A “good baby”

Last night we went out for dinner with my in-laws to celebrate Matthew’s birthday to a fairly posh but relatively unstuffy French restaurant. When I’d phoned up to make a reservation, I’d checked if we’d be okay bringing Lydia, and their only caveat was that if she cried we took her outside, which sounded fair enough to me.

My big mistake was in mentioning to my in-laws that this was the case – every time my mother-in-law mentioned the meal, it involve her turning to Lydia and telling her that she needed to be a “good baby.” This continued throughout the meal, including on the two minor occasions where L voiced a little displeasure (immediately solved by me standing up with her), when she was immediately shushed by my in-laws despite making barely any noise, and after the meal when she was congratulated on her behaviour as a “good baby”.

Now, as a parent, this is something I constantly get asked. Standing in a supermarket queue, sat on the bus, ordering a coffee – everyone (well, largely late-middle-aged women) always asks “is she a good baby?”

Of course she’s a good baby. She’s a bloody brilliant baby. She’s my baby, so I’m pretty certain that I’d consider her a “good baby” no matter what she was like. But by what parameters are we measuring whether a baby is “good”? Whether she sleeps through the night? Smiles easily at strangers? Hits all her developmental milestones at the right time? Sits still and quietly in the company of adults?

Babies aren’t born good or bad; sure, sometimes they cry and fuss for no discernible reason (especially in those early weeks), but most of the time if they’re upset it’s for a reason, and being unable to fully communicate the only way they can usually do that is through crying, which despite being a totally normal and natural thing for a baby to do is generally seen as “bad”.

I went to the restaurant last night knowing that the odds on Lydia being happy throughout the meal – or even for most of it – weren’t stacked in our favour. We went out an hour or so before she normally goes to bed, we were going to be sitting down for a few hours, and it was going to be noisy and busy and potentially a bit overwhelming for her. If she cried or fussed, I knew it would be because she was either tired, bored, overstimulated or just plain fed up. All natural, normal reactions – us adults can just put a lid on those feelings a bit better than a seven month old can.

As it was, Lydia had a brilliant time (it probably helped that I got her down for a fairly long nap before we went out, and she was dosed up on Nurofen for teething pain); she smiled at and charmed all the waiters, she sat on my lap and tried everything I ate (scallops, rare steak, cheese…), and she was generally captivated by the experience. On the two occasions she grumbled it was because she was getting bored of sitting down, and that was easily solved by standing up with her to look at new things. But if she hadn’t been like that, would that have made her “bad”? If she’d been crying out of boredom, frustration or tiredness then surely we would have been more to blame for taking her into a new situation at a time when she should’ve been in bed, and expecting her to adapt to our grown-up expectations of how you behave in a restaurant – entirely unrealistic expectations given that she’s not even seven months old and is only beginning to discover that there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong”.

One thing that the last few months have taught me is that if she cries it’s for a reason. It’s because she’s fed up of being carried and wants to be on the floor; because her nappy needs changing, or she’s hungry, or tired, or – even worse – overtired; because she’s overstimulated, or bored, or frustrated because she wants to crawl but can’t quite get the arm/leg coordination right; because she just wants to be held by her mummy; or because we’re both concentrating on something else and she wants (understandably) a bit of attention. Yes, it’s embarrassing if it happens on the bus and I can’t calm her quickly enough because she’s too tired and complaining loudly about it; and it’s frustrating when there’s things M and I desperately need to get done and yet can’t because she’s demanding attention. But do these things really make her a bad baby? Of course not. I don’t want her to feel that she’s only a good baby when she fits into our often narrow grown-up world view; I don’t want her to think that being a good girl means not crying or expressing frustration. And I think that’s one of the things that makes me cross – “she’s such a good baby, she didn’t cry at all!” suggests that a baby who cries is bad, when it’s just a baby, being a baby.

Time

The passage of time has never saddened me quite the way it does now. These last six months have marched past at such an astonishing speed, and now we are here, at the back end of October and about to go on the holiday we booked when Lydia was only weeks old. When we return it will be November, and Christmas will be tangible, within our reach. I love Christmas, don’t get me wrong, but this year I want it to take its sweet time in getting to us, for Christmas means the end of the year, and next year I have to face the reality of our situation, to realise that this little bubble we’ve been living in, in which we are each other’s constant companions, is just temporary, is just a mirage of normal life.

Dreams

I’ve always had vivid dreams. As a child I often sleep-walked and so nightmares would sometimes see me running into my parents room, still in the dream, shouting about how I was being chased (most memorably on one occasion because I’d lost all the letters of the alphabet). And then I got pregnant, and I stopped dreaming. It was strange, but also quite liberating. Sleep was a lot more peaceful and calm away from my dreams (well, until pregnancy insomnia hit, that is).

I had one dream during my pregnancy, and that was very early on – I dreamt that I was holding my baby, my tiny, naked new baby, curled up against my chest, and that it was a girl. It was so real that after that I was convinced I was having a girl, and when I held Lydia for the first time it felt so familiar – so like that dream, I suppose – that I knew she was a girl before I’d even looked to check (there was no “it’s a girl!” shout as she came out).

Anyway, I digress. I gave birth and still there were no dreams. No dreams! That’s weird, right? I would’ve expected to have had loads of dreams, dreams about dropping or forgetting Lydia, or happier dreams about her being older. But no.

Slowly but surely though, over the last month or so, dreams have been creeping back into my nights. Not every night, not that I can remember that is, but when they come they’re so vivid that they’re not always welcome. And this week was the first time I dreamt about Lyddie – two nightmares in a row in one night, one in which we returned to our bedroom to find she wasn’t there, another in which someone had wrapped her up in a duvet and left her perilously on the edge of a chair. Dreams that left me cold and anxious and relieved that when I woke I could grasp her a bit closer to me, safe in the knowledge that she was okay.

I have no idea why my dreams stopped. It’s not as though I wasn’t – or that I’m not now – worrying about things. I thought I missed them, but now that they’re back – too real, too vibrant, too raw – I can’t help but miss those peaceful, dreamless nights.

But then, last night, I dreamt of my grandma, my mother’s mother who died almost four years ago. And in my dream I cried with happiness as I passed her Lydia and said “I thought you’d never be able to meet her.” And she smiled, and held my daughter, and told me she was beautiful, and it was so vivid that I would take all those bad dreams in exchange for that moment, that dream moment with my grandmother, proudly holding her great-granddaughter.

Six months

You were born six months ago today in a blaze of spring sunlight; now autumn has crept into our bones and that seems so long ago. You were born quietly, mewling rather than crying, and the moment they passed you to me between my wobbly legs, as I stood in front of our living room fireplace, will stay with me forever as one of my most precious memories. You were pinky-blue and so slithery, a defenceless little thing that slept most of the time, as long as you were in our arms or on my chest.

And now here you are, commando crawling your way around the living room floor as I type, trying every now and then to stay up on all fours. You haven’t been a newborn for a long time, yet today for some reason feels like the definite end of that newborn stage. I loved those confusing, feeling-around-in-the-dark early days, I loved the fact that you would curl up and fall asleep on my chest, the way your head would loll back when you were milk-drunk, the way your arms moved involuntarily, as graceful as a ballerina. I was lucky to feel like that, I know.

But I love these days too. I love seeing more and more of the little girl you will be – your determined nature, your friendliness, your immense curiosity about the world. And most of all, I love seeing you develop and learn to do things. It’s amazing to think of all the things you have learnt to do in the last six months, and to think that you’re still going, that you won’t stop learning and developing.

I love you, my little girl. You have filled our hearts with such immense love and joy that there are not words good enough to express them.

Just please, please, let these next six months drag their heels and go really slowly, okay?

Bad habits

I always thought that spoiling children was something that happened a bit later in their lives. That it was about giving them too many presents for their birthday, or letting them have their own way when really they shouldn’t – a spoilt brat suggests the latter, no? But since becoming a parent I feel like I’ve been bombarded with information about how babies – little babies! – can be spoilt and form bad habits from the day they’re born. How nursing, rocking or comforting them to sleep means they will never fall asleep alone. That letting my daughter sleep in my bed will mean we never get her out of it. Warnings of how picking up or hugging babies every time they cry is “giving in” to their apparently manipulative demands.

And you know what, I’m fed up. So I’m saying bollocks to all that.

You cannot spoil a child with love. You cannot hold or hug or just plain love a baby too much. Babies thrive on love. They thrive on attention and affection, not because they’re greedy or manipulative, but because they’re tiny little human beings who learn to relate to the world through us.

So yes, I feed my baby to sleep every night. When she wakes, I either rock her back to sleep or I feed her again. Of course, there are nights when I’ve trundled upstairs for the sixth time in two hours when I just wish she could fall back asleep by herself, I’m only human after all. And nights when I start to listen to those critical voices and wonder if I haven’t made a rod for my own back. But I know, really, that I am doing what feels – and is – right for both of us. Just as I know that this will not last forever – it might not even last another six months, let alone a year. Before I know it she will be thirteen and headstrong and I will forget that I ever worried about ruining her with these “bad habits”.

These things don’t teach her that she can manipulate her parents. They don’t teach her that she will always get her own way. They teach her – they show her – that she is loved. That when she cries I will comfort her, that when she needs me I will come running. At the moment I sit at the centre of her universe; I know I won’t always be in that position, but these things will never stop being true.

A place to start

I don’t know what I expected motherhood to be like, but I’m not sure it was like this. Not this heaviness – not heavy with┬ádread, or sadness, or tiredness (though there is plenty of that), or displeasure, no, but a heaviness born out of love and a primal need that I can’t find the words to explain, but which I feel in my bones every time I hold the soft, round weight of my daughter. Through her I feel in many ways born anew, and yet never before have I been so aware of my own mortality and frailty, or of the passage of the earth around the sun, the year disappearing in a blur of days where happiness is an unexpected giggle and the soft hand of Lydia clutching at my side.