Peepo!

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Stands in his cot

What does he see?

morning

And so begins one of the most deeply moving books in Sam’s growing library collection.

We turn the page, and we are right there. It is early morning. We can sense the silence and stillness of the room, that sweet time just before the alarm goes, and it is time to get out of the warm bed and face the day. The baby’s parents are still asleep. This is such a familiar, ordinary bedroom. There is a suitcase under the bed (just like at my grandparents’ place, where my grandfather stored his archives). Baby and adult clothes are strewn across the floor and hang off the chest of drawers and bed railing.

There is something very timeless about the ‘shadows moving on the bedroom wall, and the sun in the window’. Those are the sorts of things we used to notice as children, whiling away time as we waited for adults as they were doing whatever it was that needed to be done. The sun and the shadows it creates are signaling the beginning of the day.

These details remind me of sitting in a park with my grandma, when we would go to meet a friend of hers who had a granddaughter my age (I was probably around 4). We would all sit on a bench and my grandma and her friend would talk. I remember looking up to the sky and hearing cooing doves. Just that sound, and that languid warm late afternoon air, and just sitting there listening, stayed with me. Time passing, but also standing still. Or when I was at home, trying to fall asleep, examining the patterns on the carpet on the wall next to our bunk in my and my brother’s room. All the delicate swirls and geometric shapes, following them with my finger, looking at the colours.

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Sits in his high chair

What does he see?

porridge

The day had started. Grandma had already done a wash of the whites and is hanging them out; some colours are still left to do, waiting near the sink. Dad is bringing in a bucketful of coal for the stove (my granddad used to have to get coal at the break of dawn to start the stove at my grandparents tiny flat after the war). A box of toys sits, spilling them out on the floor.

 

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Sits in his pushchair

What does he see?

bonfire

Now this one, what is it about it that brings tears to my eyes every time I turn to this page? ‘He sees a bonfire smoking, pigeons in the sky, his mother cleaning windows, a dog going by’. It is a dull grey day. Mum is doing her housework, the sisters are looking for something to do. Another ordinary day. The bonfire might be for burning autumn leaves, and you can almost smell the acrid smoke in the stillness and quiet. The only sound is the pigeons cooing. Nothing much is happening; life is happening. Time is passing. This is how we pass our time, our days.

 

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Sits on the grass

What does he see?

Sam always gets restless at this point, and I wonder whether it is because it is my least favourite page. Why is that? The baby is now in a park with grandma, watching his sisters fishing in a pond. Maybe there is something a bit jarring about the sisters’ ‘dresses tucked in knickers and legs shiny wet’. Or maybe it is because we are temporarily out of the domestic space, and in the open. There is too much space here. It reminds me of when Sam just started to walk, and I would take him to the park thinking he needed wide expansive spaces to be encouraged to take longer walking attempts. But what I quickly found was that to find his freedom in walking, he actually needed defined spaces between objects, so that he could have the safety of going between one and the next. He needed boundaries and limits, to gain confidence. Much of the baby’s life is spent in reference to, working with and against the confines of enclosed spaces. The freedom that completely open unbounded space offers is an acquired taste.

 

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Sits on his sister’s lap

What does he see?

dozing

It is afternoon now, and the day is now on the wane. Mum is exhausted, dozing in the easy chair, with a cup of tea going cold and a magazine in her lap. Dad is gesturing us to stay quiet, while pouring afternoon cups of tea. Grandma is now ironing the clothes she washed in the morning. It is the dreaded ‘witching hour’ – the sisters are squabbling, the baby’s biscuit is crumbling on the floor, the doggy who is not allowed in the house has made it inside. The day inexorably draws to a close. The cup of tea and cake will galvanise the adults for the last work that is to be done for the day.

 

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Sits in his bath-tub

What does he see?

bath

Dad is kneeling with his sleeves rolled up. There is a flannel on the table and soap in a cup. The nightie is warming on the oven door.

Mum is doing the wash-up after tea, hunched over the sink. A stack of clean dishes and the baby’s bottle are drying on the rack.

There is something so comfortingly unpretentious, so grounding, about the details of this scene. Nothing about soap in a cup or flannel is glamorous, picture-perfect. This is not the fantasy world of gorgeously made up mothers frolicking in a beautiful impeccable home with flower arrangements, with not a speck of dust or a dirty nappy in sight. This is the mess, the puddles on the floor, the raggedy towels, the improvisation and making do that goes with the territory of babies.

 

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

On his way to bed

What does he see?

mirror

This picture brings tears to my eyes again. It is an interesting image. ‘He sees the landing mirror with its rainbow rim and a mother with a baby just like him’. When I was reading about the Ahlbergs, I read that Allan Ahlberg saw himself as the baby in the story. This picture makes sense of that.

Under the mirror, there is a handbag with a purse peeking out, a crystal cut vase, a jewellery box sitting on a doily, a safety pin. Familiar objects reminding me of my grandma’s place. An ordinary messy hall stand.

The baby is looking straight at us smiling, reflected in the mirror, held by his mum also looking at us and his dad kissing him. In the background reflected in the mirror, we see the very same bedroom where we started the day, and the cot made ready for sleep. Grandma and the sisters are looking up from downstairs. Because we are looking at the reflected image head on, we must be part of the scene. Who are we? Was this book about us?

Here’s a little baby

One, two, three

Fast asleep and dreaming

What did he see?

Another day had passed. I am reminded of a day being so much longer proportionally in relation to the baby’s short life. Days in our childhood sometimes seemed to last an eternity, though just the same 24 hours on standard clock-time. Every day holds experiences that may be mundane to us, but absolutely new and fascinating to the baby. This is the time to dream and store away memories. Another day awaits tomorrow.

Reflections on an evening’s play

The other day, something interesting happened.

It was early evening, just after dinner-time for Sam. The sweet hour between the chaos of food being flung about, between shoveled mouthfuls of something hopefully nutritious and repeat episodes of Pepa Pig, and bath time.

Sam was playing on the floor in the living room, and I joined him. As he was busily moving his cars, from floor to couch to floor again, I sat on the floor with him, just watching. It was so enjoyable to simply sit and watch his activity, listen to his chatter, see his lovely face lighting up. One of those timeless moments, when you think: ‘this is it!’ Just being there.

Do you wonder why I singled out this experience? Maybe even question whether I spend enough time with Sam? Perhaps you feel like offering me wise words that good parenting is about being present, in the moment, ‘waiting and watching’. Or that I need to slow down and enjoy the small things, because they don’t last, and children grow up so fast. That I should be grateful for my blessings.

If you did (and trust me, I have been guilty of the same for which I am truly ashamed), I am curious to know why we often jump to these platitudes. And why we feel the need to advise, to chide, or judge.

I am. I am very grateful. Being Sam’s mum is the best thing that has happened to me, hands down. He is my favourite person in the entire world, hands down. My love for him is beyond measure.

But let me tell you what was different about this evening.

Sam had been sick on and off for a month or more – we are right in the thick of the dreaded ‘starting daycare’ germfest. So no daycare for Sam, and no paid work (aka ‘rest’) for me for many days. I have had assessments and exams for my part-time study. I have been squeezing study into every free minute. The day in question was a Monday, when I usually go to work. Sam got conjunctivitis the Friday before, and we decided he would stay at home for a few days. But instead of just automatically taking a sick day while my husband went to work, I asked him to take a day off and care for Sam, and I would take the next day. And he did, and they had a nice day together.

When I was sitting down with Sam at the end of this Monday, I had a day which didn’t start with me frantically trying to get him changed, fed, dressed, while doing same for myself, and corralling him into the car. I just went to work. Then I came back and dinner was already made. So I sat down after my day at work, I was just there to spend time with Sam. I did not have another 10 things on – another run of the washing machine having just spun out and waiting to be hung, the oven beeping at me, the shopping to be ordered or packed away, toys to be picked up, clothes to be folded, dishwasher to be emptied, etc etc etc. I  just relaxed with my gorgeous son and enjoyed his delightful company. I felt truly happy in that moment.

But let’s face it, how often does that happen for mums? The meme doing the rounds on Facebook about what it feels like to be a woman (‘imagine having a browser with 3241 tabs open all the time’) is funny, and sad. Because it is so true.

Something else that has happened recently relates to this. As Sam is making headway into the territory of turning 2 (terrible or terrific?), and gets more dramatic and willful, I asked a general question about this on social media. The responses I received, all well meant and lovely and genuinely trying to help, were so unmistakably divided into 2 camps. Various advice – from friends without kids of their own. And commiseration and reassurance (that it is a stage, and that we can get through it, but need lots of support and breaks) – from other parents.

This, it dawned on me, is what is problematic about assuming all parents need is theoretical advice, and what is hardest to explain to those who are not themselves parents.

Most days so far, I am like my smartphone when it is running on about 10% battery power. Too many applications running, memory card nearly full, all functions soooo sloooow, freezing and stalling. The warning light is flashing that it needs to be recharged, but the charge doesn’t last very long. I am not alone.

From just observing mums running around with their prams, you cannot tell this. The picture looks so rosy. Wouldn’t everyone like to spend their days walking around the park enjoying the fresh air, eating out in cafes, catching up with friends, having playdates, shopping, or just hanging around the house, enjoying time with a bundle of joy?

If this is the image you have of motherhood, you are in fantasyland. The real stuff is brutal. It is not for weaklings. It breaks your back. It makes a calloused mess of your hands. I remember in the early delirious days, going to a shopping centre nearby and taking Sam into one of the parenting rooms, seeing the other mums, and thinking: ‘this is insane. This is the hardest job I have ever done, hands down. Here we all are, doing it. We are all at work here.’

The definition of ‘hard’, or ‘being tired’, changes. Before having Sam, doing something hard always had the proviso that it was time-limited. Doing my PhD was hard, but even though it took a while and took a lot of effort and energy, it was done and I put it behind me. Running uphill is hard, but then you get to sit down, have a cool drink and enjoy the view. Being sick is a nuisance, but you take a sick day, stay in bed with a book and a hot cup of tea, and look after yourself. Doing a difficult task can be hard, but you can try to focus on that one task, and not get distracted. And if you look after kids who are not your own, yes, it is hard, but you hand them back. And have a rest. And go back to your life.

Here is what happens when you are a parent. You can be as sick as you like, but you still get up through the night to feed, you still change nappies, wash bibs and clothes, cook meals, and do your parenting. Yes, your partner will help if you are lucky, but ultimately, you are always on duty. You have just run around the park after an energetic toddler, went to the shops, walked up the stairs lugging the toddler and the shopping, but now you have to feed lunch, and change him, run after him to take his shoes off, wash his hands (if you are lucky), get that phone/wallet/fragile object out of his grasp, hopefully put him to bed, and now shove something in your mouth quickly because you need to cook dinner. Or catch up on some phone-calls or making appointments. Or finally have a shower. Just because you have just run a marathon does not give you the ability to take the rest of the day off. Until the child sleeps. And nights are another shift.

And your attention is always split. Whatever you are doing, you are never just doing one thing – mentally, you are always in at least 2 places at once. Or 5. Or 10.

The reality about mothering (and what I struggle with the most) is that it comes as a package deal with bits that you may not have expected. Housework. Roles around the house and the relationship you may not have thought would be assumed as part of being the stay-at-home parent. Being a mother is not just about giving birth and caring for a child. In theory, biologically, yes. But the social role is a loaded one. As I said to a friend once, we never got a position description for this, and if we did – would we have signed it knowing all it entailed? So no, as much as well-meaning people may tell you that you should just sleep when your baby sleeps, in reality, unless you have means to employ help or willing and able family members and friends who will take over the running of your household, this advice is not going to work out.

So here is what I think about parenting theory.

I love it. I am a huge believer in it. But as much value as there is in parents having an understanding of developmental theory, attachment, and the other wonderful and fascinating literature on bringing a new person into the world, when a parent functions at a significantly reduced physical and mental capacity, the expectation of acting rationally and logically and utilizing whatever theory or great parenting idea, is not only unhelpful, it is unfair towards parents. I read somewhere that long term sleep deprivation and fatigue are equivalent to being drunk, in terms of how our brain functions, our cognitive abilities, concentration, attention and more. You just can’t do it. So reactions may be less than ideal. Tempers may flare. What will end up being done will do, but may not be ideal. But maybe sometimes that’s all that will be possible.

It is election time, and there was something on the news that the government was stalling reforms on childcare subsidies. It made me really mad. What mums need most often is a break. They need quality affordable care for their children, so that they can have some time to rest. Or to do something other than mothering or housework. This was the joke when Sam started daycare and I wasn’t working yet. I spent the first few days scrubbing the kitchen. Because it was so much quicker when Sam wasn’t in the way! Many mums from my mothers group said they did the same thing. And as much as we all laughed at ourselves, it was not really funny.

I hope to have many more moments like I had with Sam. Sometimes it will mean making the effort not to do 1000 things at once. To put aside the mounting laundry or pending assessments. But I will also try to ask for more help, and take some more time for me. Because if I can be more rested, and have some time to enjoy something I used to like doing, I will also definitely be a better mum.