Helen Holmes attempts to answer a question that has been puzzling new parents for generations: Is there life after birth?
Picture the scene: you’re heavily pregnant (you might not have to imagine this bit), you are sitting cross legged in a room with twelve other heavily pregnant women and you’re doing heavy breathing exercises. The men are there too. They’re looking embarrassed. They wish they were in the pub. They’re only pretending to do the heavy breathing bit. But they are there.
What are you thinking? Are visions of sodden and stinking nappies dancing through your head? Are you imagining what it will be like to be so tired that you absent mindedly store the loo rolls in the fridge and the cheese in the recycling bag? Are you picturing the entire contents of your wardrobe covered in baby sick? Or are you wondering how on earth you are going to get the wriggling creature that has taken up residence in your stomach out of there?
My money is on the last of these. The thought of having to squeeze something the size of a melon out of a hole the size of a lemon is enough to make the bravest of grown women wince, and it’s understandable that first time expectant parents find it hard to think past this painful, looming, miracle of nature.
Confession time: when the wise leader of my ante natal class, herself a mother of three, asked for our thoughts on the change of lifestyle that a baby might entail, I piped up “Oh, don’t they just sleep all the time?” I honestly cannot believe that I was not made to sit in a corner for the rest of the evening wearing a dunce’s hat.
Let’s just say, my flippancy got its come-uppance.
Fast forward a couple of months, and after a really quite intense labour, which, suffice to say, did not go according to plan (does anyone actually manage to have a water birth?), we had taken our tiny scrap of life back home with us. The miniature white outfit and moses basket by the bed, which before had seemed like accessories from another universe, suddenly had someone to fill them, and, sitting down in our flat, strangely quiet after the hubbub of the hospital, we gave the time-honoured cry of the new parent: “what now?”
Well, I made my first big mistake that very night. I was sitting on the sofa, and my baby son was lying on my lap. He didn’t cry, he just drifted in and out of sleep, gazing up at me when his eyes were open. I was completely besotted. So besotted that I sat there all night. I had completely failed to grasp the first rule of parenting: grab every second of sleep that you can.
The second night found the three of us driving through deserted streets, searching for an out-of-hours chemist which stocked nipple guards. Put it this way: I totally forgot to use those pain-management breathing exercises when I was giving birth, but they certainly came in handy while I was breastfeeding.
During an attack of mastitis a few days later, I reflected on just how wrong I had been to think that a baby wouldn’t change my life too much. Two short weeks previously I had been in a bar, sipping a sneaky white wine spritzer with my non pregnant girlfriends and bemoaning the fact that my baby was overdue, now I was shivering under a large pile of duvets with nothing but the pungent aroma of a gently thawing savoy cabbage leaf to revive me.
I know I was the dunce of the ante-natal class, but could anything have prepared me for the sea-change that is first-time parenthood? I have a sneaking suspicion that people probably did try to tell me what hard work it would be, but that I didn’t really hear or understand them.
I got my first glimpse of the other side of this when my bar-going, child free girlfriends came round for dinner a couple of months later (it was a good couple of months before I was in a fit state to see anyone). I spent some considerable time ranting about how exhausted I was, and the relentless demands of motherhood. When I had finally finished, one of my clever, normally caring and empathetic, friends said ‘Well, I suppose I wouldn’t mind the sleep thing so much if I didn’t have to get up and go to work’. I had just explained that this baby lark was way harder than any job I had ever done, she, clearly, had either not listened, or not believed me.
Another friend who went back to work part time after the birth of her daughter told me that, as she was leaving the office, her colleagues would tell her to enjoy her days off – but as far as she was concerned the days at work were her days off.
I’d love to report that I soon got the hang of it and spent my days baking bread with a baby on one hip whilst simultaneously editing a national newspaper and writing a Booker Prize winning novel. Sadly this was not the case. My darling son was never what you might describe as a sleeper. Eighteen months on, and we had (we never went out) invited friends round for dinner. Half way through the evening, a search party had to be sent out for me – I was discovered, asleep with my baby son, in his cot. The cot was not large and I am not small – I was kind of wedged in. The embarrassment was acute.
The thing is, though, life did eventually return to some degree of normality. That baby son of mine has just started school, and, now he’s spending most of his day with other people, I really miss him. And those brain-fuddled hazy days of inept parenting and cabbage leaves? Hard though they were, I wouldn’t have skipped them for the world.