WHO guidelines and feed until 2) but there will be many things which end. Indeed there already have been a few ‘lasts’. I didn’t feel too emotional about packing away the newborn clothes, maybe because they are just ‘things’ and I am not very attached to material objects in general. I don’t need the clothes to retain the memories. And I can’t remember the last night in the Moses basket but it was a logistical challenge as to where she could sleep rather than an emotional one.

I do remember my elder daughter’s last breastfeed. It was a week before her second birthday. We had discussed how she was a big girl and didn’t need boobymilk any more. (Yes, we call it that. I know I should have changed it to something less ‘booby’ but to be honest I couldn’t be bothered). We both knew it was the last time. We snuggled in bed on a Sunday morning and had the feed and I felt warm and loved and loving. I didn’t feel regret or upset – it was the right time for both of us.

Many people are not so lucky. And indeed for a very high number of women, breastfeeding is not a wonderful, bonding experience but something involving pain, discomfort, at best ambivalent feelings. But even for those who have had a ‘good’ breastfeeding experience, unless you consciously choose a last feed as I did, you may never know that it is your last feed. Your baby may just not ‘demand’ another one day. You may be separated from them briefly and find they are uninterested on your return. You may be forced to stop through illness or other circumstances beyond your control. I think if you are not ready, it can be very hard. I got to savour our last time. You might feel cheated out of that.

One day my baby will no longer fall asleep in my arms. One day when I wake up in the morning with a warm, sleepy bundle lying next to me, grabbing for my nose and pulling my hair, it will be the last time we have shared a bed.  One day she will not want me to carry her everywhere but will want to travel on her own two feet (or knees, or shuffly bottom). Looking further ahead, one day my elder daughter will no longer want me to kiss her goodbye at the school gates. One day, perhaps soon, she will drop the diminutive ‘mummy’ and I will become mum. At each of these milestones, will I know it was the last time? Or will I have to accept that one day, the world was this way. The next, it was another way.

I will try to avoid cliches about how children grow up so fast. They age at exactly the same speed as everyone else. It is how we spend the hours, days, weeks and years we have with them as they traverse from newborn, to infant, to toddler, to pre-schooler, to schoolchild, that affects our perception of the passing of time. Some of my friends fear they are wasting their maternity leave by not filling it with activities. Others guiltily feel they are wishing away time they will not get back as they long for the next ‘first’. Of course you cannot savour every single moment, some of it will clearly be hard, annoying, frustrating, tiring or even just very boring. But I don’t believe any second spent holding your baby tight is wasted, any second trapped under a sleeping angel. Because you never know when it will be the last time.

Let it go

When I got married the best man made an excellent speech in which he gently poked fun at the fact I had organised the whole thing. In his hand was a list I had provided for him detailing exactly what needed to happen when and who needed to do it for the 24 hours leading up to the wedding. It ran to three pages.

So it would be fair to say I like to be in control. I like things done a certain way. I think describing me as a control freak would be an overstatement but it has been generally acknowledged that the Friends character I most resemble is Monica.

Unless you are very lucky a marriage will always be an uneasy alliance between two people who have very different standards and expectations when it comes to things like housework. And the ‘right’ way of doing things. There are lots  of different ways of making this balance in a satisfactory fashion. Many couples will essentially delegate decisions and control over these things to one party. Others will allocate responsibility for certain tasks to one person and the rest to the other party. With both people gritting their teeth when the other person doesn’t quite do it the ‘right’ way.

Even before my husband got ill there was a fair amount of teeth gritting. He slices onions in half the wrong way. He leaves the fridge door open while he prepares a sandwich. And he loses his temper with our charming but often challenging elder daughter far more frequently and tends to deal with it by sending her to her room or threatening to take things (real or promised) away. This has always been a subject of disagreement and resulted in not a few heated discussions. Now, perhaps as a result of his condition, perhaps down to the side effects of medication, perhaps just his personality unconsciously deciding he doesn’t give a fuck, lots more things are getting forgotten, omitted or half done.

He will wash up his own plate and knife and fork and leave the rest of the washing up untouched. He will rinse out a nappy liner and leave it, still pooey, in the bathroom sink. Tea will be half made. The door will be left open when he vanishes outside to the shed. Things will just be left lying around. Not such a problem if it’s a jumper (although it still bugs me) but actually quite dangerous when it’s a kitchen knife. If he hangs out washing, socks will be balled up and sleeves pulled in on themselves in such a way that they will not dry. And clothes would just hang on the dryer indefinitely if I did not go around and fold them and put them away.  He simply does not ‘see’ these things need to be done. He will be ranting about work while I dart around tidying up, putting things away, all the while holding the baby. It doesn’t occur to him to ask what I would like him to do.

Clearly lots of these things are not important. But they are annoying. There is a strong risk of breeding resentment. I have another ‘child’ to look after. It is difficult to know how to act. This is not acceptable behaviour in the long run. It’s selfish and self-serving. But for now, the advice is just to let it go. It’s really hard, much of the time. He is not a child and these are his responsibilities too. But it will not be forever. So, for now, I will let it go. And try not to simmer with petty bile. I am the bigger person and some day in the future I will get a break again. Yawn.

In sickness and in health

Not for nothing is that phrase included in the marriage vows. You take the good with the bad.  You stick around even when your other half is a shade of green you cannot identify and the person cleaning up the effects of illness and disease is you. Even when the sickness is in the mind.

You make no such promises when you have a child, but they are part of that unwritten contract you enter into when you bring a life into the world. And babies – newly exposed to all the germs and viruses our world has to offer – are sick a lot. I am lucky that neither of my daughters’ flirtations with Ill health have included anything serious or life-threatening. No bronchiolitis or whooping cough. No mumps, measles or meningitis. No flu. A gentle case of chicken pox when my elder daughter was one which unfortunately led to a violent outbreak in my husband two weeks later. But those common or garden viruses that get shared and passed around – plenty of those.

This week it was my husband who commented that the baby seemed hot. I would have dismissed it – she seemed rosy cheeked after a lengthy breastfeed. But the thermometer read 38.6°. After that came the vomiting.

In my arms is a peacefully sleeping little girl. My bottom is entirely numb. The washing has finished and needs hanging out. I am starting to get hungry. I will have to wait. This nap started out in her cot bed. But a coughing fit resulted in yet another set of bedding coated in sick. All my daughter’s sleeping bags are in the wash, having been subjected to the same treatment. I am down to pyjamas which I reserve for hot summer’s days.

It is extremely normal for babies to respond to bugs with fever or sickness. And there isn’t really anything that you can do except wait it out. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen will treat the symptoms – fever and pain at any rate. But they will not make it pass any more quickly. We have a tendency to want to DO something when they are suffering. It is hard to accept that in this instance we’re powerless -nature has to take its course.

Yesterday  I thought she was getting better – enough so that I left her with my mother for a few hours to do a KIT day at work – my first. She was fine. It was at around 11pm, after a long feed, that she soiled her last remaining sleeping bag. And when I tried to bring her into bed with me, she fed angrily and ferociously before throwing up on me again – along with the towel I had fortunately thought to place underneath us. For some reason this was when she suddenly remember how to roll – a trick she managed once or twice before dismissing as unworthy of her attention – rendering cosleeping at best hazardous… And when I lay her on my chest it seemed push-ups were what she wanted to be doing.

An hour’s rocking, attempting to settle in her cot later, I was defeated. We returned to my bed to feed. She didn’t roll over. She didn’t throw up. She did sleep. It was not my best night nor my finest hour. I shed tears. I feared I would be reduced to pacing the flat all night. But morning came, as it always does, and we all survived. So we are back to waiting for the illness to run its course. And trying not to drop anything important through sheer exhaustion in the meantime.

Like a baby

I am obsessed with sleep. Many years ago, before children, I remember talking to my mother about becoming a parent and what I thought I would struggle with and where I would excel. “You might find the lack of sleep a bit hard” she mused, “you do like to sleep”.

Oh God do I love to sleep. I love being tucked up in my bed safe from the elements, curled around my husband. I love waking before my alarm and knowing I still have x amount of time in bed. I love Sunday lie-ins, I love afternoon naps. Sadly all that is a thing of the past.

People talk about having sleepless nights when you have children. I think you are unlucky to have a truly sleepless night – a night with no sleep at all. But there are a multitude of ways in which being a parent can mess with your sleep. I have been blessed with many of them.

There is the night which does not start until midnight/1am/2am. There is the night which is broken handily into two hour chunks (90 minutes or an hour if you are especially lucky). There is the night split into say two or three with hour-long periods of awake time. There is the night which ends at 5am/4am/3am to make way for daytime. Then sometimes there are nights which joyously combine some or all of these features.

I have had good nights and very, very bad nights. I have had nights where when I eventually have to force myself, bleary eyed and with a pounding headache, up and out of the door, I could not give an account of what transpired with even a loose degree of accuracy.

It’s easy to lose all sense of perspective. I have hungrily scoured the internet looking for people who are actually having worse sleep than me. I have felt entirely disproportionate jealousy towards those whose babies are not demanding their attention and their breasts (and the rest) repeatedly through the night. I hope I have not been uncharitable enough to wish a rubbish sleeper on anyone. I have read plenty about sleep training, not sleep training, co-sleeping, gentle techniques, the importance of sleep, the importance of responsiveness…. I have tried lots of things, some of which work sometimes, some never. I have listened to lots of advice, informed and uninformed. I have been coming up with ever more inventive responses to the question ‘and how does she sleep?’. Like a baby – waking repeatedly for comfort and/or feeding. On her back. Terribly.

I am also hearing a great deal about the importance of sleep for mental wellbeing. All these doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, closely questioning my husband about his sleep and stressing how he must get a good night’s sleep. What about my sleep, I scream silently? Who cares about my sleep? Even before he was on sedatives at night, there was no getting up all night long from that side of the bed. I remember a complaint about getting only five hours after a night out with friends. I looked at him blankly and said I could not recall the last time I had five hour  uninterrupted sleep. I would be a new woman with that in the bank.

And what does any of this achieve? Not a great deal. Also, it becomes incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. Like most obsessions. Who wants to hear about the fact that my baby is waking through the night and that I breastfeed her back to sleep? How will your judgement help me? How will all the research about whys and wherefores help? It won’t. Nor will jealousy or competitive tiredness. There are choices I have made which some might think have contributed to the current state of affairs. Breastfeeding, for example. And there are things I do not have a choice about which also have a bearing on night-time. Like my husband’s illness. Those choices have been made. And this is the hand I have been dealt. I cling on to the memory of a brief illusory period when my daughter was still very small when she regularly slept 8, even 10 hours at a time. I didn’t tell anyone at the time. I knew it would not last but also I didn’t want to ‘boast’ about my great sleeper when others were struggling. It was a beautiful five weeks and I fear I did not make the most of it. But I know she has done it in the past. She will do it again. I look at my four year old, sprawled across her bed, out like a light every night, and try and remember once she too shared the midnight oil with me. Now she snores her way through smoke alarms. It won’t last forever.

So for now, I dream of sleep. Except I don’t really, you have to be in a deep sleep to dream. I’m never given quite long enough for that.