Can you ever really be prepared for a baby?
New parents need to find a ‘village’ to help them cope with the upheaval in their lives
Gwen Burchell and her son Harry: ‘I thought parenting couldn’t be that hard because everybody does it. But it is.’
Melanie Grace, with husband John and son Oliver: She says the first year of her ‘parenting journey’ was isolating and difficult.
Aidan Dunne with his wife Marika and their children, Ellis and Rikka: ‘Be prepared that you are going to have tough times, but you are also going to have great times.’ Photograph: Patrick Browne
A couple might start training themselves with the responsibility of caring for a dog or a cat; they may read up on the topic extensively and attend antenatal classes. But can anybody really be fully prepared for parenthood?
Gwen Burchell, mother of 10-month-old Harry, doesn’t think so. She has five friends who are pregnant “and there are no words at all to describe what’s coming down the line. It is just impossible until you actually experience it – it is completely life-altering.”
It wasn’t that Burchell didn’t try to get ready. After all, as an IT project manager at Dell EMC in Cork she prepares for everything. In fact, she is quite happy to admit to being a bit of a control freak. “I read so many books and forums and routines . . . Some of it was helpful but half of it didn’t apply to the child I ended up getting!”
As it turned out, the most important preparatory step was joining a prenatal yoga class in Kinsale. Her husband, Phil, had insisted on it. “I was probably working too many hours and hadn’t probably quite realised that I was pregnant,” she says, seeing in hindsight that “taking time for yourself is so important”.
The “amazing” yoga instructor warned participants that they would be lonely and encouraged them to set up a WhatsApp group and to start talking.
“Now these women are the best friends I have ever had; we meet each other at least twice a week. The babies know each other and play together. So we had an amazing maternity leave filled with cake and coffee and walks.”
It was hard at times, but each of them had “this incredible support system”, adds Burchell who “barely recognises” her old life now, although she returned to work in January.
A community that embraces all the changes that new parents go through is what voluntary support group Cuidiú offers through its network of 20-plus branches. Although there is some perception that Cuidiú is an organisation just for breastfeeding mothers, its aims is to support all parents of children of all ages, through a range of activities.
Over the past five years, Cuidiú president Catherine Wells has been developing its Parent-to-Parent (P2P) support service, for which it receives no funding, because she believes couples can feel quite isolated after the birth of a child. They may have no extended family nearby and many employers expect them to slot back into work as if nothing has changed.
“We are now living in an era where a lot of parents are better educated and are working longer into what historically would have been looked at as child-rearing years,” Wells says. “Then they decide to have a baby, or babies, and they need to find a community that will support them.”
The fact we also live in an age of information overload doesn’t help. It can undermine maternal and paternal instincts, she suggests, because you often have people with a polarity of opinions.
For its upcoming national members’ conference, Cuidiú has chosen the theme Empowered Parent, Empowered Child because it wants parents to be confident in their own skills – and to recognise that what they do is good enough.
“There is no perfect parent,” Wells stresses. “It is about trusting your own instinct, and Cuidiú is here to support that.”
She sees huge pressure on parents to do everything. Before starting a family, you have an education, you have a job, you are more or less in control of your life. You are led to believe that with a bit of planning, you can continue to do all this, have children – and be in good form all the time.
“There is almost a shame to admitting that everything is not okay – and that is, I think, so detrimental to parents,” she says. “Not being able to say ‘I am having a bad day’ or ‘this is not what I expected’.”
It can be hard to manage expectations that have been generated by what we read in the media, about having the “right” kind of birth and regaining the “perfect” body, and of high-achieving, working parents.
“I think there is a slight feeling of ‘I will be judged if I admit I can’t have all these’,” Wells says.
Sometimes we need to be told that it is okay for an expectation not to be fulfilled. We can never be fully prepared for parenthood, she agrees, from the birth onwards. “There is a level of ‘uncontrol’ in being a parent. There is a third party involved – the only thing you know about them is that you love them, and then it’s a learning curve for all.”
You can read all the books, but “when this other person comes along, there is a whole different element to the equation that you can’t plan for. And it is wonderful”, she stresses, but it does require relinquishing a certain amount and letting things take their natural course.
Melanie Grace read a lot and believed she had prepared for becoming a parent. “But after the event, you look back and think, I didn’t have a clue, and I think that is probably always the case.”
Having worked in banking in the City in London, she had had a lot of changes in her life leading up to her son Oliver’s birth 2½ years ago. She had gotten engaged and turned 40, and her birthday gift to herself was a six-month career break to allow time to plan the wedding and contemplate what she might like her next job to be.
“On the honeymoon we found out we were pregnant, which was amazing because I was bit older,” she explains. And she had always said that if she were lucky enough to get pregnant, she wanted to take five years off to be a stay-at-home mother.
Within four months, the couple had moved out of London, to her husband John’s native Cork, and then became parents. “It was pretty intense,” she says. “While the move was very stressful, we always knew long-term that it was the right move. I didn’t want to raise a child in a basement flat in London, with no room. Now we have a lovely house out in the countryside [near Midleton] – it is definitely the family lifestyle we both wanted.”
However, Grace describes the first year of her “parenting journey” as being isolating and difficult. “I didn’t know anybody here and my husband works for himself and he is quite a workaholic. So it was very lonely. I am a really sociable and gregarious person.”
After Oliver’s birth, she took him to baby massage and swimming classes to try to meet other mothers, but the chance to form friendships didn’t really present itself. “Other mums were going to the classes to do baby massage and swimming, not to meet people,” she remarks.
Her son was six months old before she found Cuidiú “and that has kind of been the making of me feeling at home in Ireland”, she says. She now chairs the Cork branch and sits on the board of directors.
That’s not to say there weren’t doubts about attending her first Cuidiú meet-up as a non-breastfeeding mother.
“As I tentatively got out a bottle to feed my child, I was expecting the whole room around me to say, No – get out,” she laughs. And, in fact, that first morning didn’t really go so well: “I was shy and apprehensive” and the first-time host “was shy and apprehensive too. I went away thinking, oh gee, that wasn’t what I wanted . . . but I’ll preserve and go to another one. I did and it was very different and that was it, I was hooked.”
Two years later, Grace can now say: “I get so much out of it – it gives me a little taste of the career I used to have without the stress, the pressure and the travelling. And it is nice to give something back.”
Support for the lonely
Gobnait O’Shaughnessy, who is a trained P2P volunteer with Cuidiú, could see the need to provide support for the lonely, isolated parent she would have been if she hadn’t found the organisation after returning to Ireland from the UK with her husband almost four years ago. The youngest of their two children was three when he found a job in Dublin but both of their families are from the west of Ireland and she didn’t know people in the capital.
Aged 40 and at a crossroads in her own career, O’Shaughnessy had enjoyed the support of the National Childbirth Trust in the UK and assumed there would be something similar in Ireland. Talking to another mother on a beach led to an invitation to a Cuidiú meeting.
She didn’t say much on that first visit but, on leaving, another mother said she was sorry that they hadn’t had a chance to chat but she hoped they would see her again next week. “It was like Mass after that – you went religiously every Thursday,” jokes O’Shaugnessy, who is a member of the Dublin North East branch. Her telephone number is circulated as the P2P support person in their area.
“You need somebody to whom you can say, who do you contact? if you have landed in Dublin and you don’t know anybody and don’t know anything about creches, doctors or schools, or you are just lonely and you need somebody to say come along and have a cup of tea.”
She, too, believes modern parenting is very isolating and that Cuidiú offers a “village” to which people feel they belong.
The loneliness can start on maternity leave, even before the baby arrives. Then after the birth, life with a baby can be physically, mentally and emotionally more challenging than expected.
O’Shaugnessy says it is often the first-time people who encounter a sense of failure – but of course it is not failure. Having successfully progressed through school, university and into the workplace, “suddenly this thing arrives in your life and it is totally out of control”, she says.
“You are told by society you are supposed to be okay, but it is not easy, she adds. “There are no medals and it is a hard grind, especially in the early days.”
People should realise it is hard, agrees Burchell. “I kind of expected because everybody does it, it can’t be that hard. But it is.
“It’s okay to say it’s like you are losing your mind,” she adds. “From what I am hearing, it is perfectly normal and I am not the only one this happens to. People should not feel bad for that.”
National Cuidiú Week runs May 14th-20th, beginning with a national members’ conference in Waterford on May 13th-14th. For more information about branch events, see cuidiu.com.
Panel: ‘Nobody is discussing what it is to be a dad in Ireland today’
If new mothers think it is hard to find people to whom they can talk honestly about their feelings, it can be much more difficult for new fathers.
“There is a big gap with men’s support groups,” says Aidan Dunne, father of Rikka (five) and Ellis (21 months). “Nobody is discussing what it is to be a dad in Ireland today.”
He first became involved with the voluntary support group Cuidiú indirectly through his wife, Marika, before the birth of their first child, when she started attending a breastfeeding group in Waterford, where they live.
After their daughter arrived, Marika also went to “bumps and babes” – a parents’ group that Aidan also attended when he was around.
They went to parent-to-parent support events as well. There were few other men participating initially, but since then he has seen more dads get involved.
“Dads started going along because their wife was going along, but then found they could chat to other guys there.
“It became something they wanted to do, rather than the proverbial ‘having to attend’.”
Dunne is now training to take on a parent-to-parent (P2P) advisory role. “I am one of the few men out there doing that.”
He wants to run a monthly coffee morning on the basis “that you don’t come to talk about your feelings because that would scare men off. It is just come down and have a cup of coffee and a chat. There is a huge gap there.”
He believes Irish men are still trying to get over the stereotypical image of the male being the quiet, stoical figure. “But if you don’t talk, how are you supposed to talk to your children?”
He says he was lucky that both his parents were very communicative and encouraged him to be open. A lot of men are afraid that if they share their feelings they will be ridiculed – although this is changing, he acknowledges.
Dunne has a job in IT, working out of multiple offices in multiple regions but doesn’t have to travel as much for work as he used to, and can also work from home.
“I am lucky that my employer recognises that a satisfied worker with a good life-work balance is a better worker,” he remarks.
As to preparation for parenthood, out of all the advice he was given before their first baby arrived, the one bit that stuck and which he passes on now is: “Everybody will give you advice. It’s not that you ignore it, but remember you are the parent and do what feels right for you.”
It would have been useful, he says, to have been told that they would find it hard at times but that that was okay, and that they should trust themselves and trust each other.
Dunne also wants new parents to know that there is no one perfect way of parenting – “because, if there was, we would all be doing it. Be prepared that you are going to have tough times. But you are also going to have great times.”