When Riley was between 3 and 4 months old I woke up one day to the loud noises of tradies preparing to trim the palm trees outside our apartment.
The sounds of them laughing and yelling out instructions filled me with a mix of helplessness and rage.
At the time I felt trapped. It was a very hot summer, 40 degree days interspersed with tropical downpours and even if I did manage to get out of the house Riley hated our brand new expensive pram and started screaming before I could reach the nearby park. I also struggled to reverse our car out of the narrow car port but that didn’t really matter because Riley hated the car most of the time, too.
She was a very alert baby who did not go to sleep easily; I couldn’t encourage her to go to sleep by rocking, bouncing, shushing, patting her bum. The only thing that worked most of the time was breastfeeding her in bed. She also liked the baby carrier but mostly when James carried her, not me.
So when I heard those loud noises I realised that sleep would not come easily that day (not that it was ever easy with Riley). I tried – but understandably Riley was very curious about all the commotion and had no interest in sleeping whatsoever and I was sure she was headed into the dreaded territory of overtiredness. I eventually loaded her and the baby carrier into the pram and walked towards the park taking the opportunity to glare at the tradies who so inconsiderately ruined my day.
As I was walking, I was seriously contemplating writing a short story called “The worst day of my life”. Some part of me did think it was slightly ridiculous to call it the worst day of my life even back then. I lived through the collapse of a country, my parents losing all their savings, queues for bread, a death in the family. I moved to another city then to another country by myself, survived crappy relationships and worked for an employer who didn’t give a hoot about me, overcame depression that was mostly caused by my personal choices. Yet it really did feel like the worst day at the time and I could feel myself cracking at the seams.
I wasn’t sure I wanted another child for a long time after Riley was born. Her sleep was terrible for ages and she never stopped being a fairly intense kid. Eventually though James convinced me to start trying. For a while it didn’t look like it was going to happen, then came the shock of a miscarriage and then I found out that I was pregnant with twins.
While remembering my early days with Riley I promised myself that I would not be calling James in tears this time, that I wouldn’t be a blubbering mess, that I wouldn’t doubt myself nearly as much. I have since broken that promise. Only James knows how much I struggle some days.
Riley is not the challenge she was when she was a baby. Sure, she has her moments but there are also wonderful times. She is now four and says the funniest things. And she sleeps! She tells me she’s tired and climbs into her own bed and asks for cuddles. She adapted easily to new daycare when we moved and made friends and tells me what they do there every day and she’s an absolute angel with her grandparents and it’s not rare at all for us to have great moments when we are both giggling about something silly while making cookies or just horsing around.
At the same time, when your family grows from 3 people to 5 in one go, there are inevitable growing pains. Babies need to be kept alive and happy; the older kid wants as much attention as she used to get; parents are outnumbered at all times. We now have not one but three kids to put to sleep and for some reason they all want me. Some days there is just not enough of me. We have had all three kids crying at the same time a few times. I grieved about losing my exclusive relationship with Riley. I yelled at her in the fog of my exhaustion. Yet most days we manage alright. James is a much more involved father, not the guy who called me 10 minutes into my first walk alone after Riley’s birth (she was 6 weeks) telling me he couldn’t stop her crying. He now knows that if I don’t spend some time alone during the week I’ll be in a bad mental space and it will affect the entire family. He’s looked after all three kids by himself plenty of times. I have changed, too.
For a lot of us the desire to be a good parent who goes beyond the basics of physical care means that we also have to confront our own demons: our hidden triggers, insecurity, anxiety. If you don’t have kids you might never be pushed to your limits. People seek enlightenment in extreme sports and silent retreats but you might learn a lot of (unpleasant) things about yourself when your preschooler screams “Yucky Mama!” because she can’t wear the dress she peed on the morning after a night of multiple feedings of newborn babies and the said preschooler wailing that she doesn’t want to be by herself. You will discover that you feel angry when you’re screamed at, even by a little child with an underdeveloped brain or a tiny baby. You might find out that the never ending work of parenting does not feel rewarding at times. There are no promotions or breaks. And you might judge yourself harshly for anything that you perceive you are doing wrong.
I’m sure my kids won’t remember or think much about the years of breastfeeding and night wakings and managing tantrums and illnesses – not until they have their own kids. Not sure I even want them to. Let them be happy and well adjusted, surrounded by love and interesting challenges. I’d prefer them to hang out with me when they are older because I’m fun and because I’m the ultimate place of comfort for them, not out of the sense of obligation and filial duty. And I want them to remember me as a happy person throughout their childhood, a gentle source of support who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed herself.
There is a lot of messaging out there to ask for support if you’re struggling. I’m a little skeptical of it. For once, the reason you even need to tell people to ask for help is that asking is somewhat frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness. We are surrounded by pictures of happy families and immaculately dressed babies and toddlers surrounded by wooden toys; yes, there is also a plethora of mummy blogs about the struggles of motherhood but a lot of the time it swings too far in the opposite direction with copious amounts of wine for the mother and nuggets served for all meals to the kids. Then again if you do ask for help what if you don’t get it? Nobody owes us help and especially not specific types of help; struggling mothers are routinely sent to Tresillian and other sleep schools that might work for some and terrible for others, well meaning bystanders often offer what seems like terrible advice (mostly about decreasing responsiveness even though it’s been shown again and again to provide best outcomes in the long term). What do we do when sleep deprivation and changing nappies all day are not the biggest problems, when the biggest problem of all is staying content among it all without daydreaming of abandoning your family to live in a cave where nobody ever needs you ever again?
There seem to be a lot of resources about productivity and hustle yet not enough about dealing with everyday challenges and our mental health; I’m not sure the skill of staying on an even keel through tribulations of life is taught routinely to anyone. With time I found resources that were helpful to me: some Facebook groups and books and real people who were happy to talk about their own struggles too. There is the most wonderful Possum Education clinic with its free tips for parents with babies and a book by one of its founders. She also refers to another wonderful book called “Becoming Mum”. I found ACT (as in acceptance and commitment therapy) hugely helpful and wish I got into it way before becoming a parent. I would also recommend the podcast called “The one you feed” to anyone who struggles (it’s not parent specific).
As a process of improving my own mental health I finally realised that feeling my daughter’s pain is not helpful. I was very attuned to it when she was a baby and as a result often found myself overwhelmed. I could not go down the same path with three kids instead of one. Plenty of people proudly call themselves empaths these days saying they feel other people’s pain acutely; that’s very similar to what I felt with Riley. Yet there’s research that shows that feeling other people’s pain actually prevents us from helping them – we just try to avoid people in pain. These days instead of getting upset myself when Riley has one of her intense reactions I try to separate myself emotionally to an extent and really listen to her and not my perceived impression of what’s happening; what I find a lot of the time is that when what we call “empathy” is in fact projection. And if you really listen instead of trying to stop someone’s extreme reaction the situation often diffuses itself and your connection with them is restored much faster. It works with babies too. You can’t stop them from fussing sometimes and there are few things more frustrating than trying to calm down a baby who doesn’t want to calm down. Their cries sound like the worst performance review of your life. It takes time to really feel it in your body that it’s not a reflection of you – you are the source of comfort for your children but they are still separate people who will inevitably react the way they want, not the way you expect them to.
I’m far from having found the way of perfect parenting, I still struggle. Yet now the sting of anxiety has been removed sufficiently from my everyday life for me to enjoy my babies when they are not fussy and to react with humour when they are (most of the time anyway). I now trust James to do his own thing with the kids as I go for a walk. I’ve taken all three of them for a walk by myself. And when I’m having a shit day it doesn’t cross my mind that it’s the worst day of my life anymore as there’s always a moment of two that I enjoy. And I know that after a while the photos of that day will most likely make me miss the times when my babies were little and needed me very much, so much that I used to daydream about running away and living in a cave somewhere.