I use the term “survival guide” loosely. It’s not like I’ve been surviving a winter in Syria. But lots of people have asked me for any hints and tips I have on coping with the first six weeks with a baby. This is what helped me, and what I learned.
Disclaimer – This is about the first six weeks, specifically my first six weeks. I don’t know enough to write about Motherhood with a capital M. I have learnt that parenting is, in general, massively divisive and that some people leap onto the parenting high horse very quickly. I can’t be arsed with that, we’re all trying to muddle through in our own way. So, you’ll read some of this and think I’m on crack. (I’m not). Pick and choose the bits you agree with, and ignore the rest.
Don’t underestimate labour
By this I do not mean “labour hurts”. We’ve established that. I mean the bit afterwards. However that baby came out, c-section, vaginal delivery; you’ll feel like you’ve been run over by a truck. If you’ve had a normal delivery, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sit down. If you’ve had a c-section, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stand up. Whatever the method of delivery, you’ll bleed, often for longer than you expected. A c-section is major abdominal surgery, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to turn around easily or pick up the baby without pain. On the plus side, your bits are still intact and you can go to the toilet without thinking being on the rack is preferable.
I say this not to put you off, but to be realistic. Your body is designed to heal itself, and heal you will. But it does mean that you need to organise yourself. Use your maternity leave wisely. Get some food in the freezer (I did not do this and ended up having to rely almost entirely on family and friends to feed me. Not advised). Get the baby’s clothes ready, in easily-accessible piles so you can reach for a vest, bleary-eyed at 3am without having to search through laundry in a panic. Figure out how to put a nappy on, because believe me, you don’t want to learn from a matronly midwife when you can’t bend over (again, yours truly). Little things like this will make a world of difference.
All babies are different
I know this is really, sodding obvious to the naked eye. But the thing is, you don’t know what your baby is going to be like until he or she rocks up. So, people who waft around uttering sweeping statements like “babies DON’T SLEEP, YOUR LIFE WILL BE HELL” or “colic doesn’t exist, it’s just a grumpy baby” should be shot. Some babies sleep well. Some are night owls. Some babies need constant comforting, some lie happy on a play mat for hours. Some babies scream like the gates of Hell have been opened, some babies are so quiet you have to poke them to check they’re alive.
You get my point. You don’t know what you’re getting until you get it and in your first six weeks, your job is to get to know your baby, understand what makes them tick, and give that to them. Don’t spend your pregnancy fretting over what might be.
Lack of sleep isn’t as scary as it sounds
OK, I’d be lying if I claimed I wouldn’t commit a crime right now for eight uninterrupted hours, a dark room, a comfy bed and a locked door. But the fact is, once you’ve done a sleepless night or twenty, you realise that you are built to survive it. The anticipation of it is much worse than the actual thing. Babies nap during the day, and whilst “sleep whilst the baby sleeps” is much harder than it sounds, and takes discipline and organisation, it is possible. You can get your sleep, it’ll just be in increments, and not as much as you want. And remember – for these first six weeks at least, you’re on maternity leave. It’s not like you have to get it together and be cogent throughout the day. It’s ok to do things like throw impossibly filthy just-been-for-a-walk-in-the-muddy-forest clothes into the washing machine with your husband’s clean work shirts (again, me).
You can’t make everything better
There is nothing worse than hearing your child cry. It is hell. We are programmed to equate that kind of noise with pain. It is also deafening, and incredibly difficult to listen to for long periods. Your instinct will be to make your baby stop crying, to make them feel better, to make them happy again.
I’m still learning this lesson; but fact is, you can’t always stop them crying. Babies cry. A lot. And it doesn’t always mean they’re in pain. Aisling once told me that they’re so little, they don’t even understand how to make themselves stop crying. There’s no logic there. They can’t soothe themselves. They are just crying. That’s all.
You’ll know when something is wrong because you know your baby’s cry better than anyone else, and it goes without saying that anything outside the “normal” zone needs to be checked out by a medical professional asap. But usually, it will be because many babies can be grouchy as all hell in the evenings. In parenting circles it’s called the witching hour, or my personal favourite, “arsenic hour”. Ellie becomes a grumpy madam in the evening. I love my daughter, but my God does she get mardy. 6pm is ratbag hour, and it lasts as long as Ellie wants it to last, thank you very much. It’s hard to feel good about yourself as a parent when nothing you can do can calm your kid down.
I’m only just learning that I can’t do anything about it, except hold her, and feed her, and wait out with her. It’ll pass, like all phases do. And for now, I’m just declaring my evenings a write-off for anything except Ellie. It’s okay. But for someone who is programmed to make people feel good about themselves, this is an especially hard lesson to learn.
Approach it with humour
Babies do not operate on logic. The first time Ellie did what I call “the Level 3 cry” (mouth wide, bottom lip wobbling, sounds like the emergency services are driving through your front room) it took me three hours to work out how to calm her (turns out she didn’t like her new purple trousers, as soon as I replaced them with the green ones she was sweetness and light. Spoilt fashionista.)
There’s no logic, and you can’t plan for stuff. The baby wants what the baby wants, and your life isn’t just about you anymore. Some of the things your baby wants will be ludicrous. So the only think you can do is laugh. Find the humour in the situation. I’ve typed this blog post one handed, because the only position she likes today is spread-eagled across me like a koala. I could complain about the fact that my right side feels like I’ve been throwing kettlebells all morning and my arm has lost all feeling, and a blog post has taken my the best part of a morning when the thought of my to-do list is giving me hives. But I’d rather find the humour in it. She’s warm, she’s safe, she’s happy. She’s a koala.
You won’t get this time again. It’s an extraordinary time. And you owe it to yourself to enjoy it. Even when you’re being weed on, or all you want to do is be able to finish a cup of tea without it going cold, or you are tired, so tired. Find the humour, laugh it off. You’re lucky, so lucky.
What about you, readers? Any lessons you learned that will help the pregnant AOW cohort survive their first six weeks?