This is the start of a series about the stuff I never knew before having children. I mean, there was lots of stuff I didn’t know about, but this was the stuff I wish someone had held me down and let rip with. So here it is. Spam it to all your pregnant friends but be very aware that they will hate you for it, because the intrinsically perfect womb fruit bathed in hormones and tickling the inside of their uterus right now could never be capable of inflicting so much misery. One day, however, they will understand. And they might just thank you for it.
Until I had a newborn infant in my care 24 hours a day, I had no idea I was guilty of the gross misuse of the phrase “sleeping like a baby” my entire life. I think it has since become the hackneyed cliche I despise the most, because it is the biggest con-job perpetrated on humankind. Ever. And that includes hyper-colour clothing.
No-one told me that babies and toddlers don’t just lie down, close their eyes and go to sleep when they are tired. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, and yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Before I had kids I had been soothed into a false sense of reassurance by a lifetime’s worth of Huggies commercials. So many babies slumbering in peaceful repose, looked over lovingly by their adoring parents, arms linked in embrace as they radiate pride and contentment. The mother is sporting a perfectly smooth French ponytail, her eyes sparkle with energy and the faintest trace of a smile caresses her plump, pink lips. She looks rested. She looks happy. She looks so damn smug that she created this tiny little blissfully-sleeping cherub it makes you want to puke rainbows. She is no doubt headed to the open-plan living room of her perfect showroom house to sink into her plush King sofa – upholstered in pristine ivory fabric – as she cracks open the spine of the latest Jodi Picoult while her baby sleeps for the next 12 hours without interruption. She can’t wait until her next book club meeting.
This is the dirty lie we’ve been sold, when the reality looks more like this:
Your baby is finally asleep. Your hair is an oily bird’s nest held together by several days worth of sebum, sweat, baby vomit, Sudocreme and sour breastmilk. The dark circles under your eyes defy even the most thickly troweled-on layers of concealer and you are slack-jawed with fatigue. There are no adoring gazes. There is possibly a facial tic. You shuffle back to the lounge room like an extra from a B-grade zombie film. You sit there open-mouthed and unblinking for an indeterminate period of time. You rouse yourself from your post-arsenic hour stupor and without even realising what you are doing you find yourself absent-mindedly flicking through photos of your baby on the computer, despite being so utterly at the end of your tether that you wish you could shove them back up the hole they clawed themselves out of. It’s a sick, obsessive behaviour you have no control over.
And books? Surely you jest. You won’t be reading those anymore. The only use you have for a book now is to prop one end of the cot up in the desperate hopes that your screaming, refluxy baby will be able to sleep better at a slightly elevated angle instead of thrashing about in restless agony. Jodi Picoult is perfect for this. Her earnestly verbose novels are the perfect thickness to create the optimal recline for reflux.
This is your life now, and you had no idea how hard it was going to be, despite all those smug little jokes other parents used to crack about not getting any sleep and those arch little warnings they would mutter under their breath. BUT YOU IGNORED THEM ALL BECAUSE THIS WAS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU.
Please don’t make the mistake I did, and be open to the idea that maybe your kid might not be perfect in this department. When I say that these are fairly typical examples of what you might expect, I swear I am not exaggerating:
- You’ve spent the last four hours pacing the hallways with a screaming baby or bouncing on a fitball with a screaming baby or rocking your screaming baby while every muscle in your lower torso screams back at you or walking the streets with a screaming baby or curled up in the foetal position in the corner with your screaming baby. By some great miracle your child finally exhausts their monumental stores of caterwauling misery and they collapse into a tentative, fitful sleep. You are too terrified to move. To make a noise. To breathe. Because any slight movement, any sound at all could wake your baby and start the whole soul-destroying mess all over again.
- You manage by some small miracle to successfully transfer your baby to the cot. Your heart skips a beat. This could be real. You would rather dislocate a shoulder trying to squeeze through a slightly ajar door than risk the creak it might make if you tried to open it further. You almost snap your Achille’s tendon trying to tiptoe silently out of the room – and you almost make it – until your ankle cracks loudly under the strain of your stealth and the baby wakes up. Your spirit is crushed under the weight of disappointment.
- Alternatively, you manage to successfully escape the room, and your somewhat manically-tinged celebrations have only just started to subside when your baby wakes up crying again 45 minutes later. For no reason. You almost lose the will to live.
- Your baby finally falls asleep, but insists on using your chest as a mattress. Given the choice of bodily autonomy or blissful silence you choose the latter, and hope that the TV remote is somewhere within arms reach. You also better damn well hope that your useless post-pregnancy bladder is empty.
- Your baby insists on sleeping. In your bed. With you. At all costs. Your new bedtime is now 7:30pm. Prepare for the least restful sleep of your life.
- Your baby wakes up at 9:30pm. And 11pm. And 1am. And 3am. And 4:30am. He does this every night for three months in a row. Your informal experiment into the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation just kicked into a higher gear.
- Your baby wakes up at midnight and cries inconsolably for three hours straight. Why? Who the hell knows. Just tap that Baby Panadol and pray he doesn’t decide to pull that shit again tomorrow night.
- Your baby goes through a phase lasting several months where he wakes up at 4:30am for the day – every single day – when it seems like everyone else’s kid lazes around until the way more respectable hour of 7:30am, which used to feel obscenely early in your life pre-kids but is now the treasured equivalent of the rare midday sleep in.
And I haven’t even covered day sleep yet. I thought that babies slept for hours every day. I thought I’d have heaps of time to do housework, cook nutritious meals, exercise every day, read the entire canon of 19th century English literature, complete my Masters, watch Dr Phil. I thought wrong. My first baby was a chronic 45 minute catnapper and would routinely go for entire days with no sleep at all. True to form he dropped all day naps well before he turned two years old, when other kids his age were still napping years later. No-one told me this stuff. No-one told me that my entire day would come to revolve around the sleeping habits of my infant, the battles it would involve, the relentless Groundhog Day-ness of it all.
I didn’t know about sleep regressions, I didn’t know about growth spurts, I didn’t know about wonder weeks. I didn’t know about sleep training or sleep school, and if someone had thought to mention it to me I am absolutely certain I would have smugly rolled my eyes back and laughed hysterically at how ridiculous the very idea seemed. I didn’t know that teething affects sleep. I didn’t know that every time I thought my baby had settled into a particular sleep routine that he was going to up and change it on me to something completely different anyway. It was frustrating and bewildering in equal measure. I didn’t know that sleep deprivation was going to become a regular aspect of this parenting gig, even as my eldest kid grew into a pre-schooler. I thought that all sleep malarky ended when the baby was six weeks old.
And so I ended up doing heaps of things that pre-kids I swore I would NEVER do. I tiptoed around the house during nap time, I breastfed my baby to sleep, I cursed loudly whenever the phone rang or someone knocked on the door, I let him sleep in my bed, the rocker, the lounge, the pram. Anywhere that kid wanted to sleep – and it was always anywhere but his cot – was fine with me. I soon came to realise that any sleep was precious. And that I would beg, steal, lie or cheat to get it.
The stuff I never knew before having children.
Oh, and one last piece of important advice. Whatever you do, for the love of God, DO NOT TURN THAT KETTLE ON.